Private moments on display

Celebrity therapy sessions may be entertaining, but are a shabby enterprise

<strong>Shrink Rap</st

Dr Pamela Connolly - that's Pamela Stephenson, aka Mrs Billy Connolly to you - recently defended her series Shrink Rap (2-6 April, 11pm, More4), in which she talked to celebrities about their formative experiences, on the grounds that it gave them a chance to reveal their true selves. "Famous people need to be seen as who they truly are," she said. "They allow themselves to be vulnerable, and they aren't using it to sell something."

What an unbelievably potty statement, I thought when I read this. Why do they need to be seen as who they truly are? Isn't it enough that their friends and family know them that way? Are they really so needy? As for the idea that they are not using the show to sell something, my dear doctor, if the Duchess of York, Sharon Osbourne, Robin Williams, Stephen Fry and David Blunkett really feel as if they could use some therapy, they could pay for it and make themselves "vulnerable" in the privacy of the consulting room. But no, they prefer to spew on television. Of course they're bloody selling something: their souls, as usual.

What I'm trying to say is that I didn't exactly go in to Shrink Rap with an open mind. Even so, nothing could have prepared me for the awful reality.

The first programme starred, if that's the word, Sharon Osbourne. I watched it in that scary emotional state which combines hysterical laughter with utter abhorrence. You know you're in this state when one minute, you're hiding behind a cushion, and the next, you're biting on it. It is the kind of condition that can be treated with a good slap only. An unfashionable view, I know, but the correct one, in this instance. Ten minutes in, and I was all but begging my husband to administer the cure.

Unfortunately, he refused, which is how I came to know, and will now never be able to forget, that Sharon Osbourne once defecated on a small concrete statue of a monkey that had been given to her father by his mistress. She then peed herself laughing. What was Dr Connolly's response? "You use shitting and pissing to make a statement that you can't do with your voice," she said. Then, because it is her job to get to the nitty-gritty of the matter, she asked: "What did it feel like when you were doing it?"

A show like this relies on guests who dish. But given that most of these people, with the notable exception of David Blunkett, had already dished elsewhere (Osbourne wrote a book about her terrible father), the tears and "revelations" were guaranteed. As such, it was imperative to have a decent guide. Connolly, though a clinical psychologist, was not that guide. Her therapeutic technique made me feel distinctly queasy (she cajoled and she wheedled and then, once the star was sniffling obligingly, she praised). So, too, did her hoary psychobabble.

"Joined at the wound," she said, when Osbourne told her that she and her husband had both had dysfunctional childhoods. Osbourne described her overeating. "Once it was in your mouth, no one could take it out again," said Connolly. Osbourne talked about having cancer, and how frightening it was. "What comes to mind is the lack of control," said Connolly. More likely what came to mind was the fact that she might die.

It's luridly transfixing watching someone drag all their horrible musty stuff out from where it's hidden, under the bed. I can't deny that. And I would be lying if I said I didn't wait with each programme - like Connolly, I'll bet - for the moment when her subject broke down. But it's hardly edifying, is it? As for Connolly's conviction that her show will encourage the British to seek the talking cure for themselves, she is trying to make herself feel better about an enterprise that is both shabby and - as she's so keen to throw her qualifications around - unprofessional. Watching her tease out responses that, if we're being honest, were pretty much learnt (we live in a society where words such as "dysfunctional" and "displacement" are overused and have little weight), I felt all my old prejudices against therapy bloom again. "Oh, buck up!" I wanted to shout. If only there hadn't been a cushion in my mouth.

Pick of the week

Jane Austen's Emma
6 April, 8.30pm, ITV1
ITV continues its Jane Austen season. Starring Kate Beckinsale.

Jackie Magazine: a girl's best friend
9 April, 9pm, BBC2
Documentary about the iconic 1970s magazine for teenage girls.

Peep Show
13 April, 10.30pm, Channel 4
The viciously funny sitcom returns.

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 09 April 2007 issue of the New Statesman, France: Vive la différence?