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1970s, Angels, BBC, Billy Smart, Hospital drama

Angels: Series 2 (BBC1 1976) – Viewing Notes

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‘Angels: Home Sweet Home’ (BBC1, 8 June 1976) Nurses Rutherford (Fiona Fullerton) and Morahan (Erin Geraghty).

The second series of the pioneering BBC1 student nurse series Angels (April 6 – June 29 1976) is available on DVD from Simply Media. I wrote up some viewing notes while I was watching it, concentrating on directorial style and the preoccupations of individual scriptwriters.

ROUND THE CLOCK: Adele Rose’s script highlights one of the continuing strengths of Series 1 – patient storytelling. Two principal plots; a boy with meningitis and the different strategies that individual nurses take in assuaging the fears of his mother, how technical or soothing to be and whether to be explicit about how the child might not recover, and Nurse Brent losing enthusiasm and Sister Young’s observation of her dispirited performance and coaxing attempts to discover what might be making her unhappy. What’s striking about both storylines is the lack of moments of sensational occurrences and heated confrontations. The mother complains about one nurse to another informally and Brent drops some pills, and that’s as far as it goes for overt excitement! Instead, we get a slow build-up through small gestures and little exchanges, letting the rhythm of the working day dictate the structure of the episode. An exemplary first episode of a second series reintroduces the viewer to all the nurses and their work through character study and everyday detail.

VOCATION: Impressively glum Paula Milne script, again set over the span of a working day. Two storylines run separately. Nurse Ling deals with an overdose, while Teaching Sister Miss Windrup marks the thirtieth anniversary of her working at St Angela’s. Both women question the value and purpose of their vocation, and whether they are doing much good at all. The two strands finally come together in a surprise party in Miss Windrush’s office, with a rather dialectical confrontation between the two women. This scene is asking quite a lot of the actress playing the nurse, and it was wise to give it to Angela Bruce, who is very good at conveying lived experience and rather brittle front. The story ends up asking some quite philosophical questions about the nature of character and the possibility of change, and – to its credit – expects a lot of a BBC1 audience.

The real star of the episode is director Derek Martinus, who plays games with the two women looking in and feeling excluded from groupings that gives the episode an acute ontological focus, particularly in a series of surprising point of view shots of Nurse Lind looking through the glass of hospital doors. He’s also very good at starting scenes a second before where you’d expect them to, for example leaving the viewer looking around a room before students burst in. Very evocative film sequence at the beginning, too, of 1976 Londoners getting to work, Miss Windrup’s car radio playing ‘No Regrets’ and ‘Itchycoo Park’.

AMBITION: Its always something of a culture shock to me when I come across a Leslie Duxbury script outside of Coronation Street, and initially this episode promises to be a bit cosier than the previous episodes, with a classical ‘woman suffering in silence’ soap situation and entertaining subplot featuring a cantankerous old patient who turns out to have a heart of gold (played by Betty Romaine, who was always first choice for these characters in the 1970s). But the decision to make the part of the bright student nurse (who tries to combine her vocation with caring for her two little sisters when her mother dies) a black woman adds really interesting depth to the story.

Initially, I thought that the character’s ethnicity was just a welcome bit of colour-blind casting to make the show more representative of 1976 inner London, but the script holds back from articulating reasons why this should affect the situation or the nurse’s perceptions of her place and vocation until almost the final scene. This structural decision makes the episode feel much less prescriptive than it might otherwise have been, and makes the viewer more attentive to the racial perspective of the script.

Derek Martinus is again on top form. The opening ariel shot of a Brixton railway line panning to a children’s playground is just a terrific way to start an episode.

LEGACIES: And this week, Anne Valery has been reading R.D. Laing! This series often surprises… Nurse Brent and a junkie patient discover a common psychology in confrontation with each other.

