television review

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The Independent Culture
There is no such thing as a lingering illness in medical drama, as Bramwell (ITV) reminds us. Most ailments are obliged to come to some kind of resolution within a single episode; indeed one of the staples of the genre is the moment of relief, always declared with a litigation- tempting confidence ("She's gonna make it," says a smiling, white-coated figure, turning from a patient who only minutes before was clinging to life by a hangnail). Death is just as brisk. Last night a man with a crushed sternum expired so quickly that Dr Bramwell barely had time to gabble out the exact nature of his complications before her colleague was smoothing down his eyelids with a practised hand. This is hardly surprising. As Bramwell herself conceded, confessing her guilty desire to be working back in a big hospital, a variety of patients is the spice of life. Faced with a regular attender at her father's private practice, a hypochondriac who promises novelty but never delivers, she is too bored to be tactful. And if she can't cope, how much less likely is the television viewer, who has the same need of clinical stimulus and no financial interest in buttering up rich old ladies?

That Bramwell concedes such facts - that a doctor's professional curiosity might be a more powerful motive than the desire to heal - is one indication that it is a cut above the usual stuff. A fine cut, I would say, given its obedience to genre pleasures, but even so, capable of surprising you now and then by taking its own sudden turn for the worse. Last night's episode coaxed you along the route of feminist indignation before letting the door slam in your face, with a scene that revealed Bramwell could be as coldly indifferent to feelings as any side-whiskered bigot. It also, more conventionally, introduced an amorous possibility for our heroine - an arrogant misogynist who could be confidently identified as a future love-object because of the square-on way in which she declared, "I'm glad he doesn't want me, because I don't want him". Short of adding a three- note descending trumpet sting (the soundtrack convention for "famous last words"), Lucy Gannon could hardly have signalled what was to come more clearly. At first rigidly opposed to Bramwell's employment, Dr O'Neill soon performs a shrieking 180 degree turn, announcing that they are "soul- mates" and promoting her to registrar. He even jokes about marriage, just in case some viewers have been left behind by this dizzying turn of speed. It is the emotional equivalent of the miracle recovery.

No such fictional charity for the two women featured in World in Action (ITV), presented on screen without the intervention of a narrator. This break with tradition gave the programme an odd flavour, expectations warring with actuality. It looked like Straight from the Heart, the bittersweet gratification of vicarious suffering (that mildly corrupting cocktail of pity and relief). But habit of mind led you to interrogate it for evidence of a contribution to public debate, and in this it was wanting, even perversely gnomic. These women, we were told initially, were "victims of a deadly illness which is growing more quickly among young women than any other sector of the population" - a sentence that comes as close to telling you nothing as it can manage. Without some context, this is meaningless - from one case a year to two, or from 100 to a million? You didn't have to be a genius to work out that Aids was the illness in question, but you needed to have your wits about you to unravel the larger purpose of this film. Did it want to suggest that heterosexual transmission is a greater danger than has sometimes been admitted? Or was it concerned that British Aids agencies are not being censorious enough about HIV-positive clients who persist in having unsafe sex without warning their partners? I couldn't decide, so the final effect was far more like Bramwell than it should have been: illness as a way of relieving the boredom.

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