You can see why ITV wants to get us all excited about Harley Street. It’s a sexy address: the best plastic surgeons and private doctors on one street curing the ailments and servicing the vanities of the super-rich. There is so much right-on UK medical drama – quite right, we invented the NHS and all that – that surely it’s time to wallow a bit. If only we could have the courage to execute such a frivolous ambition.
The first stumbling block is Paul Nicholls as Dr Robert Fielding: it’s just really hard to buy Nicholls as a sexy chap who cannot progress down a corridor without nurses throwing themselves in his path like lovesick lemmings. He’s perfectly nice and everything but . . .
Robert works one shift at his local NHS hospital (good!), before throwing off his scrubs and putting on the Armani suit for some Harley Street action (boo, hiss – money, money, money, bad, bad, bad). Nicholls is handsome but he hasn’t got presence. His character is allegedly conflicted about private and public healthcare but that conflict doesn’t exactly hum from every pore. He doesn’t twinkle. Would he sexually charge you, or be a perfectly pleasant lunch companion?
He also has absolutely no chemistry with Suranne Jones, who played Karen McDonald, one of my all-time favourite Coronation Street banshees, but who here talks as if she has a plum in her mouth. Jones plays Martha, Robert’s Harley Street consulting partner. Naturally – this is stereotype central after all – Martha and Robert have an electric, unrequited flirtation; she is appalled but admiring at his seduction routine, but has a severe bob so says reproachful things about him being “committed” to the practice. The bob goes a bit wavy when she strokes her ickle daughter’s hair – yes, she’s a single mother.
Shaun Parkes plays the third of the Harley Street team – will he have the filler storyline every week? He spent the first episode trying to liberate a young woman from the grip of a rich moron who wanted her to have needless plastic surgery. In the background hovered the ex-EastEnders actress Kim Medcalf, playing a nice, mostly mute receptionist.
Quite apart from all these rackety, boring characters, Harley Street is far too low on fun. The main storyline of this opening episode – singularly failing to live up to all the sexy, dripping in diamonds, champagne and sex-sodden hype – was a miserable Casualty-ish offcut. Will Mellor played one half of a couple expecting a baby, except – in that coalescing just-when-you-thought-it-couldn’t-get-any-worse scenario – he was on lithium and thought she was having an affair, she had a medical condition but didn’t tell him, he walked out on her, she died after giving birth, he finally accepted their baby was his.
Too much misery. You want countesses getting their young gigolo’s sperm counted, or pop stars overdosing on Botox. The credits and the vibe of the show cock a snook to Footballers’ Wives, but Harley Street hasn’t got even a smidgeon of the latter’s outrageous DNA.
Do not prep the patient for surgery yet. There are promising signs: a sleazy doctor is trying to seduce Martha and Robert is already bonking the daughter of some rich bloke whose patronage he is seeking. But, oh no, misery alert: here comes Robert’s dad and he cares about the NHS, not this posh medicine nonsense. He’s gruff, of course, and inevitably from the North – so a thousand times more genuine and to be trusted than those lily-livered Londoners. Can he die of his renal thingummybob asap, and then can the corruption, bed-hopping and cocaine-spattered merriment really begin?
Well, there’s nothing like aiming for the top. The discussion about the public/private split in health care and the future of the NHS becomes ever more heated, but this new six-part drama places its protagonists in no lesser setting than 195 Harley Street in London’s glittering West End. But conscience pricks.
Dr Robert Fielding (Paul Nicholls) swaps his sumptuous surroundings for the thrills and spills of acting as a locum at the local A&E. When he’s not chasing the girls, that is. His colleague Martha Elliott (Suranne Jones) has no such public service hang-ups. She’s a psychologist whose mind-healing activities fortunately leave plenty of time for empire-building, since she is conniving to buy the patient list of an unlikeable establishment misogynist named Harvey Cost (James Fox in splendidly arch form).
