CHRISTOPHER STEVENS reviews last night’s TV: Even caring Louis can’t crack the mystery of these mums’ misery
Mothers On The Edge
Louis Theroux is feeling broody. The father-of-three couldn’t stop cooing over the babies he met during his investigation into maternity and mental illness, Mothers On The Edge (BBC2).
He certainly has the baby knack. Whenever an infant grizzled or wriggled, he broke off from his interviews to demand: ‘Shall I hold him?’ — reaching out like an eager grandpa. He even proved himself a dab hand at changing a nappy.
The babies liked him, too. He coaxed grins from all of them. His gentle questioning technique, honed on drug-addicts and murderers, turned out to be ideal for soothing a six-month-old.
Louis Theroux investigated maternity and mental illness in his latest documentary. He is pictured above with a mother named Catherine and her baby son Jake
‘Are you tired? What’s the matter?’ he said, in just the tone of voice he might use to ask an inmate in a maximum security prison: ‘What is it you enjoy about arson?’
There was only so much he could discover, though, from the women in two specialist psychiatric units. None of them could explain why they had been overwhelmed with suicidal feelings following the birth of their children.
One mother, articulate and apparently relaxed, admitted she was hiding feelings of intense anxiety and self-loathing — but she did it with such a disarming smile that even the hospital staff found this hard to fully believe. Just hours after one interview on camera, the distressed woman slipped away to a hotel room and took an overdose. Fortunately, police found her in time.
The woman who seemed at first to be the most badly affected by mental illness turned out to have the best chances of a quick recovery. Post-partum psychosis had left her so confused she thought her husband was her son. But within a few weeks, she was on the mend: this sort of delusional condition, the psychiatrist explained, is often short-lived.
Other cases were rooted in much more lasting trauma, such as the woman whose difficult delivery had reawakened horrific memories of a sexual assault.
Aware of the need to tread gently, nothing Theroux could ask was able to uncover very much about the underlying causes of the mental illnesses. In contrast to many of his documentaries, you didn’t emerge feeling that the subject had been fully explored.
The real value of the programme will be as a reassurance to thousands of troubled young mums, perhaps afraid that no one else has ever experienced such a turmoil of feelings.
Theroux has at least dented the taboo that prevents new mothers from admitting they feel desperate.
Tight squeeze of the weekend:
Viewers of a claustrophobic disposition were safer avoiding Undiscovered Worlds (BBC2) as Steve Backshall went diving in Mexican caves. The tunnels were tiny… and that was before he bumped into crocodiles.
Victoria (ITV) has skated round the same issue, despite the historical evidence. One letter from her husband, Prince Albert, accuses her of taking little pleasure in motherhood: ‘It is a pity you find no consolation in the company of your children,’ he wrote.
As historian Helen Rappaport has put it: ‘She hated being pregnant. She had prenatal and postnatal depression. She didn’t breastfeed her children, who she thought were horrible, dribbling little things. She was not in the least bit maternal.’
What perfect subjects Vicky and Bert would have been for one of Louis’s Weird Weekend specials.
The final episode of this drama series was a full-blown costume spectacle, interwoven with romantic and political intrigues, as Albert’s Great Exhibition was unveiled at the Crystal Palace.
It ended on a proper cliffhanger — the Queen and her Prince gazed into each other’s eyes at the fireside, before he keeled over and lay as if dead.
Viewing figures have been shaky, but thankfully the show will return next year. We can’t just leave the poor man conked out on the carpet.
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