The Schizophrenic Cult of Director Dennis Potter’s Secret Friends (1991)

*contains spoilers

It could be said that writer and director Dennis Potter’s (1935-94 pancreatic cancer) movie Secret Friends (1991) is about the evolution of schizophrenia in the individual from childhood, where the beginnings are laid in the mind and, finally, how it hatches into adolescent or adult madness. It is also about the individual coming to terms with their illness, once having recognised it, and through self-analysis within the mind itself, dealing with it and perhaps ending the war within the self. It is also about art as an expression, release and focus in the life of a mentally ill person.

Writer and director Dennis Potter

Schizophrenia is associated with voices in the mind, and thinking that is disordered and often perverse in nature … and, unfortunately, violence. It gets a bad rap. What makes this person tick, you may wonder? For one case, watch Secret Friends, it’s not really that nasty.

I guess there are varying degrees of neurosis and some people can live with voices in their head, such as the secret friend of the title in Potter’s movie which begins as a child. It’s just this friend, should it continue into adulthood, maybe argumentative and upon its alienation may take on a destructive life of its own … but that’s another story.

Secret Friends (1991) poster

Dennis Potter’s screenplay is based on his book Ticket to Ride, which took on notoriety because film star Robert Pattinson (1986-) said it was worth reading. It is a book about alienation and separateness and known for its re-readability. I guess it’s not surprising that this movie, which was dismissed by the critic Leonard Maltin as an “appalling, incomprehensible mishmash” and by other critics as “psycho-twaddle”, is one to watch over again as it explains how the seed of the wildflower grows into something beautiful in terms of the artist who creates as a result of the blossoming of his art and also helps spread beauty from what is the horrors of mental illness. Take Van Gogh for instance although he obviously needed to be medicated!

Alan Bates (left) in Zorba the Greek (1964)
Bates with Jill Clayburgh in An Unmarried Woman (1978)

The main character in Secret Friends is played by Alan Bates (1934-2003 pancreatic cancer) and he is an artist who paints wild flowers in his studio somewhere In the British countryside. He has a wife in their rambling house and his is about to have insight into the reasons for his sexual repression and the perversity in his mind and the life which has resulted. Secret Friends shows a mind’s inner voice which is split, or there is more than one voice, and it begins as a child in this case, when parents leave their mark along with other adults. Sexuality within the individual, of either, or both, or any persuasion, is another key to schizophrenia in the movie.

One journalist said of Potter, who suffered from painful and crippling psoriasis which left him a recluse: “He’s not only a crippled in his body, he’s crippled in his mind” – at least Secret Friends gives those crippled in the mind a reason to look on the bright side of life.

The book, I gather, was set on a train, and its cover has a man looking out of the window while there is a reflection of his face. He is reflecting on life, only his reflections are those of a disturbed mind. The question is who is on the train both at the beginning and in the end? Are they the same person? And the journey in between.

Someone is talking behind John’s back. Is it John?
John’s train of thought is interrupted by memories and then a total lack of them

The movie starts with the appearance of Bates’s character John, or the secret friend of Bates character who is also called John, dressed in a black trench coat and hat in the garden of his house at night time where he says: “I’ll kill the little bitch”. He could be talking about his wife, or otherwise his neighbour, who is also a one-time mistress. Who knows? We don’t even know yet that this John is merely a figment of John’s disturbed mind about to get to work in sorting out the mess that is his mind and life.

Anyway, the real John sits in his studio painting wildflowers as he becomes aware of the presence of the other John and gets annoyed at his wife’s loud aerobics music. It’s the first sign of psychosis.

Poor Vincent Van Gogh could have used medicating… but there was none
One of Van Gogh’s paintings Flowering Garden

“It’s what we are? Not what we do?…,” John asks his wife at one stage, as if asking for reassurance that he is good, and that the bad evil and perverse thoughts in his head aren’t actions per se: “Isn’t that right, Helen?” It is the acting out of perverse thoughts in the form of psychosis that leads to the ingraining of mental illness and its inherent deviancy.

John and his wife Helen meet in room 816 as they lead their double fantasy about him being a client to her prostitute. They are secret friends in this respect also and this has caused Bates to become sick as a result when he is alone as he falls back in to the recesses of his mind away from reality and dwells on sex and his denial of it.

