Last Night's TV: Autistic Driving School, BBC3
The Landscape Man, Channel 4
Welcome to Lagos, BBC2
Friday 30 April 2010
I wrote an article once," chuckled Julia, a driving instructor from Leicester. "It was called 'Watch Out, Autistic Drivers About!'." Did you know that autistic drivers are allowed on the road? I'm not sure I did, but then I'm not sure I'd ever thought about it. If I had, I suppose I would have assumed that they drove just like anyone else – why ever not? Though whether or not that is to underestimate the challenge faced by Julia's pupils is another question entirely.
Judging from Autistic Driving School on BBC3 last night, the answer is probably yes. "You can't just give a straightforward instruction," she explained. If she told one of her pupils to just "go straight over", for example, they would plough straight over the roundabout.
Julia is particularly well placed to understand the challenges. She is, after all, autistic herself. Thanks to a late diagnosis, much of her youth was spent on the receiving end of taunts: "ugly", "spastic", you know the drill. Now, though, she's flying high. With her encyclopaedic knowledge of road signs, and a formidably latter-life confidence, she has become an authority on teaching. As well as lecturing college students on the importance of understanding autism, she trains other driving instructors in dealing with autistic pupils. It's quite a sight to behold. Julia fake-panicking, the horrified instructor trying to calm her down, before she breaks into a grin and congratulates them on their handling of the situation.
Driving, it seems, can be particularly therapeutic for those with autism. Chris, for instance, claimed not to know much about his condition ("My mum knows about that stuff, I don't") and would like to be a professional driver some day. He has been racing for years. The speed gives him the kind of freedom that his day-to-day life lacks. Of course, when it comes to passing your driving test, that's not always a good thing. Most of his lessons consisted of his instructor telling him to slow down. Still, when it came to the crunch, he passed, first time at that, and with only one minor fault. "Do you think people would be shocked if they knew autistic people were on the road?" an interviewer asked Julia at the end. "Ha!" she laughed "Probably!" Well, they shouldn't.
The Landscape Man is a sort of Country House Rescue/My Dream Farm hybrid. Except it's not nearly as fun as either, mainly because our Landscape Man (Matthew Wilson) possesses neither Ruth Watson's blunt-bobbed authoritarianism, nor Monty Don's doe-eyed charm. I'm not sure what he's got, really, other than a job at the RHS. Not that he's bad – he's not. It's just that landscaping isn't as fantasy-ready as the rest of those TV concepts. Who doesn't have fantasies about moving to the countryside? Or living in a fabulously large country house and renovating it to all its pristine, profit-turning glory? Personally, though, I've never daydreamed about digging. Or diggers. At a stretch, maybe, I might have fantasised about owning an enormous garden with an enormous lake, which is just as well really because that's what Jason and Demetra Lindsay, the homeowners Matthew was trying to help last night, wanted.
They live in a ginormous Queen Anne house in Essex, which they inherited and have managed to keep afloat by hosting weddings in the grounds. All the resources that they'd ploughed into that, though, meant that they had none left for their gardens.
So, it was up to Wilson to impart his wisdom over a series of visits, in between leaving the Lindsays to get on with the hard slog. The hardest part, apparently, was their ambition to build a six-foot fishpond. The high point of drama came when they realised that a piping fault meant that the damn thing would only fill halfway (gripping stuff, this). Happily, all ended well: they got their pond, a new spot to picnic, and Wilson looked like the hero. I'd bet good money that the rest of the series will conclude similarly, though I'm not sure I've got the stamina to follow it up.
The third and final episode of Welcome to Lagos took us to the city's beach slums, where we met Esther, who, along with hundreds of others, lives in a state of permanent uncertainty. Their settlements are illegal, though they are vigilant in keeping them in order, and any day, one of the city's task forces might do away with them. It was, however, a tale of two sides. As well as Esther and her husband of six years, Segun, we met Sagede, of the city's State Environmental and Special Offences Enforcement Unit. Responsible for demolishing dwellings like Esther's, he saw himself as a progressive, reforming the city for the better. "One day, people will compare us to London," he grinned. You can understand his fervour; even those living illegally do. "Aside from the fact that my shop is involved," grinned one slum inhabitant. "It is a welcome development."
Still, it was Esther who was the heroine. Like every individual we've followed in this series, she was remarkable: spirited, ambitious, determined. During the course of the programme, her marriage disintegrated; not that it did anything to dampen her aspirations. One day, she swore, she would work her way out of the slum, become "a professional teacher or work in the communications industry". The entire series has been fascinating, and this conclusion was no anti-climax.
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