review

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
There can be few more fugitive subjects for a television film than a marital relationship, a hybrid of public performance and private need which may not even let itself be seen whole by those most intimately involved. It is, moreover, a beast that continually changes its shape and emotional colour. So it was a considerable achievement of last night's Video Diaries (BBC2) to have captured at least some glimpses of the thing on film.

The ostensible subject was the agonising examination in parenthood from which the casually fertile are exempt. Su and Steve Pearce couldn't have their own child, so had decided to adopt a Chinese orphan, a decision that introduced them to the painstaking investigations of the social services and the cynical calculations of the Chinese authorities (babies mean hard currency). But what emerged in the gaps of the narrative, and through the mechanical attentiveness of the video camera, was a very touching account of a couple trying to negotiate the terms of a marriage under strain.

Some people quibble about video diaries, arguing that they offer no real advance on conventional filming techniques because the diarists are still self-conscious. To which one can only answer, when are we not? Life is a series of performances, even if the audience sometimes dwindles to one. And there is visible evidence that the contract between subject and camera is quite different in these films, most particularly an absence of manners in face of the lens. People pause at great length while talking or even walk out of shot to get a cigarette, neither of which they would feel free to do were there outsiders in the room. The camera is not deferred to by those who wield it, which gives them an odd liberty to undress themselves.

In any case, the fact that the more striking confessional monologues in last night's film took the form of melodrama, did nothing to undermine their emotional truth. "I can't have children, I can't cook, I don't enjoy gardening, I'm not good at DIY, everything I touch breaks, I always say the wrong thing," wept Su at one point, and the bathos of some elements in her list only emphasised her wretchedness, the way that misery can clutch at straws to keep itself afloat. This followed a row, rawly familiar in its regretted assaults and competitive grievance, and was itself succeeded by a wonderful scene in which cruelty was reprised as affection. As they lay on the Downs in the sunshine, wincing at young children passing with their parents, the words were still those of recrimination ("Seriously - what benefits do I get from being married to you?") but the tone was loving and full of rueful laughter - a wound being bandaged rather than ripped at.

One hopes very much that their candour counts for, rather than against them. They endured the condescension of their social worker and the inverted racism of the adoption procedure with remarkable self-control - reserving their rage for private moments of despair. They also, perfectly understandably, didn't turn down the offer of IVF treatment which came halfway through their application, a breach of adoption protocol which might cause them difficulty in the future. This matters, because when Su finally became pregnant they ended the process of adoption. Then, in the most piercing postscript broadcast for years, it was revealed that their son, Matthew, had died after only six days, leaving them bereft of everything, even the pretence of obedient biddability.

QED's (BBC1) programme about Piers Corbyn, a maverick weatherman who backs his forecasts with big money bets, was rendered almost unwatchable by that lazy producer's trick of ringing the Gramophone Library and asking for a stack of records with cutely appropriate titles. "Singing in the Rain", "The Sun Has Got His Hat On", "Here Comes the Sun" - only Burt Bacharach's "Raindrops" was missing from the dismal parade. It was a painful reminder that an index system is no substitute for imagination.

Comments