The brief history of Stephen Hawking is one we all know. Diagnosed at the age of 21 with motor neurone disease and given three years to live, he went on to marry his sweetheart Jane, have three children and become – despite increasingly severe disability and many health crises – a groundbreaking physicist and cosmologist. He was also a member of the Royal Society, the Lucasian professor of mathematics at Cambridge (a seat once held by Newton) and a world-famous author and lionised public figure after writing the bestselling A Brief History of Time. He died in 2018 at the age of 76.
You could easily fill a documentary with stories of his genius. What Hawking: Can You Hear Me? (Sky Documentaries) did was take on the trickier task of illuminating the man and examining what it took, from him and all those around this hyper-focused, hyper-competitive mind, to accomplish all that he did.
It was as much a portrait – detailed and compassionate – of the effects of severe disability on a marriage and family as anything else. Jane, his wife for 30 years, was interviewed at length and provided quiet insight, all the more harrowing for its understatement, into the psychological toll of caring for an increasingly incapacitated spouse who wouldn’t talk about his illness and who would only accept outside help when it became a matter of survival.
Their children were interviewed extensively, too. “All the time I knew my father he was 24 hours off dying,” said Lucy, born seven years after his diagnosis. The youngest son, Tim, was six when Hawking lost the ability to speak. When his father got the voice synthesiser he recalled it as “a golden era of communication for us”, despite the waits for responses after every childish question. “You never quite knew what to do with yourself!” Robert remembered his father still being able to go upstairs with support, but it being hard to get his attention (“like a lot of fathers, I suppose”) when he was deep in thought about (unlike most fathers) quantum mechanics, general relativity and the prospect – tantalisingly close, to his extraordinary mind – of uniting the two to create a mathematical theory to explain the universe.
This delicately intelligent film also asked how much indulgence we give, and should give, to extraordinary minds. The picture painted of Hawking was one that contains a fair streak of selfishness, but also invited viewers to consider how much of this was innate and how much a product of his physical circumstances. It was left to us to decide how much Jane’s erasure from his story even as it was unfolding (when he was made a member of the Royal Society, for example, Hawking thanked his supervisors and colleagues, but didn’t mention her or his children) was a result of his own sexism, social mores or sheer lack of appreciation of what it took to get him safely from conference to international conference on the part of others. Is a degree of denial perhaps a vital protective measure, even if it so upsets those who love you?
Above all, perhaps, it was a study of love. Of young love and how it can take you into a marriage that, doctors say, will last at best for a few years. Of how it can change, yet persist when those parameters change. How it can be denied if duty calls. As the years went on and Jane became more and more exhausted and depressed by the intolerable pressures placed on her by Hawking’s growing fame, workload, travel and disability, she and widower Jonathan Hellyer Jones, one of the few people Stephen would allow to help the family, fell in love. They denied themselves a relationship for years for Hawking’s sake.
It was also a study in how a child’s love is unaffected by a father’s inability to throw a Frisbee, but can be dealt a hammer blow by his defection from the family. Hawking moved out on Christmas Day (“I thought – still think – that was unnecessarily brutal,” said Lucy carefully; one of the many moments that underscored what an inadvertently fine illustration the programme was of a certain kind of Englishness) to be with one of his nurses, Elaine Mason. Their relationship continued for more than a decade, despite concerns about her controlling personality and attitude towards him. They divorced after a police investigation into her alleged mistreatment of him, which both always denied. Hawking refused to make a complaint and no charges were brought against Mason. He, Jane and the children managed a rapprochement and were on good terms when he died.
It was a fine, fine film that answered much and evoked more, gave genius its due, and the unsung heroes – at last – some of theirs.