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The Independent Culture
One wonders what Great Ormond Street Hospital would do if a party of tourists turned up at its doors one day and asked to look around the wards. I imagine that bemusement would soon turn to disgust when the day- trippers explained that they were particularly interested in staring at critically ill children, and would be very grateful if they could take some snapshots in the operating theatre while they were there. And yet, through the sanitising proxy of the television camera, just such an arrangement is made on our behalf every week. After EastEnders and before the emetic charms of Next of Kin, anyone so disposed can wile away half an hour sitting in on the agonies of couples like the Wilsons, whose son Neal was filmed undergoing open-heart surgery.

Several thin reasons are offered to cloak the prurience of such series; that they reassure or inform people; that they offer exemplary tales of resilience and courage; even, perhaps, that they put our modest anxieties into perspective (it seems a little self- indulgent to worry about whether the car will get through its MOT when you look at a boy with more tubes coming out of him than King's Cross station).

But nobody sits down with such pious intentions, any more than we peer at a traffic accident because we wish to remind ourselves of the transitory and contingent nature of all human life. We look on because disaster detached from personal consequences is deeply satisfying to our human appetite for novelty. Great Ormond Street (BBC1) delivers the goods without question, from the calm ingenuity of the consultants to the cheery resilience of young patients. It is a heroic account, in which struggles are brave, staff devoted and costs are not counted. This is an evasion, at a time when some hospitals cannot offer beds to their patients, let alone pioneering and career-advancing surgery. Many advances in medicine cast a long shadow but you wouldn't know it from this bright and overlit account.

The point was well made in The Decision (C4), a more thoughtful piece of ambulance chasing over on Channel 4. As medical techniques improve, the cruel economy of nature has been pushed aside, that brutal biological thrift by which the badly damaged are written off. Now many patients who, 20 years ago, would have died quick and painless deaths, linger on in PVS, persistent vegetative state. The Decision was honest enough to give you the price tag for this - it costs some pounds 90,000 a year to maintain someone in this condition, a price that is understandably of no account to relatives, but must prey on the mind of managers. The emotional costs for family members can be even higher - normal life is paralysed and grief put on life support.

"What's Best For Our Son" suggested that, through evolution or design, a strategy had emerged by which people are helped to get through this peculiarly 20th-century agony. Effectively, the decision about withdrawing life-support is cut into small pieces and shared between as many people as possible, so that no one individual has to bear too much of the mortal weight. It isn't any kind of anaesthetic - the father of the young man featured in last night's film burst into tears after legal approval had been given for the ventilator to be turned off. "We went to court to murder our son and I feel great pain about that," he said. But the consensus of hospital doctors, independent second opinions and legal counsel acting for the patient allows the unthinkable to be thought. The abiding fiction was that Daniell was still alive - his brothers and sisters brought him birthday presents and his lawyer thanked him gravely for "letting me see you", a scene of uneasy embarrassment given that Daniell couldn't even flicker his eyelids in dissent. It was clear after a while that he wasn't being kept alive so much as denied a death. It can't have been easy for his parents to give permission for him to go, but it was the last tenderness they could offer him.