TELEVISION / The hidden face of the mountain man

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The Independent Culture
SIMON BEAUFOY's striking film for 40 Minutes opened with a marital row, one of those cold exchanges which tell you that hot fury has set hard to a granite obduracy. 'She wants to rub me out of her life', said Edwin Drummond, laying the words down with an even, unyielding measure. 'It's just vile, it's just low' said his wife Lia, hanging up on him after he'd asked the children what their opinion was. 'Well, you've got a real soap opera here, Simon', she added, head in hand.

Not everybody would expose the crumbling of their marriage for a television crew but then not everybody would want to watch such a commonplace anyway. What made Simon Beaufoy's film distinctive was that a larger incompatibility was at stake here, that between domestic duty and romantic idealism. The title, 'Shattered Dream' was decidedly clunky but at the end you knew you'd watched something genuinely original, one of those programmes that can only have grown into their current shape organically. What must have started out as a profile of heroic idealism ended up as a study of self-deceit and evasion, an oblique confession of the director's own disillusion.

Edwin Drummond is a climber and a poet, a man who speaks in a fluent dribble of abstractions about beauty and truth and value. He has an exceptionally good grip on the gritty realities of a rock face - you saw him here dangling over dizzying falls - but a child's conception of the challenges of the everyday world. Like Dickens Mrs Jellyby, exquisitely distressed about the natives of Borriooboola-Gha and blind to the needs of her own children, Drummond pours his energies into political stunts - climbing Nelson's Column and American skyscrapers as acts of environmental protest - while his wife and daughters struggle along on welfare.

After the cot-death of a young son, Silvan, and the financial failure of quixotic venture called Climb For The World Lia decides enough is enough and heads back home to Arizona. She thinks Edwin should settle down and share the upbringing of their children; he thinks he has more important things to do. Beaufoy tried reasonably hard to present this as a balanced case, a genuine combat between dull routine and passionate committment but all I could see in Edwin was a man who had persuaded himself that doing exactly what he wants to do is a form of martyrdom.

At times his self-importance made you gasp out loud: 'If I'd been able to write a poem for Silvan maybe he wouldn't have died' he said at one point, a sentence which pretends to be a confession but is in fact a boast. 'It's not Lia I love it's my children', he noted later, 'and that for me means that I'm going to be there with them even when I'm not'. Very convenient that, but I hope the children understand the principle too. Beaufoy's uneasiness with this gave the film an odd vigour, his youthful admiration for Drummond struggling against the evidence of his vanity and evasion. In one beautiful edit he hinted that he had made up his own mind - cutting from a young baby on Lia's breast, curling its hand round the neck of her jersey to Edwin reaching for a hold on a rock face, just a bigger baby with gratification on his mind.

Desmond Wilcox has long supplied British television with good news, seeking out stories of human courage and tenderness in a way that must bring a smile to Martyn Lewis's face. He regularly gets sneered at for this (I have been guilty of it myself) but while I still can't honestly say that I like his programmes - his own interviews seem to me to contribute a synthetic sweetness - you have to concede that the ecology of television would probably be poorer without him.

In The Visit he returned once again to follow the story of David, adopted by the Scottish surgeon who rebuilt his face from a whole into a passable imitation of the real thing. 'In order to live you need love and without love you're nothing' said this brave young man. After watching 40 Minutes you realised how fortunate he'd been to find a family for whom those words weren't just pretty abstractions.