The third partner, Dr Ekkow Oblang (Shaun Parkes), is a plastic surgeon who hasn’t quite sold his soul; he’s determined to save a teenage model from having to submit to unnecessary cosmetic surgery at the behest of her sleazy manager and does so in spectacular, if somewhat couldn’t-make-it-up, style. As may be surmised, Harley Street is all about entertainment, not gritty, life-saving conundrums.
Last night brought some bad news for BBC1’s new archaeological drama Bonekickers. Its proud and seemingly unassailable position as the worst TV drama of the summer is already under serious threat.
ITV1’s Harley Street is, as you might guess, a medical series with a cunning difference. Only in the opening scene did Dr Robert Fielding (Paul Nicholls) run about an NHS ward looking harassed, and panting out such lines as “You call this a modern health service?” After that, he had a shower, put on a nice suit and headed for the wood-panelled consulting rooms of private medicine, where a scary woman was waiting for his arrival. “I have two companies and 20 top-tier managers to keep in peak medical condition,” she barked. “Why should I choose you as their GP?”
In fact, given a rudimentary knowledge of modern TV drama, you could probably guess the rest of the set-up as well. Sure enough, Robert’s boss, Dr Martha Elliot (Suranne Jones), is a feisty stunner in high heels who manages to be uncompromisingly tough without ever forgetting that she’s A Woman Too.
Even so, the programme only revealed its truly terrible colours once the plots began. One of Robert’s patients, for example, was Joe Lacey (Will Mellor), a celebrity chef with bi-polar disorder and a wife nine months’ pregnant. Because of his mental fragility, his wife Danni (Morven Christie) had decided not to tell him about her heart condition that would make giving birth extremely dangerous. Instead, she merely informed him that she’d had an affair nine months before and that the baby might not be his.
Joe, as it turned out, would much rather have heard about the heart condition – and after he’d run off into the night, a distraught Danni tried to kill the foetus by lighting up a single cigarette. When that unaccountably failed, she pummelled her stomach a couple of times. This induced a labour that did indeed prove fatal – but only to her. Joe was last seen insisting that Robert tear up the unopened results of the paternity test and, with the programme’s obvious approval, tearfully accepting the baby as his daughter, whatever her biological origins may be.
Meanwhile, the plot that looks like running for several episodes owes more to a traditional mergers-and-acquisitions business drama than a medical one. Early on, Martha flirted her way through lunch with wealthy old Dr Harvey Cost (James Fox), who’s on the brink of retirement and has 2,000 patients to pass on. “A chance like this comes along once or twice in a career,” she explained to Robert. “I want to go for this.” (“You usually get what you want,” he duly replied.)
She does, however, have a rival – in the smooth-talking form of Dr Felix Quinn (Oliver Dimsdale). Felix would clearly like a partnership with Martha in more ways than one, having already served up the memorable chat-up line, “I wanted to congratulate you on your article in The Lancet”. Yet, although she’s now kissed him, she also seems to fancy Robert, despite being worried that his much-mentioned “unreliable” behaviour might jeopardise the deal with Dr Cost.
For a while, mind you, we were in the dark as to what that unreliable behaviour might consist of. Luckily, though, Dr Cost filled us in. As part of the schmoozing process, Robert visited Cost’s country house where the man was inevitably sporting a flat cap, wellies, a Barbour jacket and a large rifle. “I know two things about you,” said Cost by way of greeting. “You’re a first-rate doctor and a classic leg-over artist.” (He followed that with the charming observation that “all the pretty girls forget their knickers for a man with a stethoscope.”) Helpfully confirming the point, Robert then went off for some vigorous sex in the wine cellar with a blonde stranger, who’s since revealed herself to be Cost’s daughter – and therefore, in the circumstances, unchuckable.
This is particularly unfortunate for Robert, and not only because he’s now stuck with the woman, even though she looks like proving spoilt and horrible. It also means that he might have to turn down some of the other flirty minxes who surround him on every side. In that opening scene, for instance, one of his typically clunking lines was, “Who do you have to sleep with round here to find an ECG machine?” “I finish at seven,” a passing nurse replied.
