FILMMAKER Paddy Wivell caused a minor stir last year with his documentary about Alex Stobbs, an Eton-educated teenager who has cystic fibrosis. Alex's ambition is to become a classical conductor, and after the programme aired he received offers from several leading musicians. He also wrote his autobiography (his story is interesting, but a memoir at 17?) and received four marriage proposals, presumably from well- meaning yet essentially condescending creepy people.
Wivell caught up with him in Alex: A Passion For Life, which found him studying music at Cambridge with just three months to go before his first professional gig, conducting Bach's epic St Matthew Passion before a sold-out audience. Clocking in at a daunting three hours, this piece would be a challenge for any budding conductor, never mind one with an incurable illness.
Although still chained to a mountain of pills and daily injections, Alex was determined to live a normal, active life – despite being unable to even make a cup of tea properly, not through illness, but presumably because he'd never previously had to.
CF aside, Alex is a normal teenager, and it was this normality that he was most keen to stress. Desperate to assert his independence, he affected a typically adolescent air of blas indifference even when faced with the worst aspects of his condition.
Nevertheless, his loving mother – whose understandable fussing clearly embarrassed him – alluded to "dark moments" of despair that Alex himself would never admit to on camera.
Sadly, his health had deteriorated since the first programme. Despite his bravado (born of a self-determination possibly bolstered by his privileged upbringing) the programme was full of stark reminders that he is seriously ill. In and out of hospital throughout, Alex – oxygen tanks on standby – eventually conducted his orchestra in front of an audience who were unaware that he'd been vomiting repeatedly the night before.
Fortunately, his performance was a success, even though it cost him three weeks in hospital.
Alex's tutor hoped he wouldn't be sentimentalised as an inspirational novelty triumphing over adversity, but rather as a talented young conductor in his own right. Unfortunately, his wishes were somewhat undermined by the inherent conventions of this type of documentary, which demand that we be moved and inspired by the plucky determination of their protagonists. It's difficult to divorce Alex's achievements from his illness, especially when faced with a programme predicated upon that very contradiction.
And yet, aside from an excruciating encounter with an admirer who praised him as though he were Mother Theresa, Alex managed to escape without being patronised unduly. Although he presumably participated in the programme because he's flattered by the attention and hopes that it will further his career, he's smart enough to understand – even exploit – the need for people to cast him as a hero. As he made clear, his only goal is to do what he loves and to control his life to the best of his abilities. If that means appearing in "inspirational" TV profiles of himself, even though he'd be the last person to ever solicit sympathy, then so be it.
Alex's latest ambition is to form his own orchestra. It's safe to assume the cameras will be back.