Just A Minute blog

A blog on the BBC radio programme Just A Minute

Location: Wellington, New Zealand

October 11, 2008

Former JAM producer talks about his struggle with depression

John Lloyd was JAM producer for two years in the mid 70s. He's since gone on to great success in TV, producing Not The Nine O'Clock News, Spitting Image, Black Adder and QI.

But sadly he has also had mental health problems and talks about them in this Daily Mail article.

Day the laughter stopped: How a mid-life crisis turned genius behind Spitting Image and Blackadder into a depressive

By Helen Weathers

Mid-life crises have a tendency to strike at the most surprising and unexpected of times, and John Lloyd's was no different.
It was 1990 and he had just been crowned the King of Laughter, winning two Baftas as producer of the comedy classic Blackadder and, to cap it all, a Lifetime Achievement Award.
Just the latest triumph for the man who brought us Spitting Image and Not The Nine O'Clock News.
'After the first two Baftas, we already had the brandy out on our table and were half-cut when I heard my name being called for a Lifetime Achievement Award,' says John, now aged 57.
'I stumbled up to the stage, totally unprepared, and had to make a speech in front of Princess Anne.
'My wife Sarah was pregnant with our first child at the time, and I remember going home, Baftas held aloft, thinking: "I'm the happiest person alive."
'Life couldn't have been any better at that moment. I had everything I'd ever wanted: the wife, the family, the career, the house in London, the cottage in the country, the cars, the money, the awards. I'd won so many awards that people had actually started booing when I went up to collect them.
'But from almost the very next day, things started to go wrong. It was as if some steel curtain had come down with the words "The Life Of John Lloyd - that's the end of the first part".
'I woke up the next day and started the descent into a dark pit of mental anguish in which it felt as though I was surrounded by poisonous snakes.
'I found myself thinking: "What's the point of it all?" I'd achieved everything I'd set out to achieve. I didn't need any more awards, I didn't need another house, I didn't need any more money. What was missing from my life was any sense of meaning.'
In the weeks that followed, he found that where once he would leap out of bed, ready to unleash his creativity on the world in 90-hour weeks, now his body and mind were hopelessly leaden at the prospect of another day.
'When I'm cheerful I'm very positive, energetic and jolly, but I became miserable and short-tempered, growing anxious and cross, when things didn't go my way,' he says.
'In meetings I would become difficult and argumentative, trying to control everything and tell people what to do.
'I suddenly found parties intolerable because I couldn't enjoy myself because I had lost all sense of self-respect. I felt overweight, out-of-condition and I was probably drinking too much. People used to tell me I looked haunted and tortured, and I was. I was nicknamed either Mad Jack because of my obsession for getting things right, or Mr Grumpy.'
There were times, he says, when he'd crawl under his desk, hold his head in his hands and silently scream: 'I can't go on!'
'Was I suicidal?' he asks today. 'I was never tempted to go out and buy a noose. I've always thought suicide the most selfish and ghastly act, but in the depths of the pit I could see no point to my life.'
Where once John had possessed the Midas touch, he suddenly found himself struggling to get his original comedy concepts off the ground, which compounded his belief that he'd completely lost the plot.
He found himself being sacked from projects, his scripts binned, unread. So instead, he directed TV commercials for credit cards, banks and lager.
John still enjoyed the creative side of his work as a director and found it offered a welcome reprieve from his inner torment, but the minute the cameras stopped rolling the 'black dog' of depression would return.
'When I hit my early 40s at the beginning of the Nineties, I realised that I'd just been blundering through life. I started to question my existence. It seemed to me that you are born, go to school, work hard, make money and then die, and I thought: "There has to be more to it than this." ' he says.
Even in the fiercest grip of his depression, John never considered going to the doctor or asking to see a psychiatrist, preferring instead to try to find his own solutions to his problems.
'I have always been the kind of person who believes there must be an answer to everything,' he says.
'I like to solve puzzles, and that's what it felt like: being trapped in a giant Rubik cube. I was tied in knots but knew there had to be a solution if I could just find it.
'The worst part of it all was the feeling that I was the only person in the world who felt this way. I didn't know anyone who'd suffered depression or had a breakdown, even though it is incredibly common.
'I'd surreptitiously hang around the New Age sections of bookshops, furtively picking up copies of self-help books with titles like Feel The Fear And Do It Anyway - it was like something out of a comedy sketch. I even read Freud and Carl Jung in a search for answers to why I was in a such a state. I'm sure some people must have thought I'd gone quite bonkers.'
But it proved his salvation. 'I just read anything and everything, and what I found out gave me a reason for getting up each day. I discovered I wasn't the only one who felt like this. In fact, people had been feeling like it for centuries, probably since the beginning of time, and their writings helped shift my perspective about my own predicament. What I was feeling was not unique, but universal.'
John believes that it is no coincidence that his mid-life crisis arrived along with parenthood.
His son Harry was three and daughter Cocoa one when he plunged fully into the pit - tipped over the edge as he grappled with the realities of fatherhood.
