TELEVISION:Quick nurse, pass the camera

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The Independent Culture
THE damaging effects of long hospital hours are, by now, familiar. Those periods of hysterical tiredness when you could swear that you've already seen this episode of ER (C4), but that's only because it has exactly the same plot as last week's Chicago Hope (BBC1). The badly impaired judgment that sets you thinking you'd prefer to have your uterus palpated by the saturnine Dr Adrian Devries of Cardiac Arrest (BBC1) rather than by Dr Mike Barrett of Casualty (BBC1) - he of the come-to-bed eyes and the been- to-bed clothes. As night after night is disturbed by the electronic bleeping of another surgical signature tune, accidents can and do happen: administering the wrong beverage in a commercial break; spilling the California corn chips as a potato is removed from a man's bottom. Such imaginative deprivation can cause mental breakdown and eventually culminates in death or the purchase of a Sky dish. Ever anxious to stimulate its audience with fresh ideas BBC1 devoted the bulk of the week to Hospital Watch, a programme in which we got to watch a hospital.

Three live reports were broadcast daily from Addenbrooke's in Cambridge. Our hosts were Sue Lawley, Maggie Philbin and Tony Robinson. The tone was practical no-nonsense ("The first step is to wrap the Cellophane round Iain's stump!'') mixed with golly-gosh gratitude: "But first a minor miracle...Nichola Elliot and her embarrassing problem.'' Nichola's problem was that the curiously-named sympathetic nerves in her chest were making her hand sweat excessively. Hard not to get clammy yourself when you watched Nichola's operation. The surgeon went in through a fine tube under the teenager's arm: "And now we are inside the chest,'' averred Sue. Raspberry walls quailed and purple jelly twitched. It was like potholing in a summer pudding. But then in the merest smoulder of smoke, Nichola's offending nerves got zapped. A few moments later, by the magic of television, we were with Sue at Nichola's bed, admiring the sweat-free palm. "Thank you for letting us in,'' said Sue, as though she had opened the girl's body like a back door.

Nichola's story was literally cut and dried. Other patients were followed throughout the week: Sara the liver transplant girl, Iain the amputee, Lindy the kidney donor mum. "We will meet the stars of the real Casualty,'' promised Sue, hinting that life was superior to drama. In fact, from the start Hospital Watch was infected with the fiction virus - a rash of characterisation, the thirst for compelling plots and happy endings, rigged scene changes. "You're supposed to say 'How do they do that?'. We've rehearsed it about 10 times,'' laughed Tony, bitterly rebuking Iain the amputee. Unlike Tony, Sue has the gift of TV sincerity which is like real sincerity but with floodlights and body armour. Kind with children, saucy with pensioners, sternly flirtatious with consultants and tough on herself, Sue is the ultimate professional. She has no need of surgery to cauterise her nerve endings; that happened years ago sitting next to Frank Bough on Nationwide. Maggie was more anxious. As anyone would be witnessing a shoulder replacement. "It's a bit gruesome - there are some very odd noises in it - but it's well worth watching because it's...'' Slurp! Pock! Currrrk! "...Fascinating!''

It was yucky. Though not quite as stomach-churning as watching Tony try to interview Sara, the 13 year old cystic fibrosis sufferer given a last- minute reprieve by a liver transplant. "Now you want to do this, don't you? 'Cos we're very worried that we could tire you out.'' Sara, waxy and dazed behind her perspex mask, coughed horribly. She had wanted to go shopping, Tony told us, to buy a cat. Amazingly, the cuddly toy in question was right there in Tony's hand. "That's from us 'cos we're soppy media people - we'll probably take it back after the show.'' It was a queasy comic twinge, a tart acknowledgement of what it might look like to exploit a sick child. "What did she say when she knew she was getting her liver?" Tony asked Janet, Sara's mother. "She said she wanted her liver, but they could have hung on for a couple more days because she wanted to be on the television.'' It was the old story; people were dying to be on the show.

In our house we have good reason to be grateful to Addenbrooke's; it saved the lives of two friends. It was confirmed here as a great hospital - rich in expertise and humanity. Down in the basement we met Anne, who runs the Artificial Eye Service. She sat on a high stool surrounded by a sea of attentive pupils. Up in the neonatal clinic, a formidable team presided over a sliver of life called Charlotte. So golden was the picture painted that you found yourself basking in the glow: if this was what the NHS looked like when it was in trouble, boy, who needed more funding? You were jolted back to reality by the evening news bulletin in which Christine Hancock of the RCN said that nurses were "very angry". Of this fury, Hospital Watch breathed not a word. Only once, in a late night report, did you catch a whisper of discontent. Tony questioned a young member of staff who had taken on cataract work: "So you could say the hospital is getting the extra responsibility a doctor used to have and paying the wages of a nurse?" "You could say that.''

Relentlessly uplifting and weirdly pain-free, Hospital Watch might have been commissioned as an antidote to Cardiac Arrest.There were consultants at Addenbrooke's called Christopher Constant and Peter Friend, whereas writer-doctor John MacUre can hardly resist calling his George McBastard and Victor Freemarket. This week's episode, the last of a terrific series, saw a junior doctor charged with negligence and hauled before a tribunal where he confessed to working 36 hours without sleep; he failed to admit that the consultant responsible had conspired with the hospital manager to offer him promotion if he kept his mouth shut.

This sour, livid storyline is typical of a drama which lays bare not only a profession in crisis but also a cast of characters unlucky enough to be devoted to that profession. MacUre allowed himself a rare Hollywood epiphany when Dr. Claire Maitland, in search of a life without blood and fears, broke off a job interview in a wine bar to help a man who was having, you guessed it, a cardiac arrest. "It's all right," she declared, pumping his chest as if her life depended on it, "I'm a...doc-tor." She was following the example of ER's Dr Greene who spurned peaceful private practice to get back to the frontline.

These guys just can't give it up; they're hooked, and so are we. Medical drama is a unique mix of fear and virtue - cop shows offer the same adrenalin rush, but it comes from violence, the evil out there on the streets. Series like Chicago Hope and ER strive only against the enemy within - the tumour, the poison, the jagged bone. Like white knights, the doctors pick up their glittering lances and charge into the fray, eager to spear our modern monsters. When they fail, when the dragon devours the maiden, it's not a question of the one that got away, but the one that stayed and did its worst. Hundreds of shattered American viewers jammed the NBC switchboard after the episode of ER shown on Channel 4 this week in which a pregnant woman gave birth, went into shock and died. We had been watching a Mortality Play, swift and stern. No pussyfooting around here: it was a far cry from Tony and his cuddly cat.

For those of us in need of cheering up, there was always Watchdog Healthcheck (BBC1). Judith Hann beamed enticingly: "And now headlice!" Over on C4 was Jimmy's, the inside story of a Leeds hospital: "A two-year-old prepared for the surgery that will change his life.'' Chat Hostess Ricki Lake (C4) ran another thoughtful discussion entitled "I'm a Gold Digger and Proud of It". Top Digger was Laura, "Plans on Going after Older Men and Doctors". Honey, I think you'd better lie down.