That Week On TV: 24 Hours in A&E, C4; North Korea Undercover, BBC1

Britain's best hospital documentary excelled itself with the tale of one life ending, says Jack Seale in his weekly TV review

“You’re not dying. You’re not dying. You’re not, Mum.”


Documentary-makers in hospitals have a head start. Their programmes are automatically full of ordinary people in extreme situations, watched by viewers who all know that feeling. Take one look at a fly-on-the-ward show, and the stomach-squashing fear and sadness that pumps through hospitals is there in your lounge.

Even allowing for that, 24 Hours in A&E (Wednesdays C4; 4oD) is superb, regularly exceeding the cliché of well-edited reality being superior to fiction. Even allowing for that, this week’s document of one day in the casualty department at King’s College in London was a haunting, lingering picture of a family preparing to grieve. It was dedicated to Rose Watson, 1932-2012.

Rose barely spoke, and when she did (“I’m alright”) the oxygen tubes meant she needed subtitles. The characters in this play were her 50something daughters Christine, Sandra and Debbie. They’d brought her in after pneumonia, heart and lung disease, and kidney failure had left Rose beached on the floor at home for hours, gasping and terrified.

Now she was in the best place, and she was fine, and she wasn’t to scare us again like this, and she wasn’t to discharge herself like last time, okay? And then a very young doctor took Sandra and Debbie – both with their coats and scarves still on – aside and said he wouldn’t put Rose on a ventilator if it came to it, or restart her heart. We saw Sandra realise what he was telling them a moment before Debbie did.

From there we were mostly in the relatives’ room, as the family moved into that crisis mode where the banal and the profoundly emotional tumble out together. Information was eagerly passed around, even if it was awful. Sandra and Debbie told Christine about the ventilator and the heart resuscitation, and before they’d finished Christine was on the phone to Michael, an unseen brother, to tell him about the ventilator and the heart resuscitation. Then Sandra made a call. “Steve. I’ll need to cancel those cakes. The numbers’ll be in my book…”

We’d heard in interview that when the sisters were young, Sandra and Debbie had envied Christine, who was thinner (“She could wear hotpants”), blonder and older. In the relatives room, Christine was the first to crack, putting her face in her hands to weep.

Now Christine was the patient. Sandra and Debbie gathered round, just as they had round Rose on her gurney. “She hasn’t given up, Chris,” said Sandra, reminding her sister that Rose was “a fighter” and could still deliver the miracle that we at home knew was not coming.

We learnt that in her day, Rose had jet-black hair, glamorous like a movie star, always on the move, a seamstress, “always suited and booted”. Cut to Rose now, grey, in the middle of a wide shot full of machines and oxygen tubes, hospital gown sliding off her shoulders.

Rose’s husband had died weeks after Debbie’s husband divorced her. Rose had put her grief down and comforted her daughter. In the relatives room, Debbie was next to crack. Christine hauled her back up above the surface. “Me and Sandra are there for you and we’re as good as any husband. But you’ve got to let us in…”

All the warmth and pain of people who love each other losing the leader of their gang, of hoping when you know it’s hopeless, was here, beautifully drawn by 24 Hours’ gentle questions and expert storytelling. But because this story was real, the shape of the narrative was wrong: it suddenly stopped when Rose was wheeled out of A&E and into a “family room” to die. At the end of the programme we saw an unbearably sad photo of Christine, Sandra and Debbie smiling and raising their glasses to the camera, on the first Christmas without Mum.

Five million people watched John Sweeney go to war on another unsuspecting rogue state, after the London School of Economics gave priceless free publicity to Panorama: North Korea Undercover (Monday BBC1; iPlayer) by pleading for it to be pulled. Sweeney had joined a group of LSE students on their officially sanctioned tour of Pyongyang. That this mysterious older man among them was a BBC reporter was very much not officially sanctioned, and could have got them all imprisoned or worse.

The question, then: was it worth the risk? Sweeney, who has been hard to take seriously ever since he shouted at that Scientologist (even if we were all on his side), seemed to have other, overriding considerations. The blithe ego of a journo obsessed with getting their story was heightened by that curiously macho strain of liberalism that’s desperate to tell you how much it really really hates tyrants.

“This is tourism, Stalin-style,” boomed Sweeney redundantly as his closely supervised trip got going. The film had a Holidays from Hell vibe. Sweeney complained about under-lit toilets and the construction work outside his hotel. “They’re building a bank. Night and day. Day and night.” (Er… so?)

The journalism was as cogent and revelatory as you’d expect from a man on a package holiday run by a secretive dictatorship. In a library, Sweeney tested out how open-minded the most closed-minded nation on Earth is by asking the poor woman behind the desk for a copy of Nineteen Eighty-Four. They didn’t have it! This was ironic.

On a trip to a spa hotel, Sweeney escaped, scuttling down a track through some trees. “So, welcome to the real North Korea,” he said triumphantly, pointing to a barbed-wire fence with knackered scrubland behind it. Yes, this is the exact image everyone already associates with the country, but Sweeney had topicality, so often the excuse for not saying anything new, on his side. He was there just as North Korea was making international headlines for its sabre-rattling at the South. He had seen soldiers on the streets. “It’s impossible for us to ask what’s happening. We don’t know.” Ah.

Any footage from within North Korea is fascinating and terrifying but all the best stuff here was added in later, via interviews with defectors and academics. Offering the sort of knowledge that scholars warn will be more difficult to acquire in the light of Sweeney’s stunt, they described gulags where bodies are left to rot for months in a warehouse so they can more easily be shovelled into mass graves. Any dissent or resistance, from anyone, brings death. We can only wonder what became of the tour guide, the librarian and whoever it was who didn’t monitor the visitors from LSE closely enough. But the journalist got his story.