Tommie Gorman’s Ireland, Cancer and Me could have been riveting, emotive TV. It wasn’t

TV review: Most of the programme is about important but obtuse changes in the HSE

When Tommie Gorman had cancer treatment in Sweden 20 years ago, he made history by seeking care abroad rather than in Ireland

When Tommie Gorman had cancer treatment in Sweden 20 years ago, he made history by seeking care abroad rather than in Ireland

 

The title Ireland, Cancer and Me suggests Tommie Gorman’s final programme for RTÉ (RTÉ One, Tuesday) will be an emotional roller coaster. The broadcaster’s recently retired Northern Ireland editor has lived with neuroendocrine tumours for 20 years. And now, as he bows out, he turns again to his decades-long struggle to keep at arm’s length this rare form of the disease. It seems a foregone conclusion that tears will be shed, both Gorman’s and ours.

There is some of that. “For 20 years, every 28 days I’ve taken an injection to help keep my disease at bay,” Gorman explains. “It’s like a monthly fill of petrol. You can feel the engine chugging towards the end of each month.”

Living with a life-threatening disease is about more than simply putting one foot in front of the other. Your entire worldview is tilted

He says this en route to one of those regular check-ups at St Vincent’s University Hospital, in Dublin, where he receives the all-clear. “The dogs are asleep,” he says of the tumours that have plagued him since his late 30s. Life, for now, slopes on as normal.

But, of course, living with a life-threatening disease is about more than simply putting one foot in front of the other. Your entire worldview is tilted. “When you come through that, you’re a different person: you’re neither optimistic, realistic, or pessimistic,” says Gorman’s consultant. “You’re none of the three: you just are. You’re enjoying each gap between the scans.”

This is heavy and profound, as is to be expected of a film with “cancer” in the title. Yet that essential personal component of the story is squeezed into the final five minutes of a 40-minute broadcast. In a mystifying display of journalistic obtuseness, the bulk of the episode is instead given over to a blow-by-blow account of administrative developments within the HSE.

These have allowed patients with neuroendocrine tumours to receive treatment in Ireland rather than in continent Europe. (Gorman began his treatment in Sweden.) And so they represent an important breakthrough. They do not, alas, make for riveting television.

It’s as if RTÉ is willing us to switch to Netflix. We are introduced to what feels like a dozen interchangeable hospital consultants. The narration is sprinkled with talk of “multidisciplinary teams” and “centres of excellence”. “Irish consultants across a wide range of areas are now availing of this EU directive to access procedures for their patients,” Gorman says at one point. This isn’t the emotive, first-person reportage we’re looking for.

Surely some acknowledgment should have be made of the highest-profile interview of his career: grilling Roy Keane about Saipan and the 2002 World Cup

It’s a shame the producers decided to focus on HSE procedure and EU directives rather than O’Gorman’s experiences. And that so many questions are left unanswered. How did his brush with mortality affect him as a journalist? Did it make him more empathetic or bring to the surface a fatalistic streak? Even the fact that he made history by seeking treatment abroad rather than in Ireland is minimised. A documentary about that very subject really should have given him the credit that is his due.

And surely some acknowledgment should have be made of the highest-profile interview of his career: grilling Roy Keane about Saipan and the 2002 World Cup. What was the state of his health at that time? How did he reconcile national hysteria about a mere soccer tournament with his own experiences of life and death? It’s a baffling omission.

What, moreover, were the experiences of his family as their father came to terms with lifelong illness? His daughter, after all, was just 10 months old when he was diagnosed.

And as he looks ahead to his retirement, how does he feel now about his health? There’s a deeply moving tale to be told here. But, those final five minutes aside, Ireland, Cancer and Me never quite gets around to it.

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