Run time: 300 min (6 episodes)
Age: 15 (I know the pic says ‘U’ under the TBC; the serious plus sometimes disturbing content made some say 15)
Takin’ Over the Asylum was a BBC Scotland mini drama series that aired on BBC2 against live football on BBC1 and Soldier, Soldier on ITV in 1994 and then quietly repeated in Australia but never shown again; only due to persistent support did it finally make it to DVD in 2008. Featuring the fictional but realistic stories of a group of mentally ill inpatients at St Jude’s Asylum (patron saint of ‘lost causes’), with a focus on one person per 50min episode, the show had a rough time making it to TV in the first place. Executives at the BBC were nervous about how it would be received and portraying mental illness in a serious yet everyday light in a time when stress and mental dis-ease were not commonly talked about and seen as abnormal, an ‘Us and Them’ situation – people that fell into that category were seen as rare and strange. Much of the time they were easy targets for mockery on TV and the extremes focused upon, they weren’t and couldn’t be people like you and me; even when traumatic things happen to people all the time.
Despite its bare bones budget and focus on the storytelling/acting without extras it was an overwhelming success winning praise from mental health charities and a BAFTA award for Best Serial and Best Editing. The execs were still reticent though and only decided to release the DVD after the whole show was put on Youtube which seemingly did the trick.
CHARACTERS AND PLOT, An Unravelling
Eddie McKenna (played by Ken Stott – Vice, Messiah) is a frustrated, mid-life almost in crisis, double glazing salesman whose outlet and hobby is being a DJ. He finds a position at the local psychiatric hospital for an in-house musical aficionado to liven up the place a bit and bring a little joy, akin to a school radio station and takes the job but keeps it as quiet as possible. He’s hanging on by a thread as it is at work finding it tough to make commissions, deal with a forthright ‘encouraging’ boss and hyena/vulture wannabe colleagues of the type that aren’t always willing for their prey to ‘naturally’ drop dead. It wouldn’t do for his side job to become known and potentially shame his company’s reputation. Sales is a tough business and caring/charity doesn’t or isn’t supposed to bring in the flash suits and cars.
He doesn’t know what to expect, is a bit anxious but hopes he can share his record collection and make the most of the old fashioned equipment provided along with a fair bit of directorial freedom – what he finds is great friends and tough truths.
Campbell (played by a very young David Tennant, yes the David Tennant who became the ‘Doctor’) is a bi-polar, manic depressive teen with a lot of energy. He convinces Eddie to let him help out and quickly becomes a co-host adjusting like a duck to water; his charisma, ideas and zeal taking them on a road Eddie thought wasn’t possible but it’s not without conflict and hard decisions… It’s arguable that Tennant stole the show but I think that without the partnership and the sombre setting he may have seemed ‘too much’.
Eddie and Campbell make up the main duo; with Eddie being pressured by his grandmother a proud of their Lithuanian heritage wanting Eddie to ‘settle down’ with a ‘nice girl’ and get married, and Campbell being a youngster who was unable to fit into traditional schooling and living away from home under the threat of being sectioned. The two of them make for an interesting show but their journey is the running theme seaming together a myriad of lives and experiences. Other main characters include Francine (Katy Murphy – Dangerfield, Mike & Angelo) – a long-term patient who gives off a feeling of being trapped manifesting itself in self harm; the actress does a great job of expressing a person both restrained and lashing out like the classic clown that’s crying on the inside. Fergus (Angus Macfadyen – Soldier, Soldier; Braveheart) – a very personable, easy going, schizophrenic electrical engineer apt at escaping & returning to the asylum and who becomes very helpful to the technical side of the radio station. Rosalie (Ruth McCabe – Silent Witness) – separated from her husband and suffering from Obsessive Compulsive Disorder before OCD was widely acknowledged and recognised in varying degrees as part of many people’s lives/personalities. All these characters interweave yet have their own distinctive tales to tell – and I found it quite an achievement managed with gravitas whilst keeping enough of a pace to get through it all, move the story along and alternate feelings of melancholy to elation in 6 episodes.
The show charts the progress and at times backwards nature of things e.g. the extremely sad situation where a patient is no longer deemed eligible for ‘help’ and is turned onto the street contrasted by the rapid yet tenuous success of Campbell’s radio presence (tenuous because his ‘mental issues’ have to be left out or played down). On one hand we see an old lady alone and homeless in a cold street at night and on the other we see how success in society can mean a lot of compromise and straining/sacrificing bonds.
We also see how sometimes people rise to the occasion in Eddie’s transformation as harassed character at work to faired haired boy yet at the same time ironically an outsider to the asylum but wrought by alcoholism and falls apart when forced to face that his dream of being famous may really be what he thought he’d already accepted as a unrealistic folly of the past. His friendship with Campbell brings this to light but also his feelings for Francine with whom he embarks in a relationship. It turns out ‘normal/everyday’ is also a very needy and precarious way to live but some of us are locked up and many of the rest are medicated or living with fears and burden.
OTHER THOUGHTS, It’s an upside down world
The show managed to capture the idioms truth being stranger than fiction and art imitating life well in my opinion; when outside the asylum everyday situations are shown as having rules imposed by ‘walls’ that we put up for the sake of nicety, comfort or hierarchy. Moral, financial and diplomatic dilemmas are highlighted poignantly in this short series. What’s the difference between many loonies in the loony bin, normal people under duress and perhaps not realizing it because it’s normal, and decision makers disconnected or disassociated from those not on their level yet whose lives are in their hands?
