‘Mad to be Normal’ film screening

The second of last month’s two film screenings on the theme of ‘Class, Culture, and Mental Health in Post-War Britain’ was ‘Mad to Be Normal’ (2017) a biopic of infamous Scottish anti-psychiatrist R.D. Laing. Jessica Campbell introduced the film on the day, and she reflects on its merits in this blog post.

Featuring an all-star cast including David Tennant (as Laing), Elizabeth Moss, and Michael Gambon, ‘Mad to be Normal’ explores the controversial psychiatric practices taking place at Laing’s Therapeutic Community, Kingsley Hall, in 1960s East London. Emphasising social, environmental and familial aspects of mental illness, Laing was a fervent opponent of institutional and interventionist approaches to mental health and sought to challenge accepted bio-medical models of psychiatric treatment by promoting socially-oriented forms of self-healing.

Advocating the use of therapeutic community models which were premised on flattened social hierarchies, Laing established Kingsley Hall as a site for psychiatric treatment based on a commune-style structure in which patients and staff lived together in shared spaces. Standing in stark contrast to the traditional asylum-based framework for psychiatric care which was under fierce attack at this time, Laing’s approach at Kingsley Hall has been considered by many as revolutionary, a more progressive form of mental healthcare provision which eschewed the use of tranquilising drugs and ECT.

Historians, on the other hand, remain utterly divided over Laing’s character, his practices and his legacy. Was he truly a progressive revolutionary seeking to better the lives of the mentally ill? Or was he simply experimenting with ethically dubious treatments in an act of fame-seeking showmanship? Given the complexity of Laing’s personal and professional life, the group watched the film with eager anticipation, intrigued to writer-director Robert Mullan’s cinematic interpretation.

They were not disappointed. David Tennant fantastically portrayed Laing’s mannerisms, speech and charisma with uncanny precision, giving viewers an insight into the volatility of his personality and his relationships, capturing both his compassionate approach to patients and family as well as his outlandish and at times arrogant behaviour, spurred on by his excessive drinking, partying and dabbling with recreational drugs, most controversially, with his patients. The choice of costume and setting, although perhaps clichéd, also vividly encapsulated the 1960s zeitgeist, presenting Kingsley Hall not only as a site for psychiatric treatment but for countercultural activities, pointing to the fact Laing was not merely an anti-psychiatrist, but a countercultural icon, an advocate of the left, a writer, artist, and a media star.

However, whilst Laing was characterised with flare and accuracy, other elements of the film were fundamentally lacking. Indeed, it was clear as to why the film never reached general release: poorly scripted and slow-moving, the editing was choppy with abrupt scene changes and an anti-climactic ending which failed to really capture the full complexity of Kingsley Hall and Laing’s life. Many of the individuals represented in the film were fictionalised, including American PhD student Angie Wood, who plays Laing’s lover, and a number of the patients, a curious feature considering the well-known experience of patient-artist Mary Barnes and the panoply of famous visitors who frequented the therapeutic community.

Although bringing the reality of mental illness into sharp relief, the characterisation of Kingsley Hall’s patients lacked depth, struggling to move beyond stereotypical portrayals of mental illness which were exacerbated by over-dramatised and sensational scenes of Laing’s experiments with LSD and the bizarre media-spectacle surrounding the birth of, and attempted attack by a patient on, Laing’s fictionalised child.  It seems that in some respects the film did not reach its full potential; Laing’s life and the story of Kingsley Hall arguably deserve a more nuanced and developed cinematic treatment that presents such a central tenet of the history of psychiatry with the candour and complexity it deserves.

Nevertheless, the film prompted a lively group discussion  in which topics such as the film’s historical accuracy, its cinematographic features and key questions regarding the tensions and challenges of mental healthcare provision in general were raised. Whilst perhaps lacking in cinematic quality, it was felt that the film’s exploration of alternative psychiatric treatments raised important questions about the care of society’s most vulnerable, holding especial resonance given Britain’s current mental healthcare crisis.

Jessica Campbell is a PhD student in Economic and Social History. Her primary research interests lie in the social history of medicine. Her doctoral project ‘From Moral Treatment to Mad Culture’ seeks to explore the themes of creativity and patient expression through a historical enquiry into the nature of alternative psychiatric therapies in nineteenth and twentieth-century Britain.

Olivier Estèves on the desegregation of English schools

This week, we teamed up with our friends in the Citizens, Nations and Migration Network to invite Olivier Estèves (Lille) to talk about his new book, The ‘desegregation’ of English schools: bussing, race and urban space, 1960-1980. This is the first ever study of the little-known but vitally important phenomenon of ‘bussing’ in postwar England, which affected thousands of Asian children in the 1960s and 1970s. Iker Itoiz Ciáurriz sends this report on Olivier’s presentation. You can also listen again to the talk by clicking on the Audiomack link below or via the CSMCH podcast channel.