So, will Harley Street really prove worse than Bonekickers? Well, the dialogue certainly has the same ability to serve up jaw-dropping corniness on an almost constant basis. The main characters seem no more like genuine doctors than Professor Magwilde’s team seem like genuine archaeologists. The plots in both cases can make even experienced TV-drama viewers rub their eyes in disbelief.
And yet my guess is that, in the end, Bonekickers’ crown will be safe. Harley Street may be dreadful in a more grindingly predictable (rather than utterly bonkers) way – which should tell against it. On the other hand, it does seem to understand at some level that it’s a cheerfully trashy piece of television, and not a serious meditation on major historical themes. Nor, importantly, is there the same sense of the waste of great actors. After all, Harley Street is heavily staffed with former soap stars – which feels about right. In Bonekickers, the presence of Hugh Bonneville and Adrian Lester remains a mystery far more baffling than any in the programme’s scripts.
The arrival on our screens of Harley Street, a drama set in the world of private medicine, seems like some sort of watershed. But what sort? Is it evidence of the growing acceptability of private medicine, that popular faith in publicly funded medicine is no longer a given? Or is it simply that TV has been so saturated with NHS-based medical dramas that private is the only route left?
Probably the second of those, since the whole programme is desperate to hedge its bets, on the one hand trying to sex things up with gloss, glamour and greed, on the other reassuring us every few minutes that it's all about helping people. The series opened with our hero, Dr Robert Fielding (Paul Nicholls), bustling through a night shift in a London NHS hospital, striding briskly down the wards, demanding test results, flirting with stray nurses, breaking off to deal with a teenager who'd just come in with a bullet in his gut. But soon he was into his shiny car and whizzing off through implausibly empty streets to meet a prospective corporate client at his private practice. He's a go-getter, we're given to understand, but a go-getter with a conscience. It rapidly emerged that he's also a maverick and a "loose cannon" – don't you ever feel a yen for a television drama about a clock-punching, greasy-pole-climbing jobsworth? – a role that entails lots of strenuously sexual banter with any woman who wanders across his sightlines, and regular pep talks from his partner, Dr Martha Elliot (Suranne Jones), about shaping up if they're going to build the business. But even those bouts of entrepreneurialism are sugared with softer, caring lines about making medicine more approachable, helping the customer, oops, patient feel at home.
The result is a drama that feels oddly confused. It wants to give you moral dilemmas, but isn't sure what counts. One storyline in the first episode had the third partner in the practice, Dr Ekkow Obiang (Shaun Parkes), off to a "Botox party", organised by a sleazy model agent, where he took cash to pump Botox into the faces of young, apparently wrinkle-free women. But it turned out the agent was grooming one girl for the top, and for her it was not just Botox but the works: tucks, lifts, implants. Discovering that the girl was miserable to the point of carving up her arms, Dr Ekkow set about solving her problems, first finding her a new agent, then getting the old agent over and taunting him about his penis size, while the model stood in the background looking all happy and empowered. Exactly what any competent psychiatrist would recommend as therapy for young women with low self-esteem and self-harming tendencies, I'm sure, but if Dr Ekkow is so darned responsible and concerned, how come he was wandering around with an attaché case full of Botox in the first place?
Meanwhile, Drs Robert and Martha were getting all worked up about a severely bipolar author and his adulterous, heavily pregnant wife, who had a potentially fatal heart condition. This plot was resolved with her death and his decision to bring the child up regardless of the possibility that it might not be his. Personally, I wasn't sure that dead mum, medication-avoiding manic- depressive dad and strong doubts about parentage counted as a good start in life. Elsewhere, Dr Robert got grief from his old leftie dad, who doesn't hold with private medicine, while Dr Martha schmoozed a retiring medical grandee (James Fox) in the hope of netting his business. Grandee turned out to be the father of the upper-class nympho who kept turning up and randomly pulling Dr Robert's clothes off. This one is apparently set to run and run. Me, too, in the opposite direction.
