Grace Dent on TV: Bedlam, Channel 4 // OCD Ward, ITV // OCD Cleaners, Channel 4

For all we learn about mental illness on TV, we may as well be gawkers at a 17th-century freak show

As Britain has grown, in recent years, slightly more comfortable with the idea of mental illness and with discussing the turmoils and glitches inside our heads, it's only natural that our TV screens should be flooded with “mad” television. I counted three shows this week that “examined” illness around the anxiety/obsessive-compulsive disorder spectrum alone.

Seriously mentally ill people, it seems, are perfect for television. No one wants to watch commonplace, highly functioning mentally ill people – of which there are millions – because 55 minutes on a hairdresser who feels uncontrollably bleak, finds the correct medication and therapy and is back at work within a few months won't win any ratings.

The seriously ill, however, are heavily watchable. They represent our darkest fears – irretrievable brainfog manifesting itself in humiliating ways. They look just like us because they are just like us. Plus they're at a safe distance through a TV screen and not remotely our responsibility – double win – which makes them much more affable than the delusional person in your local park. They aren't represented by one of the top five London agents who'll ask for £15k-a-day booking fee and cars. They don't require plots sketched out by a team of assistant producers and daft-haired researchers in a writing room, because their brains are already producing surplus plots.

Helen, in Channel 4's Bedlam this week, is, or rather was, a library assistant at the British Museum. She is absolutely certain – during every one of her waking hours – that she had hidden a stranger inside a rubbish bin. See? You couldn't make it up. James is obsessed with sitting on the toilet. He can spend almost all day in the smallest room of the house, terrified that if he stands up he'll have an accident.

Bedlam – which has full access to The Maudsley Hospital in South London, which traces its roots in treating the mentally ill back to 1247 – is sensitively produced and totally compelling. I watched the first episode about anxiety (also featuring the man who counts everything in “magic numbers” and the man who uses a hundred pairs of surgical gloves a day) and then immediately began the second episode, focusing on the crisis unit which admits suicides and those who are at risk of harming others.

Yet – and this is important to me – I'm unsure what I really, honestly learned. It's widely documented that in the 17th century, Bedlam raised extra income by allowing spectators inside to view the insanity. The “spectators at Bedlam” fact is one cited endlessly in connection with modern television, especially as Big Brother plays host to those with ongoing addictions and disorders, or the first weeks of X Factor mocks the delusional conceit of people whom it could be argued are unwell. And as a civilised, educated person, I've always set myself snootily aside from the sort of looky-loo who'd have swarmed to Bedlam back then. However, if one looks closely at yesteryear century reasoning behind the spectators, it's documented that there was in actual fact a sincere drive to attract “visitors of quality” in the bid to grow their compassion and understanding. This sounds very familiar; in fact, it's the sort of thing written into the 21st-century mental-illness TV pitch.

Clearly, 17th-century Bedlam's plan didn't work, because in fact hundreds of thousands of people learned nothing while having a great time being spooked, and that's ironic as after this week's show I am no closer to telling you the exact name of Helen's or James's diagnosis, the type of medication or genre of talking therapy proscribed to them, the possible side effects of drugs, ballpark long-term prognosis or anything helpful at all I could do to help someone similar. I just know that it's awful and that I don't want to be them.

OCD Ward on ITV was, naturally, a slightly more downmarket version of Bedlam, featuring equally compelling, likeable characters, with similarly obsessive issues – just with added toilet-licking. One way to help cure OCD, the show seemed to say, is by being really blasé about touching the toilet bowl in front of your OCD buddy before shoving your hands in your mouth trilling, “Look nothing to worry about, I'm not scared of germs! That's irrational!” Except that publicly shared toilets are actually covered in germs and it's not irrational to want to protect yourself from that – so while a trained therapist with a sterilised toilet could possibly do this therapy, I'd say don't try it at home.

None of this was explained in OCD Ward, or the illness tackled in any depth, as it's more interesting to film doctors wiping fragments of other people's poo on their foreheads. Then, scraping the bottom of the OCD TV barrel, was Channel 4's OCD Cleaners, which is one of the nightmarish shows that Charlie Brooker might have added in his fake listings magazine “TV Go Home”. Some people with OCD who are terrified of dust, mess and dirt are sent to square up to someone obsessed with hoarding. A 30-minute fight ensues, full of meltdowns on both sides and a lot of sobbing. The only difference between yesteryear Bedlam and this show is that no-one would pay 10 shillings to see it.

