Alan Cumming (2021) Baggage: Tales From a Fully Packed Life.

I was vaguely aware who Alan Cumming is. For independent film consortiums, Miriam Margolyes seems to be the pensioner of choice to go on adventures and sell the results to BBC, ITV or Channel 4. She’s been sent to America a few times and to Australia. The latest wheeze is Scotland. Yes, Bonnie old Scotland. Who’d have thought of that? Monopoly money for old rope. They flung in Alan Cummings as a guide, and driver of their motorhome. He’s Scottish, I didn’t know that. Stanley Kubrick though he was American, so I’m in good company. I wouldn’t know a good actor from a ham. But my partner who watched bits of the scenery in the Grand Tour said Cumming’s dad was bad to him. That piqued my interest. Now is the time to fling in some quotes about happy families being all the same. We’re off to a flyer. Cumming’s da was a sadistic cunt.

The book starts with discord. He’s in a marriage, I wouldn’t call it unhappy. They’re trying for a child. She’s an old acquaintance from drama school. A few years older. She’s the star turn with the operatic voice. The diva.  He’s the man with a childish face that gets parts playing adolescents. I thought Cumming was gay. So being married to a woman (he later marries a man) was the done thing. And if you’re going to do the done thing, you might as well do it early.

Before he went from the West End of Glasgow (the snobby bit) to Drama school he worked for D.C. Thompson and Company near Dundee, and near his home. He wrote the Astrology bits and pieces. You will find a stranger in Uranus. Not quite, but similar. The Fiction department. A Thompson clone was on ever floor.  When we grew up, Cummings being much the same age as me, they produced The Beano and Dandy, but also The Sunday Post, with Oor Wullie in it, a true Scottish legend. Cummings points out D.C.Thompson had a London address to give their publishing empire legitimacy. No unions, but Unionism and no Catholics were a given. Cummings ticked all the right boxes. Gay men or women, of course, didn’t exist and were too risqué for even the Fictional department.

I knew he’d done the MC in Cabaret. I hadn’t seen him in that, but watched (I suppose like everybody else) the film version with Liza Minelli. I’d read the Christopher Isherwood books, Mr Norris Changes Train and Goodbye to Berlin on which the musical is based. Cumming suggests that Isherwood and W.H. Auden et al weren’t there to fight fascism or do anything highbrow, but simply wanting to escape England and sample cock. No big surprise.


‘It’s hard to be your authentic self when you don’t know who you really are.’

Cummings was in New York, close enough in his apartment to witness 9/11 and the fall of the Twin Towers. He acknowledges the fear and mistrust of Muslims and those of non-white, pasty, Scottish skin colour that ensued. The finding of a scapegoat and the invasion of Afghanistan, followed by Iraq. And how this all fed into the moron moron’s Trumpism (maybe I’m reading too much into a general observation).

Sean Connery, Billy Connolly, Faye Dunaway, Tina Turner, Tom Cruise, Nicole Kidman, Halley Berry, Gore Vidal…they’re all here (apart from Rod Stewart and Elton John). The book was five years late. Too early for a chapter on Miriam Margolyes and her observations on bowel movements and the howls of laughter that ensures. Ho-hum. Read on.    

David Wilson (2019) My Life With Murderers.

Below the typeface of David Wilson’s name is the tag ‘The UK’s Leading Criminologist’. Fourteen other books written (or co-written) by Wilson about well-known criminals and criminal justice system are listed inside the cover. He is one of Britain’s youngest prison governors. It was only when I had neared completion of the book, and the Chapter: ‘Theory into Practice: Interview with a Murderer’, I realised this was a programme on Channel 4 that I’d watched.

Here we had encapsulated everything Wilson had been preaching. He was asked to write the foreword for a book, with the subtitle The Truth about the Killing of Carl Bridgewater. Carl Bridgewater was shot in the head delivering newspapers to a farm near where he lived. Nobody was convicted of his killing. Channel 4 could tag the Interview with a Murderer because the original suspect of the police investigation, an ambulance driver, Bert Spencer was convicted of another killing. It was that of his friend and a ‘father figure’ that sometimes employed him, Hubert Wilkes. Spencer shot him in the head and claimed amnesia. In many crime dramas the protagonist suffers amnesia and the viewer later finds out that’s not the way it happened. He was not guilty. Spencer was guilty and sent to prison.

