If, as Nigel Lawson said, the NHS is the closest thing the English have to a religion, then fly-on-the- wall documentaries about the NHS are the closest thing television commissioners have to Christmas Eve Midnight Mass. They are guaranteed crowd-pullers. As a result, one is rarely more than four hours away from the swabs, beeps and tears of a hosp-doc.
The latest series to celebrate the everyday miracle that is the world’s largest free healthcare system is Keeping Britain Alive: the NHS in a Day. On 18 October 2012, 100 camera crews set up camp in hospitals and surgeries across the country to record what the NHS does in a single day. This conceit allowed for plenty of mind-boggling statistics – one day equals 1.5 million patients, 1,500 deaths, 2,000 births, 400 strokes etc – and a 24-style clock, which ratcheted up tension and counted the hours as medical professionals juggled time, beds, care and cuts.
The statistics were nothing compared with the real human drama. There was cutting-edge neurosurgery on a stroke victim, the saga of Lynn’s gastric-band operation hitting a devastating hitch and proud Mrs Evans, 90, who didn’t care for treatment so long as she could have a bed near some daylight. In between, there were addicts, malingerers and impatient patients. Obesity and old age repeatedly reared their heads as the biggest threats to the nation’s health and NHS finances.
This was a celebration of healthcare heroics, without Danny Boyle’s dancing nurses – or a visit to Mid Staffs. Hospital staff talked pragmatically to camera about budgets, but faced with patients, their compassion won every time. “She came in for one problem, found another and the NHS will take care of that,” said surgeon Mr Pring of Lynn. “It’s a big care blanket around her that’s going to look after her.” It was a lump-in-thethroat moment and if as viewers we have seen it all a hundred times before, it pays to remind oneself of those holding the big care blanket from time to time. Nye Bevan would be proud of them all.
What he would have made of Dr Mindy Lahiri, I’m not so sure. The obstetrician heroine of new American sitcom The Mindy Project frequently shows up to work in last night’s tootight dress, sleeps with her colleagues and keeps a chocolate fountain in her consulting room. Episode one began with her giving an excruciating speech at her ex’s wedding, before she hopped on a Mary Poppins bike and pratcycled into a swimming pool, where she had a conversation with a Barbie doll about being 31 and single. Someone call a doctor – this could be terminal. Add to that a terrible Clarissa Explains It All knock-off theme tune and its billing, following the new series of New Girl on E4, and you could have been forgiven for expecting kook carnage.
In fact, The Mindy Project is, like its leading lady, rather cleverer than it looks. At first glance, Mindy is another BMIobsessed, frappé-slurping, rom-com-quoting ditz, but there’s bite beneath the helium voice. The creation of American Office alumna Mindy Kaling (she played Kelly Kapoor and wrote for the show), she drinks too much, talks too much, and is stridently a “woman of colour” only when it suits her (at one point she asks for “more white patients”). Up-to-the-minute barbs at Downton, Judd Apatow and health insurance zing through a script that is not afraid to be awkward.
The set-up of hopeless single gal with two guy pals will be familiar to New Girl fans, but each of the threesome – which includes macho divorce Dr Danny (Chris Messina) and silkysmooth cad Dr Jeremy (British comedian Ed Weeks) – has sharply observed quirks. “I think he’s Hugh Grant in About a Boy,” moons Mindy after a one-night wonder with Jeremy. “I think he’s Hugh Grant in real life,” snaps back her best friend. By the end of the first episode, they already felt like old friends. I watched the second straight away. The prognosis looks good.