TELEVISION / Sorrows of a life together

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EVERY now and then during 'Katie and Eilish', Mark Galloway's astounding film for First Tuesday (ITV), an involuntary thought occurred to you - what would Desmond Wilcox have made of all this? The subject (a dilemma over the separation of Siamese twins) and the film's suspense and emotion (which traced the months leading up to an operation) were the very stuff of Wilcox's much debated series The Visit. All that was missing was the display of compassion that actually obscures its objects. Wilcox never excludes himself from his own films, as if his absence would rob the films of emotional focus, and the soft probing of his voice coaxes into words feelings which are often too vaguely formed to find expression in anything other than cliches. Galloway, on the other hand, was invisible, throwing your attention away from the business of observing and on to those principally involved. The result was a film in which the sentimental focus was less operatically constructed, less dramatically satisfying, but which was finally much more powerful.

'Aren't they beautiful,' said Liam Holton when he was first shown his baby daughters, who were closely fused from the neck down. A snapshot taken immediately after the birth suggested that this might be a courageous and touching display of parental fondness - like most new-born babies they looked a little distorted, and the shock of the odd proximity of those two heads was unavoidable. Then you saw the girls at the age of two and a half, and realised he was just telling the truth. It may have been the symmetry of their joining or the childish perfection of their separate limbs (each had one functional arm, which they used in an uncanny co-operation) but you had to remind yourself now and then that their shape was an aberration.

You couldn't honestly exclude a fascinated curiosity, the lure of the freak-show, from the motives which at first made you watch; but those impurities were rapidly burnt away by the normality of what you saw - little girls gurgling bubbles through lemonade with a straw, blowing out candles on their birthday cake, going to see the ducks on the local river. When their faces brushed against each other in a sort of kiss, or girl's hand clumsily stroked the other's face, it gave you the impression that biology had forced on them a special kind of devotion.

This innocence, of how the world might view them and of sorrow at their own condition, made the dilemma over their treatment the more acute. Was the risky operation a concession to conventional ideas of normality or simply a recognition that life would later become unbearable? The consultant at Great Ormond Street seemed to believe that this was a choice which could be shared: 'All three of us and the two girls are in it together,' he said, 'We have the same interests at heart, we want the same out of the procedure, we want success.' You didn't have to doubt his sincerity to feel that he was wrong - however involved the medical team became, the operation necessarily remained for them a challenge to professional skill. For Mary and Liam Holton it was a judgement of Solomon in cruelly literal form.

The operation itself was a merciful hiatus, a black space on screen from which only one child returned. The slight confusion of this moment was characteristic of the tact of the film, allowing the viewer a small shock of bereavement as you worked out what had happened. Like all transmitted emotions it was a diminished grief, not to be compared with that felt by the parents. But it was none the less real for that and, as Mary Holton spoke of her feelings, it made you realise that another separation must be taking place - the separation of joy and sorrow, inextricably fused in the same event.