When he came out of prison he set out to clear his name. The Carl Bridgewater case, apart from family members, was largely forgotten. Most of us recognise what a psychopath looks and sounds like by seeing the moron’s moron, President Trump, on television and the way he needs to feed the continuing ‘I’ into his angst on social media. Bert Spenser was a littler ‘I AM’ that was not to be ignored.

Trump’s bestseller The Art of the Deal wasn’t ghost-written by Tony Schwartz, but wholly written and fabricated by him (a deal with the moron’s moron he later regretted).

Similarly, author Simon Golding had written about the Carl Bridgewater murder based on what Bert Spencer had told him. Like the moron’s moron in the Whitehouse, Spencer liked to claim he’d-all-but-written the book. Similarly, he was the hero in his own story. Setting the world to rights. Grandiose thinking and impetuosity are attributes of the psychopathic mindset.

In the same way that the moron’s moron craves the endorsement of well-known celebrities, Spencer wanted to hook the leading criminologist to endorse his book. Spencer wanted to make the splash of big ‘I AM’ bigger.

I must admit I underestimated President Trump. He used other people’s money to get elected and expected to be defeated, but had gone along for the ride because the cameras were always on him. I expected when the circus died down President Trump would be brought down by his own narcissism, greed, lies and above all by his own incompetence. But the moron’s moron repositioned those attributes as virtues. The smell’s still there, but we’re looking –for now- the other way.

Wilson did not fall for Spencer’s false bonhomie and old worldly charms. The criminologist looked at Spencer, looked at his alibi, met the woman that had provided the alibi and quickly concluded it had no validity. Spencer’s ex-wife later agreed to be interviewed and she talked about Spencer washing a jumper in the washing machine on the night of the Bridgewater murder.  Spencer had never done a washing in all the years they had been married. The green jumper and one of Spencer’s shotguns later went missing. Spencer’s daughter also thought he could have killed Carl Bridgewater.

Spencer argued the world was against him. He claimed that Wilson’s eyes were dilated and he took drugs. He was incompetent. He didn’t fully understand the case.

Every time you listen to one of the moron’s moron rants imagine Spencer, both are not guilty of any crime. The question remains, what do we do with the psychopaths among us? We elect them to the highest office, out of harm’s way, President of the United State and Prime Minister of a disunited kingdom. Psychopaths have that great ability to not really care what you think. Just don’t get in their way. When you think of Spencer, think of the moron’s moron and the man that hides what little brains he has under mussed blonde hair.        

For Sama, by Waad al-Kateab and Edward Watts, 2019, Channel 4, 9pm

When you get personal, you get real. Waad al-Kateab, using phone and camcorder gives voice and sound and fury to what was once her home, Aleppo, before it was levelled and she, her husband and daughter, Sama, were forced into exile.

There’s echoes of other diarists such as James Baldwin’s, A Letter to My Nephew, which argues ‘it’s the innocence which constitutes the crime’.

Waad al-Kateab dedicates the film to her daughter, Sama. A precious child that sleeps soundly through air raids, missile, and barrel bomb attacks and knew nothing but war.

One of the most poignant scenes is a pregnant woman brought to the makeshift hospital where Hamaza, Waad al-Kateab’s husband and father of Sama, works as a volunteer doctor. Bashar al-Assad’s government forces routinely targeted hospitals. The woman has been wounded in the stomach and it’s pierced her womb, she’s nine months pregnant. Hamaza performs an emergency caesarean and the neonate is dead. An assistant tries to bring the baby back to life. He rubs its back. Massages its heart. Shakes it like a piece of meat. Then a miracle, the baby cries. The pregnant mother survives, reunited with her boy.

The Arab Spring offers a prelude to the winter of Aleppo in 2016. ‘Bashar has killed our people. That son of a killer,’ one banner read.

Aided by Russia, the war in Syria goes on. For Sama documents how its people can expect bombings, shooting, torture and death.  For the lucky few, exile – and hatred, classed as non-persons, refugees.

As Baldwin reminds us, ‘I know what the world has done to my brother and how narrowly he has survived it and I know, which is much worse, and this is the crime of which I accuse my country and my countrymen and for which neither I nor time nor history will ever forgive them, that they have destroyed and are destroying hundreds of thousands of lives and do not know it and do not want to know it.’


