Television Review

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The Independent Culture
FOR THE last year or so, the journalist John Diamond has written a weekly piece for The Times about the experience of having throat cancer, a column which, like Ruth Picardie's pieces for The Observer about her own terminal breast cancer, has proved immensely popular with readers. There are less shocking ways of putting this ("compelling", "gripping", "deeply moving"), but "popular" doesn't blink at the mixed motives of readers when they devour such pieces. And the fact that readers aren't all pure in heart has lead some to criticise the writers who feed their appetites in the first place.

As an issue, this seems to me a non-starter. The life of a columnist is always a race between approaching deadlines and flagging inspiration. So when columnists whose speciality is the minutiae of daily life find that they have a subject so mortally bulky that it obscures everything else in their field of vision, it would seem perverse of them, to say the very least, to peer around this looming object and write about how difficult it is to open packets of biscuits nowadays or the irritations of the Internet. And the implication that there is something exploitative in writing about one's own illness is even more peculiar. What exactly do the critics think - that writers contract a potentially fatal illness as a career strategy? To suggest that a columnist should draw a decent veil over what is - literally as well as figuratively - consuming them, is rather like suggesting that a defence correspondent who has lived through decades of peace should decline to cover a war when one comes along, on the grounds that it's all rather nasty.

That doesn't mean that there are no problems in writing about terminal illness, it's true, and one of the interesting things about Inside Story's "Tongue-Tied" (BBC1) was the recognition of its central subject that cancer has already created a journalistic genre, one whose cliches a good writer is likely to want to avoid. For Diamond, the most obvious of these is the myth of the Plucky Battler, a character ennobled by disease, who discovers that life is gilded by the light of imminent demise. "I know what I think about Nigella and the kids," Diamond said of his family at one point. "I don't need cancer to remind me." He was equally scathing about the widespread assumption that bravery is one of the side-effects of malignant tumours. On the other hand, it's difficult for a witty writer to abandon the principle tool of his trade, and wit can look a lot like courage in such circumstances, whether you want it to or not.

One of Diamond's solutions is to create a set of vaudeville alter-egos - Cheerful Charlie Carcinoma or Honking Johnny, The Dribbling Man - which acknowledge the element of performance there will always be in living with a disease, the sense that you're always "on", the nervous audience watching for cues as to how it should react. Another solution is to dispense with flippancy altogether when the mood is not upon him - a kind of calculated breach of contract with the reader which has its own impact.

In a weekly column, a story like this has a steady, measured pace, and, to a degree at least, an illusory evenness of tone. On television, though, the pain is amplified by the compression of time - so that the roller- coaster of treatment and set-back seems cruelly intense. What's more, the presence of two voices - Diamond's physical one, distorted by surgery, and his unchanged literary one, still nimble and articulate - brings home the particular distress for a professional broadcaster of developing cancer of the throat. Here you saw the post-operative Diamond struggling with the unaccustomed sensation of being at a loss for words, intercut with his own eloquent self - filmed before the operation had damaged his tongue. This was not an inspiring sight - it was an upsetting one - but the effect of the film as a whole was not dispiriting. It showed a man whose determination not to accept false consolations had become a paradoxical consolation in itself.

One hesitates to congratulate someone for continuing to survive - particularly when he has been acute about the casual glibnesses cancer can arouse in bystanders - but while there is no grace in pain or disease themselves, there can be a kind of grace in the way they are absorbed. On the evidence of this film, John Diamond has it.

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