TV UK, 5 March

Fact and fiction about doctors and nurses.

Dolan Cummings

Topics Culture

The title of No Angels (Channel 4, Tuesdays at 10pm) is meant to overthrow the exalted image of nurses perpetrated in the 1970s soap, Angels. But the new drama is unlikely to shock anyone whose impression of the profession has been formed from more prosaic sources.

Indeed, the first episode seemed to have been assembled entirely from pub anecdotes. Come to think of it, much contemporary British TV drama seems to aspire to the condition of the pub anecdote (It’s so real, Tristram!), but that’s a whole other column. What struck me about No Angels was how faithfully it represented some quite clichéd prejudices about doctors and nurses.

The central story concerned the abortive relationship between likeable but dippy nurse Kate and the son-of-a-bitch SHO Jamie, who bedded her then avoided her and finally blamed her for his own mistake that led to the death of a teenage girl. While such irresponsibility is shocking (if only because of fine acting by Kaye Wragg and Derek Riddell), it is also entirely in keeping with contemporary cynicism about the medical profession (think Hear the Silence), and the fact that Jamie is a male chauvinist pig into the bargain only gives the cliché a timeless quality.

No Angels is from Tony Garnett’s World Productions, who brought us The Cops and Buried, so no doubt things will get a little more interesting as the series develops, but it will be a challenge to rise above the facetious tone established in the opening episode, not to mention the advertising (‘Get it on the NHS’).

Anyway, Jamie has nothing on Christian in Nip/Tuck (Sky One, Tuesdays at 10pm), who this week tries to swap his girlfriend for a Lamborghini. Since I last wrote about the series (1), things have gone from cooky to baroque. Apart from Christian’s continued debauchery, family man Sean is having an affair too, his wife is still flirting with a younger man who may be a gigolo, their son (of the DIY circumcision) is engaging in ‘three-way’ sessions with his girlfriend and her girlfriend, and this week the lesbian anaesthesiologist has a thing with a pre-operative transsexual. Phew.

Christian and Sean are plastic surgeons, of course, and so the drama’s treatment of morality goes beyond sexual shenanigans to consider the ethics of plastic surgery itself. Christian’s rejection of his girlfriend is all the more cutting (excuse the pun) because he ‘created’ her. Sexism and professional arrogance come together in the son-of-a-bitch plastic surgeon.

For a radically different view of the medical profession, and surgeons in particular, you have to turn to documentary. Your Life In Their Hands (BBC1, Mondays at 9pm) is a new three-part series about surgeons and their work.

When brain surgeon Henry Marsh talks in this week’s opening episode about the feeling of holding a human soul in his hand when he operates, there is nothing arrogant about it. Here is a man who struggles through the crappy circumstances of the NHS (unable to find first his shoes, and then vital electrical leads, before operations) to save people’s minds from ruin.

Your Life In Their Hands is fascinating and often very moving. On Monday we see Marsh removing a huge tumour from the part of a man’s brain that controls speech. In order to judge how close he is getting to the brain itself, he has to keep the patient awake during surgery, while his anaesthesiologist (of unknown sexuality) shows the patient picture cards and asks him to name the objects shown. As the patient starts to make mistakes (xylophone, asparagus, rhinoceros?), Marsh knows he is getting close, but must persist in order to maximise the patient’s chances of survival. It is breathtaking stuff.

At the end, the disarmingly charming brain surgeon talks about the unique relationship between doctor and patient. ‘Doctors nowadays are often accused of playing God. The fact of the matter is it remains a very personal relationship, where one human being is putting their body and their very life in my hands. And that trust between doctor and patient, and that profound and very frightening but very wonderful human relationship remains at the heart of medicine and always will whatever happens in the future.’

It’s not much of a pub anecdote, but it’s real, and that’s got to count for something.

Dolan Cummings is publications editor at the Institute of Ideas, and editor of Culture Wars. He is also the editor of Reality TV: How Real Is Real?, Hodder Murray, 2002 (buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA)).

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spiked-issue: TV

(1) TV UK, 22 January 2004

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Topics Culture


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