British boxer Frank Bruno lost the World Heavyweight Championship to Mike Tyson. Bruno’s mental breakdown was the subject of Gloves Off (ITV1, 2005), a comeback documentary that stresses the importance of communication and medication to recovery from serious psychological distress.
Channel 4’s The Madness of Prince Charming sketches the life of bipolar sufferer Stuart Goddard, also known as 1980s pop star Adam Ant.
Goddard in the empty ward of the hospital in which he was once detained.
Aspects of the documentary are potentially stigmatizing. A newspaper cutting about Goddard’s breakdown is traversed by bars of shadow, suggesting a dark and dreadful prison incarceration. Yet the documentary is also haggiographic, emphasizing Goddard’s ‘genius.'
In Stephen Fry: The Secret Life of the Manic Depressive (BBC, 2006), the celebrated British actor and comedian reflects in characteristically urbane fashion on his bipolarity.
The Secret Life tends to present Fry as a ‘tortured genius.' Tellingly, the framing of Fry behind a window pane (see previous image) recalls some of the still images used to promote Ron Howard’s film A Beautiful Mind, about another ‘genius,' schizophrenic mathematician John Nash.
Fry revisits the Californian beach he frequented after his initial diagnosis a decade previously, striking a distinctly Romantic pose.
The documentary’s dominant perspective on mental distress is that of biopsychiatry. Here Fry undergoes a CT scan…
…reinforcing the medical view of bipolar disorder as a hereditary ‘illness.’
Fry is often shot standing behind (or peering out from behind) window panes, fences and bars, symbolizing the psychological barriers he has had to overcome.
Many of today’s most “positive” documentary representations of mental distress feature celebrity sufferers. Frank Bruno: Gloves Off (ITV1, 2005), which was nominated for a Royal Television Society Award for Best Sports Program in 2006, typifies the growing body of sympathetic mental distress documentaries. Underpinned by a mental health awareness agenda, the documentary serves as a counterweight to the infamous “Bonkers Bruno” headline, which appeared in The Sun newspaper on the occasion of the former boxer’s sectioning under the Mental Health Act in 2003. Gloves Off explores the reasons underlying Bruno’s bipolarity and breakdown, including his loss of the World Heavyweight Champion title to Mike Tyson in 1996, his marriage breakdown, the suicide of his long-time friend and trainer George Francis and his recreational drug use, while Bruno himself talks “honestly and openly,” as the pre-broadcast continuity announcer put it, “about his battle with mental illness.”
Gloves Off belongs to the subgenre of the “comeback documentary,” which typically provide an opportunity for maligned or stigmatized celebrities to “set the record straight” about their breakdowns (another example is MTV’s Britney: For the Record, broadcast in the UK by Sky1 on 22 December 2008, in which the singer, at the end of a tumultuous year, expresses her frustration at having been categorized as “ill” and becoming a “victim” in the media). From the documentary’s interviews with Bruno and some of his friends and family, two messages emerge. The first has to do with the importance of medication in Bruno’s recovery: Bruno notes that he had initially neglected his medication and implies that his medical compliance played a part in his recovery. The second message is the importance of communicating one’s problems to others. As Bruno puts it:
As in the EastEnders example discussed above, the emphasis here on the importance of emotional communication reflects a typical and growing concern within anti-stigma discourse: the importance of “talking things through.” As Bruno’s comment implies, this strategy may be especially important to promote among men, who are subject to longstanding cultural prohibitions against emotional disclosure.
In fact, the restorative powers of medication and communication are staple themes of celebrity mental distress documentaries. Channel 4’s The Madness of Prince Charming (17 July 2003), for example, sketched the life of Stuart Goddard, also known as the pop star Adam Ant, who has experienced bipolar disorder throughout his life and suffered a breakdown in early 2002. The documentary contains interviews with Goddard’s friends, a former teacher and ex-band members as well as Goddard himself, as he sits in the deserted ward of the hospital in which he was once detained. Some of the shots used in the documentary could be argued to be stigmatizing. A shaky hand-held pan shot of a darkened hospital corridor, for example, owes much to the conventions of horror cinema. And a shot of a newspaper cutting about Goddard’s breakdown, traversed by bars of shadow, suggests a dark and dreadful incarceration in a jail-like environment.