The ambition of what this episode is trying to achieve just about transcends what I found to be, at times, a confused 50 minutes of television drama. Each time that I watch Tenko, which alternates between Valery and Jill Hyem scripts, I’ve ended up preferring the Hyam episodes, as Valery’s technique tends to be stronger on character realised through speeches than through situation. This can lead to characters that seem possessed with implausible levels of articulacy and insight. This implausibility comes across as more marked to me when framed within the generic conventions of one episode of an on-going TV hospital series and voiced by regular characters. In a single play it wouldn’t jar so much.

Tristan de Vere Cole interprets the script by emphasising disconnection, using close-ups of hands moving through objects and mobile point-of-view shots (especially the junkie on the hospital trolley) to disorientate, encouraging the viewer to piece together sense and meaning through intensely listening to the dialogue.

Something that does come across in this episode to me is just what a great actress Angela Bruce is. Nurse Ling is such a strong character, and is made consistent in every episode. Ling is a personality that I’ve come across from time to time, and rings particularly true to me – a very intelligent woman in the workplace, set slightly apart by being the only black person (or lesbian) in the department, and who has different (perhaps more) life experience to draw on. I’ve tended to find myself glad when such people take me seriously, but that they also expect you to bring quite a lot of yourself to your friendship. So I had an odd feeling in the scene where the tries to draw Brent out of herself in a staffroom of, “I know this person, and I know this situation”. I don’t know if I could ever derive such emotional resonances from Holby City.

DAY HOSPITAL: For the second week running, Nurse Brent’s understanding of her own nature is challenged by managing her emotions at work. This is an exceptionally strong episode, even by the high standards of this series.

‘Day Hospital’ makes a virtue of changed production circumstances to tell a different sort of story. This is the first episode to use OB, and indeed is an all-location production, the first real indication that the series is now being made by BBC Birmingham. While the filmed inserts in other episodes are still London, one street here looks a lot more like Edgbaston to me than anywhere I’ve ever seen around Battersea.

Susan Pleat’s script takes advantage of the lack of standing sets by showing us parts of the hospital that we haven’t seen before – a geriatric ward and day care unit. Material like this requires particularly sensitive judgement as to tone – you wouldn’t want unrelenting bleakness, but worse still are condescending portraits of the elderly as sprightly scamps, schoolchildren in Zimmer frames. A top-level guest cast of senior actresses who were capable of making any old nonsense watchable (Irene Handel, Aimee Delmain and Sylvia Coleridge) are given real material to work with allowing them to create rounded, convincing characters, who show forgetfulness, hurt and malice but also thoughtfulness and surprising behaviour.

Recording in a real hospital, plus the abiding Angels virtue of patient storytelling, gives the viewer a real, documentary-like, understanding of the sort of work done in a day care unit, helping the infirm to find new ways to use their limbs and faculties. That the episode manages to teach its audience something valuable without being worthy or prescriptive, illustrates the terrific merit of hospital dramas when done this well.

WEEKEND: This is the first episode for a long while that both looks and sounds like a conventional BBC1 drama series; film/VT mix, conventional (though assured, Christopher Barry always knew what he was doing) shot selection,[1] familiar hospital locations and dialogue that doesn’t feature characters in moments of exceptional articulacy or perception. It’s a fairly easy watch, so what it achieves is more modest and unexceptional, but still welcome.

The interest lies in the theme of loneliness and friendship, spread across a diverse three plots; Miss Windrup home and alone, trying to make a new friend, Nurse Longhurst at work and trying to persuade a relative to visit his unhappy sister on the ward, and the ‘odd couple’ of nurse friends Rutherford and Morahan falling out before making up again on Sunday night. The second story is the only one with very much overtly dramatic at stake (reckless intervention from the nurse, exposure of a phobia for the brother) but also probably the weakest part in being a story that we’ve already seen variations of several times and reliant on a very pat revelation at the end. More interesting are the two low-key plots, both told through plenty of memorable little details that carry charm in their specifity; Windrup buying two buns for tea, the two friends having to share turns using a phone box.

CONCERT: The second part of the Susan Pleat geriatric storyline made in Birmingham on OB continues the high standards of ‘Day Hospital’.

