Clinical oppression

Television - Andrew Billen finds there's no place for romance on a 12-step recovery programme

The course of true love never did run smooth. But, dramatically speaking, one expects it to get there in the end - even over a number of dead bodies, those of the lovers not necessarily excluded. One romance archetype is to place a love affair within an oppressive society in defiance of whose mores it triumphs. The audience, needless to say, must side with the lovers, not the collective tyranny. Comfortably Numb (24 January, Channel 4) reversed the paradigm. The lovers Jake (Hans Matheson, ITV's Dr Zhivago) and Emma (Rebecca Palmer) are trapped by an oppressive regime that allows its citizens so little freedom from surveillance that there are no locks on the loo doors. But this Big Brother is a dear leader indeed. The outsize sibling is none other than the higher power that presides over the 12-step addiction recovery programme to which they have signed up. The tyranny is a jolly good thing, and Jake and Emma's affair is the very bad thing that threatens the community.

Because drama is inherently pro- individual (and individual performances) and suspicious of the group (which can only be portrayed broad-brush), one way for this film to have worked would have been for it to side with the lovers or, at least, take their romance seriously. Instead, it took the part of one of today's firmer-held orthodoxies: that 12-step programmes are the surest way to sobriety. I am not seriously questioning this. Most doctors agree that tyrannical and ridiculous-sounding though 12-step brainwashing sounds - as in a true cult, those successfully inducted frequently turn into instructors themselves and in effect never leave - it's better than the tyranny of addiction itself. If addictive personalities end up addicted to AA or NA, well so what? It's better than drink and drugs.

But for all that, there must be some intelligent inmates who rebel against these programmes and find other routes to happiness. It would have been truly daring if Leo Regan, the documentary-maker who wrote and directed Comfortably Numb, had decided to tell one of their stories. And to begin with, I wondered if this was what Regan was intending, for the clinic looked fanatical, taking in not merely alcoholics and drug addicts but also those addicted to dancing, exercise and, most risibly, helping. Some of the inmates protest against these labels and not, one feels, without cause. If helping is an addiction, is there a gene for it in the way there is said to be a gene for alcoholism? Or is none of these addictions an "illness" in the medical sense at all?

The boss class within the clinic, a country mansion set in cornfields, are another poor advertisement for it. They are intolerably patronising and locked up in jargon. No sooner is Jake through the doors than the failed rock musician is condescended to. "You've got yourself into a bit of a state," he is informed. When he fesses up to how bad he feels, he is told, "The worse you feel, the more you're going to remember this", and is subsequently warned to stop "acting out" and to "get smart". The message is: "Your past isn't the problem. You are." It's like being healed by one of those revolving poster machines you get at bus stops.

Robert Lefever, the clinic's director, played his part with impeccably smug authority and is even harder on Emma than he is on Jake. Although it is she who starts the affair, crashing in on Jake's shower (there's plenty of female nudity), she is accused of being used by him. Jake, you see, according to his "cross-addiction assessment", is also a sex and love addict. "Emma," says Robert, "what's it like to be a tablet?" - and this is deemed the final word on their relationship. When, near the end, the inmates hold an illegal party, it is hard not to celebrate with them. Snorting coke off a framed 12-step commandment plaque (the commandment that ends with "and the wisdom to know the difference") seems a rather witty act of defiance.

The group gets the bollocking of all bollockings for this orgy when Robert gets their urine samples back. Fed up, Jake leaves and heads for the nearest pub, where he orders a double vodka. But, miracle of miracles, he does not drink it. The final scene has him back in the clinic repeating its robotic "I am an alcoholic" credo. It's disturbingly reminiscent of the end of A Clockwork Orange, with Malcolm McDowell finally reprogrammed.

What an interesting film this would have been if the older tradition of personal salvation through romantic love had been allowed to argue its case, if Emma and Jake had found a way through their addictions and into each other's hearts. What an interesting film it would have been even had this not happened and the two, through some artful dialogue, had voluntarily but painfully relinquished each other, appreciating that their oppressor was not the clinic, ghastly though it was, but their addictions.

But although this was addictive viewing - and I really must do something about watching so many programmes about addiction - Comfortably Numb was not an interesting drama. At best, it was health education; at worst, propaganda - made not only with the co-operation of the Promis treatment centre, but with its former patients in supporting roles.

Andrew Billen is a staff writer on the Times