Television Review

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
PEOPLE TALK carelessly about "living for the moment", as if it were a good thing. Malcolm and Barbara (ITV) showed what a stupid idea that is. In 1992, when he was 51, Malcolm Pointon was diagnosed as suffering from Alzheimer's disease. In 1995, Paul Watson began filming him and his wife Barbara, charting the effect that his condition had on both of them over four years.

When Alzheimer's was first detected, Malcolm had suffered episodes of memory loss, which led to him laying tables the wrong way and, more dramatically, driving the wrong way down the M11. His meticulous diaries mentioned something called "The Vision", which clearly alarmed him. By the time filming began, his memory had all but evaporated. When Watson asked them about the early days of their relationship, Malcolm confirmed Barbara's details with a slightly worried air, at one point venturing: "It's easy to forget, isn't it?" and grinning as though he hoped this would be taken as an ordinary conversational gambit. Talking about their wedding, Barbara said: "It was a happy day, wasn't it?" He agreed, but with a blank stare that suggested he didn't have the faintest idea what she was talking about.

Without memories, unable to understand what the old photos and home movies meant, Malcolm seemed emptied out, a man reduced to little more than mechanics. He was living in the moment, and it was hell.

He preserved some fragments of his former self, though: he still loved Barbara, following her around the house like a child trailing after its mother. And he still loved music. Even this became a source of pain when he was visited by his music therapist, a well-meaning woman whose serene confidence in the healing power of music was in blackly humorous contrast to Malcolm's secret, panicked resentment of her lousy violin-playing and creaky singing - a situation out of one of Kingsley Amis's darker fictions.

As the film went on, though, Malcolm's human, lovable side ebbed away. From childishness - needing help dressing and going to the toilet - he descended into a pre-human savagery. He became increasingly violent towards Barbara, speech fell away, music deserted him. By April of this year, when Watson stopped filming, Malcolm was a gibbering shell, shuffling around a hospital ward, roaring. A postscript noted that he would soon die.

But the central drama of the film was the slow destruction of his relationship with Barbara. For a long time, she struggled to maintain the semblance of a marriage (in a moment of shocking lucidity, Malcolm suggested to Watson that she deliberately made herself indispensable). But as he degenerated, becoming more vicious, losing control of his bowels, she began to lose heart. There were some distressing images of Malcolm stripped of his dignity, but none quite as bleak as the sight of Barbara weeping into his lap, while he sat unmoved.

In a strange way, though, this was an optimistic film. In other documentaries (The Family, The Dinner Party), Watson has showed humanity in an unflattering light; here we saw Malcolm stripped of everything that made him human. And it brought home just how much there is to lose.