REVIEW : Will the last one out debunk the lights?

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Indy Lifestyle Online
You can tell when a documentary is at pains to sound sober because they stress specific details so earnestly. Anthony Thomas's intriguing film Between Life and Death (ITV) began with the account of David Verdegaal, a businessman who believed he ha d died, seen God, and come back to life - strong stuff for dedicated rationalists, those teetotallers of the spirit.

Thomas tried to keep a clear head by recounting the incident in forensic detail. "After checking into his hotel, he suffered a massive heart attack in this first-floor bedroom." The camera stared at the window, as if some clue to the mystery might be gleaned from Swiss hotel architecture.

As it happened, a window was to be important to the story, providing a beautiful image for Thomas's eventual accommodation between warming mysticism and the chill of scientific fact. It was an odd programme in this respect, tugged to and fro by contradictory instincts. Thomas wanted to do justice to the experiences of those he talked to - all of them transformed by this vision of all-embracing love, of encircling light; he wanted to believe, in other words. On the other hand he couldn't bring himself toignore those who talked of endorphin release and brain structure and "culturally determined hallucinations".

The structure of the programme reflected this in a wistful circularity. Despite providing conclusive evidence for a physiological explanation, for example (jet pilots undergoing centrifuge tests experience very similar symptoms as they black out), the film wouldn't let matters rest, returning to its witnesses for some more of those wonderfully consoling testimonies. Some experts simply capitulate in the face of the consistency of the descriptions. "The grand conclusion I've reached about near death experiences," one psychologist said, "is that people see God when they die."

Lined up against him was a scientist we saw only a few weeks ago pouring cold water on UFO abductions. Now he programmed The Imminent Apprehension of God into his wired-up crash helmet. There was something a little Gothic about him last time, but he rea l ly went for broke on this occasion, pulling a brain out of a glass jar on his desk and slicing it in half with a bread knife to illustrate his theory that brain function might co-exist with a flat-line ECG.

Thomas translated the ugly theory with a parable of beautiful simplicity. Perhaps, he suggested, the mind is like a room and the senses are its window. During daylight the view outside obscures any reflection but as the light fades to darkness what we see is not the world but a reflection of the small lighted room of consciousness. This called to mind the Venerable Bede's image of human life as a sparrow flying into a lighted banqueting hall through one window and out by another. And, for all its rationality, it left the central mystery untouched - why should the human brain choose interior decoration of such consoling charity?

Without Walls (C4) provided another encounter between faith and scepticism. Suzanne Moore had Santa Claus arrested and held in a police cell, to answer charges of corrupting the innocence of Christmas. This is not particularly new - indeed it virtually amounts to a seasonal tradition in some sections of the media - but, when her witnesses weren't falling over each other to state the obvious, Moore handled it with a nice touch. She argued for the dismissal of Santa - American, irretrievably

capitalist and psychologically damaging - and the return of Father Christmas - Bacchic, non-materialist and subversive, a sort of crustie with holly on. And when she laboured up her stairs, weighed down by expensive presents, she spoke directly to a parent's heart. "Who'll get the credit?" she asked. "That fat guy in red."