Saturday, 11 July 2015

TV Review: A SONG FOR JENNY and THE AUTISTIC GARDENER

A Song For Jenny: Sunday, BBC One

The Autistic Gardener: Wednesday, Channel 4

Paul Whitelaw

Julie Nicholson, a Church of England vicar, lost her 24-year-old daughter Jenny in the 7/7 London bombings. Jenny was one of 52 people killed that day. Though it focused on the Nicholsons alone, one-off drama A Song For Jenny was a sincere tribute to each of those victims and the 52 families who will forever mourn their loss.

Scheduled to commemorate the 10th anniversary of this senseless attack, the film followed Julie (Emily Watson) through every harrowing stage of her ordeal.

As with most dramatisations of real-life tragedies, the early scenes were suffused with a weighty sense of impending horror. Julie received a concerned call from her other daughter as soon as news broke of an unexplained tube explosion in London. Initial confusion gave way to mounting panic as Jenny proved unreachable by phone. All the family could do was wait and watch as the reports grew graver. Then came the inevitable, devastating news.

Numbed by shock and grief, Julie's London odyssey unfurled as a literal manifestation of, in her own words, Jenny's stages of the cross. It was a painful, almost masochistic form of catharsis. The scene in which she delivered the last rites over Jenny's remains was unbearably sad. Yet she found no comfort in her faith; God couldn't fill such a vast, unyielding void. Though it wasn't mentioned on screen, Julie is no longer a priest.

Nevertheless, this was ultimately a story of cautious hope and renewed faith - not in a higher being, but in humanity. After Julie, dazed and alone, viewed her daughter's body in London, a taxi driver insisted on taking her back to Reading with no charge. This simple act of human kindness took on enormous significance as part of her gradual journey towards some kind of peace. Despite her anger and hatred towards the bombers, eventually she refused to let those emotions overwhelm her love for Jenny.

A sensitive, intelligent actress capable of exuding anguish while remaining outwardly still, Watson was ideally cast as Julie. Her dignified performance was supported by a thoughtful screenplay from playwright Frank McGuinness. A fine, valuable, compassionate film.

The aptly named Alan Gardner is an award-winning garden designer. With his affable demeanour, neon red hair, rock tattoos and nail varnish – he looks like a psychedelic Ken Dodd - he's an unusually colourful addition to TV's never-ending roster of green-fingered artisans. He's also autistic.

In The Autistic Gardener, he assembles a team of horticultural enthusiasts from various points on the autism spectrum as they set about transforming various neglected gardens into imaginatively sculpted wonderlands. Mercifully bereft of patronising sentimentality, it's a good-natured and responsible series in which people with autism unassumingly raise awareness of their condition while exercising their creative abilities.

They build their confidence and gain a sense of achievement, their 'employers' get a groovy new garden to play with, and we enjoy the whole undemanding process while chortling at Gardner's self-aware narration, in which he cheekily mocks the clich├ęd conventions of the TV makeover genre. Everyone's a winner, baby.

With supposedly well-meaning yet problematic shows such as The Undateables, Channel 4 is often guilty of treating people with disabilities as outsider novelties. The Autistic Gardener treats them as equals. So hats off to all concerned. When was the last time Alan Titchmarsh reaffirmed your faith in human nature?

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