Pure’s Kirstie Swain: ‘You can’t be a little bit OCD. It’s debilitating’

The writer of coming-of-age comedy drama Pure, starting tonight on C4, talks to us about depictions of mental illness and sex on TV…

Pure Channel 4
Photo: Channel 4

Monica from Friends never imagined herself fingering a horse. Or performing cunnilingus on her mum. Or in the midst of a furious commuter orgy on the Central line. The character wasn’t caught in unbreakable cycles of intrusive thoughts or compulsive behaviour, and yet, screenwriter Kirstie Swain tells Den Of Geek, when people hear the term OCD, that’s who they see.

“They think of someone who is really, really tidy, or who has to check they’ve locked the front door,” says Swain. That’s far from the whole picture. “You can’t be ‘a little bit OCD’,” she says, referring to its adjectival use to describe Monica types who might be fastidious about cleanliness or order, but aren’t disordered about it. “That’s not a helpful thing to say. This is a serious medical condition that involves, for someone’s whole life, suffering. It can be really debilitating. Going around saying ‘I’m a little bit OCD’ trivialises the horror inside your mind if you had this condition. It goes everywhere with you, you can’t do anything without it being a part of you.”

Helping people to better understand Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, from which the lead in Swain’s new six-part Channel 4 comedy-drama Pure suffers, is part of the show’s mission. Despite figures estimating that the illness currently affects three quarters of a million people in the UK, there’s still a good deal of misapprehension around.

The lack of popular OCD awareness is even more pronounced for “Pure-O”, the unofficial nickname attached to a form of the illness in which sufferers are afflicted by intrusive cycles of graphic, disturbing, often sexual thoughts. Sufferers like 24-year-old Marnie, played by newcomer Charly Clive in Pure, which is based on the 2015 memoir of ‘Pure-O’ sufferer Rose Cartwright.

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Researching and writing Pure, whenever Swain was asked about her work, she’d explain that her subject was a young woman experiencing horrific sexual thoughts. More often than not the response was ‘Oh, she’s a nympho then!’ she tells Den Of Geek. “They just misunderstood the whole conversation.”

Marnie isn’t a nymphomaniac. Her problem isn’t uncontrollable desire. The graphic sexual acts she’s compelled to imagine aren’t arousing, but disturbing. For the viewers’ (dubious) benefit, Pure stages Marnie’s thoughts so that we see some of what she’s thinking. It had to be just some of what she’s thinking, not only for broadcasting standards, but also because of the illness’ all-consuming presence. 

“That was the tricky thing about OCD,” says Swain, “it is obviously very repetitive, so if we had played or if I had written every single thought that she was having, you’d never have seen anyone else talk. It would just be this constant inner monologue pushing out her thoughts 24-7.”

That inner monologue is not sexy, and advisedly so. The goal was to “show real human bodies as they are,” explains Swain. “The intrusive thoughts that we visualised were meant to be disturbing and not titillating, because that’s how Marnie feels about them. We wanted the audience to feel the same, we didn’t want them to be aroused, because Marnie is repulsed. We wanted the audience to be squirming as well.”

Job done. The end result is a triumph of editing and performance as well as writing. The visual sequences showing the inside of Marnie’s head intrude violently on Pure’s more familiar coming-of-age and rom-com scenes. Graphic images of nudity and sex acts invade not only at the worst possible moments, but during the banal ones as well. It’s inescapable, which is what prompts Marnie to run away in Pure’s opening scenes, trekking from her parents’ home in rural Scotland to a friend’s tiny spare room in East London.  

“We wanted to show people that when Marnie goes home, she’s in this little cupboard, on her own, and it’s like a metaphor. She’s also shut in this little cupboard of her mind as well. No-one else can get in there. It’s that sense of isolation. The loneliness of being in a big city is times a hundred whenever you’ve got a mental illness as well, because you feel ‘I’m here and there’s loads of people but I’m the only person like this‘.” 

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In recent years, the TV conversation about mental health has opened up. Inventive series like Crazy Ex-Girlfriend (“I love that show”, says Swain, “it disarms the terror and fear associated with having a mental illness, sort of climbs inside it and bursts it open to give you a little bit of hope.”), BoJack Horseman and now Pure are depicting mental illness with experimental flair.

That wasn’t always the way, remembers Swain. Mental illness on screen has often been a shortcut to making characters seem “a bit wacky. It’s not wacky, it’s mental illness and it’s really irresponsible to use it as a character trait if you’re not going to explore it and interrogate it and see how it really affects their life.”

