Monday, 19 January 2015

Funny Farm (1975)

Funny Farm, the 1975 Play For Today written by Roy Minton and directed by Alan Clarke (the pair would go on to make Scum also) depicts a shift by nurse Alan Welbeck (played by Tim Preece) on a psychiatric ward and serves as a thought provoking piece on the  conditions in the mental hospitals of the day – with their understaffing, demanding schedules, low pay and old, cold, crumbling buildings as well as the unsatisfactory treatment for the patients housed within. 

An observant if somewhat stagy production, Minton's script is devoid of sentimentality and melodrama and written not only with great compassion and a canny understanding of the monotony and the limited understanding of treatment at the time, but also with a clear belief that psychiatric care is essentially a (failing) agent for the state. It perhaps comes as no surprise to learn that Minton  was briefly admitted into psychiatric care for alcoholism and gambling and its interesting to consider how much of that personal experience helped shape a play which taps into his ongoing exploration of institutions (see also Scum of course) and draws parallels between the psychiatric ward and the military (many of the patients refer to their army days/National Service) as well as society in general. It's certainly a mixed bag of patients on display as befits the cross section of society, with some bordering on the utterly comedic (the old duffer who keeps singing, blind to criticism and objection and the bluff, brisk former paratrooper and keep fit freak) and the utterly tragic (one pyjama clad patient who believes cancer killed him aged 18 and the former estate groundsman/gardener sacked from his job and turfed out of his cottage forced to reside in a flat and work in a factory)

Effectively though there are two key characters in Funny Farm; the aforementioned overworked and underpaid nurse, Welbeck, and one patient in particular called Arthur played by Liverpudlian actor Allan Surtees. A sardonic, sharply intelligent and possible autodidact man, he appears to be something of an identification figure initially with his droll quips about the ward resembling 'a mad house' and his suggestion that the teenage patient in the bed opposite should wear boxing gloves to stop him 'giving it some fist in his wanking pit' as well as his seemingly healthy, sane manner. But Arthur's depth and complexities as a character are slowly revealed during the course of the play when it is revealed that he is an alcoholic, possibly on his last chance, with little faith about a cure for either his physical or mental health. One can't help but wonder if, given his own vices and history, there was more than a grain of Minton in the character.

Arthur's narrative is tied in with that of Welbeck in that both men are contemplating departure from the institution. For Arthur its the sobering (no pun intended) reality of a discharge and the return to the temptation of the demon drink, something which is vividly highlighted when a former patient turns up roaring drunk and abusive demanding admission. Minton clearly believed in the debilitating safety and security of hospital with its set routines and regulations, aware that the recidivism upon release is just as huge and foreboding here as it is for the inmates in Scum. For Welbeck, its the dilemma of staying in a job he enjoys (even though he remains secretly unconvinced by the treatment plans) and makes him feel 'useful', or resigning to take a position in a local factory with a poor reputation (a 'sweat shop' as two characters refer to it whose hard work and monotony sees some of its employees being admitted to their ward!) but a much better pay packet to provide for his wife and their two children. Money is clearly the deciding factor - poor Welbeck cannot afford a car or even a bus fare and as a result has to cycle miles into work each day. As the play progressed we see his sense of vocation being chipped slowly and surely away as the exploitation of his dignified enactment of duty is increased.

Life on the ward is realistically captured by Clarke's directorial style and the film is shot on austere videotape in a suitably gloomy looking labyrinthine institution of swishing doors, long corridors and murky green walls which Welbeck makes his lonely deep in thought way down - its repetition being something of a Clarke motif in fact. Undoubtedly accurate the play closes with some thought provoking captioned statistical information from 1975;

“Every three hours a baby is born that will require constant specialised psychiatric care for the whole of its life"

"One person in Nine will enter a mental hospital for treatment"

"None Psychiatric Illness:  121 nurses for 100 patients”

"Psychiatric illness: 36 nurses for 100 patients”. 

I can't imagine it's changed all that much in the forty years since this film was broadcast.

As with a lot of these gems from the archives, Funny Farm has not been given a commercial release on either VHS or DVD, but you can find it available to buy online which is what I did a couple of years ago. To get the BBC to consider repeating some of these classic Play For Today's please sign the petition I started here

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