Television: Burning bright in the Cotswolds

The hospital starring in the new series of `Trauma Team' has unrealistically empty corridors. But a tame story has been rescued by a fierce tiger.
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The Independent Culture
Tippoo's Tiger, a striking piece of automata made for tiger-obsessed Tipu Sultan of Mysore in the 18th century, has long been one of the most popular objects in the Victoria and Albert Museum. The organ within it (musical, not anatomical), which used to emit fierce growls, is, alas, forever stilled, but the little sculpture itself, with its prone British soldier and rampant, somewhat comical tiger, is a folk-art treasure. Its perennial attraction perhaps lies in the almost sacrificial brutality implicit in the image - for in many Eastern mythologies the attack of the tiger represents the wrath of the spirits of the dead visited on the living, and in Western pop psychology symbolises an explosion of repressed anger from an individual or community.

Nigel Wesson didn't have time to ponder these theories when a cat called Rajah, with all the "fearful symmetry" of William Blake's poetic tyger, pulled his left arm through the bars of a cage at Chipperfield Circus's winter ground last year and devoured it to above the elbow. If there are any aspects of luck in this ghastly cautionary tale, they are firstly that sensible folk at Chipperfields (including my plumber, who happened to be there fixing the central heating for the boa constrictors), did a tourniquet job on Nigel's arm; and secondly that the local hospital round here in the Cotswolds is the celebrated JR - The John Radcliffe, in Oxford.

Boasting the only accident and emergency service in the country with a 24-hour rota of resident consultants, it was a natural focus for the new ITV Trauma Team fly-on-the-wall series. Billing itself a docu-drama, the first episode last Monday at least lived up to its calling card, featuring as it did Nigel's arrival by air-ambulance, holding aloft a stumpy, bloodied parcel where an arm should have been. In the first episode of the fifth series of ER, which begins on 3 February on C4, Dr Green advises a new junior doctor: "pick up your charts, and there is no jumping over for a more interesting case". Mr Wesson's is just the sort of exotic, once- in-a-lifetime case to have most doctors chart-jumping like Olympic athletes and possibly even St Tony skulking in the corridor with a bunch of grapes and some Third Way tender loving care.

A comedy-bearded, bespectacled man in a brown boiler suit, Nigel Wesson may have resembled a giant Furby, but his bravery and sang-froid in the face of disaster was of the noblest order. There he was on the trolley, about to go into surgery. "Are you allergic to anything?" the anaesthetist asked. "Only tigers," came the wry riposte.

Mr Wesson's tragedy was a gift to film-crew and positive-image-making hospital managers alike. The inherent Schadenfreude in this crude tiger- versus-man encounter guaranteed viewers. After all, we greedily watch tales of hideous accidents for the same reasons mediaeval folk clutched anti-plague talismans to their bosoms, for the purposes of protective magic. With the tiger element removed from the programme, it was revealed for what it is, a bog-standard docu-soap with traveloguey "dreaming spires" titles. In case the medical theme wore a bit thin, this Yorkshire TV production, devised and directed by Nick Gray who was responsible for the Leeds-based hospdoc Jimmy's, had various tricks up its sleeve. We had the sub-plot of junior doctor Philippa Cheetham and junior doctor Titus Adams and their cosy love nest (the Vet School element); and Senior Surgeon Keith Willett's problems with his ill-fitting new kitchen units (the Changing Rooms element). At one low point it seemed as if the "Trauma" in the title was going to be about problems at the cutting edge of cupboard technology.

The John Radcliffe is a showpiece teaching hospital, a medical facility by comparison with which some NHS hospitals look like Boots first aid kits. However, like many other resources-strapped hospitals, it has recently suffered from bad publicity relating to poor staffing levels, refugee- camp patient log-jams in accident and emergency, and a shortage of intensive care beds. There is a tiny hint of this log-jam in one of the forthcoming programmes, but for the most Trauma Team pictures the JR as a place of long, empty, spotless corridors like something out of the surreal French film Last Year in Marienbad, or the new deeply unrealistic BBC1 Casualty spin-off, Holby City.

In the latter, alarmingly empty, fictional hospital the Sweeney Todd- ish chief surgeon (or "cutter", as they apparently like to be known in the trade) insists on classical music and a natty American-style operating cap while he's wielding the knife. At the JR they still wear traditional J-cloth balaclavas over their barnets rather than the batik surgical snoods favoured by the likes of barmy Dr Billy Kronk in Chicago Hope, but it may surprise you in episode three of Trauma Team to see a real live throat operation performed to Tina Turner's funky belter "River Deep, Mountain High".

Last week, series narrator Veronika Hyks described the press milling at the JR for snippets of Nigel-versus-tiger information as variously "media hounds", and "paparazzi ... looking for cheap gags". Or, as the Trauma Team scriptwriter put it moments later with minimum good taste and maximum hypocrisy: "their pound of flesh". Nigel accepted pounds 25,000 jointly from the Express and the Mirror for his "exclusive" story, but was possibly ill advised to do so, as the programme PR officer told me he is having trouble getting compensation funds because of it.

Even when required to hold a packet of Frosties featuring a tiger logo for tabloid snaps this saintly chap managed to maintain his dignity. The way he saw it, being appallingly mauled by a big cat was just a case of "Tiger Behaving Badly". "It's normally a nice friendly animal," he volunteered, when it would have been understandable if he had wanted to hasten the extinction of the species by starting a traditional Chinese medicine import business with his windfall. Quite frankly, all he needs is a homespun Franciscan habit and a halo to usurp Rolf Harris as supreme animal buddy.

Hospital staff muttered ominously about his stoic "It's only a flesh wound" approach. "One way of coping with a devastating injury like this is to deny it," said surgeon Keith Willett gloomily after doing a second "neatening" operation on Mr Wesson's arm. "He's reacting as if he's lost his car keys."

In tomorrow's episode we see poor Nigel coping with not only terrible real pain in his stump but also phantom pain from his missing arm. "It almost feels like ball-bearings of pain rattling around inside," he explains. "Like little insects scurrying up and down the nerves themselves."

In episode three of Trauma Team Nigel has to cope with the look of his unbandaged residual limb, which with its neat Willett stitching and shiny stretched surface resembles nothing more offensive than a small piece of smart luggage. "In here the nurses and everyone understand, but out there it'll be different," he muses.

With typical low-key valiance he returns to Chipperfields for a post- prandial rendezvous with Rajah. "Hello pussycat," he says, to a prowling stripy beast the size of a refectory table. There is a shot of Rajah gazing with apparent interest at Nigel's new mechanical arm.

Mr Wesson now works with horses.