Daytime TV: Lives remembered

Gary Day is moved by the stories of those close to death and fascinated by a preserved pachyderm

December 10, 2009

We are all going to die. Most of us don't know when, but some do. Death then becomes real to them in a way it doesn't for the rest of us. And so, too, does life. "Every day is a blessing to me," says Ramatu.

She was one of a number of terminally ill patients who had come together to share and record their lives at St Christopher's Hospice in Sydenham (Into that Good Night, Channel 4, Friday 4 December, 7.30pm). They sat around a big table in what looked like a large shed.

"What would you want a photograph to say about you?" asked a counsellor. She leaned forward slightly. "Photos", she said slowly so they could all understand, "remind us of who we were, and what we are now."

This was too much for Henry. "I look at that picture of me and my family taken five years ago and I want to be that person again and I'm so cross that I'm not." He thumped the table. A woman opposite looked as if she might cry.

Before he was diagnosed with motor neurone disease, Henry used to be a photographer. "I used to preserve people," he cried. There was a shot of him in happier days standing on a tank, camera at the ready. Now he's in a wheelchair and every day his body works less well.

How do people cope with the knowledge that they have, say, only two summers left? Henry rages against the dying of the light. Ramatu too. Ann is resigned. "This is my path," she says. "I have to keep going." Mark takes the car to the coast, sits on a bench and sees something amazing, but all I see is water, sky, clouds and birds.

Mark's hair is falling out in clumps so he has it shaved off. "You need to go to a better barber," jokes Henry, whose fury has faded. Coming to the hospice has helped him to get things in perspective. "It's a good life," he says. Ann is no longer among them. She had reached the end of her path. We last saw her blending into the garden; a green thought in a green shade.

In 2007, a well-preserved baby mammoth, dubbed Lyuba, was found in northwest Siberia (Waking the Baby Mammoth, Friday 4 December, Channel 4, 9pm). Palaeontologist Dan Fisher was giving a lecture when the news came. Like a real-life Indiana Jones, he instantly hotfooted it to foreign parts. His students are still sitting there, waiting for him to return and explain functional morphology.

Dan is a member of the International Mammoth Committee. Lose the first word and you have an all-purpose description of any public-spirited body dedicated to making things run more efficiently.

He touched down in the tundra, his beard an extension of the fur round his hood. Snow on a dog was as thick as plaster of Paris. It was 50 degrees below zero. At such temperatures, the brain does funny things. Dan kept seeing a baby mammoth.

Wherever he was - a park in Michigan or a freezing treeless expanse - it was there, running around, its trunk swinging wildly in the vicinity of his groin. It even shook its head playfully as it witnessed its own autopsy - a grotesque combination of Disney and CSI.

A camera inserted into Lyuba's stomach showed an interior like a series of caves. There was a drill; tweezers picked out something like old carpet and placed it in a test tube. Dan carefully removed one of Lyuba's teeth. It told him about the climate, diet and time of death.

More was to come. Analysis of the digestive tract showed that baby mammoths ate their mother's poo, which gave them the necessary bacteria to be able to digest cellulose. But the biggest find was traces of mother's milk. Dan jigged like a prospector who had struck gold. The DNA revealed the intricate ancestry of Lyuba and may yet be used to recreate her. In the future, death may be optional.

Newsnight (BBC Two, Friday 4 December, 10.30pm) does not usually entertain. These days, it barely even educates. But I don't suppose it's entirely the programme's fault that current affairs resembles a soap opera whose clones are caught in an endless loop. So it was a delight to see some real human feeling.

Professor Andrew Watson of the University of East Anglia went head-to-head with Marc Morano of the Committee for a Constructive Tomorrow, a group that purports to provide "a balanced perspective on environmental stewardship". They were battling over the meaning of the emails leaked from the university's Climatic Research Unit. Andrew tried to talk about science but Marc just laughed. When Martha Kearney eventually brought the discussion to a close, Andrew whipped out his earpiece and said, "What an asshole." Priceless.

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