Keep taking the tablets

Since Emergency Ward 10 threw open its doors 40 years ago, hospital dramas have continued to set the nation's pulse racing. James Rampton examines the extent of our addiction

Television drama commissioning editors, desperate to alleviate the terminal condition of haemorrhaging ratings, have long turned to reassuring people with stethoscopes and white coats for a cure. "Trust me, I'm a doctor," the characters seem to be saying to the stressed-out executives, "I can stem the flood of viewers to the other side."

But why have catheters and crash-teams unfailingly been the TV commissioner's little helpers since the doors of Emergency Ward 10 were thrown open to the viewing public 39 years ago? Docs on the Box, a BBC2 theme night on Sunday, aims to provide a diagnosis.

The actor Clive Mantle, who plays A&E consultant Mike Barrett in Casualty and links the programmes in Docs on the Box, puts his finger on the popular pulse. "The plethora of medical dramas are there to reassure the audience that if they were ever in that position, there are people out there who would nurse them back to health. The voyeuristic element is very small. People don't watch for the nasty bits; they turn on because they want to see people getting better."

Phil Hammond, a GP and medical lecturer from Birmingham, begs to differ. "There is always voyeurism about human suffering. People watch in order to think, 'thank God that's not me'."

Nicola Moody, executive producer of Docs on the Box, gives a third opinion. "A hospital is a classic place to set a drama. It has all the necessary elements of populist drama. That's why we're all so addicted to it."

Are we not all in danger, though, of ourselves being rushed into Casualty suffering from a severe case of doctor fatigue? Not content with crash- bang-wallop hospital doctors (Casualty, Cardiac Arrest, ER, Chicago Hope, Medics), schedulers are now intravenously feeding us: cosy country doctors (Peak Practice); helicopter doctors (Red Alert); police doctors (Dangerfield); period doctors (Bramwell); and post-mortem doctors (Silent Witness).

"Of course there are too many hospital dramas," Mantle concedes, "but they wouldn't be there if people didn't like them. If people stopped watching them, then television companies wouldn't make them. It's all about ratings, and the BBC are just as keen as ITV to get audience share. If you don't like it, don't watch it."

The centrepiece of Docs on the Box is Playing Doctor, an entertaining ward-round of medical dramas from Emergency Ward 10 to Cardiac Arrest. In the early days, the doctors were depicted as gods wielding stethoscopes like magic wands. A million hearts fluttered at the divine looks and bedside manner of Richard Chamberlain's Dr Kildare (above, showing at 8.05pm on Sunday) and the telly hospitals were the only ones in the world where no deaths ever occurred. (It was nearly three years before anyone died in Emergency Ward 10, and when he did - of an appendectomy - there was such a storm in the papers, the producers decided from then on only to kill off characters in accidents.)

In 1972, that air was shattered as the choppers from M*A*S*H flew in. "That completely changed our perspective with its irreverence," Moody continues. "It dispensed with the idea of the operating theatre as sacred temple and viewers learnt to accept the reality of more blood, more gore, more humour."

Phil Hammond, however, questions the accuracy of some medical dramas. "If you watch ER, when a cardiac arrest happens, there are two minutes of gobbledegook and it's done. In the NHS, it'd be 46 phone calls and a three-hour wait. In real life, when you bleep the consultant, he's usually in the bath or on the loo. Also, TV hospitals have many more resources. They ought to open the Casualty set as an NHS hospital. It would be the best resourced hospital in the country."

Hammond's typical medic's sense of black humour is reflected in Cardiac Arrest, real-life doctor Ged Mercurio's in-your-face and in-their-guts view of the NHS. Here, medics laugh bitterly about August being the "killing season" because so many newly-qualified doctors are doing the rounds.

"Television made me choose that [being a doctor] as a job," Mercurio avers. "You watch TV and you see these guys having a really good time, and you think, 'Oh wow, I'll be a doctor, that'd be brilliant.' Then you do the job and you realise it's a piece of crap, and you think, 'Right, I'm going to make a TV programme that tells the truth,' so loads of people watch it and go, 'I'm not going to be a doctor'."

Staff interviewed at Bristol Royal Infirmary for Playing Doctor found Cardiac Arrest the most realistic medico-drama around - a view that Hammond confirms. "No doctor has much time for Casualty," he reveals, "it's too patient-centred. If they do watch it, they just sit there and laugh when a needle goes in wrongly. Doctors are tossers. Cardiac Arrest centres on the doctors' world. It's almost written for doctors - and people with a very cynical sense of humour. It's the only one which portrays the bad attitude of doctors. They catheterise patients really roughly, and the nurses are just anti-Christs. Doctors' relatives watch Casualty and say, 'that's what my son's like', while doctors watch Cardiac Arrest and say, 'that's what I'm like'."

So hospital drama has, over the years, reflected society's view of doctors: in the present reality of the Patients' Charter and increasing medical litigation, the omnipotent divinity in a white coat has been revealed to have feet of clay. "We now see doctors as real human beings with fallibilities as well as amazing abilities to treat people," Moody contends.

For all that, we show no signs of wanting to give up our fix of medical dramas. Indeed, Channel 4 is planning its own medical theme night called "Doctor, Doctor". But now that every conceivable conventional setting has been explored, Hammond suggests an alternative future. "With more and more people getting into complementary medicine, we might soon see Crystal Healer - The Series, or Douglas Welby: Acupuncturist. That's the way it'll go."

'Docs on the Box' starts Sun at 8pm on BBC2

PROMOTED VIDEO
Life and Style
food + drink
Arts and Entertainment
musicBand's first new record for 20 years has some tough acts to follow
News
peopleAt least it's for a worthwhile cause
Voices
A new app has been launched that enables people to have a cuddle from a stranger
voicesMaybe the new app will make it more normal to reach out to strangers
News
Liam Payne has attacked the media for reporting his tweet of support to Willie Robertson and the subsequent backlash from fans
peopleBut One Direction star insists he is not homophobic
Life and Style
healthFor Pure-O OCD sufferers this is a reality they live in
Life and Style
Sexual health charities have campaigned for the kits to be regulated
healthAmerican woman who did tells parents there is 'nothing to be afraid of'
News
Shoppers in Covent Garden, London, celebrate after they were the first to buy the iPhone 6, released yesterday
tech
Arts and Entertainment
Ben Affleck stars as prime suspect Nick Dunne in the film adaptation of Gone Girl
filmBen Affleck and Rosamund Pike excel in David Fincher's film, says Geoffrey Macnab
Life and Style
fashion
News
news
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

Day In a Page

A roller-coaster tale from the 'voice of a generation'

Not That Kind of Girl:

A roller-coaster tale from 'voice of a generation' Lena Dunham
London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice. In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence

London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice

In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence
Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with Malcolm McLaren

Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with McLaren

Designer 'felt pressured' into going out with Sex Pistols manager
Jourdan Dunn: Model mother

Model mother

Jordan Dunn became one of the best-paid models in the world
Apple still coolest brand – despite U2 PR disaster

Apple still the coolest brand

Despite PR disaster of free U2 album
Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

Scrambled eggs and LSD

Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

New leading ladies of dance fight back

How female vocalists are now writing their own hits
Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

A shot in the dark

Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
His life, the universe and everything

His life, the universe and everything

New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
Save us from small screen superheroes

Save us from small screen superheroes

Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Reach for the skies

Reach for the skies

From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

12 best hotel spas in the UK

Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments