Death, where is thy sting?;Opinion

25th June 1999 at 01:00
I LOVE Pat Archer but I really do hope she is not on the mend. Please, by the sacred yoghurt pots of Bridge Farm, may this remission be temporary.

It can take a very long time to recover from depression and the scars run deep, but long-term illness is not, alas, the kind of reality with which soap can normally cope. Though blighted with disaster, disease and destruction, the residents of Brookside, Albert Square and Ambridge all too often bounce back once a storyline seems to be getting repetitive.

"Don't you worry about Pat, Tony. I had a nervous breakdown last year, just before Brian Aldridge went loopy and only a few months after Mike Tucker lost his marbles on Lakey Hill. And see: we're all as right as rain now!" The fact is that serious ill-health is only intermittently dramatic. As Myfannwy Talog, the late wife of David Jason, once told me, "The trouble with cancer is that it's boring." Soap, of course, just won't allow life to be like that. If a character cannot call upon superhuman resilience to resume his or her place as an interchangeable pawn in whatever new game the producer is cooking up, they are soon written out. This is where TV differs from life and where former teacher John Diamond is doing such heroic work dying slowly in The Times every Saturday.

The Diamond page is remarkable. Of necessity John has turned his weekly column away from soap (where the audience knows that basically everything is always going to be OK). He's even turned it away from drama (where we know that everything will eventually make sense).

The narrative of a man who is due to die, but does not know when, breaks all the rules of entertainment. It isn't neat. It isn't even consistent. One week he's feeling better, the next he's down again. He may have discovered bravery but sheer funk may be just around the corner. The Diamond column, like the terrible disease that is killing him, is as unpredictable, inconsistent and untidy as life.

These days we have tidied up death to a point where it hardly seems to happen any more. Dying is something that occurs in nursing homes and hospitals or after the fade to black. John Diamond's last lesson teaches us otherwise. To live is to accept life is untidy - and no soap opera.

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