In the function room of a Northamptonshire cricket club, a circle of women stand with two thumbs up, chortling heartily at the TV presenter in their midst. They are enjoying their regular session of “laughter yoga”, the presenter is the Rev Richard Coles and this is Good Grief (Channel 4), a documentary that can be described as a look at the lighter side of bereavement.
Coles lost the love of his life, David, in 2019. He has already published a book, The Madness of Grief, on his painful experience of widowerhood. While it is easy to regard TV as a medium in which definitive statements must be made, Good Grief does not do this. Instead, in the finest traditions of the celebrity travelogue, it takes Coles on a tour of the UK and beyond, meeting people who have responded to the death of a loved one by taking up quirky, cute or daunting hobbies. Tracked by a charming illustrated map, Coles embarks on a trip that takes in boxercise in Wellingborough, chatting to alpacas in the Cotswolds and a dinner party full of strangers in London.
The wisdom Coles wants to pass on is simple. Amid the shock of loss, you can wallow in sadness, hiding from an outside world that has the temerity to continue without its most important participant – as Coles puts it, “sit at home in a black shawl, clacking the beads” in the belief that grief is a process to endure. Alternatively, you can leave your “comfort zone” and try something challenging or superficially ridiculous, because epiphanies can be unlocked in unpredictable ways.
The activities Coles tries might be unconventional ways to tackle bereavement, but in TV terms we are on familiar ground, because Good Grief is essentially a fistful of reports from The One Show threaded together. “So, why are we surrounded by surfboards?” Coles asks the proprietor of a Bristol aquatic school that offers an unusual form of grief therapy. Later, at a facility where a wind tunnel simulates the sensation of freefalling, that light-factual cadence, breezily summarising an interviewee’s intriguing life, is perfectly rendered: “I’m in Milton Keynes to meet Al, an international skydiving medallist who lost both of his legs 20 years ago.”
To his credit, Coles is far too self-aware to let the absurdities of the genre go unsatirised. He makes reference to the producers banning him from filming the whole thing in his home village, and to the programme’s budget being blown by a “grief cruise” off the coast of Florida, where Coles bonds with other bereaved people over rounds of crazy golf.
All this is a harmless means to an end – an excuse to hear Coles talk with that leather-patched, walnut-panelled Englishness that makes him the ideal host for BBC Radio 4’s middle-class brunch symposium, Saturday Live. His example of a small practical consequence of losing a partner, a quotidian frustration that stands as a metaphor for deeper emotional effects, is the grandfather clock in his hall that David alone knew how to wind: “This bloody clock used to tick and tock and chime, and now it doesn’t.” The place where happy memories of David are most vivid? The coast of Scotland, a regular holiday haunt, where the lapping of waves and the distant birdsong form “the soundtrack to the best of our life together”.
Considering the subject matter, indulging in a reassuring presence such as Coles, his easy erudition like spoonfuls of warm sticky-toffee pudding, is forgivable. While the show’s takeaways – it helps to talk, to say the departed’s name; the undemanding, unconditional love of animals can be a valuable crutch; coping with grief is not a linear progression towards “getting over it”, but an adjustment to a new way of living – are not profound, they have a universality that transcends their genteel packaging.
You probably don’t have the time, money or inclination to join a widows’ retreat during which a music therapist turns a poem you have written into a folk lament. If you did, your verse wouldn’t be as deft as Coles’: “You sang: ‘I’ll love you till I die’ / In that, you did not fail / The memory comes in close, and circles, then it’s gone / Running over the wet stones, while I walk on.” Yet the lesson about the cathartic properties of poetry and music is easily adaptable – and TV journeys such as this are meant to be enjoyed vicariously, rather than imitated. Coles is a fine guide.