Last Night's Television: A World of Pain: Meera Syal on Self-Harm, BBC2
Calendar Girls: 10 Years On, BBC1
Tales of tears and self-loathing
Alice Jolly is an author, playwrite and teaches creative writing at Oxford University. She is crowd-funding her own memoir of infertility and surrogacy with the publisher Unbound. 50 per cent of the proceeds of the book will be donated to SANDS (The Stillbirth and Neonatal Death Foundation).
Friday 05 June 2009
Halfway through A World of Pain: Meera Syal on Self-Harm I realised that Meera Syal was driving around in a taxi. How odd. That's what they do in The Apprentice, when the week's loser gets carried away to be interviewed by Adrian Chiles. Even odder, though, was the taxi's number plate: "Ouch," it said. Ouch? Talk about an understatement. It was a documentary on teenage self-harm. Hands up who thought a themed number plate a good idea?
In fact, rather like the number plate, much of last night's offering proved to rather, well, miss the point I suppose. Unfortunate, really, given the subject matter. Self-harm is a serious problem in the UK, all too often misunderstood by those in authority. A World of Pain threw up so many interesting possibilities, none of which were explored to any meaningful conclusion. It's a shame, since we started out from such an interesting premise: British Asians, apparently – as well as representing an exceptionally high percentage of graduates – also represent a major part of self-harming "community". Why? We never found out. What we did get, though, was a look back at Meera's turn in Life Isn't All Ha Ha Hee Hee, the drama she wrote several years ago. Apparently, one of the characters used to self- harm. Coincidence? Yes. Relevant? Um, I'm going with a no.
Perhaps this is a little harsh. There were, in truth, some pretty good elements, but they just weren't explored properly. Possibly, the most interesting bit came when we met Dannie, who started self-harming when she was 13. She's sort of amazing: articulate, honest and startlingly self-aware. She is adamant that self-harm is not, as most people think, "a mental-health problem," but, actually, as she puts it, a "coping mechanism". Like smoking, or drinking coffee, a lifestyle choice to help her get by. I'm not so sure – you could say the same for anything, couldn't you? – but it would appear I'm in the minority. Certainly, a lot of the self-harmers we met last night seemed to agree with her, and they would know better than me.
Unfortunately, that's about as good as it got. The rest of the programme passed in a flurry of sideshows. We went to Meera's old university, where one of the staff members – possibly from the Department of Blinding Obviousness – speculated that students self-harmed when they felt "under pressure". We got a look at the Princess Diana interview – "I used to cut my arms and legs" – and learned she was born within days of Meera. And we spent considerable time around the breakfast table with Meera's daughter. If all the BBC meant to do draw attention to the worrying matter of self-harm, then they did that. But that had been accomplished that within the first five minutes, when they tell us one- in-three teenagers do it. If something more was meant, well, it was lost on me, lost among all the little sideshows. Or were the side shows actually the main attraction and the self-harm just a hook? Meera's old TV show, Meera's old university, Meera's date of birth...sometimes it was difficult to tell.
Over on BBC1, things were altogether more cheerful. Look: it's the Calendar Girls: 10 Years On. But where's Helen Mirren? Oh, I see, it's the real calendar girls, not the ones we saw on the big screen. And guess what? They're stripping off again, just like they did 10 years ago, to raise even more money for Leukemia Research.
Everyone knows the their story – vaguely, anyway. We read about it in the papers when it happened, then we watched it on the big screen when Helen et al turned it into a major film. Now, apparently, people are still watching, this time in the form of a hit West End production. And all the time, the money comes rolling in: rolling in and going straight to charity. It's amazing, really. All those years ago, Knapely Women's Institute decided to raise a bit of cash for charity, after the husband of Angela Baker, one of their members, died. Now they've got almost £2 million, with plenty more to come.
What made last night so delightful was the detail. We heard the same old tale of the calendar but also all sorts of other snippets. The girls were inundated with tribute calendars from around the world, each raising money for their own admirable cause. Their postman had to hire a van to start delivering their fan mail, which still floods in, and now, a decade on, they're to shoot another nude calendar ("We might need bigger props this time!"). They are one of Leukaemia Research's biggest fundraisers, heroes, really, in their own right. Not that you'd know it to talk to them. Wise-cracking and giggly, they're just like anyone really. There's certainly no badge of heroism, just the odd sunflower in their lapel. And, in case you're wondering, Helen Mirren did, in the end, make an appearance. "She came round for lunch," giggled Angela. "First, one husband walked past the window, then another. Eventually, we let them in. It was just Helen Mirren and all the husbands."
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