TELEVISION / An audience manipulated by healing hands

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The Independent Culture
THE HEALER (BBC 1) opened with a sprightly pizzicato on the soundtrack and a little jig of images on the screen, of a child's curious eyes and of someone's fingers doing the patterned dance of the cat's-cradle. The mood was not just one of enchantment, which G F Newman definitely needed for his drama, but also of comedy, which wasn't strictly speaking essential, but which didn't half help out later on.

Newman doesn't appear to play it for laughs off camera. No man with a fully functioning sense of humour could ban a television crew (notoriously carnivorous) from eating meat on set, as Newman did in the case of The Healer. His statements about his script don't exactly betray a light heart either. 'Medical science has become wholly decadent and self-serving' he is recorded as saying in the BBC press note for the film, that 'wholly' serving notice that he isn't particularly interested in compromise.

So it could be seen as a saving grace of The Healer that it never quite allowed such absolutist self-righteousness to smother the playfulness of the drama's conceit - that the National Health Service would be thrown into consternation and bureaucratic terror if it discovered that it was harbouring a genuine healer. This is a sub-species of that popular adolescent speculation about what would happen if Jesus Christ came back today - an association Newman specifically underlines. 'What should we do', says a bemused consultant when it appears that one of his junior housemen has healed a laboratory full of experimental animals, 'examine him before learned men?'

It could also be seen, though, as the sugar-coating which helps down a fairly nasty pill - Newman's silly demonisation of medical technology, which is seen here as invariably coercive and destructive. Dr Raebryte, the representative of conventional medical authority, is funny - 'I badly need two beds for booked admissions,' he snaps at a ward nurse. 'Who can we throw out?' - as is the idea of a doctor sneaking into the ward to perform surreptitious cures. They may even be funny enough to obscure the fact that this a peculiarly coercive fiction, one designed to put an unyielding armlock on your sympathies, with a mixture of tendentious caricature and wishful thinking.

Dr Lassiter has more fey Oirish blarney than an Aer Lingus ad and can tame vicious dogs and matrons alike. Dr Wem, on the other hand, his alter ego, treats 'his' patients like sovereign territory and can't get the nurses to give him a cup of tea (it is one of the film's passing dishonesties that women, even those complicit in conventional medicine, are simply let off the hook. Perhaps Newman takes them to be just obeying orders.) Where Dr Lassiter makes graceful passes with his cat's-cradle Dr Wem neurotically tugs at a rubber band, a jerk in all senses; where Dr Lassiter is rumpled and strokable, Dr Wem is all steel- rimmed spectacles and cropped hair - you wouldn't touch him in case you smeared that antiseptic surface.

There are some lies here, rather than the uncomfortable truths which Newman presumably thinks he's offering us. Incompetence isn't just the preserve of the charmless, for example - we could all avoid a lot of trouble if it was. And even for Newman, those despised machines come in useful, keeping a comatose child on hold until Lassiter has resolved his doubts about his gift and it suits the drama to have a miracle.

The last minute withdrawal of comfort suggested it may be too early to berate Newman for false solace and reckless endangerment, but it isn't too early to suggest some of his convictions may be fit-ups.

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