Last Night's Viewing: Who Do You Think You Are?, BBC1 Notes from the Inside with James Rhodes, Channel 4

 

Ellen E. Jones
Thursday 25 July 2013 12:47
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There's a promising start to this new series of the genealogy detection documentary Who Do You Think You Are?. Una Stubbs (Alf Garnett's daughter for the over sixties, and Mrs Hudson in Sherlock for the unders) knows nothing of her paternal grandparents. In fact, she never even knew their Christian names. This, my friends, is what we call WDYTYA pay dirt. What dark secret could be lurking in the local council archives? A convict for a great uncle? An entire second family in the next village over?

The truth, it turns out, is more run of the mill, but the mystery at least distracted Una from the kind of luvvie reminiscence that has marred this show in the past. Restraining herself to three or four brief mentions of glory years "in the chorus line at the London Palladium", Una soon learned that the Stubbs family passion was not showbiz, but social reform.

As an unwed mother in the 1900s, Granny Stubbs got a front-row seat for pre-NHS horrors in a York workhouse and had to raise a family of nine in a three-room house. Meanwhile, 37 miles north of London, a man who would one day be joined to her family by marriage was founding the Garden City movement, in the hope that such urban miseries might soon be consigned to the past. This man, Ebenezer Howard, is one of those Victorian gentlemen who powered the century with the force of his ambition and Una was justifiably moved by ancestral pride. However, if the mission was to also sweep viewers up in her emotions, she's not quite as successful as James Rhodes.

Notes from the Inside with James Rhodes combined two subjects most of us could benefit from learning more about: mental illness and classical music. In television, classical music usually either serves as soundtrack filler on adverts or remains confined in its BBC4 ghetto, while mental health depictions are dangerously reliant on stereotypes. James Rhodes, a concert pianist whose bouts of depression caused him to be sectioned, is an unusually well-placed spokesperson for both.

Inspired by the solace he found listening to Bach during his own breakdown, he now hopes music might reach other people in the same situation. If that sounds a little cloud-cuckoo-land, given the multi-layered problems and radically slashed budgets faced by today's mental health services, rest assured – Rhodes is no latter-day Ebenezer, or even a Jamie Oliver-esque TV crusader. His reforming zeal is tempered with a touching humility. It's this same quality that allowed him to form such genuine bonds with the patients he met.

He compared self-harm scars with 19-year-old Kelly, commiserated over parental guilt with Krissy, admired Jason's resilience and swapped mixtapes with DJ Nicky. Using the same candour and compassion he applies to his performance, Rhodes comes to understand that the key thing these four share is a fear of being reduced to a diagnostic label. For this reason, to see him carefully select music for each individual, perform it in a one-on-one session and then listen carefully to this person's response was as touching as the music itself.

It was also an unexpectedly effective way to make a supposedly elite music accessible to a wider audience. Highbrow television programmers have long boasted of their medium's potential to bring high art to the uneducated masses. Speaking as an uneducated mass, it's rarely been as successful as this. I know I'll never forget Rachmaninov's music after hearing it in this context.

The upshot? More arts programming should include the stories of real people, and more social reform programmes should make sensitive use of the arts. Rhodes's experiment may have begun with humble ambitions, but, in practice, it's more impactful than a thousand last nights at the Proms.

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