Sick benefits

Television - Hurting humanity grips Andrew Billen

It is the television reviewer's lot to be told that he has it easy, that he is being paid to watch what he would anyway. But I can say I watched the first of Channel 4's Embarrassing Illnesses (8.30pm, Tuesdays) out of painful duty. Its subject was testicular cancer, and as surgeons extracted an unfeasibly large testicle and prodded away at the lesions on a healthier one, the duty, I promise you, was painful going on eye-watering.

For all the cheery statistics - 93 per cent of testicular cancers are curable - and for all the snazzy graphics (fact boxes appeared on steamed up shower cabinets and knicker elastic), this was not a happy topic. The programme's hero was Gary, a Blackpool radio DJ in the Cheggers mould, whose relentless cheeriness somehow made his crying fits all the sadder. "Check, check and check again," was his catchphrase when he returned to the airwaves. If Wave FM was beginning to sound like public service broadcasting, you cynically wondered in what fit of conscience Channel 4 had decided to schedule these educational videos in prime time. If it was hoping "Embarrassing" might be the new "Private", "Secret" or "Candid" (an all-purpose adjectival come-on for programme titles), the problem here was that no one was in the least embarrassed about where their cancer happened to be - but then I doubt embarrassable types would volunteer to show their shaved pudenda on national television.

More surprising is the lack of embarrassment shown by the volunteers on The Talking Cure (9.50pm, Tuesdays, BBC2) whom the BBC has persuaded to have their psychotherapy filmed in Kleenex-crunching detail. Ines Cavill and Polly Bide's programmes take us to the NHS's Tavistock Clinic in London, a blank building with an Abandon-Hope-All-Ye-Who-Enter statue of Sigmund Freud at its gates. Fortunately the old boy's theories seem to have been discarded and the therapies performed inside look subtle and undogmatic. "The talking cure is based on very careful thought about what makes human beings tick," we were reassured in episode one last week. "It's a unique form of detective work," the narrator went on, inspiring hopes of Robbie Coltrane on Cracker, although the aggressive, soppy-stern and complacent therapists I've witnessed so far (episode three was made available on a preview tape) are no Fitzes in the charisma department.

As a TV format, The Talking Cure is less whodunnit than Troubleshooter. The suspense and integrity of The Talking Cure lie in scrutinising the success of the trick-cyclists' Harvey-Jones-style interventions. They are quick to diagnose but, unless they effect a cure, their diagnoses must, it seems to me, remain unproven. The star of the first programme, Jan Gale, looks like the most likely winner, a 30-year-old drifting along in denial since a car accident in 1990 in which he killed another driver. His blanking out of the accident repeated his blanking out of his parents' separation when he was 12. I couldn't say I much cared for his therapist, Caroline Garland, whose quality of mercy was always being strained ("Rats!" she'd splutter, when he gave the wrong answer), but her tough-love seemed to be on to something when he recognised that not facing the facts of his life might be the cause of his sudden lows. The difficulty was that facing up to them would lead to an even bigger depression, the one he had been fighting off since he was 12. Thence, perhaps, the sunny uplands.

Tuesday's case study was of Juliette, a 34-year-old woman with a medical history from hell. Diagnosed with cystic fibrosis while pregnant, she had a baby with a birth weight of 1lb 6oz and was then sent in for a heart and lung transplant. Who wouldn't feel depressed, especially if your partner then declared he preferred you as you were before (ie, three stone lighter)? Talking to her therapist, Barbara Dale, was helping Juliette and her proudly superficial partner, without, one felt, addressing her real problems, which were medical and medicinal.

Next week's programme, however, shows Tavistock at its most deadly as the clinic answers an over-worked headteacher's plea for help and attempts to shrink a whole school. After making some unhelpful father-daughter comparisons that left the head, Roger Brind, looking like a King Lear without a Cordelia, Anton Obholzer, an "expert in organisation analysis", deliberately hyped his female staff's complaints against him. The next day, Mr Brind took a six-month sickie. "You could look at it and say here is a perfectly functioning school, a model for the world, and this man from the Tavistock comes down and three months on look at the mess they're in," said Anton, looking as if he deserved marks for this insight too.

I would like to know what the talking cure's cure-rate is at the Tavistock. And if "cure" is not the point, or cannot be measured, I'd like to know how its work counts as medicine. For the access to hurting humanity it has given The Talking Cure, however, the Tavistock should be charging a fee. I'm enjoying these programmes almost as much as Tony Soprano's scenes with the divine Dr Melif.

Andrew Billen is a staff writer on the London "Evening Standard"

Andrew Billen has worked as a celebrity interviewer for, successively, The Observer, the Evening Standard and, currently The Times. For his columns, he was awarded reviewer of the year in 2006 Press Gazette Magazine Awards.

This article first appeared in the 15 November 1999 issue of the New Statesman, Guns and the Dome