IT WAS not fair on the vicar. The discussion was supposed to be on the most serious topic of all: what happens when you die? But when your interlocutors are two of our zaniest comics, who cannot help joshing, it must be impossible, despite every effort to inject a serious note into proceedings, to conclude anything other than you have been set up to live out that abiding vocation of Anglican clergy: to be the butt of someone’s private joke.
Mortimer and Whitehouse: Gone fishing (BBC2, Wednesday of last week) is a curious new series. Both having had major heart surgery, Paul Whitehouse decided that the best way to get his old friend Bob Mortimer back on his feet was to take him fishing. Their condition means that they need to help each other out of the car and even into their waders. These are ageing men unashamed of their frailty.
This week, it was the glorious Wye Valley, and the fish sought the barbel. It is slow, meditative TV, taking on the pace of the long hours on the bank waiting patiently for the float to bob, the soundtrack classical music. They are facing death, sooner or later, commenting on the graveyard that they pass on their walk to the river, and ending up in a church discussing the afterlife with the vicar.
Then, at the end, there was a glimmer of hope. The first day drew a blank, but, on the second, they both caught beautiful fish. Mortimer said: “I did ask the Vicar to pray for me” and we all breathed a sigh of relief — “that I’d catch a fish.” Never spoil a good gag.
Far more serious, but with some overlap in subject matter, of the many programmes celebrating the NHS’s 70th anniversary, I choose The NHS: To provide all people (BBC2, Saturday). Billed as “A film poem”, it was a beautiful tribute and interrogation of the service. Interviews with patients, doctors, nurses, and staff inspired a dense text by Owen Sheers, recited and acted by a company of our finest talent.
We saw fictional birth and death, and the overwhelming praise for the NHS’s humanity given a slight touch of necessary acerbity by questions and criticisms; but this moving garland based around a Welsh regional hospital sidestepped the delays and frustrations that we hear about.
We heard much about Aneurin Bevan and his vision. Some attention was paid to his opponents, who valued private medicine, the relationship that had existed between patient and GP, and the charities and personal generosity that ensured that the poor did not have to pay for their treatment.
The thrust of the piece, however, was the existential shift, resulting from the creation of the universal right to free medical care to this moral imperative creating a radical equality: whatever our background, we deserve identical, excellent care when we are sick, and society as a whole is liberated when that is taken for granted.
It was celebrated as a psychological, social, and ethical triumph. Once more, the only element that was missing (and which might, in our culture, reasonably claim to be the basis of health care) was religion in general, and Christianity in particular.