Last Night's Television - Electric Dreams, BBC4; Two Feet in the Grave, BBC1
Matters of life and death
Wednesday 30 September 2009
"I want to find out whether we can deal with death better," said Richard Wilson in
Two Feet in the Grave, qualified as a tour guide to the final threshold by the fact that he could kick off with a piece to camera from the site of his own demise, albeit a fictional one. Victor Meldrew breathed his last by a railway bridge on a suburban lane, finally released from a lifetime of incredulous rage by a hit-and-run driver, and it made a good starting point for Wilson's reflection on how we might plan for the big family event at which we will all eventually be the guest of honour but none of us can really be said to attend. The general notion was that there was a taboo in place here, fear to be allayed and conventions to be tweaked. Which made it slightly odd that the most consistent theme in the film that followed was how willing people are to face the fact of death, and how imaginative they are about their arrangements. Yes, a lot of people choose Nat King Cole's "Unforgettable" and Whitney Houston's "Wind Beneath My Wings" to play on the crematorium music system, but there are mischief makers who request "Always Look on the Bright Side" from The Life of Brian or, brilliantly, Prodigy's "Firestarter" (disgracefully, the vicars frown on the latter).
Wilson went backstage at the crematorium to see what happened once the electrically operated curtains had closed on the coffin. "Curiously enough, it's not frightening at all," he said, as he peered through the furnace peephole and then, after the ashes had been through a kind of cement mixer to grind them down, he helped to bag up someone's dear departed. It's quite easy not to be frightened by other people's deaths, of course. Most of us manage that with insouciance. But Wilson also met people who clearly weren't too frightened of their own, including a jaunty pensioner who had designed his own coffin in the shape of a carriage from the Orient Express. Sharing space in the joiner's warehouse with this breezy vehicle were a giant ballet shoe, destined to cosset an amateur dancer, and a giant skateboard bearing the defiant legend "Urban Decay".
It's possible that there was a self-selecting bias to the contributors here. Anybody really terrified of death would have declined to take part, so it was bound to be skewed towards the chipper or the professionally philosophical, people whose daily encounters with the dead make them almost comically at ease with them. "None of us wants to look dreadful," said Sheila Dicks, head of the Salisbury College of Funeral Sciences, "and people don't look well when they've died." Sheila, who runs an embalming school, pumps pink fluid into her clients until they're flush with health again, or at least a chemical substitute. Curiously, it was only towards the end of the programme that the emotional aftermath of a death – rather than the mechanical business of disposal – got a proper representation, with the story of Rab Molloy, whose teenage son abstractedly walked in front of a train while listening to his MP3 player. Rab had buried his boy in his own garden, within earshot of the level crossing where he'd died, and then planted a tree on the spot, in whose curling branches he could see an image of the child he'd loved. It was deeply moving, as was the sequence showing the final send-off for a woman who'd had her ashes mixed into fireworks and was scattered with a bang and a blossom of orange sparks. But both stories suggested that there isn't really a problem with people's attitudes to death, only with the conventions that have grown up about how we mark it.
Nostalgia fans of a certain age are in clover this week ('Ah! Remember the old metaphors we used to have to put up with...!). After Monday night's Upgrade Me had them cooing to each other about old technology, Electric Dreams took us straight back to the Seventies again, in an entertaining series that strips a contemporary family of all their mod cons and replaces them with period inconveniences. For three weeks, the Sullivan-Barneses will time travel, clicking forward a year at a time in an immersive timeline of technological progress. Their house has had a Seventies makeover – plunging them into a maelstrom of brown and orange – and they've all been made to wear tanktops and flared jeans and surrender their mobiles, so that what you get is as much social history as gadget trivia. What made me most nostalgic was the arrival of the television repairman, which got me pompously moralising that there was a time when you mended stuff rather than just binning it. Then, watching the dad warily turn the key in his ancient Ford Cortina on a cold day, I remembered another Seventies technological quality – predictable unreliability – and remembered why the telly repairman have been made redundant.
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