Such sweetened sorrow

Julie Myerson
Saturday 02 September 1995 23:02

KATIE and Eilish Holton were born joined from shoulder to hip, with four arms and two shared legs. Each had her own heart and spinal column but shared one pelvis, one large bowel, one bladder and one kidney. Soon after surgeons separated them in 1992, at the age of three, Katie died of heart failure - it transpired that she had a weak heart and the operation had effectively saved Eilish.

Now, with her special lightweight prosthetic leg from Oklahoma, six- year-old Eilish can walk, kick a ball, and attend the local school. Though disabled - and still undergoing surgery - she's astoundingly mobile and, crucially, an individual.

A fascinating subject, full of "but what"s and "surely"s. Unfortunately, Mark Galloway's Life Without Katie (ITV) - a follow-up to his earlier film about the separation of the twins - was maddeningly unchallenging, uninformative and undemanding: Hello!-style documentary at its flaccid, cutesy-wutesy worst.

Parents, teachers, surgeons grinned, till your own jaws ached in furious sympathy, and reeled off all the usual cliches: she's so "outgoing", has a "great sense of humour", is "impish", a "lovely little personality", "very positive", "brave" and everything was "just marvellous".

You wanted to shake them by the shoulders and say, fine, but now tell us: how has she been affected by the sheer bodily loss of Katie? Is she toilet-trained? How have the rest of the family (three sisters) coped? Will her growth rate ever catch up? That "place" which wasn't healing all that well - which place? And sorry, but, well, when they shared out the organs, who got the vagina?

Diagrams would have sufficed to answer some of these questions. Horizon or Cutting Edge would have managed it with tact and aplomb and left you amazed at nature's complexity.

Instead, we got endless shots of ducks on the pond, bland, piano-accompanied footage of Irish trees dappled with sunlight, cows, shopping malls, the Holtons' garden and pointlessly scudding clouds. Instead, the parents (so admirably, lovingly stoic in the first film) just got saintlier and smilier and ever more irritating, and the motivation behind some of the scenes became disquietingly dubious.

Can Eilish really gain, for instance, by being dragged off to America to meet some still conjoined twins? "Very emotional," Dad felt upon seeing them, but what about Eilish? Are they really doing her any favours, I wondered darkly, as her brave and serious little face alighted on Abigail and Brittany Hensel with their shared body and two heads? Wasn't this an experience we were encouraged to feel she'd put behind her?

Maybe the Holtons have talked this through, maybe they would insist that these visits are genuinely therapeutic - whatever, Galloway's treatment did them no favours. But, hey, it's great footage and - who knows? - maybe the film was bankrolling the whole trip (which included the fitting of a new leg).

Call me cynical, but there was only one brief moment which came close to telling us what Life Without Katie was truly like, and that - unsurprisingly - came from Eilish herself. When she and her sisters were asked what they remembered about Katie, one said: "She had freckles." Eilish quickly added, "So did I," and then corrected herself, "So do I. I still do" - and for a wobbly and lucid second I glimpsed her confusion, her agonisingly unique experience of having once been part of something that was two. And, yes, I was moved.

If Galloway's film barely got started, then Joe and Harry Gantz's Taxicab Confessions (BBC 2) went the whole way, if only thanks to its relentless whorishness.

Passengers in a late-night New York taxicab bared their souls to the driver, unaware that they were being recorded for posterity. Or art. Or was it just TV?

Nearly all the passengers were picked up in the small hours outside dives, and maybe that was the trouble. None was exactly sober and the drivers (clearly hired for their Oprah-style technique) steered them along dark avenues and directly on to Sex or Death. Truly, if anyone wanted to talk about the weather, they didn't stand a chance.

There was the beautiful, stoned lesbian, so seductively encouraged by the (female) driver that it was hardly surprising she ended up draped over the front seat, saying, "I have a kind of an urge to see you naked." Bull's-eye.

And the octogenarian, who took out his fiddle and sweetly played "Yankee Doodle" and would doubtless have settled for that until the driver demanded outright: "How many women you been with?"

Of course, people are tragic and funny and tragically funny, and so was the film. There was the sick, homeless man whose pregnant girlfriend had died - "Now you tell me life is fair." He poured out the story of his "10,000 nervous breakdowns" as though he'd never stop, only to sit back and say laconically: "I'd rather not talk about it."

But the best were the five feisty girls out on the town - squeezing into the cab with their big hair and make-up and giggling femaleness. Their quips on married life ("Love it" - "It sucks") and their joyously, uninhibitedly non-stop sexual innuendo actually came close to embarrassing the driver. And I was all for that.

Someone should tell Carrie Fisher that to wisecrack "instead of families, we have shrinks and lawyers and trainers", when you're face down being massaged on a Hollywood poolside, just doesn't come over as all that detached and ironic.

All right, so at least she seems to know that she's screwed up, but if so why doesn't she just get out? No one's asking her to live in a mansion in Beverly Hills, after all.

Carrie On Hollywood (BBC 1) spewed out all the well-worn, but ever-engrossing grotesqueries: the sleazy, white-loafered agent who "nurtures" young act- resses called Tiffany; the vet telling the pet-owner: "She doesn't know she has a cardio problem and you don't need to tell her"; the art collector who weeps because she's "so close" to her dogs - one was struck down when a sculpture fell on it during the earthquakes. (There is a God.)

I could go on, but do we really need to be told how unattractive, how dull - how mindless - LA's inhabitants are?

Satire requires hate and anger and distance. The best and funniest currently on TV has to be John Bird and John Fortune in The Long Johns (C4) - simple, impeccably acted "conversations" between men in suits.

In the first of the new series, Bill Coburn (John Fortune), Post Office chairman, explained to a head-scratching interviewer (John Bird) why the GPO is probably under threat from alien lifeforms who "may have spotted this niche in the market".

The trick - the hilarity - lies in the meticulously straight faces (the odd, near-corpsing quivering lip only keeping us on tenterhooks), the exact vocabulary, the perfectly observed body language.

If only all those much-interviewed talking heads would sit down and watch this. They would never again be able to bring themselves to say: "Now let me just stop you there" - let alone justify the next privatisation - with a straight face.

Truth is always beautiful.

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