Television Review

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The Independent Culture
IF THERE IS one aspect of life immune to nostalgia, you would think it would be Victorian mental hospitals. These were, for the most part, louring, decayed buildings, stinking of stale urine, where lack of funds meant that the terrified and the despairing were left to tick over on tranquillisers and cheap food until they could begin to repair themselves (or not, which was quite often the case). Care in the community has been a flawed and dangerous policy, but anybody who has experience of Britain's Victorian asylums knows exactly why it seemed like such a good idea at the time.

But, of course, to keep nostalgia at bay you need information. Last night's Cutting Edge (C4), "Asylum", visited what used to be Friern Barnet hospital, the largest mental institution in Europe, which has now been transformed into luxury apartments that combine urban loft chic with Victorian features and rolling parkland. Among the new residents was Merilyn, who thought that being there would be "like living in a palace, in a peaceful palace". Taking possession of her flat she said: "I hope I'm as happy here as all the troubled minds who used to live here were."

One of those troubled minds was John, who paid a return visit. Walking around the corridors - Friern Barnet had one corridor a third-of-a-mile long, the sort of structure that could induce paranoia among the sanest - he spoke of "misery, suffering; you could almost weigh it, it was so thick". Given a sledgehammer, he would happily have knocked it down.

Merilyn's nostalgia was badly misplaced, clearly. But even John admitted that he had found asylum life addictive, drawn by the lack of any need to make decisions. Similarly, Leslie, another former inmate, had good memories of a life without pressure, of always having company.

This chimed in oddly with the desires of the new residents of "Princess Park Manor", as the hospital has now been renamed. The ones interviewed saw it, like Merilyn, as a refuge, a place where some of their worries would be taken care of. But that seemed natural enough: after all, mental hospitals were originally built as havens, places where those troubled minds could gaze on pleasant prospects and escape the noise and bustle of the city.

This was an interesting point - "irony" might be too strong a word - but not interesting enough for a 60-minute film. To pad it out, the director Rebecca Frayn, introduced artistically blurry film sequences, accompanied by deliberately melancholy string music, and kept asking the new residents if they had seen "ghosts". The spectre of a touching, intelligent film lurked here, but was swiftly exorcised.

More misplaced nostalgia in The Grimleys (ITV), a sitcom set in Dudley in the Seventies and based on the assumption that there is something intrinsically amusing about a) a Midlands accent and b) sideburns. (It is not to be confused with ITV's other 1970s sitcom, Days Like These, which also assumes that sideburns are funny, but has the courage to be set in Luton, with no noticeable local accent whatsoever.) This is why they got rid of News at Ten, for which I feel a sudden flush of nostalgia.