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Blind Ambition review – a candid, charming take on sight and artistry

Blind Ambition (BBC Two) takes the tried and trusted format of putting two grumpy men together and sending them off on an exploratory adventure. The twist here is that Jamie O’Leary, a TV director, is partially sighted, and Jamie MacDonald, a standup comedian, is blind. O’Leary, who directed the series I’m Spazticus, explains that his passion projects cast disabilities in a different light. The idea here is to meet blind or partially sighted creatives, to see how their vision changes, well, their vision.

Blind Ambition is part travelogue, part documentary, part art project, and it is a bit of a shambles, at times, but a charming one. O’Leary has myopia, and at the beginning the producers send him off to an appointment at the eye doctor: “I always get a ‘wow’.” On cue, his optician greets him with one, before asking MacDonald what he would say to O’Leary, if he were to lose his sight completely. Should he prepare himself for it, or act as if it will never happen? O’Leary says, frankly, that he is in denial and can’t even let himself go there.

The candour of this documentary feels important. In Southend, after the first of many slightly tetchy car journeys together, the two Jamies meet Ian, a professional photographer who is 95% blind and has tunnel vision. In the car, MacDonald tries to work out how much he can, essentially, take the piss out of Ian; O’Leary tells him to go easy. But after Ian talks about his earlier depression and thoughts of suicide, he is the one who impresses the need for jokes. “You’ve got to have a sense of humour to get through blindness,” he says, before photographing the presenters in front of shops called Blind Corner and I Heart Blinds.

There is a series of stunts contained within this hour-long programme, each more absurd than the last. The Jamies try to take their own photographs in Southend, to varying degrees of success. They dress up as mice for more pictures (it took me a second to realise that the concept was “two blind mice”). Both appear entirely unimpressed at what the producer is asking them to do, even more so when they realise that doing the shoot at a train station on a Saturday night might attract a bit more attention than planned. “Is this a weird porno?” heckles one passerby.

Next, they go to Reading to meet a rapper, Stoner, who lost his sight five years after contracting meningitis at the age of 11. It is the most enjoyable section by far, in part because O’Leary attempting to impress Stoner with his hip-hop knowledge and questions about weed is very funny indeed. Denial rears its head again, as Stoner talks about his refusal to have a white stick or a guide dog, although he does say that, if he could train up an American bulldog, he might consider it. The Jamies then put themselves through the excruciating ordeal of a rap battle. To the enormous credit of Stoner, he gamely nods along.

In Derby, the pair meet Chris, a blind woodturner. Inspired by Chris’s confidence, the Jamies give it a go on the lathe, until Chris has to interject: “Right, careful!” In London, they meet Lizzie, a soprano who has no peripheral vision, but after they dress up as cartoonish opera singers and try to sing on stage, O’Leary has had enough of the stunts. Instead, he decides to put together and direct a rap-opera-western, with Lizzie and Stoner, and a cameo from MacDonald. It starts to go off on a tangent here. There is an art show, which features Chris’s woodwork, Ian’s photography and paintings and collages by various artists with limited or no vision. Then Apple from the Black Eyed Peas does a cameo on a new track by Stoner. I wondered if this was conceived of as a series, rather than the one-off it has ended up being. It certainly packs a lot in.

As a travelogue, though, it is very funny, and I thoroughly enjoyed O’Leary and MacDonald’s bickering. For all of its ramshackle, self-deprecating humour, it offers an illuminating take on blindness and creativity, as well as a candid look at the psychological effects of being visually impaired. O’Leary cites a New York Times piece from 2017, which reported that most Americans regard a loss of sight as the worst thing that could possibly happen to them. Again and again, they meet creative people who are dealing with that “worst thing” and making music and art regardless.

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