Last Night's Television - Muslim Driving School, BBC2; Girl Who Cries Blood, Channel 4; The Man Who Couldn't Stop Hiccuping, BBC1
Pretty hard to swallow
Wednesday 13 January 2010
What an attractive spice medical confusion is for a certain kind of documentary. Barely seconds had passed in
The Man Who Couldn't Stop Hiccuping before we learned that NHS doctors were "totally baffled" by Chris Sands's problem and the cliché was echoed in the opening moments of Girl Who Cries Blood, where we discovered (surprise, surprise) that Twinkle Dwivedi's condition "defies medical understanding". It's the very first thing that goes into the pot in one of these medical sideshows, reassurance that you're not wasting your time on any common-or-garden oddity. But, as the contrast between these two very different films showed, the spice isn't always the real thing.
Chris Sands's problem might look funny on paper, but it was anything but in real life. "It has ruined my life, pretty much," he said wearily, grabbing an opportunity to speak when he wasn't bent double by spasms or gasping for breath. Convinced that his hiccuping was connected to a chronic problem with acid reflux, Chris had submitted himself to surgery to repair a weak stomach valve, and came round from the anaesthetic to face the deeply undesirable combination of involuntary contractions of the diaphragm and a fresh abdominal wound. "I will once again be able to eat a pepperoni pizza," he said – with the wan cheeriness he'd somehow managed to hold on to – but he still wouldn't be able to do it without hiccuping.
Then Chris attracted the attention of The World's Astonishing News!, a Japanese television show, described by the voiceover here as being "well known for its love of bizarre stories" (uttered as if the moral distinction between Japanese prurience and the British was too obvious to need spelling out). As a result, he spent eight days with Mr Kageyama, a self-taught therapist who flew to Britain on his own ticket and, with the help of a Hello Kitty English-Japanese dictionary, subjected Chris to a variety of alternative therapies, each one more painful and fruitless than the last. When all else had failed, he proposed skewering Chris with a six-inch needle behind the ribcage but was insistent on the need for the patient's compliance: "Iffa he... [and here he did a little pantomime of a squealing flinch]... Sayonara!" Sensibly, Chris declined the treatment.
Dr Kondo, a Tokyo specialist who examined Chris for a follow-up episode of The World's Astonishing News!, was more helpful, identifying a peanut-sized tumour pressing on Chris's brainstem that had been missed on the British scans. Back in Britain, Chris went to see a brisk neurosurgeon who clearly didn't believe in sugar-coating his briefings: "The potential for margin of error here is zero," he said, warning Chris against the possibilities of paralysis and worse. Luckily, Chris was under a general anaesthetic when it came to the critical moment: "Hush now, please," the surgeon told his team, "this is the part of the operation where I kill him." I'm not quite sure what the producers would have done if he really had, but fortunately it was just surgical bombast and Chris made a full recovery. The past tense in the programme's title, I'm glad to say, referred to the hiccups not to Chris.
In Girl Who Cries Blood, we got the operative verb in the present tense, though by the end of this dubious raree show, the only word you could really trust in the title was "girl". An account of a Lucknow teenager, Twinkle Dwivedi, who claims that she spontaneously exudes blood from various parts of her body, the film was artfully angled so that the most obvious explanation – publicity-seeking fraud or Munchausen's syndrome by proxy – was concealed from the viewer for as long as possible. To distract us on the way, we got bits of notionally investigative padding – a section on stigmata when Twinkle went to visit the Bishop of Lucknow, a brisk summary of Ayurvedic theory and Hindu religious practice when she went on pilgrimage and, most insultingly, a beginner's guide to the blood system when she finally fetched up in front of an American haematologist ("The heart pumps this blood through an intricate network of tubes called the blood vessels"). Inspecting Twinkle's gore-smeared face and seeing that there was no blood detectable on the inside of her eyelids, Dr Buchanan tactfully confronted mother and daughter with the possibility that they'd been making the whole thing up."Many other doctors haven't believed you," he said gently, a fact that the programme-makers could easily have shared with us 40 minutes earlier, if they hadn't known full well that it would affect the takings on the gate. Naturally, both denied it, but with an oddity of manner that struck me as being almost as good as a confession.
Muslim Driving School is a Trojan horse programme, notionally just another exercise in fly-on-the-dashboard observational but actually a way of exploring the daily lives of Muslim women. You could say that it aims to give us the human face that too often is concealed behind a veil.
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