Depictions of mentally ill women have been especially simplistic and unhelpful in film and TV, she continues. “They’re often portrayed as this kind of whimsical character just there to serve men, and we did not want Marnie to be like that. The idea of a Manic Pixie Dream Girl was something we were trying to avoid. We didn’t want to romanticise mental illness.”

As a teenager, Swain remembers viewing the mentally ill female characters in James Mangold’s 1999 film Girl, Interrupted in a romanticised way. “It’s been so long since I’ve seen it I don’t want to make a grandiose comment about its treatment of mental health but what stayed with me was the fact that these women—you’ve got Angelina Jolie and Wynona Ryder—it’s quite a harrowing tale but these women are all really… beautiful! When I came out of the film all I remember thinking is ‘Oh, they’re pretty!’ it wasn’t the fact that they were locked in a mental institution, it was that they were a gang!” There was something attractive about it, she laughs.

Frank and full responsible depiction of TV characters with mental illnesses were thin on the ground when Swain was growing up in the 90s. Soaps were often the only dramas to deal with the subject, and their format didn’t allow for great depth. A character might suffer from a condition one week, only to recover from it the next.

Clear explanations weren’t always forthcoming, either. “I remember watching Neighbours as a kid,” says Swain, “and there was [Debbie Martin’s] bulimia story. I was obviously quite young because I didn’t understand what was going on, I thought ‘she’s going into her room and hiding this thing, and it looks like a cake, but it must be drugs because why would you hide a cake?’ I thought it must be drugs because they made it look so wrong, but I didn’t really understand,” she laughs. “Why would you hide eating cake?!” 

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A sufferer of anxiety, Swain doesn’t remember seeing her own experiences reflected on TV as a teenager. Growing up in rural Scotland, it was rare enough to hear her accent on screen, let alone a mental health story that resonated. “You kind of watch TV to try and make sense of life, don’t you?” she says. She doesn’t remember ever watching TV characters experience anxiety. “Especially women, they were just swanning around being sexual objects,” she laughs. “Obviously I wasn’t watching television looking for it but I didn’t see a lot of mental health. If I did, it wasn’t identified as mental health. It was a hidden character trait.”

Also hidden, Swain remembers, was any realistic-feeling depiction of young women with sexual appetites. Skins, GirlsFleabag and Broad City, among others, have gradually normalised that on TV, but that representation was harder to come by in the 90s. “I felt like a massive prude in my teens!” laughs Swain. “I didn’t have a language or a grammar to talk about sex. I was totally scared of it!” 

Swain remembers concealing her copies of More magazine from her mum, because they contained 90s-teenage girl rite-of-passage, the ‘Position Of The Fortnight’ illustration. “It was a cartoon and I still remember thinking ‘oh God, that’s really sexy!’ so I had to hide it.” Watching Queer As Folk and Eurotrash in her bedroom at night was a gleeful secret. “Any time I heard my mum’s feet on the stairs, I jumped out of bed, turned off the telly and jumped back into bed and with a novel” she laughs.

Now the writer of some frank sex scenes (including the aforementioned public transport orgy), as a teenager, Swain was uncomfortable talking about sex. “Everything to do with it, I was scared, and I really think that’s because I wasn’t able to see young women talking about it on television.” It wasn’t until 2004’s No Angels on Channel 4, or Sex And The City, she says, “that you really saw women having really frank discussions about sex. Talking about it as if they were talking about what they had for lunch! Women talk about that. People talk about that. You have to represent life on television.”

Sex, for Marnie and Charlie (a recovering porn addict played by Peaky Blinders and Black Mirror‘s Joe Cole) in Pure has become an obsession, but in a way that makes it unnatural for them. “Sex should be the most natural thing in the world,” says Swain.

Amid Marnie and Charlie’s fear and isolation, the makers of Pure were careful to also include brighter moments. The show is billed as a comedy-drama and it earns both labels. The idea wasn’t just to say ‘this is what it’s like to have a mental illness, it’s really horrible! Look how sad we are!’”, says Swain. “We wanted to find some hope and not laugh at it, but find the joy. I think you can find moments of joy in even the most desolate of experiences and you should, because otherwise,” she laughs, “what’s the point? The world’s in a sad enough state at the moment just to find more sadness.” 

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“We’ve ended [series one] in a way that we could keep coming back,” she concludes, “because this is going to be part of Marnie’s life forever. But we end on hope.”

Pure starts tonight on Channel 4 at 10pm.