The Restaurant That Makes Mistakes review – TV to prompt waves of feelings
This series bringing 14 people with dementia together to run a restaurant is clear and compassionate, showing the power television has to mass-educate.
We are entering the age of dementia. Individually, so many of us are now directly or, at the very smallest remove, affected by it. Culturally, first come the documentaries, of which there have been many, and then come the reality TV projects. A few weeks ago there was Our Dementia Choir with Vicky McClure, which saw the Line of Duty star, whose grandmother had the condition, investigating why and helping demonstrate how musicality can survive the brutal blows other skills and abilities cannot. Now, there is The Restaurant That Makes Mistakes (Channel 4).
It follows the trials, tribulations and triumphs of a group of 14 volunteers suffering from various forms of the condition, who come together to run a restaurant under the aegis of Michelin-starred restaurateur Josh Eggleton and Matt Dodge, a chef who has trained to work with people with dementia. (“I don’t think the oven’s on, guys,” is one of my favourite of his calm interventions so far.)
Last week, they had a dry run, serving meals to friends, family and some paying customers. This week, the food critics are coming. The changing weekly gimmickry could become overwhelming and distasteful, but, for now at least, is relegated to second place. The people themselves remain the focus, with their names, ages, former professions and the specific forms of dementia they are dealing with frequently stated on screen. The setting, meanwhile, is just a useful backdrop against which we are best able to see them in the round.
As a result, we understand that Sandie is put in charge of ringing the orders through the till and dealing with money because her condition, progressive supranuclear palsy – the terminal degenerative brain disorder that affected Dudley Moore – makes her speech markedly slow and slurred but leaves her cognitive functions relatively intact. This also demonstrates how much reliance we place on a person’s ability to verbalise as a means to infer their intellectual abilities.
Jacqui, meanwhile, is placed on meeting and greeting duties, because repetitive tasks help her and because her posterior cortical atrophy (the late Terry Pratchett’s own “embuggerance”) leaves her brain unable to process visual information – she cannot tell, for example, if a napkin is folded or not. Peter is there to help her because, although just 54, his Alzheimer’s has already rendered him unable to continue running the family sawmill business; his charm and articulacy remain, and he seamlessly soothes Jacqui’s anxieties and ushers the diners smoothly in.
The programme had a clear mission to increase knowledge and encourage acute sensitivity, and it holds fast. It also made a fine fist of showing how the non-physical, non-medical ramifications of diagnosis are not immutable and can be alleviated. Becoming involved in the restaurant has, for example, dispelled some of the loneliness Shelley has experienced since her friends started drifting away after her diagnosis two years ago at the age of 43.
Peter and his family didn’t tell anyone for a year because he felt ashamed, and he became suicidal. And all of them speak of the restoration to their self-esteem, soundly clobbered by the loss of jobs and careers, which is an experience common to 80% of all people with dementia diagnosed before retirement age. “Having a purpose,” says Peter, after coming close to tears at sitting down at a computer and sending an email for the first time since he stopped working, “is a great thing.”
It does, however, beg the question of why it is to television that we must so often look for these forms of mass education and destigmatisation. I never know whether to laugh and cheer at the power it has to make a difference, or weep that we don’t seem to be able to get there any other way. Out of the goodness of our own hearts or the operation of our own common sense, perhaps. Or following the lead of a compassionate government that sees it as part of its remit to care for the vulnerable and make understanding different circumstances and lives part of our national fabric.
It was a programme and a project that prompted waves of feeling and a desire to see all sorts of things done better. Here were a group of people who together were able to plug the gaps in each other’s abilities – the meshing of multiple porous minds making them almost whole again.