The Will to Live (Review of Series 2, Episode 9)

2.9Quite rightly, given the prominence and popularity of her character, this memorable episode is almost entirely devoted to the suffering of the now paralysed Rose as she gradually loses the will to live. The combination of Jill Hyem’s script and a remarkable performance from Stephanie Beacham makes for a grittily realistic and heart-rending exploration of euthanasia.

The mental torment and physical suffering that Rose is forced to endure here is far greater than that which besets any other regular character on-screen in the entire series. Her tragic predicament and degeneration into what Verna graphically describes as ‘a mass of sores and infections’ is uncompromising stuff which makes for very uncomfortable viewing, all the more so as we have come to know Rose so well. This said, the storyline never feels voyeuristic or distasteful, only true.

As the episode is set over a period of nearly two months, we first see Rose pretty much as her old self, complaining bitterly, biting people’s heads off and generally being unpleasant to those around her, however, the crucial difference here is that, unlike before, she has a very good excuse for her behaviour. That anyone should have to endure her fate is a horrendous prospect, but for a woman as elegant and attractive as Rose, who clearly put a lot of store by her looks, her paralysis seems doubly cruel and it is little wonder that she questions whether she was lucky to survive: ‘What makes you think I wouldn’t rather be stiff, stiff as a corpse?’ she states as she pouts grotesquely.

A component part of Rose’s paralysis, given that it makes her unable to turn, wash, or control her bowel, is an inevitable feeling that she is back in the nursery. This prompts Rose to refer to what is effectively a ‘nappy change’ and to respond to Kate’s scolding as if she were the child her paralysis has made her become: ‘Let’s have none of that talk or Nanny’ll put you in the corner!’ The cramped conditions of the hospital don’t help either, as she is forced to suffer the endless gawping and stares of the likes of Daisy and other gormless individuals (there is one rather too obvious supporting artiste of the latter variety, in the scene in which Marion visits).

It is the news that country dancing is the latest evening ‘diversion’ for the prisoners that gives us our first terrible glimpse of the effect that Rose’s paralysis is having on her mind. After reminiscing about her very first dance with a man (‘Some apologetic youth with sweaty hands. Treated him like dirt and all the time casting around for better fish’) and being left alone in her pity, she suddenly pretends to dance with her arms outstretched while shouting out a grim parody of the melody. While Beatrice reprimands her for only ever thinking of herself, it is impossible not to empathise with her situation and comprehend her all-consuming frustration. Rose’s playing of a memory game involving Shakespeare plays is equally manic and almost as disturbing to watch.

Although it doesn’t immediately seem like it at the time, the news delivered by Marion, that Bernard is dead, is a deeply significant turning point for Rose. Her long, tortured scream of pain after Marion’s departure expresses this more starkly and completely than any amount of dialogue. Just as Beatrice’s silent act of picking up and holding Rose’s devastated frame to herself is expressive enough in its own right of the doctor’s love for her friend.

All of Rose’s friends are troubled by the question of whether they should make hospital visits. Some regard it as their duty, while others are concerned that Rose might prefer to be left alone. Inevitably, Van Meyer, who is in the former group, is precisely the sort of person she’d rather not see, indeed Rose later describes being visited by the likes of her as: ‘the worst thing of all.’ However, it is clear that the long-overdue visit by Blanche is conversely very much appreciated…

This is an excerpt from Andy Priestner’s acclaimed book Remembering Tenko in which this episode is reviewed in full. The book also explores and details how the series was made and boasts hundreds of behind-the-scenes photographs. You can purchase Remembering Tenko on Amazon.

About Andy Priestner

Consultant and trainer on user experience (UX) research and design, failure, leadership and LEGO Serious Play
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