If you were to take a guess at what Daniel Radcliffe might look like 20 years from now, I’m not convinced you’d come up with Jon Hamm as your best shot. He’s about six inches taller, quite apart from anything else, and though age does increase some measurements, height isn’t usually one of them.
So it’s mildly startling to find them playing the same man in A Young Doctor’s Notebook, Sky Arts’ version of Mikhail Bulgakov’s autobiographical short stories about his experiences in his first medical posting after graduation, a remote country hospital 32 miles from the nearest streetlights. Hamm plays Bulgakov, first seen sitting helplessly in his Moscow apartment as unfriendly commissars search his office for evidence of counter-revolutionary subversion, and Radcliffe plays his fictional alter ego, Dr Vladimir. And even the older Bulgakov seems surprised by the changes time has wrought. “Did I really use to look like that?” he says disbelievingly as he watches his younger self fluster over his first patient.
There’s a way out of this niggle of implausibility, I guess, which is that this is an acknowledgement of psychological size. The young doctor feels the world as overwhelming, the older one is more knowing and in command. Unfortunately, though, this solution brings with it an entirely different problem, which is the odd interaction of old and young man in the same space. The older teases the younger about his uncertainty and occasionally rescues him with calming advice. But if young Bulgakov has access to the wisdom of his older self (who doesn’t yet exist anyway), how come he’s in such a fluster anyway? It proved beyond me to construct a rationale for this double act, other than as a representation of the rueful memories of the older man on recollecting his youthful inexperience. In that case, though, what on earth’s going on when they have a slapstick fight in the middle of a medical emergency?
The stories have been made more comic and less grimly stark than the originals, Radcliffe playing the young doctor as an innocent out of his depth and keen to conceal the fact from the knowing nurses and medical orderly he notionally outranks. And, setting aside uncertainties, it’s been very nicely done, with Vicki Pepperdine as an older nurse who fiercely protects the memory of the predecessor in the post, Leopold Leopoldovich, and Adam Godley as the hospital orderly, a man with a personality more numbing than chloroform. Alex Hardcastle’s direction gives it a drab, deep-shadowed beauty and there are hints at the bleaker realism of the original, as when Vladimir’s hamfisted attempt to extract a carious tooth results in the patient loosing a large chunk of jawbone as well. But I still can’t work out why it needs two stars in it rather than one.
Madeley Meets the Squatters also turned out to be a tale of wide-eyed innocence bumping up against the realities of the world, the innocent in this case being Richard Madeley, who seemed keen to persuade us that his chief virtues as a reporter are ignorance and naivety. “I know nothing about squatting,” he announced, before adding that the idea had always filled him with revulsion. “This is the most surreal conversation I’ve ever observed,” he said later, as he presided over an encounter between a landlord and the squatter who was occupying his building (quite a claim, incidentally, from a man who presented This Morning for 13 years). And when he was taken “skipping” (retrieving food from supermarket bins), he appeared dazed by this well-reported activity: “I had no idea that this was going on.”
He was less revolted by squatting by the end of the film, but for most viewers the unintentional Partridgean comedy would have been the best reason for watching. “You can’t film me pissing,” he said indignantly to the camera crew when using the facilities in one squat.“You can listen.”