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Don't Leave Me This Way

WHEN you consider that more people die in hospital than anywhere else, it's easy to see why you need a deeply black sense of humour to survive in the medical profession.

That's certainly true of an oncologist friend of mine (that's right, he specialises in diseases of the onc), who recently told me an appallingly dark story about a GP friend of a friend of a friend of his. According to this (probably apocryphal) tale, a woman went into a GP's surgery complaining of stomach pains and abdominal swelling, and after giving her a thorough examination, he looked at her and asked: "Do you like changing nappies?"

"Why?" she asked, excitedly, "Does that mean I'm pregnant?" "No," said the doctor, "you've got bowel cancer."

Cancer was just one of a host of unpleasant maladies that cropped up last night on Ways to Leave Your Lover (BBC2). "I had a near-fatal epileptic fit this morning, two coronaries and a stroke," said Juliet on Sweetnightgoodheart, the first of a quintet of short and bleakly comedic dramas, and it took a few moments to realise that the woman hadn't been afflicted personally, but was making the sort of dark jokes that busy doctors indulge in when they've just finished a blood-draining shift at the hospital.

Later, we learned that her father had just been diagnosed with cancer and wasn't expected to survive for more than six months, which is still a regrettably common prognosis, even though we're continually being told that "cancer isn't a word to be afraid of these days". And it's true, cancer as a word is nothing to worry about, but what about cancer as a malignant disease spreading like wildfire through the lymphatic system? Surely that's something to be very afraid of indeed.

Each playlet addressed the issue of how best to ditch your partner when they have delighted you a little too much for a little too long, and in this first one Pete (David Tennant) was preparing himself to give the big E to Juliet (Kate Ashfield). He was word-perfect while practising the scene alone in the kitchen ("It's over between us, finished, the end... we're closed, shut, kaput"), but once his girlfriend appeared in the room, his confidence vanished and he retreated into diffident and ambiguous phrases like "we need to talk".

Listening to him as he circled nervously around the single issue that dominated his mind, I realised that there is an underlying doublespeak in the language of most relationships, because "going out" with someone really means staying in with them, sleeping with them usually involves anything but sleep, and "we need to talk" translates as "I don't want us to talk anymore, ever."

But the doublespeak serves a procreative purpose, I suppose, by enabling two people to get married and have children, only to realise (when it's too late) that marriage is simply the lengthy process of finding out what sort of person your spouse would really have preferred to set up house with.

Pete's flight into ambiguity proved disastrous for him, because when he finally blurted out "I'm talking about things changing between us, big change ... we owe it to each other to move on", Juliet interpreted this as "will you marry me?" And before he could stop her, she'd phoned a friend, and every bachelor's worst nightmare began to unfold as prospective in-laws, hospital colleagues and a grotesque assortment of neighbours piled into their tiny apartment to celebrate what was now a fait accompli for Juliet, and a fate worse than death for Pete.

In the face of such popular enthusiasm for a marriage, and the discovery that Juliet's father was terminally ill ("a wedding would be the most wonderful send-off " purred her mother pleadingly), he eventually capitulated to force majeure, and obediently submitted to his destiny. Perhaps he consoled himself with the thought that at least married men live longer than single men. Or does it just seem longer?

THIS was a captivating short drama from Litmus Productions and films, with splendid acting, perfect timing, and a funny, clever, and touching script by Dan Zeff, who also directed with panache (that's Federico Panache, of Cinnecitta). Best of all, there was an exquisite final twist, as it became clear that Juliet had known of Pete's true intention all along, but had cunningly outwitted him, and when he mumbled "I never actually proposed", she calmly replied "I never actually accepted".

Still, at least their wedding will ensure that her aged, cancerridden, and thoroughly fictional father dies a happy man, which reminds me of another story told to me by the same oncologist, about a colleague who'd once had to give some very bad news to an elderly patient. "There's no easy way to say this," he told the patient, "I'm afraid you have cancer and Alzheimer's."
To which the man replied: "Ah, well, at least it's not cancer, then."