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Monday, 16 December, 2002, 18:57 GMT
Newsnight Review discussed Emma Thompson in the TV drama Wit.

(Edited highlights of the panel's review)

A lot of it looks like a kind of training video, I am afraid. It's very starkly done, in this white hospital, crisp clean sheets because it's America, not the National Health Service. There is this kind of strange confessional thing going on, where she talks to the camera, to the viewer. It's incredibly self reverential. "This is the last time I will get to talk to you." It really picks up in terms of a drama when she becomes too ill to talk. The later scenes, where she is lying there and her old tutor comes in to talk to her, were much more moving than anything I had seen before that.

I thought it was fabulous. It has that small, intimate home video feel, which uses the medium of television very well. I don't think this would work on the big screen at all, you would lose it. Emma's performance is fantastic. I had enormous sympathy for her. At the end, I was in tears, not because it was all so dreary and dreadful and it had no catharsis, but because it did. At the very end of the piece, there is a moment where she is dying, where her old tutor comes to hold her and reads to her from a children's book. She says, "This is an allegory of the soul. Wherever the soul hides, God will find it." You come out not feeling depressed but changed.

I was moved but I always tend to feel it would be a dreadful writer and actor who couldn't move you on the subject of terminal cancer and was slightly suspicious of that.

In a way, we are on very familiar ground here. Monologue about cancer. But I have to say that I spent the last half an hour of this in an absolute storm of tears. I thought it was overpoweringly moving. It's not just moving because it's about somebody dying. It's not just because Emma Thompson is just so perfect at this. It's not just about that, but about things like loneliness and someone who has put her trust in art, and at the end is not quite sure whether that's enough to hold on to. The most moving line in it, when she is talking to the doctors and trying to understand what's happening to her. She says, "My only defence is the acquisition of vocabulary." I don't know why I find that so moving. It's a complex play, which keeps tripping itself up in perverse, fascinating ways, making fun of itself, with her saying, "I can't believe how corny my life has become."

The heart-head dilemma is dealt with effectively here, in the crassness of the medical profession, but also for her because she has never joined the two things up until the moment of death arrives and then she is forced to become a whole person at the moment that she is in fact disintegrating.

When I first read about this play it worried me that the use of the John Donne reference was a kind of intellectual trimmings round the edge?

This sort of play very often has the problem that it kind of uses this material and doesn't have a proper respect for the material. I thought what I liked very much about this was that it was saying something interesting about John Donne from time to time and about cancer. All its material I was interested in. I was fascinated listening to the conversation between the dying patient and the doctor who has been drawn into cancer research by the whole intellectual excitement of it. That's unusual to have such respect for your material.

Ian, the John Donne part of it?

I don't think enough was made of that really. If you are going to use a conceit like that to look at metaphysics against modern physics and modern physical health then you should beef it up and do more. A bit like you, I felt that was almost around the edges to make it look a bit more serious than it actually was.

I thought it was integral.

I didn't. I thought it was just so isolated. It was just her on her own. Is that what it's like when you have cancer?

I am afraid I thought that's why it won the Pulitzer Prize, because it had all that stuff in it. I didn't feel they sat together.

No. I felt it was genuinely moving because it was threaded through the piece.

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