The Weekend’s Television: Michael Portillo: Death of a schoolfriend, Fri, BBC2, Walter's War, Sun, BBC4

When everybody hurts
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I sometimes wonder how people who appear on television treat their own programmes – do they insist on gathering the family round the set to gaze and admire, or do they avert their eyes from modesty or embarrassment?

My guess is that Michael Portillo, at least, will have steered well clear of his set this weekend, though not, I hope, because he was embarrassed.

I had half-expected that Michael Portillo: Death of a Schoolfriend would be a morbid slice of celebrity reminiscence; but it turned out to be something far more impressive and important.

Rather than television exploiting celebrity, it was an example of a celebrity using the resources granted him by television in order to explore a personal personal tragedy, and to find some consolation for people who are, 40 years after the events it recounted, still grief stricken.

The film’s central figure in this remarkable film was Gary Findon, one of the cleverest boys in an exceptionally clever form at Harrow County Grammar. A form photo, from what must have been their first year, showed Gary, the young Portillo (easily recognisable by the twist of the mouth), Clive Anderson (harder to make out under a full head of hair) and the comedy producer Geoffrey Perkins.

Gary was, so far as his contemporaries were concerned, intelligent, funny, a highly gifted musician, apparently happy; but four days before his 16th birthday, in June 1969, he committed suicide by drinking beer and swallowing sleeping pills – lightning from a clear sky.

That was an end of it, as far as Portillo was concerned, until eight years ago he received another bolt: a letter, addressed to him at the House of Commons, from Gary’s mother, Jeanette, asking if he remembered her son. He invited her to tea, and she talked about Gary at length – the first time since his death, she said, that she had had the opportunity to speak about him with somebody who knew him well. In a suicide note that Gary’s mother didn’t find until she could bring herself to make his bed, weeks after his death, he told his parents not to be sad.

The film seems to have grown from Portillo’s sense of the impossible naivety of that kindly meant injunction, of how grief lingers. Early on, Gary’s father, Ronnie, who is now 80, warned, “Don’t believe anyone who says time heals”, while Jeanette talked of the strain of showing one face to the world, then every night crying at home – still, 40 years on. When Ronnie, a jazz musician, found himself working alongside a trumpeter called Gary, years after his son’s death, he couldn’t bring himself to say the name; Jeanette’s father didn’t mention him till the day he died. The scale of the injury done to a parent by a child’s death is easily grasped, in outlineat any rate; the depth of hurt to Gary’s brother, Andy, who was 12 at the time, was harder to measure.

He only knew what others had told him about the weeks after Gary’s death – he had blotted everything out. His sense of his place in the family had been diminished.

Jeanette remembered the pain of hearing him practise the piano, the same pieces that Gary had played. Andy intuited her pain, but thought that it must be because he played so badly compared with his brilliant older brother. Both he and Ronnie admitted that their relationship had suffered. Ronnie said that they “got along” but didn’t have the bond that father and son should have; Andy recalled how, in his teens, he started playing gigs with his father, in the expectation that this would bring them together; instead, he was left with memories of long, wordless car journeys.

And later, when Andy and his wife had two sons, Jeanette and Ronnie kept their distance, unable to tolerate the reminder of Gary. Man hands on misery to man, it deepens like a coastal shelf. Around these central sorrows were the lighter sorrows of friends and teachers: the Russian teacher who had come across a message Gary had scrawled in Russian on a blackboard, “I want to die”, and had jokily dismissed it as pre-exam nerves; the piano teacher at the Royal Academy who, the day of his suicide, had pompously (in his own estimation) told the boy he was too young to understand the full misery of a Chopin Prelude.

And there were Anderson, Portillo and Perkins – I did wonder whether there were other, less starry friends who might have wanted to contribute, but they spoke seriously enough.

And, of course, the film had a dispiriting coda: after it was made, Geoffrey Perkins, who among many other treasurable things produced the original radio series of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, was killed in a traffic accident, earning his own tribute on Saturday night’s Comedy Connections.

On Remembrance Sunday, Walter’s War told the story of Walter Tull, the first black commissioned officer in the British Army, who died in the First World War. Kwame Kwei-Armah’s play was an efficient-enough commemoration, but any sense of the life was swamped by clichés. So in the usual manner, snobbery became a consciously exercised cruelty on the part of the upper classes, rather than an internalised, intuitive sense of barriers, and the sergeant major training Tull even opted for the Full Metal Jacket clichés about treating your rifle like a woman.

A drama not about what Tull might have been like, but what we would want him to have been like.

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