Radio 4's All In The Mind is a perfect example of why we still need the licence fee

We must ensure uncomfortable subjects like mental illness are brought out in the open — and not as a freak show

16 November 2013

9:00 AM

16 November 2013

9:00 AM

Best line of the week came on Monday from the composer John Tavener, and was given added poignancy by the announcement the following day that Tavener had died. He told us, ‘Life is a creeping tragedy; that’s why I must be cheerful.’ It’s a sankalpa, or inner resolution, he held on to especially in his last years as he endured an illness that stopped his heart four times and once kept him in intensive care for six months. For a while the experience of near-death shut down his creativity completely. He had, he told us, ‘no sense of that other life which until then had enriched him’.

Tavener was talking on Start the Week, which on Monday welcomed back Andrew Marr after his remarkable recovery from catastrophic illness. Marr chose as his theme for this first programme the poems of George Herbert and the way that Herbert abandoned the life of status and ambition and devoted himself instead to making sense of his religious faith and of his inner life, his soul.

If you’re over a certain age, you’ll know Herbert’s work through lines like ‘Teach me, my God and King’ or ‘Let all the world in every corner sing’ taken from the English hymnal and once sung in school assemblies the land over. Those who are young enough to have missed out on this kind of linguistic education should look him up on Google. As Marr vividly encapsulated, Herbert’s way with words is like Shakespeare but rinsed and rinsed thoroughly until only a few pebbles remain.

Marr himself claims not to be a man of faith but since his illness he has found in Herbert’s poetry a solace, a calming of the restless mind. Herbert was writing almost 400 years ago but we can find in him surprising connections because he was writing not about the external world within which he lived, but rather about those inner quandaries and doubts that still pester and plague us. How do we have a life that is truly real while living in a world that pays no attention, or respect, to the questions asked by the soul, the inner me?

Marr was joined by the writer Jeanette Winterson and Herbert’s biographer, John Drury (who like Herbert is described, rather wonderfully, as ‘an Anglican divine’), in a conversation whose rigour and purpose quite dispelled that Monday-morning feeling. Winterson can always be relied on to say in five words what it takes most people to explain in 50. ‘The odd thing about life,’ she said, ‘is that it’s so short. The only way to lengthen it is to live for what you love…and never to give way to indifference.’ Her words were given added frisson because we knew that Marr and Tavener were sitting just inches away from her in the studio, both of them having confronted so potently the reality of life’s brevity.

What turns Radio 4’s All in the Mind from an ‘experience’ programme into something much more interesting is the way it talks not just about mental health ‘problems’ but also engages with new research in psychology and neuroscience. It really lives up to its title — everything you need to know about what goes on inside the mind. Since it began 25 years ago, with the psychiatrist Anthony Clare in the presenter’s chair, the series has been on a mission to make us as acquainted with the mysteries of the brain as we are with the workings of the bowels. In these anniversary programmes Clare’s successor as presenter, Claudia Hammond, is trying to find out how far this has been accomplished.

On Tuesday night she wondered how much our attitudes to mental illness have really changed since 1988. Stephen Fry, Alastair Campbell and co. are now coming out in their droves as depressives, OCDs, bipolars but does this have any impact on those sufferers from mental illness who have no celebrity profile? How different is it for them? Is it easier now to be employed after a diagnosis of mental illness? How much empathy is out there for sufferers and their families? Hammond called on Graham Thornicroft, a community psychiatrist, Paul Farmer, the chief executive of the mental-health charity Mind, and Bobby Baker, a performance artist and former patient, to give us their views. This is the strength of the series, bringing together experts and patients, looking for answers both in theory and in practice.

Back in 1988 there were still ‘asylums’ filled with long-term patients, shut away from society and forgotten. Mental illness was feared and regarded as something separate from normal society, even though at least one in ten people are likely to suffer from some kind of mental-health issue at some point in their lives. All in the Mind has played a part in ensuring we understand more about what it’s like to suffer from breakdown, anxiety, obsession, paranoia. That’s why we do still need the licence fee. To ensure that uncomfortable subjects are brought out into the open — and not simply as a freak show.

