Can Adam Phillips transfer the ideas about madness that work for him as a psychoanalyst and essayist into an original television format? Surprisingly, he canby David Herman / March 17, 2005 / Leave a comment
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…