Published on February 12, 2014 | by Lauren Bridgeman


Writing, mental health and My Mad Fat Diary

Tom Bidwell

Oscar-nominated writer Tom Bidwell says his own mental health journey provided inspiration for My Mad Fat Diary. [Tom Bidwell]

When My Mad Fat Diary burst onto our screens early last year, E4 successfully managed to transform the cliché of glossy teen dramas with this series’ brutally honest and deeply raw approach to mental illness.

With more than a million viewers tuning in each week, the show’s deliberate and powerful refusal to dumb down mental health has gained sincere respect from critics and viewers alike.

Ahead of the show’s anticipated return in February, Arts London News caught up with Tom Bidwell, the Oscar-nominated screenwriter who transformed an angst-written diary into a televised masterpiece.

ALN: My Mad Fat Diary‘s lead character Rae taps deeply in to the human condition – was it a conscious decision to take such a raw approach?

TB: The series took hold of me at a time in my life when I was starting to think more and more about consciousness and compassion. It also exactly overlapped with my being in therapy.

So as I myself was trying to learn more about the human condition, I began to write about Rae being on the same journey. In fact, many of the therapy scenes were so close to dialogue from my actual sessions that my therapist began to ask for royalties.

On a more philosophical level, there is a feeling amongst many at the moment that the human race is coming to a point where it cannot carry on as it is; that there needs to be a revolution of consciousness.

The fall out of this is that people are growing more and more curious as to what is really important to them. They are asking bigger and bigger questions about what it is to be happy and what it is to understand themselves.

It’s possible that teenagers and younger audiences are more receptive to this, so I guess an exploration of the subject in this genre was a good fit.

Mental health in young people is not talked about as much as it should be. The show really brought the issue to light and did not attempt to dumb it down. What was the response to this when the series first aired?

We had a great response, to be honest, and we’re very proud of this aspect of the show. Some of the letters and messages we have received off the viewers and their families have been deeply moving and inspirational.

I was nervous to see what the reaction would be because it is a very personal issue to me and was incredibly important to everyone who worked on the series that we got it right.

Having suffered with depression and anxiety, I wrote about what it was like for me to feel lost and desperate and I hoped that it was an experience people could relate to. It is in that shared experience that we beat depression because it is a disease that thrives when one feels most alone, when one feels like an I and not a we. It’s clear to me that depression is an illness that hates to be talked about, so talk about it we must.

With the series being based on Rae Earl’s written diary, how much space did you have to build your own stories for the show, and how did the adaption from print to screen happen?

“The new series is about body image and we take Rae to a place where she really has to confront how she feels about herself.” – Tom Bidwell

The idea for an adaption came from a very talented producer called Jude Liknaitzky when she was at Tiger Aspect [television production studios]. She brought me in and suggested I go away and read the diaries and see if it’s a project I could come up with some ideas for.

As soon as began reading Rae Earl’s novel I knew it could be something special – the tone, the characters, the immersion into teenage life. Rae’s voice was truthful, funny and salacious; perfect for a single protagonist show.

There are a few threads of narrative in the novel, but as it is an actual teenage girl’s diary there aren’t storylines as such. Being a huge fan of teen drama I went back and began to think of the stories and scenes I have enjoyed and ones I would love to see.

Why did you choose to set the show in Stamford, Lincolnshire, in the nineties?

The diaries are set in this location and we felt it was right for the series too. Having grown up in a small town myself, I think it’s a common experience for young people (no matter where they live) to feel like they’re isolated and that the world is kind of passing them by. The small town location helped bring this out a little more.

We moved it to the ’90s because the ’80s (the era the book is set in) had just been done – and done very well – by Jack Thorne and Shane Meadows in This is England. It helped us expand our target audience as many older viewers tuned in for nostalgia and also, for me, it is the last great era of music.

Rae and Finn’s relationship with the music they love and the solace they find in it is an incredibly powerful aspect of the show. Were you similar to this in your teens?

Haha! I guess. I guess there is a connection between the flow and rhythms of music and of romance. Young love is so powerful and real; it hits you hard about the face and body and sets your insides on fire. It’s the kind of big emotions you hear and feel from great pieces of music.

Also, I think that music can be so personal and intimate that when you find someone who has similar music tastes to you, you instantly feel like you understand them somewhat. It was this commonality between Rae and Finn that begins their connection in the show.

Obviously you aren’t able to give too much away, but what can we expect from the second series, and when can we catch it?

Shelly Rooney in My Mad Fat Diary

Sharon Rooney (l) plays Rae Earl [Channel 4]

We’re really proud of the second series and are all very excited to see it go out. The pressure of the first series was: “Will this work?” The pressure of the second series is: “Okay, so this works and it means a great deal to a lot of people – let’s not balls it up.”

The new series is about body image and we take Rae to a place where she really has to confront how she feels about herself.

Have you always wanted to be a writer, and what got you into screen work?

Yeah I’ve always wanted to write and have always written, but it took a long time for me to find out what I wanted to say and how I wanted to say it. I got involved in writing for television and film because I have always loved those mediums. It’s my dream job and I feel very lucky to be involved.

Can you tell us a little about your career so far? And is there anything that you would like to do the future?

I started out writing for theatre and radio where I met a huge number of creative people who inspired me and taught me a great deal about the arts. I was then lucky enough to get picked for the BBC Writers Academy and went on to write for the BBC soaps.

It was a very intense year of professional and personal development but I gained a lot of understanding about story and also about what was important to me.

After this, I went on to begin developing my own series and I guess that’s where I still am. I’m currently working on a number of projects that are pretty varied, including an animation series, which I’m pretty excited about. I don’t know if I can say any more than that because I might get fired. I’d love to produce more, as I love working with other writers.

Finally, a lot of UAL students reading this will really admire your journey. What advice could you give to those pursuing a creative career?

Creative careers are extremely important and it’s key to remember that when things aren’t going well or people are advising you to “get a real job.” There are few things more crucial to the human race than the arts.

The arts show us what the world is; they teach us how to change and they teach us what needs to change. They are the looking glass into the human condition and it is our understanding of the human condition that will determine the fate of the world. So no pressure.

Also, don’t judge things in terms of the money you make or the money it makes. Its hard wired into modern life that things should be judged based on their economic worth. Well things of real importance can’t be measured in numbers  – they can only be measured in the heart and in the spirit.

The critically acclaimed E4 comedy drama returns to our screens for a second series starting February 17.

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