The basic psychology of Freud’s Oedipus complex
The idea of two voices in your head or the mind of the mentally ill
It’s not the end of the world…

But we must go back further, as we all must, to find what is at the roots. The seed that was planted in John is an unresolved Oedipus complex with his minister father who would try to formally test the boy’s knowledge of flowers and their Latin names, something which only leads to John, as he sits silently in the chair in his father’s study, to stare at the ceiling and say within his mind: “Please God, tell me the answer.”

His conservative vicar father misreads this body language and says he won’t find the answer on the ceiling. It is a moment where faith between father and son is broken. This initial break causes a swelling of power within the mind of John whose secret friend says: “Take no notice… Bugger him and his bloody flower.” The friend inside John’s head is ever present after that as he jokes and swears inside the boy’s head.

“Bugger him…” John as a boy in Secret Friends (1991)

The film cuts to Bates coming to terms with this moment in his life where the break occurred and he is on the train and closes his eyes in torment and pain at the memory.

I guess the symbol of the train is a train of thought and the fantasies of the mentally ill which enter and leave like passengers, whether they are memories, or imagined projections of the future. I’ll kill the little bitch!

Coming to terms with mental illness is all about learning to think straight, like the straight lines of the railway tracks that are parallel and don’t cross or conflict with themselves.

The discussion of the flower in question in John’s father’s study is tansy which has the Latin name vulgare or “common”. It is, ironically used in cooking as a substitute for sage and it is his father’s sage advice which will be sorely missing from the boy’s life as he ignores it in future … and listens to his secret friend.

Poor tormented Jan Brady in the comedy The Brady Bunch Movie (1995)

The splitting of the mind, or personalities, can be seen as pretty basic in this movie and often the sufferer doesn’t realise it has happened, or that it is not normal, as they are only talking to themselves in the mind. It can be looked at in a funny way just like Jan Brady talking to herself in The Brady Bunch Movie (1995) makes light of the situation. On the other hand, there is the personality of the self which can be outgoing, while there is the same self that dwells on the negative of the past or the present in the back of the mind. These are just some of the neuroses that make up the umbrella label of schizophrenia.

But it’s when there’s more than one voice in the head, beyond the secret friend, which become hostile and seem totally detached from the original inner voice of the self… The sufferer can may engage and react negatively to them and the person and the voices may become even more hostile and dominant – that is when bad things start to happen …  And John in Secret Friends maybe an axe murderer as a result. At least, in his head, sometime during the film. All due to a comment made behind his back. Was it himself that made that original comment?

There are other movies which deal with voices that control and that have made a break from the original personality and the obvious one is Psycho (1960). Another one is Night Must Fall (1937) where the killer says his twisted soul sits at the back of his mind watching and waiting to kill as opposed to his outward appearance as a normal person. But that’s more of a totally cool and collected premeditated singular sociopath in comparison to poor Norman Bates. His sex life was totally in conflict with his mother.

Total break with reality in Psycho (1960)… “She wouldn’t even harm a fly…”
Robert Montgomery in Night Must Fall (1937) is perhaps beyond self-therapy or won’t engage

Further, the beginning of the conflict in the head of John as a boy who is not yet aware of his own sexuality is made more complex by the cold puritan environment of his home. The character of John is one of a puritan, as an adult, while the voice in his head which has returned – the secret friend – is rebellious and radical. The secret friend perhaps just wants to end John’s suffering one way or another.

The editing of the movie is quite disturbing and hard to follow, but so is the mind of the average unmedicated person with schizophrenia. There are cuts from memory, to fantasy, to the voice in John’s head. We don’t know what is present and past unless we study the film several times to understand the thinking of John and his several neuroses properly. Otherwise, people, like this movie, are placed in the ‘too hard’ basket and labelled and dismissed as ‘schizophrenic’ just because they no one bothers, or wants, to understand.

John is in his hotel room where there is a newspaper in the bathroom which reads: “Hunt for crazed killer. Police hunt axe man.” It may merely be an unrelated case in the headlines. Anyway, it’s a long way from the artist who is interrupted in his studio by the return of his secret friend who says behind his back after many years: “I’m here…”

The Voices (2015) trailer

A short time later, Bates is lying on his bed in the hotel and he says over again: “Do it! Do it!” as if he is picking up voices from another room or from within himself… Or is it a puritan’s call to either masturbate or murder? John, one or the other, wants to kill the bad thoughts in his mind and maybe he will succeed and be on the way to a cure.

