Shiny Shelf


By Mark Clapham on 30 May 2004

A decade ago, writer Jed Mercurio created hospital drama ‘Cardiac Arrest’ under the pseudonym John Macure. ‘Cardiac Arrest’ was a vigorous alternative to the more mainstream ‘Casualty’ (moribund even then, and still in the throes of the same endless, tedious death rattle), a half-hour drama about the contemporary NHS. Mercurio, who worked in the NHS at the time (hence the pseudonym, as this was essentially whistle-blowing in the form of fiction), gave an insight into the workings of the hospital system, and presented complex characters dealing with difficult situations. It was punchy, funny and controversial.

Mercurio moved on to other TV writing gigs, including cliche-ridden SF mini-series ‘Invasion Earth’ and ITV sitcoms, none of which have lived up to his debut. Based on his recent novel, ‘Bodies’ takes Mercurio back in to medical territory – specifically a busy gynaecological ward – and is his best work since ‘Cardiac Arrest’. There’s an energy and vigour to Mercurio’s writing on medical matters that is lacking both from hospital series written by ex-soap hacks, and also from Mercurio’s less personal work. Chalk this one up as an example of how you should write about what you know, and care, about.

Aside from the same passion, anger and wit, ‘Bodies’ is a very different beast from ‘Cardiac Arrest’. The earlier series was a response to the staid, slow British TV drama of the time, bringing an American sense of pace and thematic consistency to each tight, half-hour instalment. Mercurio has kept up to date on TV trends from the other side of the Atlantic – ‘Bodies’ has the more decompressed, tense sprawl of the shows put out by US cable channel HBO, where tensions and anxieties creep into every silence and pause. Each scene ends with an oppressive fade to black, a neat inversion of the whiteouts in HBO’s acclaimed ‘Six Feet Under’. Like ‘6FU’, ‘Bodies’ also rejects a mainstream sanitised view in favour of unflinching depictions of illness, misery, death and all the gore and fluids that implies. Viewers who winch when somebody gets a bit of a nasty cut in ‘Casualty’ are advised not to watch.

(Come to think of it, anyone so easily pleased as to sit through ‘Casualty’ at all these days should probably avoid ‘Bodies’ for the sake of their hearts – the presence of this thing called ‘drama’ might cause them to die of excitement or fear.)

As you’d expect from the setting, the medical emergencies faced are even more traumatic than in other shows – in the maternity ward, any mistake endangers two patients at once, and the relatives have an almost unfathomable loss to face. There’s something especially disturbing about the tragedies that occur in these situations, and ‘Bodies’ doesn’t pull any punches, either emotionally or in terms of what is seen onscreen. Behind these tragedies is a creeping unease – while everyone says the contrary, lead character Rob (an excellent Max Beesley) begins to believe that more could have been done, and that the mistakes made by his nice but fumbling boss are too frequent and too severe. Rob finds himself pulled between the closing ranks of the medical community and the need to protect his patients, a tension that further exacerbates the pressures of his job.

This is excellent, serious stuff, queasy viewing that is as compelling as it is frequently hard to watch. BBC3 is screening frequent repeats between each Sunday’s episode, and BBC2 viewers will be able to catch it later in the year. Make sure to do so – this is genuine edge-of-the-seat drama.

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By Mark Clapham

Mark Clapham is a Devon-based writer and editor. You can find out more about him at the egotistically named

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