Think twice before you crack a joke

Nowadays you have to be sensitive to others when telling jokes or making lighthearted conversation. Especially in the light of social media.

I grew up enjoying the Goons; radio shows such as Round the Horne and The Navy Lark; and Hancock’s Half Hour; Harry Worth, and Michael Bentine’s Potty Time on television.

The Goons – 1950s humour that you loved or hated.

It is no surprise then that while I was on my NCTJ course in Cardiff in 1969 I discovered, along with a handful of other “student journalists”, the “madcap comedy” of Monty Python’s Flying Circus.

Three of my fellow students worked for the same newspaper company and had rented a flat in Cardiff while attending the course.

Early in October they invited myself and a couple of others back to the flat to watch the first of a new comedy series on the BBC called Monty Python’s Flying Circus.

Monty Python – 1960s/70s humour you loved or hated

I soon realised I was among friends who had a similar sense of humour to mine.

Monty Python was considered “brilliant”, “madcap”, “crazy”, “insane” in a time when sanity or insanity were still talked about in a way nobody would dare to do now.

Even the world of pop music was getting in on the act in the 1960s with “The Crazy World of Arthur Brown”, Napoleon XIV (Jerry Samuels) with his 1966 hit “They’re Coming to Take Me Away Ha-haaa” and his somewhat lesser known “Photogenic, Schizophrenic You” and “Marching off to Bedlam”, even the Troggs were in on the “insanity bandwagon” with their 1968 song “Maybe the Madman” (although their song, similar to Dylan Thomas’s poem “Love in the Asylum”, was more a questioning of sanity and insanity).

The Troggs at the height of their 1960s/1970s popularity.

Was this any different to the 18th/19th centuries when lunacy was treated almost as a sideshow?

The Royal Bethlehem Hospital in London (which was sometimes called Bedlam) initially allowed only family or friends to visit the inmates and even then the visitors had to pay a fee which often lined the pockets of the attendants rather than aiding the patients.

In time, and definitely during the Victorian era which saw a rise in the building of what were called mental asylums, these attendants realised there was money to be made from the inmates and they began charging the public a penny a time to see the inside of the asylum.

By the 20th century this practice had come to a stop but it did not make life much better for the inmates. Some would not even be classified as suffering any form of mental illness these days yet errant daughters could be committed just for defying their fathers over who they should marry (you had to be insane to go against the will of your father after all).

Nowadays we know that “care in the community” is considered the done thing but even at the end of the 20th century some asylums (psychiatric hospitals) existed.

In the second half of the 20th century the “hospitals” were providing better conditions but treatment was still mixed (although ECT was out of the window along with the prolonged bath treatment).

By now paid tours of asylums were a dim and distant memory.

One day on the course we were told we were going on a day out.

To this day I still do not understand why the people who ran the course chose the venue they did for our “Grand Day Out” – it was the Whitchurch Psychiatric Hospital just outside Cardiff.

We had a bit of a laugh on the way out – but not on the way back.

One of the trio from the flat had a sports car, can’t remember the type but it was a bit more angular than an MG, more like a Morgan. The college had a mini-bus but it didn’t have enough seats for everyone.

The sports car was technically a two-seater but it had a rumble seat (really just a space for luggage) at the back that could take someone sitting sideways with their knees up and, with me sitting in the front with our lightweight female colleague on my lap, we managed to make it a four-seater.

The Whitchurch Hosputal, built in the early 1900s and closed down in 2016. It now lies derelict.

We still weren’t sure what went on, just that it was a hospital. I think it was a way of showing how journalists could interact with public services such as the NHS.

Initially it was interesting as our guides explained how far treatment had come in the matter of treating patients with mental health problems.

This included showing us material from the pre- and post-WWI treatments. The old sepia photos showing people in wooden baths, with covers over them that only allowed their heads to show, seemed like images from a distant age – they were only 50 years previously.

We were shown the Electrical Convulsive Treatment equipment, which we were told was something left behind decades before.

