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R D Laing: The celebrity shrink who put the psychedelia into psychiatry

R D Laing was idolised by 1960s hedonists and demonised by conservatives. A new film will tell his extraordinary story

Jonathan Brown
Monday 29 December 2008 01:00 GMT

He was the celebrity psychiatrist to swinging London who swapped the sterile wards of post-war mental hospitals for showbusiness parties where he rubbed shoulders with troubled rock stars, actors and artists eager to share their problems with him.

But by the time of his death on a Riviera tennis court in 1989 at the age of 61, R D Laing's reputation was at an all-time low, dismissed as the drunken high priest of failed Sixties hedonism, a fallen icon of the sex, drugs and rock'n'roll generation and wrecker-in-chief of traditional nuclear family values.

A new film telling the life and times of the radical Scots-born therapist considered to be Britain's answer to US psychedelic guru Timothy Leary is to be brought to the screen next year. Among those considered to be his most celebrated admirers at the height of his influence in the 1960s when he was a regular feature on television were the Beatles, Jim Morrison, Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes.

His fellow Glaswegian Robert Carlyle, himself brought up in hippie communes, is in talks to play the role of the maverick doctor who turned medical convention on its head by searching for the roots of mental illness in the stresses within the family and other close relationships.

Carlyle, who made his name starring in the film Trainspotting and was last month cast in a leading role in a major new US series of Stargate Universe, is a long-time admirer of Laing's ideas, intrigued by his larger-than-life personality. "For the past 10 years I have wanted to play Laing in a film," he has said.

Much of the movie, to be shot on location, will be centred on Laing's work at Kingsley Hall in east London, now home to the Gandhi Foundation, where he devoted himself to a radical experiment in which mentally ill patients and their doctors lived together, offering a humane counterblast to the electro-shock and drug therapies made notorious in Ken Kesey's One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest.

But it is for his work with celebrities and his troubled private life for which he has been most recently remembered. Among his most famous patients was a young Sean Connery, then struggling to come to terms with his new-found superstardom after appearing as James Bond in Goldfinger. Connery's first wife Diane Cilento recalled how the actor was persuaded by Laing to take the powerful and at that time legal hallucinogenic LSD to deal with the stresses of his career and the anxieties left from his strict working-class upbringing in Edinburgh.

Laing accompanied Connery on the psychedelic trip, taking a smaller dose of the drug. Ms Cilento later described how the meeting came about. "[Laing] demanded a great deal of money, complete privacy, a limo to transport him to and from the meeting and a bottle of the best single malt scotch at each session," she said. As well as suffering from bouts of alcoholism and depression, Laing fathered 10 children by four women.

But he became a hero to the counter-culture despite his much-publicised personal shortcomings. Laing's official biographer, Bob Mullan, who is securing finance for the film, described discussions with Carlyle over starring in the production. "As an actor, he has that same mixture of charm, sharp intelligence, sexiness, vulnerability and utter malevolence that is suited to the role. Indeed, depending on your point of view, Ronnie Laing was either a seductive saint or the devil," the author said. Hayley Atwell, who recently starred alongside Keira Knightley in The Duchess, has also been approach-ed to play Laing's second wife Jutta, Mr Mullan added. Today Laing's views, based as much along European existentialist philosophical lines as conventional psychiatric ones – his approach is often characterised as Sartre meets Freud via Karl Marx – have endured. There are several major institutes, including one in Canada and another in Switzerland devoted to studying the principles which informed his ideas, made famous in books such as The Divided Self and The Politics of Experience.

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His charitable organisa-tion, the Philadelphia Association, founded in 1965, continues to run residential households as well as training courses and lectures.

Scholars now believe much of Laing's pre-occupation with the family dates back to his own troubled upbringing. Brought up in a repressed Presbyterian family in Glasgow in the 1930s, violent scenes were regularly played out between his father and grandfather while his mother, said to have stuck pins in an effigy of her son, destroyed his toys and burnt the family's rubbish in the grate rather than reveal the contents of their bin to the outside world.

Yet Laing was so devoted to his work that he was accused of neglecting the emotional needs of his own family. This year, Adam, 41, the eldest son from his second marriage, was found dead surrounded by empty bottles in a tent on the Balearic island of Formentera. Adam's half-brother, Adrian, a successful London lawyer said: "When people ask me what it was like to be R D Laing's son. I tell them it was a crock of shit."

But the 50-year-old lawyer welcomed news of the film and particularly casting Carlyle. "He has the Celtic fury about him that captures what my father was about," he said.

Problems mounted for Laing after the closure of Kingsley Hall in 1970. He suffered money pressures and was forced to exploit his fame exploring fringe issues such as shamanism, running rebirthing sessions and travelling to Sri Lanka and India. In 1987 he gave up his licence to practise amid accusations of drunkenness and assault and died two years later, a man bitterly out of step with the changed times.

Triumphs and turkeys The films of 2008

Films including Eagle Eye, The X Files and the critically acclaimed Hunger were listed among the year's 10 worse movies yesterday.

The Dark Knight, starring the late Heath Ledger, was voted the year's best movies, followed by Mama Mia! and No Country For Old Men, in a survey of almost 2,500 film lovers.

Confusing thriller Eagle Eye was voted the worst film, just below the stoner comedy Pineapple Express and the romantic comedy Fool's Gold.

Critically acclaimed documentary Man On Wire and Oscar-nominated Iranian animation Persepolis were also included in a list of the worst 10 in the poll by, an internet DVD rental business.

Best films of 2008:

1 The Dark Knight (27%)

2 Mamma Mia! (17%)

3 No Country for Old Men (13%)

4 WALL-E (11%)

5 There Will Be Blood (10%)

6 In Bruges (9%)

7 Juno (7%)

8 Quantum of Solace (3%)

9 Sex and the City (2%)

10 Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (1%)

Worst films of 2008:

1 Eagle Eye (31%)

2 Pineapple Express (14%)

3 Fool's Gold (12%)

4 The X Files: I Want To Believe (11%)

5 Man On Wire (9%)

6 Hunger (8%)

7 Burn After Reading (6%)

8 The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor (4%)

9 Hellboy II: The Golden Army (3%)

10 Persepolis (2%)

James Holder

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