Television review

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"The Home", Paul Watson's film for Cutting Edge (C4) about a seaside residential home for the elderly, was quietly indignant about the abandonment of the old - condemning absent children (and even former employers) with what came to seem a slightly casual assumption of guilt. It was also a little disingenuous of him. Because if these people's children had still been in touch, one of the things they would have done would be to protect their parents from the indignities visited on them by Watson's camera. There to record all the intimate humiliations of old age - the flannel baths, mental confusion and incontinence. One elderly man sat like a smacked puppy through a half-open door, as a care worker described the grim comedy of cleaning up his faeces. Another old lady lamented her consignment to these genteel dying rooms: "What have I done to be treated like this," she said, and you couldn't help feeling that the question ought to be answered by the director as much as by her relatives. The pejorative cliche for this sort of observation would be "without compunction", but that seems far too strong in this case.

Even if some of its gestures were misconceived, "The Home" wasn't a callous film. After all, paying attention to people who have nobody else to talk to may be a kind of tenderness in itself. And it is easy enough to argue that we are better off for knowing that some lives end like this - in the sadness of large rooms cut up into small portions. Momento mori, at the very least, and quite possibly something more generous or purposeful. It will have touched some consciences, if the consciences in question were careless enough to watch.

On the other hand, Watson's film continually jarred you with little clumsinesses - only noticeable, perhaps, because the subject matter (people unable to look after themselves) made your sense of propriety as tender as an arthritic joint, flinching from the slightest touch. Watson ended his film with an acknowledgement: "This film was made possible by the open and honest attitude of everyone at Redmere Lodge". Fair enough, as far as the owners and staff go. But how much of a virtue is openness from a woman who cannot remember her own son's name, who does not know enough to politely close the door? Is it honesty, exactly, or just helplessness that makes another man sit naked and slack before the camera as he is sponged by a nurse? Thanking his subjects for their co-operation, Watson only reminded you how limited their options for recalcitrance were. "Can you remember the most beautiful thing that ever happened in your life?" he asked an unhappy woman at one point and the question shockingly crystallised the essential cruelty of all such exercises. Was this really a solicitous inquiry or an attempt to claw a nugget of pathos from a sadly diminished life?

Other decisions, too, eroded your confidence - Watson had included readings from Margaret Foster's novel Have The Men Had Enough, a literary interruption which seemed impertinent, as if it were the lives we saw on screen that would be validated by the parallels, rather than the fiction. (And why Margaret Foster exactly? - listening to the pared-down despair of some residents, their hunger for extinction, it was Samuel Beckett that came to mind as the most acute recorder of this terminal state). And yet "The Home" struck home, confronting you with the fact that an existence can last much longer than a life. The point was most tellingly made by an arthritic old woman who was seen worshipping with a young visiting priest. "Do you want any special prayers," he asked her. "Only that I should die soon," she replied bluntly. He stopped for a moment, at a loss for words at this raw misery. Then, after an aching pause, he found the very last ones she wanted to hear - "We continue to give thanks to God for the gift of life." No we don't, not for ever.