Sunday, September 18, 2005


Did you watch Bodies on Saturday night on BBC3 (ok, some of you may have lives)? Have you ever heard of it? Did you miss the first unmissable series? Make it a priority to check it out. If you don’t have satellite TV, then I think it’s going to be shown on BBC2 a week later than the ‘all new’ episodes on BBC3.

It’s a medical drama series (definitely not a soap this time) that follows a new Registrar on an Obstetrics and Gynaecology department at a NHS urban hospital. He becomes entwined and appalled with the shoddy administrative state of the department as well as the self-serving hospital politics that perpetuate the status quo. In the first series, he was faced with the dilemma of blowing the whistle on his incompetent boss because other doctors were getting the blame and being fired for the consultant’s cover-ups. Rob also faced daily dilemmas with his patients and the hospital pecking order that had to be served. The first series ended with Rob struggling with his conscience and his ethics, having an affair with a married nurse, wondering about what to do with the situation, and his career, before he came forward and exposed the consultant’s mistakes. Rob got fired.

Saturday night’s episode of the new series more or less picked up where the first series left off. Rob is serving out his time before he moves on, probably to become a GP, while he watches helplessly as the consultant gets promoted to ‘Clinical Director’, much to the annoyance of another gynae consultant who knows all about the doctor’s mistakes. Patients get continually compromised in the increasing pissing contest between the consultants, and Rob tries to warn his replacement about the situation. Naturally, it doesn’t go according to plan and Rob is left with another deadly dilemma while a woman lies bleeding to death on the operating table.

It’s riveting and compelling drama. It doesn’t sugar coat the characters or story lines with TV platitudes or the usual life-lessons learned by the end of each episode. Every character is flawed, torn, vain, ambitious and multi-dimensional. The protagonist, Rob Lake, while noble and conscientious, is a vulnerable human being who definitely doesn’t fall in the rank of ‘hero’.

Bodies is written and produced by Jed Mercurio, and is adapted from his own novel. He was once a Junior Doctor in the NHS and it is difficult not to assume that his scathing depiction of NHS life is based on his own insight. He went on to write the award-winning Cardiac Arrest for the BBC in the mid-1990s which followed a group of Junior Doctors as they try to grapple with their hospital’s erratic symptoms. It is interesting to note that Bodies, the novel, is a much different patient to the TV series.

The TV series takes on a much more realistic, grim and dark tone than the literary source material. It also changes the essential concept and characters from a general ward into an obstetrics department, and the medical tussles therein. It’s a brave and bold move but I would love to know how this approach developed with the writer and the production company Hat Trick (who are better known for their comedy output). Perhaps we are too familiar with a ‘new doctor’ who reacts wide-eyed with wonder at the harsh realities of a medical ward.

In Bodies the TV series, it’s real, it’s visceral, it’s unflinching, it’s dour, it’s depressing. But it’s entirely compelling. The NHS would not be pleased. I was delighted to learn that Bodies was coming back for a second series but I’m concerned whether or not it will find an audience, in the same way that the brilliant Outlaws by Steve Coombes (again on BBC3) came and went because it didn’t find consistent viewers.

This represents some of the best writing in the country, easily on a par with the best of what the US has to offer, but when it does come along it can be missed in the schedule and/or not find an appreciative audience. There’s been some debate recently about the quality of British TV writing but it is there, the writers exist, and the content speaks for itself. But then there’s the ongoing battle between broadcaster, production company, writer and audience which will dictate whether or not even a stimulating series like Bodies will earn the recognition it deserves. It may not be everyone’s cup of tea - you can always watch Holby or Casualty instead - but for those who yearn for a more discerning and uncompromising take on the medical drama genre, then make sure to seek out Bodies on either BBC2 or BBC3 while it enjoys its current run.

1 comment:

Lee said...

While the new digital channels allow broadcasters to experiment with output they wouldn't usually premier on their main channels, there is, as you say, a danger that they won't find viewers.

BBC Three is producing some of the finest work available on British TV, both comedic and dramatic, but I think the BBC need to work harder at pushing the message that BBC Three and Four are here to stay, they are not the poorer cousins of BBC One and Two. The only reason for great shows to fail on Freeview is not because people don't watch the show but because they dismiss the channel. A lot of the great stuff on Three - Conviction is another example - doesn't really enter the public consciousness until it is rebroadcast on Two.

I'm sure Bodies will find a significantly larger audience once the BBC Two airings begin.