I’d heard quite a bit about the 1963 ITV series The Human Jungle in the past, almost all of it highly complimentary, and I had long intended to get around to buying the boxset of all 26 episodes released last year by Network DVD. I had to wait for the price to come down first and even then it was the receipt of a generous Amazon gift token for my birthday that really enabled the purchase, but thanks also go to Frank Collins of the top quality Cathode Ray Tube blog whose recent enthusiastic tweets about the show finally prompted me to take the plunge.
It was a break-through drama for its day as it concentrated on the work of Harley Street psychologist Dr Roger Corder, played by Herbert Lom (by then already a movie star, but not yet handcuffed to the Pink Panther movies.) The US had just started a new series with a similar psychological premise as a spin off from the wildly popular Marcus Welby MD but even so therapy was a daringly new and even radical idea for its age.
Even 50 years on, it still feels remarkably modern: the first episode is “The Vacant Chair” in which Corder is required to evaluate two candidates for the post of CEO in a major industrial company for their psychological fitness to lead, and while it boils down to a rather basic choice between autocratic despot and consensus maker it’s still an interesting study of some of the issues involved, only mildly let down by some crude sniping between the stereotyped wives of the who men in question. The second episode could hardly be any more relevant to the modern day, as Corder treats a famous pop star (played by real-life singer Jess Conrad) for a stress-induced nervous breakdown caused by the pressure of stardom and the trauma of the things that happened to allow him to get to the top in the first place.
This being 1960s British TV, the confident and always-correct Corder gets to the root of the problem in 50 minutes usually by bustling around and getting things done rather than simply talking, and then moves he on (which is not to say that it’s always a happy outcome, mind you.) The idea that a deep emotional problem could be diagnosed and treated in such a short span is probably the biggest aspect that dates the show.
By contrast, the nearest modern equivalent to The Human Jungle is surely In Treatment, the HBO drama that ran from 2008 until 2011 and starred Gabriel Byrne as the psychologist Dr Paul Weston. Where Corder had one 50-minute episode to do his work, the format of In Treatment sees Weston meet his patients on a weekly basis. We sit in on four sessions per week presented in what feels like real-time, often two-hander plays on a single set where the choice of just one word or just a single gesture can contain the truth of what’s been obscured by all the words being spoken. We sit in over a period of two months, showing what a slow business of minute gains therapy really consists of. No miracle cures here, just slow, dogged and painful trudging forward, week after week. And just like The Human Jungle, happy endings are not to be taken for granted.
Perhaps the biggest difference between the two shows is in the depiction of the central character in each. Corder is stiff and formal, unknowable and giving little away to his patients or to the viewers, but with absolute confidence and assurance that he’s the best man for the job in hand. Weston, on the other hand, is plagued with doubts: he has apparently been blind to a massive case of erotic transference from one patient, and he loses his temper with another and says something deeply inadvisable that jeopardises the entire basis of trust between them. His marriage is disintegrating and even his son and daughter are drifting away from him while his life drips away in the minutes and hours he spends listening to others’ crises. No wonder that he himself seeks the counsel of a psychologist to get him out of what is fast becoming a depression.
While very different despite their apparently similar basic premise, both series are truly top class and well worth spending some time getting to know if you have any interest in real drama that doesn’t have to be about guns, murder, autopsies and car chases. And while they’re worth getting on an individual basis, where’s something to be said about getting both of them and viewing at the same time – the comparison adds a terrific extra dimension to the events depicted on screen.
The Human Jungle comes in one complete DVD boxset and despite their age the episodes have immaculate monochrome transfers from film that show just how much this was a classy and prestigious production for ITV at the time (as opposed to the ‘budget’ series The Avengers or the BBC cutting things to the bone in the contemporary Doctor Who.) In Treatment collects all 43 half-hour episodes of the first season – nine discs each containing the five therapy sessions of a given week – and are as good a modern transfer as you would expect from HBO, although there’s a singular lack of any extras in the set. Network DVD haven’t pushed the boat out with The Human Jungle in that department either, but it does come with one of the distributor’s famous booklets detailing the production history of the show together with an episode guide and full cast lists which is probably more valuable and useful than any number of EPK fluff pieces found on so many modern releases.
DVD boxsets are available from the usual High Street and online retailers.