Television (Review): The strain of mercy and the cost of cure

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The Independent Culture
BY THE end of The Healer (BBC 1), G F Newman's New Age fantasy, I still couldn't quite decide what to make of it, flickering between indignation at the reckless lunacy of its central prescription (turn off the machines, just have faith) and admiration for the way in which the script constantly rocked its own boat. After watching Network First's documentary about coma patients (ITV), which followed immediately, my feelings had clarified considerably, and not in Newman's favour.

Mark Galloway's film, about the treatment of patients in persistent vegetative coma, might almost have been planned as a companion piece to the BBC drama. Issues of mercy and loving hope, of the accountancy of health, of what we mean when we talk of being cured, were central to both films, an apparently insoluble tangle of wishes and hard facts. But where Newman finally unties the knot with a conjurer's flourish, a genuine miracle, Galloway could only record what happens in real life - which is that the knot tightens the more you pull at it. At every turn his film was a rebuke to Newman's politic inventions.

To his depiction of conventional medicine as divorced from human feeling, for one thing. At one point in the drama it is suggested that this is a sort of primal curse, a taint carried over from the suffering of the laboratory animals which underwrite modern medicine. But, even if you have misgivings about the National Health Service or about the mechanistic nature of modern medicine, you couldn't watch Galloway's film without seeing that the institution is powered by human tenderness at every level. Newman's depiction of a world in which a gentle touch is an unconventional procedure is a libel.

And real doctors also seem to have a richer sense of life's complexity than real playwrights. One of the better twists in Newman's play was the healer's apparent 'failure' when attempting to cure a woman suffering from Aids. She actually dies as he lays on his hands, an event which shatters him and those who want proof of his powers. Newman suggests, rightly, that sometimes continued existence is the disease and death is the cure.

But this is hardly a forgotten wisdom, to which all doctors are blind. The idea that coma patients might be 'cured' into something worse was clearly advanced in Network First, with an emotional humility about other people's emotions which Newman might learn from. His play could elevate faith, hope and love as therapies and make it work by writing life to fit; in real life, on the other hand, you could see that maternal love might ensnare you into a terrible existence.

Raymond's Blanc Mange (BBC 2) was disappointing - a slightly unhappy liaison of theory, philosophy and surprisingly elementary practice. I know that simple food is often the best but it still seems mildly perverse to take one of the most inventive cooks in the country and show him making coq au vin and chocolate mousse. It isn't that one wants recipes, exactly - the widespread belief that cookery is a matter of following instructions is one of the reasons it's so unnerving to be asked out for dinner in this country - but if you aren't going to deliver them you really should do the business with technique. Blanc's introductory remarks, about the chemistry of cooking, suggested that he might attempt an education in the processes of cooking, but instead he wandered off to a laboratory, to provide redundant proof that a poulet de Bresse tastes better than a supermarket boiler. In the end, if you really wanted to know how he gets his food to taste the way it does, you were reduced to lip-reading while he talked to the commis-chefs in his own kitchen.