Last Night's TV: She knew how to make a dramatic exit
The Last Word Monologues, BBC1; Comedy Lab: Headwreckers, Channel 4; Masterchef: The professionals, BBC2
Wednesday 27 August 2008
We all have different ideas of how to round off a nice bank-holiday weekend, but listening to a monologue from a terminally ill woman, rehearsing her final words to her husband while waiting for euthanasia in a clinic in Zurich, is probably not up there in the top 10, even if she is played by the splendid, ever-reliable Sheila Hancock. At the same time, mind you, ITV1 was showing Pierrepoint, about the state-appointed hangman Albert Pierrepoint. It was "death night" on our two main terrestrial channels.
I can honestly say that if it hadn't been for professional responsibilities, I probably wouldn't have watched Before I Call You In, the first of The Last Word Monologues written and directed by Hugo Blick. There are three in all. The second one, transmitted tonight, has Rhys Ifans as a farmer in thrall to his mother, and the third, showing tomorrow, features Bob Hoskins as a hit man waiting for his next victim. I'll probably watch them now. Before I Call You In has whetted my appetite for Blick's clever if occasionally overwrought writing.
That said, the monologue is essentially a theatrical, not a televisual device. With everything that the TV camera can offer, why aim it at one person for half an hour? Of course, there have been plenty of triumphant monologues on TV – take a reluctant bow, Alan Bennett – but it's still a risky venture, relying on more than the confluence of excellent writing and powerful acting. Before I Call You In wasn't a perfect example of the monologue as drama. If I had really believed in Hancock as a dying woman then I would have had a quiet blubber, but wonderful performance though it was, it was manifestly just that, a performance. Also, she looked just a little bit hale and hearty for someone about to shake hands with the Grim Reaper, and that wasn't overcome by plonking her in a wheelchair.
Nevertheless, her slurred speech, punctuated by occasional clarity, was utterly convincing as that of a dying woman, as was the way she shimmied between rueful contemplation of her life and furious resentment of her condition. "I may be losing control of my body, but I'm damned if I'm going to lose control of my life," she spat. It was an eloquent explanation of why people do go to these euthanasia clinics. With not much else going for them, they can at least exercise some choice in the manner and timing of their demise.
But this woman was by no means only concerned with her death. For her final words to her husband she had plenty to rehearse, rebuking him for his annoying habit over 40 years of calling her "mother", and for his tendency to make a single teabag stretch too far, and urging him to marry again, and thanking him for making love to her the night before. Yet when he came back into the room, all she could muster was "I love you". That's when my tear ducts nearly gave way. Blick's script was good at conveying the paradox of death, that it is so momentous and yet so banal. Were euthanasia legal in Britain, Hancock's character reflected, she would like to have ended her life in her beloved back garden, albeit overlooked by the woman at number 32.
Anyway, what finer antidote to terminal illness than up-and-coming comedy? No sooner had the credits (but not quite the tears) rolled on Before I Call You In, than Comedy Lab: Headwreckers began on Channel 4. This was billed as experimental comedy from a team of rising Irish performers and it included a sketch about Jew-hating guards in Nazi concentration camps, and another in which a man beat a surly shop assistant half to death with a tennis racket, and another in which a woman unable to settle her bills allowed the man to whom she owed money to bugger her, in lieu. Needless to add, these sketches contained nuances that cannot be conveyed on the page, but even with nuances they were about as funny as pleurisy. On the other hand, I once panned the first episode of a new sitcom about three Irish priests living somewhere called Craggy Island, so what do I know? All I'll say is that it was Comedy Lab that plunged me into gloom, and the monologue from the terminally ill woman that I found uplifting. Television is full of surprises.
For those of us who go all the way back to the Loyd Grossman era, it is a surprise that they have managed to make quite such a lasting meal of Masterchef, but the new series, Masterchef: the Professionals, in which actual chefs are put to the test by Gregg Wallace and his scary new compadre, Michel Roux Jnr, looks promising. "Will Durham-based Richard's roasted scallops with rocket, crushed peas and potatoes meet the required standards?" They didn't, and Durham-based Richard's goose was cooked, all his professional ambitions undermined in front of a baying nation. Now that was truly heartrending.
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