How have the eager young would-be medics we saw on TV in 1984 fared? Mark Crail reports

John Shephard has the look of a man who has been to hell and back. As he sits behind his desk, looking earnestly into the camera, a shadow of the horrors he has seen flickers across his face.

'I think you have got to be a very special person to be good at it, and I have to put my hand on my heart and say, 'I don't think I am one of those people, I am someone who is muddling along', ' he admits.

'It has come as a great disappointment. I haven't turned into the swan I hoped I would.'

Fourteen years ago, John was the oldest of a group of 10 would-be medical students waiting nervously in a corridor at St Mary's Hospital, Paddington, for the 15-minute interview which would decide their future careers.

Today, some have nearly made it and are edging towards their first consultant post or GP partnership; others are struggling to combine a family and career. But for John, the long, hard struggle to make it to the top is over.

Having chosen to leave mainstream medicine, John is now general manager of a medical charity. The job is a challenge, and the business skills required testing. But in the harsh judgement of the world of medicine, John has failed.

Back in 1984, the BBC television series Doctors to Be followed John and his peers through five gruelling years of medical training, and proved such a hit that it returned in 1992 to see how they were coping as junior doctors.

Now the cameras are back. For the past two years, the BBC has been one step behind the, by now, rather less fresh-faced and eager young doctors to film the next stage in its longest-running observational documentary series.

The series, now titled Doctors at Large , returns tonight, with an episode looking back at the early days.

Nick Hollings, nearly fully qualified as a radiologist, and Mark George, an ambitious gastro-intestinal surgeon, relive the experience of dissecting their first cadaver and deciding how to wear their new stethoscopes to best effect. It is easy to believe that, for some, life was one long round of student union bars and rag weeks.

But medical school came as an unexpected shock for others. For the first time in her life, Sarah Martindale failed an exam. 'All I wanted was to be a doctor, and then you saw it slipping away. . .' she recalls, after eventually succeeding.

Later, the group progresses from the safe environment of the medical school to the bullying of the ward round. 'Don't bite your nails. . . why are you wearing your tie at half mast. . . what's this word 'um', ' barks one consultant.

As the series progresses, it is clear that very few have found medicine to be the satisfying career they hoped for. Juggling a career and a family life is a problem, especially for women trying to return to work after a break.

The series may or may not make you more sympathetic towards doctors, but either way it is a unique insider view of life on the medical front line in the 1990s.

Doctors at Large. BBC2, tonight, 9pm.

Future imperfect Tonight: High Hopes It is 1984 and a group of would-be doctors are waiting at St Mary's Medical School for the 15-minute interview that will determine their futures. They look back at their early days.

Next week: Blood, Sweat and Tears Three years later, their first days on the ward mean real patients. Single-parent Fey Probst is finding it tough; for John Shephard, rote learning is proving too much.

30 April: Baptism of Fire It is 1991, and the new house officers face 100-hour weeks and perpetual uncertainty. The strain shows and some contemplate life outside medicine.

7 May: The Knife Fey and Mark George have always wanted careers in surgery. But while Mark can come in on spare afternoons 'to do a bit more cutting', Fey has four teenage children at home.

14 May: To Be a GP David Copping is preparing for his GP exams. But for Ese Stacey, two years on, the daily grind is demoralising. Jane Gilbert has given up hospital medicine to combine job and family.

28 May: Mixed Ambitions Sarah Martindale is pregnant. . . but ambitious. Her new job in anaesthetics demands long hours. Ese escapes to a new life in Australia. New baby in tow, Sarah returns to work.

4 June: Life Support Machines Pressure on intensive care beds is huge, and Mark's patients are shunted between hospitals.

11 June: Bitter Medicine Anxiety for Nick Hollings as doubts emerge about his training course. John has failed specialist exams and committed 'career suicide' to live a more normal life.

18 June: The Outsiders John is now general manager of a medical charity, but finds his training is no preparation for a management career.

25 June: Back on Trial Back from maternity leave, Jane is looking to settle down as a GP.

Will Liddell, now a part-time GP, believes the role is changing for the worse.

2 July: Condition Improving Nick's final exams are looming; Fey's career is on hold; Ese returns from Australia; Sarah finds being a part-timer is affecting her career. The doctors look to the future.

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