The Week In Radio: The enduring allure of radio therapy

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Long ago, in more innocent times, before we were all forced to stare at other people's genitals in Embarrassing Bodies, there was a groundbreaking programme on Capital Radio called Anna and the Doc. The idea was that people would ring in and discuss their medical and psychological problems. There was a lot of teen angst and some quite eye-watering sexuality, which was probably why it became a cult. Radio's love affair with psychology has never looked back. It's always a comfort to discover people madder than ourselves.

Eavesdropping on analysis – as in the much missed In the Psychiatrist's Chair – is a winning format. So it was a clever device to turn the shrinks loose on fictional females. In Madwomen in the Attic a selection of madwomen in literature, including Jane Eyre's Bertha Mason, Madame Bovary and Anne Catherick from The Woman in White were put on the couch by analysts including Adam Phillips and Dinesh Bhugra, president of the Royal College of Physicians, who together could have put the Victorian novel industry out of business. Madame Bovary was prescribed couples therapy, plus medication for a possible bipolar disorder. Anne Catherick had learning disabilities and Bertha Mason's burning down Thornfield Manor could simply have been averted had Mr Rochester explored anti-psychotics and occupational therapy. "Occupational therapy?" asked a bemused Vivienne Parry. "What would you do? Knit antimacassars?" "Not play with matchsticks," agreed Dinesh Bhugra.

Amusing though this was, there was a serious point. As John Sutherland said, "A lot of Victorian fiction is about how you get rid of a wife. If a woman misbehaved it was very easy to get two doctors to certify her and lock her up." Dickens threatened to do it to his wife, Kate, when he took off with an actress, and Thackeray had his wife confined. Edward Bulwer-Lytton, a millionaire MP, had his wife, Rosina, certified when she harangued him at the hustings, and thereafter she offered him some literary help to create "the most dastardly villain in literary history – my husband."

Freud said wherever he went a great novelist had got there before him, and as this programme showed, on the subject of what constitutes mental disorder and how it should be treated, the novelists easily pipped the psychologists to the post.

Psychologists are far too civilised to come to blows – but Between Ourselves found child psychologists Laverne Antrobus and Oliver James in extraordinary harmony on the usually divisive subject of raising a child. This is a supposed to be a minefield, and I was expecting a bit of argy-bargy about smacking and so on, but unlike any other scenario involving a man and a woman talking about bringing up children (i.e., most families in Britain) the two agreed on everything. As James, a serene old Etonian said, "We haven't got a magic formula, just be a good enough parent."

If you had to be adopted by anyone you would hope it was these two. But sometimes, I found myself praying for them to disagree.

By far the most memorable exercise in psychology this week – if not this year – came in Radio 3's Intensive Care, a meditation by the film-maker Terence Davies on the events leading up to his mother's death. This deeply affecting piece was a layered soundscape of songs, sounds and voices – which sounds off-putting, but was both effective and moving. Davies told of his Liverpudlian childhood, the youngest son of a working class Catholic family with a "psychotic bastard" of a father and a beloved mother, to whom he was unusually close. This was Davies's first foray into radio and much credit to the production company, Unique, for bringing it to being. I bet it wins prizes. For a film-maker, Davies has produced a piece perfectly suited to its medium, with the kind of devastating intimacy, the intimacy of the confessional, that only radio can provide.

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