TV Reviews: Reputations: Yuri Gagarin and Trust Me,I'm A Doctor

Click to follow
Indy Lifestyle Online
I knew I was getting old when I asked a colleague how to spell Yuri Gagarin and she replied "Who?" Then again Yuri's global fame always did rest on a rather slender pinnacle. He was the first man in space, it's true, but his first time was also his last and his death in a plane crash only a few years later meant that he was never able to buttress his celebrity with subsequent achievements. He long ago entered the low earth orbit of historical curiosity, held aloft by the nostalgia of those who survived him (and, it has to be conceded, a recent mobile phone advertisement).

In Russia general amnesia will naturally take longer to set in. James Doran's film about the cosmonaut (Reputations Special: Yuri Gagarin, 9pm, BBC2) included a scene in which contemporary primary school children showed they had no difficulty identifying him. What's more, it argued that his early death had probably helped to preserve his reputation in its condition of pristine, heroic simplicity. Like the famous memorial to him in Moscow, he was almost immediately transformed into a hood ornament for the clunky limousine of the Soviet state, an uncomplicated emblem of proletarian ascent (he had been chosen for the first flight over an equally eligible colleague because of the ideological purity of his peasant background).

The truth was that he was soon a very unhappy ornament - frustrated to find that he was more valuable on the ground than he was in space; paradoxically his lifelong ambition to fly had brought him to earth as a roving ambassador for Kruschev's repackaged brand of communism. At least under Kruschev he had some power and influence (enough to get him through some embarrassing scandals with women and drink) but after Kruschev was deposed even that disappeared. When the Politburo proved themselves happy to sacrifice cosmonauts for the sake of Soviet pride there was little he could do to stop them. And while he was alive Gagarin's reputation could only wither - the gap between Soviet myth and pudgy, depressive reality growing more conspicuous by the day. Doran's film flirted with the tempting notion that Gagarin's death was too convenient not to be an accident, filming the steel barrels in which the remains of his plane had been sealed and talking to investigators who claimed their reports had been tampered with. But in the end he came down on the side of accident rather than assassination, a decision in keeping with the sober diligence of his research elsewhere, which had turned up an impressive range of contributors - from Gagarin's cosmonaut colleagues to the tractor driver who saw him descend from his historic flight. The result was a film marked by an entirely appropriate sense of bathos; it began with the excitement of aiming at the stars and ended with a man who fell to earth.

Trust Me, I'm A Doctor (8pm, BBC2), which has just ended its current run, almost always contradicts its own titular request. A better title - save for the reassuringly wry presence of Phil Hammond - would be Don't Trust Them Just Because They're Doctors. In last night's episode, for example, we learned that only eight out of 57 centres dealing with cleft palate surgery count as "good to excellent", that British urologists are unnecessarily cautious about a highly effective treatment for bladder cancer using live bacteria (you end up passing what looks like seaweed in your urine but that seems a small price to pay for a cure) and, most shocking of all, that GPs can practise non-touch healing without being struck off for a breach of professional ethics (this last was an untypically unsatisfactory item, which could only fight credulous anecdote with sceptical anecdote). The programme's fact sheet is called the "Good Patient Guide" but this is a little misleading too, because what the series does is to provide you with enough information to resist the economies or the inertia that can limit the curative powers of doctors. Enough information to become a bloody awkward patient, in short.