A horror beyond words
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 And as his discharge date drew nearer, he became increasingly withdrawn.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.