Friday, 17 January 2014


I've had to live with mental health issues most of my adult life. The good news is, the experience can be a positive one and put to good use.

Everyone has a bad day, right? For those of us who’ve lived with mental health concerns for a lifetime, our bad days take some beating. I had a Bad Day on Wednesday, which consisted of lying awake in a depressed state until 2 in the afternoon, dragging myself out of the house to look at the internet for 3 hours in the library before dragging myself back home. I couldn’t be bothered to cook and made do with the cholesterol busters of a bacon sandwich and a bag of chips. I was back in bed with a Kate Atkinson by 8.30 (and no, that’s not a euphemism).

Sounds dreadful, doesn't it? Who in their right mind (if you’ll pardon the pun, but I think I’m qualified to make it) would waste a day like that? In the past I've done worse, like sleeping the whole day around until the next morning. With my rational head on and having spent all of Thursday very productively, only a day later such behaviour seems absurd, but when you're in the thick of a depressive funk it's hard to get out of unless you really force yourself; also, the level of chemicals in your brain that improve your mood are at their lowest first thing in the morning, so shaking off a black mood is doubly hard. Why are some people affected like this and some not?

(Image: Bill Brenner)
It depends who you ask. Some medical practitioners will tell you that, at its root, depression is down to an imbalance of chemicals in the brain – some unfortunates have it and some don’t; others medicos will tell you that it’s nurture that affects the nature. I can only speak from my experience, and I’ve been through the mental health mill from 30 onwards: Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, one-to-one therapy, group therapy, art therapy... I’ve tried them all and I'm sure they've all helped to some degree. All I can say is, that before I was diagnosed as bipolar in 2009, I’d spend six months, almost to the day, on a high – though not so high I thought I could fly, admittedly – and the next six months so down I could barely raise a smile, let alone my legs to get out of bed. All this was regardless of the kind of therapy and medication I was having or on.

From 2009 I’ve been stable for the most part thanks to the right combination of industrial strength drugs though, as I’ve noted above, the Bad Days can still sometimes seep through the chemical cosh. At the moment that’s not surprising, as I’ve been unemployed for over twelve months, and sometimes the battle to find work and make ends meet can just floor you for the whole day. This is going to sound ridiculously simple, but I've found the thing that's always worked for me in beating off depression is forcing myself to get up, feed the cats and make some breakfast. Once I've done that, I'm into the rhythm of the day and can usually get on with things and, for me, doing something creative like writing helps too. Sounds easy, but it isn't always.

At least now the depression lasts for a day rather than six continuous months. For all the trashing that the NHS gets, I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t be around now – the goodwill of friends and relations aside – if it hadn’t been for the NHS’s overworked and criminally underfunded and underrated mental health services. They supplied everything from respite care to home visits when I was really ill and, although my condition has taken several years to diagnose, eventually they got me on the right medication. I’ll probably have to stay on it for the rest of my life, but that's preferable to the alternative.

There’s a certain gallows humour to my personal situation at the moment, as I’m currently part of two stigmatised minorities, the mentally ill and the unemployed. The first is – still – almost taboo in today’s Britain (unless you happen to be a headline-grabbing micro-celebrity, apparently) and the second is the subject of demonising in the media. I’m not the stereotype of either minority, and though of course I don’t like being out of work, I can stand up and say I’m not ashamed of my mental history: despite – or because of – the crippling downers, I know how to cope and can lead a normal life and be creative, productive and sociable, and that takes strength. There will always be Bad Days and I'm resigned to always having them. But as I managed to survive all of last year on Job Seeker’s Allowance and be reasonably productive in terms of writing, helped out with events at the British Film Institute and stayed socially active, I think I’m almost at the point where me and my dark shadow have finally come to terms with each other.

(Image: MIND)
Which is why, as the search for the Holy Grail of permanent employment continues, I’ve decided to give something back. Firstly, I hope this blog does something, if only in a small way, for people who are dealing with mental health problems: I found the best thing was knowing I wasn't alone, and listening to people who'd been through, and survived, similar experiences. Secondly, I went for an interview with the MIND charity on Thursday for their Befriending service. In a nutshell, after you’ve been vetted and trained, this means committing and hour or so a week for six months to helping one of the ‘service users’ (terrible Cameron-speak phrase, that, but anyway...) who is starting out on the road to recovery and help them to rebuild their confidence, relearn life skills and re-socialise. MIND were very good to me when I wasn’t well and, interestingly, the volunteer Befriender who interviewed me had dealt with her own mental health issues in the past, as have a lot of the others. If you’re one of the ill-now-recovered, there seems to be a general consensus to help bring someone back from a bad place, and I’m all for that.

