A Boy Called Alex was broadcast as part of Channel 4's Cutting Edge series, though cutting-edge is the last thing you'd call it. Doesn't that imply something new about either the subject or the treatment? This was an example of one of the most venerable genres of all, the "achievement in the face of suffering" documentary, and there was nothing remotely clever or original about the way Stephen Walker approached his subject. This is not a complaint, though. Cleverness would have been redundant, when all Walker had to do was stick a camera in front of Alex Stobbs and watch his life unfold.
Alex, who turned 17 while the film was being made, is a brilliant musician: pianist, organist, conductor and, so far as his health allows, singer. His health doesn't allow much, though. One of the most distressing moments in the film came when Alex, visiting hospital for a check-up, blew into an apparatus designed to measure lung function. You could hear the bubbling of fluid in his chest as he exhaled. Alex has cystic fibrosis, a condition in which the lungs fill up with mucus and are perpetually prone to devastating infection. The form he has is particularly destructive, and is also eating away at his digestive system. He is kept functioning by large quantities of medication, not so much a cocktail of drugs as a daily drinks cabinet. Early on, his mother showed off a kitchen table piled high with boxes and cylinders, representing his weekly intake (hence the stupid slogan on newspaper adverts for this programme, "He's taken more drugs than Pete Doherty" – a joke that isn't funny to start with, and doesn't get any better when you get acquainted with the context). But this doesn't always work. He fell seriously ill twice during the three months that Walker was filming. The first time, his nurse came up to his bedroom at school in the morning to discover him covered with blood, which he had been coughing up all night – he hadn't wanted to disturb anybody.
That's the suffering part. As for the achievement: the film followed Alex as he prepared to conduct his school's choir and orchestra in Bach's Magnificat, a huge and complex piece of music for any 17-year-old, or, indeed, any adult, and his absolute comfort in front of an orchestra, the genial authority with which he corrected their tempi, was remarkable. We didn't get to hear much of the final performance, but what we got sounded impressive. More impressive yet, though, was Alex's demeanour. He was vastly intelligent, perpetually good-humoured, at no point lapsing into either self-pity or its charming but evil twin, fatalism. I was going to say he was indifferent to his illness, but that's probably wrong: very few 17-year-olds are this free from moods or self-pity. I would guess Alex's cheerfulness was a quite conscious piece of defiance.
While Alex was rather wonderful, though, the film left me dissatisfied.
That was partly because it wasn't prepared to let well alone. When Alex
was taken into intensive care with a serious infection, we were treated to a wholly unnecessary outbreak of sad music and slow-motion shots of
Alex smiling and having fun with his friends. And Walker didn't interrogate at all another aspect of Alex's life: he's at Eton, on a music scholarship (we were told that his parents, while visibly prosperous, couldn't possibly have paid for him). I'd have liked to know more about how that felt: the comparatively poor boy at the rich school, living in a paradoxical bubble of privilege and pain.
Meanwhile, I've fallen prey to the charms of Pop on Trial. The format
couldn't be stupider. Guests debate the merits of pop in a particular decade, and viewers can then vote on which was the most "vibrant and
influential decade" in the history of pop. What puts it ahead of the usual 100 Best/nostalgia codswallop are a presenter, Stuart Maconie, with a brain and genuinely interesting guests. The Seventies programme had Pete Shelley of the Buzzcocks, now looking like somebody's geography-teacher dad. Last night was about the Nineties, a decade that seems to be trying to pretend it was the Sixties (the decade that, if you remember it, you weren't really there). Goldie, king of jungle music, claimed the whole decade was a "blur" – no Britpop pun intended – for him, while the music journalist Paolo Hewitt, biographer of Oasis, says he met the Gallagher brothers in 1994 and couldn't remember anything between then and 1998. Fortunately, Caitlin Moran had kept a clear head and had some acute things to say about, for example, Robbie Williams, a man who wasn't even sure if he had a soul, and was therefore the perfect mirror of the age.
What was most entertaining was hearing, after all the chat about hip- hop, trip-hop and grunge, what records the public was actually buying. The decade's top five were (not in order) Cher, Robson and Jerome, Elton John ("Goodbye, England's Rose"), Wet Wet Wet and Aqua ("Barbie Girl"). It's not creditable, let alone credible, but at least we can pat ourselves for not putting Celine Dion or Bryan Adams right at the top.Reuse content