Vicky Pattison is a reality television star who first made her name in Geordie Shore 12 years ago at the age of 23, and the daughter of an alcoholic father. She doesn’t think she is an alcoholic herself, “but I do think I have a problem with drink, and I have abused it in the past.” Watching her drunk self on the show for the first time now brings her out in a cold sweat.
What follows in her Channel 4 documentary, Alcohol, Dad and Me, is a deeply personal, very moving untangling of the part booze played in her upbringing. It looks at what it means to her now – and the slippery definitions of “problematic drinking” versus full-blown alcoholism – and what it means to be the adult child of a man now left by his wife of 30 years and unable to stop drinking.
We watch her get ready for a night out with her girlfriends in Newcastle. She says she is much more contained than she was during her Geordie Shore years, and is looking forward to it (hell, we’re all looking forward to it – I haven’t been out or young for years), but – “I’m already sweating behind my knees thinking how poorly I’m going to be tomorrow.” Those slippery definitions, lubricated with the perspiration of hangovers and regret.
“Three or four drinks,” her voiceover tells us over scenes of her downing about that number of limoncello shots as the night starts, “and I’m sociable, fun and I can function the next day. Any more and I don’t know when to stop. I’d go so far as to say I can’t stop.” As driven and ambitious as she is, she notes, it’s the one thing she can’t seem to control.
The other “thing”, of course – as any child, spouse, friend or relative of an alcoholic will know – is her dad, John, and his drinking. The bulk of the programme concentrates on her evident, painful, unswerving love for him (“He could do more one-armed press-ups than Rocky!” she says, smiling at the memory) and the fear and misery that comes with that. John was always a heavy drinker – they reminisce about him drinking port when he “couldn’t be bothered” to drink eight pints of beer or cider – but Vicky says alcohol “really started to win” when he retired (“without a blimming plan” as he puts it) eight years ago. He is now 63, has cirrhosis of the liver and – brief periods of sobriety aside – is still drinking, despite various forms of therapy, including AA.
They attend a couple of counselling sessions together and we see Vicky’s anger flare amid the grinding sadness. “Fuckin’ take your own advice,” she says, with furious pleading in her voice, when he recommends she try to take control of her own drinking. And: “If you’re fucking lucky,” she responds through tears when he warns her that he may still be making the same futile promises to her in 10 years’ time.
She is an absolute gift of a presenter: commanding, charismatic, beadily intelligent, unfailingly honest and unflaggingly articulate. You hope that, off the back of the absolute blinder she plays here, she will be given the opportunity to broaden her reach.
Alcohol, Dad and Me is trying to do too much in one hour. Any one of its concerns – from the intergenerational effects of trauma, via the roots of addiction, to the awful conundrum presented by the desire to support the addict (and when does that become enabling?) and the need to protect oneself – could easily fill a whole programme. Vicky’s own “problematic” drinking rather fades from the picture as John falls off the wagon, and her mother’s story could fill another hour, too. Add to that the inchoate nature of alcoholism itself and the lies, myths and denials that surround it and its victims, and there is a great need for a strong controlling hand on the directorial tiller, which is not always met.
Nevertheless, Pattison has hacked a path, and you gladly – if that’s the word – follow. She seems to get genuine insight out of the sessions she has with experts and the people she meets who have been through some of the same experiences as she has. The ethics of putting John through his sessions on camera feels much more problematic, and there is no closing word on him or how he has been doing since the programme was made.
But Vicky recently, and for the first time ever, came home from a night out while others went on without her. She marvels about how huge a tiny thing can be. For good, sometimes, let us hope.
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