At the time his wife, Sarah Wallace, was the publishing director of Century, and although on the surface they appeared the successful media couple John says 'we were probably the most dysfunctional family in London'.
'My wife and I were friends for ten years before we married and I think that has been enormously helpful in the long term,' says John.
'I'm lucky that in our marriage we've always been able to talk to each other, so she was very aware of what was going on.
'Being a good parent is the most difficult job in the world. You have these tiny people who you have the power to completely screw up for life if you get it wrong. Going off to the office was easy compared to trying to deal with a mad four-year-old.'
John and Sarah, now aged 52, who became a full-time mother after the birth of their third child 13 years ago, were the first people to hire Jo Frost, then the 19-year-old daughter of a local builder, who would later find fame as television's Supernanny.
'Jo was fantastic with the children and much better with them than us,' says John.
'She'd have them in bed on time, without complaint, asleep within minutes, while with us they'd be up until all hours. Scratch the surface, and you'll find most parents do a pretty rubbish job of it most of the time.'
The root of John's crisis, he believes, is one common to many high-achieving men when they hit their late 30s and early 40s and stare bleakly into a future which suddenly doesn't seem quite as inviting as it should.
'During my 20s and 30s my life was dedicated to being top of my game. I wanted to be better then all my peers, I wanted acclaim. I went from being a lazy schoolboy to an even lazier Cambridge University student,' says John who was educated at King's School, Canterbury, before studying law at Trinity College.
'Public schools are a bit like crammers, and when you get to university everyone clocks off and parties for three years. Then I was offered a job in BBC radio by some mad person in a pub - a job I neither sought nor wanted at the time - and having discovered the delights of it, almost overnight I turned into a workaholic.'
When the steel curtain came down, however, on the first part of his life, it would take him the best part of ten years to work out how he should live the second part.
It was only after that that he decided to make another TV series - the hugely popular BBC quiz show QI (Quite Interesting) fronted by Stephen Fry.
While he remains proud of his past achievements, he says it is QI which saved his sanity.
The concept behind it is that most of what we learn at school is either too narrow, boring or misinformed, and with a little curiosity we can discover just how interesting and exciting the universe really is by unearthing little-known facts.
'When people think of the classic mid-life crisis, they think of a man having an affair, or turning to drink, or someone as bald as an egg suddenly acquiring a sports car and a leather jacket,' says John
'I decided I wanted to find out the meaning of my life. I realised that, for all my awards, I knew very little about the world. So I started reading voraciously, and whenever I came across an unknown fact which was quite interesting, I found it cheered me up and I'd make a note of it.
'So that's what I did for those next ten years. I spent two years in the depths of the pit, and then the next eight gradually climbing out of it by trying to rediscover the interestingness of this world, cheering myself up along the way.'
I meet John at the offices of the publishers of his new book Advanced Banter, The QI Book Of Quotations, co-authored by John Mitchinson. (The QI books have sold more than one million copies and The Book Of General Ignorance has remained in the top 20 non-fiction bestseller lists throughout 2008.)
'Whenever I found a quotation which spoke to me of the human condition or made me laugh, I'd write it down,' he says.'
Originally, I was going to have a few printed on some bathroom tiles so that if I woke up gloomy, I could simply walk into the shower and instantly feel more cheerful.
'However, learning something new is one thing, but applying it to your life is quite another. But then, everything worthwhile in life is difficult. I decided, to take a quote from the new book, that "for peace of mind you need to resign as the MD of the universe".
I decided to simply let go and stop trying to control everything, because ultimately everything in this life is beyond your control.
'Once I did that, things started to turn out all right. Now I just sit in meetings and beam at people. I listen. I don't try to control them. And the magical thing is that when you let nature take it's course, everything turns out fine.'
Today, John says he is content most of the time, although he does still have a tendency to slip into melancholia.
His marriage survived and television success beckons once more, with QI now winning awards - though this time round, success is not the be all and end all of his life.
'Boredom is an anathema to me and there has certainly never been a boring moment with Sarah. We still find each hugely interesting,' he says.
'These days it is more important to me that I'm a good father and husband than an award-winning television producer. Kindness, humour, warmth and compassion are what matter.
'Going for the big house, the better car, more money doesn't make you any happier. It doesn't make people like you any more. If anything, it makes them like you less. If you are invited to a dinner party and everything is just perfect, you come away feeling bad about yourself because you think: "I'll never live up to that."
'But people who come to our house instantly feel better about themselves.
'More often than not, they end up helping to peel the carrots or popping down to the off-licence to pick up the wine. They see the mess in our house and they go away thinking: "At least our house will never be as untidy as theirs!"'
Eighteen years after the steel curtain came down on the first part of John Lloyd's glittering, awards-strewn life, it seems the second part is proving to be Quite Interesting indeed.


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