TELEVISION / Screening the national health

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The Independent Culture
THE Conservative heart, an underexercised organ, fibrillated wildly during Cardiac Arrest (BBC1), and the cry went up from a backbencher that the story of an idealistic houseman's baptism of fear was 'a piece of anti-Government propaganda giving a negative view of the NHS'. Quite right. What's this country coming to? Only the other week, that young doctor, Alan Massie, dropped dead after 86 hours on duty. No stamina, the youth of today. Bring back Doctor Finlay (ITV), aye Janet?

Not much comfort there either, I'm afraid. With the whole country conspiring to look like a piece of anti-Government propaganda - all you have to do is film it - even the past, which can normally be relied upon as a fragrant cushion of repose, only makes for awkward comparisons. In its loving recreation of a post-war Highland medical practice, the superbly recast Doctor Finlay (Annette Crosbie bringing steely nuances to Janet, Ian Bannen matching Andrew Cruikshank's Dr Cameron for rogueish splutter) shows us the authentic care in the community. What a long and melancholy journey it seems from Tannochbrae's staunch upholders of the Hippocratic Oath to today's hypocritical oafs at the Department of Health.

It's surely no coincidence that the starving of the NHS has coincided with a growing appetite for medical drama. BBC1's formulaic but bruising Casualty mainlined into a vein bulbous with anxiety, and even the picture-book Peak Practice (ITV) seems to have its heart in the Left place. On Tuesday, the flaxen- locked Dr Preston, a Sebastian Flyte among suppositories, was trying to introduce fundholding to the surgery, while the saintly but combustible Beth - St Joan of Nark - gave one of her beautiful principled snorts and a rousing Nye Bevan monologue about patients before profit. A sort of All Patients Great and Small, Peak Practice dispenses its bitter pills in designer jam. It seldom touches you in the way Casualty does because far-fetched plots (a dance studio full of black performers, yes, but in Derbyshire?) keep your feelings at a distance, as does the lacklustre hero, Dr Jack Kerruish, played by Kevin Whately.

For Morse fans, Whately's every appearance always summons unbidden the hissed admonition: 'Lew-iss, Lew-iss.' Like it or not, he is one of Nature's supporting actors - a mild-mannered Clark Kent who will never find his phone box. In the bedroom scenes with Beth, erotic encounters are out of the question because Lewis, sorry Jack, almost certainly has his underpants on outside his 'jamas.

The young doctors in Cardiac Arrest don't get to bed much: if you're operation-hardened Claire Maitland (Helen Baxendale making the best of clunking wise-up-kid lines) you snatch some feverish sex with a consultant; if you're blinky, Bible-reading new boy Andrew (Andrew Lancel) you snatch 14 winks with a passing cockroach. Nor is the viewer allowed to rest: like Andrew hurtling from a botched jab to a hopeless stab at breaking the news of a death to a perplexed relative ('Yes, but how is Albert?'), you feel as if you are trapped flap-slap in the middle of those clammy hospital swing-doors they make from old gym mats. The headlong filming and the harsh lighting are the visual equivalent of the cry of Munch's screamer - plainly an Oslo junior houseman.

First-time writer John MacUre, a young doctor himself, is so steeped in blood and weariness that even the jokes he allows us are sick. The ward appears to be called Crippen, and when Andrew's bleeper catches him with his trousers down frantically mugging up some complaint on the loo, he finds that the cubicle, like the rest of the hospital, isn't properly equipped so has to tear out a page to wipe himself: as they have shat on his textbook dream of being Laurence Nightingale, so he returns the insult.

Cardiac Arrest has all the ardour of youth, but also its regrettable tendency to premature ejaculation. At only half-an-hour, it feels way too short; there is no time for the niceties of dramatic foreplay or for characters to develop and command our affections. Thus far, they are uniformly repellent (even the Geordie nurses with their sour salvoes come across like a particularly pissed-off tragic chorus). MacUre may be making an interesting point here about conditions so unspeakably pressed they force medical staff to become lightning caricatures limned in acid, their patients mere sketches of suffering. That's fine for a one-night stand, but we have another five episodes to go and we at least need the promise of a relationship to ensure we keep on making a date. The problem of suggesting the trickle of raw feeling beneath calloused personalities, though chronic, is treatable - Barry Levinson found the way forward in Homicide - and MacUre already shows he is capable of the necessary subtlety. In one beautifully oblique scene, Claire Maitland is accosted by a patient she resuscitated against all advice: 'Excuse me, love, do we know each other?' 'No, we don't,' says the doctor almost wistfully. This is a place where you can give someone new life, but not the time of day. Cardiac Arrest needs more of that if it is to grapple the heart, rather than just leave scorch- marks on the retina.

Elsewhere, television's ghoulish fascination with perilous extremities is starting to look pathological. Two weeks into its new series, and 999 (BBC1) - or 666 as it is known in our house - has already had a charming re-enactment of the near- drowning of a girl caught by her hair in the grating of a public swimming baths and one of the near-drowning of a girl trapped in an overturned trimaran. Slow-motion replay for the former, naturally, just in case the nightmare of glugging water into your lungs while your family tries to tear you free didn't sink in first time round. The moral (don't snigger, dear, there has to be a moral or it will look as if it's just voyeuristic) is keep your hair short and do try to avoid nasty accidents, particularly ones caught by the emergency services on video. They involve the extra hazard that you might have to go through it all again for some keen young director getting in a bit of drama practice.

Many BBC people share my unease about 999 which, while claiming to elevate the human spirit with tales of everyday heroism, taps into something rank and primitive. But internal criticism is apparently almost impossible since Alan Yentob pronounced it an 'important part of the schedule'. Yentob should think carefully about his definition of 'important' in the light of a copycat show that appeared this week, called The Day I Nearly Died (ITV). To be imitated by Carlton is not the sincerest form of flattery; rather a sign that the jackals have smelt ratings. It was particularly hard to watch these cynical new interpretations of 'human interest' in the week that Forty Minutes, one of BBC2's great documentary strands, ended with a virtuoso reprise of its finest moments.

Proof that there is a benign deity, The Riff-Raff Element (BBC1) returned for a second series. Debbie Horsfield's comedy drama tells you more in five minutes about the frightfully civil war between the British aristocracy and their betters than an eternity of Class Act. The culture clashes between the Tundishes and the Belchers continue, but there are signs that the ruling elite is succumbing to the servants' brash humanity, with Joanna and Declan conceiving the first post-apartheid baby.

The characters are richly eccentric, yet remain true to themselves and therefore to us. It must be a joy for the actors to deliver lines that haven't been just bolted on to character but are its very source: their language tells us how they take on the world - or shy away from it. There is Ronald Pickup's prissy Roger with his clipped, telegrammatic delivery, and poor cuckolded Mort (Richard Hope) with his dreamy bison face and two-gulp Scooby-Doo swallow, who wanders through brambles of circumlocution ('I think for the moment I'm 90 per cent waivering towards not wanting to commit myself').

Horsfield's genius for idiom reminds me of Victoria Wood, who turned up on another splendidly diverting Sunday Night Clive (BBC1). Twinkling, our host asked Victoria what she made of Fabio, allegedly the world's most desirable man. She didn't pause for breath: 'He looks like he was drawn by someone who was fired by Walt Disney.'