Can Adam Phillips transfer the ideas about madness that work for him as a psychoanalyst and essayist into an original television format? Surprisingly, he can
Perhaps the strangest gap in British television is programmes about mental health. There is no end of so-called reality shows, but the reality we avoid is the one inside. Despite the figures on depression, schizophrenia and suicide rates, we do not really want to know what causes mental illnesses, how to treat them and whether there are interesting new ideas in the field. It is so much easier to cling to a few predictable genres: the earnest Horizon documentary about scientific breakthroughs in understanding the physical causes of mental illness (labs, white coats and graphics), documentaries about psychopathic killers (mood music and well-lit dramatic reconstructions), worthy programmes about “living with mental illness,” and, worst of all, that old chestnut about art and madness (scary music, Van Gogh and weird lighting).
The outstanding programmes about mental illness have rarely been made by British television. Think instead of the extraordinary Hurry Tomorrow, a fly-on-the-wall film of a Los Angeles mental hospital in the 1970s, or No Man is a Stranger, about the impact of the 1950s psychiatric drugs revolution on a madhouse in Haiti. But there are exceptions. Hugh Burnett’s 1967 documentary, Escape from Sanity, about the progressive treatment of acute schizophrenics at Shenley Hospital, before the Laingian revolution became a parody of itself; a two-part profile of William Sargant made in the early days of Channel 4; and the first programmes about Oliver Sacks’s work by Duncan Dallas. These programmes ditched cheap thrills and clichés about madness and listened very carefully to a few doctors and patients.
The beginnings of The South Bank Show with the psychoanalyst Adam Phillips (“Going Sane,” 27th February) are not promising. Clichéd images of the mad in chains are flashed up, we get familiar shots of the famous long corridors of Friern Barnet and the music is predictably weird. After that, however, it becomes one of the most intelligent programmes shown in years.
It has an unusual format: part Adam Phillips being interviewed by Melvyn Bragg about the ideas in his new book, Going Sane, part Phillips interviewing a fresh and unfamiliar cast of specialists, and part Phillips’s reflections on art and madness. Author of around a dozen books of essays showing the quirkier, lighter side of psychoanalytical thinking, Phillips has attracted a cult following for some time. The question is whether what works in long pieces in the London Review of Books can work on television. Is he just too quirky? Television has an odd relationship with eccentrics. We cannot get enough of characters like Patrick Moore, Magnus Pyke and David Bellamy. We like the mix of brains, passion and physical oddity. But real eccentricity—original ideas that defy conventional wisdom and thrive on complexity— is another thing.
The problem was to find a format that would allow Phillips to thrive, without seeming too smart for his own good. Anchoring his reflections on the mind in these two sets of conversations could have left the programme feeling neither one thing nor another: neither a set-piece interview nor an authored documentary. The result works thanks to the quality of the ideas. Take this exchange, early on, between Phillips and a consultant psychotherapist from Broadmoor. “Mental illnesses,” she tells Phillips, “don’t make people more creative.” She has disposed of the art and madness myth in a sentence. Mental illnesses, she goes on, leads to less flexibility, less capacity to use talent. “It’s a process of loss.” The reference to “mental illnesses” is just as illuminating. Instead of a crude opposition between mental health and illness, there are many forms of mental illness and this sets the tone for Phillips’s inquiry.
Having ditched the clichés about art and madness, Phillips goes on to ask why we need to believe artists are insane. Could it be a cover story for anxieties that we all have about not being as sane as we would like? And if we are not as sane, what are we? If people are not completely insane, are we ever completely sane? Phillips turns to romanticism for help. The romantics were interested in madness, of course, but they were also interested in childhood, in what it is to be a new person in the world and how that new person becomes “a disillusioned adult.” This leads him to Alice in Wonderland and then Freud. The conversations bet-ween Phillips and Bragg are first rate, like the exchanges that Bragg championed on Start the Week and, more recently, on In Our Time, where producer Jonathan Levi started out.
Levi’s film takes risks, both in terms of content and form. By the end, it has moved from clichés about madness and art to questions about what a sane art would look like, and what we might find valuable about ourselves if we ditched both the glamorising notions of Laing and Foucault and an entirely negative view of madness.
It is rare to see television this intelligent today. Following the excellent Howard Goodall South Bank Show on music, this fascinating film shows how original an art documentary can be.