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Television: Shock treatment

A haunted orphan with a junkie sister: and that's just the doctor. A new drama has a novel approach to mental health
Under the headline "Changing Minds", the poster on the wall of the psychiatric unit in the disused Surrey hospital declares that "every family in the land can be affected by mental health problems. Increase your understanding and reduce stigma and discrimination." This may be a slogan on a public-health publication, but it might just as well serve as a mission statement for Psychos, a new six-part drama that was shot in the aforementioned hospital. Beginning this Thursday, the series aims to overturn preconceptions about mental health. For a start, the title refers to the doctors rather than the patients.

For all its well-meaning protestations, the series has still - with wearisome predictablity - been jumped on by tabloid newspapers who have called it "trash TV". The Scottish actor Douglas Henshall plays the lead, Dr Danny Nash. Taking a break between scenes, he rejects the negative headlines. "They're just reinforcing stereotypes without finding out anything about our aims. Everybody concerned with this piece has done their research. There is nobody doing `mad' acting."

He goes on to claim that the series, written by newcomer David Wolstencroft, has been handled responsibly. "People with mental illness will be watching Psychos, and the last thing I want to do is patronise or insult them. I believe we're getting this as right as we can."

The producer, Chrissie Skinns, feels that the series works because it has a universal resonance. "We all think we're on a certain side of sanity, but we can see manic depression in ourselves. Who decides when that becomes an illness?"

Henshall just hopes that people will give Psychos a chance, and that it won't lead to knee-jerk calls for censorship. "Why do people phone up during Queer as Folk and say `I don't want to watch men kissing on my TV'? They don't have to watch it."

The character of Nash has a "holistic" approach to treatment that is tied in with the need to confront his own demons. Henshall explains that "he's not a Jungian or a Freudian - he's just in favour of whatever works. He's very open-minded. He's an orphan whose sister died of a heroin overdose, and he has this idea that as long as he can heal others, he'll heal himself." It makes for a thought-provoking portrayal of a doctor with as many problems as his patients. Henshall says: "I liked the idea that Psychos questioned what is sane and what is insane, and made no distinction between the two."

The drama brims with black humour, but is by no means cosy viewing. It features such uncomfortable elements as electric-shock treatment and suicide. But Henshall believes you can't brush these things under the carpet. "If you are going to deal with subjects like this, there are going to be times when you come across things that are a bit scary or go against your way of thinking. But surely it's a good thing to challenge people's perceptions. People with mental illness are usually never shown on TV, unless they're wielding an axe. They're never seen in a positive light. We hope this will change all that."

With If Only, This Year's Love and Orphans released in the last few months, Henshall has become one of the hottest properties around. But he still can't quite credit it when he sees his face on posters in the Underground. "You get this strange feeling that London has suddenly become an extension of your living-room. It's spooky."

Nor is Henshall keen to be lumped together with Robert Carlyle, Ewan McGregor and John Hannah in some sort of "Cool Caledonia" pigeonhole. "I loathe the idea that Scottish actors are suddenly trendy. They're good actors who just happen to come out of Scotland," he says, before adding, with a laugh: "And he slowly retreated off his soapbox and hoped he hadn't talked too much rubbish..."

`Psychos' starts on C4 on Thur at 10pm.