Shiny Shelf

Bodies/ Blackpool

By Eddie Robson on 19 November 2004

There used to be a time when the first week of September marked the New TV Season, a week when a raft of new shows and new series would be launched. For some reason, this year it happened one week in the middle of November, but better late than never I suppose.

‘Blackpool’ is BBC1’s headlining effort of a season which has seen the channel earn few plaudits for drama (I could only stomach a few florid, overblown minutes of ‘A Thing Called Love’). In the language of British television, ‘northern’ is synonymous with ‘gritty’, so it’s a relief to see Blackpool portrayed here as lead character Ripley Holden (David Morrissey) sees it: ‘the Las Vegas of the north’.

The serial doesn’t worry too much about realism, relying instead on a pltline structured around Ripley’s hubris. It’s influenced by the skewed TV visions of Dennis Potter (the use of popular songs as musical numbers invokes him strongly) and David Lynch (the murder plot is investigated by an unconventional but smooth-talking out-of-towner with a sweet tooth – recalling Twin Peaks’ Agent Cooper).

It doesn’t always work: the musical sections feel a little too self-conscious, and occasionally I felt a little impatient for characters’ motivations to be made clearer. However, we’re only a third of the way through and whilst ‘Blackpool’ isn’t perfect, it deserves credit for ambition alone.

‘Bodies’, however, is perfect, more or less. This was highly praised on its initial BBC3 run, but if anything it was underrated. Based on Jed Mercurio’s novel, the writer has brought his previous TV experience to bear on this adaptation and it’s the best British TV drama I’ve seen since ‘The Second Coming’.

You may ask, why do we need another hospital drama on British TV? The answer, my dear fellow, is simple: to show up how rubbish all the others are. To be fair, you couldn’t show this in the ‘Holby City’ slot – it’s too nasty – but it makes ‘No Angels’, the most recent attempt to do grim/witty hospital drama, look weaker than canteen orange squash.

Yes, it’s harrowing. I wouldn’t call it ‘unmissable’ because if you’re ill you probably should give it a wide berth, you’ll just find it really depressing. And worrying. The situation in ‘Bodies’, of a hospital department where surgeon Roger Hurley (Patrick Baladi) has a great research record but is incompetent when it comes to actual surgery, is portrayed highly convincingly by former doctor Mercurio. Other doctors, such as Rob Lake (Max Beesley, who turns out to be a good actor after all), struggle to define where human error ends and incapability begins. Whistle-blowing can cut your career dead.

Reviews claiming that Baladi, previously seen as Neil in ‘The Office’ was cast against type here – assuming that Neil was the good guy in that show. This belies the complexity of ‘Bodies’ and, indeed, ‘The Office’. Neil was highly competent and adept at seeming nice, but underneath he was pretty ruthless, whilst Roger’s carelessness initially makes him seem callous, but in fact he just can’t admit to failure – he’s actually not that bad a guy.

The serial simply refuses to deal in black-and-white morality, or supply solutions to the problems it poses. In the second episode, immediately after Roger’s anaesthetist lodges a complaint about him, he is seen apologising to a patient’s husband for a disastrous error of judgement. This is the kind of audacious manipulation of the viewer’s sympathies which only a highly skilful writer dares pull off. All credit to the cast and crew for realising the full potential of these excellent scripts.

It’ll be interesting to see whether Mercurio attempts another genre of drama next: although ‘Bodies’ clearly benefits from his experience, on this evidence he can create strong enough character interactions to stand alone from it. Alternatively, they could make him head writer on ‘The Royal’. That’d liven things up a bit.

Buy the original novel, ‘Bodies’ by Jed Mercurio, from

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By Eddie Robson

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