Though I keep grumbling about television being rubbish these days, the truth is that just lately things have been improving. The tide of awfulness seems to be on the ebb. Take Life and Death on the NHS, a thoughtful, sober, gimmick-free medical documentary that wouldn't have looked out of place on BBC2, even BBC4, occupying a prime slot on ITV1. How did that happen?
Fergus O'Brien's film followed three stories, starting with Rebecca, 16, who needed an operation to remove a benign tumour from her brain before it killed her. (I really do think the medical profession need to rethink their terminology: what's so benign about that?) Meanwhile, Nicky, aged 26, was suffering dilated cardiomyopathy, a swollen, sluggish heart that sapped her energy and was likely to kill her within a year if she didn't get a transplant. Finally, there was Rosemary, aged 50, and a different kind of story. She had been in a car crash, just two days after passing her test, and was now in a coma. Whereas Rebecca and Nicky got to tell their side of things, to show how far a sense of humour and a sense of a future can survive even the most imminent threat of death, the viewer got to know Rosemary only as an inert form, face swollen and broken behind an oxygen mask, and through the things her mother and her fiancé, Kenny, said about her. Not long into the programme, a nurse explained that Rosemary was not going to recover, and it turned into a different story again: organ donation (of the few organs that had survived the crash in reasonable condition), the family mourning, and, finally, the official letter giving the family details of who had received her organs.
The endings were happier for Rebecca and Nicky, who both had complication-free operations followed by swift recoveries. For both, there was a build-up of expectation and terror, after which the actual operations seemed mercifully calm. In general, the unfussed atmosphere, so at odds with anything TV drama ever shows, was striking. The cameras didn't spare you much in the way of gore. We saw Nicky's old heart, sitting on the table after it had been cut out of her chest, yellow and throbbing, and the new one, crammed into its niche, twitching much more vitally. A frisky one, said the surgeon. A couple of weeks later, at home, Nicky described how she lay awake at night, feeling it pounding in her chest. And we saw Rebecca's brain, scarlet and white under the surgeon's lights, with a thick band of purple – a major vein – and then the grey bulge of the tumour.
The film put across the imminence of death without ever resorting to melodrama (though it did indulge in rather a lot of mood music). But given that it was apparently here to celebrate 60 years of the National Health Service, it was peculiar that it made no mention of what is distinctive about it. That is, boringly enough, the way it is funded. You could, if you'd been so inclined, have made an almost exactly similar film, showing lives being saved, patients receiving marvellous, modern treatment, loved ones fearing, rejoicing and grieving, set within the American healthcare system, or the French, or whatever. It's all a matter of what you choose to leave out. Next week, by the way, in the same time slot we get a medical drama called Harley Street. ITV goes back to its private-enterprise roots.
Meanwhile, BBC4 was celebrating private-sector provision in the field of natural history. Born to Be Wild, a series about amateur naturalists, began with fans of the invertebra – beetles, dragonflies, snails, freshwater shrimps. The attention to detail, especially in Phil Wilkins's beautiful paintings of insects, and the obvious, deep satisfaction that the enthusiasts had was quite touching. It was only a shame that the commentary kept up a faintly jokey, embarrassed tone, as though desperate to free itself from the taint of nerdishness.
Lab Rats also seems ambivalent in its attitude to nerdishness. A comedy about scientists co-written by and starring Chris Addison, whose radio series, The Ape That Got Lucky, was remarkable for its combination of very silly jokes and rather well-researched evolutionary theory. The cast, including Geoffrey McGivern (the original Ford Prefect in The Hitchhiker's Guide), is good. The plot of last night's episode was pleasantly absurdist, the jokes were commendably odd and wide-ranging. Subjects included chocolate, snails (on living in shells: "Imagine that: sitting in there all day, listening to the sound of the sea"), and a Russian scientist called Dr Kyrtistyges (pron. "Curtis Stigers"), who had a colleague called Dr Bylirasyris (pron. "Billy Rae Cyrus"). Somehow, though, it didn't quite gel, largely because of the studio audience, whose laughter, as so often, slowed things down and underlined jokes that needed to be thrown away. It may be, too, that the cast is a little too large, so that the stories lack a focus (compare the similar but funnier The IT Crowd, with only three regulars and a couple of frequent walk-ons). Worth giving it a week or two, though.