This article originally appeared on Den of Geek UK.
Did you know umbilical cords can snap? That, if you give one a hard-enough tug, it can ping loose of a placenta and spray flecks of high-nutrition gunk all over your face? Or that too firm a yank on a lodged placenta can pull a uterus clean out, starting a flesh avalanche that turns pounds of inside-meat into surprise outside-meat that slumps, glistening, like an exotic off-cut in a butcher’s shop window?
I’d apologise for the graphic imagery, but it serves a purpose. To head off at the pass any comments of the: “Why are you writing about a medical drama on a site called Den Of Geek?” variety. I promise you, there isn’t a landscape more sci-fi than the layers of spongey, mottled purple lurking beneath a tautly pregnant stomach, or a monster movie scarier than the notion that the only thing standing between you, your baby and death is Keith Allen in a surgical gown.
2004 medical drama Bodies contains scenes that would put David Cronenberg off his dinner. This is real horror. That other stuff is for wimps.
Bodies’ scares aren’t confined to its squelching surgical scenes; it also tells a chilling story in its unflatteringly honest depiction of a medical service populated not by angels carrying out a saintly vocation, but normal people who approach their jobs like anybody else. Alongside professionalism and talent is laziness, rivalry, arrogance, venal ambition and incompetence.
It’s the latter that forms the premise of Bodies’ two seasons. Told via the perspective of Senior House Officer Rob Blake (Max Beesley), a new arrival to an Obstetrics and Gynaecology ward, it exposes the workings of a failing unit in a hospital led by management whose focus on target-meeting and good PR threatens patient welfare. Whistle-blowers are silenced, incompetence is rewarded, and mistakes, we’re reminded, are all part of the job.
“Haven’t you ever killed a patient?” one anaesthetist is asked. “Don’t be ridiculous. I’ve been a doctor for thirteen years,” she answers. “Of course I bloody have”.
Fans of Jed Mercurio’s Line Of Duty won’t be surprised by Bodies’ ungarnished perspective. His top-notch crime thriller focuses on an internal anti-corruption unit. It’s not a reassuring cops vs robbers set-up where the protectors do their job and everyone sleeps safely at night. It’s about police officers who abuse their power and the institutions in which they flourish.
That’s why, Mercurio told us, the police refused to publicly co-operate with Line Of Duty. “They felt that they didn’t want to support the view it gave of officers misbehaving. We formed the conclusion that probably police co-operation with police dramas is PR-led.”
As is hospital life, Bodies shows. Season one (which runs to six episodes in comparison with the second season’s ten and is unarguably the tauter, more unmissable of the two) depicts several stand-out instances of malpractice and incompetence. Does that stop its management being slapped on the back and awarded three-star hospital status by the finale? I refer you to the paragraph above.
Target-culture is one of the culprits. When everything is judged on the figures, “creative” reporting becomes a survival method. You’ve heard the one about the wheels being taken off hospital gurneys so they can be reclassified as beds? How about consultants pushing those with unhopeful survival prospects over to colleagues to protect their morbidity and mortality numbers? Or waiting lists magically emptied of patients transferred to separate “pre-admission” lists? Or the drug study results massaged to tell the spend-happy sponsor what it wants to hear?
And then there’s the surgeon refusing to carry out a life-saving caesarean section because it’ll send his firm over its monthly target for the costly procedure. That’s the kind of difficult scenario Bodies excels in presenting. Will its characters do the right thing or the difficult thing? What are they more willing to put in harm’s way: their patients or their career?
That’s the question hanging over Rob Blake, SHO to Roger Hurley (Patrick Baladi) a consultant with a litany of mistakes to his name. Or rather, he would have if any of his colleagues were willing to risk their jobs by testifying against him. Blake and Hurley lock horns early on in an ongoing tussle that forms the spine of the two seasons. Alongside that is a romantic subplot involving Neve McIntosh’s ward sister, Donna Rix, though romance isn’t quite the word to describe Donna and Rob’s sordid relationship.