#Leaving Neverland: Michael Jackson and Me, Channel 4, My4, director Dan Reed.

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It’s easy to condemn now that we know that Michael Jackson was a serial paedophile. Money and fame kept him safe. I remember reading something and it went along the lines of one of Michael Jackson’s advisors warned him not to have young boys in his bed. To stop having sex with them. And Michael Jackson said, ‘No’. There’s a line here that rings out. Michael Jackson is on the phone to Jody Robson, the mother of Wade Robson, the seven-year old child he’s sexually abusing, and he’s asking her to let Jody come and stay with him for a year. And she said ‘No.’

The idea seems so outlandish. Why would an Australian mother of a seven-year-old boy let him go and live with Michael Jackson? But the answer is here. She trusted him. In a way she felt sorry for him. As did the mother of James (Jimmy) Safechuck, who was also sexually abused and appears in the programme. They felt that despite his vast wealth and success he was lonely, vulnerable and childish too. They could mother him. But Michael Jackson warned Jody, Wade’s mother, he always got what he wanted. And he was right – he did.

There’s no need for the usual tools of drama Re-enactments, using actors, child actors in this case, playing the part of Jimmy Safechuck and Wade Robson. They speak for themselves. Grown men, now, telling you how it worked. Their mother’s appear too, older and wiser.  Pattern recognition is always easier when you know what it is you’re looking at.

You couldn’t get in touch with Michael Jackson is the message they knew. Michael Jackson got in touch with you. He was a sexual predator, looking for cute kids.

December 1986, a neighbour of Jimmy Sandchuck, said how cute he was and how she knew an agent that would get him into adverts and TV. ‘I’ll take him,’ the agent said

Michael Jackson said the same thing. Jimmy Sandchuck appeared in a Pepsi advert with Jackson. Then Jackson got in touch. He’d be on the phone for hours. Buddy up. Part of the schmooze wasn’t just changing Jimmy’s life, it was charming the mothers of the child he wanted to abuse. Promises were kept. Trips on flights and fancy games and whatever the heart desired was laid out and laid on. Neverland was like the island where Pinocchio went and the kids turned to asses and Michael Jackson’s nose never grew bigger. His skin got whiter. He always got what he wanted.

Second stage of buddying up was staying overnight. Michael convinced these kids and their parents there was no harm in it. He was such a lonely man-child. He needed company. They were buddies. And slept in the same bed. That’s when he got physical.

Third stage. Touching on top of the child’s pants. Fondling, inside the pants. Sucking the child’s penis. Then having the child perform oral sex on him. We know this because we have verification from Jimmy and Wade.

Jimmy reminds us, I was seven-year old, for christsake, and I’d a man’s penis in my mouth.

Michael liked them to squat on the bed with their ass cheeks pulled apart. Sometimes he’d rim them, which is too adult a description. Michael liked getting his nipples tweaked. Pattern recognition.

He’d tell Jimmy and Wade to shelf their feelings, like he learned to do. To distrust their mum’s. They wanted to keep them apart. God had brought them together and they were in love. So much in love. They had to practice drills. Get their clothes on, quickly, without any noise, when they thought somebody was coming. Michael had warned them, he’d go to jail if they got caught and so would they. But they’d be together forever.

Fourth stage, the replacement part. Jimmy gets dropped for Wade. Wade gets dropped for the child actor, Macaulay Culkin, who insisted nothing had happened between him and Mr Jackson. Brett Barnes replaced Culkin and Jimmy met him, but by that time he was an older boy and relegated to the kind of rooms his mother was forced to sleep in. Jimmy and Michael still had sex. But he was growing older and wiser and Michael Jackson was going for younger and prettier. Pattern recognition. Barnes denies he had sex with Jackson. Good boy. Watch your nose grow. Part two tonight.

Child of Mine, Channel 4, 10pm

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One in 200 hundred births end in stillbirth. This documentary follows three couples through the ordeal and deals sensitively with the issues of loss and pain. In one London borough the Registrar dealt with six babies that were born dead that week. Spoiler: It will make you cry.

My mum lost her first-born child, Michael, and she might have lost another baby, but I was never told, being a boy, being a baby boy that the doctors also though would die. I wrote this after watching in remembrance of my mum and all the things I never knew.

