It can't have escaped your attention the cult following this television program has gained over the years. Deemed a must see by schoolchildren every where, it follows the trials and tribulations of one John Davidson as he, and his close knit community struggle to come to terms with his battle with Tourette's Syndrome. Unfortunately for John, and the possible good intentions of the film crew, it has been seen as some sort of comedy classic. If your looking for laughs from this review you won't get any; if your looking for laughs from the documentary, then you really should question your values because the only thing that should strike you when watching this is what a crying shame it is that society failed John in such a spectacular way. There's nothing funny about watching a bright sixteen-year-old lad explaining to the camera how one teacher locked him in a cupboard as they were unable to deal with him.
School, indeed, was something of a trial for John and here's where the sense of failure really kicks in. The lack of understanding our factory style education system had for John led to him being placed in the remedial class. Once there, being extremely intelligent and with the help of an understanding teacher, he quickly rose to the top of the class. Its no surprise that he compares school to a prison, the wonder is how he coped at all. The answer you suspect is through sheer will power and an ability to rationalise that was beyond his years.
His family, too, deal with his problem as best they can, which, in some instances is not well at all. A huge void replaces his father, who won't even sit down with the family for a meal and, indeed, in the follow up interview we see that his parents have since divorced. You will, or should, also feel much anger at his grandmother who is convinced that John is possessed by devils. It really is beyond a joke.
John really is a remarkable character. There is laughs to be had in the follow up documentary where John is explaining the practical difficulties his condition causes. A career as a criminal is out, he explains, as he would constantly be shouting 'I'm in your house' as he burgles someone. His friend also explains how he is unable to share secrets with John as he blurts them out as soon as he sees the person he has been told to say nothing too. It's hilarious and quite heartwarming. John's warm personality and splendid sense of humour really shines through and you suspect, that given the cult following this has coupled with his dry delivery he really could make a small fortune doing personal appearances.
Until this documentary was aired, Tourette's syndrome was a little known condition and, in highlighting it for a mainstream audience, the filmmakers must be congratulated. However, there is a sense gained when watching this that although their motives might be pure, some of their methods leave much to be desired. Was it really necessary to film John entering a Library? The distress this scene causes him is plain to see and it really is quite uncomfortable to watch.
'John's Not Mad', and it's follow up, 'The Boy Can't Help It' (from which we only get a 34 minute extract) are interesting viewing there's no doubt, but, please, if your looking for this to provide a cheap laugh, then please don't bother. On one level, there is humour to be found in the dry, plummy BBC voice over, such as 'Here John tries to stop himself calling his mother a fucking slut' while buying coffee, but the subject matter is far from amusing. It's the story of a boy of far above average intelligence struggling to cope in a society that is pitifully unequipped to deal with him.
Picture and Sound
Expect nothing spectacular and you won't be disappointed. 4:3 and with more grain than a cupboard it's a noisy and rather drab transfer. Given the subject matter, and the source, all these horrors can be forgiven. As can the sound. It's two channel stereo all the way, but clear and free from noise, every expletive can be heard plain as day.
Not including the extract from the follow up, which given the scant running time of the main feature, can hardly be seen as an extra, there's only one to speak off, and luckily, it's a good one. You get a commentary from John himself and wonderful listening it makes as well. He gives a better commentary than most film makers, simply talking about his condition and which bits of the documentary caused most hardship and the result it had when broadcast and over the years that followed. Well worth a listen and no trace of a swear word. You also get a small piece of text telling you about an organization called Tourett Scotland and invitation to visit their website, which you will find here.
No subtitles anywhere on the disc, which, given that this documentary's main point is to draw attention to the problems encountered by people with certain disabilities in everyday life is ironic and a bit of a shame
This controversial documentary on Tourette Syndrome was originally broadcast in 1989 and has now been released today on DVD through Fabulous Films/Fremantle Home Entertainment. Karl Wareham offers his thoughts inside...