REVIEW / A finger on the pulse of the nation's health

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
I HAD a little fantasy while watching Cardiac Arrest, BBC 1's new medical drama. In it - the fantasy, that is - a Tory backbencher suffers an apoplectic attack as he dictates indignant quotes about the series to a tabloid reporter - 'typical BBC propaganda', 'blatant political bias', that sort of thing. As the ambulancemen lift him on to the stretcher his Bupa card falls, unobserved, behind the sofa and the sound-track gives an ominous little throb. He comes round to find himself half way through an enema, a sleep-walking houseman having misheard 'coronary resuscitation' as 'colonic irrigation'.

It certainly isn't a series for those with an allergic reaction to harsh realities. Despite coincidental endorsement from real life - the death of an overworked young doctor a few weeks ago and the recent row over clinical decisions about elderly patients - some Tories have still come out in bumps simply through contact with the pre-publicity material, so my fantasy may yet come true if they actually trouble themselves to watch it. What they will see is a bleary portrait of life in a National Health Service hospital, not so much warts and all as just the warts.

Dr Andrew Collin, Jesus sticker on his 2CV and eagerness shining in his eyes, embarks on his medical career under the jaundiced supervision of Dr Maitland, whose bedside manner suggests she is the love-child of Dr Kildare and Ruby Wax. At one moment she is yelling baffling initials in classic form ('Mrs Kelly's BP is right down . . . SVT poor output'), the next she is delivering mordant one-liners: 'Forget antibiotics - we should prescribe a pine box,' she snaps when Collin agonises over a man dying of lung cancer.

The visual style is studiously documentary - it looks dreary and underfunded itself, as if everything has been filmed by available light - and when the action turns hectic there's a sense that the camera is getting underfoot, pushed out of the way by blurry shoulders as nurses rush to the scene of the action. But if it captures the feel of the average hospital ward it avoids the tedium, building atmosphere in a series of short scenes which aren't afraid to be elliptical.

Your introduction to young doctors on the job, for example, is a scene in which Dr Rajah wakes to find a nine-pint lovely in bed with him. When she discovers that he's a qualified doctor, not a student, she gives a little air-punch of triumph, a detail which isn't explained by the dialogue, but which you eventually realise tells a little story about promiscuity and sexual hierarchies. By excluding you slightly the script only persuades you the better that you're sneaking a look at something you wouldn't normally see.

Dr Collin is soon disabused of his humanitarian romanticism, harried by his bleeper from crisis to crisis, snowed under by paperwork and hopelessly ill-prepared for working through other people's tragedies. He isn't too impressed with his colleagues' standards either - Rajah uses warm tea to lodge a catheter in place when he runs out of saline solution and Dr Maitland is armoured against personal feeling: 'With that amount of asbestos in his lungs it'll take a couple of weeks,' she observes drily when told that a mesothelioma victim is to be cremated.

All of this absolutely has the feel of real life - the stuff of student gossip and weary experience. But if Cardiac Arrest is to maintain its stamina in the long run (another eight programmes have apparently been commissioned to follow this six-parter), it is actually going to have to make up more and tell the truth less. The virtues of this first episode - its sense of revelation and chaotic accumulation of detail - are available to a talented beginner - they're actually scientific virtues of observation and note-taking. Plotting the narrative of a long-running series is quite another matter. John McUre is still learning - there were some rough gear changes between comedy and issue-drama last night - but in general the prognosis is looking good.