Television never used to make me cry.
Then, a few years ago, while idly flicking through the five (yes, as many as that in the UK these days) available channels on my parents' TV, I came across a familiar looking man, in a chair, in a seemingly otherwise empty studio. He spoke calmly, and assuredly, in response to uncompromising questioning from a hidden interrogator.
I decided to stick with it to find out more. The man's mellifluous delivery, his calm approach to the tough, direct, questioning, and the smile in the sound of his voice kept me watching and listening. I was glad, in the end, that I made that effort, as it provided me with a heart-tuggingly touching moment of television.
The programme was 'Face to Face', presented by Jeremy Isaacs. It was an interview series that stood out from its peers for its searching questions and candid, revealing answers. This was no Wogan or Parkinson, no luvvies cosying to their chum the host here. On this show, typically the interviewee would give away more than just the publication date and an anecdote from the next installment of their biography.
In the chair on this occasion was Paul Eddington, an English actor chiefly remembered for his roles in two superb political satires, Yes Minister and Yes Prime Minister, and as Jerry Leadbetter, the put upon husband of Penelope Keith's Margot in 'The Good Life'.
I hadn't recognized him at first because he bore only a passing resemblance to the fresh-faced actor with the comic touch I remembered fondly from those TV comedies. However, The Good Life ran from 1975 to 1978, Yes Minister from 1980 to 1984, and Yes Prime Minister from 1986 to 1987, and I had probably not seen a more recent Eddington than that. What's more, by the time Face to Face was recorded, Eddington had been suffering for some time with a rare form of skin cancer that had started as long ago as the 1970s, but was only openly known relatively recently (after press speculation that he was suffering from AIDS).
During the course of the interview, Eddington responded to his inquisitor's probes with his customary candour and good grace, the kind of demeanour that led Penelope Keith to talk of "the professionalism and the jollity and ready wit of a very fine actor". At the end of the programme, Isaacs asked Eddington what he would choose, if he could, as his own epitaph. Eddington paused for a few moments before delivering his reply, the essence of humility:
"He did very little harm."
I have never felt so humble, or humbled.
I have mentioned this idea to several people over the last few years. Some people are genuinely touched, while others see it as a negative sentiment. It doesn't make sense - why not aim to achieve greatness in life, rather than damage limitation?
To them, I say poppycock. We all do good things, but that doesn't mean we should list them and score points. A few people even manage greatness, but for most of us the best we can offer is that we make the right call most of the time. I wish I could say I have done very little harm, without it being utterly egregious.
"He did very little harm."Paul Eddington, 18 June 1927 - 4 November 1995