This has been quite a week for honest TV. As Channel 4 pushed boundaries by documenting the dissection of My Dead Body, so BBC Two is exploring another previously hidden arena, with I’m an Alcoholic: Inside Recovery, which promises “unprecedented access” to an AA meeting. This is a sensitive and impeccably balanced documentary, but at the heart of it is suffering, and how some of those who live with their demons have managed to find ways to do so.
The issue with making a documentary about Alcoholics Anonymous is obvious from the name of the organisation, but this has found a workaround. Using recent technological developments, the faces of those participating are digitally altered, thus maintaining the principle of anonymity. As one woman, known here as Niam, puts it: “It doesn’t matter that it’s not my face.” The story is what counts.
Alcoholics Anonymous has reached its 75th anniversary in the UK, and Inside Recovery carefully outlines its origins and ideals. It begins with its very first meetings in the US in the 1930s, and there is archive footage. In the UK, the first meeting was held at the Dorchester hotel in 1947, and advertised only in the Financial Times, as no other paper would allow it. At one point, when exploring step nine – making amends for past behaviour – it shows a black-and-white clip of a suited man approaching a police officer and saying: “I’m sorry I tried to sock you, I acted like a heel.” Language has certainly changed, if the guiding principles have not.
At regular intervals, we are reminded of two points – the fact that AA is rooted in Christianity, and the fact that it does not work for everyone. But for some it does, and here, we meet a wide range of people who are in recovery from alcohol, as they put it in AA. The three main interviewees are Andy, who has been in recovery for 17 years and still goes to three meetings a week; Niam, who has been in recovery for 15 years; and Rhys, who has been in recovery for 17 months. Their tales are a form of “the share”, or volunteering to speak at meetings, when addicts may choose to discuss their experiences, past and present.
A surprising number of parts of an AA meeting, and steps in the programme, are familiar to anyone who has come across it in popular culture, if not real life. The film understands that people will have some grasp of the basics, but doesn’t assume much more than that, which gives it a patient tone. The meeting itself, interwoven with qualifying and explanatory information from medical experts and historians, is in a church hall with plastic chairs. It is neutral and oddly ordinary, and it is fascinating and moving to witness people simply telling their stories to each other as well as to us. Often they are stories of despair. One man says he simply could not imagine continuing to live as he did when he was drinking. Another talks about deciding not to visit a newborn relative, because she preferred to spend time alone with a bottle of gin. But this is also a place of hope, and with the willingness to share the lows comes the possibility of peer support and community.
Inside Recovery is cautious, though, and offers alternative perspectives, too. It does not sugarcoat recovery, nor push the idea that AA is a panacea for alcoholism. Some people start coming to AA meetings for a while and then drop out, never to be heard from again. Others start AA more than once, until it clicks for them; for some, it never clicks at all. Experts weigh up the positives and the negatives, exploring the “higher power” element that can be problematic for many, and using refreshingly nuanced concepts such as offering addicts empowerment instead of powerlessness.
In the UK, an estimated 600,000 people have alcohol dependence, and from weddings to football matches to finishing a long day at work, alcohol is ingrained in the culture, and very difficult to avoid. It is impossible not to admire the candour and courage of those who have taken part in this film, who represent a great many more people. One woman recalls discovering alcohol through seeing people drink on television, but says that television is where she also discovered the existence of AA meetings. Perhaps this uplifting film could have that effect for lots of others, too.
• This article was amended on 11 December 2022 to clarify that AA has reached its 75th anniversary in the UK; its origins in the US were earlier.