This article was first published in The Dundee Courier on 18 February 2017.
TERRY PRATCHETT: BACK IN BLACK: Saturday, BBC Two
ANDREW MARR: MY BRAIN AND ME: Tuesday, BBC Two
Human beings are frighteningly vulnerable. Even the sharpest minds among us can be assaulted without warning by the cruel lottery of fate. Two programmes last week shone defiant glimmers of hope into mortality’s glowering visage.
They focused on robust and somewhat eccentric characters who dealt with serious illness – one fatal, the other life-threatening – with humour, pragmatism and a healthy lack of sentiment.
The phenomenally successful fantasy author Terry Pratchett died of Alzheimer’s in 2015. He’d lived with the degenerative disease for eight years, during which he continued to write until he was no longer able.
His final project was a memoir recorded with the assistance of his PA. Pratchett never lived long enough to complete it.
Enter TERRY PRATCHETT: BACK IN BLACK, a charming tribute which sought to tell the story of his life in fittingly irreverent fashion.
Wearing the guise of a mischievous narrator, actor Paul Kaye, aka the prankster formerly known as Dennis Pennis, rescued the Discworld creator from the philosophical clutches of Death (coincidentally the most popular character from Pratchett’s novels).
Armed with trademark wizard’s beard, black fedora and nasal rhoticism – the result of a childhood accident which, in Pratchett’s words, left him sounding like “David Bellamy with his hand caught in an electric fire” – Kaye’s affectionate impersonation would, one presumes, have delighted the man who inspired it.
He led us through a prolific life and cynical/compassionate worldview forged by a childhood in which Pratchett was told he’d never amount to anything, hence why his distinctive form of satire was driven by an angry intolerance of hypocrisy, snobbery and injustice. An indelible streak of “I told you so” remained with him until the end.
But if Pratchett could be cantankerous, an essential sense of decency was his abiding characteristic. He never lost his amused yet sincere fascination with the human condition, even when he was eventually felled by the kind of unjust act of fate he always railed against.
Andrew Marr is a kindred spirit. When he suffered a debilitating stroke in 2013, the respected political journalist refused to kowtow to self-pity – which he describes as “the most nauseating human quality of all” – in a way Pratchett would’ve appreciated.
Despite clinging to the celebrity-fronted “personal journey” blueprint so beloved of modern television, ANDREW MARR: MY BRAIN AND ME was, thanks to the wryly no-nonsense nature of its star, refreshingly free of stage-managed catharsis. Marr’s journalistic eye ensured that he never became the whole story.
Through the prism of his own experience, he examined the available recovery options and various neurological effects of the biggest cause of disability in Britain (the inclusion of a post-stroke Marr interviewing former Secretary of State for Work and Pensions Iain Duncan Smith wasn’t accidental).
“I’m nothing special,” he insisted, as he met stroke survivors who made him look relatively lucky.
Marr believes two years of excessive work caused his stroke, but he appears to be working as prolifically as ever. Slowing down just isn’t an option for this intensely driven broadcaster, who cites painting as one his few sources of solace. In one revealing moment, he expressed regret that he never attended art school. A fear of failure sent him on a different course.
Yet despite his candour, Marr’s Celtic stoicism remained admirably intact.
“I know the BBC has a special contract where I have to burst into tears at one point,” he smiled, “but I can’t do it. I come from Dundee.”