Dr Christian Jessen: "The word 'exploitative' drives me mad"

Helen Lewis talks to Dr Christian Jessen about Twitter diagnoses, self-promotion and the best of the NHS.

Dr Christian Jessen lives an odd life. Quite regularly, people send him photos of their diseased body parts; others seek medical advice from him on Twitter, which he retweets with his response in capital letters before the question. So: “IT’LL KILL YOU IN AN HOUR OR TWO. @DoctorChristian how poisonous exactly?”
 
Dr Christian, as he prefers to be known, is the presenter of Channel 4’s prime-time hits Embarrassing Bodies and Supersize vs Superskinny. In the former, members of the public air their piles, warts and assorted deformities for the benefit of a grateful nation; in the latter, an overeater and an under-eater swap diets for a week in the “feeding clinic”.
 
Both shows have millions of viewers. As a result, Jessen is now our best-known telly doctor (and he is a real one, unlike Gillian McKeith and her internet PhD). But where a previous generation had Robert Winston talking through his trustworthy moustache about the miracle of life, Dr Christian is more likely to go to Magaluf, strip down to his pants and give everyone a pep talk about genital warts.
 
The big question is –why? Why would anyone submit to showing off their bunions, never mind their STI, on national TV? “Sometimes, they’ve been trying for ages to get help and they haven’t been able to get it,” he tells me over juice and pastries at a hotel in London. “Some of them are very political. Some of them are [saying]: ‘I want to promote my condition because I’ve had it long enough and my GP doesn’t seem to understand what it is.’”
 
Isn’t there an element of the freak show? “The word ‘exploitative’ drives me mad. These people have watched the show – it’s been going on for, what, seven series now?”
 
No one can accuse him of not practising what he preaches. He’s spoken about having a hair transplant and his struggle with body dysmorphia, which makes him see a puny weakling in the mirror, when he actually looks more like He-Man. Once, asked on Twitter if he’d ever had an STI, he simply replied: “YES”.
 
Hearing from so many people about their problems, he has a clear perspective on the health service. “The NHS is really, really good at dealing with acute problems, emergencies, major illnesses like cancers. Where it’s not so good is [treating] your ingrowing toenail, your small hernia, your haemorrhoids . . . But what other way is there of doing it, really?”
 
He certainly doesn’t think that the NHS should refuse treatment to immigrants, as some right-wing papers have suggested. “What I like about the NHS – and this is a contentious issue – is that if you’re a poor, African woman with HIV and you know you’re going to die in your country and your children are going to die, if you scrape the money together to get [here], they’ll look after you.” He pauses and flashes a wry, if expensively maintained, smile. “I don’t think we can afford to, but that’s a different issue.”
 
Unlike most doctors I have met, Dr Christian is unafraid of the internet and how it has changed patients’ expectations. He loves to tweet, despite the British Medical Association’s worries about the medium, and in one series of Embarrassing Bodies, people used Skype to consult him. He thinks that video calls could be a scalable solution for those who find it hard to visit their doctor in person (“Most GP questions are: ‘Should I worry? Shouldn’t I?’”).
 
He also doesn’t mind when patients turn up having researched their condition on the web. “I don’t sigh. Well, sometimes I do. Patients come in and they go, ‘Doctor, you gave me these tablets and I’ve just seen that according to the latest trial data they’re not necessarily the right ones.’ That can only be good for us.”
 
Medicine Man: unlike many other doctors, Jessen has embraced the internet. Photograph: Phil Fisk/Camera Press.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 19 August 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Why aren’t young people working

Show Hide image

Bertie Carvel's diary: What would the French think about infidelity to Doctor Foster?

The joy of debuting a new series, Rupert Murdoch's squeamishness and a sting in the tail.

According to the adage, the first thing an actor does when he gets a job is to go on holiday. And so, having finished our sold-out run of James Graham’s Ink at the Almeida and with the show (in which I play a young Rupert Murdoch) about to transfer into the West End, I’m packing my bags.

