Takin' Over the Asylum Review
Glasgow, the mid 1990s. Eddie McKenna (Ken Stott) is a double glazing salesman, a job he hates. He shares his flat with his overbearing Lithuanian grandmother (Elizabeth Spriggs), who is always asking when he is going to get married – he doesn’t even have a girlfriend at the moment. However, in his spare time Eddie is a radio DJ and he gets asked to run the radio station at St Jude’s mental hospital…
Made by BBC Scotland, Takin’ Over the Asylum was a six-part serial broadcast in 1994 on BBC2 with little fanfare. Its writer, Scottish-resident American Donna Franceschild, has no track record apart from stage plays. Ken Stott apart, most of the cast were unknowns. The BBC were nervous of the serial, the subject matter of mental health and in particular the word “Asylum” in the title being sticking points. Takin’ Over the Asylum was probably only made because people got behind it, notably Bill Bryden who is credited as executive producer. But this mixture of comedy and drama, which manages to be at times very funny without making fun of mental patients, soon found an audience and won the BAFTA Award for Best Original Drama Series. It may be a sign of corporate nervousness that it became the first BBC2 BAFTA-winner not to be granted a repeat on the main channel: its one repeat to date (which is when I saw it) was on the same minority channel as its first showing, in a late-night summer slot.
This may be a purely personal reaction, but this is the kind of show that earns them. While I certainly enjoyed this on my first viewing – which is why I volunteered to review this DVD – if anything it seemed even better second time round. Stott was thirty-nine when he made this, and Franceschild a year older: on the commentary she says that Eddie’s character had a lot of her in him. That sense that you are stuck in a rut, that life has passed you by and you had your chance and missed it…that hit home to me much more in my forties than it did at thirty. Another factor is that first time round I’d never been to Glasgow and I’m much more familiar with the city now. There’s no particular reason for the story to be set in Glasgow other than the writer and the production are based there, as it’s a story that could be told almost anywhere. (Hollywood put the story into development, with Nicolas Cage lined up to play Eddie and Jim Carrey to play David Tennant’s role, but perhaps mercifully that film never happened.) But the setting gives a distinct flavour to the characters and the dialogue. This is a comedy-drama with a personal touch to it, not identikit TV fodder cranked out by the yard. Also, you notice the subtlety in the way characterisation is outlined and shaded in, not least in the slow realisation that Eddie has a problem of his own. I also liked the way that it doesn’t resolve things too neatly: these characters have problems which they will continue to have to deal with, but by the end you’re so thoroughly on their side that you can’t help but smiling.
David Tennant’s latter-day fame – and his prominence in the DVD packaging and extras – tends to exaggerate the prominence of his role. This was a major break for him, a very early TV role at age twenty-two. It’s certainly an eye-catching part, as the manic-depressive (though, as shown, mostly manic) Campbell Bain. But he’s part of an ensemble, one of four featured patients. The others are obsessive-compulsive Rosalie (Ruth McCabe), schizophrenic electronics genius Fergus (Angus Macfadyen) and Francine (Katy Murphy), a woman clearly deeply damaged in ways that Eddie takes time to discover. The extended running-time of a six-part serial allows an affinity to develop between Eddie and Francine at a natural, underplayed pace. All the roles are impeccably performed, but in particular Katy Murphy is heartbreaking. Franceschild knew her from one of her stage plays and wrote the role of Francine for her. Writer and actress have collaborated since in the serial A Mug’s Game and the single play Donovan Quick, both of which have had single TV showings, which I missed. (DVDs please!) In the supporting cast you’ll find such names as Michael Sheard and Liz Smith, not to mention an appearance by Spike Milligan as himself.
If the serial has a fault, it’s that some of the featured characters teeter on the edge of caricature: notably Eddie’s grandmother and his boss Griffin (Roy Hanlon). I can see the point that these people are more eccentric than other characters who are sectioned, but it’s a little overstated and easily forgiven when the story has so much to offer. And as a bonus, there’s some great music on the soundtrack.
2 Entertain’s DVD release of Takin’ Over the Asylum comes on two dual-layered discs, both encoded for Regions 2 and 4 only. There are three episodes to a disc, as follows:
Hey Jude (49:13)
Fly Like an Eagle (49:09)
You Always Hurt the One You Love (49:28)
Fool on the Hill (49:09)
Rainy Night in Georgia (49:06)
Let It Be (49:32)
As you can gather from the episode titles, music plays a large part in Takin’ Over the Asylum and with that the bugbear of licensing issues. Two versions were produced, one for UK broadcast and one for international use, as some tracks at the time could be cleared for British use but not worldwide – most notably several original Beatles tracks and the Rolling Stones's "Nineteenth Nervous Breakdown". For the international version, composer Junior Campbell had the task of producing soundalike versions which could replace the originals. That is the version on this DVD. Junior Campbell did a very good job, as many people will likely barely notice a difference. I’m certainly very familiar with the Beatles’ recorded output and Campbell’s versions are very close to it. Recent changes in licensing agreements mean that now many of the tracks in question could have been cleared nowadays, though there are so many of them that the cost may well have exceeded the DVD's production budget.
The DVD is in 4:3. The serial was shot on Super 16mm and looks very good on disc: colours are strong and the picture is generally sharp with a slight softness and grain in places betraying its origins. Although widescreen TV sets and digital TV had not yet arrived in 1994, the BBC was broadcasting some of its output in 14:9 (1.55:1), roughly halfway between the old 4:3 ratio and the full widescreen of 16:9. Super 16mm has a native ratio of 15:9 (1.66:1), which is cropped slightly at the sides to make a 4:3 picture and slightly at the top and bottom to make a 16:9 one, with the director and DP composing their images to avoid using the extreme edges of the frame accordingly. It's feasible that this international version may have been only available in 4:3, so it is cropped at the sides compared to the UK broadcast. But as this is intentional, I can't mark this DVD down for it.
The serial was broadcast in NICAM Stereo by the BBC and that sound mix is the source of the Dolby Surround track on this DVD. Much of it is front and centre, as this is basically a dialogue-driven piece. However, every so often the surround speakers come to life, a good example being the rainfall in the first episode.
The main extras are commentaries on the second and fifth episodes. These are the work of David Tennant, Donna Franceschild and Katy Murphy and are highly entertaining. Tennant tends to take the lead, but all three get to contribute. There are plenty of anecdotes about the director, David Blair, who had directed a play of Franceschild’s where Eddie had appeared as a minor character, and had encouraged her to write more about him. Franceschild gets to point out her cameo appearances (her hand in Episode Two and an appearance with her real-life son in a pram just as her credit comes up in Episode Three). It’s probably wise to restrict the commentary to two episodes instead of the full six, but I did want to hear more. Also on Disc Two is David Tennant’s original audition tape (10:15, with a thirty-second text introduction), which shows that he had pretty much nailed the character from the outset.
If anything, television drama is more market-led than every before, and original drama even more so. Fourteen years after its first broadcast, Takin’ Over the Asylum has dated only superficially – the obvious things like the lack of mobile phones or the Internet. But in other respects, this serial seems like something from another age: Nowadays the preference seems to be feature-length one-offs and serials tend to be adaptations rather than original stories. Safer that way, I guess. But it’s gratifying that something like this can get made: a personal project on a subject that might not sound very appealing in cold print, that finds an audience through fine writing, acting and direction and heart. I loved it.