The only thing that stood out as forced or ‘extra’ in the series to me was Eddie’s and Francine‘s relationship, it seemed perhaps included for the sake of a love interest and didn’t blend as well as the other story arcs. Many serious issues were covered in the show but not in a way that felt raw/unpolished, except this. It felt too fast and too much for Francine’s already fragile situation. Eddie was getting on in life, lonely and under pressure but in the balance of the two he had the duty to be responsible and though I dislike the phrase ‘damaged individual’ I think she needed to just be loved as a person without the strain of a romantic & physical relationship. She didn’t seem comfortable yet didn’t want to lose him at the same time. Perhaps it’s just me, I can see it’s hard to be patient or put our feelings/needs on the backburner or even forget about them altogether but I’ve never been one to want to force others through healing; whether it be a slap for hysteria or the pushing of boundaries like in the classic romantic drama Frankie and Johnny (1991) where I thought the forcing of one mentally and the other physically to be detrimental and for the sake of settling rather than love. What’s wrong with being dependable; a rock that can mysteriously grow arms and hold as gently or as tightly for those that need it let alone those you love?
It would be remiss not to mention that every episode was named after a song by The Beatles, and since the main duo were DJ’s popular music made up a fair bit of the background ambiance.
1) Hey Jude
2) Fly Like an Eagle
3) You Always Hurt the One You Love
4) Fool on the Hill
5) Rainy Night in Georgia
6) Let it Be
CONCLUSION – “We are loonies and we are proud!” Damnit!
That doesn’t sound particularly sensitive but as with many great portrayals of sensitive issues a streak of humour and cheer ran through this one, and in my opinion it was done very well even if it seemed over the top at times it fitted in well with Campbell at least, who did most of it. It’s hard to get a balance like that and I find it’s not always necessary or appropriate but if it’s done by those going through the situation rather than those outside it can help rather than laughing at them or telling them they should laugh. It can endear us, make the situation easier to relate to and make the bouts of tears shorter. Sometimes being talking about a situation, if possible, especially without having to hold back can help and suffering in silence can be worse. (“We are loonies and we are proud” was the radio’s slogan, and later shouted in the BAFTA acceptance speech.)
Whilst it’s not very graphic like modern dramas it is still gritty and has the classic British ‘Grey’ filming style (and quite similar to a lot of older Aussie shows), where everything/one looks/feels real, close range and bittersweet; perfectly suited to dark humour – before everything became really colourful, lush and glamorous aka US style and all that coupled with the need to be as loud, shocking and innovative as possible due to competing libraries of media at our fingertips. That said from what I recall I don’t think it’s too dated other than David Tennant’s age and perhaps seeming a bit naive/caricatured in parts but overall still very watchable. It’s true that it was different in its time but now I think it would appeal to those with who like ‘slice of life’ drama and storytelling whether they’ve experienced or known anyone’s whose experienced the subject matter or not. It doesn’t throw you into the deep end of mental illness and the way it’s treated and administrated but it does give an insight and puts us in the shoes of another enough to appreciate that this was a rare gem.
As someone who has always been hurt by other people feeling uncomfortable around or by the thought of the disabled or ‘mentally ill’, let alone those who are the targets; be it not wanting to sit near someone on the bus, being scared of someone talking to themselves or finding it awkward to talk to someone even just for being slower/more thoughtful or even small in stature – I saw this once and never forgot it. I know it’s difficult on both ‘sides’ especially with people concerned with health and safety and violent crime always around, it’s difficult to balance being sensitive and practicality but it’s important not to forget.
Trivia – The filming within the asylum were set at then Gartloch Psychiatric Hospital in Glasgow. Many of the extras in these scenes were ex-patients who gave their opinions on authenticity, some of it shocking to the show makers and apparently the director dubbed over an extra’s voice so as not to pay for a speaking part, such was the budget.
Campbell: “I don’t have to conform to vagaries of time and space…I’m a loony for god’s sake!”
Of course not, Doctor. 😉
It was a bit hard thinking of similar films/shows but I think there’s some crossover between Takin’ Over the Asylum and the following:
1) Patch Adams (1998) – starring Robin Williams as a doctor with a more holistic approach to healing patients, well at least treating them like people first and patients second.
2) Whose Life Is It Anyway? (1981) – starring Richard Dreyfuss as an artist who loses the use of his hands; art being his life and the everyday loss of essential independence being too much to bear begins the fight for his choice – euthanasia.
3) The Dream Team (1989) – more on the silly side of the subject but Michael Keaton manages to help a group of inmates (also well known actors) escape the atmosphere of their confines/sanatorium to go to a baseball game and they discover life outside can be just as ‘crazy’.
4) Monk (2002-2009) – Here Tony Shalhoub takes his ability to play offbeat characters to yet another extreme as a Sherlock Holmes style detective with almost crippling fears and trauma (the ‘defective detective’)– another balance of serious vs comedy but more intense than Takin’ Over the Asylum.
Advantages: Thoughtful and ground breaking show about people with mental illness. Kind yet humorous too and great cast.
Disadvantages: Not much other than perhaps adding too much to the story.