BOOKS ETC

Published: 08/01/2004, Volume II4, No. 5886 Page 21

Doctors and Nurses BBC1, 10.35pm. Six weeks from 13 January

Another medical TV show? But with doctor-turned-comic Phil Hammond one of its authors, Bruce Douglas says Doctors and Nurses may enliven health service managers' Tuesday evenings

The best way to cut down waiting lists is to cut down on doctors: fewer doctors equals fewer diagnoses, fewer diagnoses equals fewer patients, and fewer patients equals shorter waiting lists. At least that is the way it should work, according to NHS manager 'Flapper' in the BBC's new sitcom Doctors and Nurses.

Set on the Isle of Wight at the (entirely fictional) St Mary's hospital, Doctors and Nurses focuses on the rivalry between two orthopaedic surgeons: Roy Glover (played by Adrian Edmondson), a chippy socialist convinced that the NHS can be saved if only we all tried harder, and George Banatwala (Madhav Sharma), a surgical maestro with a private practice as large as his waiting list.

Other characters staff the hospital with varying degrees of efficiency - a motor-mouth chocolate-scoffing ward sister, a psychotic surgical registrar with an obsession for cutting, and Flapper (Steven Alvey), who for the most part belies his name by remaining cool under pressure.

The exception is when an inspector comes to validate the hospital's one-star rating and whenever anybody mentions his previous job at Sainsbury's.

Penned by Dr Phil Hammond of BBC2's Trust Me I am a Doctor and Nigel Smith, whose life was, ironically, saved by the NHS during the making of the programme, Doctors and Nurses is an affectionate take on the life of a hospital that lurches from one crisis to the next but just about scrapes by - aided by some black humour.

Inspired by his time working in Jersey, Dr Hammond set the show on an island, where the inhabitants are just that little bit crazier than mainlanders.

Having opted for the Isle of Wight, he discovered that it has only one NHS hospital (which just happens to be called St Mary's). Dr Hammond is at pains to point out that it has nothing in common with his fictional creation.

The central characters' medical specialisation was an obvious choice, he says: 'We chose orthopaedics because It is the least sexy branch of medicine, with no redeeming George Clooney types, and with the waiting lists most resistant to reduction.'

After getting the thumbs up from the BBC following a pilot episode, Mr Smith developed a brain tumour and very nearly died.

His experience at the receiving end of NHS hospital care and positive interaction with the doctors and nurses keeping him alive served to temper some of the darker aspects of the show when he eventually recovered.

Dr Hammond, who has recently stopped practising medicine to concentrate on fulltime writing, acknowledges that their representation of the NHS is a touch nostalgic, looking back to his time as a junior doctor.

Now living in the West Country 'Bermuda Square' containing four star-hungry hospitals (none or one), Dr Hammond has firsthand experience of the enormous pressures under which managers find themselves.

In the third episode of the series, Flapper loses his rag at the threatened loss of the hospital's one-star status and rants about the impossibility of balancing 'the whims of government with the egos of doctors'. He decides to quit and work for DIY chain Do It All where at least, he says, 'I'll get some respect'.

'And some cheap paint.'

'The essence of these comedies, ' says Dr Hammond, 'is people trapped in hierarchies - and the NHS is a classic hierarchy. The show's hero, Dr Glover, is like a lot of doctors in the NHS who, despite their cynicism, believe in its ideals, but are constantly frustrated by the fact that these ideals do not seem to be working.'