Love you too

A pearl of irregular shade

At the heart of grief

There’s a thief

Who stole your breath – away

And yet

To commiserate, to celebrate

Fragments of forgetting

And forever home

What’s missing bittersweet

An antechamber of pain

I cannot hold you again



Married to a Paedophile, Channel 4.

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Married to a Paedophile was, ironically, on at the same time as another outstanding piece of drama, Mother’s Day. The latter is conventional drama in that we start with tragedy and end in triumph – The Good Friday Agreement. The argument is implicit, cause and effect. Married to a Paedophile is more of a Greek tragedy in which, for example, solving a riddle Oedipus on the way to Thebes murders his father and sleeps with his mother.  There can be no triumphant note, even when the villain is punished, but there can be a better understanding.

One hundred people a day in Britain get that knock on the door, a police raid, computers and phones taken away. Downloading indecent images of children is one of the fastest growing crimes and it seems to be, as shown here, it is the middle-class men that are most often caught in the net.

The number prosecuted in no way reflects the actual numbers of paedophiles in our society. One German study (if I remember correctly and usually I don’t) indicated that one in ten men had paedophilic propensities.  The number in Japan… who knows? Manga pictures and child sex dolls sold as part of normal society. What we do know is the more dedicated resources our police were given to investigate crimes like this the more arrests they would make and our vastly overcrowded and chaotic prison system would be unable to cope. We hide from that truth.

Married to a Paedophile claims to be hybrid of fact and fiction in that actors ‘lip-sync’ people who get that knock on the door. A mockumentary or docudrama.

Plotting is as straight forward as in the drama Mother’s Day. We have the characterisation of a good paedophile, a senior school teacher, who is given the name Alex, who has two children, one at university and the other about to go to university. His wife Kate goes through the emotions of disbelief to acceptance that she never knew the man she had married and she shuns him. His children do not.

Alex’s daughters buy into the argument their father offers them that he was depressed and would never hurt them, what he did was wrong, but it was a kind of illness. To my ears it sound very like the arguments used by alcoholics. And I’ve heard it many times. Kate disagrees with her daughter about this. Alex had a choice, she argues. He wasn’t ill, he is a paedophile and she wants nothing to do with him or his ‘illnesses’.

Mad? Bad? Or Sad?

The characterisation of the bad paedophile is Robert. Other people do his talking for him. Unlike Alex he never addresses the camera. He never explains. His wife Helen explains for him.  They have been married for 40 years and she is shown getting ready to go and meet him, making herself nice for him, when he’s realised from prison. She wants to protect him. But he can no longer live in the family home because of their grandchildren. His son’s wife in particular is antagonistic. She had breastfed her grandchildren in front of Robert and one of the images he collected, but claimed not to look at, was of a child being breastfed, taken from its mother and…well, you get the picture. You want to grind glass into Robert’s eyes. But here it is Helen you feel angry at, and in the end, feeling sorry for. Good drama does that.

And the dramatization of the good and bad paedophile does that, moves you. Well, worth watching, but let’s not buy into it being a documentary or there being any real policing of the net.

Prison, Channel 4, 9pm, produced and directed by Paddy Wivell.


Durham Prison in the North East of England holds around 950 inmates on any given day. In the first episode there were no real surprises, apart from the prisoner that managed to smuggle a phone inside up his arse. He freely admitted to it on camera. There’s a kind of world-weary tone between the film crew, the young lags on the wing and the prison staff. We know there is not enough prison staff, because that’s what the prison officers tell the viewers.

Cost-cutting means that where there used to be a dog unit searching for drugs on ever wing, is now shared over the whole prison population of around 4000 prisoners. Dogs need to be booked in and out, like prisoners and visitors, which what they are. An epidemic of the psychoactive substance ‘Spice’ shows who is boss, when those that are importing it into the wing are kinda stopped in their tracks, but not really. Some other mug takes the hit when drugs are found in one young con’s cell. He winks conspiratorially at the camera.  Prisoners know who is in charge and it’s not staff who try and often fail to hold the line.

The second episode is about mental health. Prison and not hospital is where most people with mental health issues end up. Paddy asks a leading question to show this. He asks the mental health nurse how many of the inmates had mental health problems. She estimated about 600 of 950. Most of them self-harm.

