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The Royal College of Psychiatrists Improving the lives of people with mental illness

Flesh & Blood

This is the first of two blogs about the topic of adoption.

 

IntroductionFlesh and Blood

Flesh & Blood is a full-length TV film, written by Peter Bowker and directed by Julian Farino. It was broadcast on BBC2 in 2002 and released on DVD in 2007. It features Christopher Ecclestone as an adult man, Joe, adopted at birth, who seeks out his biological parents after his own daughter is born, only to find out that they both have a learning disability and are totally unaware of his existence. Joe’s parents are played by two actors, Peter Kirby and Dorothy Cockin, who have a learning disability, with no formal training as actors before the filming, and who worked with an improvised script. The director reported that both actors enjoyed the experience although he is quoted as saying “they didn’t understand the structure of the story, but they did understand that they were pretending”. He also stated that learning disability organisations were consulted before production and were very supportive of the project.

The writer, Peter Bowker, has twelve years of experience, earlier in his life, in teaching individuals with special needs in a variety of settings, including in hospitals. He won the Royal Television Society Award for Best Writer in 2003 for the screenplay. Christopher Ecclestone won Best Actor at the same RTS Awards and the film won the Prix Europa award for TV fiction in 2003.

 

The Film

Flesh & Blood begins with Joe knocking on doors in Morecambe, in the Northwest of England, in an attempt to find his birth mother. When he succeeds in matching the name on his birth certificate with a mental health nurse, Joe believes that he has found his roots and can share the joy of his own baby daughter with her. However, at their first proper meeting, Barbara reveals her name had been used on his birth certificate to cover up the truth that two learning disabled inpatients, who had had a sexual relationship within the unit where she had been working, were actually his biological parents and were completely unaware of his existence. Joe finds that he is challenged by this news as he struggles to tell his wife, family and closest friends about the truth of his discovery and he becomes quite angry and aggressive toward his wife as he confronts his own prejudice. There are a variety of feelings expressed about learning disability by the other people close to Joe. The film also shows those in society working tirelessly to counter any negative views, when Joe volunteers at the local social club where his biological father, Harry, enjoys playing pool every week and Joe begins to befriend him. Joe finds himself really surprised when he learns that Harry has a job but then realises that this is absolutely as it should be. His encounter with Janet, his biological mother, proves more difficult as she has less ability to engage in conversation. Joe decides to arrange a family gathering for all of his family and friends to meet Harry and Janet at his home and it is during this event that Janet gets to hold Joe’s baby daughter, without the knowledge that this is her own grand daughter, with Harry sitting by Janet’s side. As a photo is taken of this important moment for Joe, a sense of integration and assimilation is reached in Joe’s personal journey to find his biological roots and a fuller understanding of his role as a husband and father.

 

Relevance to the Field of Mental Health

Flesh & Blood offers a very good platform for discussion about learning disability as well as the issue of adoption from the point of view of the adult adopted child seeking information about their biological origins. The film provides the perfect opportunity to consider the topic of mental capacity and consent in the context of sexual relationships between people with a learning disability. What makes this a valuable film for mental health professionals is the authenticity of the performances. As both of Joe’s parents are played by actors with a learning disability and their scenes are unscripted, the other actors respond to them spontaneously throughout the course of the filming, making the interactions feel much more real. Some of the scenes were filmed at the social club, which the actor playing Harry actually attended every week, as well as at the factory where he had worked for more than twenty years. For further information that could complement a viewing of the film, there is a good fact sheet available at The Royal College of Psychiatrists website and an excellent review article published in the British Journal of Psychiatry in 2000 by Sheila Hollins titled Developmental psychiatry - insights from learning disability (The British Journal of Psychiatry (2000)177: 201-206) now freely available on-line. It is interesting to remember that this article was written before the Mental Capacity Act of 2005.

Flesh & Blood also provides a good platform for discussion about the psychological issues often raised by adoption for the individual placed away from their biological parent or parents in early life. For those providing counseling and psychotherapy this may be an issue that causes individuals to seek help in adult life. More useful information is available at the Fostering and Adoption learning resources from Research in Practice website funded by the Department of Education in the UK. Here there is an interesting page on Attachment theory and research.

Although the circumstance of Joe’s adoption may surprise some viewers of the film, it is interesting to note the statement on the webpage of The National Archives:

Formal adoption, as we now know it, did not exist in England and Wales until 1927. Before then, adoptions were usually informal. In a few cases there was some legal documentation, but no central register.

This is a very valuable film for anyone interested in working in mental health and in particular with individuals who have a learning disability. The DVD contains a fascinating commentary by the director and Christopher Ecclestone, which includes much discussion about their experiences of working with the two learning disabled actors.

• More information about Flesh & Blood can be found at IMDB

Flesh & Blood can be purchased from amazon.co.uk.

• Minds on Film is written by Consultant Psychiatrist, Dr Joyce Almeida

 

 

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About this blog

 

Minds on Film is a monthly blog that explores psychiatric conditions and mental health issues as portrayed in a selection of readily available films.

Please note that this blog may contain plot spoilers. Any views expressed are purely my own.

Dr Joyce Almeida
Dr Almeida is a consultant
psychiatrist working in the private sector in the UK.