These obviously troubling images are accompanied by other problematic discursive elements. Although Goddard is reported to have “reinvented himself” after his treatment, using his “music as medicine,” The Madness of Prince Charming reinforces the biomedical model of mental distress. On the one hand, the documentary places Goddard’s breakdown in the context of his numerous personal difficulties — including a family break-up leading to behavioral problems at school, a failed marriage at a young age, exam pressures, and later stresses resulting from his diminishing fame and his experience of being stalked (“it drove me bonkers”). Nevertheless, the psychiatrists whose interviews punctuate the program repeatedly stress that bipolar disorder is an “illness,” and the narrator asserts that it is “often genetic” in origin.
One psychiatrist interviewed for the documentary, Trevor Taylor, further suggests that Goddard’s problems were intimately connected to his creative talent, drawing comparisons between Goddard and the artists Van Gogh, Byron and Virginia Woolf. The program thus links Goddard’s mental distress with his creative genius — an association with ancient origins as well as many contemporary cinematic parallels, such as Scott Hicks’ Shine (1996) and Ron Howard’s A Beautiful Mind (2001). Incidentally, it seems that the madness-genius correlation is reserved almost exclusively for men, as several feminist critics have discussed: Christine Battersby (1989), for example, contends that genius has traditionally been defined as a combination of masculine and feminine qualities attainable only by men. This assumption has a remarkable cultural resilience: in a consulting firm’s list of public nominations for the UK’s “top ten geniuses” in 2007, only 15 of the 100 most commonly mentioned figures were female (Williams, 2007: 13).
In a slightly later two-part documentary, Stephen Fry: The Secret Life of the Manic Depressive (BBC2, 2006), the celebrated British actor and comedian reflects in characteristically urbane fashion on his bipolarity and discusses the condition with other sufferers, including some high-profile celebrities such as singer Robbie Williams, television chef Rick Stein and actress Carrie Fisher. Produced and directed by Scott Wilson, the documentary is worthy of particular attention because of its wide range of interviewees (both celebrities and non-celebrities), its cultural prominence (the production won an Emmy award in 2007 for Best Documentary) and the scope of its enquiry into the symptoms and treatments of bipolarity. Like the documentaries mentioned above, The Secret Life represents a politically astute combination of commercial and public service elements, focusing on celebrity while fulfilling the BBC’s remit to explore issues of socio-cultural import — a remit whose continuance was very much in question in the run-up to 2006, when the BBC’s ten-year Royal Charter was finally renewed after much critical discussion following the damning Hutton Report of 2004. In this sense, the celebrity mental distress documentary can be seen as a valuable hybrid form for public service television organizations under pressure to compete with commercial television without sacrificing what the BBC now calls “public value.”
The journalistic reception of The Secret Life was overwhelmingly enthusiastic. “This bold, touching, unsentimental film should help rid mental illness of some of its stigma,” wrote Sam Wollaston (2006: 32) in The Guardian; “Fry does for manic depression what Pete [a Big Brother contestant] did for Tourette’s.” Wollaston has a point. The Secret Life of the Manic Depressive depicts the plight of various groups of sufferers who are all but invisible in more glamorous cinematic representations of madness, such as older people and women suffering from postpartum depression. Its treatment of celebrity mental distress, meanwhile, counteracts the widespread mockery of celebrity madness in the media. While Robbie Williams was being treated for depression in February 2007, for example, the presenter of ITV1’s Brit Awards, Russell Brand, joked that he possessed “the keys to Robbie Williams’s medicine cabinet.” A few days after the Brit Awards, the guest presenter of Channel 4’s late-night entertainment show The Friday Night Project, actress Ashley Jensen, remarked that Williams’s absence from the event was regrettable given that “he’d already picked out his jacket.” Jensen’s comment was accompanied by a visual image of a straightjacket, provoking laughter from the audience. Fry’s documentary constitutes a valuable riposte to this sort of casual abuse. Fry is often shot standing behind (or peering out from behind) windowpanes, fences and bars, symbolizing the psychological barriers he has had to overcome and his own feelings of frustration and entrapment. Many of these images — such as the shot of Fry standing in silhouette on the deserted beach he frequented after his breakdown — have a distinctly Romantic quality.