This episode focuses on three of them. Chris, James and lets call the last guy Stig. Stig has been diagnosed with a personality disorder. He bounces in and out of Durham Prison. His latest arrest for stealing a fishing rod. After wrecking his cell, twice, keeping the prisoners in the block beside him up all night, threatening to throw shite at the officers and having a history of covering himself in shite and cutting himself, everyone in prison is weary of him. Paddy asks him about these constant demands.

‘I don’t give a fuck, me. I care about me.’

Durham Prison’s problem is they have a duty of care. They need to use very limited resources to care for Stig and giving him the attention he craves reinforces his negative behaviour. Stig knows this and plays the system. Ironically, the only place of safety Stig can find is in Durham Prison.

James, his fellow prisoner, hears voices and refuses to eat because he thinks officers are trying to poison him. He thinks everyone is out to get him, and cuts himself. Durham has a limited number of beds on I Wing. This mental health unit is paid for by the NHS. As you can imagine, only the very worst of the worst can get a bed in I Wing. James gets one of the eleven beds, but, later, kills himself.

Chris is the upbeat note the programme ends on. The team on the unit are able to get him sectioned and he is sectioned (locked up again) in a Durham mental health unit when he leaves and is given a NHS bed. Another inmate is shown leaving with the mandatory £46 and that’s it. Good luck with that pal.

America jails more people than all the other nations on earth combined. We’re going the same way and love to do it on the cheap. Bring in those corporations that warehouse people. Check them in and check them out. The war on drugs is great for corporate profits.

Our local prison Barlinnie, in Glasgow, was made to renovate its cell blocks after a prisoner took them to the European Court of Human Rights for having to piss and shit in a bucket. Sloping out was upheld as contradicting his human rights. Now we’re no longer in the European Union I’m sure we can go back to sloping out. That shows how little money is spent on prisons and how we like to treat prisoners.  Simple, it’s shameful. Durham Prison shows how we get some things right, but the system is so fucked up it helps no one.  What are prisons for?



True Horror, Channel 4, Thursday 10pm.

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This is my guilty secret, takes me right back to my childhood. I’m a BBC 4 kinda guy. The kinda guy that sneers at people that watch soap operas like River City, Coronation Street, Emmerdale or Question Time. Yet, here it is, factual stories based on a recipe borrowed from Hammer House of Horror. Remember the rule. Vampires. Scary Christopher Lee. Wrap the blankets around your neck and hope they bite your wee brother in the bed next to your own. Sit in the sunlight. Or if it’s a shark, do that Billy Connelly thing and hold up two fingers with your feet planted firmly on the ground.

Terror in the Woods.  Do not get lost in woods with a capital W and camp beside the most haunted cathedral in the world which has access to a long forgotten plague pit and the gate to hell. Two teenagers that like to mess about in front of the camera and play at being dead gay with each other, but not in that way, spend a night in a wood. There’s a mock-up of what happened. Scratching on the tent. The portable DVD doesn’t work. Your torch doesn’t turn on. And you keech your pants as the ghost of a wee lassie with no eyes floats through the tent. Who need the Blackpool rollercoaster?

Then you go home – with a big scary ghost in your haversack. Aye, the ghost knows where you live now. Ghost sat-nav. So you call in the Scooby Doo bunch of ghost busters. What do they do? Whistle it down. Hi, silver bullets. Crosses. Exorcisms and priests. Nah, tell the ghost to go and shaft itself, but it doesnae.

And you get the two wee guys, now a bit older saying we kidded on about ghosts until we met a real one. See telly, that’s educational, doesn’t need to be BBC 4 or a version of Ghost on Benefits. Smoking.

Ghost in the Wall. So you’ve got this woman with dyed red hair telling you, aye, I’d seven kids and eh, my man’s dad died in that chair. We could smell his cigarette smoke and he was doing a bit of haunting. He dragged my baby daughter through the walls and held her like a rat in the spaces. When I dragged her out her eyes were black. You know what they say, don’t go into the cellar. Move house. Nah, hang about. He was only kidding on. He’s settled down to baby sitting and making knocking noises. Families, eh, they fuck you up.

