Alistair Campbell (right) with a psychiatrist on the BBC’s Breakfast show in 2008, promoting his autobiographical documentary, Cracking Up.

[A still from the documentary, as shown on the Breakfast programme]. Like Stephen Fry, Campbell is often shot from behind, connoting the shame and stigma of mental distress but also creating a tone of rarefied retrospection.

‘Now like millions of other people, I suffer from this illness.' The shot of Campbell sitting in the police cell in which he found himself in 1986 dissolves into a shot of a crowd in a street, emphasising the ubiquity of mental distress and the ordinariness of Campbell himself.

Yet as a highly controversial politician, Campbell is hardly an ‘ordinary’ person. His documentary raises questions about the suitability of powerful figures to serve as mental health advocates.

The images of working-class abjection in the Channel 4 documentary My Crazy Parents contrast starkly with The Secret Life’s measured reflections on the sufferings of professional people and its lofty speculations about ‘creative genius.'

The effects of Michelle’s cutting her forearms with a razor are shown at regular intervals. We therefore ‘see’ mental breakdown ‘as it happens’ rather than retrospectively via reconstruction.



Campbell’s intimate style and the editing of the documentary produces a sense of Campbell’s “ordinariness.” Campbell tells us, for example, that “he is like millions of other people with this illness,” as a shot of Campbell sitting in the police cell in which he was detained in 1986 dissolves into a crowd scene. Yet for all his undoubted suffering, Campbell’s status as a member of a capitalist (read: racist, nationalist and imperialist) political party problematizes his claims to ordinariness. (In the same vein, the frequent use of Winston Churchill as a figurehead for mental health awareness campaigns is highly problematic, given the shockingly long list of oppressions and atrocities for which Churchill was responsible, not to mention Churchill’s support for the forced sterilization of mental defectives). Politicians such as Campbell, it must be added, often reap enormous personal benefits from the public discussion of their problems, appearing on talk shows and producing books and documentaries about their experiences. Clearly, for some individuals, the difference represented by madness is “not excluded but cultivated as a useful social and economic resource” (Johnson, 2008: 44). Yet the political divisiveness of figures such as Campbell raises the question of the extent to which ruling-class politicians can or should “speak for” sufferers of mental distress. It certainly should not be uncritically assumed — as is routine among liberal anti-stigma campaigners — that such individuals project a “positive image” of mental distress or constitute appropriate “role models” for working-class sufferers.

In this latter connection, it is instructive to compare Fry’s Secret Life and Campbell’s Cracking Up with the strikingly different portraits of mental distress presented in My Crazy Parents. This explicit and harrowing two-part documentary broadcast on Channel 4 in 2004 has children and teenagers document their experiences of living with a distressed parent using a “video diary” format to document their lives from their own point of view. The first program focuses on the relationship between 15-year-old Lucy and her mother Elaine, who has a 20-year history of mental health problems, including anorexia, alcoholism and self-harm. The same program also follows the life of 17-year-old Martin as he tries, seven years after the death of his mother, to deal with the erratic and abusive behaviour of his self-harming alcoholic father, Graham. The second program follows a Glaswegian self-harmer, Michelle, from the point of view of two of her three children. Michelle suffers from psychotic depression and has a long-standing addiction to numerous prescription drugs. She blames some of her problems on the side effects of these drugs. Desperate to wean herself off her medications, she checks herself into a psychiatric hospital while her two youngest children go into care. The visual content of both episodes of My Crazy Parents is explicit. The second program, for example, graphically presents the effects of Michelle’s cutting her arms with a razor; Michelle's forearms, often running with blood, are shown in close-up at regular intervals throughout the film.

