Bedlam – TV review

A brilliant insight into obsessive-compulsive disorder sufferers' difficult lives sheds light on everyone's personal demons

For me it's the number seven, unoriginally. If I'm crossing the road I like to do it in seven steps – or 14, 21 etc, depending on the width of the road. Same with going up and down stairs and escalators. Often it will involve a few giant steps, or a little tiny-step shuffle at the top/bottom/other side of the road. It's quite easy to disguise.

For Aaron in Bedlam (Channel 4), it's more complicated. His OCD demands that he opens his clothes drawers and checks them a certain number of times. He has loads of magic numbers: 1 (if he's lucky), 2, 4, 7, 11, 13 (!), 16, 24, 33, 53 … I don't think there's a pattern, right on up to 1,234 (if he's very unlucky). And the opening and closing has to sound and feel right too, otherwise it doesn't count. That could be very tedious and time-consuming, especially if Aaron was running late for work. He's a middle manager for an oil company.

I'm not saying it's the same. My multiple-of-seven-pace road crossing has little impact on my life. Aaron's obsessive drawer checking and door closing, and everything else, has a massive and damaging effect on his. It's why he's undergoing a intensive therapy at the Bethlem Royal hospital in south London. But it maybe does in some small way demonstrate that it's not a case of them and us, those inside Bethlem – once called Bedlam and the world's oldest psychiatric hospital – and those outside. It's not even a thin line, more like a scale.

Similarly with anxiety, which is the theme of this first of four episodes. Everyone gets anxious but mostly not to the extent that the main characters, James and Helen, do. James is in a permanent state of anxiety that he's going to crap himself: he spends up to seven hours a day in the loo. On top of that he has intrusive thoughts, about incest and paedophilia. Helen's anxiety is that she thinks she's harming strangers, making them disappear or putting them into rubbish bins. There's something very selfless about Helen's intrusive thoughts; they would even be endearing if they hadn't ruined her life and her relationship, prevented her from going to work, stopped her even leaving the house for a couple of years.

It's brave of Bethlem's staff and patients to open its doors to the cameras. It also seems like a natural and sensible thing to do, going along with the idea that people with mental health problems shouldn't be locked away from the world, as they used to be when they were called mad and Bethlem was called Bedlam.

For the viewer it's fascinating, because it's a rare peek inside a fascinating institution few of us get to see. We meet extraordinary people – Helen, James and Aaron – and possibly identify with them in a minor way too. Everyone has weird stuff, right? And intrusive thoughts. Even Simon, the boss, head of anxiety disorders, has them, about running over schoolchildren with his car … Bloody hell, Simon, that's seriously dark, you might want to check yourself in, go and see yourself.

Yes, it's harrowing because Helen, James and Aaron are extreme cases, right at the end of that scale. Their lives, and the lives of their families (as we see with James), are in tatters. But now at least they're trying to put them back together again.

For the staff at Bethlem – Simon, and James's amazing therapist Anna – it's an opportunity to show what they do and how they work. Not so much curing, but teaching how to deal with anxiety and stay on top of it, changing the way people think in order to change the way they behave.

And for James, Helen and Aaron, the camera provides another way to confront and come to terms with their anxieties. Almost like television as group therapy, just with a slightly larger group than normal.

Bedlam could have been awful, if the camera had been intrusive, agenda-operated, seeking out the sensational. Or if there had been a gimmicky formula to it. It isn't that though: it's objective, sensitive. That's not to say it's hand-wringingly worthy, or devoid of humour. Just because something is about mental health, and fundamentally sad, doesn't mean it needs to be a humour-free zone; you can cry and laugh at the same time. Most importantly I believe it's a fair portrayal of a fascinating place. Brilliant TV.

Useful to me too. Now I know that boss Simon is driving round London with his own demons telling him to mow people down, my rule of seven is going out of the window. I'm just going to get across that road as fast as possible in as many steps as it takes. Oh my God, he's cured me!

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Sam Wollaston

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