The Weekend's TV: Casualty 1907, BBC1
The Shogun, BBC2
They had plenty of guts in those days
Monday 31 March 2008
The easy availability of sex, the constant display of thighs and breasts and acres of naked skin in today's media – so the familiar complaint goes – is actually not very sexy: how much more erotic the artful dance of concealment and revelation that used to be the norm, when the merest glimpse of a well-turned ankle could send an electric shudder up your spine. Casualty 1907 certainly bears this out: there's barely a glance exchanged between doctors and nurses here that isn't charged with sexual significance. In a meeting to confer over protocol for a royal visit, a senior doctor let his hand steal towards the matron; at the unwonted touch, she jumped away, as outraged as if he'd stuck his tongue in her ear and suggested she take him through the finer points of sponge-bath technique right there on the table. In chapel, shy young nurse Ethel Bennett fought a prolonged and futile battle to stop herself turning round to look at dynamic Dr Culpin, and then found his gaze already fixed on her.
Aside from the slightly overheated emotional atmosphere, Casualty 1907 doesn't have a lot to do with its contemporary namesake. This three-parter is, unsurprisingly, a sequel to the one-off Casualty 1906 (presumably a delayed sequel, though, since the BBC isn't in the habit of marking 102nd anniversaries). Like the earlier film, it is set in the London Hospital in Whitechapel, and based fairly closely on contemporary records and journals. There really was a Nurse Ethel Bennett and a Dr Millais Culpin, for example, and they married in 1913, so those sparks weren't just the writers succumbing to Mills & Boon cliché. Last night's episode suffered a little bit from period-drama gloss: the clothes a bit too perfect, the actors healthier and with neater teeth than the Edwardians generally managed, and there were traces from time to time of that condescending Whig attitude to the past common in all historical fictions. You can tell the bad characters because they have the prejudices of their time (Women doctors? Pshaw!), and the good ones because they are all modern and emancipated. By and large, though, it got the sense of period much better than most TV dramas: the deference, the snobbery, the public piety, the sense of duty – all those rigidities that we admire and despise in our forebears.
It also got the way respectability, which was the main object of life, rubbed up against horrors that just a century later we can scarcely imagine. Queen Alexandra's visit, and the ceremony that had to accompany it, were counterpointed with tales of gunshot wounds, sores that wouldn't heal, untreatable skin diseases that left a boy looking like a reptilian space creature, mothers who let their babies starve so they could collect the insurance, and operations carried out with inadequate anaesthetics and disinfectants. At times the gruesomeness was overdone: the amputation of a leg was the excuse for some real butcher's-shop footage, though I can't imagine a modern amputation involves significantly less shedding of blood. You couldn't accuse it of being nostalgic, though.
One thing that was different from today was the amount of screaming going on: moans, groans, yelps, howls, wails, squawks – a kind of Roget's of pain. One nice sequence had Dr Culpin (William Houston, one of my favourite actors, who always fizzes with energy and intelligence) climbing up through the darkened stairwell of a slum to the accompaniment of coughing, a dog growling, and the rhythmic screams of a woman in labour. It was only a shame the producers felt the need to smear dramatic music over the top. But I enjoyed this far more than I should have – perhaps it was just the sense of relief that we live in an age where sanitation and decent medical care can be taken for granted.
Like Casualty 1907, The Shogun hovered in that currently overpopulated grey area between documentary and drama. This was the story of Tokugawa Ieyasu, who at the start of the 17th century came out on top in the civil wars that were racking Japan, establishing a dynasty of shoguns that ruled Japan until the late 19th century. This period of feuding warlords and vast samurai armies forms the background to an awful lot of the most celebrated Japanese films, and at times I did get the feeling that I'd seen all this before: the ritualised suicides, the black-clad ninja assassins clambering over the rooftops, the noble samurai solemnly running through his sword moves in perfect silence... And by TV standards, it was all done on a pretty lavish scale, so that you could guess it was an international co-production even without clocking the actors' American accents. But it also had a certain tameness: for example, you didn't get any of the hacked-off limbs that are such a feature of Japanese cinema, and the battle scenes managed to remind you of a Kurosawa film without ever approaching the scale, beauty of savagery of one. Whoever knew samurai could be boring?
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