Nurse, the screens!

Matron wouldn't approve. But the outrageous storylines in new TV drama 'No Angels' are based on truth, discovers Heather Neill. And the doctors better watch their backs...
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The Independent Online

Beth, Lia, Kate and Anji are nurses. But if the word nurse suggests a) a starch-bosomed matron, b) a cheeky Carry On fantasy or c) a passive doctor's helpmeet, then you're in for a surprise. These four drink, smoke, flirt, indulge in casual sex (although one is a single parent and the most promiscuous is preparing for a traditional Indian marriage) and generally behave like young women in their 20s who work under pressure and party to compensate. This is not the television image of nursing familiar from Casualty or Holby City and there have already been rumblings of disapproval in the press and from the Royal College of Nursing as it embarks on a recruitment campaign. No Angels: the title says it all.

The series represents a considerable commitment from Channel 4: 10, hour-long episodes to be broadcast at prime time on Tuesday evenings - which is testament to the track record of the makers, World Productions, creators of This Life, Cops and Cardiac Arrest. Toby Whithouse (whose previous work includes Where the Heart Is and Attachments) heads the team of writers, established the characters and is personally responsible for Episodes 1,5 and 10. He was determined that great care be taken to give an accurate picture of hospital life: "World employed a nurse consultant and everything was referred to her. We were very keen that the programmes should be bedrocked in reality. Research was helpful: it gave us storylines."

The pre-title sequence in Episode 1, which sets the tone for the series, has been denounced as incredible. Beth is discussing the latest directive from on high - that nurses should wear plastic sheeting under their skirts to avoid distracting doctors with their visible pantie lines - and has forgotten to monitor an elderly patient. Finding her charge cold, Beth and her friends dunk the corpse in a warm bath before calling the doctor to pronounce her dead. Both the VPL directive and the body reheating are documented and both were suggested to Whithouse by nurses.

Minkie Spiro spent two years in hospital in the late Nineties recovering from a heart attack and coma induced by misprescription of drugs by her doctor when she was 27. "Nurses are my unsung heroes. I knew I would make a film about them one day," she says. Spiro, now as lively and chatty as ever, had to learn to walk and speak again. She describes being temporarily blind and sure she was going to die. "A nurse just said she would stay with me all night." If we see less of this caring side of nursing, Spiro still believes that the scripts are "a more truthful look at the environment I lived in than is usual on television. Of course there's an element of drama, but if you look beyond the sensational you get a much truer, stronger picture of how important nurses are." Spiro is well known for documentaries that combine humour with seriousness, and she has approached No Angels in the same way: "If you don't entertain, no one will watch. The last thing people want is to be preached at."

Whithouse and the other five writers spent a couple of months devising the story arc for the characters and then "chopped that into 10 segments". Spiro says they scoured the country to cast the leads until they found four young women who made a credible group of friends; they had, after all, to spend many months together on location in Leeds, where the fictitious St Margaret's hospital is set. Two months workshopping - most unusual in television drama - preceded the filming.

Writer and director agree on the importance of humour. Whithouse, an actor for 10 years, says: "If a character only has one or two lines I try to give him a gag." He understands the pressures of nursing: "There has to be gallows humour, otherwise they couldn't cope with day-to-day extreme experiences. The reason why nurses work and play hard is so they can do their job. We're not saying they are not dedicated." Often funny storylines simply present themselves. The mixing up of all the false teeth in a ward by the male nurse cleaning them is, assures Whithouse, "a weekly occurrence".

No Angels is essentially about the gender divide between arrogant doctors (male) who can get away with murder - almost literally - and the nurses (female) on whose expertise they rely to save their bacon. They may be treated as second-class in the hospital hierarchy, but, as one doctor warns a newcomer: "You piss off a nurse and you're a marked man." Beth and Anji know how to get their revenge with practical jokes, while normally responsible Kate decks a doctor who has made her carry the can for his mistake. Interestingly, no one has complained about the treatment of doctors in the series. Devious, attractive doctor Jamie sums up the situation: "We have to be seen as infallible. A nurse's reputation is expendable; a doctor's isn't." The sex war in this hospital is mainly a white affair, a shortcoming Whithouse admits. "We'll address that if we go into another series," he says.

Everything we see is from the point of view - POV in telly-speak - of at least one of the four nurses, except for short hospital CCTV insertions. We never hear the doctors gossiping alone about nurses, or become involved in patients' stories unless they further a plot involving one of the leads. Nurses, on and off duty, remain absolutely central in every episode.

Most of us have encountered nurses when we were at our lowest, and know how far from real experience television hospital drama usually is. Nevertheless, a sentimentalised or sexy image of nurses persists. In the first episode a young policeman can't believe his luck when he finds himself sharing breakfast in the nurses' kitchen. "A houseful of nurses. It's like a porn film," he says, rather unwisely. "Only if it's the one where the man gets killed," is the immediate rejoinder.

This watchable series will ring bells for many in the health service. But it's drama not documentary. Whether you like it or not will depend on your POV.

'No Angels': Channel 4, 2 March