Last night's viewing - Great Ormond Street, BBC2; Celebrity Exposed, Sky Arts 1
Arifa Akbar is literary editor of The Independent and i newspapers. She has worked at The Independent since 2001 as a news reporter and arts correspondent before joining the books desk in 2009. She was a judge for the Orwell Prize for books 2013, and the Fiction Uncovered Prize 2014, and is currently judging the Aesthetica Magazine new writing prize.
Wednesday 09 May 2012
A documentary about children with cancer can only mean one thing: tears, in bucket-loads. I braced myself for an hour of overwrought emotions as I sat down to watch Great Ormond Street, so it was surprising, even unnerving, that this first episode in a new documentary series following the treatment of children with cancer at the famed London hospital, didn't make its audience cry. That's not to say that it didn't make us feel – it did – but not at the expense of taking us through the complex intellectual, medical and moral choices the adults around these ill children face.
Luna, aged four, and Shiani, aged five, both had brain cancers while Barnabus, aged two, had a tumour in his chest. It was clear that the parents were prepared to do whatever they had to do, embracing the most experimental or aggressive of treatments, however slim the chances. What seemed more difficult, in the face of continually developing drug treatments, was knowing when to stop. Dr Antony Michalski, a kind-faced child oncologist, summarised the predicament. "It's so understandable that you are going to do everything in your power as a parent to hunt down a cure, but where that becomes a futile exercise is a difficult line."
Luna's story illustrated just how difficult a line it could be. She had lived with her cancer for two years and the tumour remained unbeatable. It was the scenario of containment rather than cure that led her mother to the controversial Burzynski clinic in Texas against Dr Michalski's wishes. The doctor kept his protests gentle when talking to Luna's mother, with lines like "well, you know how I feel about this", but reflecting on camera afterwards, he sharply criticised the distorted hope that such clinics offered parents. At one point, he said: "There comes a time when you know, realistically, children in a given situation are unlikely to be cured.... [it's about] walking the walk with them."
It was certainly difficult to watch Luna, wheezing and gulping down water after her treatment in Texas, which made her look worse rather than better. Shiani's parents had their own awful dilemma to handle. They were invited to embark on a high-risk treatment that was only administered to the worst cases and that could cure her or kill her with its high dose chemotherapy. Her parents were shown Googling the treatment and discovering stark statistics in one German study in which three survived out of 29 on the treatment. It wasn't just a matter of life or death either. These children, if they survive, may well face setbacks for the rest of their lives. Shiani's operation effectively meant taking a lump out of her brain, which would lead to learning disabilities later in life. A deeply absorbing hour that highlighted the random nature of child cancer and the quiet heroism of the professionals and parents who tread the difficult line.
Richard Young is considered to be Britain's first celebrity photographer and a "life and times" documentary Celebrity Exposed showed him to be something of a Gentleman Pap in the mid Seventies – he was known for his discretion and good manners, ready to put down his camera if a compromised celebrity asked him to. Which pap would do the same if Cheryl Cole asked today? Yet his legacy can be felt in the hungry packs of long-lens paparazzi on scooters today, as David Bailey reflected: "I suppose it opened the floodgates to all this awful celebrity business."
Back at the birth of British pap-dom, Young took on the advice of his father, a market-stall merchant, and applied it to photographing the stars: "If you're nice to people, if you are polite to them, you will get back just as much as you put in." Before Young, photographers didn't pitch up to the Dorchester or the Ritz, and they certainly didn't strike up mutually beneficial pacts with celebrities. Vivienne Westwood's words captured the innocence of a bygone age: "I had heard of the word paparazzi but I thought they were all Italian."
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