Hawking: Can You Hear Me? review: a deeply honest portrait of Stephen Hawking as a man and a father
The opening anecdote in Hawking: Can You Hear Me? (Sky Documentaries) was well chosen, because it told you so much about the subject of this documentary, Prof Stephen Hawking. Peter Guzzardi, who edited A Brief History of Time, described their first meeting. It took place in a hotel car park, where Hawking’s assistant helped him into his wheelchair. Hawking “literally did a 360 and shot off across the parking lot”, recalled Guzzardi. When he finally caught up, Guzzardi attempted some pleasantries, then waited to hear the assistant translate Hawking’s reply. It was: “Where’s the contract?”
Thus began an insightful profile of an extraordinary man. His genius is in no doubt, but the documentary concentrated on the personal: his disability and his close relationships. His first wife, Jane, and their three children, Lucy, Robert and Tim, were among the contributors, and they didn’t sugarcoat the story.
It was a complex portrait, neither hagiography nor hatchet job, but something that felt deeply honest. Hawking adored his children and yet – like many very driven men – wished to devote himself to work and not be concerned with the mundanity of day-to-day life. His disability, he told Jane, had an advantage: it meant he didn’t have to change nappies or cook meals, but could concentrate entirely on physics. Raising three children while caring for a husband with profound disabilities took its toll on the family. Jane put it starkly: “The impression that we gave was one of a very successful family… but sometimes I was so depressed I just felt like throwing myself in the river.”
The picture was complicated by Jane’s relationship with another man, Jonathan Hellyer Jones, and Hawking leaving the family for his nurse, Elaine Mason. Lucy recalled the “brutal” moment that Hawking gave the children their Christmas presents then announced he was moving out. But the programme-makers provided some degree of balance: contributors who praised Mason for bringing happiness to Hawking’s life; Hawking’s sister, who clearly has little love for Jane. Mason declined to take part.
It may have highlighted his faults, but the documentary also captured Hawking’s humour and sense of mischief. And as his daughter said: “One of the likeable and heartwarming things about him is that he is in many ways the opposite of an ivory tower genius – he’s a real human being.”