"Harley Street's an exciting place, but I never forget that medicine and healing are what I'm there for," explains handsome maverick Dr Robert Fielding (Paul Nicholls) to a nodding client, thus deftly encapsulating the essence of this new medical drama's USP. That is: a) explosive exposition in an oleaginous, Hippocratically sound base, and b) a script that smells like a month-old bandage. Though certain elements (persistent boffing, nice woodwork, etc) look suitably glossy, its insistence on shoehorning in Serious Issues is as pointless as it is irksome. Tonight, we meet the attractive staff of the practice while struggling to give a flying one about a bipolar celebrity chef and a troubled young model.
Toffs used to have to keep quiet about being toffs - dress down and keep their heads down, estuarise their vowel sounds. Now, in these post-Alastair Campbell days, they're braying from the rooftops. Two out of three political parties - plus London - have Hooray Henrys at the helm. Then on telly there's Trinny, Susannah, Ladette to Lady, an Etonian starring in The Wire, Lucinda in The Apprentice ... see what I mean? And now here's Harley Street (ITV1). Ten years ago, you'd never have got a prime-time series commissioned about private medicine. What next? Grange Hill is reborn at Harrow? Prime-time polo on Sky Sports? CrouchEnders?
Maybe it's just a way of getting yet another medical drama on to the telly, because everyone loves a doc show, just as everyone loves a cop show. And everything else has been covered - inner-city A&E, country practices, plastic surgery, animal doctors. Harley Street is all there is left.
Actually, it starts in a busy south London NHS hospital, because handsome Dr Robert Fielding, played by Paul Nicholls, has a conscience, and wants to honour his debt to the taxpayer for putting him through medical school. It's bedlam in there - chaotic, under-resourced, overstretched, with gunshot victims, shouting, waiting lists, police and lots of noise. Holby, basically. But then, at the end of his night shift at the hospital, Dr Fielding steps into his silver Audi and speeds across town to London W1. He showers, symbolically washing away the muck, the smell and the ugliness of the NHS, then emerges, naked and dripping, to be greeted by his handsome partner Dr Martha Elliot, played by Suranne Jones.
And that's how it goes. There are lots of handsome ladies about the place; handsome Dr Fielding often ends up naked with them. I've never been to Harley Street, but if this is what it's really like, then it looks brilliant. The docs don't just give you hours of their time and sort out your health, they will also become your friend, lend a shoulder to cry on, give you Botox, sleep with you if that's what you want. Everyone wears excellent and expensive-looking underwear, the sort of underwear that is designed to come off quickly. There are no drunks, screaming babies, language problems, bad-tempered receptionists, or long waits. It's nothing at all like the general practice I go to. I need to get rich and go to Harley Street.
This is not excellent drama, though. It certainly doesn't convince: its attempts at real issues are laughable (even mental illness has to be given the glam treatment - so the manic depressive is also a celebrity chef). There's no one you really care about, no one whose pain you share. But then nor is it Footballers' Wives - knowingly ridiculous and funny. It's froth without the fun, lacking humour and soul; but then it sold its own soul by going private. I'll check in for one more appointment, and if there's no improvement after that, I'm going back to Casualty, Holby and the NHS.
That said, someone's obviously been listening to my prayers, because this week sees the launch of yet another formulaic medical drama. Director of Drama for ITV, Laura Mackie, describes Harley Street as "aspirational", which in itself is enough to make me want to grab it with tongs and fling it into the nearest laundry basket.
As you've probably gathered, the action takes place in and around a posh private practice, the sole difference between this and every other programme in the genre. To ensure that we're not turned off by moneyed doctors administering expert medical care to the privileged, the lead character is a working-class lad made good who moonlights for the NHS at a busy A&E. What a terrific human being.
This almost determinedly uninspired series looks, sounds and smells like virtually every other mainstream drama out there. It doesn't even distinguish itself by being camp or ridiculous. It's just dull (despite the "racy" sex scenes), and there's nothing to suggest that it would be worth tuning into even if every other channel decided to play non-stop repeats of Mahabharat for the next six weeks.
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