TV Review: Doctors' Orders

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"Paul has a more recent experience of a home birth" said a confiding voice in Doctors' Orders (BBC1). A coy lilt in the tone warned you not to expect a human infant and, sure enough, the next shot was a cute close- up of a lamb, as pristine and fluffy as an Easter greetings card. It was a reminder that this latest docu-soap has been as carefully engineered to audience desires as any mid-evening main-market drama - indeed Dr Paul Slade could scarcely be improved on if he had been designed by a committee of script editors. He drives a characterful classic MG, wears waistcoats, keeps a few animals on his farm to provide a hairy relief from human complaints and is possessed of a stocky, sympathetic bedside manner. But if Doctors' Orders is Peak Practice with real people it remains a fact that there are still things people prefer to do off-screen. Not many, it's true; last night's episode (the second this week) included the sight of a woman having a mole removed under local anaesthetic. ("Will you send this sultana off for tests?" she asked as it was sliced off. "It's more like a raisin," said the nurse. "No, I think sultana is better," added the doctor, displaying his superior grip of Dried Fruit Diagnostics.)

All those who have agreed to be filmed seem cheerful about displaying their ulcers and pustules for the nation's entertainment but if - and this is a pure conjecture, you understand - the maturely attractive receptionist happened to be having a secret affair with one of the doctors, you have to assume the film-makers would not show it. They would be likely to find out about it - given their ubiquity - but would then have to make a decision about whether it fitted the script they had established. They might even find themselves carefully filming around by far the most dramatic element of the lives in front of them. Similarly if one of the doctors were fiddling the prescription system, or over-prescribing tranquillizers, we would be much less likely to find out about it. I make the point only as a reminder that the salt of veracity with which docu-soaps season their storylines has its limits. There are still jobs for drama and serious documentary to do, even if they cost more to put on screen.

As it happens, though, Doctor's Orders is less prone to such reservations than some other recent exercises in this overworked genre. It may be the result of careful calculation, but by and large the calculations add up. Docu-soaps work best if they offer a kind of narrative Velcro - numerous tiny little hooks to snag the couch potato's fluffy attention span; as one tiny attachment gives up its hold another is already securing itself. A doctor's surgery is the ideal supplier of such bonding storylines because it offers a natural turnover of cases, each of which can be very different in tone - from the delicate task of dealing with a mother who may be convinced that her children are sicker than they really are to stories with a cautious touch of comedy, such as the small boy brought in because he shouts all the time, a disease of childhood I know a lot about but which I had never dreamed of referring to my GP. Perhaps a better metaphor for the soothing effect of these anecdotal hits was suggested by another of the clinic's patients, a wily heroin addict nagging for repeat prescriptions. Docu- soap is to real life what methadone is to heroin - not quite the real thing but better than complete withdrawal.

Modern Times's documentary "Shooting Versace" (BBC2) was a delicious comedy of achievement against the odds. Despite a minuscule budget and shooting conditions that might humiliate a student film-maker, Menahem Golan, one-time mogul of the Cannon Empire and auteur of various smash- and-grab exploitation movies, managed to keep his vast ego fully inflated for the eighteen days he took to film The Versace Murder, a rapid-response movie about Andrew Cunanan, Versace's killer. Having been menaced by his subject ("I just hope that you are a human being and you are not a liar. And if you are a liar, God help you!"), Christopher Sykes, the Modern Times director-cameraman, kept a very straight face indeed - and the result was all the funnier for it.

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