The history of the forced dispersal of immigrant children in England, which affected mostly non-Anglophone Asian pupils in areas such as Southall (West London) and Bradford (West Yorkshire) in the 1960s and 1970s has only very recently elicited the interest of historians. But, with the help of archival material as well as interviews with formerly bussed pupils, Olivier Estèves (Lille) has now finally written the first book on the topic.

As Olivier made clear, the term “dispersal” or “bussing” has always been a controversial concept. Although the phenomenon of dispersal, or “bussing” is acknowledged in policy literature it has attracted scant historical attention. This is contrary to the media, political, and academic interests in American bussing, which have inspired many headlines as well as monographs over the decades, despite the fact that it never concerned more than 5% of the total number of American pupils even at its peak in the 1970s.

In the UK, where it was officially known as “dispersal”, bussing was a form of social engineering initiated in a dozen LEAs, whereby immigrant children of mostly primary school age were (forcefully) dispersed to predominantly white suburban schools. The aim was twofold: first, and originally, to placate white fears of an immigrant demographic takeover in areas such as Southall where the number of Asians had dramatically soared in 1960–1961. Second, and dispersal’s official raison d’être, to make sure those mostly non-Anglophone Asians learnt to “integrate”.

Olivier pointed out that dispersal policies were ushered in by Conservatives in power, when Sir Edward Boyle was at the DES, later to be officially sanctioned and nationally championed by Harold Wilson’s Labour government, under circular 7/65, which was issued on 14 June 1965. It noticed that the circular only recommended the implementation of dispersal in areas which had a proportion of “about one third” of immigrant children.

Despite the proverbial exceptions that proved the rule, bussing was a failure. One reason was that dispersed, marooned, and unwelcome Asian youths faced racist bullying in schools far away from their homes. The assimilationist rationale behind dispersal was also ephemeral: it increasingly ran counter to the emerging multicultural principles of British education from the 1970s onwards

Moreover, the legal framework that underpinned dispersal was flawed. First, as Olivier observed, there was no clear definition of “immigrant children”, which ran the risk of political instrumentalisations, reifications, and local abuses. Second, the absence of actual statistics on “immigrant children” made it impossible to calculate their proportion; on top of this, some LEAs (Brent, Haringey) were notoriously hostile to collecting such statistics, as opposed to Bradford for instance. Lastly, the “about one third” proportion proved controversial.

The issue regarding the “about one third” proportion in the circular was about whether or not the percentage rested on evidence-based research. The Labour MP for Brent, Reginald Freeson, asked for further clarification as to the rationale behind this figure in the House of Commons in October 1965). Pressured by his colleague to give details, Denis Howell claimed that the “overwhelming evidence of the professional people involved” pointed to this being the maximum acceptable proportion of immigrant children. Years later in his autobiography, however, Howell confessed that the statistics were based on nothing more than the words of the headmaster of Park Hill school in Moseley (Birmingham) to which he had sent his four children.

Olivier compares bussing in the UK and the US

Olivier emphasised the fact that most children who were bussed faced racist bullying. The focus placed on the ethnic identity of bussed children acted, at least for some, as an identity obliterator, which tended to deprive these pupils of sense of childhood (“you never thought you were a kid”), a feeling nurtured by the fact that many had busy parents working shifts in factories and also had to take care of their siblings, whether or not they were bussed as well.

Olivier ended the talk with a reflection on sources and source material, particularly the long-term consequences of bussing at an individual and group level. For some interviewees, memories of being bussed are an ongoing process of meaning-making through time. Had they been contacted a few years before, certain answers, or a certain twist or shape given to answers would have been different, as is suggested by Maurice Halbwachs’s analysis of the way collective memory is an ever-shifting reality being reconfigured through time and by language. Thus, although the realities of bussing can be reconstructed by historians, the subjective memories of those involved are not nearly as easy to describe.

The talk was followed by a comment from Tim Peace (Glasgow) who raised some questions about the sources and the implications of the study of racial discrimination in English schools both historically and at the present time. In the question and answer session, the curious audience raised a number of questions about the events Olivier had discussed. It was clear that there was a real desire in the room to understand better this complex and unknown aspect of English scholar life between 1960 to 1980.

Iker Itoiz Ciáurriz is a PhD student in History. His research interests lie broadly in the history of the European left, political theory, political violence and historical memory. His thesis focuses on the political commitment of Eric Hobsbawm and his passion for politics in a transformed world (since 1977).