A unique and highly entertaining show in Bridport in June hopes to highlight something that many people don’t want to talk about.
The show’s producer Clive Whaley talked to Fergus Byrne
A quick-fire wit has been a defensive weapon since humans first learned to mock each other. Traditionally, playground bullies, despotic work colleagues and oppressive busybodies have found it hard to silence what they thought were weaker targets, when a smart answer could render their bullying taunts useless. A quick wit or an ability to entertain often became the ultimate survival technique for those that didn’t fit into the norms expected in school or work, and an ability to make people laugh often got the tormented victim out of a sticky situation.
Comedians are a great example of those that learned to cope with hecklers, and anyone who has watched a good professional comic deal with an idiot trying to impress his friends will know that there is a phenomenal mental agility to their brain processes. Sadly it’s a mental agility that is often coupled with an emotional anguish, that thanks to the outspokenness of some high profile entertainers, we now accept as a form of mental illness. The highs of rapid-fire processes are often countered by black lows of depression that sufferers simply have no way of controlling or lifting themselves out of. Although depression and the bi-polarity of such mental states have been around for centuries, it’s only recently that our more sophisticated society has been able to identify, express and begin to accept them.
Thanks to the efforts of people such as writer Stephen Fry, comedian Caroline Aherne and comedian and writer Ruby Wax, a little bit of the misconception associated with depression, bipolar disorder and other forms of this illness is slowly being replaced by an understanding that has been a long time coming. It may be too late for quick-fire wits such as Robin Williams or Tony Hancock—just two of those reputed to have committed suicide because of depression—but their efforts to highlight their problems along with those of many others whose lives are a roller coaster of emotion, have inspired many fellow sufferers to ‘come out’ about their own illnesses.
However, despite all the good that celebrities shedding light on their own problems has done, it is just the tip of the iceberg. There are many others who suffer from related, yet different, less effusive forms of depression that don’t fit into the manic mould. There are forms of depression that don’t have the same frenzy of mood swings associated with them that people like comedians Spike Milligan or Tony Slattery displayed. Despite the overall benefit of highlighting mental problems like depression, somehow those with a different form of the illness have become side-lined, if not even slightly tainted by the wild and wacky image that some high profile sufferers display.
One of those, Bridport filmmaker and songwriter, Clive Whaley, will appear in a show at the Bridport Arts Centre on June 12th that he hopes will help to raise awareness and funding to help people who suffer from a range of mental health problems. His show, 21st Century Blues, is a follow up to the highly successful, Lonely Boys, a musical documentary that he staged at the same venue in 2011 and 2012.
Speaking about his own experiences of depression and his work with the Dorset Mental Health Forum, Clive explained that whilst not wanting to detract from the value of high profile people highlighting their own illnesses, there are many levels of problems that need as much support. ‘The unfortunate connotation for the uninformed general public is that it makes them think that mental illness is something slightly wacky that happens to eccentric characters’ he says, ‘when in fact the vast majority of mental illness happens to very, very normal people in very normal circumstances.’
Clive’s show is a loose collection of films, songs and sketches, all linked by the theme of mental health, but as he admits there are some bits which are ‘unashamedly breaking from that for entertainment reasons.’ Despite being called 21st Century Blues, the show is neither doom and gloom nor blues centred. It is an evening’s entertainment that Clive confides has light-hearted, ‘unashamedly poignant’ and ‘tug at the heartstrings’ moments, but he hopes the underlying theme will reach different people on different levels. ‘I’d like those people who have suffered from mental illness to feel that they are not alone’ he says. ‘To feel that they’ve had an element of their experience portrayed authentically.’ He also hopes that the show will help those that haven’t suffered any mental health problems to be much more understanding, sympathetic and accepting of mental illness.
