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Dara Ó Briain Meets Stephen Hawking review – impossible not to feel a fanboy’s sheer joy

This week’s Radio Times splashed the documentary Dara Ó Briain Meets Stephen Hawking (BBC1) on its cover, promising “The Real Stephen Hawking”, and illustrating it with a picture of handsome young Oscar winner Eddie Redmayne playing the character of Stephen Hawking in a film. While I admit that my scientific knowledge is largely limited to a combination of the Radiolab podcast and the Facebook page I Fucking Love Science, that decision does not seem entirely logical. But it is a problem this profile also has to deal with. While it is supposed to be an intimate portrait of one of the world’s finest minds, it appears predicated on a new surge of interest in the man after the recent biopic The Theory of Everything, and as such it occasionally comes across as an extended DVD extra, although there are plenty of moments when it hints at more.

Ó Briain immediately sets out his stall as a physics fanboy. The comedian and presenter, who studied mathematics and theoretical physics at University College Dublin, recalls asking his parents for a copy of A Brief History of Time for Christmas, and says throughout that he is fulfilling a boyhood dream by meeting his hero. He’s an excellent choice of host, asking difficult questions despite his clear reverence for his subject, and it is impossible not to feel the contagion of his sheer pleasure in finding himself in such a situation. More intriguingly, Ó Briain is honest about the process of interviewing a man with motor neurone disease. He says he is not sure how easy it will be to talk to Hawking, who lost his speech in the 1980s and produces, via facial muscles which activate his voice machine, an average of one word per minute.

Upon walking into the hotel room to meet Hawking for the first time, Ó Briain drops to one knee, as if the shock of finally encountering his hero has prompted a spontaneous and extremely awkward marriage proposal. He babbles about what a pleasure it is to meet him, then waits for an answer, still on one knee, and continues to wait, because a conversation with Hawking is inevitably played out to a different set of rules. An assistant eventually takes pity on him and brings him a chair. It’s one of this programme’s more charming decisions, to accentuate Ó Briain’s slightly bumbling approach rather than erase it in the edit. It humanises both interviewer and subject. For their second conversation, he sends the questions through in advance.

Perhaps because it is so hard for Hawking to talk, there is not much of his perspective overall but what Ó Briain gets out of him over a couple of sessions is surprisingly honest and intimate. He says he worried about The Theory of Everything film initially, because it was based on a book by his ex-wife. He explains his support for assisted suicide. He talks about his condition, and how he missed playing with his children physically when they were small. He says he would like to be able to swim again. Ó Briain asks him if he is lonely. “At times I get lonely, because people are afraid to talk to me, or don’t wait for me to write a response.” To the delight of Ó Briain, he ends their final encounter by cracking a couple of physics jokes, one about a photon, the other about a black hole.

Where Hawking is absent, others fill in the gaps. A former assistant tells a charming story about him being ill in hospital, where his colleagues decided to “burble science over him and that will get him better.” It worked, she chuckles. Two of his children offer rare and insightful contributions, too – his daughter Lucy considers the abnormality of her upbringing, while his youngest son Tim talks about how, before Hawking lost his voice completely, he could not understand his father, and says they only really began to communicate when he started to use his voice machine.

The documentary is less convincing when it pitches for the broadest possible audience. Aside from the cloying, sentimental soundtrack, which signals every poignant moment with all the subtlety of a flashing neon arrow, there is too much showbiz and not enough science. Ironically, this was one of the only complaints Hawking had about The Theory of Everything. He understood the lack of physics, but wished there could have been more. While I would not expect to have quantum mechanics laid out for me in its entirety between clips of the biopic, a Red Nose Day sketch and scenes from a red carpet premiere (I have Facebook for that), it seems a shame that his work is relegated to a brief chat about Hawking radiation, right near the end – and, crushingly for fantasists everywhere, an explanation that time travel would never be possible through a black hole, because it would simply “recycle your mass”, which I imagine would not be nearly as gentle as it sounds.

Still, when Ó Briain gets his copy of A Brief History of Time signed by his hero, with a Hawking thumbprint, those soaring strings seem, just for a second, to be entirely justified.


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