TELEVISION / The grateful dead

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The Independent Culture
THE NEW series of Everyman (BBC 1, Sunday) began in dramatic style by raising some profound and disturbing questions: are near-death experiences evidence for the immortality of the soul, or simply a minor neurological freak? Why is there such remarkable uniformity in the reminiscences of those who have made day trips to the undiscovered country? Was heaven really designed by Gertrude Jeckyll? (Well, it's certainly big on herbaceous borders.) And why has it taken more than two years since the release of Flatliners for documentary makers to get around to the topic?

The last question seemed particularly pressing when the film, 'Life Before Death', staged a re-enactment of the day when a young man called Ian was given emergency resuscitation after a cardiac arrest. The NHS team was calmer and a good deal more polite than Keifer Sutherland and Julia Roberts, but they used exactly the same procedure of adrenalin injections and electric shock treatment, which meant that while Ian was having an out-of-body episode, viewers were sent into a state of deja vu.

Where Flatliners plunged headlong into gothic, however, Everyman maintained a cooler, more judicious tone, even if its array of witnesses was a trifle unequal - believers and partial believers, 5; sceptics, 1. The lone materialist, Dr Susan Blackmore, maintained that the NDE is nothing more nor less interesting than a neural storm, in which the brain, while still alive, 'has lost its grip on the usual model of reality'. (A condition that many parliamentary correspondents have also observed.) Thus, all the tales of beautiful gardens, such as that nice herbaceous one that a lady called Clare visited when she broke her neck in a car crash, are simply culturally- determined hallucinations, and the sensation of heavenly bliss no more than a flood of endorphins.

At first, this sounded bracingly hard-headed, and had the additional merit of being open to testing, if and when pharmacologists manange to gimmick up the right cocktail of a 'disinhibiting' drug like LSD and an opiate, and then find someone daft enough to down it. And yet it wasn't only wistfulness that made Dr Blackmore's hypothesis feel inadequate. Floating astral bodies, brilliant light and paradisal lawns might all be fantasies derived from diluted religious tradition and folklore, but the common report of passing through a tunnel (or, in one rather worrying account, being 'keel-hauled' at immense speed down one) is harder to explain, and suggests that, fully researched, the NDE may have a lot more to tell us - about the brain, if not about the eternal verities.

Muriel Gray opened Off The Wall (BBC 2, Sunday) with another profound and disturbing query: 'Has art lost its way now, meaning absolutely nothing to the average 20th-century citizen?' (Or, to put it another way: 'What does the term 'loaded question' mean?') Taken even half-way earnestly, that slithering bit of rhetoric would cost a deal of trouble to answer - we might need to ask, for example, (a) what art meant to the average citizen of the eighth century, (b) whether the fact that endocrinology and quantum mechanics also mean little to Joseph Public implies that these fields of endeavour are also hopelessly introverted and rudderless, and (c) precisely who or what an average citizen might be.

Fortunately, Off The Wall had no intention of taking the question seriously: it was just the springboard for a gimmick, and not a bad one at that. Muriel Gray, having first put in a few prophylactic sneers about the 'fashionable idea' that 'the middle class have the duty to bring art to the workers' (a ploy which suggested that the programme should really have borrowed from Channel Four's J'accuse and called itself Qui s'accuse, s'excuse) was despatched to Newcastle's Byker estate to chivvy and eavesdrop on a handful of hard-up residents who had volunteered to curate an art exhibition. No nonsense about culture-to-the-masses here, then; on the contrary, this was the-masses-to-culture. Apart from one observation about Gaugin's poor handling of sheep, the result told us predictably little about painting. It did manage to put a spin on one cliche, though: even people who say they don't know much about art can be led to admit that they like what they know.