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TV Review: Quacks (BBC2): Not for the squeamish

Plus: ‘Trust Me’ (BBC1)

Sean O'Grady
Tuesday 15 August 2017 11:45 BST
There will be blood: Rory Kinnear stars as an ambitious speed surgeon in the broadcaster’s new costume comedy
There will be blood: Rory Kinnear stars as an ambitious speed surgeon in the broadcaster’s new costume comedy (BBC/Lucky Giant)

There’s probably never been a moment when British television hasn’t turned to the bonnet and the frock coat to attract the punters, and the sit com has never really been out of fashion either. Still, the current enthusiasm for both is quite a heady mix, and I suppose it was only a matter of time before someone decided to revisit the obvious hybridised creature, the costume sit com, which was last attempted successfully during the long and glorious dynasty of Edmund Blackadder.

Welcome, then, Quacks, which starts a six episode run on BBC2. The action – and for once the word is justified – swirls around the bloody work of Victorian speed surgeon Robert Lessing (Rory Kinnear) who we see performs surgical operations in public as a form of entertainment for the age before tablets and telly. He is sceptical of the merits of anaesthetics, then in their infancy, because “at least if I can hear them screaming I know they’re still alive”, and so the potential benefits of ether are skipped. Hence his rush to get things over and done with, even if it may mean a testicle becomes collateral damage, and his mission to beat his personal best of 92 seconds for an above-the-knee amputation.

It’s not for the squeamish, as the customary obsession with period detail – extremely well done I have to say – extends to some graphically gory stuff. Still, like the unfortunate patient on the slab, it’s worth enduring. Writer James Wood has recently successfully operated with great success on the BBC adaptation of Evelyn Waugh’s Decline and Fall, and I noted Jeremy Dyson, one of the geniuses behind The League of Gentlemen, also gets a credit for assisting in this particular procedure.

I love Kinnear in the main role, but also Rupert Everett who concocts a tincture of 19th-century callousness, casual anti-Semitism and fastidiousness to maximum effect. Lydia Leonard as that most un-Victorian and unstable of creatures – a sexually voracious wife neglected by her vain idiotic wenching husband, the said Dr Lessing – offers a portrait made all the more poignant for being so painfully suppressed. The phrenologist and “alienist” William (Mathew Baynton) diagnoses an engrossed male-proportioned cerebella in Caroline, before making his excuses and leaving. Never before has it been suggested that a woman could find herself aroused by a painting by the mid-century English orientalist John Frederick Lewis, creator of colourful but quite dull tableaux, which shows a remarkable originality of thought. Best of all, you can watch Quacks without painkillers and with your eyes open throughout. Well, almost.

Week two of Trust Me and the HR department at the hospital still hasn’t received a copy of the passport in the name of “Dr Alison Sutton”. That’s because the real Dr Alison Sutton is on the other side of the world and “Dr Alison Sutton” is in fact nurse Cath Hardacre, as played by Jodie Whittaker, who is of course about to become the Doctor, who never needs a passport. So I suppose that Dr Sutton, being unqualified, is a bit of a quack too, though she seems exceptionally good at her job.

Anyway, what sounds like one of the duller sequences in a payroll department training video is in fact one of the many sources of tension in the life of the Jodie Whittaker/Cath Hardacre/Dr Sutton character. This is a woman whose life has been so hopelessly rebuilt on a mountain of lies, subterfuge and secrets that the main interest lies in which one will eventually betray her and bring the whole Jenga tower tumbling down. Like Jenga, it is strangely addictive, but in Trust Me you get some sex too.

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