REVIEW / Looking life and death straight in the face

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IN Living with Lesley (C 4), there was a deliberate and well-aimed bombardment of visual cliches. A family leaned on a gate while a professional photographer snapped them: like the Mellors posing for the tabloids on a similar gate, you didn't need a voiceover to explain that the image of togetherness in the viewfinder was in some way temporary or artificial. A child was glimpsed through a window on a swing. Uh-oh, the viewer thought: that usually means the bubble of innocent ignorance is about to be burst. When the father of the family cuddled a dog, there might as well have been a caption saying 'His Best Friend', which is what the dog soon will be.

In a film about a mother's dignified confrontation of terminal cancer, the fearlessness was catching. Annie Paul, who directed, deserves a medal for bravery for using all means available to test the tautness of your heartstrings. A string quartet sawed plangently on the soundtrack, unabashedly quoting from the weepies' weepy Truly, Madly, Deeply. Now and then, a stream trickled across the screen; since time immemorial flowing water has been a metaphor for time immemorial.

One sequence jumped between the dying but still hale-looking Lesley and her husband John; as each talked about the other you were reminded, in form if not in content, of those Blind Date winners summing each other up after some trip of a lifetime together. But as she explained why she didn't want the house to be turned into a shrine to her, the camera stayed on John, one of those bear-like silent types with a cheesy grin, as he burst into tears behind his brawny fists. 'The most frightening thing is being on your own,' he said. 'That's what it comes down to.'

During filming there was no danger of it coming down to that. After two doctors had allayed Lesley's fears of breast cancer, a third check resulted in an immediate mastectomy that failed to halt the spread of the disease to her lungs. The news was communicated over the phone. Lesley's reaction was to throw herself into publicity work for Breakthrough, a charity which raises money for breast cancer research: multiple media appearances followed, culminating in this one.

In the time that she has left as a farmer's wife in Dorset, Lesley has turned herself into a missionary communicator. At the start of filming, we found her sleepless and solitary in her kitchen, groggily wondering who'd draw the children's curtains, who'd turn the lights out, which side of the bed John would sleep on when she was gone.

Most people don't want to make documentaries during a bout of insomnia, but with a camera crew on hand day and night - outside the see-through shower unit, beside the doctor's couch - the picture was one of literally naked immediacy. It was as if, after her medical examination, she had willingly surrendered to the trauma of a televisual examination.

Her children performed, too, somersaulting on the bed and insisting on brushing their teeth by themselves. Their unselfconsciousness in the face of everything - their mother dying, strange people filming her - brought home all the more how easily this could happen to anyone: all children refuse to get dressed in the morning, all dads are a bit ropey on colour coordinating skirts and T-shirts, all mothers are threatened by this disease.

Lesley wrote charming books for her three young children, elegiac poetry for John, and with her similarly fated girlfriends indulged in that brand of gallows humour which is the sole preserve of the victim. You might not have laughed, but at least Lesley did. 'I must not be cancelled out,' she said.

After a film of this power, a home video made by professionals for national broadcast, you can't see that happening. Any viewer who felt belittled by her fortitude and strength might like to make a donation to Breakthrough, PO Box 2JP, London W1A 2JP (071-405 5111).

Thomas Sutcliffe returns on Monday