Sobering Stuff

By Billen, Andrew | New Statesman (1996), June 4, 2001 | Go to article overview

Sobering Stuff


Billen, Andrew, New Statesman (1996)


ANDREW BILLEN looks at our fascination with real-life breakdowns

In drama, there is nothing so compulsive as watching a human being crack up. Think Medea, Lear, Macbeth and Gabler. But in a documentary, self-destruction is harder to watch. Issues of human dignity and voyeurism arise. This is why the television event of the year will probably remain Vanessa Feltz's temporary madness on Celebrity Big Brother, because, between her penchant for public self-dramatisation and the programme's ultimately larky format, viewers were permitted not to take it too seriously. Mental disintegration is now just another game-show format and, let's be honest, who is watching ITV's Survivor or the new Big Brother on Channel 4 for anything else?

In recent weeks, however, the posher end of television has taken to documenting the real thing in a succession of fly-on-the-wall documentaries about drink and drug addicts. The latest, and most reassuring, began on 30 May. The four-part series Inside Clouds: a drink and drugs clinic (9pm, BBC2) is a sober, dispassionate, semi-educational account of the Wiltshire country mansion where, despite its celebrity reputation, two-thirds of rehabs are paid for by the NHS. The first episode followed three addicts, Sarah, Peter and Cordelia, all of whom had agreed to let the cameras follow their treatment. (A few faces were blurred out in the background but, remarkably, most patients had obviously also given their consent to be filmed.) Of the three, Sarah was the most interesting in terms of the grammar of the programme. Her counsellor, Peter, who had been an addict for 30 years himself, acutely spotted that she was an inveterate performer. Socially skilled when relating to the other patients, she smiled a wide, wide smile, even when she cried. She admitted it was a relief when Peter saw through it. After he confronted her, she said: "He made me feel I'd built a stage set and had the costume and everything." And, in a sense not acknowledged by the programme, she had. She had let Gabe Solomon's documentary team in to witness this performance. Should television have provided her with this stage? Was TV part of her cure?

Having David Nath's camera follow a former advertising industry journalist called Brian Davis certainly did not cure him. An alcoholic and manic depressive, Brian, like Sarah, was a TV natural. Fatally, Cutting Edge: Brian's story (8 May, Channel 4) fell in love with the articulate 55-year-old Cambridge graduate who described every day as a "combination of French farce and pure Tarantino". Nath had spotted a good story, but so, one felt, had Brian, who knew the copy it would make if he could pull himself out of this nosedive and actually get that elusive interview with Polanski in Paris. …

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