Great Ormond Street Review: No Easy Watch

Great Ormond Street: Tuesday 8th May, BBC Two, 9pm

Cancer is a cruel and unpredictable disease which succeeds in extending its vile reach to all who encounter it; sufferers and supporters alike. But when a tumour and the super-toxic treatment that follows are thrust upon the giggling youth of a toddler, the heartache is multiplied ten-fold. It is this tragic incomprehensibility that has managed to draw documentary-makers back to the hospital wards of Great Ormond Street time and again.

But Shona Thompson succeeds in bringing something uncomfortably new to the ward-walking trope, interviewing doctors and parents frankly about the decisions they each face in caring for these extremely ill children. Sensitive but not lavishly sentimental, insightful but not voyeuristic; it is clear that Thompson has calibrated this two-parter with outstanding care. There is no doubt that it will make anyone who has lost a friend or relative to cancer reaching sniffling onto their sofa cushions, but as one doctor points out “the motivation to try and understand the disease better…comes from the times when we don’t winâ€?.

In truth, it is not exactly difficult to generate a strong emotional connection between a viewer and the parents of a four-year-old brain tumour sufferer who has been operated on five times without success. A bit of slushy piano or perhaps even one ill-crafted sentence will suffice where that is concerned….But where the documentary triumphs is in its exploration of the intense complexity involved with making a decision about a suffering child’s future; “the difficult lineâ€? between artificially-extended life, and a tragically early death.

The cameras follow each of the three families featured from consulting room to private conversation, to operating theatre and home again with time afforded by Thompson for full and frank coverage of even the most difficult of conversations. One of the most harrowing scenes involves a mother deciding whether to put her daughter thorough treatment which could kill her, or enjoy the time they have left. These conversations are not supposed to be heard by others, they are private and intensely emotional. But the time dedicated to each family and the full explanation of their predicament prevents the documentary’s most challenging scenes from erring into gratuitous voyeurism.

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