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Knob gags and heart massages

Boozed up, bloodied and helpless: Sirens offered a comic view of Britain as seen from the medical frontline.

David Bowden

Topics Culture

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If, as GK Chesterton once wrote, literary detectives are the unsleeping sentinels of civilisation, then television doctors have the dubious distinction of becoming its latter-day priests: probing the innermost workings of modern man, advising us on how lead a good (healthy) life, healing our wounds, forgiving us our trespasses, and so on. Just as with Chesterton’s example, how they appear in the cultural imagination does not necessarily quite match up to the mundane day-to-day realities of the job, of course.

How then to explain the recent popularity of shows about medical support staff, engaged in the genuinely mundane aspects of healthcare? The past few years have brought us No Angels, Getting On and recent US import Nurse Jackie. Now paramedics are centre-stage in the shape of a new Channel 4 series, Sirens. Although long-running hit medical shows such as ER and Casualty have made a feature of their ensemble casts, capturing every aspect of hospital life, the medical profession’s supporting actors generally found themselves as, well, supporting actors to the real stars. In the past, to find nurses in a starring role you would generally have to look in an entirely different section of the video store.

The explanation partly lies in an element of fatigue; a quick shift of focus offers a fresh take on one of television’s staple genres. Showing nurses as something other than underpaid and overworked saints or rampant sexpots is what passes for imagination and depth in television commissioning. It also lends itself more readily to comedy, particularly of the darker variety: it’s far easier to make a joke about spilling a bedpan or offering a bed bath than it is about killing patients. Scrubs, one of the best attempts of recent memory, often found striking the right balance between pathos and bathos an uncomfortable experience.

The stand-out example remains M*A*S*H, which admittedly focused on doctors and surgeons but cleverly reduced them to supporting roles for the wartime military. The ruse of setting the action in Korea enabled the film and TV series to satirise the ongoing Vietnam war without risking the ire of wartime propaganda enforcement. The free and liberal spirit of Hawkeye and Co caught a popular anti-authoritarian mood, following in the footsteps of Catch-22.

There’s something of that spirit in Sirens which, as the title suggests, is from the same makers as the jolly, Motown-scored No Angels. In that earlier series, a group of pretty young nurses went out to live the carefree excess of young working women while balancing the dictates of arrogant doctors; here a group of young male emergency medical technicians (EMTs) struggles to reconcile the adrenaline-fuelled fantasy of emergency medicine with the banality of treating injured drunks and road-traffic accidents.

Based on a blog-turned-book, Random Acts of Reality, by real, if pseudonymous, paramedic Tom Reynolds, it has a familiar mixture of workplace grumbling with a distinctly unreal strand of broad humour: most notable amongst the cast is Kayvan Novak, recognisable for playing dippy suicide bomber Waj in Four Lions. It’s the kind of show where pretty and confident young women are presented as dorks inept at finding a boyfriend, and unremarkable men are forever struggling to fight off the attentions of a slew of beautiful girls.

Yet there is a crispness to the writing which posits it as slightly different from Grey’s Anatomy, with less gloss and more rain. The opening episode, ‘High, Horny & Low’, began with cocky lead Stuart performing an open-heart massage to bring a badly injured traffic accident victim back to life – only to be suspended for overstepping his remit, and forced to undergo counselling as punishment. His increasingly desperate attempts to beat the system – by refusing to give in to the three stages of trauma in the title – gave the episode its drive. The willingness of his colleagues to give into the dictates of therapy, particularly ‘horny’, provided the rest.

The pay-off came when having boasted to the hospital psychologist of his success, she informed him that his obsession with overcoming these ‘natural urges’ was in itself a coping mechanism. Well, yes, he replied – he’s a paramedic. Learning how to cope with traumatic incidents is part of the job description. He chose to do it in his own way.

It was a small moment, but beautifully observed. Lurking inside this frothy comedy was a distressingly accurate portrayal of life in modern Britain as viewed from frontline medicine: risk-averse healthcare carefully managed by bureaucratic control that would rather its patients went quickly than take up a bed whilst dying slowly; a conviction that seeking to overcome human nature is somehow inherently problematic; a view of the public as savages in need of constant paternalistic care; and the acceptance that life is disappointing and futile and it’s best to learn how to manage it as well as you can.

While Sirens hardly classes as searing social critique, it also rather neatly avoided sermonising, too. Plus, it had some cracking knob gags. You walked away feeling that while not a realistic show, it was a realistic depiction of the paramedics’ worldview, heavily distorted by spending your life picking up the mess made by casualties.

Something to think about when every public preventative-health campaign wheels out the images of saintly healthcare workers besieged by binge-drinkers draining away precious NHS resources: it may not be fun, but clearing up society’s mess is what nurses and paramedics are there for. And you can be damn sure that at the end of the shift they’re out having a good time too, because life’s too short and dull not to. While not ground-breaking, this was a warm reminder that healthcare is better when it focuses on taking your temperature and patching you up, rather than telling you how it is you should be living your life.

David Bowden is spiked’s TV columnist.

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Topics Culture

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