The UK’s National Health Service (NHS) has rarely been out of scrutiny since its inception. But as a political football bouncing against an ageing population who pressurise its services more than ever, the stakes have rarely felt higher. The principle of healthcare free-at-the-point-of access is said to be the envy of the world, yet the new US President is in the process of reversing efforts made by his predecessor to deliver some of the same principles.
For better or worse, obsessing about – or kicking – the NHS is a national British pastime, so it’s probably no surprise that two of the most talked-about documentaries in recent times have taken a forensic look at how it operates.
It might seem a far cry from the early, angry polemical days of Casualty, but as the stalwart BBC drama has become soapier, and as documentary film-making has grown more sophisticated, they are increasingly able to tell remarkably similar stories. Further, the drama is even more intense when those featured are real people with real conditions, and indeed, sometimes real deaths.
There is no whitewashing of cases when patients don’t make it: the show highlights how easily such deaths could have been prevented.
Channel 4’s 24 Hours in A&E pioneered the ‘fixed rig’ format, and has established itself as a landmark institution over its six years on air. Tooting’s St George’s Hospital accommodates 92 cameras and 18 kilometres of cable around a working emergency room. The stakes are high and the production ambitions could hardly be higher, but the clue is in the title. This really is story-of-the-week stuff, tales of medical heroics told at speed. Nobody is going to tune in to try and establish much of a long-term connection with the characters. But, a hit since 2011, it remained the market leader.
All that looks like changing with the emergence this year of the BBC’s acclaimed Hospital. Where 24 Hours channels Casualty’s high levels of octane, the new show captures the quiet political fury of the drama’s early years. And the stories from London’s Imperial Trust could hardly be bleaker.
For all the equally admirable NHS professionals, the lower-key, lower budget approach makes it all-the-more harrowing to witness a game of brinkmanship between one aneurysm patient whose surgery has been cancelled four times, and another who has been put off twice, with no guarantee of a bed for either of them.
Hospital might take a more traditional, fly-on-the-wall approach to the documentary format, but its themes are often very painfully current. The pathos is barely bearable. Working on a Saturday to avoid keeping a brain tumour patient waiting any longer, one surgeon enquires whether the other managed to get any breakfast, “I think I had a coffee,” “So did I.”
This really is story-of-the-week stuff, tales of medical heroics told at speed.
Characters and (to put it tritely) ‘storylines’ are followed through. There is no whitewashing of cases when patients don’t make it. Instead, the show highlights just how easily such deaths could have been prevented.
It’s actually the simpler moments that land the most powerful punches. People operating brain surgery on an empty stomach is, in its own quiet way, as chilling a story about the state of the UK’s NHS as the front-page images of patients waiting on gurneys for days at a time. The series could eventually prove to be as much of a headache for embattled Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt as the junior doctors’ strike. And with Casualty itself soon to reflect those real life events, the scrutiny of our NHS looks only set to become more intense.
Daniel Martin is a pop culture journalist, screenwriter and self-confessed geek.