Four out of five people diagnosed with dementia lose their jobs. That’s a second trauma for lives that have already taken a hammer blow. The point of Channel 4’s The Restaurant That Makes Mistakes was to show that people are being written off too soon. If the 14 volunteers with various types of dementia shown here could staff a high-end restaurant in Bristol, then, the argument went, they could do anything.
It was a big “if”. Restaurants are complex workplaces that could have been expressly designed to flummox people with reduced memory, speech and sight. Many restaurants that aren’t staffed by people with dementia are still an unmitigated disaster.
There was a danger inherent in the programme itself, too: that it would make a laughing stock of the very people whose self-esteem it claimed to be bolstering. Because like it or not, a waiter who can’t write or a cook who can’t remember any orders can be made into a joke, like Monty Python’s Silly Olympics sketch.
And there was some of that in The Restaurant that Makes Mistakes – Roger, for example, a former Formula 1 mechanic who has Alzheimer’s, felt so anxious about his failing writing that he took an order and then quietly walked out of the front door. But it was handled with tact, and tempered with comedy at other people’s expense. David Baddiel, whose father has dementia, came in to meet the staff; they chatted to him at length and then, as he left, the camera caught one of them asking, “Who was that then?”
The travails of opening a restaurant were intercut with the stories of the staff – tragic mementoes of the people they had once been. For once, getting a celebrity involved provided real insight as well as a scattering of glitter – Baddiel, with characteristic acuity, said that with dementia “the individuality of a person doesn’t go”. That was precisely what The Restaurant That Made Mistakes made plain. By telling all of the staff members’ stories, and then giving them all a decent chunk of airtime, it treated them as individuals. If the problem for people with dementia is that they become invisible to society, this programme, gimmick or not, will at least make them be seen.