I don’t know, you wait ages for a tv drama featuring mental health content, and then two come along together…..
First up is an episode of Doctors (a BBC1 daytime soap, for those of you with a life and/or job) called ‘Tuning Out‘ that went out on Monday afternoon. The episode’s available to watch for the next few days here.
The series is set in a GP surgery in a fictional town in, judging by the bulk of the accents, the north of England – a sort of everyday tale of doctoring folk. The regular cast are made up of the people who work in the practice. As with all soap operas, it obviously gives an entirely accurate impression of daily life. Who knew the average practice had a paraplegic doctor? Or a partner who has to work as a male escort in order to pay off his gambling debts? Or a receptionist who’s been having a 20 year affair with a married man and has to decide whether to abandon everything and emigrate with him? All of these entirely believable storylines are woven together with one-off stories relating to patients.
As you might have gathered, the programme isn’t exactly subtle, and it trades fairly heavily in stereotypes. For example, the producers for some reason seem to think that there’s something unusual and edgy about a character who’s a male nurse, and – get this – isn’t gay. Although he does walk round with a permanent chip on his shoulder about not having his masculinity taken seriously, so that’s alright. Anyway, it was a nice surprise to find that a MH storyline was treated in a compassionate and non-sensational way. It might even have managed to communicate some useful information.
The basic outline of the story was a mother who was concerned that her seventeen year old son, Tate, was starting to behave in an increasingly erratic way. He was spending more and more time shut away in his room, had a mobile phone clamped permanently to his ear, and was slipping behind in his college course. So far, so typical teenager, you might think. Anyway, his mother had spotted the change and was worried about it, so she made an appointment for both of them to go and see the GP. Although nothing concrete came of the appointment (he walked out part way through, then came back, and refused to talk about anything), his behaviour was enough to pique the doctor’s interest.
His mother’s concerns were shown developing in quite a believable way. To start with she put Tate’s behaviour down to him coming under the influence of his girlfriend who she didn’t like because she had “too many baubles and different coloured hair”. Later on, when his behaviour got more unusual, she started worrying that he was “on something”.
There wasn’t any of this doubt for us, as we got to eavesdrop on the voices Tate was hearing inside his head. We understood why he would sometimes shout out “Shut up!” when none of the other characters had said anything. We also realised that he wasn’t actually talking to anyone on his mobile, and was just using it as a way to cover for the fact that he was finding it hard to fix his attention on the real world.
The first voice Tate heard was that of someone on the radio, and he went on to hear the voices of other people he knew or met. Sometimes the voices would be nothing but an echo, repeating what they had already said. Other times the voices would talk to him personally, or would be commenting on events. Occasionally they would say something he found funny, and then he would laugh for what seemed to the other characters to be no reason.
Tate became steadily more distracted as the episode went on. We saw his bedroom, and the long lists he’d written to try and sort out what the voices were saying. We saw him wandering the streets in a scared and highly confused state. Finally we saw him in the reception area of the radio station. He’d gone there to try and speak to the presenter whose voice he heard, hoping he’d be able to help sort out what was going on. He was talking to himself, and the receptionist was frightened. When security started to move in he got frustrated and knocked some papers onto the floor. At this point the lad’s mother and the GP burst in and came to his rescue. The scene ended with him sobbing on the floor, and we learnt later that he’d been referred on for treatment.
There were a couple of things I liked best about the episode. First of all, Tate was portrayed with real sympathy and conviction all the way through – as a viewer you very definitely got the sense that this wasn’t someone who was bad or evil, but a likeable person who was struggling with something he didn’t understand. I think a lot of the credit for this has to go to the actor playing him (Nicky Bell), who managed to convey the fact that the voices were absolutely real to him, which is no mean trick when you bear in mind that he (presumably) wouldn’t have been able to hear them when he was recording the scenes.
The second thing I liked was that Tate wasn’t presented as being dangerous. His behaviour was unusual, and it was shown to be frightening for people who didn’t understand what caused it, but there was never any hint of him being violent. We didn’t even see him do anything coincidentally dangerous, like wandering out into traffic. Given that popular drama usually associates psychotic symptoms with being an axe murderer, it made for a really nice change.
It’s a bit of a shame that a TV programme that managed to get something like this right was buried in the middle of the afternoon schedules, when very few people will have got to see it. It’s particularly a shame when you compare it to Poppy Shakespeare, which went out the same day in primetime on Channel 4, and had been more-or-less trailed to death beforehand.
I didn’t actually hate the show. It was very slickly put together, and all the actors were good. Bits of it were genuinely, darkly funny – like the idea that a MH facility that actually treated people until they got better would be closed down for failing, whereas one that discharged most of its patients to go and self-harm or kill themselves in the community would be held up by the government as an example to others.
The central theme of the programme – that someone who believes she’s mentally ill at the start comes to realise that actually she’s not, while someone who starts off believing she’s well ends up profoundly ill – seemed rather obvious in a “look at us, aren’t we being clever” sort of way. The programme promoted a few old myths as well.
For example, all the patients shared a mass delusion that there was a two-way mirror in their group therapy room, and that the staff were selling tickets to the public to come and watch. At one point I even noticed one of the background characters rocking backwards and forwards in his chair. It was a shame, as well, that the programme showed several characters who were milking the system, and only pretending to be ill in order to get their “mad money”, which was some kind of state benefit, although I wasn’t quite clear which one.
It wasn’t all bad. The two lead characters were shown in a broadly sympathetic light, and as always after these kinds of programme there was information about links for “those who have been affected by the issues raised”. But it does irritate me that a programme which peddled a lot of myths about mental health got a prime-time slot, while a programme that actually went some way to destroying some of the myths was buried in the daytime schedules where hardly anyone will have seen it.