Many well-known figures revealed some of their most intimate secrets to the Irish psychiatrist on his BBC radio show, but a new biography shows that the broadcaster had his own inner torments
When it came to conducting interviews, perhaps no Irish broadcaster has probed as deeply into the inner lives of well-known personalities as the psychiatrist Anthony Clare.
For almost two decades, he presented BBC Radio 4’s In the Psychiatrist’s Chair, and many of his guests were remarkably forthcoming with their revelations.
In their often fascinating new biography, Psychiatrist in the Chair, Brendan Kelly and Muiris Houston describe his fruitful interviewing style. He was unfailingly courteous and supportive to his guests, listening for the most part, rather than interrogating. He was also curious, often robust and controversially dogged, despite the polite veneer.
On the long-running programme, the crime writer PD James talked about her husband’s suicide; the Conservative minister Edwina Currie revealed how she fell out with her father permanently; and the agony aunt Claire Rayner broke down as she talked for the first time about being abused as a child.
Some questioned his persistence at the time and whether he had crossed a line with Rayner, particularly since as a doctor he was bound by the dictum “first, do no harm”.
One of the strange aspects of the show was that normally when people talk to a psychiatrist, they do so in the strictest confidence. Here they were in the full public glare.
The Dublin psychiatrist Eimer Philbin Bowman was sceptical at the time and said there was a conflict underlying the programme: “Good psychiatry takes place in private, and only in public if the patient’s interest is paramount.”
So why would any famous person — be they an actor, comedian, politician or writer — dream of going on a show where some of their most intimate and traumatic secrets could be revealed? Were the guests so narcissistic that they were prepared to spill the beans about their personal lives and their childhood torment to grab attention?
Clare once told an interviewer: “I wouldn’t go on my own show.” Perhaps his guests felt that talking to him had positive effects.
The businesswoman Nicola Horlick was interviewed by Clare when her daughter was critically ill, and said she found the experience “incredibly beneficial”: “It wasn’t just a programme, it became an actual therapy session,” she said.
Another interviewee, the political activist Monsignor Bruce Kent, remembered Clare as “a decent man who had done his homework”.
Kent recalled: “I remember leaving the BBC that day and thinking that I had got quite a lot off my chest.”
There were inevitable criticisms and, as time went on, Clare found it more difficult to attract suitable guests. But his programmes helped to bring mental health to the forefront of public discourse in Britain and Ireland.
When he died in 2007, the Guardian suggested that he did more than anyone of his generation to improve the public understanding of psychiatry and to raise it from its former outcast status.
Sebastian Cody, a broadcasting colleague, suggested that Clare attacked the fantasy that the celebrated few have their molecules arranged in a different way to ours.
Perhaps the most chilling passage in the book, in the light of subsequent revelations, is the detail of Clare’s interview with Jimmy Savile, where the disc jockey declared that he hated children.
Savile claimed to have no emotion, and when asked about his feelings, told Clare: “I haven’t found them yet.”
Although he died before Savile was exposed as a child abuser, the psychiatrist had a feeling of foreboding and suggested that there was some profound psychological disturbance in Savile.
Of course, Clare’s career extended way beyond broadcasting. After excelling as a student debater, he rose through his profession, running psychiatric institutions in Dublin and London, writing books and contributing to public debates on a wide variety of topics.
So, what of the inner life of the man himself? As this biography reveals, he suffered his own torments.
His childhood in middle-class post-war Dublin is described as a “happy one”, but he had a fraught relationship with his mother, commenting that he never knew if anything he ever did was good enough for her.
He once told a friend that if he became Pope, his mother would think that he hadn’t gone far enough in the church. Curiously, Clare could also demand high standards as a parent, according to his son Peter (one of seven children). When Peter told him he had got an A2 in English in his Leaving Cert, Clare asked him: “What stopped you from getting an A1?”
As a broadcaster, psychiatrist, administrator, journalist and public commentator moving between Dublin and London, Clare took on a dizzying variety of roles, and friends felt that he overextended himself.
At one stage, he ran for the Seanad, and was bitterly disappointed to lose the election.
During his later years, he was prone to depression. In the biography, his son Peter recalls how he “became stressed, depressed, withdrawn, harried”.
Having been a constant presence on the airwaves and in print, he withdrew from many of his public engagements.
This book explores his life in the same depth that Clare himself would have expected as one of our greatest broadcasters.
Biography: Psychiatrist in the Chair by Brendan Kelly and Muiris Houston
Merrion Press, 304 pages, hardcover €22.95; e-book £8.99