Suggested Topics
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Elizabeth McGovern as Cora, Countess of Grantham and Richard E Grant as Simon Bricker

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Art
Arts and Entertainment
Diana Beard, nicknamed by the press as 'Dirty Diana'

Bake Off
Arts and Entertainment
The X Factor 2014 judges: Simon Cowell, Cheryl Cole, Mel B and Louis Walsh

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Gregg Wallace was caught by a camera van driving 32mph over the speed limit

TV
Arts and Entertainment
books
Arts and Entertainment
The Doctor and the Dalek meet
tvReview: Doctor Who Into the Dalek more than compensated for last week's nonsensical offering
Arts and Entertainment
Star turns: Montacute House
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Iain reacts to his GBBO disaster

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Outlaw Pete is based on an eight-minute ballad from Springsteen’s 2009 Working on a Dream album

books
Arts and Entertainment
Cara Delevingne made her acting debut in Anna Karenina in 2012

film
Arts and Entertainment
Simon Cowell is less than impressed with the Strictly/X Factor scheduling clash

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Gothic revival: artist Dave McKean’s poster for Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination
Exhibition
Arts and Entertainment
Diana Beard has left the Great British Bake Off 2014

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Lisa Kudrow, Courtney Cox and Jennifer Anniston reunite for a mini Friends sketch on Jimmy Kimmel Live

TV
Arts and Entertainment
TVDessert week was full of the usual dramas as 'bingate' ensued
Arts and Entertainment
Clara and the twelfth Doctor embark on their first adventure together
TVThe regulator received six complaints on Saturday night
Arts and Entertainment
Vinyl demand: a factory making the old-style discs
musicManufacturers are struggling to keep up with the resurgence in vinyl
Arts and Entertainment
David Baddiel concedes his show takes its inspiration from the hit US series 'Modern Family'
comedyNew comedy festival out to show that there’s more to Jewish humour than rabbi jokes
Arts and Entertainment
Puff Daddy: One Direction may actually be able to use the outrage to boost their credibility

music
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    'I’ll tell you what I would not serve - lamb and potatoes': US ambassador hits out at stodgy British food served at diplomatic dinners

    'I’ll tell you what I would not serve - lamb and potatoes'

    US ambassador hits out at stodgy British food
    Radio Times female powerlist: A 'revolution' in TV gender roles

    A 'revolution' in TV gender roles

    Inside the Radio Times female powerlist
    Endgame: James Frey's literary treasure hunt

    James Frey's literary treasure hunt

    Riddling trilogy could net you $3m
    Fitbit: Because the tingle feels so good

    Fitbit: Because the tingle feels so good

    What David Sedaris learnt about the world from his fitness tracker
    Saudis risk new Muslim division with proposal to move Mohamed’s tomb

    Saudis risk new Muslim division with proposal to move Mohamed’s tomb

    Second-holiest site in Islam attracts millions of pilgrims each year
    Alexander Fury: The designer names to look for at fashion week this season

    The big names to look for this fashion week

    This week, designers begin to show their spring 2015 collections in New York
    Will Self: 'I like Orwell's writing as much as the next talented mediocrity'

    'I like Orwell's writing as much as the next talented mediocrity'

    Will Self takes aim at Orwell's rules for writing plain English
    Meet Afghanistan's middle-class paint-ballers

    Meet Afghanistan's middle-class paint-ballers

    Toy guns proving a popular diversion in a country flooded with the real thing
    Al Pacino wows Venice

    Al Pacino wows Venice

    Ham among the brilliance as actor premieres two films at festival
    Neil Lawson Baker interview: ‘I’ve gained so much from art. It’s only right to give something back’.

    Neil Lawson Baker interview

    ‘I’ve gained so much from art. It’s only right to give something back’.
    The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

    The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

    Wife of President Robert Mugabe appears to have her sights set on succeeding her husband
    The model of a gadget launch: Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed

    The model for a gadget launch

    Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed
    Alice Roberts: She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

    She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

    Alice Roberts talks about her new book on evolution - and why her early TV work drew flak from (mostly male) colleagues
    Get well soon, Joan Rivers - an inspiration, whether she likes it or not

    Get well soon, Joan Rivers

    She is awful. But she's also wonderful, not in spite of but because of the fact she's forever saying appalling things, argues Ellen E Jones
    Doctor Who Into the Dalek review: A classic sci-fi adventure with all the spectacle of a blockbuster

    A fresh take on an old foe

    Doctor Who Into the Dalek more than compensated for last week's nonsensical offering