Talking it through: Zimbabwean children who have lost their parents to Aids at a trauma counselling course in the school holidays, 2004. (Photo: Getty)
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Talking cure: Vikram Patel on The Life Scientific

Jim Al-Khalili spoke to the leading psychiatrist about treating depression in Zimbabwe, yet had to shoehorn in some clunky biographical details.

The Life Scientific
Radio 4

In The Life Scientific (Tuesdays, 9am), presenter Jim Al-Khalili talked to the pioneering psychiatrist Vikram Patel about the kinds of depression and psychosis suffered in developing countries compared to those in the west. Patel contends that they are the same. He estimates that 10 per cent of the global population – whether they live in a tin hut or a waterfront condo – will suffer from depression at some point and might benefit from the talking cure or medical intervention.

Of the 150,000 psychiatrists potentially needed in India (population 1.2 billion), only 4,000 are currently employed there. When Patel went to Zimbabwe, there were nine psychiatrists for ten million people. He trained local lay counsellors, encouraging them to work alongside traditional faith healers, who recognised depression as a form of distress called “thinking too much”. Was Patel just pushing the medicalisation of an already pragmatically accepted social condition? It didn’t sound like it. He said the same thing in a hundred different ways: “No matter where you are, depression responds to the same treatment.”

Given the potency of the subject, it was perhaps no surprise that each inquiry from Al-Khalili was overstuffed. It’s a Radio 4 idiom – the information-packed phrase posing as a question. Kirsty Young has to do it all the time on Desert Island Discs, sometimes condensing her guest’s crises in not one but several marriages into the few seconds leading up to asking about the fourth choice of song, while trying to sound not remotely engulfed by the biographical maelstrom.

At least she seems to do it when her subject is in the same room. When Al-Khalili abruptly announced, “Then you came over to study in Oxford as a Rhodes scholar, Vikram Patel, after which you spent several years in London training in psychiatry, but in the summer of 1993, you boarded a flight from Heathrow bound for Harare in Zimbabwe; what drew you there?” it sounded like the whole thing had been plopped-in later – by the producer, perhaps even pretending to be Jim in the edit. It was one of a few jagged moments that sent an ex­ceptional conversation into the realms of the abstract.

Antonia Quirke is an author and journalist. She is a presenter on The Film Programme and Pick of the Week (Radio 4) and Film 2015 and The One Show (BBC 1). She writes a column on radio for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 12 March 2014 issue of the New Statesman, 4 years of austerity

Don't Tell the Bride YouTube screengrab
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How did Don’t Tell the Bride lose its spark?

Falling out of the love with reality TV’s wedding planning hit.

Steph, 23, from Nottinghamshire, is standing in a drizzly field wearing a wedding dress. Her betrothed, Billy, is running around in a tweed flat cap trying to make some pigs walk in “a continuous parade”. A man from Guinness World Records is watching with a clipboard, shaking his head. Bridesmaids gaze sorrowfully into the middle distance, each in a damp pig onesie.

Thus ends the second wedding in E4’s new series of Don’t Tell the Bride – and the programme’s integrity with it.

When the classic programme, which follows grooms attempting to plan their wedding (punchline: human males doing some organising), began a decade ago on BBC Three, it had the raw spark of unpredictability. For eight years, the show did nothing fancy with the format, and stuck with pretty ordinary couples who had few eccentric aspirations for their wedding day.

This usually resulted in run-of-the-mill, mildly disappointing weddings where the worst thing that happened would be a reception at the nearest motorway pub, or an ill-fitting New Look low heel.

It sounds dull, but anyone who has religiously watched it knows that the more low-key weddings expose what is truly intriguing about this programme: the unconditional commitment – or doomed nature – of a relationship. As one of the show’s superfans told the Radio Times a couple of years ago:

“It’s perfect, and not in an ironic or post-ironic or snarky way. The format has the solemn weight of a ceremony . . . Don’t Tell the Bride is not about ruined weddings, it’s about hope. Every wedding is a demonstration of how our ambitions curve away from our abilities. It’s a show about striving to deserve love and how that’s rarely enough.”

It also meant that when there were bombshells, they were stand-out episodes. High drama like Series 4’s notorious Las Vegas wedding almost resulting in a no-show bride. Or heart-warming surprises like the geezer Luke in Series 3 playing Fifa and guzzling a tinny on his wedding morning, who incongruously pulls off a stonking wedding day (complete with special permission from the Catholic Church).

For its eight years on BBC Three, a few wildcard weddings were thrown into the mix of each series. Then the show had a brief affair with BBC One, a flirt with Sky, and is now on its tenth year, 13th series and in a brand new relationship – with the more outrageous E4.

During its journey from BBC Three, the show has been losing its way. Tedious relationship preamble has been used to beef up each episode. Some of the grooms are cruel rather than clueless, or seem more pathetic and vulnerable than naïve. And wackier weddings have become the norm.

The programme has now fully split from its understated roots. Since it kicked off at the end of July, every wedding has been a publicity stunt. The pig farm nuptials are sandwiched between a Costa del Sol-based parasail monstrosity and an Eighties Neighbours-themed ceremony, for example. All facilitated by producers clearly handing the groom and best men karaoke booth-style props (sombreros! Inflatable guitars! Wigs!) to soup up the living room planning process.

Such hamminess doesn’t give us the same fly-on-the-wall flavour of a relationship as the older episodes. But maybe this level of artifice is appropriate. As one groom revealed to enraged fans in The Sun this week, the ceremonies filmed are not actually legally binding. “It makes a bit of a mockery of the process that the bride and groom go through this huge ordeal for a ceremony which isn’t even legal,” he said. Perhaps we should’ve predicted it would all eventually end in divorce – from reality.

Don’t Tell the Bride is on E4 at 9pm

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.