Deborah James documentary review: a moving, uplifting tribute to the brilliant Bowelbabe
BBC Two's upcoming film shows just how bubbly, strong and inspirational Dame Deborah James was as she literally danced in the face of death.
On 10th May 2022, Dame Deborah James spoke on BBC Radio 5 Live for her final episode of You, Me and the Big C, the podcast she'd co-hosted since 2018, telling producer Mike Holt that she had stopped active treatment for stage 4 bowel cancer. Having spent five years living with the cancer, the broadcaster and activist was receiving end of life care and spending her last few weeks at her parents' house in Woking, Surrey.
"I suppose that's it from me – I can't believe it. That is it from me, which is a very sad thing to say but I'm pleased that I have got to the point where I can say it," she said tearfully down the line. "We'll see each other again, somewhere, somehow, dancing."
This is just one of the many devastating yet awe inspiring moments featured in Deborah James: Bowelbabe In Her Own Words – the BBC Two film following the journalist over half a decade as she dances, documents her treatment and raises cancer awareness up until her untimely death at the age of 40 in June last year.
Together with archive footage and social media posts, James takes viewers along with her on the rollercoaster of her diagnosis as she makes videos with her kids, celebrates remission, starts chemotherapy when her cancer returns and sets out to do as much living as possible with the time she has left.
While the documentary shows the grim reality and "relentless every day routine" that comes with stage four cancer, from James lugging around a huge red bag full of the various medicines she takes to dealing with losing feeling in her hands and feet as a chemotherapy side effect, it's also a testament to the broadcaster's persistent positivity as she quite literally dances in the face of death.
More like this
Cultivating a following on social media through her BowelBabe Instagram account, which currently boasts almost one million followers and numerous videos of James boogieing in hospital gowns, we watch as she speaks about "breaking down perceptions" about having an "old man's cancer" one sparkly dress at a time, whilst bringing dark humour to You, Me and the Big C with fellow cancer patients Lauren Mahon and Rachael Bland.
"Suddenly the world changes... it literally falls out your bum. For me it came flowing," she laughs in the 5Live studio.
Aside from her awareness efforts – that involve dressing up in a child's poo costume and working with ITV's Lorraine on the No Butts campaign – Bowelbabe In Her Own Words sees James become candid about her family life and the "nightmares" she has re-enacting the moment she told her two kids about her cancer diagnosis. Despite putting on a brave face, James admits that she "can't think about the future" and the fact that she'll be leaving her loved ones behind, whilst also coping with the deaths of Rachael Bland and Kelly Smith, who also lost their battles with cancer.
Ultimately however, the BBC Two documentary shows just how bubbly, strong and hilarious the broadcaster was in the last few years of her life – and just how much she achieved. The Bowelbabe Fund, which she set up shortly before her death, has raised over £11 million since James passed, funds which will go towards developing cutting edge treatment to buy others more time.
Whether she was telling her "eligible bachelor" husband that she'd do her "damned hardest to come and haunt him" if he dated specific women after her death, or facing her fear of flying by piloting a plane over Portsmouth and running marathons, James's approach to living teaches us all a valuable lesson – one that she shares in her last moments on You, Me and the Big C.
"Please, please enjoy life because it is so precious. All I want right now is more time and more life. Oh and also, check your poo. I can’t leave on any other word than check your poo."
Deborah James: Bowelbabe In Her Own Words airs on Monday 17th April at 9pm on BBC One and BBC iPlayer.
Check out more of our Documentaries coverage or visit our TV Guide and Streaming Guide to see what's on tonight.
Try Radio Times magazine today and get 12 issues for only £1 with delivery to your home – subscribe now. For more from the biggest stars in TV, listen to The Radio Times Podcast.