Theatre can be a tough industry, we need to look out for each other

Paul Bhattacharjee (right), whose suicide has prompted a new initiative to raise awareness of mental health problems in the industry. Photo: Tristram Kenton
Paul Bhattacharjee (right), whose suicide has prompted a new initiative to raise awareness of mental health problems in the industry. Photo: Tristram Kenton
Richard Jordan is an award-winning UK and international theatre producer. He has been a regular contributor to The Stage since 2005.
by -

On July 12, leading British actor Paul Bhattacharjee was found dead near cliffs in East Sussex.

Last week, Matthew Hemley wrote an excellent article about the loneliness of being an actor.

It's important we recognise that in our industry depression is not exclusively an illness affecting just actors but people across all sectors of the business. Those affected can also be great masters at hiding it, with a frequent fear that, by admitting being a sufferer, you might be viewed as unreliable and unemployable in this small and gossip-fuelled industry.

Ruby Wax recently contributed to the programme notes of the current Royal Shakespeare Company production of Hamlet writing of her own experience of depression:

"Here's something you get absolutely free with this illness: a real sense of shame. It comes with the package. I have friends who say, ‘I know people with real diseases so show me an x-ray’."

What concerns me especially is that, in many cases where behaviour such as drink or substance abuse occurs, this often becomes the subject of theatrical anecdote. Stories abound in theatre of the behaviour of drunken actors or producers causing backstage mayhem that have, over time, become the stuff of legend and which many of us gleefully tell.

[pullquote] This is a tough and, on occasion, cruel business with enormous levels of rejection and high pressure that even the most experienced can frequently struggle to cope with[/pullquote]

But, when actually considered in context, nobody in life ever set out to become an addict, and this kind of behaviour in not often recognised as possibly a cry for help. In the case of Stephen Fry's 1995 breakdown and disappearance during the West End run of Simon Gray's play Cell Mates, Gray subsequently wrote the book Fat Chance - a bitter tirade about the departure of his star and the play’s subsequent closure, showing little regard towards the condition that Fry was obviously experiencing at the time.

For those of us fortunate not to have experienced depression on such scale, it can seem unreal and impossible to comprehend that someone who had appeared so "normal" and "happy" - remarks often reported in the aftermath of such circumstances - could have in fact been so ill.

The theatre can seem to many a haven - a world within a world with its own reality. Its all-inclusive attitude can appear an attractive, inviting place of work for the vulnerable or the outsider. The reality is that this is a tough and, on occasion, cruel business with enormous levels of rejection and high pressure that even the most experienced can frequently struggle to cope with.

Similarly, in TV, the rise of reality talent and game shows raise questions of the stability of certain individuals, as their participation is often paraded mockingly before us. It is no one’s right to stop anyone chasing a dream but the industry also needs to ensure a continued pragmatic, moral responsibility in the duty of care that is shown towards these participants both during and, critically, afterwards, in its quest for our "viewing entertainment".

The sad and shocking news of Paul Bhattacharjee's sudden and untimely death serves to remind me that in this precious profession we need to keep looking out for each other as much as ourselves.

12 Comments

  1. I cannot tell you how angry this article makes me feel: that you have the audacity to link Mr Battacharjee’s death with the condition of depression, when a coroner’s report has not even been filed as to how/why the poor man died. Disgusting. Mathew Hemley’s article was NOT “excellent”, but chose to make the same association, this time with not one deceased actors, but three.

  2. It’s the sentiment in the article we should focus on P Murphy which is concern for fellow man and a wee bit of gold old luv.

  3. I wholeheartedly agree that the article was just highlighting the fact that folk have mental health problems, and other folk should be more aware and have some patience/empathy. I can see why Mr Murphy might take issue; Mr Bhattacharjee’s has NOT been declared a suicide, or linked to depression – it could be an accident. However, the article raises issues that need to be raised, and the official police statements have used the expression “suspected suicide” – if it IS a suicide, it might or might not be linked to depression, but there is generally a case of stress/pressure/depression in such events. As someone in the entertainment industry who has had a breakdown, and the subsequent time with depression (which carries oddities for years after), I am glad the article is up, as I dealt with (and deal with) an amazing number of industry folk who, far from being the sensitive and empathic folk generally touted when this industry discusses itself, are astoundingly ignorant of mental health issues, and disappointingly impatient and intolerant of the symptoms. Kudos on the article. :-)

  4. In response to Paul Murphy’s comment, I would just like to say nowhere in my article did I mention depression. I talk about the loneliness of acting as a job. That is all. I do not say anything about the cause of the tragic deaths mentioned in the piece.