And John imagines his father dancing with another woman who is not his mother…. “What do we do with a pretty flower? …,” his father asks. “We pluck it,” says the woman, who may be his mother but she wouldn’t say such a thing would she? Not to a child. It is that paranoid tinge to what she says having another meaning. At least to look back in sexualised retrospect.

“We pluck it!” is the memory. But the meaning has changed. Hallucination?

Poor adult John dismisses the fact he cannot connect with women on a sexual level because of his innate sense of purity, which is at odds with his repressed sexual urges and thoughts. Perhaps he indulges in pornography but I doubt it. And so, he shows that first sign of madness of talking aloud to himself as he dismisses his guilty thoughts and the world and everyone in it: “Filth everywhere! Filth!” The fact that his puritanism leaves him unable to react due to a remoteness to others within his mind, despite being present in the room, may be the key to queer politics, even if a person is essentially straight. Frozen within by the very thought of sex as a guilty pleasure. Unable to talk about it or engage due to the recognition of this guilt.

“Why do you do it?,” John’s wife asks her neighbour about sex rather matter-of-factly when they are alone together.

John’s wife on the left (Gina Bellman) discusses sex with her neighbour

“Boredom, darling,” she replies before she is later strangled by John’s wife in his imagination … she also kills the man interested sexually in her with a gardening fork which she was using in the garden where the imaginary John first makes his appearance. When the friend first appears to John, it’s with the words: “It’s all right. I’m here. Trust me… I’ll kill the little bitch.”

The secret friend is John’s soothing way of dealing with these people or how he would like to deal with them in his mind. Perhaps it’s perfectly normal to tell yourself you would like to kill the person you’re with because they are annoying you?

His secret friend is male while his sexual fantasy as a client of the fantasy prostitute that is his wife has grown into something else and also made a break from reality, becoming a neurosis. He can’t quite bring himself to truly indulge in the fantasy because of his puritanism and that’s a part of it. As I mentioned, John has more than one neurosis and the neuroses are entwined together. No wonder doctors go for the too hard basket, and the sick person also gives up on ever solving their predicament.

Ultimately, it is John dealing with his own shit because really no one in the world, not even his psychologist or psychiatrist, if he even has one, can deal with it other than himself.

His secret friend seems to be taking on flesh and blood as John sees the other John shaving in the hotel bathroom. This friend says: If you can’t be good. Be yourself.” John is becoming wiser to himself…

Another tale of pure schizophrenia and the inability of self-insight in Shutter Island (2010)
The sad thing is that most people with schizophrenia don’t have beautiful thoughts. They wish they did!

There is a moment in Secret Friends at a dinner party where John tells his friends who are talking about their secret friends as children: “At first, I thought it was the cat..” And he continues with an explanation that: “I was marooned as a boy” about his isolation as a child. It is this isolation which can help form an artist. But we all can’t be great artists and John’s mind and life is flawed and neurotic. He remembers how trains figured prominently in his childhood and as they passed by, they seemed to promise a brilliant future. “That ache of promise…,” he says about the future dreams which for most children who grow up to be neurotic and mentally ill, won’t be fulfilled. “It’s wonder he ever found me,” Bates says of his secret friend. This is John speaking with friends with some sense of sane perspective.

For those who suffer an illness where nasty voices figure, and there may be a possible psychic element in terms of a person’s sensitivity to their environment with the voices coming not from within … Finely tuned hearing on another level perhaps? This must also be understood as a possible factor amid the turmoil of the mind to be sorted by the sufferer. Post-traumatic stress disorder may figure along with early sexual abuse … These are further neuroses and possible causes of perverse thoughts and actions that have to be understood. The person with schizophrenia must recognise and accept the basic underlying cause and effect of events in their lives. This is a part of John’s journey in Secret Friends.

John has the potential to be an axe murderer. And thanks to his secret friend realises that he doesn’t have to be one.

The arrival of John’s secret friend as a result to help sort this mess out begins with John writing ‘Kill her!” on a catalogue card which he then files away in his studio filing cabinet as number 816.

