Trying to hold on to time

Seven Songs for a Long Life - Julie Reid and Mandy Malcolmson
Seven Songs for a Long Life - Julie Reid and Mandy Malcolmson

A film which makes you laugh and cry in equal measures sounds like a certain hit with audiences, but one which also educates takes it to another level.

Seven Songs for a Long Life is such a production.

However, the topic isn’t necessarily one you would expect to be featured on the big screen. Death is still the final taboo subject despite modern medicine helping people to live for years after a terminal diagnosis.

A snapshot of life in a hospice isn’t your everyday film script – except this isn’t scripted, it’s real life and real people. Men and women, elderly and surprisingly young, who regularly attend Strathcarron for day-care and support, both from staff and fellow out-patients.

At times their surprisingly frank admissions about their different illnesses and what the future holds for them make for difficult, but also compelling viewing as they try to hold on to time.

It’s difficult to watch Julie Reid (35), a young mum from Grangemouth, while knowing that she was told six years ago that the cancer treatment was no longer working and she should enjoy her time left.And who couldn’t empathise with Tosh O’Donnell when, being helped to fill in a benefits form, he refuses to tick the ‘special conditions’ box which would give him an extra £100 per week but also be an admission he had less than six months to live.

It is Tosh’s beautiful singing voice which gives the first glimpse of how the film got its name. His rendition of Sinatra shows how the patients, encouraged by nurse Mandy Malcolmson, use music and song to cope with what they are experiencing as they look back and look forward to their inevitable future.

The film has been made by Dr Amy Hardie who spent a year as a filmmaker in residence at Strathcarron, making films with the patients and running family film-making workshops before developing it into a feature documentary with financing from BBC Scotland, Creative Scotland, Bertha Foundation and Yle-Finland.

Seven Songs for a Long Life had its world premiere at the Macrobert Arts Centre in Stirling last Friday. This week it is being screened at almost 100 cinemas and venues across the UK, supporting Hospice Care Week.

Irene McKie, Strathcarron’s chief executive, said everyone at the Denny facility was “very proud” of the musical documentary. She said: “It’s really humbling for me that over 50 hospices are going to use it as a fundraiser. Also, that they see it as representative of what hospice care is and will use it to get the message across to their local communities.”

Director Amy said when she first arrived at Strathcarron she was told to do nothing but watch the patients. Eventually, they relaxed in her presence and music helped break down the barriers. She now hopes the documentary will have a similar role in changing people’s perception of what goes on in a hospice.

Paying tribute to her ‘actors’ she said: “Life is an operative word. People are told they are dying but their heart feels still alive. Everyone in Strathcarron is still vibrantly alive and music is a river running through the hospice.

“There was no plan what to do, but I had a sort of faith. The people were so riveting and interesting and articulate.

“These are extraordinary moments, or maybe they are ordinary moments.”

Iain Milne used to be a trophy-winning rider with speedway club Linlithgow Lighting but sadly he was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. Now living in Cumbernauld, he struggled with increasing daily pain for eight years before the hospice helped him discover effective relief.

His love of music has also brought him escape from his pain and he finds songs that his fellow patients can join in with.

While Dorene Ascher’s beautiful singing voice used to be heard with an amateur operatic society, she is seen singing her favourite song while receiving physiotherapy.

One of the most difficult parts of the film to watch is when Nicola McInally, a 39-year-old mother of four from Tillicoultry, is an in-patient and struggling to cope with pain. As her sister wept with her on the screen, sobs could be heard ringing out around the auditorium during Friday’s premiere – a stark reminder that these were real people suffering real pain and though they were no longer here, their loved ones were sharing with everyone else some of their darkest moments.

Sadly Nicola died last year but a song she recorded at the hospice during the making of the documentary was played at her funeral.

Mandy admitted she was unsure whether showing the patients coping with pain should have been filmed but after a lot of discussion it was decided to allow it. She said: “Nicky said it was probably worse for her family watching her pain. However, the fact she was able to in effect sing at her own funeral was inspirational.”

Sadly, Tosh (66) and Alicia Phillips (82), the self-confessed TV shopping addict, also died during the making of the film. But Julie, now married with a new baby son, Iain and Dorene were all at the first screening.