Sunday, May 23, 2004 by

“I’ve been here long enough to know that it’s best not to say anything,” remarks one character during the course of Jed Mercurio’s new medical series Bodies. The idea of medical malpractice and turning a blind eye to negligence is one of the major themes, and shapes the story in the first episode of the BBC’s latest hospital drama.

In this opening episode we follow the progress of a new registrar on his first day in an obstetrics and gynaecology ward within an NHS hospital. Unlike other major hospital drama series over the years (apart from Mercurio’s earlier and similar Cardiac Arrest), we are witness to the bleak, dark underbelly of the service where mistakes are made, and little is done to prevent them. Holby City this ain’t. Here, errors do not appear to be analysed, with medical staff simply going about their business as best they can. Mistakes are instead accepted as part of the profession and the culture of botching goes unchallenged and unquestioned.

Dr Rob Lake is the new staff member here, and on his first day on the ward he encounters a group of hard-working doctors and nurses as well as the confident and brusque consultant Roger Hurley. Hurley is the reason one of his colleagues makes the statement about not saying anything. While he looks as if he is a dedicated professional, doubts soon arise about his competence and the fact he doesn’t seem to be experienced enough for a man of his position.

Mercurio is a former doctor himself and like parts of Cardiac Arrest, he may well be writing from personal experience. If there are many more medical professionals like Hurley currently working, then the NHS has serious problems that run deeper than the public are ever made aware of.

Hurley is reluctant to accept advice from anybody when it is offered and when it is clearly needed, while at the same time being quite prepared to interfere in one of Rob’s cases without consulting his co-worker. He is also very heavily into research, giving (quite gruesome in appearance for the uninitiated at home) lectures on ovarian cancer to executives when he should be spending more time dealing with patients. Given the precarious state of funding that is regularly highlighted in the NHS, research projects are often seen as a quick fix way of bringing in money, which is all well and good if the patients do not suffer any adverse effects from doctors not having sufficient time to deal with them. And, as expected, patients on Hurley’s round do suffer: a new mother is left brain-damaged and her baby dead after a mistake by him, and a patient suddenly dies on the ward after a specialist surgeon is not available to perform a tracheotomy.

Also brought to light by Mercurio is the blatant manipulation of figures in the hospital service. When an elderly lady takes ill 29 days after her operation, the team try to keep her alive as any good doctors and nurses would, yet at the same time they all appear to have at the back of their minds the fact that if a patient lives for 30 days after the operation then they will not appear on official figures. Factors other than good doctoring and nursing are apparently more important in the modern health service than the reason why the health service exists.

Max Beesley plays Rob Lake and gives a calm and measured performance until later in the episode when he begins to suspect Hurley. Lake is placed in the difficult position of being unsure whether or not to blow the whistle, or keep a lid on the culture of gaffes for the sake of his own career. Hurley, is portrayed by the currently ubiquitous Patrick Baladi and his is a top piece of casting. Where you would expect to see a consultant in a hospital as a slightly older person, Baladi is somewhat younger and imbues the role with the requisite charisma that he would have used to attain the position he’s reached at such an age. The other major role is that of Tony Whitman the principal consultant, played by Comic Strip veteran Keith Allen. Whitman is either unaware, or unprepared to do anything about Hurley, and comes across as a bit of an idler, freely admitting that he picks and chooses his cases whenever he can. A number of other characters are briefly introduced who are likely to come to the fore in future episodes: Polly Grey, a specialist involved in drug trials (will something go wrong with that perhaps …?), Maya Dutta, a young doctor who looks as if she is left to cope without adequate supervision, and Dr Tim Sibling, a character who provides a moment of light relief when he momentarily discovers why most doctors tuck their ties into their shirts …

The graphic sex scene between Rob and colleague Donna arrives out of the blue, and for both of them it seems like it is more of a way of relieving the pressure of the job than anything meaningful. Rob later asks if he can see Donna again, despite her protests that she is married, but it is clear that the relationship is going to be featured in future episodes. The relationship theme is markedly different from the goings on in the rest of the episode, and serves to break up the relentless bungling that dominates the story.

The hospital in Bodies looks and feels like a real working hospital, with excellent prosthetic and special effects featured during the operation scenes, which are shown in graphic detail where blood and other bodily fluids flow freely. Shot in a pacy, fast-cutting style by director John Strickland, money has clearly been spent on the show and hopefully a wider audience will appreciate it when it makes the transition from BBC3 to BBC2 later in the year.


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