How British comedy-dramas use humour to tackle mental health

From Fleabag to Flowers – the Brits have a real knack for tragicomedy

Fleabag, Flowers, Catastrophe, Pure (BBC, C4)

Brits are well-known for having a particular kind of humorous response to the world falling apart which makes us really bloody good at tragicomedy – I’ve lost count of the number of British screenwriters who have told me they choose comedy as the tool to cope with, and depict, the darkest moments of their lives. 

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Even though laughter, on the face of it, feels like an inappropriate reaction to mental health issues, it’s no secret that mirth can make the toughest times more bearable. And humour contrasted with moments of melancholy can render them more acute, meaning it’s a device that’s often employed in comedy dramas.

A striking and subversive example of a comedy drama tackling mental health issues in recent months is Channel 4’s Pure, a fictionalised adaptation of Rose Cartwright’s memoirs about her own experience of a little-known form of obsessive compulsive disorder, nicknamed “Pure O”. It follows Marnie, a 24-year-old woman who suffers from intrusive, distressing and often very unusual sexual thoughts.

The show was applauded by many viewers who have lived with the condition but who have never seen their experiences reflected on-screen.

One scene in particular really resonated with Pure O sufferers. Set in a library, it sees Marnie (played by magnetic newcomer Charly Clive) reading a medical text describing her condition and finally realising that she has OCD and that she is not, as she feared, simply a bad person with a depraved mind. 

Marnie screams with joy and relief as she begins to understand that the condition that has caused her so much torment is something that others have experienced and which has been documented by doctors. It’s a poignant and affecting moment but it’s also very funny as the librarian becomes increasingly desperate in his attempts to shush Marnie.

Pure writer Kirstie Swain is certainly not afraid of confronting sexual taboos when exploring Marnie’s mind, and neither is Phoebe Waller-Bridge in her Bafta-winning BBC3 comedy drama Fleabag. Just minutes into the very first episode of Fleabag, Waller-Bridge’s anti-heroine can be seen masturbating over a video of Barack Obama, who is giving a speech about democracy. And in the second series Andrew Scott stars as a sexy priest who gets up to no good with Fleabag in a confession booth. Yep, that’s pretty taboo.

Yet while Fleabag may be forever arching a suggestive eyebrow at the viewer, her mischief and humour are a mask for her jagged grief and her struggle to cope with the loss of her mother and best friend, and Waller-Bridge has previously revealed that the theme of loss in Fleabag was indeed inspired by a friend’s suicide. 

Art also imitates life in Channel 4 comedy drama Catastrophe. (Disclaimer: although the show is co-written by Rob Delaney, who is American, and Sharon Horgan, who is Irish, it’s definitely legit that I’ve included Catastrophe in this piece because Delaney himself describes it as “decidedly a British sitcom”.)

Series three deals with alcohol addiction, and comes to a distressing end with Delaney’s character Rob injured in a car accident after driving drunk. Delaney himself used to be an alcoholic and quit drinking in his 20s after sustaining major injuries in a car crash when he drove during an alcohol-induced blackout. 

When we rejoin the fictional Rob at the beginning of Catastrophe’s fourth and final season, he is walking around in a neck brace – “A criminal in a neck brace. What a f***ing catch,” quips Sharon.

Delaney, who lost his two-year-old son to cancer in 2018, previously told RadioTimes.com that comedy – specifically the show Getting On, a sitcom set in an NHS geriatric ward – played a part in helping him through his grief.  

Fellow Channel 4 comedy drama Flowers, meanwhile, opens with depressed children’s author Maurice (Julian Barratt) attempting to hang himself from a tree in his garden. When the branch snaps almost immediately, he mutters “F***’s sake,” and plods back across the lawn into his house. Straight away, writer Will Sharpe has managed to deftly contextualise the serious topic of suicide with the absurd mundanity of life. 

Flowers also explores the experience of bipolar disorder through Maurice’s daughter Amy (Sophia Di Martino). Sharpe, who himself has type two bipolar, told The Guardian: “I find laughter a helpful way to make yourself feel better. I don’t feel like having a mental illness rules out a kind of joyful, fulfilling life.” 

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So for that very reason, on Mental Health Awareness Week, let’s celebrate the joy that comedy dramas can bring even in the bleakest of times, and the value of humour as a lens through which to talk about mental illness.