Clive’s own journey into depression began late in his life. Raised in Stockton-on-Tees in North East England he sang his own brand of satirical songs in front of tough audiences on the local folk circuit before beginning a career in the sports promotion industry. A sports fanatic who successfully competed in both European and UK windsurfing competitions, Clive moved to work in an office of the Sports Council in Crewkerne and settled in the South West with his wife and children. After editing a family holiday video he found himself drawn to the world of film making and began a new career travelling around the UK making case study films for a Sports promotion company. A film he later made about Dorset farmer and Falklands War veteran Jim Armstrong, Dorset Days: A Year in the life of Longhorn Jim, was picked up by BBC4 and Clive found himself pursuing a full-time career as a filmmaker. Unfortunately, work dried up and what he called a ‘unique set of circumstances’ combined with an unhappy marriage, his children leaving home and the onset of a milestone birthday led him to lose confidence and eventually sink into depression.
‘Basically I couldn’t function’ recalled Clive. Eventually, he went to his GP who diagnosed depression and gave him three choices; anti-depressants, computer-based therapy or one-to-one therapy. ‘The idea of going on medication was anathema to me’ he says, ‘but I ended up going back to them three weeks later and saying “give me the bloody tablets.”’ Finding the anti-depressants didn’t help he sank deeper into an emotional quagmire where his lack of self-confidence and loss of self-esteem made even simple tasks practically impossible. ‘My self-esteem and my future aspirations and hope were so much geared around having a decent job’ he explained. He found that reaching fifty, being out of work, as well as depressed, had a domino effect. ‘And there’s a rational side to that’ he explained. ‘If you’re a bloke over fifty it’s much more difficult to get a job and if you’re over fifty and you’ve had depression and you admit that in an interview, although it’s not supposed to make a difference, of course, it does—unless you’ve got a really enlightened employer or somebody who’s been there themselves.’ He began to work part-time for the Dorset Mental Health Forum, setting up the Bridport peer support group and using his own experiences to help others. He did eventually find an enlightened employer and now has a job with low vision charity the Macular Society as a Regional Support and Development Manager.
Clive’s story of depression is echoed by millions of people throughout the country. And that includes people that no one would suspect of suffering. Official spokesman and director of communications and strategy for the Labour Party from 1994 to 2003, Alastair Campbell, would seem an unlikely person to suffer from depression. However in his 2012 book The Happy Depressive he explains that his life is split into ‘bad days’ and ‘not so bad days’. When depressed he feels no desire to connect with other people and as a sports fan finds that the one thing that he knows will help him rise above his depression, physical exercise becomes impossible. He says his curiosity and interest in the world around him vanishes. Promoting the theory that government policy should focus on the general wellbeing and happiness of its people, Campbell described his own experience as a ‘horrible illness for which there is not enough understanding.’ He explained that problems of the mind are no respecter of wealth, race, profession or lifestyle and can happen to anyone.
Pointing out that Winston Churchill was also known to suffer bouts of depression, Clive Whaley explains that 21st Century Blues has another goal. ‘I’ve never wanted people to think I am weak but that’s how I felt when I had depression’ he says. ‘That’s another part of my agenda—to say that you are not weak. In fact, some incredibly strong people have suffered from depression. Alastair Campbell and of course Winston Churchill the ultimate wartime leader, the British bulldog.’ It takes courage to speak out about a mental illness, especially when the public perception can be so lost in an era depicted by men in white coats and electrotherapy. However, Clive sees beyond the bravery. There is a personal element that actually contributes positively to his own state of mind. ‘Some people will say you’re incredibly brave to do this sort of thing’ he says. ‘And I know that’s well-meaning but it makes me cringe a bit because I think there is an egotistical thing around it—there’s a showing-off element.’ He admits part of him is saying, ‘Here’s these films I’ve made and these songs I’ve written and I want you to like them. But then there’s another side of me saying why on earth am I putting myself through all of this stress, potential criticism and baring my soul—for what end? Yes the end is awareness and fundraising for mental health, but there’s that personal, egotistical thing that I hope people will like it and I’m getting something off my chest.’ It’s a refreshing honesty that one hopes can offer inspiration to others.
Apart from Clive’s own songs, films and performance, 21st Century Blues will feature local Heron keyboard player and producer Steve Jones as its musical director. Under their name, ‘Unexpected Duo’, Steve and vocalist Chloe Evans-Lippett will perform songs from their album Songbird and there will also be surprise guests during the evening.