Last month, during the last full week of the school holidays, the children saw a double bill of Hugh Grant films, spread out over a few days. First was “Paddington 2” (2017) on Saturday night, while my wife and I were at a restaurant for our wedding anniversary (yes, two restaurant meals on the same day, after our lunch-time trip to Wagamama). Neither of us has seen it yet, but both of the children have seen it at least twice. A few days later my daughter asked if we had a copy of “About a Boy” (2002). She had seen a few minutes of it on Film4 but it was screened too late for her to watch to the end. We do have a copy, somewhere, on VHS, but the prospect of digging it out, and setting up our last working VCR, didn’t appeal to me. (The VCR is boxed up when it’s not needed, which is most of the time.) We found that it was available on the Movies on Demand service on our multi-channel box. Within a minute, and for not much less than the cost of buying it on DVD, we had rented it for 48 hours. This is the 2018 equivalent of nipping down to Blockbuster and picking up a video. We watched it through twice and enjoyed it enormously. (We did the same with “Jumanji”, not a Hugh Grant movie, earlier in the holidays.)
My daughter, 40 days before her 12th birthday, is now old enough to understand, and enjoy, most of “About a Boy”, but she wasn’t quite sure what was going on with the references to suicide. This is probably a good thing. She has not encountered many stories of people killing themselves, either in real life or in fiction. Nobody in my immediate family, or my wife’s immediate family, has committed suicide. At one or two removes – the in-laws of first cousins, with no shared bloodline, or cousins of cousins – there have been stories of family members killing themselves, but I had never met any of them.
As you will know if you have seen or read “About a Boy”, the story is narrated by its two main characters: a “weird kid” called Marcus (played by Nicholas Hoult), 11 or 12 when we first encounter him, and Will (Hugh Grant), a shallow single man whose life involves doing not very much. In the first 20 minutes of the film Marcus’s mother Fiona (played by Toni Collette) attempts to kill herself and is discovered, before it’s too late, by Marcus, Will and her friend Suzie (Victoria Smurfit), the single mum Will is trying to date. For any grown-up who has seen enough movies and TV dramas, the sight of an unconscious Toni Collette slumped across the sofa with dribble running down her chin, and her friend’s urgent instruction to call for an ambulance, indicate exactly what has happened. For an 11-year-old, more used to watching musicals and stories revolving around a talking bear, it wasn’t quite so clear.
Later in the film, just before his mother returns home from hospital, Marcus discovers the note that she had left him. It’s not referred to as a “suicide note” but we grown-ups know that’s what it was. Again, this was mostly lost on my daughter. I explained it to her later on. There are two scenes where one of the main characters is about to mention the suicide attempt and is interrupted by the other one. First, at a restaurant where Fiona confronts Will about the amount of time Marcus has been spending at his flat (watching “Countdown” mostly). Will is about to refer to it when Marcus shouts “Cowabunga”, to interrupt things. Later, at a Christmas lunch, Marcus is about to mention what happened that day. Will interjects and reminds him that it was the day he killed a duck with his mother’s home-made bread. Again, adults can work out what each character was about to say but it’s not so obvious for someone who has just finished primary school.
There is only one other film I can recall watching with the children which features scenes of someone trying to commit suicide: “Groundhog Day”. When Phil (Bill Murray) discovers that he is reliving the same day over and over again he attempts to kill himself in a variety of ways, on different iterations of this repeated day. It’s a scene I barely remembered from all those times I watched it back in the 90s, but it leapt out at me a couple of years ago, sat on the sofa with the children either side of me, both under 12 years of age. Watching “Skyfall” last month I didn’t explain in detail what Javier Bardem’s character meant when he was describing his unsuccessful attempt to activate the cyanide capsule in his back tooth.
My son, now aged 13, has become very familiar with the contents of Challenge TV, a digital channel showing quiz shows and game shows round the clock. (I first mentioned it in this piece at the start of the year.) He is therefore fully acquainted with the work of Dale Winton on “Supermarket Sweep”, a show that he has watched many times at weekends, and he was sad when Dale died back in April. There were implications that he might have taken his own life. In the days after his death, phrases like “He just didn’t want to live any more” were used by people who knew him, and the story of his mother’s suicide (and Dale discovering her body) featured in many of the news items at the time. My son asked what they meant by “He just didn’t want to live any more” and I didn’t speculate or elaborate too much on it. Dale was very unhappy. He might not have been taking care of himself. That sort of thing. Last month the coroner declared that Dale Winton died of natural causes so we were right not to speculate too much, and I don’t believe that my son needs to know the details of Sheree Winton’s death.
As they grow older, the children will no doubt encounter many references to people killing themselves. They could read, or see productions of, any number of plays where it happens (“Romeo and Juliet”, “Antony and Cleopatra” and “Julius Caesar” come to mind). They might explore the music and history of Joy Division or Nirvana, and learn how their lead singers died. “Anna Karenina”, “The Godfather Part 2”, “Scum”, the works of Sylvia Plath: these are some of the places where I encountered depictions of suicide as a teenager. They will see and read about it in other places. They have heard me sing along with “All the young dudes” countless times already in their young lives without asking for an explanation of the opening lines (“Well Billy rapped all night about his suicide / how to kick it in the head when he was 25 / Speed jive, don’t want to stay alive / When you’re 25”). In the meantime, I hope that their minimal exposure to suicide, in fiction and in real life, continues for many years to come.