Fry’s speculations on the causes and development of mental distress sometimes touch on its socio-cultural determinants. He spends some time, for example, addressing the life problems that may have contributed to the distress of the documentary’s subjects and the documentary offers extensive evidence that psychiatric practices — such as the typical ages at which children are diagnosed as bipolar — vary between the UK and the US. This in turn correctly implies that cultural factors play a large role in the construction of mental distress. Moreover, visiting London’s Maudsley hospital, Fry is told that there is no “brain test” that would indicate his bipolarity, and at Cardiff University he discovers the inconclusiveness of research into the “bipolar gene.” The Secret Life also contains perspectives that run counter biopsychiatric orthodoxy. Fry interviews an ex–Bethlem hospital patient — and high-profile ex-neurosurgeon — Liz Miller, who was sectioned three times, but who eventually stopped taking her medication and who has remained well for 15 years. Miller explains that “medication is like the training wheels on a bicycle” — useful at first, but ultimately unnecessary.
Notwithstanding these counter-psychiatric voices, however, the documentary’s dominant perspective is that of biopsychiatry. An early scene in the first episode combines Fry’s voiceover, in which he asserts his intention to “find out” about his and others’ conditions, with images of monitors showing the output of CT scans, a combination which suggests that medical science has the power to unravel the “mysteries” of mental distress and which in turn invokes the progressivism and positivism that have long characterized television science programming (Gardner and Young, 1981). Fry’s voiceovers also repeatedly stress that bipolarity must be understood as a hereditary illness (“it is an illness”; “manic depression is an illness that’s always handed down in families”; “if you have it, the chances are that somebody else in your family had it too”; “I have a disease of the brain that I share with four million others in the UK”). The medical model of distress is further accented by a range of expert interviewees, such as Aberdeen University’s Professor Ian Reid, who advocates pharmaceutical and electroconvulsive therapies. Moreover, by framing Fry’s interviews with sufferers as conversations between friends, The Secret Life of the Manic Depressive depicts a community of sufferers who readily identify their conditions as biological and who make common cause with each other on that basis. The sufferers’ rapport, and, in the case of Williams, close friendship with Fry thus constitutes a mediated version of what Paul Rabinow (1996) calls “biosociality,” or what Nikolas Rose (2007: 134) terms “biological citizenship’: “collectivities formed around a biological conception of a shared identity.”
Like The Madness of Prince Charming, The Secret Life takes up the theme of madness and genius. Fry speculates that his mania has been largely responsible for his creativity and career success. “It’s tormented me all my life with the deepest of depressions,” he notes at the start of the second episode, “while giving me the energy and creativity that’s perhaps made my career.” The Secret Life also links bipolarity to notions of genius and career success through its selection of interviewees, many of whom either are or had once been professional “high fliers.” While there is certainly no harm in emphasizing that people suffering with mental problems can lead full and meaningful lives, it should also be noted that the figure of the “mad genius” is a distinctly class-based one (the term “genius” itself is generally reserved for artists and intellectuals and seldom applied to bus drivers or refuse collectors).
The madness-genius linkage is also implicit in a BBC2 documentary written and presented by the ex-Labour party spin doctor Alastair Campbell. In Cracking Up (2008) Campbell discusses how, in 1986, he paid for his high-flying journalistic career with alcoholism and subsequently psychotic depression. Cracking Up creates a sense of authenticity through its informal and frank mode of address. Campbell’s voiceover is characterized by a breezy intimacy (on talking to his former GP, Campbell notes, “Bloody hell, this is weird’) and the documentary is framed at the beginning and end by an address to camera in which Campbell calls for an end to the stigmatization of mental distress.
On the face of things, there might seem to be little to object to here. Yet Cracking Up, like The Secret Life, repeatedly asserts that bipolarity is an “illness.” Moreover, the documentary raises questions about the suitability of powerful individuals to “represent” people suffering from mental distress. Campbell is hardly an uncontroversial figure, even among members of his own political party. Unsurprisingly, the documentary makes no mention of Campbell’s possible role in the lead-up to the suicide of David Kelly. Kelly was the British government weapons inspector whom many believe was hounded to his death in 2003 after Campbell’s campaign to “out” him as the source of BBC news reports criticizing the adequacy of the government’s military intelligence leading up to the allied invasion of Iraq. Whatever the facts about Campbell’s role in the Kelly affair, one could argue that his support for the allied attack on Iraq make Campbell an improbable anti-stigma campaigner.