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Daily dilemmas

19 April 2013

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THE title commits a serious misrepresentation: Keeping Britain Alive: The NHS in a day (BBC2, Tuesdays), in which 100 camera crews followed every aspect of the work of the world's largest public-health service throughout 18 October 2012, documents a greater reality than it advertises.

Last week, it followed several cases where the likely outcome was the impossibility of keeping a patient alive; and how good it was to hear the doctor on the Isle of Islay express the even wider aim: "helping people to achieve a good death".

We saw moving mini-dramas, including that of Laura: would she return to consciousness after her emergency brain surgery? No, she did not, but so involved had we become with her husband Ray's despair that the message on the closing credits that, a few days later, she had, brought us all palpable relief.

Nothing could be more irritating than the chipper couple from the hospital radio who visited patients to solicit requests; but the subsequent broadcast was moving. The mortuary assistant was impressive in her respect for the corpses under her care: "They're still our patients, even if they've died."

This episode presented, despite the ominous shadow of NHS cuts, scene after scene of care and commitment. We all know that the full picture must also include failures of responsibility, of personal and professional inadequacy, of dereliction of basic care and respect, but here TV reminded us that the good news is overwhelmingly in excess of the bad.

One aspect of healing, eschewed by the NHS but central to medieval health-care, was explored in The High Art of the Low Countries (BBC4, Thursdays). Van der Weyden's glorious Last Judgment, in the hospital at Beaune, France, was intended to assure the patients' eternal salvation: gazing on its choice between everlasting bliss or damnation would, of course, impel anyone to confession and the acceptance of God's grace.

Andrew Graham-Dixon's latest art-history series demonstrates once more that by far the least apologetic presentation of Christianity comes from this TV genre. We have seen how the exquisite miniatures from devotional books moved from monastic scriptorium to secular workshop, and grew into the wonders of van Eyck and Bosch. We have seen how Frans Hals, Rembrandt, and Vermeer constructed a new art that celebrated the transcendence and mystery of everyday life.

Despite Graham-Dixon's irritating tone and arch expression, this is terrific stuff, brilliantly setting the art in contexts of politics, economy, and religion.

When Frost Met Bakewell: Joan Bakewell at 80 (BBC4, Sunday) was a TV encounter that marked an epochal milestone. Can Joan Bakewell really be 80 years old? She has aged better than her interlocutor, Sir David Frost, who has turned from sniggering satirist to establishment pillar.

Prepared to discuss the effect of her sobriquet as the "thinking man's crumpet", Bakewell still exudes the heady mix of head girl with dashing woman-about-town that gives her a unique niche in the nation's cultural life. Explicitly open about sex, she still worries away at the reality and effect of religious faith - a winning combination?

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