Saturday 21 October 2017

Television: There must be more to psychiatry than having celebs on the couch

Close to the bone: Quacks, the new BBC2 comedy starring Rory Kinnear (second left) and Rupert Everett (left)
Close to the bone: Quacks, the new BBC2 comedy starring Rory Kinnear (second left) and Rupert Everett (left)

John Boland

A cult of personality has always surrounded psychiatrist Ivor Browne, making it difficult for anyone unfamiliar with his therapy to ascertain what exactly he does for his patients.

I was certainly none the wiser after watching the 90-minute documentary, Meetings with Ivor (RTÉ1), in which we saw the now 88-year-old in session with a succession of celebrity clients and admirers.

Not that I was surprised at learning so little. This, after all, was "An Alan Gilsenan film" (it said so in the opening credits, in the manner of "A Jean-Luc Godard film" or "A Quentin Tarantino film") and it was full of those ostentatious visual quirks that tell you more about the film's maker than about its supposed subject.

So Browne can't be blamed for the piecemeal nature of this posturingly reverential profile, from which we gleaned next to nothing about his theories or methods, beyond the fact that he has espoused the use of drugs in treating psychological and emotional traumas and believes that patients must be helped to unlock their own demons rather than be "treated" or "cured" in the traditional manner.

How he does this, though, wasn't explained in a film that spent much of its time showcasing sessions with such luminaries as comedian Tommy Tiernan, singer Mary Coughlan, novelist Sebastian Barry, playwright Tom Murphy and journalist Nell McCafferty - the last-named berating Browne for being a male chauvinist, though you could see she didn't really mean it and Browne himself chuckled away at her grandstanding antics like a tolerant uncle with a cheeky child.

At the end a young woman who wasn't a celebrity said that Browne's treatment of her trauma "gave me back control over everything", though you never learned what this treatment entailed in a film that was far too pleased with itself (and the participants with themselves) to bother with conveying basic information.

However, the treatment meted out in the first episode of Quacks (BBC2) was both unmistakeable and explicit - a leg sawn off near the outset and a tracheotomy performed just before the end. Did I mention that Quacks is a comedy series? Well, it is if you define comedy as something that elicits the occasional titter rather than any outright laughs.

Here Rory Kinnear plays a dashingly up-himself Victorian surgeon who performs flamboyant public operations while his neglected wife lusts after his clueless best friend.

It's hard to see what James Wood, who also created the so-so Rev, is aiming at here, though it might develop a tone of its own, especially if it gives more screen time to Rupert Everett, who was splendidly arrogant as the hospital boss.

The Murder of Roger Ackroyd was one of Agatha Christie's most celebrated mysteries, though it occasioned Edmund Wilson's famous essay 'Who Cares Who Killed Roger Ackroyd?' in which the great American critic declared his disdain for crime novels that were based on the mechanics of plot rather than revelations of character.

That's what makes most of them unmemorable (pick up old thrillers, and you usually can't recall if you've read them before) and it's what I felt while watching I Know Who You Are (BBC4), which came to the end of its five-week run last weekend.

This Spanish series was brilliantly plotted, with twists and turns that kept you watching, yet it was all about plot and despite a riveting central performance from Francesc Garrido, you didn't really care about any of these people - in the way that you care even about villainous characters in Fargo or Happy Valley or Better Call Saul. And so even though the series ended on a cliffhanger, with more episodes soon to come, I found myself not caring what fresh twists the scriptwriters have conjured up for future viewing.

Nor, after its first episode, did I care how Valkyrien (Channel 4) might develop. Much-hyped in pre-publicity, this Norwegian series had a somewhat bonkers premise - disaffected medic sets up surgical theatre in disused metro station where he funds his dying wife's treatment by taking on criminal clients - and went nowhere interesting with it.

However, those who thought otherwise can binge-watch the entire series on Channel 4's digital offshoot, All 4.

Meanwhile, Francis Brennan's Grand Vietnamese Tour (RTÉ1) came to an end, its 12 participants raving about their host and about the brilliant time they'd all had. That was nice to hear, even though evidence of their great time must have been left on the cutting-room floor because what the viewer mostly heard was whingeing about heat, food and various other discomforts.

Even the host wasn't averse to griping, dismissing a huge floating market as "like Tesco on water" and yelling at a passing boat that was playing music "Turn that thing off! Terrible!" I'd have liked to hear the boatman's view.

Vietnam's geography and history fared no better than its inhabitants. "What do you know about the Mekong Delta?" Francis asked student Sophie as they were about to embark on it. "Nothing", she replied. "Did you even hear of it?" he asked. "No", she said. I give up.

No space, alas, to talk about three excellent documentaries. North Korea: Murder in the Family (BBC2) concerned the killing of Kim Jong-un's half-brother Kim Jong-nam, at Kuala Lumpur airport last February and the two young women who were duped into taking the fall for it. Storyville: Out of Thin Air (BBC4) was about a dreadful miscarriage of justice in Iceland.

And Seven Days in Summer: Countdown to Partition (BBC2) concerned the calamitous division of India in 1947. Catch them if they come up again.

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