TELEVISION / Small tragedy of two into one

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The Independent Culture
Over 10 years ago, I was sitting in an examination hall staring at a paper called Tragedy. The only thing to penetrate my thrumming brain was a song then at No 1: 'Tragedy, when the feeling's gone and you can't go on.' The Bee Gees weren't of much immediate help with Oedipus at Colonus. In fact, they were the toothsome embodiment of a culture that had reduced tragedy to its new tabloid definition: the Heart- Op Hope Kid; Gazza's yellow card. High tragedy involved the fall of a great guy because of a fatal flaw, and would elevate the spirit. Television is now groaning with low tragedy (999, Fighting Back) that won't elevate anything except the ratings and is certainly not short on fatal flaws. But every so often you see a programme that transcends the grotesque or the prurient to produce something acutely moving, and so it was this week with First Tuesday's Katie and Eilish (ITV).

When Liam Holton first saw his daughters they looked like bruised peaches hollowed into one another. 'I said to the doctor, 'Aren't they beautiful?' And he looked at me in surprise and said 'Yes, I suppose they are'.' You shared the doctor's shock for a minute. Katie and Eilish were Siamese twins, welded at the pelvis, tummy and chest: two beings sealed in one skin when an egg in their mother's womb failed to divide. Many will have blenched at the Polaroid of the girls and turned over, but their father was right. We got a proper look at them when they were two-and-a-half, roaring with glee on a swing, tiny faces with a halo of golden curls and just the two blue woolly legs kicking the air for the both of them. Nature had fixed Eilish's arm around Katie's shoulder in an attitude of extreme tenderness, and their faces were so close that when one turned to look at the other they kissed. Beguiled, and grateful that a feared freakishness could be so happy and normal, you soon got used to the twins. It was the parents who amazed.

Mary and Liam Holton must be what the Church has in mind when it talks about grace. 'Mrs Holton,' said a bemused Dr Deasy in Dublin, 'meets you as if everyone else's twins are like this, so what's the problem?' Mary insisted the girls were ordinary children in extraordinary circumstances. Liam was stoic: 'You say well, if I've to accept this Cross, how do you carry it lightly and with meaning?' They carried it like balsa, but a terrible twist on the judgement of Solomon hung over them. Should the girls be allowed to grow up as they were to face a lifetime of sneaked glances and possible agony at their mutual prison, or should they have the surgery that, cutting them in half, would make them more whole in the eyes of the world?

The Holtons chose surgery at Great Ormond Street. In the long days before the operation when the twins' skin was expanded so there would be enough for two, Mary's blush left her cheeks and the babies' curls lay flat in sweat. A surgeon briefed his team on how to deal with the twins' shared organs, while in the ward Liam and Mary used Cabbage Patch dolls to show them how it would be when they were parted. Katie reached up to stroke her mother's eyebrow and the screen went black.

When the picture returned, it was Eilish's face we saw on a pillow. Katie died of a weak heart four days after the operation. Eilish had been depressed, Liam said. 'She would look down at the side where Katie was and give a jerking reaction.' But he was convinced Katie lived on in Eilish: 'Her personality was more serious, prior to division, now she has acquired a lot of Katie's playfulness.' In a world where two into one did go, it didn't seem that strange an idea.

Julie Christie did the voiceover, but I only realised that as the credits rolled, which is the best time to notice who the narrator is. There had been no gush, no poignant pause. Matter-of-fact for matter-a-lot. This was typical of the delicacy of Mark Galloway's remarkable film. It broke your heart in several places, by keeping absolutely still.

Those who made it through First Tuesday ran straight into News at Ten's special report on Somalia. 'Two hundred children die here every day,' said Trevor McDonald. One of them was in a box above Trevor's right shoulder. You would have said it was lying in the foetal position if it still had flesh to make curves, instead it looked like a compass. As the camera dwelt on scores of children in that last drowsiness before death when flies wander undisturbed over faces, you thought about the medical team talking Eilish and Katie's operation over hour after hour. And then the mind bent.

The BBC continued its splendid coverage from Barcelona on Olympic Grandstand. Only the commentators could come between us and our pleasure, describing each event as if for the benefit of viewers who had lost their picture. 'The tall figure of Merlene Ottey. Very tall. This tall Jamaican girl,' David Coleman offered helpfully. During the 10,000 metres Coleman said: 'After a hectic start, they're settling down to sensibility.' But up in the box it was to be nonsense and insensibility to the last syllable of recorded time. Ottey had married a man called Small. 'War a irie,' said David; his second attempt at 'irony' in what was proving a tough fortnight for adenoids.

Ottey, as David constantly reminded us, has held numerous world records, but 'the big one always eluding her'. It took an athlete to explain it. Back in the studio, Des Lynam asked Daley Thompson if Ottey could win the gold. 'Well, she's carrying a heavy burden round with her,' he said, 'that bag full of silvers and bronzes.' Here was a fresh image to convey an idea which had you nodding the minute you heard it: the ball-and-chain in the memory of the eternal runner-up.

The finest commentary of the games came from another athlete. Kriss Akabusi, still chasing his breath after coming third in a 400m hurdles in which the world record flew off the turntable, talked us through the replay: 'I blasted off as hard as I could. I knew the Frenchman would go off hard. See. So I'm doing 30 to seven. And all a' sudden Kevin blasted past me. And I thought I'll pick this guy up but No Way 'cos normally it's my strong part of the race, goin' round the bend. But I made no impression on him What So Ever. Fantastic] I can't believe how far down I am] And I'm running fast here. The guy has whopped me bad. (We see Kevin Young cross the line, his right hand upraised as if carrying the Olympic torch.) Last night I went to bed, and I thought got a chance for gold here, 'cos there's no Ed Moses around. Excuse me] There is now.'

Young had done that thing the pilots in The Right Stuff called pushing the envelope. The race Akabusi trained for was redefined as he ran it, by a man who was a pair of Nike soles on the horizon as Kriss hit the straight. It was awesome, and he found some awe.