For decades the BBC has dominated the genre of medical drama with its soapy duo Casualty and Holby City. This month ITV are attempting to fight back with new creation Breathless, a drama tracking the doctors and nurses of a new NHS hospital in 1960s London.
In the depiction of the ‘60s ITV owe as much to Matthew Weiner’s Mad Men as they do to either US or UK hospital dramas (though one of the directors is a Casualty alum).
Even more so than Mad Men, in the first two episodes Breathless’ scandal, corruption and adultery often takes us away from the ward and into the homes of the protagonists. These are a trio of doctors, the suave and confident bossman Otto Powell (Jack Davenport), his nervy long-time colleague Charles Enderbury (Shaun Dingwall) and the younger Richard Truscott (Oliver Chris). Perhaps in a bid to choose the department most amenable to innuendo and smutty humour, the writers made these doctors gynaecologists, a decision which amplifies the gendered divisions documented by the show; men are doctors and women are their patients, nurses or wives.
Just as Mad Men’s businessmen often marry their secretaries, here the doctors marry their nurses. Episode one opens with a nurse celebrating her last day on the job before her upcoming marriage to Dr Truscott. She exits the operating theatre and jubilantly removes her headpiece to reveal glossy, rust-red locks, a la Christina Hendricks. Her name is Jean. Without such unfortunate in-your-face similarities to Weiner’s (far superior) show, Breathless’ commentary on gender politics might have seemed clever instead of stale.
Acting wise, almost all that convinces in the opening episode is Otto’s desire to sleep with every nurse on the ward, though the new nurse Angela Wilson (Catherine Steadman) particularly catches his leering eye. He continues to pursue her ineptly throughout episode two, proving to be no Don Draper.
The period clothing and sets are effective, and one of the subtler aspects of the show. The first episode ‘suggests’ that the Powell’s child is illegitimate, but perhaps the writers realised how obvious this became as the situation escalates so drastically that almost all the secrets are spilt by the end of episode two.
However, the second episode is less clumsy than the first. The characters actually develop and now that their situations are set up more interesting stories occur, including Truscott’s complicity as a man subjects his wife to manipulation and emotional abuse, culminating in a slap-happy prescription of tranquillisers.
Hot topics in ‘60s medicine will probably be a staple throughout the series. But with abortion and the pill both already briefly addressed, Breathless has found an awkward pace: issues are picked up and pushed aside quickly, exploited solely for dramatic effect while deeper controversy is neglected.
Tune in next Thursday and you’ll probably see the show’s best actress (Diane Fletcher as the Matron) get another measly 5 minutes of screen-time, learn that Dr Enderbury is a closet gay hot for new boss Dr Mehta, and laugh whether the writers intended it or not.