There’s a lot of emotion on tv these days where everyone is on a journey and opening up to millions of strangers about their issues in all sort of situations. It can happen in a big tent where people are baking, a colourful studio where people are dancing or even on a canal. Such openness will be seen as the signature of this decade’s television as people feel more comfortable talking about pretty much anything in front of the cameras. Great Canal Journeys is the one which can never really have a happy ending with a trophy holding winner. It’s about growing old, about struggling to do things you couldn’t do before and about how true love is not just the province of the young. You’d expect two actors in this situation to be melodramatic about it in that way some actors have of being more stagey off stage than on. Timothy West and Prunella Scales though are honest and straight forward about their situation and the result is that it makes a programme whose premise may seem dull so packed full of life.
The series launched in 2014 and sees the couple who’ve been married for over 50 years traversing the canals of Britain- and later beyond- at a stately 4mph while they encounter interesting people and places along the way. They don’t do this in the way some programmes give celebrities a challenge, they’ve been messing about on the waterways for decades. Unfortunately what Tim describes as a “a slight condition” in the introduction is Prue’s encroaching dementia and it is the context in which the whole thing is framed.
Dementia unfolds differently and at varying speeds for every person who has it as whatever common traits the illness has are filtered through that person’s past, personality and surroundings. It can rob real memories or it can change them or it can concoct new false ones, it can change behaviour or opinions or character in all sorts of ways. It’s almost impossible to define except for its unstoppable momentum. What Great Canal Journeys shows is the value of what time you have left. Neither you nor relatives or friends knows how long you have before things become near impossible but when she is on the canals, Prue's condition improves with the stimulus of memories and surroundings. She delights in these to the point where you would never know she was anything other than ageing rather than something more serious.
What makes it harder to watch for me is seeing how Tim deals with all of this. Sadly I know only too well that while the person affected can have varying clarity over their situation the ones around them remember it all. For them each deterioration is noticed, each mis-step happens in the context of a wider perspective, what are moments for the sufferer are part of a much longer experience for those watching and trying to help. He talks occasionally about it all with understatement and restraint, an actor trying to hide emotions rather than display them.
I personally dislike the personification of illness- like that advert which paints cancer as a sentient being that “doesn’t care” – so hesitate to talk of dementia as something that `steals` as if it is a deliberate monster. Rather I prefer the idea that people live with dementia as you might with short sightedness or an allergy. I know its more serious than that and perhaps giving these things a character does help some people.
Over the years we’ve seen this devoted couple undertake increasingly ambitious voyages which would task anyone in their 80s - maybe they should have started with the likes of Venice and India rather than doing them only in the last couple of years. Now though, in an episode broadcast yesterday, we have reached what seems to be the end with broad hints that though they may continue to use the canals, the series is something that is now beyond even their admirable capabilities. And for the first time we saw Tim seeming like his health was on the wane too as he talks of how even conversations with his wife are more difficult now. Yet it ends with them surrounded by their family having a picnic.
This is not really a sad programme at all though because they won’t let it be. It is a quiet triumph, a true stand against the dying of the light as I've ever seen. You are rooting for them every time, loving how they carry on in that quiet everyday manner despite being a step away from heartbreak. Simply they are an inspiration.