Robert Hanks: 'Truth and fiction combined tell story of mental illness'

The Week in Radio
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The Independent Culture

The convergence of truth and fiction is often unnerving, but it can be satisfying. The documentary series State of Mind (BBC Radio 4, Wednesday), and the play Walter Now (BBC Radio 4, Sunday) were, up to a point, both about the same topic – the dismantling of asylums, the vast 19th-century mental hospitals that held the ill and disabled for decades – and in some ways, the one supplied what the other lacked.

'Walter Now' is a sequel by David Cook to his own television film 'Walter', first shown on Channel 4's opening night in 1982, back when Channel 4 had a loftier sense of its own purpose than it does these days. In the original, Ian McKellen played a young man with learning difficulties whose mother died and who was shut away in an asylum, to be subjected to humiliation and cruelty. Among other things, the film contained the image of the dead mother covered in bird shit, and Walter's rape in hospital by a dwarf; there have been more cheerful films.

The radio play takes up the story a quarter of a century on: now Walter, who must be in his seventies, is living independently for the first time in half a century, sharing a bungalow with three much younger disabled people. Given the antecedentshis past form, one might have expected Cook to show no mercy to us listeners – we would hear of the terror that comes with freedom, the uncertainties and mistrust, the self-doubt, and the way that certainties that once seemed imprisoning can become longed-for comforts. But Cook muffed it: instead, Walter settled smoothly into a new life as an elder statesman, caring for housemates, helping them to cope with the terrors of the world, offering a lesson in decency and dignity.

At no point did he find himself at a loss – when an abused housemate sexually propositioned him, when a nasty neighbour, resenting his presence, reported him to the police for supposedly inappropriate contact with a boy, when his pregnant housemate was urged by her parents to have an abortion, Walter reacted with calm wisdom. And it all ended happily, with Walter and housemates looking forward to giving the baby a loving, stable home.

This was a fairy story, in fact, with two-dimensional characters leading linear lives. It also seemed to be a vindication of the once-reviled Thatcherite policy of replacing institutions with "care in the community". To some extent, it was underwritten by the film, and I was moved by the idea that the wretched life showed there could conceivably end so satisfactorily; but I didn't really believe it.

'State of Mind' began in the world of Walter, a world of dark corridors stinking of boiled cabbage and urine. In this series, Claudia Hammond recounts shifting attitudes towards mental illness over the last 50 years, beginning in the 1950s, when politicians began talking about removing the stigma (still some work to be done there, chaps) and psychoactive drugs arrived.

There were some lovely little facts here – before lithium became a widely accepted treatment for bipolar disorder, it was regularly added to beer – but more interesting was the testimony from Radio 4 listeners.

Perhaps 'State of Mind' will have the same kind of optimistic ending as 'Walter Now', but it has the complexity and ambivalence the play is missing.