Television: Did I really say that? I must be mad

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The Independent Culture
I'd better get the apology out of the way first. Reviewing Minders last week, a series which follows the work of a South London community mental health team, I noted television's ability to arouse "facile indignation" in its viewers. Unfortunately I ignored my own warning and went on to make a rather casual condemnation of the unit's head, Professor Tom Burns, implying that he had an unquestioning faith in the chemical cure and an arrogant attitude to his patients' distress.

Watching subsequent episodes of the series I've come to see, with increasing uneasiness, that this was an unworthy suggestion. In the very next film, for example, you saw him demonstrating considerable empathy with Alan, a young schizophrenic. He realised that the protective, anxious love of Alan's mother might be aggravating the illness rather than easing it. Far from medicalising Alan's problem, Professor Burns attempted to work on the relationships within the family. Subsequent films have also brought home how abrasive and exhausting such patients must be - wildly inconsistent, unshakeable in their convictions, fantastical in their accounts of their own wellbeing. A manner that, at first glance, looked unheeding now appears sensibly contained. So... sorry.

This isn't, I should say, a complete volte-face. The issue raised by that first programme was, in one sense, a matter of disputed vocabulary. Who decides what "treatment", "illness" and "cure" really mean? Who decides when behaviour is "appropriate"? And if treatment leaves the patient virtually disabled by muscle-cramps, can they really be said to be better or just easier for an over-burdened system to handle? Even in far more difficult cases, such as that of Valerie (shown last Monday) medication can look awfully crude in its operations. Valerie was hypermanic, her speech a torrent of angry accusations and wayward observations. She could switch mood within a sentence: "I have NOT got acute psychosis!" she shouted angrily during one session with her doctors, "I have got a cute face". She grinned playfully.

After injections, though, her speech was slurred and a strand of saliva dangled from her chin. "I feel useless... I want to kill myself," she moaned, and her own accusing question - "What's wrong with being high anyway?" - seemed to have some force. And, though her mood had calmed by the end of the film, it didn't seem likely to be any kind of long-term solution. "You want the honest truth?" she said at the end. "I just want a sexual relationship - this hospital can't give it to me. I need a boyfriend." Unfortunately you can't get love on the National Health.

Minders has done a considerable service in showing how difficult, painful and complex mental illness can be - not a virtue shared by all the elements of BBC2's "States of Mind" season. Last night's short drama Go Back Out, was powerfully acted by Andrew Lancel and Nicola Stephenson and directed with real visual flair by Mike Barker, but its fictional account of madness couldn't help but seem a little schematic alongside the real thing. As an admirer of Jo Brand, I am tempted to pass over Jo Brand Goes Back to Bedlam in silence. For 30 interminable minutes the director had her wander around a derelict hospital talking inconsequential nonsense about the mentally ill: "I think they're just, like, people, um, like, sort of, anybody else." To her credit she realised very quickly that the whole thing was a mistake and provided her own review: "This is the most bizarre thing I've ever done in my life - pushing a trolley full of cans of drink and chocolate along a three-quarter of a mile corridor in the middle of the night... Maybe I'm just supposed to keep talking bollocks, I don't know." A pointless ramble, in every sense.