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Charly Clive as Marnie in Pure
Charly Clive as Marnie in PureCourtesy of Channel 4

Pure is the daring Channel 4 sitcom shedding light on little-understood OCD

Intrusive thoughts are a living nightmare – this new show somehow manages to show the reality of living with them while also making you laugh

Most of the reviews you read of Pure, Channel 4’s new comedy-drama, will focus on sex. After all, the show is full of it. To represent the thought process of its protagonist, Marnie (portrayed by Charly Clive), the scenes are frequently interrupted by jump-cuts to represent her sexualised intrusive thoughts: she sees her dad performing a sex act on a her friend, she sees her doctor licking her own armpit, and she sees an entire orgy unfold on a London tube carriage. Much of the coverage of the show will draw attention to these flesh-filled moments, beause they’re at the outer limits of what TV censors will probably allow UK networks to get away with. But, in the story, the whole point is that Marnie is trying to focus on anything but the sex.

These overblown sex scenes are shot, and inserted into the narrative, in a way that’s supposed to repulse rather than titillate you. Faces leer, flesh billows, and the cacophonous sound overwhelms the viewer. Even though each scene is no longer than a couple of seconds, you just want it to be over. That’s because Marnie isn’t a sex addict (as she discovers for herself, in a surprisingly tender scene in which she visits a sex addicts’ support group); she’s not getting any pleasure from her filthy thoughts. Instead, she has a poorly understood form of OCD.

The show is based on a memoir by Rose Cartwright, who has been writing and campaigning to raise awareness of Pure O for several years. In her book, Cartwright describes how disturbing sexual thoughts would blindside her constantly growing up – and it wasn’t just the imagery that was difficult to live with, but the resulting mental spiral she would fall into: what did this mean? Was she thinking about naked women because she was actually gay? Was she seeing sex everywhere because she’s a depraved pervert? Should she be ashamed of herself?

OCD-UK explains on its website that Pure O isn’t necessarily a different type of OCD, but a way of referring to OCD that doesn’t show external symptoms. Most people, when they think of OCD, think of people who need to flip light switches or wash their hands as a compulsion to deal with intrusive thoughts. For someone like Cartwright (or the character of Marnie), the compulsions all happen inside her head. Mind explains that people with Pure O, rather than washing their hands, might compulsively check how they feel, check their bodily sensations, or repeat phrases in their mind.

In the show, we see this play out in the way that Marnie impulsively makes a clutch of big, impulsive life decisions in the space of the first episode alone. This makes Pure feel like a typical millennial coming-of-age TV show – 20-something girl moves to the big city, gets an unpaid media internship, and experiments with the same sex – but on speed. Dealing with a barrage of intrusive thoughts leads Marnie to compulsively try either to run away, drown them out, or test out her feelings in different situations. All the while, her trauma plays out subtly on Clive’s open face (and not-so-subtly in the sex scenes), bringing the audience inside her secret, solitary experience. 

One review of the show, for GQ, described it as “too pure for its own good”, making the point that while Marnie thinks about sex all day, she doesn’t seem to have much of it herself. But this is not a show about sex. This is a show about mental health – and a bold experiment in bringing a particularly secretive, taboo, under-discussed mental health issue to the screen. As Clive put it, in an interview with the Guardian: “This is not a crazy, hectic sexual rollercoaster, it’s horrible insecurity and obsessive compulsive disorder. Even when you take those words individually they’re horrifying. Put them together and combine them with the sexual thoughts, it’s an awful taboo cocktail”. But, as she emphasises, it’s still funny – “because people are funny.” It’s no wonder reviewers are focusing on the sex, and unsure what to make of it – that tonal balance of real insight into mental illness with genuine humour is unlike pretty much anything else on British TV right now. 

Pure debuted last night, January 30, on Channel 4; episode one is now available on All4