LAST NIGHT

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The Independent Culture
Cause of Death, a QED special about fatal errors in the treatment of a young motorcyclist (BBC1), offered a slightly paradoxical sight; a drama which honoured brave persistence in the face of professional obstruction, but which, in the end, declined to walk the last mile with its hero. It told the story of Ray, an ordinary man whose son had been admitted to Riverside hospital after a minor motorcycle accident. He had damaged a kidney and dislocated a shoulder, among other minor injuries, but there was nothing life-threatening about his condition. Two weeks later he was dead, having deteriorated steadily until he was in an irreversible coma. Ray was not prepared to go away and grieve quietly; "I just want someone to tell me why my son died," he said, and this was not a rhetorical lament about the arbitrary nature of fate, but a demand for specific medical explanation.

He learnt about medical techniques the better to pursue his inquiries, but soon came up against the institutional barricades which surround well- organised professions. He couldn't bring any kind of action without legal aid, and he couldn't get legal aid because the compensation that might be paid for a young man without dependents wouldn't even cover a barrister's train fares. As a last resort, he went public, launching a magazine called the Legal-Medical Despatch, the lead article for which was "Mismanagement of a motorcyclist's treatment plan". Ray wasn't interested in subscribers, he wanted the hospital to sue him so that he could finally have his evidence heard.

If Ray had been his real name and the Riverside had been an identifiable hospital, then that weary critical adjective "provocative" would, for once, have had a genuine application here. Those involved in this "true story" (the assurance offered by an opening title) would have found it a good deal harder to ignore an invitation to a fight issued on television. But it wasn't his real name. Why not? Because, I assume, the BBC's lawyers were not quite as nobly supportive as Ray's solicitor, played by Niamh Cusack as one of those converts-to-the-cause which are virtually obligatory in such tales. Documentaries have to have the corroborating paperwork - drama merely needs a script.

Of course, there are other reasons for resorting to fiction - and perfectly honourable ones, too. For one thing, it gives you a more immediate access to the raw emotions of past events, which can be reconstructed by actors experienced in the display of feeling, rather than real people trying to maintain their composure. Unfortunately, for that to work the drama has to be better than this was; despite a heroic performance from Tom Georgeson as Ray, the script was weakened by its dependence on the cliches of the form. These included the melancholy premonitions of the parents (the reaction shots made them out to be the sort of people who would always instantly assume the worst) to having Ray stand insensible in a downpour after his son's death, to delivering one of those Jimmy Stewart speeches in which the indifference of a professional is rebuked by the ingenuous passion of the client ("I want justice, Mr Sanderson, justice... a concept you don't seem all that familiar with"). If it is objected that such things happened in real life, that only highlights the hazards of employing drama, which is forced to define its truth in relation to other stories rather than the facts. Real life can be banal or sentimental in a way that drama shouldn't.

What's more, by framing its story around satisfactions familiar from fiction - the little man triumphing over his notional superiors, the rewards of determination - QED also skirted some of the more difficult issues raised by the case. How one distinguishes between grief-induced paranoia and a justified scepticism, for instance, or whether a better medical service is really advanced by the depiction of medical litigation as a kind of moral crusade. If this had been a documentary, all those questions would have to have been taken far more seriously. As it was, a fascinating and possibly even representative event was reduced to the level of a Casualty debating point.

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