Great Psychiatric White Elephant

Great Psychiatric White Elephant from Hannah Chamberlain on Vimeo.

This is my student film, shot in 1998, and I rediscovered it the other day and realised after all, now that time has passed, that it is nothing to be ashamed of. In fact, since the asylums have closed and that era is gone, it represents an important turning in service user history and the mental health movement. It also features an intro by me aged 25 expounding on what the point of doing the film was, which, somewhat to my reluctance at the time, we used as a way to structure what was a sprawling and extensive shoot. We researched every angle we came across, and also ended up filming in Friern Barnet, which was half way through the building process. We interviewed the developer in the showhome, which was set at the gates. It turned out that they had turned the old mortuary into the showhome. We also found in Friern Barnet a thick layer of builders brickdust all the way across the pharmacy dispensing table, with the imprint of a pair of hobnailed boots set squarely akimbo across it, and in between the footprints someone had written in the dust with their finger; “Swaney came back and he wants his drugs”.

The experience of filming in Claybury was an amazing, unrepeatable day. The police were training attack dogs in the grounds on the day that we filmed, and we could hear barking echoing all the way along the corridors. Because of this, we couldn’t go around outside unescorted, and if we tried to leave the building on our own, we ran a distinct possibility of being savaged. It lent the crew an insight into the life in the day to day of an asylum inhabitant. As it says on the film, medical records were among the detritus lying on the floor. Picked up at random, I found the archetypal story, of someone entering the asylum in the 30’s pregnant, and not leaving until it’s closure. It’s not the stuff of legend, it happened to people.

Strange times. But apologies to those who find the film dark. I found the experience of making it dark. I was moved and impressed by the service user contributors, and horrified by the story of the pauper graves. But there was a more horrifying story that we have in unusably garbled off camera audio of the garrulous security guard who showed us round, of an asbestos lined room that he said he couldn’t show us which had in it a collection of body parts including brains pickled in jars. It was around the time in 1998 that there was public outrage about the foetus material that was stored and abused by the hospital system, and we knew, as a student film maker team, that we were sitting on a national news story. We were the only media to get access to Claybury, there was a fashion shoot there, and us, and that was it. On realising the implications of the conversation which I hadn’t overheard while I was directing, we made efforts to rearrange another days filming, saying that there were things that we’d missed. While we were in negotiations with Claybury about this, and I was juggling fumbled phone interviews to the news desk on the Guardian, impatience with the process led to a lack of discretion by one of our service user contributors, and a shortened version of the pauper graves story and tales of looting of an Adams fireplace made their way into the local press. Claybury went into lock down. Our calls were not returned. I made efforts to contact the security company where the guard worked, and was told that he had been moved contracts to Birmingham. A total dead end.

So in a way, we failed on this one. The story never came out. But in retrospect it set the track for much of my ensuing thinking on mental health – rights, and right to record your own story. In the immediate aftermath of the stressful and rather traumatic experience of making the film, during which personally I suffered a blow in that a young mental health service user friend committed suicide, I sought to put the experience behind me. I couldn’t bear to look at the rushes, and I was embarrassed about the film. When Mark Roberts talks about pauper graves, at a film festival screening, a member of the audience actually laughed in disbelief. I decided I didn’t want to see or look at the film again after that. If people couldn’t understand outsider history, then I couldn’t see how I could make them. It is only with the passage of time that I’ve realised the significance of what we achieved. I actually gave the rushes of Great Psychiatric White Elephant, including the Friern shoot and patient records that I scooped from the floor in Claybury, to Mental Health Media, believing that they would be safer archived there. Now that Mental Health Media is folded into Mind, apparently they are in the Mind vaults somewhere. I would like them back and have approached Mind about this. They are apparently checking their archives.

On a lighter note, but it is a notable thing about this film, the camera shots for the incredible high angle birds eye view was obtained by the remarkable, iconic and unlikely character of Gimpo, utterly high on coke standing on the very top of the water tower itself, having climbed up a dusty bird shit covered loft ladder and standing on the water tower gutter without a safety harness. Those who have heard of Gimpo will know he needs no introduction. There was a time while I was a runner in Soho that knowing Gimpo was a mark that you were in an elite, but not exceptional group. Everyone seemed to know him. He was the roadie for the KLF, the guy who’s first movie was filming them burn a million quid, the guy responsible, so I read, for stringing up two dead cows from either side of a crane like the scales of justice on the KLF’s say-so. Gimpo made their dreams happen. And in this instance, he also made mine.

I’d also like to extend personal thanks to John Hart, Michele Sykes and Azra Kayani, the student team who went with me on this extraordinary adventure. To Karen Fraser, our tutor at Westminster Adult Education. To Darryl Humphrey, who filmed me walking down the street because he could see I wanted to talk about it. To Nick Shaw, who took time out to edit it and with whom I always enjoyed collaborating. And lastly and most importantly, I’d like to thank all the contributors, most of whom chose to be anonymous, apart from the extraordinary and talented Claybury Poet, who is known by his moniker.

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