NEWSMAKER: Voice of the forgotten - Marjorie Wallace, Chief executive, Sane

Annie Kelly

At the age of 15, Marjorie Wallace wanted to be an opera singer.

But when she was told she would never make it past the chorus, she abandoned that dream. And she has carried this all-or-nothing attitude with her ever since.

"Nobody wants to be remembered as being anything but the best they could have been," she says. "I certainly believed that I could be more than the maidservant in a matinee light opera."

Broadcaster, investigative journalist, impassioned campaigner and now chief executive of Sane are all roles with which Wallace has engaged, body and soul. She chose a bright red coat for the photo-shoot was so she could "stand out against a plain background". Sane was created out of her own passion and tenacity to expose what she describes as the "hidden epidemic" of schizophrenia in the UK.

Wallace recently hit the headlines again when Sane ran a fundraising campaign with The Sun newspaper after it was forced into a humiliating retraction over its "Bonkers Bruno" headline.

"I don't care if some people saw it as a cynical move by The Sun," she said. "I believe there was genuine sentiment behind the campaign, and any charity would be foolish to turn away this kind of opportunity. A charity's job is to do its best for the people it's trying to help - end of story."

She says she has always been drawn to tell the stories of those hidden on the margins of society. Wallace's idea for The Forgotten Illness, The Times's 1985 series of articles that uncovered the prejudice and dearth of help that people with mental health problems encountered, came out of years of travelling the country as an investigative journalist writing about those nobody else would acknowledge. The series led Wallace to found Sane.

Her 17 years on The Times and The Sunday Times were a natural progression from Wallace's early career as a broadcaster and film maker. She was the first to film an IRA training school, and in 1970 made a film following a St. Mungo's food van delivering food to the homeless in London.

But it was her film on the state of the mental health system, On Giants' Shoulders (1978), that delivered her own insight into the power the media can wield over the destinies of those forgotten by the rest of society.

Her documentary uncovered the dreadful conditions endured by patients in a hospital for the mentally ill in Bristol. As a result of Wallace's film, the hospital received a large Department of Health grant to improve services.

"Through making this film I realised that if I could make powerful films that really touch people, then I may actually see the impact the film might have," she said. "But with this there comes a great feeling of responsibility."

Wallace relishes regaling anyone who will listen with her journalistic escapades. There's the time that she and Lord Snowdon - "a formidable team" - who worked together for many years on a number of photojournalism projects, including masquerading as laundry staff to sneak into a hospital for a story on night nurses. And the one where, in Miami, she roamed the back streets posing as a pregnant woman in order to confirm two lines in a story about back-street abortionists.

Wallace always thought she would be a journalist. Until, she says, she wrote Forgotten Illness. Then everything changed. "I'd wanted to do a film on schizophrenia for years, and with Forgotten Illness it was make or break," she said. "I had six months to get that story or else, it was hinted, the story would never make it to press."

So Wallace got into her car and drove around the country visiting hospitals, care centres and the homes of families nursing schizophrenic children.

Out of the resulting articles came Sane, and six months later she became its first chief executive.

You get the feeling that Wallace never doubts she can achieve what she wants to achieve. She recruited Prince Charles as Sane's first patron, who described Forgotten Illness as "laying the foundation of contemporary understanding of schizophrenia". And she cites her proudest moment as the opening of The Prince of Wales International Centre for Sane Research, for which Wallace personally raised £4m of the £6m needed to launch. And who did she get to donate the money?

"The Sultan of Brunei was very generous," she says. "And the King of Saudi Arabia lent his support. I don't like doing things by halves."

Although Sane has grown into one of the leading mental health charities in its 17 years of existence, with income approaching £1.6m, Wallace claims that its mission remains the same - to give a voice and a sense of inclusion to those who are stigmatised by mental health problems.

"The launch of Saneline has had an enormous effect," she said. "We were the first mental health charity to launch a telephone help and information line, and I think it's one of the most important ways that we've helped people."

But Wallace says she's still frustrated that the charity hasn't yet reached the point where it can answer every call: "That's my next goal - to ensure that everybody who picks up the phone and calls Saneline can get through and gets the help they need."

For now Wallace's world consists of 300 press and TV interviews every year, the relentless grind of fundraising and her determination to get every call to the Saneline answered. And does she ever just want to give it all up and retire with her books of press cuttings to a quiet life away from it all?

"Absolutely not," says Wallace. "In 2001, I went back and revisited some of the places I'd seen for Forgotten Illness and was shocked at how little things had moved on. I'm going to carry on doing what I'm doing until that is put right."

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