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Television: Malcolm’s journey

by
16 August 2007

by David Self

IT IS UNLIKELY that there will be a more moving programme this year. It is unlikely that there will be one made with greater sympathy and love. And few documentaries will raise such important ethical issues. Despite this, Malcolm and Barbara: Love’s farewell (ITV, Wednesday of last week) became controversial not for its heartbreaking storyline, but for a comparatively trivial spat about its publicity.

Before transmission, we were told that we would see Malcolm die on camera, at the end of a 15-year journey from accomplished musician to drooling, skeletal baby, courtesy of Alzheimer’s. Malcolm’s brother then indicated in a blog that, in fact, filming had stopped two or three days before his death. In the film, we heard Barbara ask the director, Paul Watson, if he wanted “to film the bitter end”. He asked if she thought Malcolm would have agreed. She said yes. We saw Malcolm, lying unconscious.

In the transmitted version, it looked as if we had, indeed, witnessed a death. A caption explained that it was not the final moment.

The row centred on whether this had been another botched attempt by a television network to deceive the public, like the misleading clips of the Queen. At the time of writing, a legal firm appointed by ITV is conducting an enquiry to discover who was responsible for over-egging a programme that was already much stronger fare than the network normally shows, and that should never have been buried in the low-audience month of August.

The story began in 1992, when Malcolm began to find it “very difficult to concentrate”. By 1995, he had been diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s at the age of 51. Mr Watson then began making his first film about the couple, Malcolm and Barbara: A love story, which was shown to critical acclaim in 1999. Last week’s sequel showed how this gentle man became locked inside himself, and was occasionally so vicious to his wife that she feared for her safety.

Irrationally, he stuffed his slippers into the lavatory. He savagely abused a teddy bear. For Barbara, the occasional gin was not enough and she put him in respite care. Extra drugs, given without her authority, robbed her husband of the ability to walk. Why should she not occasionally wish he could die? No wonder she became an outraged campaigner for carers whose goodwill is exploited.

There was little dignity for Malcolm in his last weeks, and I wished I was not witnessing such suffering. But this was not because the camera was intrusive. Rather, it was a tearful, painful privilege to be at this bedside. Catharsis came when Barbara was able to affirm, “Death isn’t the end, because love goes on” — qualified by the thought that we must not expect life to be fair.

 Mr Watson has, it seems, sacrificed much of his personal life for his art. He spent, I suspect, many more hours on this documentary than less committed directors might have done. The result was a programme to shame those content to commission such lazy films as Britain’s Favourite View (ITV, Sunday). In this, four celebrities introduced pretty pictures of various locations. We were then asked to vote for the best. Why this should fill peak-time television really does merit an enquiry.

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