Monday, 31 March 2008

Poppy Shakespeare

WTF? Adapted from the novel (which I haven't read) which received nothing but plaudits, and it looks like the film will be treated the same, but it seemed to me like the sort of work I'd expect from a middle class re-imagining of 'One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest' for today (sane woman driven mad by the 'system') supplemented with, at most, a cursory familiarity with modern psychiatric services (although apparently the author, Clare Allen, has a fair bit of experience of mental health services).

Frankly it didn't resemble any psychiatric service provision I've ever seen, from secure unit to day services - most strikingly the patients were bizarre one-dimensional cut-outs with no sense of humanity or even mundanity (psychiatric patients are everyday people after all). Sam Wollaston in the Guardian also notices:
"...a fine performance from Anna Maxwell Martin in the lead - the only convincing "dribbler", actually; the others overdo it, and look like actors pretending to be mentally ill."
Many reviewers talk about how this was some unsettling commentary on the modern British mental health system, on mental illness itself, or on 'institutional structures' - since most of the plot depended on unbelievable and contrived devices (e.g. a pathetically engineered 'Catch 22' where you must 'prove' you are mad to get 'MAD money' to fund an appeal to prove you aren't mad, and get you discharged) I think this is a pretty credulous reading.

The one negative review by Andy Boyd on Amazon says something similar:

"How this book was ever published is hard,very hard to imagine. Allan seems to have had in her mind another "Cuckoo`s Nest" She is no Ken Kesey.

A little research would have gone a long way.I am a Mental Health Project Worker and a user of services.I find her descriptions of mental health issues at the very least down right insulting with one dimensional characters of no substance whatsoever.

She cannot describe the reality of mental ill health,which,I agree has many moments of humour,empathy and understanding comes with it.

I suggest Ms Allan writes about something she remotely understands.This book is a total turn off she cannot explain the benefits system properly and continues a rant all through the book about "MAD" money - her reference to Disability Living Allowance which is irritating and downright wrong!!

At a time when we are trying to de-stigmatise mental illness and raise awareness of it Ms Allan only serves to describe a mental health system that does not exist - get a reality check!!!"

And another reader responds to him in the way I imagine the author and the book/film's fans would:

"The author, from what I have read, has a great deal of personal experience of the mental health system. I appreciate your stance, but this is a work of fiction."
But this is just a combined appeal to authority with an 'it's just fiction' get-out clause - because the book can't both be a searing indictment of psychiatric services and also a completely innacurate made-up story*, I submit it is the latter, and as such tells us fuck all.

"...Allan has given us something indigestibly, potently true"

My arse.

[* it has obviously occured to me that there is supposed to be a 'blurring of reality' thing going on - with the most implausible events not 'real', but that weakens it even more as both a story and a reflection on psychiatry - a much more interesting tale could have been told from the perspective, for instance, of the brushes with psychiatric services of someone diagnosed with a personality disorder, where there are real and interesting questions of both the patient's skewed perceptions of what is going on, and the attitudes and actions of mental health services to these people]


Le Canard Noir said...

I watched it and thought that the plotlines and characters were confused and surreal and thought this was a deliberate plot device to be 'inside the head' of the system. a sort of 'unreliable narrator' device.

Maybe I was reading far, far too much into it.

pj said...

As I say, I considered that possibility, but it weakens the story considerably both as psychiatric expose and as narrative - I suppose the latter objection is more stylistic than substantive - but I'm not sure the story then tells us anything (indeed it is blatently and crudely plagiarised from 'Cuckoo's Nest' and 'Catch 22') because it doesn't offer any obvious contrasts between the 'mad' and the 'real' i.e. it is impossible to tell what is 'unreliable narrator' and what 'crap storyline'.

pj said...

Not wishing to pick on anyone in particular - but this nicely represents most of the responses I've seen:

"Poppy Shakespeare - the telly film based on the novel - was on Channel 4 last night.
Really liked it. Haven't read the novel. Might do now.
Sort of a "mental health" Trainspotting.
Couldn't always hear what the character N was saying.
On the whole I thought it was excellent.
The character Poppy Shakespeare, who enters the hospital a healthy and "normal" person, is destroyed by the mental health system.
It also showed the absurdity of the concept of "mental illness" or "insanity" or "madness", as well as the absurdities of the system and the way that it is an industry, a sub-culture and a for some a way of life.
And the way that is now being cut back to the bone."

If that is the message people are getting from that film, it is no work of 'unreliable narrator' to them.

LemmusLemmus said...

A short interview with the author is here (starts about halfway through). At first she sort of dodges the question whether the book is meant to be a fair representation of the mental health system ("there are many truths") and later says it (the book) is "hyperbole".

pj said...

Will listen to that. Note that she has to be pressed on the issue and seems to have been happy letting people go away with the impression that it is an accurate portrayal, and thus damnning indictement, of mental health services.

Bloody confessional pseudo-biographies - they like to use the 'real life experience' tag to give their work some gravitas, but hide behind the label of 'fiction' to sensationalise the storyline.

LemmusLemmus said...


While I'm in the service mode, I might also direct you to this programme, which could be of interest to you (and should be online later).