Surgical Spirit (ITV) :REVIEW

television Jasper Rees
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The Independent Culture
There will always be dramas set in hospitals, but will there ever again be as many as in the last five years? Virginia Bottomley did all she could to pare down the NHS, and one side-effect was to cause an outgrowth of effluent comedies and gory satires that criticised her for doing so. Installed at Heritage, she is well placed to introduce legislation outlawing slack medical sitcoms.

Surgical Spirit, which by spooky synchronicity ended its seventh run as the same time as the Health Secretary ended hers, should be top of the pruning list. The idea for a comedy set on a surgical ward was created by Peter Learmouth, but it's a shock to see the name of Graeme Garden on what's known, like some hollow bit of NHS managerial jargon, as "the script team". Perhaps the greatness of The Goodies swells in the memory, but the gags must have been better than this. It's a reliable rule of thumb never to trust a show in which characters laugh half-heartedly at their own lame jokes.

One problem with Surgical Spirit is that with minor adjustment it could be re-routed to a car factory or a coal-mine: no one does any work, so only the costumes denote place. The script is shy of referring to medical matters, as if a chance polysyllable would be asking too much of the viewer. There's the odd case of incontinence to clear up, but isn't there in every inferior sitcom? Never mind the electro-cardiogram: let's pile some crap on the administrator's swivel chair.

The show belongs to a long history of British comic acting, in which arms folded indicate depression, hands on hips aggression and every line of dialogue is delivered fortissimo. Most scenes end with one character shouting the name of another and setting off after them in a huff. Last night there was even a Demis Roussos joke, the kind writers don't insert unless confident that the audience falls into the 35-105 age group.

Duncan Preston plays a put-upon surgeon (there are also parts for bumbling/ stupid/ harassed surgeon) like an excitable zombie. His gentle, understated work for Victoria Wood show no trace in his performance as a man sent home from his Venetian honeymoon for performing a lewd act in a gondola. (Only in sitcoms like this is coitus a lewd act.)

This would suggest comic acting can only be as good as the writing. The performance of Nichola McAuliffe (as a harassed surgeon, betrothed to put-upon surgeon) somehow confounds the theory. She gets no better lines but delivers them with sparkle. But one performance can't stem the tide. Surgical Spirit is a boil on the schedules. It's time to lance it.

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