How does a sitcom about pioneering doctors in 1840s Britain sound? About as funny as Victorian gall-bladder surgery, or as underpowered as another recent-ish BBC2 period comedy (Up the Women?) about Edwardian Suffragettes? Fear not, for Quacks is surely one of the most original new TV shows of the year, unsurprisingly since its creator, James Wood, has a track record in unlikely but engagingly droll TV shows; he wrote Rev, the Bafta-winning comedy starring Tom Hollander as an inner-city vicar, and, earlier this year, a delightful adaptation of Evelyn Waugh’s Decline and Fall – so well-crafted it made Jack Whitehall seem like a proper actor.
Quacks has also assembled a dexterous cast to play its trio of medical pioneers in early Victorian London: Rory Kinnear (Count Arthur Strong) as a showboating surgeon, Robert; Mathew Baynton (Horrible Histories, The Wrong Mans) as William, a psychiatrist – or “alienist” as they were called in those pre-Freudian days; and Tom Basden from Plebs as John, a self-experimenting anaesthetist.
Add a scene-stealing Rupert Everett as Robert’s anti-Semitic boss and Lydia Leonard (a celebrated Anne Boleyn in the stage version of Wolf Hall, and Virginia Woolf in BBC2’s Life in Squares) exhibiting a knack for comedy as Robert’s professionally and sexually frustrated wife, Caroline, and you have a deft ensemble well capable of taking on Wood’s intelligent scripts.
The idea for Quacks germinated in the writer’s imagination four or five years ago when he went out for a drink with a surgeon friend. “He told me about the two dentists who pioneered anaesthesia in the 1840s,” says Wood. “These lunatics experimented on each other using nitrous oxide, ether and chloroform and they both became addicts and committed suicide. It never occurred to me to think about where anaesthesia had come from.”
His surgeon friend also suggested a book by the medical historian Roy Porter. “I discovered there was this amazing 20-year period of Victorian medicine that went from the early 1840s, where if you could cut someone’s leg off fast then you’re a good surgeon and the Bedlam approach to mental illness, to within 20 years when germ theory had come in, nursing had come in, anaesthesia had come in. I gave myself a medical historical education and puked it back out as comedy.”
The opening episode begins with Robert (Kinnear) psyching himself up to go on stage in front of a paying public, except here the stage is an operating table within a mini amphitheatre. This is surgery as spectacle, Robert a showman as he ties on a bloody apron (hygiene wasn’t a consideration in the 1840s) and boasts to the fashionable onlookers about how rapidly he is about to amputate the leg of a fully awake and terrified accident victim.
“The fame and accolades you received at that time for being the best surgeons were immense,” explains Kinnear. “That’s why they were in theatres because people were there to look at them, and he’s definitely someone who played to the crowd.”
This was also an era when half of all patients didn’t survive surgery. “Many of them simply died of shock,” says Kinnear, adding that whether or not a patient did make it through the operation was only important in how it might reflect on the surgeon’s reputation.
Psychiatry was another discipline in its infancy, if not still in its swaddling clothes. Mathew Baynton’s character William is unusual for the age, believing that the mentally ill should be treated with kindness instead of being locked away in harsh Bedlam-like insane asylums.
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“He’s somebody with a great deal of empathy and passion,” says Baynton. “And you discover later that his father suffered from some form of dementia, which at the time they wouldn’t have a great diagnosis for, let alone treatment. So he’s motivated to find better ways to care for these people, but he has absolutely no tools or skills at his disposal.
“One of the things I really loved about the script when I first read it is that comedy, by and large, is based around failure, and this is a rare beast where these guys fail because of the time they are in, but they are actually pioneers and visionaries as opposed to being buffoons and idiots themselves.”
Baynton, who had bad asthma as a child growing up in Essex, has every reason to bless medical progress. Period comedy is not new to the actor-writer who cut his teeth working with James Corden (he is understandably reluctant to discuss his co-star on Gavin & Stacey and The Wrong Mans, claiming that he has yet to do a media interview in which he isn’t asked about Corden) before becoming part of the Horrible Histories team.
“Horrible Histories is unashamedly broad and silly and its primary aim is to educate children – although I’m not involved in it anymore, I hasten to add,” he says. “Quacks is even different to Blackadder in the sense that it doesn’t use the setting to play dress-up and enjoy farcical half hours; it’s a proper comedy drama with proper complex human characters with their own stories.”
One similarity to Blackadder, however, is that it employs – albeit sparingly – real historical figures. Both Florence Nightingale and Charles Dickens appear in episode two, Sherlock’s Andrew Scott giving a brilliantly unhinged performance as the novelist. “James has a bit of an axe to grind with Dickens for some reason,” says Baynton.
“I’ve always just believed that Dickens was a massive dick,” confirms Wood. “And it’s not been properly dramatised. Self-aggrandising, he used to do these talks endlessly for hours and hours... he was so pleased with himself.”
Other guest appearances include Miles Jupp, Jamie Demetriou and Fonejacker’s Kayvan Novak as an Indian mesmerist, but not all of Quacks lives up to Wood’s billing for it as “a near-the-bone, raucous badly-behaved comedy”. There is a tender if frustrated love story also going on between William (Baynton) and Robert’s wife, Caroline (Lydia Leonard), and Baynton himself wrote the episode in which Caroline dresses as a man in order to perform surgery – a storyline based on the real case of Margaret Ann Bulkley, who practised as a military surgeon called James Barry.
Even the most ludicrous-seeming medical details are historically accurate, says Wood – including baked potatoes applied to wounds and the fact that doctors never physically examined their patients, especially females under their charge. In one scene, Rupert Everett’s consultant produces a porcelain anatomical “modesty doll” for a genteel elderly lady (Georgie Glen) to point out where she’s in pain “below”.
“There’s no way a physician then would touch any of their patients, certainly not a woman,” says Wood. “They’d diagnose, as Rupert Everett’s character puts it, through conversation. They’d chat to their patient about their lifestyle and diagnose them.”
Wood and his director Andy de Emmony took inspiration for their more visceral medical scenes from the Russell Crowe movie Master and Commander. “The surgery in that is brilliant and you don’t really see anything much,” he says. “Just a few rifle-shot moments are enough, and your imagination fills in the rest. And we’re a comedy so we don’t want to become too repellent.”
‘Quacks’ begins on 15 August at 10pm on BBC2. The whole series will be available as a boxset on BBC iPlayer once the first episode has aired
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