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My Sexual Abuse: The Sitcom review – an astonishing testament to comedy’s healing power
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My Sexual Abuse: The Sitcom review – an astonishing testament to comedy’s healing power

The standup comedian and writer Mark O’Sullivan is looking at a picture of himself as a boy, on holiday in Norfolk. “I love it,” he says. “And it makes me really, really sad.” The image is from before “it happened” – before his sexual abuse by a member of his extended family began, when O’Sullivan was 11 or 12.

O’Sullivan’s father died when his son was 15 without ever knowing his secret. When O’Sullivan tried, a few years later, to tell his mother, she “shut down the conversation”. When O’Sullivan discovered in his 30s that he was not his abuser’s only victim, he went to the police; his visit initiated a court case in which O’Sullivan testified to his abuse by the man, who was convicted and imprisoned.

My Sexual Abuse: The Sitcom is a documentary about that terrible story and O’Sullivan transforming it into the single-episode sitcom, 18 dangerous minutes long, that is available to stream on Channel 4’s catchup service following the film.

The documentary manages to give time, space and weight to O’Sullivan’s abuse. There is a particularly awful moment when he remembers how you “become a sexual object”, depersonalised, virtually unseen as a human by the abuser, long before your mind or body is able to understand what is happening.

It also explores the still-unfolding aftermath. When O’Sullivan told his family he was going to the police, and why, it caused a schism. There were those who believed him and those who said – and still say – O’Sullivan was lying and refused to countenance that “Uncle Steve” (as he is called in the sitcom) did any of the things for which he is in prison.

Understandably, O’Sullivan struggles with this disbelief; it was perhaps the main driver of his desire to create the sitcom. How do you better prove you know your subject than by translating its essence for a new audience? How much more light can you let in than to drag it into a studio and play it out for unknown viewers in unknown numbers, laying yourself open to their opinions, criticisms and scepticism?

“I could have written a poem,” he suggests to his writing partner, Miles Chapman (who didn’t collaborate on this project, which was very much a solo venture). “Yeah,” says Chapman. “Or just shut up about it,” he adds, mock-wearily. It is a laugh-out-loud moment – including for O’Sullivan – that proves there is nothing so terrible that human beings cannot mine it for humour.

As the documentary plays out, we watch the sitcom take shape around further heartbreaking revelations from O’Sullivan and commentary from his wife. She has her own clear, loving perception of where the deep damage to her husband’s mental and emotional life lies. We see that humour is not so much optional as vital; maybe it is hardwired into us. Even during the court case (“uniquely awful” though his cross-examination was), it struck O’Sullivan that the defence barrister’s description of Steve – who had lavished presents and days out on the boy as part of his grooming – as “a bit of a soft touch” was a comical line.

The documentary incorporates enough of the making of the sitcom to give us insight into the creative decisions, such as O’Sullivan choosing to play himself as a child as well as an adult, rather than watch a child actor be “groomed”. We see him decide to put Steve in a teddy bear suit, emblematic of the innocence and comfort on which children should be able to rely, its awful subversion making the programme all the more powerful. We see the emotional toll of the project – and the potential benefits he hopes to reap from undertaking it.

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And what of the sitcom itself? It’s good. At least as good as your average pilot and, given its origin and subject matter, therefore something of a triumph. Rufus Jones and Ellie Taylor are the oblivious mum and dad. Cariad Lloyd does double duty as Auntie Bex and his defence lawyer – in recognition of the sitcom-fact that she is responsible for bringing Steve into the family. Sam Underwood plays the cartoonish, fun‑loving bear who accosts young O’Sullivan one night. It is formatted as a mainstream studio sitcom and the rictus artificiality of it all suits O’Sullivan’s aims perfectly. You have to laugh, especially at the final line. And cry, afterwards.

Source: theguardian.com