Hellfire Farm is right next to Terror in the Woods, but without the trees. It’s deepest darkest Wales, boyo. Look out for a massive electricity bill hitting you right in the eye. Ghosts are murder on the electricity. Shining pupils in the corner of the room. Farmyard animals that mysteriously hang themselves and a pig that does laps of the farm and runs itself to death. The focal point seems to be the dad. He seems cursed, but quite likes it. He’s like a pig on speed, drawing all these pictures that look vaguely like something you don’t want to look at, but can’t look away. Option A, go to the local cinema and watch The Shining, or jump in the car and fuck off. No. This couple and their children carried right on. It nearly cost them. They brought in an exorcist. He burned the Harry Potter books and the Satanic Bible and all of da’s painting and the outstanding electricity bill no one on earth could pay.  You know what happened next, don’t you? It followed him home. I want a legless leyless lined  map where these places with capital letters are so I can avoid them.  No floaters. Can’t wait until next week.



Wasting Away: The Truth About Anorexia, Channel 4, 10pm

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My mind went blank and I started to type Alzheimer’s into the search box of Channel 4’s programmes. In a way that’s instructive. You can just start again, wipe out what went before and retype. We are learning about Alzheimer’s. I can throw in phrases like amyloid plaque. Perhaps do a simple drawing of what it means in a cave of dendrites. But I don’t really know what it means, not yet, although my mum had it. In a way the truth about anorexia is a lie, because it assumes there is a simple truth based on subjective experience. The smoking gun is, as with Alzheimer’s the resources we allocate to the NHS and, in particular, the cinderella Mental Health services, which traditionally has been the poor man of the care sector, both in terms of the money spent on it and empirical outcomes.  Mark Austin uses the analogy (which I’ve frequently used myself) if you break a leg you phone an ambulance and get admitted to hospital. The analogy breaks down when the surgeon comes round and says something along the lines of things they (might) say in mental health services: ‘we think we’ve fixed your broken leg. You might need to hop a bit, and it might be sore, with one leg shorter than the other, but that’s the best we can do. Don’t call us back and expect miracles of mobility’. In other words, empirical outcomes in the mental health service are, at best, dodgy, but it’s nobody’s fault but your own.

We need somebody to tell us this is a very bad thing. Who better than his Royal Highness Prince William with his stiff upper lip, wobbling slightly. No common man need mention American socialite Wallis Simpson, of you can never be too thin, or rich, fame. And the truth about anorexia is there is no common man here, no one truth, but lots of fake news. Jeremy Hunt, who favours privatising the NHS, but is Secretary of State for Health, for example, tells us there’s ‘no quick fix’ but by 2020, 95% of young people with mental health issues will be able to see a professional (psychiatrist, presumably a British psychiatrist, and not one of those foreigners we’re trying to exclude) within four weeks and within a week if there case is urgent. I thought every case was urgent, but what do I know, I’m not a health-care specialist. We see here, as we see everywhere else, cases being flipped and weighed and found wanting and parents travelling hundreds of miles, where their daughter or son, finally finds a place in some private hospital in Edinburgh. I wish somebody would explain that truth to me. How it profits rich folk to take care of sick folk, but it still works out cheaper for us all.  Poorer folk with, in modern parlance, mental-health issues always find somewhere closer to visit. It’s called Her Majesty’s Prisons.  We’ve got Princess Diana the godmother of anorexia, looking pretty chic in culled archive images. The largest epidemic in every sense is, of course, the flip side of anorexia, obesity. The poor man’s disease. No need to mention Stephen Hawkin’s criticisms of Tory privateers and implicitly Jeremy Hunt’s stewardship of our NHS.  Now we can start talking truthfully about black holes.

Ask yourself a simple question, if I stopped eating tomorrow, who would notice and who would care? Does it matter? Do I matter?

Roxane Gay, Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body is a better place to look for questions of toxic imagery and culture than this programme.

‘Every body has a story and a history’.

‘The story of my body is not a story of triumph. I don’t have any powerful insights into what it takes to overcome an unruly body and unruly appetites. Mine is not a success story. Mine is simply a true story.’

Upper, middle-class, ITV newsman, Mark Austen and his daughter Maddy go on a journey in which they seek to explore the boundaries of anorexia and the health service, postcode lottery, in the less than United Kingdom, but only take us to NHS Theresienstadt.