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  • HenryWood

    Why are you putting Radio 4 into the mix of the TV licence? Although some programmes I find are worth listening to, the likes of Today and P.M. are now beyond the Pale so far as I’m concerned.
    Why cannot we subscribe to the choices/stations we would like and leave it all to the market? There is very little worth saving in the BBC these days compared to the mainly exemplary broadcaster I knew in my youth over sixty years ago.
    Why are single mothers the main criminals whose crime is being unable to pay for something Kate Chisholm thinks is good? Kate Chisholm should pay more for what she likes and let those who neither listen to nor watch the BBC free to go their own way.

  • Let’s see, what has emerged about the BBC in the past year?
    Scandals about knowingly allowing and enabling paedophiles to operate for years while averting their gaze.
    Burying a programme that would have highlighted this abuse, while screening another that blamed an innocent man.
    Scandals over excessive pay-offs to executives that are already vastly overpaid for what they actually provide. In any event, a self-serving bureaucracy that seeks to milk the public purse for all they can while providing very little of real quality in return.

    Highly paid executives that further need to hire consultants paid for out of the public purse to advise them what to do.
    Exorbitant expenditures on properties that give nothing to improve output, and possibly made it worse.
    Wasted huge amounts developing failed digital schemes that were already available on the market, not to mention huge losses over the purchase and sale of Lonely Planet.
    Then the real crime – the constant left-wing bias that has ruined a once great nation. The agenda that will support evil if they feel it beneficial while sacrificing the good.

    People are threatened with prison if they don’t support this cancer on our society.
    And Kate Chisholm thinks that it should go on like this so mental illness can be brought out into the open.

    Oh I can see just how the BBC has made sure of that – but not for the reason you write. The licence fee makes sure there will be plenty more mental illness.
    What an ignorant article!

    • Jean

      If you want to know what the world is like without a BBC, go live in the
      United States and watch TV and listen to the radio there. You’ll soon
      learn that the market serves up crap. PBS, the public service
      broadcaster, is very good but limited to what it can scrounge from
      members and corporate supporters. You don’t know what you’ve got.

      • You make an ill-founded assumption. I’ve lived in the States for 6 years, as well as many other countries for various periods of time. You may feel the BBC represents your views, and accept the ‘truths’ you’re told by them, which is why you don’t see the particular bias it represents.

        If you read my comment to Span Ows below you’ll understand what the problem is having the BBC.
        With US media, you might consider whatever the news you’re getting is biased, and consciously make the decision to also get it from other sources to ’round out’ your understanding.

        The BBC is the Big Brother of UK, and it’s an insidious corrupt organisation for so many reasons, many of which have emerged publicly over the last year.

  • TRAV1S

    Yers, BBC Radio 4 is currently promoting the lowering the age of consent. Is it because they want to legalise what Jimmy Savile did?

  • To be honest I don’t care about the TV Licence tax although there is absolutely no reason why these days it shouldn’t be voluntary. What does concern me – adding to Teddy Bear’s comment – is the patent bias that the BBC displays every day. EVERY DAY. This means the BBC breaks its Charter EVERY DAY. It is grossly wasteful of money and it’s political bias in 95% of it’s news and political output is getting worse.

    • For me, it’s not so much a question of the money involved for a TV licence, though I think it’s outrageous that anybody should go to prison for not paying it. It’s more what the Licence Fee does for the BBC in relation to their bias.

      They receive it on the basis that they follow their charter – to be fair, impartial, and balanced. Therefore people everywhere believe that if the BBC is still receiving it, they must be deemed and accepted to be just that. This gives it a cloak of respectability, which makes people who don’t independently research the facts of a particular story, more likely to believe the BBC version.

      If the BBC wants to interpret being independent as reporting in the same manner as the newspaper of that name, then the solution would be to privatise them, and then we’ll see how long they can last. For sure they’d have to change MANY different aspects to how they’ve developed so far, and it can only be win-win for everybody – including them.

  • Guest


  • Terry Pringle

    Seems rather weird that the name Paul Farmer’s mentioned as a champion for people with mental health issues.

    Maybe he should be asked if the following statements are true

    Sacking seven Managers from one directorate under his tenure as CEO.

    Paying out massive monies to those Managers

    Sacking a manager whilst they were ill in a psychiatric ward

    Spending a million pounds on an unnecessary office refresh based on vanity

    Having many bullying cases bought against him any his directors or a regular basis

    Are the above statements true or false