Television review

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The Independent Culture
Television is in love with euthanasia. You could see why, after watching Inside Story: A Peaceful Exit (BBC1). The subject is a mine of misery and moral choices, stories neatly tellable in 50 minutes. Mostly they involve the old and the terminal, but Inside Story pushed the parameters way back, to tell the story of Ian Stewart, a two-year-old living in Devon.

Well, "living" is an over-statement. Born with a heart defect, Ian was operated on at the age of 10 months. Surgery helped the heart, but resulted in devastating brain damage. Incapable of walking, talking, hearing or seeing, the boy appears to be in constant pain. Moreover, doctors have warned that, because of his brain damage, it would be futile to perform the follow- up operation he requires on his heart. Thus, he is destined to die before he is five. When their son enters the terminal phase, his parents want him to die painlessly. So they are campaigning now for a change in the law, in time for the end.

Given that young Ian, a wheezing bag of pain, requires red-eyed, 24-hour attention, Jim and Bronwen Stewart don't have much time for organising marches and co-ordinating sympathisers. So they invited Inside Story to spend time with them to help promote their view. And promote it the programme did. The couple's bravery, dignity and kindness was unerring, even in those sequences shot by static camera in the sanity-draining early hours. At the end, you felt there was an awful lot of misery from which the entire Stewart household deserved to be released.

The problem with programmes like this, though, is that, through their intimate association with a single case, they lose all sight of the wider implications of the argument. The line was: the Stewarts are clearly motivated solely by love; to deny them the chance to ease Ian's terminal pain is brutal; and it is the Law which is denying them; thus the Law should be changed.

And anyone, like the poor children's law expert interviewed by the programme, who argues against state- legitimised murder, or who points to the potential problems presented by relatives motivated by less altruistic incentives than the Stewarts', merely appears heartless. Even the expert's choice of words - "deliberate killing", for example - jarred with the Stewarts' gentle euphemisms, such as "release from further suffering", "owed a peaceful exit" and "let him go". Any referendum on the issue, conducted immediately after this programme, would have registered a massive majority in favour of euthanasia, if only to facilitate the Stewarts' wholly admirable wish. Such is the power of selective argument.

French and Saunders (BBC1) returned last week, but it seemed only fair to reserve comment for a second effort to see if they had discovered any punchlines. Another half-hour of clever character observations and skilful acting, though, failed to yield any. The pair's humour rests instead on Dawn's size (no fewer than three visual pratfalls involving weight), easy targets like Bjork (just one problem: Bjork's a lot funnier than Dawn's pastiche), and a regular interference by the processes of television (in lieu of a pay-off in a sketch featuring Patsy Kensit, for instance, a floor manager appeared on screen instructing the studio audience to applaud Patsy, which they duly did). Plus a constant embarrassed recognition by the pair that they can't deliver the goods ("Are you going to do the accent or what?" asked Dawn during a sketch in which Jennifer played Jackie Onassis. "Sorry, can't quite get it," she replied).

Call me old-fashioned, but I prefer my comedy shows to come with a gag or two. Otherwise they're about as funny as... Sorry, typical me, honestly, can't think of a comic comparison to conclude with. Still, what's good enough for two of the highest-paid entertainers in Britain...

Thomas Sutcliffe returns on Monday.

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