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Tuesday, 14 July 2009

Liz Smith's Summer Cruise, BBC4

Its happening less and less of late but occasionally TV does get it right.

There's no better example than this BBC4 documentary which managed something that few programmes on our reality-obsessed screens have failed to achieve for a good few years. The programme in question managed to be interesting, intriguing, funny and moving all in the space of a “lovely” hour of television.

Liz Smith is probably best known for her role as Nana in The Royle Family and, as a huge fan of that series, it was nice to see the woman behind the role. Plaudits to those who dreamt up the idea. Where most TV board meetings seem to take the form of “we’ll take 14 strangers and get them brush each others teeth and the person with the cleanest teeth will win a cash prize and a lifetime supply of free toothbrushes”, someone at the BBC said, let’s take one of the most recognisable faces on TV and send her on a cruise with a filmmaker following her every step.

Once you allowed yourself to become immersed in Liz Smith’s world, it was, to put it a bit melodramatically, lovely. Smith’s world doesn’t differ too much from a lot of 86-year-olds (not saying that I move in those circles). She lives simply in an retirement flat in London populated with women who love a good cup of tea and comparing their tablets, except she doesn’t quite fit within the group and she’s aware of it. As she puts it, "I think it’s the characters they like, not me".

As time goes on it becomes apparent that what was sold as a humorous travelogue turns quickly into an intimate portrait of a woman who, despite her bubbly onscreen personality, has had a lonely and isolated life. It was impossible not to feel a little saddened for Liz as she confided about her lack of true friends. “There are very few real friends, it's very rare to find a real a friend..everyone’s pretending.” The sadness which permeated the documentary was balanced well because you couldn’t help admire her as she stumbled across Croatia, involving herself in the majority of the cruise activities whilst embracing her fans who respected her privacy despite being completely desperate to talk to her.

An hour can be a long time for a documentary but Liz Smith was such a wonderful subject it could’ve been a series and I’d have tuned in faithfully for weeks. What made this so engrossing was the fact you knew you were watching something real. This wasn’t contrived or forced, this was what we should call reality TV.

I was a fan of Liz Smith the actress before this but I’m a bigger fan of Liz Smith the woman now. In a world of TV that has become reliant on young people and the fools they are quite happy to make of themselves, it's reassuring that the BBC can still offer an alternative and provide us folk desperate for something sensible and adult, even if it is a rare occasion. The documentary was simple and cared for its subject. It featured something we really do rarely see on TV and that's a subject dealt with with humour and dignity.

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