Flowers was shown on Channel 4 last week on five consecutive nights as ‘event’ television. Written and directed by Will Sharpe and starring Julian Barratt, Olivia Colman, Daniel Rigby and Sophia Di Martino, it was clear that the programmers knew they had something special.
It’s stuck with me since then, and I find I keep thinking about it. Not because of the funny lines or even the great acting, particularly from Barratt and Olivia Colman, who has been superb in so many shows that just saying that she’s superb in this feels like a redundancy. No. Flowers stuck with me for a different reason.
In fact, in its own quiet, understated way, I think Flowers may have been one of the most important pieces of television I've seen in a long time because of the way it deals with Maurice (Barratt) and his suicidal impulses and long-term depression.
I've been lucky in that my own experiences with depression have been comparatively mild compared to many. I know enough that I can describe the shape of it, but there are others who know every detail intimately.
With the opening episode building on repeated jokes about hanging and death, and a character (played by the writer and director) who plays around with ethnic stereotypes in a deeply uncomfortable way, it initially seems as if Flowers could be dangerous, making punchlines out of serious problems.
But the black humour shares a DNA with films like Secretary and Shortbus, allowing mental health issues to be explored in an accessible and humorous way. They’re very human stories, which understand that mental health is best discussed in context of the rest of life. And life can be funny, weird, angry, sexy and silly. As a result, dark, unpleasant and hilarious jokes sit side by side with some of the most tender and clearly stated scenes about mental illness that have been broadcast in a long time.
“Love makes it worse.”
It doesn't treat depression as something that can be solved. There are no easy answers and there are rarely easy days. And sometimes, the urge to die, to simply not be, can seem like the answer to everything and sometimes that doesn't go away.
But Flowers also acknowledges the importance of love and of hope. They don’t solve everything, and sometimes they make things worse. But they also help to characterise and define the better times and the better days.
Also, it shows a range of reactions to depression and suicide. Grief, anger and acceptance. Describing it as selfish or asking how it can be fixed. And it deals with all of them gently and then shows what that love and acceptance can mean. Every reaction is valid, but not every reaction can help.
It also doesn’t flinch from the fact that loving someone with depression can be difficult, at times soul-searingly so. One character has to constantly remind himself how difficult it was to live with someone who was suicidally depressed, and another states simply and devastatingly “I used to be a happy person before I was with you”. Depression can not only isolate you from those you love, but it can hurt them. It can lead to more guilt, which only makes it spiral further down. Love can, indeed, make it worse.
These are not things that we see on television often. These are not things that we discuss openly often.
As difficult as Maurice finds communicating, he wants to. He desperately wants to, and he seems at his closest to his family when they communicate with him, from a hilariously awkward coming out to being called selfish. It shows how important listening and being listened to is. In fact, the most important and emotional scene involves someone who is in a position where they can only listen.
With mental health issues slowly becoming more openly discussed, and with the gradual deepening of our emotional vocabulary and our understanding of it, Flowers is important because it calmly and clearly states how devastating and permanent depression can be, but also that it doesn't define a person. It appeals for listening and understanding, and a realisation that not everything can be fixed.
Personally, I'm grateful to everyone involved for getting it made. It’s beautiful, it’s heartfelt and it still manages to be incredibly, cruelly, funny. It’s one of the more nuanced depictions of depression that I've seen in some time and I suspect it will help some conversations that people need to have.
Flowers is currently available on All 4 and on DVD. Clearly, I think you should watch it.