Gradually, case by case and day by day, we’re reducing the stigma around mental health. We’re slowly seeing how stupid it is to think people with depression should buck up their ideas, or that scarier-sounding conditions like schizophrenia mean lifelong exclusion from society. Walls are falling, fears are dissolving – and the bare-hearted celebrity documentary has played a part.
Stephen Fry uncorked this outpouring of screen confessions in 2006 with The Secret Life of the Manic Depressive, a deserved award-winner. This week he was tweeting in advance about Notes from the Inside with James Rhodes (Wednesday C4; 4oD), not for the first time directing his followers towards a concert pianist who has unstuffy crossover appeal to go with his talent. Now, with immense courage and grace, Rhodes explained on primetime TV what he’s overcome to find success.
Rhodes was visiting a psychiatric hospital, the sort he was confined to himself five years ago. We learned how his long and painful recovery from being sexually abused as a child had derailed when his own son reached the same age. He’d decided to commit suicide and had rung up to say goodbye. The boy’s mother played a kind and brilliant trick: say it in person, she said. When Rhodes got there he saw his son (“Him in his little puffa coat, he was only four, this little dude holding her hand”) and a mob of friends who intervened.
The hospital Rhodes was nervously visiting now was in a beautiful old stately home; in the grand hall had been placed a grand piano. Rhodes would meet four patients and play them a classical piece of his choosing, trying to replicate the restorative effect Bach had had on him when he was inside.
Bits of Grieg, Rachmaninov, Gluck and Schumann weren’t going to cause miraculous awakenings. Rhodes admitted that. You couldn’t always say for sure how they’d helped. Bouncing teen Kelly, who only stopped smiling to sadly show us a photo of her and her sister on holiday three years ago, found Rhodes’ 100rpm “Jimi Hendrix version” of In the Hall of the Mountain King funny, while house DJ Nicky (“I am not paranoid schizophrenia. It’s not me. I’m Nicky”) wanted to talk shop with a fellow musician.
What sometimes took place was abstract, unscientific, unexpectedly intimate, as each patient sat inches from the piano, close enough to feel vibrations. The pieces would operate “beneath words”, Rhodes said. He’d provide the soundtrack and the listener could write their movie. Notes from the Inside’s most powerful moments came when the patient was lost in music, taken away by its ability to trigger a moment or briefly cleanse the brain.
Jason, a desperately vulnerable and wounded man who had been in treatment for two decades and said “I haven’t really cried for years”, was in tears during Rachmaninov’s Prelude in C sharp Minor. At the end Rhodes asked what was going through his mind. “Deep thoughts.” Maybe another tiny broken piece had been glued back into place.
An unlikely pillar of strength with his scuffed white pumps, drainpipe legs, random hair and fidgety, cigarette-spliced fingers, Rhodes connected instantly with all the patients, easily showing them to be individuals who weren’t defined by their diagnoses, or at least not for ever. And whether he was verbally analysing the works he’d chosen or performing them, Rhodes had a mix of calm precision and childish glee that made classical piano pieces sing for the uninitiated. The music and the programme had changed something. It wasn’t clear what it was, but it was there.
BBC4 said goodbye to original dramas – unless the Beeb sees sense, which new DG Tony Hall is already making noises about – with a flourish in the form of Burton and Taylor (Monday; iPlayer), the story of the twice-divorced megastars recklessly co-starring in Private Lives on Broadway in 1983.
The classic elements of BBC4 biodramas were in place. Initially, it was about checking out the impersonations. Helena Bonham Carter was rightly invincible but oh so brittle as Taylor, mostly remaining still in the middle of a whirl she’d created, peering cheekily at the world with eyes as big as the rest of her face. Bonham Carter’s character from Fight Club had come into money but never come down.
Dominic West did the Burt: in a spot-on, sweeping owl-grey wig, masterly but then suddenly naive, in a great scene where Burton tried to rock a mink coat at a party, but wore it over a shirt and tie. West’s deep Welsh lilt was believable – someone should have told him it was worth using in every scene.
Less successful was the attempt to do something that trips up a lot of sleb reconstructions: conveying how famous super-famous people were. Burton and Taylor contented itself with a lot of cutaways to extras hooting in theatre seats, an inadequate expression of how audiences reacted to seeing the duo on stage. The scenes from the play, which asked West and Bonham Carter to act as actors acting, didn’t feel real either – another common biodrama banana skin.
None of this mattered. The film was a love story that punctured the privilege and oddness of celebrity. Heart-prickling magic was there early on as Bonham Carter gazed at West grumpily trying to sleep after a drunken but platonic reunion – in her eyes was the delicious despair of seeing the one you can’t (any longer) have. This was about something stronger than wanting a person – it was about wanting them back.
Burton being unsteadily on the wagon (“Never! Never, never, never!”) and Taylor’s drug habit played off against their addiction to each other, culminating in a final scene, brilliantly imagined and constructed by scriptwriter William Ivory, in which Taylor the tiny, pill-hoovering diva turned out to be far more emotionally intelligent than Burton the manly man. She told him what an eternal bind they were in.
A flashback to the two of them mucking about in a hotel suite years before, hot and silly and free, brushed up against Taylor in the present in a bare dressing room, holding on to Burton and simply saying, “I’ll miss you.” They ended up laughing together like children, like soul mates. Not Burton and Taylor, but Richard and Liz. The connection between them was more intoxicating than any kind of fame.