Hollyoaks and the madness of the TV nutter

Mentally ill people are very rarely dangerous - so why do soap operas so often portray them as homicidal maniacs?

Patrick West

Patrick West

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Are the makers of Hollyoaks mad, or what? The popular Channel 4 soap opera – popular, that is, with teenagers, hungover students and TV reviewers who really should know better – is currently running a story about a teenager with schizophrenia. And the programme, like so many soaps that venture to address this issue, is perpetuating the notion that all people with this condition are dangerous nutcases with quite literally split personalities.

The current storyline features a troubled ‘emo’-type lad called Newt (played by Nico Mirallegro) who is constantly pestered by an ex-Army, anti-capitalist fundamentalist ‘friend’ called Eli (Marc Silcock), who persuades him to steal, plant bombs, and generally torments him. ‘Eli’ appears to him when he is troubled. But only to him. This is because ‘Eli’ does not exist. He is a figment of Newt’s disturbed imagination. As will be confirmed next month on Hollyoaks, this is because Newt is clinically schizophrenic. And of course, as night follows day in TV world, he is a dangerous one.

The last time I remember a British soap attempting to address the issue of schizophrenia was back in 1996 when Joe Wicks (Paul Nicholls) arrived in Albert Square, and became the resident loony in EastEnders for a year. Wicks tried to kill himself, shouted at himself, suffered from the customary voices in his head, hid a dead cat in his bedroom and covered his wall with newspaper articles about aliens. It was the classic caricature, derived straight from HG Wells or some crappy 1950s American sci-fi television show. He might as well have been the character Two-Face from the Batman comics (1) or HAL, the psychotic computer in 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Such storylines merely feed on ignorance, and perpetuate it. For instance, most people with schizophrenia do not have, as the Greek etymology of the word implies, ‘split minds’ or two or more ‘personalities’. ‘Hearing voices’ does occur in extreme cases, but more often schizophrenia is experienced as abnormalities in the perception of reality. Hallucinations or delusions may often be obvious manifestations, but less obvious symptoms include disorganised speech, neurosis, lack of motivation, strange dress, addictions, catatonia, speechlessness, and an excessive disposition to crying.

It is true that people diagnosed as schizophrenic are statistically more likely to commit murder or violent crimes, but they are also more likely to have suicidal tendencies. What is more, according to one study, they are vastly much more likely to be the victims of crime – 14 times more often than they are the perpetrators (2).

Soaps are often given to equating having a mental illness with being an axe-wielding nutcase. The two aren’t the same. To be fair to EastEnders, the BBC soap has addressed this topic with a little more maturity and subtlety of late. Gillian Wright has played the character Jean Slater regularly in the show since November 2006. Her character suffers from bi-polar disorder (or what used to be called manic depression) and has periods of paranoia, confusion, elation and gloom. But she can often cope with life, particularly when she takes the pills. Her on-screen son, Sean Slater (Robert Kazinsky), appears to have inherited her loony ways, but rather than trying to kill himself, looks like he is going to kill someone else at any time. He is a sadist, but yet he has a bright, positive side. He was delighted about unexpectedly becoming a father to the child of Roxy Mitchell (Rita Simons) and has displayed a hitherto unexpected caring, paternal side.

On the big screen, the book and film A Beautiful Mind, about the Nobel Prize-winning mathematician and schizophrenic John Forbes Nash, has also done much to bring some sensible perspective to this condition. On a comedic level, Alan Partridge’s friend and hotel assistant Michael (in the 1990s TV programme I’m Alan Partridge) may have chucked a monkey into the sea for eating all his cigarettes, and had fantasies about machine-gunning his teachers at his old school, but he was sweetly devoted to Mister Partridge. Indeed, Alan himself had his weird turns, driving all the way to Dundee with no shoes and developing an addiction to Toblerone chocolates. But the only thing that Alan was a danger to was his own career.

EastEnders now seems to be doing a rather sensible thing, whether it means to or not, in portraying the ambiguity that comes with mental illness – showing that it is a spectrum, like autism, alcoholism, eating disorders, and not an absolute. Hollyoaks, on the other hand, is sticking to the mad-people-are-like-Jack-Nicholson-with-an-axe-in-The-Shining stereotype. This gives licence to idiotic tabloid papers to write stories about ‘care in the community’ mentalists stabbing people, or running amok naked in churches with samurai swords or pushing people underneath London Underground trains because of ‘voices in their heads’.

Yes, dangerous mentalists do need to be locked up for their safety and ours. And mental illness is not, as fashionable theorists of the 1960s and 1970s such as RD Laing and Michel Foucault said, ‘a social construction’, or merely a diagnosis made to silence or control people (although it can be used that way). Nor is it merely an idea, as the book and film One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (also with Jack Nicholson) helped to reinforce, merely invented by the state to lock people up. It is a real, scientific phenomenon, caused by chemical imbalances in the brain. But most mentalists are not dangerous, and at times it seems that we are more of a danger to them than they are to us.

Patrick West is spiked’s TV columnist. Visit his blog here.

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spiked-issue: TV

(1) Two-Face, Wikipedia

(2) Risks for Individuals With Schizophrenia Who Are Living in the Community, Psychiatric Services, October 2001

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