Last Night's TV: In Loving Memory, BBC2
The Bionic Vet, BBC1
The Private Life of Cows, BBC2
Thursday 08 July 2010
In Loving Memory, Alison Millar's film about the commemorative shrines you increasingly see by roadsides these days, began with a piercing recollection; a mother sitting in her car and remembering the day she opened the door to two policemen who – ominously – had all the time in the world. She wasn't about to be rushed to an intensive care ward because her 18-year-old daughter was already dead. And there was worse: "I want to go and see her because she's my daughter," Rebecca Taylor's mother remembered thinking, "and the next thing is I can't go and see her because she's burnt... beyond recognition burnt." "I just wanted to bath her and dress her and hand her on to the next person," she added a little later, her voice, as it did many times tightening to a thread that strained but never quite broke. And denied the opportunity to say goodbye that way, Nicole Taylor's grief flowed into other channels, including one of those tender little eyesores that accumulate at the site of fatal accidents.
Some people – astonishingly – only see the rubbish and not the tenderness, getting sufficiently het up about faded flowers and rain-spackled cards to call in the council or do some surreptitious clearance themselves. Councils, understandably, are a bit uncertain about this extension of an essentially private sorrow into a public space, particularly when it takes the form of an inscription graffitied on a car-park wall with black spray paint. But for the bereaved themselves it appears to offer an important ritual. Millar's film got a bit bogged down in the academic sociology of this phenomenon, giving rather too much airtime to a researcher called Gerri Excell, who appeared every now and then to offer underpowered analyses of what was going on. The mourners of the dead were, she explained earnestly at one point, "taking emotional ownership of the place where they died."
I don't really think you need a research grant to work that out. What might have been a bit more interesting was to explore the odd allure of these ceremonies for those outside the immediate circle of grief – the sense that in paying ostentatious respect to a friend who's gone they're giving a sharper salience to their own continued life. There's an almost Facebook-like pressure to be represented in some way in this excitingly solemn social space. That would have needed quite a lot of nerve, though, in a film that was heavy with raw and authentic grief, and it was probably at its best in just letting you see how memorials allow people to blunt the fiercely cutting edge between a person being here one moment and gone the next. That was clearly what was going on with the most elaborate of the memorials – an inscribed bench that had replaced the usual lamppost cairn of teddies and bouquets and become a teenage gathering place. The parents of the boy who had died (after a hit-and-run incident involving a stolen car) had a shrine at home, where they collected the odd funerary offerings laid at the public memorial (including cash and a Cadbury's chocolate Flake). But the bench was the place where Obie still met up with his friends.
I know that Noel Fitzpatrick, the Bionic Vet, is supposed to be some kind of hero – brilliantly intervening to drag horribly damaged animals back from the brink with titanium back legs or pioneering knee surgery. But I can't help feeling there's something a tiny bit creepy about his drive, and the messianic way that he talks about blending human and animal medicine. Did he just miss out on getting into medical school, or something? And isn't there something oddly aggressive about the way he defends the ethical basis of his interventions? "Why should I not give Charlie the right to a pain-free life on four legs?" he demanded, as he prepared to replace a labrador's cancerous leg bone with a complicated bit of surgical metalwork. Why not indeed, though since Charlie was going to have to go straight on to chemotherapy and was pretty much certain to die of secondary cancers within two years, the definition "pain-free life" was surely a bit tendentious. Even more strikingly, Sasha, an arthritic dog, first had to go through surgery for her crocked knee and then endure the "excruciating pain" that occurred when it went wrong.
"There's no doubt in my mind that it was for the welfare of the dog," said Charlie's owner, after his expensive surgery had been completed. There's no doubt in my mind that his owner had the best of intentions, but humans are very adept at displacing their own desires and wishes on to animals that don't have much choice in the matter, and human happiness (not to mention human ambition) was playing a much bigger part in these decisions than anyone was inclined to admit.
A similar kind of wishful double-think was in evidence in The Private Life of Cows. "You could argue that cows are using us," Jimmy Doherty concluded at the end of this exploration of the inner-life of the animal. "They've adapted to our lifestyles and as a result they've spread around the world." Thus, enslavement is refigured as a kind of mutually agreed symbiosis, which presumably makes us all feel better about the fact that if any of the cows default on their one-sided contract they're straight off to the abattoir to be turned into hamburger. Fortunately, I don't think cows fret too much about this – the experiments on their brain power suggested they won't be negotiating better terms anytime soon.
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