Somewhere between eye-opening and jaw-dropping: Sky's Hawking – Can You Hear Me? reviewed

25 September 2021

9:00 AM

25 September 2021

9:00 AM

Hawking: Can You Hear Me?

Sky Documentaries

Never Mind the Buzzcocks

Sky Max

It is, of course, not unknown for a man to become famous with the support of his family — and, once he has, to prefer global adulation to being with them, before leaving his wife for a younger woman. What’s rather less common is when the man in question is almost completely paralysed.

This was the story told by Hawking: Can You Hear Me? and, in advance, it might have sounded an over-familiar one. After all, not only was Stephen Hawking one of the few physicists to become a tabloid staple, but he was also played to Oscar-winning effect by Eddie Redmayne in The Theory of Everything. As it transpired, though, the programme proved somewhere between eye-opening and jaw-dropping. Hawking’s family talked about him with such frankness that it sometimes felt as if the director, Oliver Twinch, had slipped them all a truth drug rather than, more prosaically, spending five years building up their justified trust.

Leading the way in the candour stakes was Hawking’s first wife Jane, who limbered up by recalling that they’d spent their honeymoon at a science conference. ‘It was almost as if everything had to be sacrificed to the goddess of physics,’ she told us, with an unmistakably ironic emphasis on the ‘almost’. She also made it pretty clear that she’d married him, when both were in their early twenties, firmly expecting his recent diagnosis to be accurate: motor neurone disease would kill him within a couple of years. (In the event, he lasted for 53.)

Not that this cut much ice with Hawking’s equally formidable sister Mary. ‘My family had considerable reservations,’ she explained. ‘From the outside, Jane’s decision was unwise.’ That the couple went on to have children, she added drily, was ‘a surprise’.

By the time they did, both Hawking’s career and disease were progressing quite quickly, allowing Jane to show her deft use of the telling pause. ‘Survival and physics were the primary motivations in his life,’ she ringingly declared, leaving a silence before murmuring a more hesitant: ‘Plus the children’. (As we heard, this was a ranking order that the children, all three of whom appeared here, were painfully aware of too.) ‘The impression we gave was of a very happy family,’ Jane noted in summary. ‘But sometimes I was so depressed that I just felt like throwing myself in the river.’

And all that was before events in the mid-1980s took a turn for the soap-operatically melodramatic, with her falling for the local choirmaster Jonathan — another of Monday’s interviewees — and Hawking going into a seemingly irreversible coma that had the doctors suggesting Jane should turn off his life support: a suggestion she rejected. After four months in hospital he returned home to be looked after by a team of nurses who, as she put it (not admiringly), ‘worshipped the ground beneath his wheelchair’.

Soon afterwards, Hawking began work on A Brief History of Time. Millions of sales later, he was being treated like a rock star wherever he went, hanging out with popes and presidents and, the way the family told it, either using them as stage props or neglecting them entirely. Not that his fame cut much ice with sister Mary either: ‘I’ve often wondered how much of an icon he would have been if he hadn’t had motor neurone disease.’

Cranking up the melodrama still further, Hawking then fell for one of those worshipping nurses, Elaine Mason — understandably in Mary’s anti-Jane view, disastrously in that of his abandoned family. The same divide applied to the allegations that Elaine physically abused her new husband. Daughter Lucy remembered a phone call from her dad’s colleague saying: ‘Elaine has broken his arm. You must do something.’ Mary, for her part, ‘didn’t believe the allegations at all’.

But in a way, this only confirmed what we’d seen in the rest of the programme: that Jane and the children were seeking to reclaim Hawking for themselves, and that Mary was seeking to reclaim him from Jane. The fact that both sides succeeded up to a point made for a thoroughly compelling and authentically knotty watch.

Meanwhile, in a week that saw the return of the ever-reliable Taskmaster (presenter: Greg Davies) and the continuation of the eccentric sitcom The Cleaner (writer and star: Greg Davies), there was also a reboot on Sky Max of Never Mind the Buzzcocks, as chaired by Greg Davies.

As reboots go, this isn’t a radical one — more the TV equivalent of a tribute act. The old rounds are present and correct, and Noel Fielding is still a team captain, now joined by Daisy May Cooper. What is different from the show in its pomp, however, is the far kindlier tone. In theory, I suppose, this could be regarded as further damning evidence of today’s increased touchiness. In practice, it’s actually quite refreshing.

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