Joan Bakewell’s Diary: Talking to centenarians about death

The broadcaster on George Orwell, Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool, and making the theatre accessible.

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I have been talking about death a good deal lately. People don’t do it enough. Social taboo and superstition still inhibit our willingness to discuss what is, after all, one of life’s great rights of passage. In a recent BBC Panorama I engaged with a number of people who are 100 years old and more. They have no such unwillingness. Indeed some are positively looking forward to it, either in the expectation of being reunited with family who have gone before, or simply because they have had enough: “I wake each morning disappointed that I am still here.”

So what is the point of our obsession  with super-health, diets, exercise… if only to live ever longer towards years where we no longer care?

I discover the NHS will always stand by us as we age. We filmed a woman in her mid-90s having a hip operation – only to die some weeks later. When I asked about the financial priorities of such treatment I was told by the surgeon: “If you come into this hospital in serious pain, we will give you the appropriate treatment, whatever your age.” Well done, the University Hospital of North Tees.

Mersey beats

Who wouldn’t want to see a film with Liverpool in the title? I’ve had the chance of an advance viewing of Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool, released on 17 November – always a treat to get a glimpse before the critics move in. It’s the story of 1950s Hollywood star Gloria Grahame (Annette Bening), the “girl who cain’t say no” in Oklahoma!.

But now Gloria has fallen on hard times. With four marriages behind her, she arrives in England to prop up a dwindling career. She meets jobbing actor Peter Turner (Jamie Bell), who is 29 years younger than her. Increasingly frail, she moves into his modest home, where his parents offer a cosy Liverpudlian welcome. Their love affair is touching, unsentimental and finally tragic. It is moving without being sugary, authentic without being crass. Take tissues.

Art in the heart

Pokuaa Osei has a had a good week too. My good friend (and successor as chair of the National Campaign for the Arts), Samuel West, presented Pokuaa with a “Hearts for the Arts” award, which rewards local councils, council officers and councillors who overcome funding problems to keep the arts flourishing. Pokuaa works for the London Borough of Haringey and her involvement with Family First Nights has won her the award. The scheme provides chances for deprived families with two children between the ages of three and 17 to get special deals to go to West End Shows.

Over five weeks this summer, 550 such families have seen shows as varied as Billy Liar and Les Misérables. Some had never been to central London before, let alone visited a theatre. Everyone gains: young people can be inspired by seeing such grand shows; families coming together on a night out does them all good. Why aren’t more councils encouraging such initiatives?

Birkbeck’s promise

By the time you read this, I will have been on my feet for four hours each day for three consecutive days. It’s graduation time and as president of Birkbeck I stand alongside the college’s master congratulating our new graduates. Birkbeck, part of the University of London, is an amazing place; it offers full degrees to people who are also earning a living. Around 6 o’clock each evening the students flock through the doors, straight from their day jobs, to study under outstanding academics. We were founded almost 200 years ago by George Birkbeck, a philanthropist who thought working people should have as good a chance to learn as the better off. It was among the first Mechanics’ Institutes – which I remember from my childhood as places where anyone, regardless of class or income, could go to learn.

This week the range of our student recruitment has broadened with the launch of the Compass Project, which will offer 20 asylum seekers each year a fully funded place on any undergraduate or postgraduate course. George would be delighted that we are fulfilling his mission, though perhaps surprised at the direction it is taking.

Ministry of Truth

George Orwell is in the wrong place. Ever since I challenged the last director general with the idea that the BBC should celebrate Orwell and his journalistic values – and was told he was “too left wing” – I have known the BBC is fearful of its political masters…the ones who hold the purse strings.

Thus the corporation’s new Orwell statue lurks under an oppressive building overhang at the BBC’s headquarters instead of out in open sight. Perhaps they thought that the political bigwigs arriving by limousine at the building’s second entrance would miss the challenge of his values. Ideally the statue, by Martin Jennings, should stand in the glorious horseshoe approach at New Broadcasting House in Portland Place, the inspiration of architect Richard MacCormac. There it would be seen by the hordes who rush in daily to man the desks and programmes. It might even inspire them to seek the truth in what they do.

Joan Bakewell is a broadcaster and author of “Stop the Clocks: Thoughts on What I Leave Behind” (Virago)

This article appears in the 16 November 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The plot to stop Brexit