  5. Paul Murphy – The articles were intended to be about supporting people in this difficult industry, being aware of the tragic situations many find themselves in and helping them where we can.
    I do not understand how you can take issue with those sentiments and regret you chose to do so with this incredibly angry comment

  6. yes, we need to ‘look out for each other’ – and that for me also includes our audience. did you know that whilst you may complain of harmful interference to your tv signal, caused by 4g access to bandwidth, no dedicated service is offered to hearing aid/other medical device users experiencing harmful interference? did you know that both the BMJ(editorial) and Channel Four(documentary) have admitted that there are non-consensually applied medical devices operating on bandwidth in the UK? I have no desire to turn my audience into non-consensual medico-media ‘reality tv’ stars. i would fear for their mental health. just as i would fear for the mental health of any professional member of the industry who had had their audio product pre-sold to broadcasters via a non-consensually applied medical device. Yet, in 1995, I understand that UK TV broadcasters WERE given access to the ‘White Space’ on the broadcasting spectrum to develop ‘new channels and services’ – this included medical devices operating on low-power frequencies. Unfortunately, the BBC(as lead broadcaster) state (despite their brilliant work with and for disabled people) that they have ‘no remit’ to accept complaint of any interference caused to medical device users by this access to their live medical records, lacking any data protection protocols… but, don’t worry! you can all complain about 4g if it affects your telly! just not about telly affecting your implanted medical device… mental health is about accountability in media terms too it would seem to me…were Equity or Musicians Union AWARE that their member’s, their audiences MEDICAL RECORDS had been commercially sub-licensed to broadcasting by the Radiocommunications Agency? WHERE WAS THE PUBLIC HEALTH WARNING ISSUED BY THE MEDIA? Our own house needs some order too. Peace and loveliness. Let’s sort this out NOW.

  7. It is not fair to classify Simon Gray’s book ‘Fat Chance’ as a “bitter tirade”. It was the attempt of a playwright to defend himself against unfair media charges of insensitivity towards Stephen Fry; putting “his side”, if you like. He felt that the media had pegged him as the big bad wolf, demanding a lot of La Fry, whereas he believed he was a writer doing his job. Given how the media worship Stephen Fry – and Gray’s assertion that personal responsibility is paramount in this industry – ‘Fat Chance’ was actually a very brave book to write…

  8. A very good article with touching insight. I fear P. Murphy may have completely missed the point and as interesting as Fiona Branson’s observation is, it has nothing whatsoever to do with the above article, but I agree we should all look out for each other especially in this high tension industry. I lost someone, a colleague, friend and actor who, as it turned out was suffering and took his own life as a result. No one knew what he was going through, he hid it so well. Be nice to each people, and keep your eyes open.

  9. Does the author of this article know Mr Bhattacharjee’s death with depression? Has his family told the newspaper? So sad if true.

  10. ” I do not say anything about the cause of the tragic deaths mentioned in the piece.”

    Then why mention them at all? Your piece could have made the very same points without being both opportunistic and sensationalist.

  11. Saddened to read of anyone’s death. Suicide leaves me with mixed feelings for I see it as a selfish act. I understand the Royal Court actor had been declared bankrupt three days prior. Please, everyone money is just money never worth dying for if that be the reason for dying.
    Being depressed has nothing to do with being alone. Do I experience depression? Yes. do I have a reason ?. No. There is the rub because without a reason surrounded by loved ones adds to the guilt and the days become darker. Medication?. Yes. Knowing it is a state of mind often of people like myself who make people laugh it becomes unbelievable. Suddenly the light at the end of the tunnel appears and all becomes well again……until the next time.
    To those who do not experience this confusion bear in mind it is nothing to do with being unhappy. Last word….as a friend experiences Depression do not say “Cheer Up”.

    Love to all…..David Michael.

  12. Hoping I am allowed to add to my previous comment I would like to remind that an Actors Life is dedicated to being someone else. Being called upon to be sad when happy, declaring love for some they may not even like being, wealthy when poor. A life of fiction which some start to believe.

    Love to all David Michael

Leave a reply