TV UK, 1 October

Good TV shouldn't have to double up as social work.

Rob Lyons

Topics Culture

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Making Tourette’s Syndrome funny is not difficult. Making it poignant, too, is a lot harder.

But one of the highlights of the week, Dirty Filthy Love (ITV 1), managed just that. Michael Sheen plays an architect whose life falls apart as his obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) runs out of hand under the stress of his job. His wife leaves him, and his employers sack him. Not surprisingly, this leads to him obsessing even more about getting his wife back.

He joins a self-help group whose leader, played by Sheila Henderson, falls for him but her love remains unrequited. Only when he finally develops the clarity to realise that the campaign to save his marriage has descended from romance into obsessive stalking, does he walk off into the sunset with the woman who has actually devoted herself to supporting him.

Sheen and Henderson were excellent. Sheen’s nervously energetic performance must have induced whiplash, so violent was the twitching of his head.

What was striking was that there was no celebration of mental illness here. These were people who were utterly rational yet had behaviours that they were unable to control. It was this attempt to regain some control over their lives, by sheer force of will, that gave the film much of its force. The mentally ill don’t have any special insights or unique experiences except the experience of being ill.

How annoying then to see the blurb at the end of the programme: Apparently quite a lot of people have OCD and Tourette’s – here are some self-help groups, and here’s a number for you to phone…. What had been a rewarding drama was suddenly undermined. Had we merely been watching a public information film? Was some commissioning executive at ITV ticking a box to confirm another ‘issue’ had been covered sensitively?

Over on EastEnders (BBC 1), the home of issue-led drama, they’re currently ‘doing’ Huntingdon’s disease. It’s all reminiscent of that scene in Fight Club where Edward Norton and Helena Bonham-Carter, two healthy people who get a kick out of going to self-help groups, divide them up so they don’t keep running into each other. Do TV executives have the same kind of discussions?

‘Okay, so EastEnders gets Huntingdon’s and cancer, Coronation Street can have alcoholism and schizophrenia, and Emmerdale can have, err…foot rot and swine fever?’

Some might question the science behind these storylines; the issues are often presented in an over-simplistic way. It all seems rather cynical, a tick-the-box approach to illnesses – as if television drama can’t be good just for its own sake, but has to double up as social work, too.

The subject of a group of people struggling to cope with failure and trying to rebuild their lives brings me on to the latest celebrity reality show, The Farm (Five). There have been complaints that there will be unnecessary cruelty to dumb animals in this show, but it’s the dumb celebrities who are going to get slaughtered.

The highlight so far has been aging magician Paul Daniels falling out with has-been white rapper Vanilla Ice over the war in Iraq. Daniels declared it was just a war for oil, while Ice (now desperately keen to be called by his real name, Rob Van Winkle) went overboard in defending America. Clearly, Daniels likes political debate – but not a lot.

Meanwhile, ex-footballer Stan Collymore has been discussing his regrets, like punching his then girlfriend Ulrika Jonsson in a bar during the 1998 World Cup. It’s unclear whether he regretted the assault, the presence of journalists in the bar, or the damage to his reputation. But he’s got an autobiography to sell, so he’s quite happy to go over it all at length, as long as everyone is prepared to forgive him in the end.

Stan, it seems, was depressed and has been, off-and-on, for years. This is his ‘Get Out of Jail Free Card’ for past behaviour. What a contrast between the dramatic fiction of people trying to overcome mental problems, and real-life celebrities wallowing in them for profit.

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