True story: Stephen Hawking once nearly ran me over in his motorised wheelchair on a zebra crossing. I decided not to sue, in recognition of his enormous contribution to theoretical cosmology and having seen Stephen Hawking: a Brief History of Mine (Sat, Channel 4), I’m reassured that this was the right decision.
This was a Hawking autobiography written by Hawking and narrated in his own voice – or rather the voice of the “Equalizer”, a computer that he’s been speaking through since he lost his speech to a life-saving tracheotomy in 1985. “I sometimes wonder if I’m as famous for my wheelchair and disabilities as I am for my discoveries,” he said and he almost certainly is, but as this 105-minute film demonstrated, there’s also a third element to Hawking’s fame: his exceptional character.
It has been the great irony of Hawking’s life to have a mind that only grows in brilliance while his body gradually fades. Through old photographs and the reminiscence of friends, we saw a young, vital Oxford undergrad wither into an old man. As depressing as this was, it was cheering to see how his spirit remained intact. A naturally gregarious type, Hawking has obviously taken great pleasure in his success. “There is nothing like the eureka moment of discovering something nobody knew before,” he told us at one point. “I won’t compare it to sex... but it lasts longer.” Boom boom.
If you wanted to understand the science you’d be better off reading A Brief History of Time, which made him internationally famous and spent four years on the Sunday Times bestseller list. If you wanted to get to know the man, however – his humour and his motivations – this film was full of insight. It was especially good on how his personal life intersected with his work. We learnt how falling in love with his first wife, Jane Wilde, motivated him to achieve his first major discovery; how his illness meant an invasion of PhD students and nurses into their family idyll; and how one of these nurses, Elaine Mason, became his second wife.
This second marriage led to a more intense period of tabloid interest in Hawking, and in deference, perhaps, to the fact that Mason does not appear to give her own account, Hawking didn’t add much to the public record. He describes their marriage as “passionate and tempestuous” and the allegations of domestic violence made against her as “unsubstantiated”. This moment of discretion didn’t stop the film from feeling like an intimate self-portrait. It was probably as close as most of us will get to the real Stephen Hawking, apart from that time he nearly ran me over.