Are we too clever for our own good?

12th November 2004 at 00:00
A weekly column on how the mind works

Frasier was one of the most successful television comedy series of all time. The show, which finished in June, was on our screens for 11 years, and, at pound;1.17 million an episode, it made Kelsey Grammer, who played the insecure, pompous but curiously likeable radio psychiatrist, the world's highest-paid television star.

The idea of a psychiatrist who is beset with more neuroses than his patients, and who doesn't take his own advice, is a staple of television schedules. (Remember ITV's Cracker and Channel 4's Psychos?) But the real dynamic in Frasier is the competitive relationship between the eponymous character (a Freudian) and his brother, Niles, also insecure (and an arch Jungian). This is sibling rivalry on steroids. Both are incorrigible social climbers, and it is here that the programme makes some rather subversive and scathing observations about middle-class aspirations.

For example, in one episode Frasier mistakenly receives an invitation to an exclusive new haunt. The brothers are upset to have been left out of the loop about the new hot spot and become obsessed with getting in. After complex machinations that involve Niles posing as someone else, they manage to gain access to what turns out to be an upmarket spa. He and Frasier enjoy all of the amenities, but then are distressed to learn that the spa has a "gold level" area. Through yet more convoluted manoeuvrings they finally get into this more elevated area, and are appeased, until they spot a platinum door... Frasier isn't really about psychiatry at all; after more than 200 episodes I have yet to spot a genuine diagnosis (except in Frasier himself, who seems to be a walking textbook). Instead, it exploits the device of two psychiatrists competing with each other to poke fun at expertise in all its guises, particularly at those who claim to know more than us and patronisingly bestow advice. But above all else - and this is Frasier at its most sinister - it satirises the middle-class "over-intellectualisation" of life.

The agonising psychiatrist is a metaphor for the tendency of the middle-class exhibitionist to use a complex Freudian or literary allusion when a short one would do. Remember, Frasier founded the Junior Existentialist Club. And he tried to give a bar mitzvah speech in Hebrew, but the friend he picked to teach him Hebrew played a practical joke and taught him a language from Star Trek instead, so Frasier delivered the solemn address in Klingon.

Maybe we really love laughing at Frasier because, deep down, we want to snigger at all those who try to be better than us. This is at the heart of the image problem that teachers have. They will always battle with the inherent distrust of the "expert" that is embedded in British culture; a prejudice that is most deeply felt when experts claim to know about our children and their abilities.

This barrier can be difficult to overcome, but teachers with "charisma" have a better chance than most. Self-deprecation, not taking yourself too seriously with people outside your profession - and a deep dose of humility - probably all help. Ultimately, though, the fact is that teachers are experts who need to be taken seriously. To some extent this is a battle schools must fight; valuing teachers' expertise should become part of their culture. They need to educate pupils and their parents about it.

But while we might curse Frasier for the damage it does to the image of experts, we should also acknowledge that its phenomenal success can teach us something about the complex relationship that exists between trained professionals and the public.

Professor Raj Persaud is a consultant psychiatrist at the Maudsley hospital and senior lecturer at the Institute of Psychiatry in London. He is this year's visiting Gresham professor for public understanding of psychiatry and will give a free public lecture at Barnard's Inn Hall, London EC1 on November 24. See for more details. Email:

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