Doctor Rob Buckman: Champion of public healthon stage and television
Wednesday 19 October 2011
Although Dr Rob Buckman, who has died in his sleep of causes yet unknown, spent his entire working life in medicine, as a cancer physician, it was a yearning to perform and his ability to entertain that made him both a television star and a successful communicator in his professional field. At Cambridge University, Buckman was a member of the Footlights revue, alongside others such as Clive James, Germaine Greer and Russell Davies, and on entering medicine he performed a comedy double act in theatres and cabaret with another doctor, Chris Beetles. Later, the pair took this mix of stand-up and sketches – usually an irreverent take on their profession – to television in The Pink Medicine Show (1978).
But Buckman's most enduring screen success was as a reporter, then presenter, of ITV science and medical programmes. In Don't Ask Me (1974-78) he appeared alongside the eccentric food scientist Magnus Pyke, arms flailing like a human windmill, the botanist David Bellamy and Dr Miriam Stoppard. Their achievement was to make the subjects intelligible to the masses and the series became the most popular science programme in British television history, attracting weekly audiences of up to 20 million. The quartet was also seen in the follow-up series, Don't Just Sit There (1979-80).
Medical issues then came to the fore when Buckman and Stoppard hosted Where There's Life (1981-89). Whilequestioning, via satellite, an American woman looking for her biologicalfather after discovering she was aproduct of donor insemination, Buckman revealed that he himself was a sperm donor. These series were examples of ITV's great achievement in providing public-service broadcasting for a wide audience in the days before multi-channel television and slashed advertising rates.
When, in 1985, Buckman was unable to land the oncologist's job he craved in Britain, he emigrated to Canada, where he found a position at Sunnybrook Hospital, Toronto, before switching to the city's Princess Margaret Hospital. During his 26 years in the country, he also taught at the University of Toronto's medical faculty and was a renowned authority on breast cancer. Working with the International Humanist and Ethical Union's bio-ethics centre at the United Nations in New York, he contributed to UN briefings.
Buckman also fought his own illnesses. The congenital muscle disease dermatomyositis, diagnosed in 1979 and eventually cured by new cancer drugs, was followed by an inflammation of the spinal cord. His response to the first was to make a television documentary, Your Own Worst Enemy (1981), intended to help others learn from what he believed would be his own death.
"What my illnesses did was make me braver about talking to patients," he later said. "So, even though I was quite a supportive doctor before, I was a little bit frightened the patient would be experiencing something I didn't know anything about. After I'd been seriously sick myself and after I realised my personality didn't fall to pieces like a wet Kleenex, I got braver."
Buckman was born in London, where his father was an import-export trader and his mother a barrister. He gained a love of acting while attending University College School and, at the age of 13, even appeared in the West End as the Midshipmite in the Gilbert and Sullivan comic opera HMS Pinafore (Savoy Theatre, 1961).
After graduating in medicine from St John's College, Cambridge, Buckman became a junior doctor at University College Hospital, London. Alongside his work and stage appearances with Beetles, he contributed scripts to the television sitcom Doctor on the Go (1977) and the satirical radio series Week Ending. He and Beetles also appeared in The Secret Policeman's Ball, the 1979 Amnesty International fund-raising comedy gala at Her Majesty's Theatre.
During his early years in Canada, he continued to be seen occasionally in Where There's Life, contributing reports from across the Atlantic. He also presented two ITV series of The Buckman Treatment (1986, 1989), surveying "the American way of health".
Later, he wrote and fronted the What You Really Need to Know About... series of films (1993-2000) aimed at patients and made by Video Arts, John Cleese's production company. Then, they launched the Videos for Patients series, whose releases in 2000 covered illnesses such as Parkinson's disease. Each would begin with a doctor-patient scenario acted out by Cleese and Buckman, before the humorous doctor explained the medical facts.
As well as being the author of more than a dozen books – includingNot Dead Yet: The Unauthorized Autobiography of Robert Buckman (1999) – Buckman contributed to Punch magazine and the Toronto newspapers The Globe & Mail and the Star. In 1999, five years after winning the Canadian Humanist of the Year award, he became president of the Humanist Association of Canada.
Buckman never fulfilled his greatest ambition, which he once revealed to be to meet his first great-great-great-grandchild. He died in his sleep on a transatlantic flight from London to Toronto after a week spent making a series of short films titled Top Ten Tips for Health.
Robert Alexander Amiel Buckman, doctor, writer, presenter and performer: born London 22 August 1948; Professor, Department of Medicine, University of Toronto; married 1977 Joan-Ida van den Ende (two daughters), secondly Patricia Shaw (two sons); died 9 October 2011.
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