Television Review

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The Independent Culture
"AROUND 60 PEOPLE will die in the United Kingdom before the end of this programme," said Robert Winston at the beginning of The Human Body (BBC1). This wasn't a causal connection, you understand, he just needed some measure of the ubiquity of death and, for a few minutes at least, the device worked. As you watched, there seemed to be a muffled tick in the wainscoting, the sound of unseen citizens switching off - their consciousness dwindling to a final pin-point of light. There is a reason for this phenomenon, apparently, and it has nothing to do with the kind of celestial transit lounge described by those who have had near- death experiences - just the material miracles of misfiring neurons and natural opiates released by the oxygen-starved brain. Quite how this bodily charity could have evolved is a little opaque (it isn't easy to see how it would improve an organism's fitness to have it depart in bliss), but you can replicate the effects with healthy people by putting them in a centrifuge - so metaphysical explanations would seem to be unnecessary.

Winston concluded a recent programme about consciousness with some loose talk about the soul - but here he was much more circumspect about what would happen as the flesh cooled. One person with some authority in the matter made it clear that he expected nothing at all to follow death, but then Herbie, a German antique dealer dying from inoperable stomach cancer, wasn't really an accredited expert until it was too late for him to pass a verdict. There had been some press anxiety about the fact that this last programme in the series would involve a man's death, but it's hard to imagine that anyone could have found the sight indecorous. Herbie's stomach was distended by a tumour the size of two soccer balls, and the odd sense of looking at a man pregnant with his own demise was confirmed by the long last hours of patient and loving attendance - friends and carers unable to share the labour of dying, waiting together for the moment of delivery.

That there is a streak of morbid sentiment in the British character was highlighted by Wednesday evening's interview with Earl Spencer. Diana: My Sister, the Princess (BBC1) began like an Easter condolence card - close-ups of lambs and little fluffy chicks - and was soon underlined by the odd blend of relic-worship that the memorial centre at Althorp represents, with real horsehair plaster on the walls and personal effects in the glass cases - heritage with a Gucci label. But two things prevented the programme that followed from being simply a mawkish embarrassment. The first was Sally Magnusson's interview, which, barring a couple of tenderly dumb questions ("What about the boys... are they... OK?"), was unexpectedly steely - a test which Spencer passed reasonably well.

He poured cold water on conspiracy theories and the self-aggrandising embroidery of Mohamed Al Fayed, made it clear that he would have preferred his nephews not to walk behind the coffin, and denied that he would profit from the public's desire for pilgrimage. The second saving grace was the home movies of Diana as a child - images of surprising clarity which offered a different, more general poignancy. In one sequence you saw a little girl dancing for the camera, innocently lubricious, until the film fluttered to an end and the image froze on her face - just beginning to be recognisable as the celebrity she became. That necessary bereavement - the child dying so an adult can be born - is one that we've all undergone.

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