TELEVISION / A living death captured to the life

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The Independent Culture
IN WAR, the hardest words for a family are 'Missing, presumed dead'. All of the grief, plus a gimlet of hope. Peacetime has its own cruelties, none worse than Alzheimer's, a disease that turns brain cells into husks, sucking out memory. I once worked on a ward with some of its victims: houseproud Emily who tidied everybody's false teeth into her pockets; Felix the linguist, deaf to his nine languages, but still good for a chorus of 'Frere Jacques'; James the headmaster, who at 57 had forgotten his wife and child and was busy unlearning how to dress. No one sent their families a telegram, the message would have been intolerable: missing, presumed alive.

It was hard to imagine a drama doing justice to this criminal obliteration of the self, but poet Tony Harrison imagined it in Black Daisies for the Bride (BBC2, Screenplay), and the result was a beautiful, agonised piece of television. We started with the granular hiss of a 78; Maria Tobin in 1950 singing Madam Butterfly. Cut to Maria now in a Yorkshire hospital: an old lady, with the perky gravity of Dilys Powell, telling an anecdote. She is enjoying herself; doing voices, chuckling at the best bits. But while her tone suggests the contours of a story, the words are an avalanche of incoherence. Maria still sings Puccini, but just the one note; a top A that's enough to drive her fellow patients mad if they weren't already in mental solitary. Muriel Allen used to be a therapist, Kathleen an accordionist, they gurn and twitch while Muriel Prior blurts 'I love you, I love you', as if the disease had merely distilled her essential sweetness.

Actresses recreated the women's younger selves, processing in wedding dresses down the hospital corridor. Confetti fell like the shreds of a life torn up. The hospital trolley's electric whine was speeded up to a desolate howl. Song is last to quit the mind, and Harrison used it profoundly, giving new lyrics to 'In the Bleak Midwinter' and 'Oh, You Beautiful Doll': 'If I had-n't lost the pow'r to re-mi-nisce/These are some of the moments my heart would miss'. The only wrong note was struck with 'I'm glad I'm still Kath, and alive]' This was a presumption too far: Harrison might have seen relish in Kath's beaming, bony dance, but there could be no cause for celebration. He and director Peter Symes were on treacherous ethical ground - how to put words into the mouths of people who gape glassily without stealing their last dignity? They got over it by winning our trust with the quality of their noticing. Black daisies in a floor mosaic were transformed into bouquets for brides now turned to living stone: Muriel drumming her sneakers, Kath's eternal spring-cleaning, all found their way into the poetry. Most potent of all was the bleeping security panel on the door between the ward and the world: forget the code and you'll never get out.

In the second week of Wimbledon (BBC1&2) the bad news was that the British Hope had not been dashed in the first. It was out on court 14 in the person of Andrew Foster, a ginger- bearded spear-carrier off an Attic vase, playing the world No 1, Pete Sampras. Des Lynam snatched us from an enthralling match between Agassi (He Who Could Do With a Comb But Can Otherwise Do No Wrong) and Krajicek, saying: 'We can't ignore the last British player left in the singles.' Why the hell not? At least one viewer was happier watching foreign genius than native double faults. Sampras's bad shoulder could not stop him taking the first set quicker than you can say special relationship. Still, optimism spurts eternal in the partisan mouth: 'Sampras not looking comfortable, although he has the advantage of new balls.'

In the commentary box, Julian Tutt and Paul Hutchins made do with the same old ones. It was hard to tell them apart. They empathised as one: 'A difficult situation for Andrew', 'Not easy, so much expectation.' But as the match hurtled past Foster, the crowd grew rabid and Paul exasperated: 'Again, the wrong shot]' Suddenly, from the remaining ziggurat of sunshine in the far corner, Foster sent a corker down the line: 'I'm sure, Paul, you'd say that was the wrong shot again.' 'No I wouldn't, Julian. I'd say it was the right time to play that shot.' Gentlemen, please.

Elsewhere, most of the unforced errors came from Virginia Wade. Long since defeated by syntax ('absolutely she's going to be obligated to come into the net more'), Miss Wade has now taken up psychology. Of Steffi Graf's punishing show against Meredith McGrath, she said: 'Not only is her game there, but her mind is there as well]' But in Graf's match against Conchita Martinez, dubbed The Lady with the Low Toss, Virginia, a pretty erratic tosser herself, grew concerned: 'She still doesn't seem to be quite in her own body yet.' This was certainly true of many ladies in the early rounds. Few victors actually won; their opponents lost. The tennis was so dreary, it made a case for not televising the women's singles until the quarter-finals, and giving us more of both doubles, of which there were only sensational glimpses.

In the studio, Des was on top form. He manages to be laconic without being snide. When he congratulated fallen British Hope Chris Bailey on keeping his girlfriend out of the tabloids, Bailey admitted he hadn't got one. Des paused, gave the lad a swift appraising glance, and said: 'God, if you haven't, who has?' After Navratilova's defeat, Sue Barker waxed prosaic about 'Novotna's staying focused'. 'Ah, yes,' said Des, 'we used to call it concentration.' Chief commentator John Barrett soldiered on manfully, if not quite Danfully, the great Maskell being sorely missed. In a way you were glad he hadn't lived to see the Becker-Stich tree-felling contest. Thwack, gzing, pfzzzzp, '40-love'. Ten minutes in, Barrett sighed: 'Oh, for the days of touch and finesse and - '. He stopped just in time: to go on would have been to give the game away.

Horizon (BBC2) ended a fine series with a droll look at contending theories on how life began. Stanley Miller was sulking after his primordial soup idea had been taken off the menu, while Everett Shock (who may be the answer himself) was backing iron pyrites. The idea that humankind was created from fool's gold is not that daft: look at Ken Russell. Lady Chatterley (BBC1) came and came and came and mercifully went. Russell had cleaned up the novel, although leaving in a line like 'We fucked a flame into being' could hardly have been more offensive than adding a Tudorbethan fancy-dress party so Ken could hold court as Henry VIII. This was typical of a monstrous self-indulgence that extended to Mrs Russell (Hetty Baynes) playing the bluestocking Hilda in a performance that would have looked well behind the bar of the Rover's Return. In the last scene, Lawrence might have been surprised to see Connie and Mellors reunited on an ocean liner. I thought I heard the voice of the director - 'Lady Jane is waiting for John Thomas on the upper deck' - booming over what you have to call the pubic address system. There was no mistaking his hand in the dialogue: 'Do you think it will be very cold in Canada?' - 'I reckon as we'll find a way to keep us warm.' Half Sid James, half James Bond, and not remotely D H Lawrence.