Wednesday, 10 August 2011

A Very Peculiar Practice

This month sees the long-awaited release on dvd of the 1980s drama A Very Peculiar Practice. Like most of the BBC's finest dramas, this series appears to have been forgotten about. To my knowledge it was never repeated and a dvd of the complete series has been an age coming. Series 1 was released about 7 years ago, but series 2 just never appeared.

The show is an unusual one that isn't like anything else, being an occasionally surreal political, black comedy-drama. Unlike most shows that were made in the 1980s and which were about life in the 1980s, it hasn't dated as it concentrates on its memorable characters rather than making political points. The story of its creation is a good one and I hope it's true. The writer Andrew Davies opened his post one morning and found he owed the BBC £17,000. Apparently he'd been paid an advance to write a TV adaptation, but the show had been cancelled and they wanted their money back.

Unfortunately he'd spent the money. So his only hope was to pitch them another idea and, seeking inspiration, he used the writer's traditional method of looking out the window. As he was a lecturer in a depressing inner-city university, all he could see was life coming and going in a depressing inner-city university and so he pitched that idea and, surprisingly, it was commissioned.

The end result was what sounds like a very unpromising format for riveting drama of: life in a doctors' surgery as a metaphor for the state of Britain. Thankfully, it's more entertaining than that sounds. The hero is Doctor Daker, a new recruit to the university's medical staff. He's a painfully shy, naïve idealist who's out of touch with real life because he has this strange notion that doctors are supposed to make sick people better. He arrives without any ambition other than to do a good job, to care for his patients, and to get through the day without embarrassing himself too often. I don't think Peter Davison has ever been better and, to this day, I reckon he's the only actor I've ever seen who has the ability to go bright red with embarrassment.

The show relates how his idealist ways are tested by his fellow doctors, who all have no interest in wasting their time with sick people. The boss of the surgery is the decrepit Old Jock, played gloriously by Graham Crowden. I enjoy watching this actor in anything and so I was saddened when I just checked up and found out that he died only recently, although that was at the ripe old age of 87. As Jock spends the whole show seemingly at death's door, this is a testament to his acting. As a doctor, these days he'd be a walking lawsuit. He's the sort of doctor who'd recommend taking a lie down to a patient who's just died and most episodes feature him missing obvious ailments like broken legs and appendicitis. Instead, Jock spends his time plotting against the vice-chancellor Ernest Hemingway, who he's convinced is plotting against him, although in reality the vice-chancellor is a corrupt money-grabber who is more interested in fleecing foreign students. And when he's not ignoring patients and drinking himself to death, he dictates his magnum opus, the sick university, a rambling and incoherent treatise on everything that's wrong in society.

What he should be spending his time on is stopping his subordinates stabbing him in the back. The first of which is Doctor Rose Marie, played by Barbara Flynn. She's a familiar actress on British TV and again I reckon this is her best role. Rose Marie is a radical feminist lesbian who has no interest in doctoring, but who has worked out what's wrong with the world, and that's men. No matter what illness her female patients have, it's the fault of men, and her vulnerable patients are ripe for being converted to her world view.

She's a saint when compared to the final, and best, character in the show, the force of nature that is Bob Buzzard. Played by David Troughton, Bob is a man without a single redeeming factor. He became a doctor for the money and the social standing, and he'd never soil his hands by actually looking at a patient. His consultations last about 10 seconds and go like this: 'Got yourself a dose of the old clap there, matey. Must have stuck your John Thomas where you shouldn't, you randy sod. Well, take these two times daily and it won’t drop off. Any questions? No. Next!'

Instead of helping patients, Bob spends his time wrestling with his rinky-dinky computer, playing golf, glad-handing pharmaceutical reps and taking backhanders. He's a character whose every line is crass, arrogant and ridiculous and he's one of my favourite characters in anything.

There are several other running joke characters, including a fourth wall breaking writer who wakes up one morning to find he owes the BBC £17,000 and who can predict every twist in the story as he's writing a drama series about life in a university surgery. And there's two nuns who are always rooting around in bins, joy-riding and getting drunk. The only weak elements are that the show apparently gave Hugh Grant his first acting role, and Daker's girlfriend, who is supposed to be arch and witty, but who comes over as annoying, but then again when the actress played a pathologist in Inspector Morse she annoyed me too. Thankfully she gets replaced in series 2 by a Polish girlfriend, although as I haven't seen series 2 for over 20 years, I'll reserve judgement on whether she's annoying. The only thing I remember about series 2 is that it was more surreal and funnier than series 1, and so I'm looking forward to seeing these episodes again.

Sadly, the show's perfection was tarnished by a weak spin-off film set in Poland and featuring Daker's continued adventures riding the European gravy train, but that aside, the 14 episodes of Peculiar Practice are a quirky and original tv series. And for good measure it had a superb original theme song sung by Elkie Brooks. Here's the trailer for series 2, as shown on the BBC a long, long time ago. You can tell it was made a long time ago as there aren’t about five cuts a second!

1 comment:

Pam Roberts said...

I agree, compulsory viewing for anyone who has been to, or works at a university. The university, its characters and politics are still recognisable today, just as dysfunctional, but sadly they are much less mad and fun.