The culture of closing ranks and ‘doctors looking after doctors’ is the real focus of Bodies’ first series. Thanks to his funding and fame-attracting research, South Central Infirmary’s management has a vested interest in protecting Roger Hurley. When a colleague acts on their conscience and brings a complaint against him, their treatment at the hands of the hospital would be enough to make anyone forget about playing the hero.
In true Mercurio style, Hurley’s characterisation satisfyingly complicates straightforward notions of villainy. At various points across the series it’s just as possible to feel sympathy for him as it is hatred. He’s established early on as a loving family man whose surgeries, he admits, could sometimes go better than they do. He certainly doesn’t believe himself to be incompetent.
And there’s Bodies’ rub. Much of the time, Hurley isn’t inept. Just when you’re gnawing your fist through another tense theatre scene, convinced he’s about to cack-handedly butcher his way to the ward’s next mortality, there’s a happy ending. After an agonising wait, a baby mewls and everyone is congratulated on a job well done. Until the next time he’s paged to theatre, when the dread sets in afresh.
Conscientious about putting blame where it’s due, Bodies twice brings up the shortfall in consultant training hours between surgeons of Hurley’s generation (eight thousand) and the one that came before it (thirty thousand). Unsentimental and probing it might be, but it’s never disrespectful to NHS doctors and nurses or their work, only the institutional behaviours and cutbacks that can endanger patients.
Easier than Hurley to dislike on first impression is Keith Allen’s senior consultant Tony Whitman, a smug, golf-playing sleaze with an endless supply of offensive slang for the female reproductive system. His car number plate reads VAG 1, if you want to get a quick sense of the man.
In any other medical drama, Whitman would be the baddie, the surgeon so jaded he’s ceased seeing his patients as people. That’s not the case here for three reasons. The first is that Bodies is so firmly focused on the staff that it doesn’t particularly view patients as people (or at least, not people it has any interest in outside of their ability to dramatically gush blood and provide meaty chunks to be plopped into kidney dishes). The third is that Whitman, with his thirty thousand hours of training, is the best surgeon in the unit. And the third is that the character, as played by Allen, is enormously entertaining.
Unlike Hurley, Whitman isn’t a managerial toady. His disrespect for humanity extends all the way to the top, which makes him enjoyable rather than despicable. Or perhaps enjoyable and despicable.
South Central Infirmary’s management aren’t rendered in anything like as attractive a light. “Not helpful to patients’ interests” is how Mercurio sums up the off-the-record views medical staff tend to hold on their managers. Having trained as a doctor before writing his first medical TV drama, Cardiac Arrest, and then the novel from which Bodies is adapted, we can assume that his skewering of the National Health Service’s managerial layer (look out for the board member who never says a word but slowly and deliberately munches her way through chocolate biscuits in every meeting) is inspired by first-hand experience.
Mercurio’s experience was also the basis for the characters’ cynical gallows humour. The language used in Bodies to describe patients is unsentimental and sometimes callous in the extreme. Instead of turning them all into dislikeable beasts though, it’s humanising. That’s exactly the sense of humour you can imagine developing as armour against the trauma of spending your job up to the elbows in other human beings.
A word on that. I wasn’t kidding when I said Bodies had horror movie-level gore. It is to obstetrics surgery what Girls once was to uncomfortable sex scenes. Whether you’re in possession of the same biological kit as the patients or not, some scenes will leave you not wanting to uncross your legs or uncurl your toes for a month. I’d certainly recommend staying away if you or a loved one are due to give birth in the near future and scare easily.
The prosthetic effects are excellent. As well as winning Best Drama at the 2005 Royal Television Society awards, Bodies scooped best make-up effects two years running. Encouraged by how well its latex new-borns and caesarean-ready stomachs stood up to the glare of the camera in series one, they really went to town in series two with some properly horrible recreations.
Horrible but not gratuitous was the verdict of swathes of medical professionals who roundly greeted the gripping BBC show as the most honest depiction ever of hospital life on TV.
“Doctors and consultants said we had it bang-on,” said Max Beesley. Told you it was scary.