“This is my own indulgence,” says John to his wife, who is dressed and living out the fantasy as a whore outside room 816 … He must put an end to this broken fantasy if he is going to be well and live a straight life.

As he sits on the train he’s caught, thinking alone, opposite two men who he does not know or speak to, according to the old British convention of never having been introduced. John is too introspective at this moment anyway. He is in the midst of another revelation, or he is about to go completely off the deep end.

The two strangers remind the viewer of Naunton Wayne (1901-70 undisclosed) and Basil Radford (1897-1952 cirrhosis) on the train in The Lady Vanishes (1938) and indeed the lady has vanished from John’s life on the train in Secret Friends. Only to reappear on the train at the end of the movie.

Naunton Wayne (left) and Basil Radford in The Lady Vanishes (1938)
Ian McNiece (left) and Davyd Harries in Secret Friends (1991). “What are we going to do with you?…”

When his does say something to them it’s when he snaps: “Don’t look at me” which shocks them with its paranoia. If John is having a breakdown, it is a constant one, but he will grow stronger as a result of sorting all of these memories and fantasies. He complains to the two men that he has lost his memory, something integral to the novel, after having broken down in tears over his meal of sole and chips.

“What are we going to do with you?,” they react, as if it is a warning that he will be locked in the mad house, if he continues with these public displays of weakness. It happens.

The greatest moment in the movie is the deconstruction of John’s madness in one continuous shot and it is a scene in an insane asylum where the image of his sainted mother has suddenly vanished … and John is left on the bed crying out: “Where are you? Where have you gone?” over and over as there is a cacophony of many different voices and there’s film projected of scenery, as seen from a train going past, on John as well as on the wall behind his bed… all this while the camera dollies back and then forward again. You can see the track of the dolly and it seems to be a deliberate alienation device to show that we are watching a film about a man going mad on a train. And to think for yourself about the nature of a person’s madness and its ingredients.

John’s madness is deconstructed on the screen in a scene from Secret Friends (1991)
The madness of ‘bedlam’ back in the 19th Century is recalled …

“I’m with you… don’t worry,” says the sound of the original child’s voice which is drowned out amid the confusion of the madhouse. Is it all over mother and father? This split within the mind, and his frigidity and puritanism? It is unresolved, even though he is married, as his neurosis and madness all stem from a moment in his life before he understood sex … he still doesn’t quite understand his relationship with sex, and the lack of it, and this feeds his neuroses as a result.

Once more, this fantasy of whore and client, which John uses as a starting point to circumvent the puritan within, has isolated him… He is the one who cannot make the first move due to an innate coldness and being frozen by the very thought of sex. It’s as if he is still a child within and he knows, at that moment of madness, that it all relates to his childhood and mother sitting idly by knitting while his father chastises him. Realise what is wrong before it is too late!

Husband and wife played by actors Gina Bellman and Alan Bates play client and whore… but it only feeds his neuroses in the end

The asylum scene is like the inner workings of John’s mind laid bare for a moment and the desperation which faces those who have lost hope altogether of curing themselves of their own mental illness. And it is the validation of the doctor’s diagnosis of the invalid in terms of the world, something which most who suffer from schizophrenia cannot reconcile or ever come to terms with… and they remain forever sick. John at least has the luxury of not being diagnosed as mentally ill. He still functions. But the mentally ill person reaches a certain point where they either continue on their journey as a mentally ill person forever or they decide to try and recover.

Insight into the self and the illness is the key to recovery. Self-analysis is essential.
Ditto … and learn to how express yourself in other ways
Different forms of expression. And it needn’t stop there…

“I’ve started the journey… and I won’t get off till I’m better,” John says about the examination of his life and the causes of his neuroses at the end of the movie. He and his wife examine the beautiful paintings he has made of wild flowers on the train while the other characters, including his mother and father are now just passive and harmless passengers on board his train of thought.

Secret Friends shows a frustration with the monotony of everyday life and its puritan constraints amid all the hypocrisy and the freedom of having a secret friend within the mind… It is a fantasy and cautionary tale which is not The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (1947 and 2013) as it deals with perverse thoughts rather than heroic fantasies. But if you can recognise a perverse thought in your head and not entertain it, this can be the difference between living a content and, dare I say, happy existence compared to one which is removed from the world and open to moral criticism and eventual paranoia. Ahem! Cough. It is a question of the artist being created by his environment and being nurtured rather than destroyed by invalidation and overmedication and being left to malinger in obscurity with only a label for company and crying “Where have you gone!!…” in the local hospital.

