Going to hospital? Don't forget your make-up

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"If you're a fan of Cardiac Arrest," said Sue Lawley, "you'll have seen that a haemophiliac could die from an ordinary nosebleed." You'll also have seen that NHS hospitals are cesspits of expediency, greed and intrigue, relieved by occasional bouts of loveless sex and hectic, blood- bolstered emergencies. Oddly, none of these features is on display in Hospital Watch (BBC1), a series of live reports from Addenbrooke's Hospital in Cambridge. Indeed, watching it on Wednesday, when you could compare it with two current medical dramas, was an object-lesson in the rival forms of truth available to fiction and direct observation.

Inevitably, Hospital Watch is largely an exercise in public relations. It can't be a documentary in any ordinary sense, because it's live, so they can't film more than they need and cut out the redundant bits - as a result everything has a faint bloom of pre-arrangement to it. When the camera cuts to a new scene, you see it awkwardly poised for half a second behind the presenter, the Royal Visit freeze-frame of people suspending their ordinary lives while they wait for their cue to be ordinary; there's a sense that doctors are husbanding their bedside manner until the camera has arrived to overhear it, that even the patients are conscious of their obligation to give invalidity a good name. Everything seems to be going according to plan, which, nine times out of 10, or some such figure, is what happens in hospitals.

Drama, of course, is about the other 10 per cent, imaginatively expanded to fill the totality of screen time. So, while there is very little chance that you will see emergency resuscitation in Hospital Watch (apart from anything else, there would be a real ethical dilemma about continuing to watch), the odds against getting through Cardiac Arrest (BBC1) or ER (C4) without someone shouting "He's crashed!" are lower than an RTA victim's blood pressure. When things don't go too well Hospital Watch, quite rightly, keeps its distance - there was a moment, on Wednesday morning, when the offscreen sound of a child being violently ill interrupted Sue Lawley's confident patter about the day-surgery recovery room. "He'll be fine," said the nurse reassuringly. And if he isn't, you thought - if the anaesthetic has gone wrong, as it did in Cardiac Arrest, or if the doctor has got in over his head, as he did in ER, we're not likely to find out much about it. This is as it should be - it might not matter that Tony Robinson interrupts with questions during an operation for glue ear (an early-morning transmission that very nearly parted me from my breakfast), but it would be tricky to have him asking for clarification while the doctors thumped on an arrested patient's chest - Baldrick, peering over a shoulder and saying, "Won't that leave a nasty bruise?''

This proper reserve does mean, though, that Hospital Watch can only be, in both senses, a partial portrait. There were hints at the tensions of change - the surgeon who had instituted day surgery talked of "consumer satisfaction studies" and decreased "hotel costs" - but the general mood was upbeat and in control, even when it came to the final checkout. "Cardiac arrest is actually a top-quality death," observed a sanguine consultant - and a damn sight cheaper than the slow, painful kind.

Only drama, though, can convey the private terrors of medical practice, both of patient and doctor. In this respect, ER delivered an exemplary episode - a long and frightening labour, the camera pacing helplessly round the table as everything that could go wrong did. It was exhausting and upsetting to watch, and it made Hospital Watch's bid for obstetric suspense look decidedly thin. "We did leave you with a bit of a cliff- hanger," Maggie Philbin said on Tuesday night. The cliff-hanger being whether the baby born the previous night was a boy or a girl.