LAST NIGHT: Review of Modern Times

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The Independent Culture
Modern Times (BBC2) began as if it was an account of a lottery win - with the delivery of a couriered letter containing a large cheque. Brenda and Steve, its recipients, conspired in the pantomime of mystery (although they must have known as well as the film crew exactly what it contained), and the next thing you saw was the couple in a travel agent, ordering a world trip. At which point, it was revealed that this was the dark doppelganger of the lottery's universal "what-if" question. What would you do if you only had a year to live? "I'm not one of those people who say `Why me?'," Brenda said, explaining how she had traded in her life insurance policies in order to realise her dreams before she died from the tumour in her brain, and, in the phrase, you heard the echo of a jauntier promise about the vagaries of fate: "It could be you."

Cathy Elliot's film was untroubled by the ethics of this slightly macabre arrangement, soothed in large part by the transparent honesty of Richard Legg, who set up Life Benefit Resources so that terminal patients could enjoy the insurance they had paid for. If you have a valid policy and a firm clinical death sentence, then you are in business, though the film glossed over the actuarial delicacies of the pay-out - the more slender your chances, the higher percentage you will get of the final settlement, so there is presumably some strange inversion of the standard insurance health check, one designed to establish the brevity of your remaining span.

Most of Legg's clients spend the money on the regularly postponed hopes that have suddenly had a best-before date stamped across them. Some travel, some buy expensive cars and some people spend their money on antique furniture, a choice that at first struck me as slightly perverse. Would it not salt the wound to buy an object that had long preceded you into the world and was virtually certain to outlast you? But then you realised that these people weren't trying to contrive a perfect death; they were making good their lives in ways that wouldn't have otherwise been possible, at least not with such suddenness. A lifetime's ambitions had to be telescoped into a few years, or even months. Tony, four years into his projected lifespan of five, said the question that occurred with increasing regularity was "Am I nearly finished?"

It was a conventional choice of words, but it struck you suddenly that what both these people had done was to refuse the passivity of mere ending. They were finishing their lives as a cabinet-maker finishes a valued piece of work - removing the snags and polishing it to a high gloss. Tony, whose life insurance policies must have been fairly substantial, had bought a house with an idyllic garden in Australia, not to mention the custom-built MG he had always hankered after and a thoroughbred race- horse. Brenda, on the other hand, was going round the world for one final trip - the conventional lottery winner's spree and one that emphasised the paradox of improving your life to the point where leaving it must seem harder than ever. "We'll never forget this, will we?" Brenda said as she and her husband stared out from the top of Table Mountain. "Ay," he replied, "we'll have some lovely memories for as long as we've got, our kid." They too had ensured that the last hours would contain as small a proportion of regret as human agency could arrange. Though it succumbed to mournful strings now and then, at points where we might have been trusted to feel for ourselves, Cathy Elliot's film was mercifully unmawkish in its account of these terminal acts of completion.

ER (C4) is also much possessed by death, though largely as an exercise routine for the emotions of its principal characters. Last night, there was much soul- searching about the suspected suicide of a colleague, an occasion for arias of anguish. The most enjoyable sequence, though, was the arrival of a man suffering from what could have been the Ebola virus. It turned out to be boring old malaria, but not before the infectious diseases expert had the chance to rattle out a deathless line about his unconfirmed suspicions: "There are hoofbeats but I haven't seen any zebras yet."