Mental health drama seen by 1.3 million

A Channel 4 drama based on a highly-acclaimed novel by a former psychiatric patient was watched by 1.3 million viewers on Monday

Poppy Shakespeare was a powerful dramatisation of the same-named book by Clare Allen, who spent ten years as a patient at the now-closed Belle Ridley Psychiatric Day Hospital, north London.

The dramatisation revolved around a day centre at Dorothy Fish, a fictional hospital in north London. ‘N’ (played by Anna Maxwell Martin) has been a patient there for 13 years and never wants to be discharged.

Poppy Shakespeare (Naomie Harris), however, is certain she has been unjustly diagnosed as mentally ill and is desperate to return to her life outside. N agreed to help her. But, it all ends up as a tragic Catch 22. Portrayals of patients and staff were a central feature of the humorous and satirical drama

Allen’s publishers, Bloomsbury, describe Poppy Shakespeare as “the most arresting account of madness since One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest”

Although Allen says her book is fictional, she adds it “could never have been written had I not spent nigh on a third of my life as a patient in the psychiatric system”.

Allen says that when a patient she was actually discouraged from pursuing her writing ambitions.

“Before I broke down I had written two book length manuscripts. I had also published articles in the Guardian, and a number of magazines,” she says.

“I’d been working part-time to pay the rent but my ‘job’ as I saw it was writing. At the day hospital this was taken as so much delusion. I remember reading my notes upside down across the doctor’s desk. ‘Clare is a tall, slim young woman, well-kempt, who describes herself as a ‘writer’’.

“I was told that I had a major illness and I needed to adjust my expectations. When they started a creative writing group, I was forbidden from taking part.”

Allen, now a Guardian columnist, says she has been given a range of diagnoses, including paranoid psychosis, psychotic depression, developing schizophrenia, manic depression, major psychotic disorder and borderline personality.

Her novel was longlisted for the Orange Broadband Prize for Fiction and shortlisted for the BT Mind Book of the Year Award, 2007

Below psychminded has printed extracts from some reviews of the drama. They were mixed.

But we would like to know what you thought, especially as Poppy Shakespeare is a rare example of a mental-health centred drama.

Did the dramatisation, or does the book, touch on real dynamics within a psychiatric day centre? How did you think the patients and staff were portrayed? Did the story line have any resonance for you?

Let us know on the comments form below.


Review extracts

“Anna Maxwell Martin’s performance as N was remarkable. In a pudding bowl haircut and red puffer jacket, she looks not so much childlike as babyish. Her face is at first glance blank; in fact, however much she tries, it is unable to conceal her emotions.

For N, the friendship with Poppy is a romance, her first real relationship since her mother killed herself when N was 4. The book, however, lets us see how N kills the things she loves by stealing Poppy’s personality.

Here, in Sarah Williams’s adaptation, I could not see how N behaved in any way culpably towards her friend, who is a victim, instead, of an unlikely NHS conspiracy. It was a touching, lovingly acted film, with a highly evocative score by Molly Nyman and Harry Escott, but it replaced Clare Allan’s angry, satirical brio with a futile melancholy. Now read the book.”

Andrew Billen of The Times


“In bidding to update and anglicise One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Poppy Shakespeare focused too firmly on its chosen nest – an inner-city psychiatric day-centre threatened with closure by its profit-obsessed political overseers. It thus lost sight of its cast of cuckoos.

Poppy Shakespeare herself failed to convince. Her slow descent into mental illness failed to spark sympathy. Luckily, there was always the subtle and brilliant Anna Maxwell Martin.

Her portrayal of N, Poppy’s wan guide to the mad laws of the mental-health-care system, gripped thoroughout the course of a journey from unquestioning self-sedation to angry independence.”

The Herald


Call me old-fashioned, but I like a drama to have something to take me by the scruff of the neck and pull me through. A story, even. At the heart of this is an on-off friendship which meanders along, flitting confusingly between reality and fantasy. There’s so little direction you could chop the whole thing up, put it together in a different order, and it wouldn’t make any difference whatsoever. And that’s hard work, over nearly two hours. Worthy theatre, brought to your living room, that’s what it felt like. I got a sore arse, from my own sofa. I wonder what percentage of the people who started at nine o’clock were still there at 10.45.

It’s the sort of film people will say they enjoyed, because they feel they should have. They may even convince themselves they did. But go on, admit it, it was actually bloody boring.

Sam Wollaston, The Guardian

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