Saturday 24 March 2018

The real issues surrounding death stayed safely buried

Norah Casey
Norah Casey

John Boland

Among the various quotes from famous people that appeared as captions throughout Way to Go: Death and the Irish (RTé1) was Woody Allen's quip: "I'm not afraid of death; I just don't want to be there when it happens".

That plainly was also the thinking behind this hour-long documentary, which for most of its length wasn't there when it happened, either. It was as if the filmmakers, having raised the dauntingly bleak subject, immediately grew fearful of it and opted to skirt around it instead.

And so we got three minutes on funeral homes, some titbits from a historian on traditional Irish death rituals, another few minutes on graveyards with some observations from a stonemason, and a brief chat with a rural GP about the doctor's role in helping people to confront death.

All of these topics were potentially interesting in themselves and might well make for an engrossing series, but when reduced to little more than a succession of videograbs they amounted to very little.

We also got the thoughts of a few celebrities, most of which really weren't worth hearing.

"Why would you want to think about death?" George Hook harrumphed. "I haven't given it any thought, no," said Marian Finucane. "The more you talk about it, the less fear you have," declared Gabriel Byrne, while Mícheál ó Muircheartaigh thought a good time to shuffle off this mortal coil would be while listening to a football match, though it would have to be "a great game", and undoubtedly not of the soccer variety, either.

At the outset, the film's presenter, Norah Casey, spoke of her husband's untimely demise from cancer in 2011 as a "good death", and though she didn't offer an explanation as to why that was so, her raising of the notion suggested a more serious and substantial film than was provided. Indeed, it was only in the closing quarter that she took up the subject again in a piece about how more and more people are dying in acute hospitals that aren't equipped to cater for their needs and about the necessity for increased hospice care.

Here again, though, basic issues were sidestepped, including the cost of such care, not to mention eligibility for such humane treatment. The presenter ended on an upbeat note, noting of death that: "We're only going to do it once, so let's get it right if we can," and suggesting that: "Maybe it's time we engaged with the inevitable." The film itself, though, had spent most of its time avoiding such engagement.

And maybe if we altered our eating habits most of us would live a little longer. That, at any rate, was the thesis of The World's Best Diet (Channel 4), which provided a countdown from 50 to one of healthy eating in which featured Ireland at 33rd.

Still, we weren't quite as unhealthy as inhabitants of the UK, with bad diet resulting in Northern Ireland's high incidence of tooth decay and obesity pronounced among children in Wales. The film blamed almost all our ills on processed foods and, by extension, on America's world dominance in such matters – the worst sufferers being the inhabitants of the seemingly idyllic Marshall Islands, where processed US imports are among the main contributors to obesity and death by diabetes.

We heard, too, that an addiction to vodka sees 25pc of Russian men dying by the age of 55, while Morocco benefits from an alcohol-free diet.

But longevity was most easily attainable in Iceland, where the Omega 3 fatty acids from fish enable the average man to live until 81. But, then, do you really want to live in Iceland?

By contrast, Howard Jacobson can't understand why anyone wouldn't want to live in Australia, a country he first visited and fell in love with as a young man in the early 1960s. But in Rebels of Oz: Germaine, Clive, Barry and Bob (BBC4), he considered the careers of four famous Aussies who at about the same time couldn't wait to escape what they regarded as the conformity and dullness of the place.

Mind you, Clive James recalled the Australia of his boyhood as: "A blessed land at a blessed time", though art critic Robert Hughes once cantankerously told a TV interviewer that: "You can tow Australia out to sea and sink it for all I care".

Hughes died two years ago, but James, Germaine Greer and Barry Humphries were on hand to discuss their youthful ambitions and careers with an engaged and engaging Jacobson. The second part will be screened next week, and if it's anywhere near as absorbing as the first, it will be unmissable.

Sadly, BBC4's Arena film, The 50-Year Argument: The New York Review of Books, was a major disappointment. I've long thought this fortnightly journal one of the English-speaking world's finest magazines, but the film, co-directed by Martin Scorsese, was so earnest, humourless and so uninformative that it collapsed under the weight of its solemnity.

There's such a thing as being serious without taking yourself seriously, but the contributors to this film plainly never learned that trick.

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