My Crazy Parents divided the critics in a way that illustrates the difficulty of agreeing upon criteria for evaluating media representations of distress. Writing in Community Care magazine, the child protection officer Clea Barry (2004: 49) notes that the documentary’s video diary format and the absence of interviews with professionals or other outsiders locks the audience into the isolated existence of the families concerned, making for a disconcerting but powerful viewing experience. She also points out, quite correctly, that “there is no story of triumph over adversity,” an all-too-common feature of cinematic portrayals of mental distress. Yet one can also sympathize with journalist Nick Johnstone’s (2004) excoriation of the program in The Guardian as “sensationalist,” “voyeuristic” and “exploitative.” While Barry applauds the documentary’s brutal frankness, Johnstone criticizes its sensationalism. As these divergent critical evaluations of My Crazy Parents attest, it is difficult to assess the merits of the documentary by appealing to stereotype research alone since the program exploits some stereotypes while avoiding others. In such cases it is useful to move beyond the question of whether the documentary’s presentation of madness is accurate or inaccurate to consider the program’s wider ideological discriminations, particularly in this case with reference to social class.

The mode of address of My Crazy Parents is quite different to that of The Secret Life of the Manic Depressive or Campbell’s Cracking Up. Here the effects of serious mental distress are shown on camera rather than described retrospectively. The framing of these images is also noteworthy. The start of the second program contains several shots of family life in a poor area of Glasgow: Michelle’s teenage son Tony is seen smoking and resting his arms on an upper story windowsill of the family’s council house as he talks to friends outside. The shaky camera and blurred focus of many of these shots index a raw emotionality and authenticity, recalling Jon Dovey’s (2000: 55) observation that “the low grade video image has become the privileged form of TV “truth telling.” This “immediate” tabloid style contrasts with the more sedate aesthetic of Fry’s documentary. Focusing on dysfunctional unemployed or working-class families rather than the troubled celebrities and professionals of Fry’s documentary, My Crazy Parents’ images of working-class abjection contrast starkly with The Secret Life’s measured reflections on the sufferings of professional people and its lofty speculations about “creative genius.” My Crazy Parents does not redeem its working-class (and, in the case of Michelle, female) subjects and tends to construct them as spectacles or freaks, since the more heroic, approbatory discourse of “mad genius” is reserved exclusively for middle-class or celebrity sufferers.

The documentaries I have discussed here generally adopt a “positive” perspective on their subjects. At the same time, it is possible to discern a number of freshly problematic elements. While they contain no shortage of “positive images” of the mentally distressed, contemporary documentaries tend to valorize mental distress through appeals to the distinctly classed and gendered discourses of “genius” and “noble suffering” and to a highly contestable biopsychiatric orthodoxy. In their implicit individualism, these discourses participate in what can be seen as a retreat from socio-structural understandings of distress. This retreat is by no means confined to the documentary form. In television talk shows, for example, the analysis of emotional problems is limited by restrictions of time, while questions about the social determinants of individual problems are typically translated into questions of self-discipline and personal morality (Shattuc, 1997; Dovey, 2000).

Of course, there are always exceptions to these trends. Channel 4’s The Doctor Who Hears Voices (26 April, 2008) is a docudrama that combines real-life interview and testimony material with dramatization. It tells the real-life story of the psychologist Rufus May, who plays himself in the docudrama, and a voice-hearing doctor, Ruth (played by actress Ruth Wilson). Much of the drama is based on the real-life transcripts of the conversations between May — a controversial psychologist who, we are told, “does not believe” in mental illness — and his patient. As Ruth, unmedicated and with May’s help, eventually finds a way to accommodate the voices she hears into her everyday routines, the docudrama hints at the limitations of the medical model and of pharmaceutical treatments of distress. Indeed, the docudrama contains an interview with a conventional psychiatrist, Trevor Turner, who contributed his medical expertise to Channel 4’s earlier The Madness of Prince Charming. Turner’s contributions provide a counterbalance to May’s unorthodox views. But it is May’s critical perspective on psychiatry that prevails, suggesting that within British documentary, at least, the hegemony of biopsychiatry, like all hegemonies, is not entirely secure.

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