Posted by Charles
Did you see Britain’s Youngest Undertaker on BBC3? It’s on the iPlayer and it’s worth a look
It’s a documentary which follows Mike Ryan’s funeral business in Newport through the awkward experiment of testing the vocation and aptitude of his younger daughter, Rachael. For Mike, this is all about legacy. He’s sixty and his health is poor, exacerbated by his irascible, control-freak temperament. He’s into succession planning. There are shades of King Lear in the scenario, and Rachael has much in common with Cordelia. Not that the film is a tragedy by any means. But there’s an underlying melancholy emanating from Mike, a difficult man whom I very much took to. Not an easy man, but a man of integrity.
Rachael begins her apprenticeship as soon as she leaves school, a stroppy, pretty, spoilt (by Mike’s own admission) teenager. She has much of her father about her. She is put through her paces. She does grotty stuff, stocktaking coffins; she does difficult stuff, observing an embalming; and finally she gets to conduct a funeral, and she does just fine. She grows from arsey minx to thoughtful young woman. All will be well and Mike can heart-attack happy in the knowledge that all he’s built will go on. A lot of people will feel Rachael is too young. I don’t know that I am persuaded of that.
I don’t suppose there are many in the funeral trade, as Mike unsparingly terms it, who would have sat through this film oozing approbation. If Mike has made any money he’s certainly not reinvested much in his premises. There’s not a lot of peace, perfect peace about the place. There’s a moment when Mike cries out SHIT! from the ‘chapel of rest’, where he’s struggling with shirtsleeves and going off on one in front of a dead person.
Mike inhabits the type of a particular sort of undertaker. There are lots like him. Old school, for sure. For Mike it’s all about logistics and getting to the crem on time. He’s a fine-detail man. He comes over as impatient and obsessive. He treats everyone the same. But you can see that he’s got a heart of gold. I liked the way he greeted the family who come to ‘view’ in his jeans. No bullshit, not many words, but humanity for sure.
And this, I guess, is the plain way they do things in Newport. For everything that Mike might be perceived not to be, he is the product and servant of the culture of Newport. And that, I would say to critics, is actually the point.
Watch Britain’s Youngest Undertaker here.