It's okay, I'm a psychiatrist

Is prime-time popular psychology unhealthy voyeurism masquerading as entertainment - or genuine therapy for subjects and listeners alike? TV and radio shrinks may be in danger of jeopardising their own credibility.

Anthony Clare's interview with Stephen Fry in yesterday's In the Psychiatrist's Chair on Radio 4 was only the latest example of a vogue that has - chiefly thanks to Dr Clare himself - become quite important in recent years: the ascent of the shrink interrogator. Half an hour of careful questioning produced an intriguing set of replies in which Fry wrestled uneasily with his own doubts about self-exposure. Deprived of his most successful weapon, comedy (it isn't easy to come up with wisecracks when you know that the serious little leprechaun behind the psychiatrist's desk will immediately chalk them down to some displaced insecurity), Fry tried to overcome his urge to be merely appealing. But even the programme's well-publicised climax - the moment when Fry confessed to having sat in his car with a rag staffed up the exhaust, poised to kill himself - was delivered in parenthesis, as an example of the sort of stuff that Fry didn't like to talk about lest it make him appear boastful or ungrateful.

It was good stuff, and went some way towards rescuing the reputation of a genre that was beginning to look endangered. The much-mocked tearfulness of Peter Mandelson (provoked by some not-very-astonishing inquiries from psychologist Oliver James) has made the whole pop-pschoanalysis project seem a bit rocky and calculated. It was barely credible that so controlled a performer should weep publicly unless he wished to; suddenly it seemed that even the sacred space of the consulting room couch (our modern equivalent of the old Catholic confessional) had been invaded by the same old manipulative desires for warming publicity.

The whole thrust of Oliver James's television shows, indeed - despite the pseudo-daring questions asked in the opening credit sequence "What sort of five-year-old were you? How did you get on with your mother? When did you first have sex?" - is a soft-focus version of therapeutic procedures. One of the key effects cherished by psychiatrist Anthony Clare is narrative candour: his patient microphone records and amplifies the pauses, sighs, evasions and shrugs as well as the moments of articulate self-examination. Oliver James's more restless television camera fades in and fades out, offering us, in effect, a highlights package. With this format, James won't be able to slowly circle the non-sequiturs of a Clare Rayner, and make her grow bolshy and defensive, as Anthony Clare once did; nor will he be able to silently stand back and gawp, as Clare did when Jimmy Savile tried to giggle his way out of difficult questions (`Do you like children?' `Couldn't eat a whole one! Couldn't eat a whole one!').

It is a pity, because psychiatrists and psychologists make good interviewers, and their arrival on the public stage is both natural and welcome. Television interviews in particular (radio finds it easier to be serious) have become so puffy and formulaic as to be themselves a worthwhile subject for satire. But the professionals are entitled to ask questions which would be cheeky and intrusive coming from a Parkinson, let alone a Wogan or an Anderson. Partly this is because the questions seem dumb and corny. "Do you perform well," Oliver James asked Stephen Fry once, when he interviewed him years ago, "because you're frightened of failing?" But questions such as this, asked without irony, do tend to elicit interesting answers (more interesting, at any rate, than "Was it fun working with Richard Gere?"). Both Anthony Clare and Oliver James do invigorate the idea - as does the revived Face to Face - that people are interesting, and might even be worth listening to. Of course we feel some scepticism about anything offered up these days in the name of entertainment, but these interviews do, apart from anything else, allow us to eavesdrop on a therapeutic encounter, thereby slaking our curiosity about what psychoanalysis might be like.

It is a relief, too, that pop psychology has started to leave behind what until recently had seemed its natural home, the comfy sofas of the Agony Aunts on daytime TV. And Anthony Clare, for one, is willing to make quite a grand case for his work. Yesterday, when Fry said that he couldn't come clean about how miserable and unhappy he was because it would seem unjust since he had so much to be grateful for, Clare suggested that this was a betayal of his audience, who were left believing that his life really was perfect, and that their own miseries stemmed from being less successful than Fry. In seeking to sob on no one's shoulders, least of all the shoulders of those less fortunate than himself, Fry, he hinted, was colluding in one of the least helpful modern myths about celebrity: that success equals happiness. It was a good point, and Fry, to his credit, didn't burst into tears.

Actually, Mandelson's tears put the gravitas of the shrink-interview in jeopardy only because they seemed contrived. The truth is that moist eyes are the highest ambition of interviews such as these, and always have been. When John Freeman on Face to Face made Gilbert Harding cry when talking about his Mum, a frisson went around not just the nation's sofas, but the television studios too. We ironic moderns are pretty suspicious of finely-phrased despair - it seems cold and untrustworthy - but we still trust tears; they hint endearingly at real emotions. When Gazza cried, it showed that he cared. Of course, this can easily become sleazy and voyeuristic: one thinks of the way Robert Kilroy-Silk on Kilroy likes nothing better than to put a consoling arm around the shoulder of some sobbing woman, urging her gently that it's okay, love, don't worry, it's understandable, go on, let it all out. To see a real lip trembling over a real nightmare may be voyeuristic, but it certainly is gripping.

And who better than shrinks to make people cry? It's their job, more or less, and they can pursue it in a polite and clinical fashion, on the quite proper grounds that it will do their patients good. Clare's wider proposal that to hear our heroes cry might make us envy them a little less, is welcome. But if tear-jerking becomes mannered the spell will be broken. The psychiatrist's chair will become just another prop for a couch potaton

`In the Psychiatrist's Chair' with Stephen Fry will be repeated on Radio 4 on Wednesday at 9.05am. `The Chair' will return to a regular BBC2 slot after the Wimbledon Tennis Championships

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