Carol Sarler: Saunders beat the medi-porn merchants, too

Admiration for a star who spared us her tale of taking on cancer

Sunday 11 July 2010 00:00
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It cannot possibly be other than good news that Jennifer Saunders, recently threatened by cancer, now appears to be well. It is a pity, therefore, that the reporting of this has borne a whiff of petulance, as if not only has death been cheated, but so have we.

What clearly irks some observers is that Miss Saunders' tribulations have only now come to light, almost a year after diagnosis and with the treatment behind her. She has conducted, they say, a "secret" battle; she even attended Wimbledon in what we belatedly discover was a wig and a bandana designed to "hide" the "truth" of her illness. In short, by concealing her affliction, she denied us the grim but hellishly juicy detail; her cancer as a soap opera, her chemotherapy as its brutish star.

It is not a denial to which we are these days accustomed. In my mother's time, should anyone be "under the doctor", it was considered impertinent to enquire further; since then, however, many in the public gaze have invited us to a blow-by-blow: John Diamond, Ruth Picardie, Dina Rabinovitch and Jade Goody walked us through every step to the grave. Diaries of alcoholics, blast victims, motor neurone and other chronic sufferers are layered thickly upon our newsprint. And who would begrudge the sick their catharsis if that is what their chronicles provide?

But with every respect to those who choose to lay themselves bare, there is a chasm between a choice and a duty to do so. Saunders is said to have opted for secrecy – a word hand-picked with a nod to the pejorative – when all she really did was opt for privacy which, we risk forgetting, is her absolute entitlement. Further: it might even be, for her and for us and no pun intended, the healthier option.

Public fascination with disease is renowned; just look at the hospital drama series, home-grown and imported, that are mainstays of television output. But the prurience that feeds upon this medi-porn is a greedy beast; the fictional screams of "get the crash cart", the yumpy-bumps of the "paddles" – stand clear, everyone! – and the ominous whine of the flat line become insipid after the first hundred. Something closer to reality tastes like fresher meat, so the trials of the columnist or actor you feel you know, even though you don't, lend extra piquancy.

Most piquant of all, however, by obvious extension, is the poorly person you actually do know; having a real-life pal stricken by critical condition is like Holby City in HD. You may now ask with impunity for every grisly symptom; after all, if a distant star of stage or screen dishes it up for your delectation, what right has an old friend to starve your curiosity? And if that sounds heartfelt, it is.

Last year, for a while, I became unwell. It showed – I was paler, thinner – and many people, with the kindest of intentions, mentioned it. For which courtesy, no complaints; I mind only the (large) number of those who found my desire for privacy plainly perverse and fought it. On my side was an implacable feeling that my insides were my insides and deserved the right to stay there; on the opposing side were acquaintances who simply would not allow, "Don't worry, under the weather, better soon, rather not talk about it."

Even when so firmly told, many would wheedle for more intimate detail: "You need to talk," cried one. (My need? Or her want?) Another chided, as if I had reneged on a quid pro quo: "But I told you about my heart!" Yes, he did. He chose to do so. I chose not.

Those who go public, as well as those who relish the gore, declare a similar high-mindedness: nobody is an attention-seeker, they only want to "help" others in the same boat; nobody is plain nosy, they only want to "help" others by allowing them to unburden. Thus sickness becomes acceptable social currency, and those who do not wish to deal in it become, de facto, anti-social.

As it happens, I was nothing like as unwell as Jennifer Saunders; I know, however, that if her misfortune were to befall me I would do as she did and turn inwards, taking succour from the very few. Everyone will be pleased that she is feeling better; I am especially pleased that, in the process, she proved that even if you are a doyenne of the performing arts, life is not always a show that must go on.

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