A hor­ror be­yond words

Daily Express - - TELEVISION EXPRESS - Matt Baylis on the week­end’s TV

WITH small chil­dren, there is of­ten a stage where var­i­ous abil­i­ties are de­vel­op­ing at dif­fer­ent rates. When there is a gulf be­tween what the child knows and what it can say, the re­sult – as ev­ery weary par­ent knows – is frus­tra­tion.

That was the dom­i­nant theme of SPEECH­LESS (Sun­day, BBC4), a thought­ful, com­pas­sion­ate film by doc­u­men­tary-maker Richard Al­wyn about adults who have sud­denly lost the knack of lan­guage. Apha­sia, as it is called, is most com­monly as­so­ci­ated with strokes and it usu­ally in­volves two very spe­cific chunks of the brain.

Of course, no two brains are en­tirely alike and the same is true for what­ever goes wrong with them. The stroke that hit fa­ther-of-three Barry, a land­lord and West Ham fan, had been like a jug­ger­naut. It left him in a wheel­chair, stuck for months in a re­ha­bil­i­ta­tion ward, strug­gling to mas­ter sim­ple words.

Yet how­ever hard he found it to speak, he was very vo­cal on one sub­ject – the prospect of go­ing home ter­ri­fied him. And as his dis­charge date drew nearer, he be­came in­creas­ingly with­drawn. If you saw for­mer pro­fes­sional foot­baller Ju­nior Agogo in the street, you might think noth­ing had hap­pened to him. How­ever you prob­a­bly would not see him in the street be­cause this sad, gen­tle man of­ten spent days shut in the flat he shared with his mum. He strug­gled to say cer­tain words clearly and some­times he could not find the word for the thought in his head.

On the walls of his flat were shirts of foot­balling leg­ends he had played against and been friends with. None of them were in touch now, he said, be­cause he could not speak. He could but his em­bar­rass­ment was keep­ing him shut away.

For Barry, too, the hor­ror of go­ing home seemed to be bound up with ev­ery­thing he felt he had lost. He seemed ashamed to go back and speech, or the lack of it, was at the heart of ev­ery­thing. In an un­usu­ally el­e­gant voiceover, the di­rec­tor talked about lan­guage as “the in­vis­i­ble main­stay of life” and the film as a whole was stuffed with thought­ful de­tours into phi­los­o­phy and brain science.

The staff at the Na­tional Hospi­tal for Neu­rol­ogy and Neu­ro­surgery, where both were treated, jug­gled with heavy stuff like this ev­ery day. Could you think some­thing if you didn’t re­mem­ber how to say it? What if you knew the word but you couldn’t have the thought?

We also watched them pa­tiently work­ing with stroke suf­fer­ers like Barry and Ju­nior to re­build lan­guage skills in the un­dam­aged parts of their brains. There is al­ways hope. Even when you can­not re­mem­ber the word for it.

With 70 per cent of our Earth’s sur­face cov­ered in wa­ter and less than five per cent of its oceans ex­plored, we can ex­pect BLUE PLANET II (Sun­day, BBC1) to be fol­lowed by a part III, IV and V. Long may Sir David At­ten­bor­ough be at the helm too.

The sheer hyp­notic beauty of the deep is this show’s big­gest draw. It is the kind of telly that makes you wish you had a big­ger one, pos­si­bly even a cinema to watch it on. It is also, in con­trast to much nat­u­ral his­tory pro­gram­ming, full of hope.

It is true, the wal­ruses in last night’s episode were strug­gling to find ice sheets to rest on due to global warm­ing but the other ocean sto­ries, from the tool-us­ing tusk fish, to the self-med­i­cat­ing dol­phins, re­minded us that there is still so much that we do not know, whole worlds as yet un­spoiled.

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