It’ll be interesting to see how the Befriending goes. I’m sure it won’t be easy some of the time, but as something that couldn't be more different from the media where I usually work, it’ll be intriguing to see how it changes my perspective on life, the universe and everything. The best thing, though, is knowing that I'll be helping someone's quality of life improve.

Despite my sarcastic comment about certain publicity-seeking celebrities above, Stephen Fry, bipolar himself, and Ruby Wax, who suffers from depression, have done a lot of good work in promoting awareness of mental illness and raising funds for MIND. The organisation is always on the look-out for voluntary workers, so if you fancy giving it a go, please take a look at the website:

Wednesday, 15 January 2014

REVIEWS: The 7.39, Benefit Street, Breaking Bad, Sherlock

It's only the 14th of January and there's already been some splendidly thought-provoking and inventive television, while over on DVD, Breaking Bad's last two series continued to amaze.

You’ve got to pick a pocket or two
Hard times on Benefit Street. (Image: BBC)
First up on the Fairclough Towers viewing schedule was Benefit Street. A documentary about James Turner Street in Birmingham which houses a high proportion of unemployed, the Channel 4 programme’s participants looked like the cast of a Dickens novel given a 21st century reboot. Among the residents were ‘Fungi’, a habitual relapsing drug addict who had “lost the will to help himself”; ‘White Dee’, the single mum bringing up two kids with the support of benefits alone who also acted as the matriarch of the street’s workless inhabitants; ‘Black Dee’, another single mum who had been out of work for six years and the sour Becky, one half of a young couple who considered the government’s slashing of benefits “a f***ing piss take”, demanding “how are we supposed to live on £50 a week?” It was could have been Hard Times 2014.

There was a lot of coverage in the media in the show last week, from the predictable “We told you so” finger-pointing of the Daily Mail, always keen to do its best to encourage intolerance of minorities, to the mildly amusing report of Benefit Street’s contributors’ threatening to sue Channel 4 for misrepresentation. You can see why the opposite ends of the social spectrum said what they did about the documentary: although the programme did its best to be a matter of fact record of unemployed people’s lives, James Turner Street did unfortunately come across as a ghetto for the work-shy stereotypes the government and the Daily Mail are keen to demonise.

I expected more of Channel 4, as the unemployment situation isn’t that simple. Writing as a highly skilled art college graduate with a degree who’s been out of work for a year, and who has a mortgage and lives in a nice area, I expected a more even-handed approach. On the evidence of the first programme, it was disappointing to see that the producer had opted for a sensational approach not a million miles away from The Only Way Is Essex or Big Brother.

Train of love
Commuter love: Morrissey and Smith.
(Image: BBC)
Clashing annoyingly with Benefit Street on BBC1 was the The 7.39, a drama about the flipside of unemployment, namely the spirit-crushing daily train commute from suburbia to London and back again. Set among the landmarks of commuting to the capital such as Charing Cross Station, the London Eye and the South Bank, The 7.39 speculated on what would happen if a man and a woman broke out of the commuter cocoon and got to know each other, with the inevitable romantic results.

Written by One Day author David Nichols, another story of middle class melancholy and frustration, the two-part story was helped immensely by the mature playing of its two leads David Morrissey (as property manager Carl Mathews), adding to his impressive gallery of angst-ridden middle aged men, and Sheridan Smith (health club worker Sally Thorn), an actress so natural and comfortable in whatever role she plays that it doesn’t look like she’s acting at all – a rare quality. Although The 7.39 concentrated on Morrissey and Smith, equally impressive actors had been attracted to the smaller roles: Sean Maguire as Sally’s body-fascist control freak fiancée Ryan and national treasure Olivia ColmanTM  as Carl’s kind and supportive wife Maggie.

You could argue that The 7.39 trod a predictable path of affair/discovery/split/reconciliation, but that wasn’t the point. Here were two characters, both lost in different ways, who knew that their blossoming romance on the railways was going to lead to heartbreak and hurt for their respective partners but, as both were quietly desperate people, they went ahead anyway, a scenario that felt realistic. The story was pleasingly non-judgmental about their liaison too, even if Colman was allowed one of her virtuoso, hurt tirades when she discovered Morrissey’s infidelity. The bitter-sweet moral appeared to be that in an increasingly homogenised and isolating society, if you get the chance to make something beautiful, however short-lived, you should go for it then grit your teeth and deal with the consequences later. The 7.39 was an accurate, if depressing, assessment of the emotional landscape of modern Britain.

