BOOK REVIEW / It's my chair and I'll ask what I like: In the psychiatrist's chair - Anthony Clare: Heinemann, pounds 16.99

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The Independent Culture
IT IS 10 years since Anthony Clare began his radio series In the Psychiatrist's Chair, but there is still confusion about the eponymous seat. On the jacket of this collection of 12 interview transcripts, the doctor sits in a fine late-Regency mahogany carver. Justifying the programme's title, he says that while no one could imagine that a half-hour chat amounts to therapy and no interviewee is a patient, 'I am a psychiatrist and it is my chair'.

Yet he later asks Derek Jarman why he agreed to be interviewed 'in the psychiatrist's chair', as though Jarman not Clare is in it. Then he invites Claire Rayner to 'sit in the Chair', which has become capitalised, like a professor's. Now unless Rayner is in Clare's lap . . . but no, this was a tricky enough encounter in any event, with Rayner breaking down completely over questions about her childhood.

This furniture confusion is the first of many features of the psychopathology of Anthony Clare revealed by this interesting book. He is also repeatedly, perhaps morbidly, drawn to people who have made their names in the performing arts or in writing. Arthur Ashe is the only exception in a dozen that includes Dame Janet Baker, Anthony Hopkins, Eartha Kitt and Ken Dodd.

In all these interviews Professor Clare displays symptoms of a condition common to people of his clinical background - a childhood and family fixation, which he occasionally tries to disown, or at least justify, by reference to the father-figure Sigmund Freud. Of the people he consults, Janet Baker, whose brother died as a child, and Jimmy Savile, youngest of seven children and therefore starved of his mother's love, are the most helpful in this area. Ken Dodd, tightwad and loner, most completely rebuffs Dr Clare's pleas for help.

Some of the interviewees reveal pretty strange symptoms themselves. Tom Sharpe has a desire to shout rude words in church or in Tube trains. Janet Baker regards her wonderful voice as a cross she has to bear. Jimmy Savile appears to have no human feelings at all. The late R D Laing, characteristically, produced a sane response to a mad situation: he turned up drunk.

Clare's most revealing question is in fact to the gradually sobering Laing: 'What if I said you were too sensitive to be a doctor?' The element of dispassion - perhaps lacking in Laing - gives Clare's own conversations their best moments. He is admirably quick to see when someone is trying to put him off the scent and is not afraid to keep probing at a tender area; it is this dogged insensitivity that provides the ghoulish delight for the audience.

Scrupulous listeners, including fellow- practitioners, might quibble about the way Clare's arty subjects seem to have been hand-picked to provide him with the sudden, showy identification of childhood traumas and adult symptons that in real psychotherapy takes months of patience, if it comes at all. The non-specialist, however, must admit that in these exchanges, however abbreviated and untypical, there is the raw stuff - the fears, the doubts, above all the bloody perseverance - of actual human life, and this makes gripping radio.