Sigmund Freud with his phallic symbol… the old slang dementia praecox sounds better than schizophrenia.
Puritanism can come in many forms and to differing degrees… we’re often victims of our upbringing and some can’t let go

The editing of Secret Friends is intriguing as it positions fantasy and ‘reality’ as occurring within a split second of one another and then back again. Such is the workings of the mind for some. The director often suggested that fantasy should be classified as a mental illness and his indulgence of Freud’s Madonna-whore dichotomy of women being split into two categories of the chaste and the promiscuous – the reality being somewhere in between – was perhaps fascinating to Potter who claimed, fantastically, that he had visited prostitutes by the hundreds, when in reality he was reclusive and a physical invalid. These claims show a part of the mental illness of the writer in terms of fantasy spilling into the reality of John’s life in Secret Friends. This fantasy or pornography of his mind, in visiting hundreds of prostitutes, is a part of the wedge in John that stops him enjoying a normal sexual relationship. Instead, he has a ‘sick’ one and ultimately prefers frigidity associated with puritanism… It’s all enough to drive a man mad and sane again! Potter certainly created art from it.

Dennis Potter also wrote Pennies from Heaven (1981)
… and The Singing Detective (2003)

We must relive our nightmares of the past to kill our false perceptions and neurosis of the present to enjoy a contented present and future. Ultimately, Potter’s preoccupation is with something he cannot have and the self-imposition of puritanism as a result.

“I’m instinctively a puritan. That doesn’t mean that I behave well, it simply means that there’s a puritan tinge about the varieties of human behaviour that are out of control and disgust at the human appetite really,” he said in an interview.

The promiscuity of a ‘straight’ man who possibly once indulged in both men and women is something which generally repulses so-called ‘straight’ society and could lead to the ‘straight’ schizophrenic divide between the outer personality which says it’s repulsed by such acts in apparent puritanism, compared to the inner self which really doesn’t mind and perhaps entertains these thoughts or indulged in them once or twice. Disgusted with their own fantasies, it drives the person mad. It’s a concept. Keep your sense of humour.

And paranoia sets in when word gets out that they have indulged in such fantasies in reality, or feel the guilt of only performing it in their minds. Or the fact that people talk about a person because they have been labelled paranoid. It is then the paranoia becomes real and self-perpetuating.

My understanding of paranoia and schizophrenia is that it is linked to many different neuroses, some of them blended, in the individual and there are so many mentally ill people, it’s best the worst ones get one label! That’s been the thinking so far and new sub-labels with less disagreeable names need to be chosen for the umbrella with that evil sounding name – schizophrenia. It’s a name and diagnosis which spelt the end for too many lives. Luckily for John he saw the answers before it was too late.

Secret Friends (1991) is a kind of droll and light look at schizophrenia and its possible alleviation. Here is the trailer.
a dying Potter drinking champagne laced with morphine
Sound advice for those who suffer and think there is no alternative…

As the frustrated psychiatrist said: “You can lead a horse to water …” If it all gets too hard, I throw on the movie musical Tommy (1975) which suggests, amid its depiction of bullying, PTSD and child sexual abuse: You can’t lead the world to enlightenment and freedom, you can only constantly find that enlightenment and freedom within yourself…

Potter used a mainly female crew due to the fact he felt more at home in their company for the making of Secret Friends which was made for around one and a half million pounds.

“The cutting room is like writing. I love the cutting room,” said Potter about his filmmaking: “Editing is the last rewrite.”

Potter died only a few years later of cancer and I remember him swigging on a champagne flute full of morphine and bubbly as he gave his last interview on a chat show. His work was respected enough to be finished just as he wished upon his death and two television mini-series he wrote were produced and televised just as he intended. He will always be remembered for his British tv mini-series Pennies from Heaven and The Singing Detective which were also turned into Hollywood movies.

He wasn’t remembered for Secret Friends. It remains his dirty little secret ripe for rediscovery and understanding.


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