The Master Blackmailer
Sherlock: back on form. (Image: BBC)
After a wobbly two weeks it’s heartening to report that Sherlock was back on form on Sunday. Following the nebulous-to-the-point-of-invisibility villains of Series Three’s first two instalments, Holmes (Benedict Cumberbatch) was matched by the worthy opponent of newspaper magnate and blackmailer Charles Augustus Magnussen, brought to life in a wonderfully repellent performance by The Killing’s Lars Mikkelsen.

After the preceding two misfires, ‘His Last Vow’ got it just right. This series’ increasing interest in the private lives of its characters paid off with revelations about Mary (Amanda Abbington), the wife of Doctor Watson (Martin Freeman) and satisfying psychological insights into both Holmes and Watson. What was especially pleasing was that all this was done in a way that intrigued the viewer, added depth to the characters and – crucially – progressed the story.

Stylistically it was great fun, too. Extra tension was added to Holmes being shot by an extended sequence in his ‘mind palace’ in which various people he knew, from the devilish Moriarty (Andrew Scott) to the ever attentive Molly (Louise Brealey), commented on how he could survive or give in to death. Playfully self-aware, this complemented the non-linear experiments with the narrative, as different characters’ interpretations of events jumped back and forth along the spine of the story. In terms of genre, ‘His Last Vow’ was somewhere between a mash up of James Bond, the Bourne films and The Avengers, offering a villain with an unpleasant physical characteristic, a la Ian Fleming, a CIA assassin with a new identity and a house that was all façade with one long, thin room inside, a surreal touch played up by director Nick Hurran. This debt to The Avengers was tacitly acknowledged by the plea of Mycroft Holmes (Mark Gatiss) to his brother “You’re needed”, a paraphrase of the request that summoned John Steed and Mrs Peel into action in the 1960s. I’d expected the final twist through all three episodes and I won’t give away here, but it was great to see nonetheless.

Almost as great was seeing our old bete noir the Daily Mail on Monday give over almost as many column inches as they had to Benefit Street in trashing ‘His Last Vow’. The reason for this was for this was prompted by comments Sherlock supremo Steven Moffat had made in the past criticising the government’s current policies and the questionable influence of press barons on policy making, to the point where Moffat had apparently delivered a villainous media tycoon as part of a subversive left-wing agenda. The character's mantra regarding the truth? “I don’t have to prove it, I just have to print it”. Touched a nerve, perhaps? BBC-bash all you want, Daily Mail, but I think the record 8.8 million viewers Sherlock attracted for its Sunday timeslot proves that your pathetically right-wing, paranoid views might just be in the minority.

An American Tragedy  
The endgame for Jesse and Walt. (Image: AMC)
Before and after Sherlock, I was monopolising the Fairclough Towers sofa as I watched the final two seasons of Breaking Bad. There aren’t many series that can keep me up until 1 the morning, and the final chapters in the story of Walter White (Bryan Cranston) confirmed my opinion that this TV series is one of the best I’ve ever seen. Watching each episode is like reading a new chapter of a great novel.

Walt’s downfall is so epically ironic that the show could be subtitled An American Tragedy, the title of Theodore Dreiser’s book that charts the dissolution of Clyde Griffiths, another US anti-hero. Everything important in Walt’s life, from his drug-making to his relationship with his family, slowly disintegrates as the American justice machine slowly closes in on him. Although the show continues to champion great performances, unfussy direction and straight-forward storytelling, stylistically the tonal shift in the last third of the series is visually conveyed by the interior of the White house becoming a permanently dark, brooding place. By contrast, throughout the last 16 episodes the desert outside Albuquerque is lit in a vivid, blood orange under the glare of the sun, suggesting, perhaps, that everything is slowly going to hell.

I won’t give the details of the plot away as I know there are people out there who haven’t seen the whole series yet, and the many twists, turns and shocks are an essential part of its viewing experience. What I will say is that the most remarkable thing about Breaking Bad, which the last two episodes illuistrate particularly well, is that despite Walt’s transformation from a mild, frustrated middle-aged man into a truly manipulative and vile monster, you never lose empathy for him. That’s a tribute to both the actor who played him and how well Walter White was written, to the point where he can sit alongside icons like King Lear, Willy Loman and Rodion Raskolinkov, as a character who offers illuminating insights into the failings and weaknesses of the human condition.

Not bad for an ex-writer on The X-Files, huh?