thu 13/06/2024

Teen Undertaker, Channel 4 | reviews, news & interviews

Teen Undertaker, Channel 4

Teen Undertaker, Channel 4

Quirky, opaque look at the lives of two young funeral directors

Teen undertakers: 'People person' Paul and the 'too young, too blonde and too pretty' Laura

This quirky, compelling little Cutting Edge film never really worked out what it wanted us to think about what we were seeing, which in the end played to its advantage.

Because it avoided the sorry fate – namely, shoehorning its participants into an ironic cul de sac then pointing at them and sniggering loudly - of TV programmes whose entire raison d’être begins and ends with the creation of a cynically arresting title, the results ended up being opaque, neatly observed and even rather moving.

The premise, at least, was simple: to follow two teenagers from East Anglia who worked as undertakers. Laura was an 18-year-old Miss Norfolk candidate who, according to her mother, was “too young, too blonde and too pretty” to be a funeral director. Laura, thankfully, was a little more enlightened. Meanwhile Paul, 19 going on 40, described himself as a “people person” even as he was sewing up the mouth on a corpse.

At first it looked like Teen Undertaker might take the easy route, and simply use these two teens as a prism through which the programme could mock the modern penchant for attempting to rub all the hard edges off of death and treat it instead as a giant cosmic gag; to gaze down its nose at the kind of impulse that makes people choose “Another One Bites the Dust” as their funeral song.

So we first saw Laura as she was gamely flogging novelty coffins – you can now be interred in burial boxes fashioned into a six-foot bottle of wine, or designed to resemble a skip, or festooned with painted sheep or Norwich City’s football colours – at some kind of bazaar for the discerning future dead. She seemed like nothing so much as a beautician who simply preferred her clients to stay very still, and revealed that when her time came she wanted to be buried in full make-up, and “if I’ve put on a bit of weight I want to be a Size 8”. Paul was also ripe for a bit of gentle rib-poking. He met his girlfriend (who rather too swiftly, it seemed, became his fiancée) at a funeral. She was also an undertaker, and their sweet nothings took an unlikely turn: “Do you want to be buried?” he whispered as they held hands. “Double plot?”

But from these japes the programme widened out into something more than mere caricature. Laura – who calmly explained to her fellow contestants at the Miss Norfolk beauty pageant what she did and why she enjoyed it - was revealed as a well-rounded teenager who was able to give the dead their proper respect without neglecting the pressing matter of living her life.

Paul was equally dedicated but seemed more introverted, finding a kind of solace in his work that went beyond mere professional dedication. Teen Undertaker ended with five quietly moving minutes in which he was seen meticulously preparing the dead body of his uncle Dudley, explaining that this was his own way of saying goodbye. Like much of this strange and beguiling little film, it conveyed rather a lot without trying to say very much at all.

Paul's girlfriend was also an undertaker, and their sweet nothings took an unlikely turn: “Do you want to be buried?” he whispered as they held hands. “Double plot?”

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