But before I can skip town, I’ve one more professional engagement: the press launch of series two of the BBC drama Doctor Foster, which we finished filming at Christmas. I’ve now seen the final cut of all five episodes, and I’m excited to share it with an audience. There’s no substitute for seeing other people’s reactions at first hand, especially with a show that got people talking so much first time around, and it’s electric to sit in a cinema full of expectant journalists and commentators and feel the room respond. Nothing beats this: to put so much into making a thing and then experience an audience’s unmediated, reflexive reaction. When it goes well, you feel that you’ve shared something, that you’ve all recognised something together about how things are. It’s a unifying feeling. A sort of bond.

Cheating spouses

Handling the interviews has been tricky, when there’s so little one can say without giving the plot away. (The first series began with Suranne Jones’s character Gemma, a GP, suspecting her husband Simon of having an affair.) What’s more, lots of the questions invite moral judgements that I’ve tried my best to avoid; I always think it’s really important not to judge the characters I play from outside, but simply to work out how they feel about themselves, to zero in on their point of view. There’s a sort of moral bloodlust around this show: it’s extraordinary. People seem to want to hear that I’ve been pilloried in the street, or expect me to put distance between myself and my character, to hang him out to dry as a pariah.

While I’m not in the business of defending Simon Foster any more than I’m in the business of attacking him, I am intrigued by this queer mixture of sensationalism and prurience that seems to surface again and again.

Shock horror

Oddly enough, it’s something that comes up in Ink: many people have been surprised to find that, in a story about the re-launch of the Sun newspaper in 1969 as a buccaneering tabloid, it’s the proprietor who considers dropping anchor when the spirit of free enterprise threatens to set his moral compass spinning.

I’ve never given it much thought before, but I suppose that sensationalism relies on a fairly rigid worldview for its oxygen – the SHOCKERS! that scream at us in tabloid headlines are deviations from a conventional idea of the norm. But what’s behind the appetite for this sort of story? Do we tell tales of transgression to reinforce our collective boundaries or to challenge them?

For me there’s a close kinship between good journalism and good drama. I’m reminded of the words of John Galsworthy, who wrote Strife, the play I directed last summer, and who felt that the writer should aim “to set before the public no cut-and-dried codes, but the phenomena of life and character, selected and combined, but not distorted, by the dramatist’s outlook, set down without fear, favour, or prejudice, leaving the public to draw such poor moral as nature may afford”.

So when it comes to promoting the thing we’ve made, I’m faced with a real conundrum: on the one hand I want it to reach a wide audience, and I’m flattered that there’s an appetite to hear about my contribution to the process of making it; but on the other hand I think the really interesting thing about the work is contained in the work itself. I’m always struck, in art galleries, by how much more time people spend reading the notes next to the paintings than looking at the paintings themselves. I’m sure that’s the wrong way around.

Insouciant remake

En route to the airport the next morning I read that Doctor Foster is to be adapted into a new French version. It’s a cliché verging on racism, but I can’t help wondering whether the French will have a different attitude to a story about marital infidelity, and whether the tone of the press coverage will differ. I wonder, too, whether, in the home of Roland Barthes, there is as much space given to artists to talk about what they’ve made – in his 1967 essay, “The Death of the Author”, Barthes wrote that “a text’s unity lies not in its origin but in its destination”.

No stone unturned

Touring the villages of Gigondas, Sablet and Séguret later that evening, I’m struck by the provision of espaces culturels in seemingly every commune, however small. The French certainly give space to the work itself. But I also notice a sign warning of a chat lunatique, so decide to beat a hasty retreat. Arriving at the house where I’m staying, I’ve been told that the key will be under a flowerpot. Lifting each tub in turn, and finally a large flat stone by the door, I find a small scorpion, but no key. I’m writing this at a table less than a yard away so let’s hope there won’t be a sting in this tale.

Ink opens at the Duke of York Theatre, London, on 9 September. More details: almeida.co.uk

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear