Television: LAST NIGHT

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The Independent Culture
A man unloaded a large cardboard box from his car, manoeuvred it into his kitchen, and started slapping on decorator's paint - Anthony was making a coffin for his Aunt Marcella, in last night's film for Modern Times (BBC2). Anthony turned out to be a bit of a bore, one of those rather self-obsessed figures who regard themselves as having a special relationship to the truth, a fact which they demonstrate with a laboured disregard of social conventions. "All religion is hypocrisy," he said grumpily, "especially Christians." He then gave a hilariously disenchanted eulogy, describing his late aunt's life as a Calvary of missed opportunities and petty oppression: "She was the most intelligent and the only artistic member of her tribe, but nobody saw it, or if they did, they squashed it." "I was very surprised at the tone of Anthony's talk," said one of her former neighbours later, obviously startled to find that the contented old lady he'd known was actually the Van Gogh of North Belfast.

This made you suspect that Marcella might not have been quite as happy with her nephew's funeral arrangements as he insisted. Perhaps the casually daubed cardboard box which carried her into the flames was an act of retribution rather than a loving performance of her last wishes. "She would love the idea of a cardboard coffin," he said confidently, but then, she was hardly in a position to contradict him.

Nor could she give an opinion on whether she would have enjoyed being filmed as her body was heaved from the mortuary slab into the said box, her mouth left gaping in accordance with his rather grinding commitment to honesty. I take it that none of the dead people in Helen Richards' film had signed a consent form for their first and last television appearance. The care of their dignity, if such a thing can be rationally said to survive the spark of life, had passed on to their next of kin, and the result was an unusually explicit inspection of the facts of death - with bodies filmed flat out on an embalmer's table or carbonising in the crematorium furnace.

Such scenes recalled you to the grave subtext of "The End", which was otherwise marked by that instinct to giggle which often afflicts people at a funeral. "You can't beat Barry from Bermondsey," said an old lady about her local undertaker. "If I lived to be 100, I wouldn't go to no one else," she added, as though one's funeral was likely to be a repeat purchase. Another woman had arranged a series of "coffin mornings", a kind of mortal Tupperware party at which she and her friends discussed the last container they would ever take an interest in.

Richards' account of alternative endings sagged a tiny bit in the middle, when people were philosoph-ising about their own funerals - even unconventionality has its familiar forms - but it picked up wonderfully with its final sequence: an account of two women readying their father for a "woodland burial". This was so sweetly irrational in the way that their solicitude had outlived his need, and so touching in the way it mixed grief with pleasure, that it made the film's best argument against the delegation of death to strangers.

A remarkably similar scene had been described in the previous night's Witness (C4) - two daughters putting make-up on their mother's face and tidying her clothes in preparation for a funeral. The difference in this case was that the mother was alive when they did it. She had been a client of Dr Kevorkian, a man who has dedicated himself to easing his patients out of the world with what he calls a "self-execution" machine. Witness's account of his confrontations with the law and the religious right was broadly sympathetic, offering you video testimony from those who had used his services, and detailing the undignified evasions forced on them by the law. But it couldn't suppress the thought that the problem with legalised euthanasia is not the men who do it for free and risk imprisonment to continue, but the ones who will do it for money, and risk nothing to jeopardise their fee.

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