All this was fine – then we began the tour.

The people in the art therapy class seemed reasonable. A bit slow in their movements but clearly enjoying their painting – not that there were any signs of a modern Van Gogh, a Monet or a Manet. Picasso might have come closer.

There were other rooms were patients sat looking out of the window or doing handicrafts.

For a group of mainly teenagers it was interesting but nothing that made the trip noteworthy.

Not, that is, until we were shown into one room which was locked.

It was a large room, big as an average school hall. There were no tables or chairs although oversize bean bags were scattered around and one or two of the people in there were flopped down on them.

The rest were just wandering around and after a while we noticed that their clothing was all similar, not a uniform but all generally loose-fitting with baggy trousers of the type we would now call jogging pants, and loose tops, cardigans and jumpers.

Nearly all of them had gloves on and when a couple wandered past it was clear the gloves were really thumbless mittens.

After a while we also realised that “wandering” was the best description. When any of them came close I could tell that they did not see us. Their eyes were blank.

I began to feel that I was no better than a visitor to a zoo watching the “inmates” in the only habitat they knew.

I could see some of the younger people were clearly upset and suggested to our tutor, who was with us, that it might be better for all concerned if we left the room.

Our guide took us to what appeared to be a music room. There were various instruments, such as drum sets, violins, a cello, trumpets etc. but pride of place went to a grand piano.

There were chairs set around as though for an audience and we were joined by a woman who seemed to be the head of the hospital staff.

She asked us to sit down and then apologised for any upset that might have been caused.

She went on to tell us that the patients (they didn’t call them inmates but hadn’t gone as far as modern times in calling them clients) were a mixed group, ranging from those in need of a few weeks in hospital to help them with minor psychiatric problems to those confined long-term because they would never improve from their current state.

The people in the locked room fell into the last category.

She then suggested a musical interlude before we headed home.

A white-coated member of staff came in with a little old lady who looked as though she was someone’s granny. She wore a simple skirt and blouse with an unbuttoned cardigan, along with rainbow-coloured ankle socks and plimsolls.

As soon as she came in she hurried straight to the piano and sat down. Without a moment’s hesitation she started to play. Not a simple plink-plonk on the keys but some of the finest classical music I had heard in a long time.

She played for half an hour and then her white-coated companion took her away.

She had not looked at us for the whole time. There was no music on the stand and we were left wondering if it had really happened.

The hospital chief then told us that this woman was one of twins born in the late 1890s. They were born at home with only their mother’s mother there to help.

The first one came with no trouble but granny hadn’t realised there was a second child. Number two came out with the umbilical cord around her neck.

The granny did her best and got the child breathing and all seemed fine.

Unfortunately as the children grew up only one developed properly. Her twin had clearly been deprived of oxygen during and just after the birth.

Eventually her parents had to have her committed to the hospital.

She never seemed to grow up and did not speak but seemed to like the sound of piano music.

One day a professional musician played a brief concert at the hospital. When he finished and the staff and visitors were having tea and cake the twin, now a young woman in her teens who had been allowed to sit in on the concert, sat at the piano and started to play.

At first she just seemed to tap random keys but then she began to play the music from the concert.

She had played the piano every day since. She did not read music but could play a piece having heard it once.

We asked what happened to her twin sister and were told that she had become a top surgeon and had worked with the NHS from the day it was formed.

She visited her sister every week even though her twin had no idea who she was.

We left the hospital in a somewhat more sombre mood than when we had arrived.

Our little group of four stopped off at an off-licence and a chippie and then we went back to their flat.

We ate, drank and talked about everything under the sun except what had happened that day.

I kipped on the sofa that night and went back to my digs next morning to freshen up and have breakfast before heading for college.

None of us ever spoke about that visit for the rest of the course.

I have never made a joke about anyone’s mental health since that day.

Published by Robin

I'm a retired journalist who still has stories to tell. This seems to be a good place to tell them.

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