TELEVISION / Stripping away humanity: Andy Gill on follies both criminal and artistic

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The Independent Culture
THE American documentarist Frederick Wiseman was fortunate to begina career investigating institutions in just the era - the late Sixties - when those institutions were under greatest pressure to change. In Titicut Follies (BBC 2, Saturday), filmed at the Massachusetts Correctional Institute for the criminally insane, the results were so disturbing that the film was banned by the state after one screening. Twenty-seven years on, it was still harrowing stuff, a howl from the Dark Ages of psychiatric practice.

Here, apparently, was boundless power without even the responsibilities of conscience, as inmates were stripped of clothes and dignity, and patronised by burly, dimwitted guards. A heavily accented shrink straight out of a New Yorker cartoon repeatedly asked a sex offender, 'How do you feel about doing crimes like this?', as if he were one of those reporters who prize feeling over thinking. The inmate clearly felt uncomfortable, but then he had a camera lens thrust in his face as a doctor asked him how often he masturbated. Two or three times a day didn't seem excessive - given that the only other recreational option offered seemed to be 'glee-club' singing - but the doctor thought this was bad. 'And you never haff a guilt feeling when you masturbate?' he asked, as if that was the entire point of the activity.

The routine nakedness was the most revealing symbol of a power relationship based at best on the convenience of the incarcerator rather than the needs of the incarcerated. Usually, it went further than that, a systematic humiliation intended to remind inmates just how dependent they were upon their captors' small mercies. In the most bile-rising sequence, a skeletal inmate was pinned to a table as a male nurse, puffing on a cigarette, shoved a greased rubber feeding-tube down the man's nasal passage. The restraining guards looked on admiringly, praising the smoker's expertise. 'He's a veteran,' said one. The inmate said nothing.

One desperate detainee, diagnosed as a paranoid schizophrenic, asked how he could be expected to show the improvement required for release from a place which was itself responsible for his worsening condition. Originally sent for observation, he had been stuck there for a year and a half: small wonder, he argued, that he seemed paranoid. The doctors smugly ridiculed his argument before prescribing another cocktail of mood-altering drugs about whose effects they were clearly uncertain.

In between the horrors, Wiseman's camera caught the merely weird. A babbling lunatic declaimed loudly in disconnected phrases drawn from the speech of doctor, lawyer, priest and policeman, forever locked into an alien vocabulary of authority figures. In the exercise yard, an apocalyptic conspiracy theorist ranted on about the evils of religion, as near by another inmate sang a hymn while standing on his head. You could see his point: this was a topsy-turvy world with every man for himself, and God, apparently, against all.

Sunday was National Conception Day for the BBC. In Malcolm McKay's film Maria's Child (BBC 2, Sunday), part of the 'Screen 2' series, dancer Maria (Yolanda Vazquez) fought against the interest-groups and pressures (work, family and church) trying to influence her after she accidentally got pregnant. Things were complicated by her belief that the foetus was talking to her, egging her on in whatever she decided - most absurdly shouting 'Ole' as she auditioned for a role in a flamenco musical. It didn't clarify or animate the abortion issue in the way McKay presumably hoped; ultimately, it all boiled down to Maria's assertion, as she chose career over family: 'If I don't do it, I won't be me.'

Earlier, Charlie (James Wilby) and Barbara (Suzanne Burden) had been desperately trying to conceive in You, Me and It (BBC 1, Sunday), the first of a three-part comedy of the kind the Radio Times calls 'bittersweet'. Here it meant a miserable time was had by all while a bizarre rugby metaphor was chased all over a script serenely untroubled by humour.