Extreme sex OCD: Pure, the TV drama that’s set to smash taboos

The protagonist of Pure, a darkly funny new series, is plagued by incessant thoughts of sex

Trailer for Channel 4 show, Pure, based on a book about obsessive compulsive disorder.

 

Trying to navigate the world with a mind that renders almost everyone you see either naked or engaged in sexual congress is less fun than it may sound. It is exhausting, in fact, to spend a whole day in extreme cognitive dissonance about whether or not you want to be in flagrante delicto with a TV presenter, simply because she appeared on your screen that morning.

Such is the mind of 24-year-old Marnie, the protagonist in Channel 4’s new primetime drama, Pure.

The show explores a young woman’s experience with obsessive compulsive disorder. We join Marnie on a journey from a place of frightening inner chaos to a tentatively accepting one, when she is finally able to give a name to the way she thinks.

After a calamitous event at her parents’ 25th wedding anniversary in the Scottish Borders, Marnie – played by newcomer Charly Clive – boards a coach to London with nothing in the way of a plan.

In Pure, a calamitous event at her parents’ anniversary prompts Marnie to flee
In Pure, a calamitous event at her parents’ anniversary prompts Marnie to flee

Marnie lives with a manifestation of OCD nicknamed Pure O, defined by repeated intrusive thoughts that concern either the individual or others around them.

The focus can be on almost anything tormenting – violent acts, overwhelming doubts and particularly sexual imagery. It’s the latter that plagues Marnie. Near the start of the series, she tells us she can “lose an entire day thinking about milking my mum, fingering a horse or getting tea-bagged by my dentist”.

Pure was written by another relative newcomer, Kirstie Swain, based on the book of the same name by Rose Cartwright. The book came to be after Cartwright wrote a piece about living with Pure O for the Guardian in 2013, laying bare the secret inner world she’d occupied for a decade.

“People with Pure O experience repetitive thoughts, doubts and mental images about things such as sex, blasphemy and murder,” she wrote. “Needless to say, I don’t feel too ‘pure’ when I’ve woken every morning for a fortnight to the crystalline thought of assholes.”

Swain has used Cartwright’s experiences as a prompt to tell a compelling story about cyclical worrying and the impact it can have on a person’s life; not just in their own head, but also on their relationships with family, friends, lovers and colleagues.

“A lot of people think that mental health is just about the relationship with yourself, but it colours how you relate to everyone,” says Swain. “Mental health is your entire worldview.”

‘I hope teenagers will secretly watch it’ … screenwriter Kirstie Swain. Photograph: Channel 4
‘I hope teenagers will secretly watch it’ … screenwriter Kirstie Swain. Photograph: Channel 4

Pure took two and a half years to make, including months of research, talking to psychologists, charities and people with OCD. Swain says the show also reflects her own life.

“I read the book and said ‘f**k’ out loud so many times. As a female story about anxiety, there was so much I related to. I have always been an obsessive worrier and was a very anxious child. Rose and I had a similar rural upbringing” – Swain is from the Scottish borders, Cartwright from England’s Black Country. “We both moved to London to try and find out who we were, and her book really helped me.”

As a child, Swain had panic attacks but was “told for ages” it was epilepsy until, finally, it was suggested she had panic disorder. “Pure gave me renewed language to talk about anxiety and made me go to the doctor,” she says. “To be a part of Rose’s story and get the chance to start a wider conversation is an incredible privilege.”

Serenely focused in a plant-heavy nook in her London workspace, Cartwright says that the thought of aspects of herself she kept secret and cloaked in shame for so long playing out on screen feels “dream-like”. No wonder. Living with intrusive thoughts and the endless behaviour modifications they induce can be debilitating. (“Why did I think that? Do I really want to do that to Lorraine?” Marnie asks herself, after fixating on doing something rather extreme with Lorraine Kelly.)

To question your entire identity on a minute-by-minute basis is a lonely experience. It’s the idea of helping to reduce the sense of isolation that moves Cartwright the most.

“When I was younger, I had no idea what was happening to me. My thoughts were so obscene and the anxiety I experienced so intense, that it seemed there was no way out.” She contemplated suicide. “I had no idea there would be anyone else like me,” she says.

Rose Cartwright: ‘I had no idea what was happening to me.’ Photograph: Linda Brownlee
Rose Cartwright: ‘I had no idea what was happening to me.’ Photograph: Linda Brownlee

There are. Figures from the charity OCD-UK suggest that three quarters of a million people are living with life-affecting OCD in the UK. It is difficult to put a number on Pure O because it is a term used by sufferers rather than a clear clinical distinction, but it is highly likely that, given the taboo nature of many areas of sex and a highly anxious brain’s tendency to fixate on what it “shouldn’t”, many others are living a version of Cartwright’s – and Marnie’s – experience.

“It was important to me that the series was true to my distress – because, even though I know now I am not the only one, there was a long time that I didn’t.” The fact Pure has been made must be profoundly validating to the younger Cartwright, I suggest. Her eyes glisten. Her voice splinters.

“I get emotional every time I talk about this because, yes, like you can’t imagine. The process of making it was very healing.” Cartwright says she is in a good place now and that, although intrusive thoughts are still a part of her life, having therapy has helped her to manage and accept them. Being on hand to guide Marnie through her own experience was, she says, “almost like another kind of exposure therapy”.

In Pure, a calamitous event at her parents’ anniversary prompts Marnie to flee
In Pure, a calamitous event at her parents’ anniversary prompts Marnie to flee

Pure is warm, sharply-scripted and darkly funny. Marnie’s thoughts, rendered as vignettes of her co-stars engaged in all manner of XXX-rated scenes (at one point she performs cunnilingus on her mum, played by Arabella Weir), toe a knowing line between oh-my-God-I-need-to-cover-my-eyes-now agonising and guffaw-worthy. It’s hard not to laugh when an inscrutable psychiatric doctor starts licking her own armpit.

The various situations Marnie finds herself in with her growing gang of London friends are moving and hilarious, too. Most notable is Charlie (played by Joe Cole, of Black Mirror and Peaky Blinders), a recovering sex addict with a prehistoric flip phone; a product of his porn addiction that detonated his relationship and his career.

Marnie meets Charlie when she misguidedly attends a Sex Addicts Anonymous meeting and their two yearning, slightly lost souls make a connection. There is complicated beauty in the way they share the most concealed parts of themselves and find solace.

Pure will undoubtedly have a powerful effect on anyone, particularly young people, living with a private torment they don’t feel equipped to share. Society’s conversations about mental health are becoming broader and more nuanced all the time, but there can be no doubting the power of humanising the often gruelling day-to-day reality of living with a mental health problem.

Pure feels transgressive enough to grab a young audience while communicating something important. At its heart, Pure’s message is one of hope.

“When I was a teenager I secretly watched things like Queer as Folk and Eurotrash in my bedroom,” says Swain. “I hope people do that with this.”

It’s hard to imagine they won’t. – Guardian

Pure starts on Channel 4 on January 30th

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