The Sunday Times, Uncategorized

July 29th, 2007

A man’s death is not a spectacle for TV

The problem with reality television is its invasion of privacy and modesty without being true to life or even truthful

There is no more awesome reality than death. That is why it was bound to appear sooner or later, despite the taboo surrounding it, on reality television.

It has already appeared once on British television, in a 1998 documentary by Professor Robert Winston, which showed the very minute at which a man expired. Now it is about to be seen again, in a forthcoming ITV documentary made by Paul Watson, in which a man with Alzheimer’s dies in the presence of his wife and a television crew. Programmes like these, which are generally agreed to be high minded and well made, are not usually called reality television. The phrase “reality television” is now almost a term of abuse.

But that is surely what these rather superior films are. Anyone who is interested in privacy and truth must find them alarming, or at least a depressing reminder of a general loss of the sense of intimacy.

There is a case to be made for Paul Watson’s film. He is a long-standing and trusted friend of the dying man and his wife, Malcolm and Barbara Pointon, and had already made a film about them, when Malcolm’s Alzheimer’s was first diagnosed. With that film and in the years since then, Barbara Pointon has campaigned gallantly and effectively for better treatment of Alzheimer’s. She and Paul Watson both feel that this film will continue their work.

So far, so good, and one can only feel admiration and gratitude. It was brave, and it must have been hard, to let strangers see some of the distress that this terrible illness inflicts on all concerned. Perhaps it was less hard to let them record some of the good experiences, but it may have been helpful to many viewers who also face Alzheimer’s.

To see tenderness and courage in the face of illness and approaching death, to see enduring love – the Pointons were married for more than 40 years – must surely be encouraging to other people, whether in fiction or in fact, when it is skilfully represented. By general agreement, this lifts the programme to the moral high ground.

However, at this point the case breaks down. Showing the moments of Malcolm’s death is another matter entirely. Death is one of the most solemn and most intimate moments of life, and there are good reasons for the traditional feeling that strangers have no business there, least of all millions of total strangers who are simply whiling away an idle evening with the goggle box.

That doesn’t mean that nobody should be present at the hour of death or that it should be shrouded in mystery, or that we should be shielded from it. Doctors and nurses and priests may be needed and wanted, and so may wider family and friends, as well those who are most loved.

There are many traditions surrounding death beds, often including many people, and they all exist to mark the solemnity of death and to give comfort to the dying and to those who are about to be bereaved. None of them exists to allow the curiosity of strangers, still less to excite it. Death is not a moment for rubbernecking; there is something of the snuff movie about even the most delicately filmed death rattle.

The film-maker has said that he doesn’t want people to be frightened of death. Apparently Malcolm Pointon’s death was surrounded by peace and tenderness, and was, despite his earlier suffering, perhaps the death that we might all hope for. All the same we cannot possibly know what kind of death is waiting for each of us. The idea that that one can domesticate and demystify death by broadcasting one particular good death – seems to me absurd.

Besides, we should be frightened by death. Death is a fearful thing. The fear of it defines our lives, as we lead them, and its enormity gives us plenty of reasons to examine our lives before the appointed hour arrives. Insofar as we are able to contemplate death, we have constant opportunities to do so. We have the deaths of those around us, and the entire discussion of death in literature, art and music and of course in religion. It’s not necessary to invade the privacy of a total stranger to reflect seriously on death.

It is a racing certainly that when respectable television breaks the taboo about showing real live death, so to speak, it will not be long before less respectable television feels free to break it too. And what’s wrong with reality television – all of it – is not just that some of it is trivial, tasteless and sensational. It manages to invade people’s privacy and modesty and exploit people’s prurience without being real at all – without being either true to life or truthful in the way fiction can.

People do not behave in front of the camera as they do in real life. The presence of the camera drains everything of reality. Directors have to keep staging, restaging and selecting things. Anyone who’s worked in documentaries, as I have, will know there’s usually no other way of getting the good stuff in the can: “Could you just pick up the phone and receive the bad news once again, love” is the stuff of documentary making.

Almost everybody understands this now and is complicit in it. What they are doing when they agree to appear on reality television of any kind, from worthy to unworthy, is to present a reality that they prefer, to manipulate the reality of their experiences and their characters as far as possible, for one motive or another. Sometimes it’s just the simple need for attention. Often the motives are more sophisticated or more commercial.

That’s perfectly obvious from watching Big Brother; everyone is trying to play a starring role in the drama of his or her own life, as they would wish it to appear, often for commercial reasons.

The same applies to the proverbial fly-on-the-wall documentary. Nobody actually forgets about the fly’s television eye; its presence changes the reality it is supposed to be recording neutrally.

Everyone involved is trying to use television to control other people’s perceptions. Reality – which is to say unself-conscious, unmotivated, uncontrolled self-revelation – is the last thing on the participants’ minds, whatever they may persuade themselves.

The solemn reality of death has no place in the manipulative unreality of reality television.