Maudie was a happy, wise and centred little girl, says her dad, Bafta-winning actor Jason Watkins. Her mum, fashion designer Clara Francis, describes her as simply “joyful”. Footage of the little one mirrors their words. Toddling around in dungarees learning to juggle, her blonde hair tied into skew-whiff bunches and with a toothy grin plastered across her face, Maudie looks like a typical toddler: full of life and ready to take on the world.
That’s what makes her death at just two-and-a-half-years-old, on New Year’s Day 2011, so devastating.
Jason and Clara: In Memory of Maudie, the ITV1 documentary in which Maudie’s parents tell her story, was never going to be an easy watch. But while my tears were free flowing for almost the entire hour, it was an incredibly inspiring and surprisingly hopeful film.
Maudie died of sepsis — a severe reaction to an infection, which while life-threatening, can be treated if caught early enough. Unfortunately, the symptoms were missed, and the cause of her death was only discovered in an inquest a few months later. “There’s anger there,” admitted Watkins, who kept up a façade of cheeriness throughout. Francis was much more emotional, walking away from the cameras multiple times to cry in private. It might have been over a decade since Maudie left them, but the grief has never subsided.
It is difficult (if not impossible) for me to put into words the pain Watkins and Francis evidently felt during filming, not least because they often struggled to vocalise their emotions themselves. They wanted to tell Maudie’s story for two reasons: one, they were about to move house, leaving behind the flat where Maudie was born (literally, Francis gave birth to her at home) and died. And two, they felt duty-bound to raise awareness of the symptoms of sepsis. But even that noble cause was born of grief, with Watkins admitting he thought if he could stop children dying from the condition, Maudie might somehow return to him.
The emotional gut punch of the documentary came when Francis’s friend brought around Maudie’s belongings, which the family had given to her for safe keeping. Reaching into a bag and pulling out her daughter’s tiny shoes, Francis broke down. She eventually forced herself to hold them and to take them to their new home, while Watkins took some dolls and a Peter Rabbit stuffed toy to remember her by. It was devastating to watch.
On the more medical side of the programme, we followed Watkins to King’s College Hospital to witness nurses and doctors learn how to spot signs of sepsis. Watching the professionals assess a case, it became clear just how easy it is to miss the symptoms, although unsurprisingly, Watkins found little comfort in that fact. The exercise brought him right back to those days before Maudie died, when the doctors had no idea what could have been wrong with her.
The hope came, as it always does in these heartbreaking circumstances, with the realisation that no- one is alone. Francis headed up a support group for other parents who lost their children (some as recently as five months ago), while Watkins visited the ground of his beloved Queens Park Rangers FC to meet other dads who lost their daughters. “People say men don’t talk. Men do talk, we just need to be encouraged,” he mused. I’m sure many watching who have experienced child loss will feel just as seen as those included in filming.”
Most of us know tp perform CPR to the beat of “Stayin’ Alive”, and thanks to those terrifying TV adverts, many of us can spot the signs of a stroke. But while sepsis kills at least 52,000 people in the UK every year, many of us have no idea what to look for. Symptoms in adults and older children include blue, grey, pale or blotchy skin, lips or tongue, while people of colour can show such discolouration in their palms; a rash that doesn’t recede when a glass is rolled over it; slurred speech or confusion; and difficulty breathing. Babies and younger children might have a higher pitched cry than usual, become sleepier or lose interest in normal activities like feeding. As Watkins said, it’s imperative the signs of sepsis become better known among both medical professionals and the general public.
Jason and Clara: In Memory of Maudie was open-ended – there is no end to such grief, after all – but I hope it helped heal the couple just a little and made the transition away from Maudie’s home a bit easier. And if the goal of making the film was to create a permanent public record of just how much Maudie was loved, then job done. What a privilege to be invited into her world and watch a few home videos of her pushing a pram around her garden and playing with her big sister.
Thank you, Jason and Clara, for letting us meet your little girl. She certainly won’t be forgotten.