There were two potential strengths of drama recorded on OB, both of which this episode takes advantage of. One is the pull of real locations, picked up in a higher definition on videotape than 16mm film. We get that here in the way that hospital corridors seem utterly different spaces to the studio sets – they’re long for start, with echoing acoustics and a deep perspective. The second advantage was because OB recording was much easier to set up than film much more material could be recorded on location in a day than before. This means that we get a lot more locations (no finite number of sets to build, as in the studio) and scenes than in other episodes, all relevant to the story and building up a multiplicity of perspectives on the work of a geriatric ward.

Another episode in which challenges to Nurse Brent lead her to question her sense of self and vocation, here in the form of a rather drippy boyfriend who I feel she’s well shot of. Clare Clifford’s character is becoming defined as the moral centre of the series. There’s a terrifically funny and awkward scene here where he insists on playing Dusty Springfield’s version of ‘I Think It’s Going To Rain Today’ to Brent on her Dansette, which is one of the best evocations of the embarrassment of someone insisting on playing you a meaningful song that I’ve seen. No wonder the nurse leaves early, preferring to be with her frail patients singing music hall songs!

FACING UP: Three plots about pregnancy rather schematically linked together; breach baby, pregnant teenager, and family secret. Moments of interest come from the nuances rather than the stories themselves, particularly occasional small moments of inconsiderate bedside manner – there’s a fascinating exchange between a doctor and the patient whose waters have broken a month early, in which his every response fails to assuage the woman’s worries.

Derek Martinus’ characteristic big close-ups in intense exchanges help to bring out these undercurrents. Perhaps the best moment is when the patient finally breaks down in tears and exposes her fear and vulnerability. In her previous scene with Nurse Rutherford we saw the professional fail to show the empathy and attention that one would hope for, setting up a tension for their next meeting. The patient’s moment of greatest vulnerability is shown in a CU that lasts for a long time, with the nurse out of shot. The withheld information of how the nurse is reacting becomes increasingly important for the viewer, encouraging us to pay close attention as we look for indications in the patient’s expression.

There’s a misjudged moment in a classy restaurant during the scene of the family secret being revealed. If you want the audience to totally concentrate on the dialogue, its not a good idea to have Crepe Suzette[2] being served on the table behind…

ACCIDENT: Industrial sabotage this week – hideous burns at a chemical plant inflicted by a disturbed worker (David Troughton – you can tell that he’s supposed to be a simpleton because we see him reading a children’s comic). The bulk of this episode could, with minimal adjustment, fit as easily into an edition of Z Cars or Softly, Softly: Task Force. It’s a representative 50 minutes of 1976 BBC popular drama, but doesn’t really taking advantage of the series that it occurs in.

Once again – and from out of almost nowhere – we get a scene in which Nurse Brent’s motivations and understanding of her vocation are challenged, this week from Prentis Hancock as a hairy psychiatrist. While the attempt to turn the plot back around to an on-going storyline is welcome, it is a bit tacked on.

HOME SWEET HOME: A week spent away from the hospital, as we see the usually-comic ‘odd couple’ of friends Patricia (Fiona Fullerton) and Maureen (Erin Geraghty) apart from each other, back home on leave in Bath and rural Ireland.

‘Home Sweet Home’ forms a neat counterpoint to the series one episode ‘Night Out’, which followed the pair out on the town after work. Both scripts are by the obscure Pat Hooker, who I’ve written about here and here (and I’m sure that I’ll end up writing a lot more about this episode too, when I eventually put all of this together into an article).

The script has a slow-burning structure, taking time to evoke the sense of dislocation that can take students or soldiers by surprise on a homecoming – people have changed, aren’t interested in or can’t understand you, you find yourself missing your new friends. Pat Hooker had a terrific ear for nuance and the concealed digs and traps of conversation, so was the ideal writer to realise this theme.

This sense of dislocation is wonderfully realised in a theatrical scene of Maureen returning back to the farmhouse. She is excited to be back, then disappointed to find everyone out. Objects have been moved. Her youngest brother arrives and is suspicious of her, then her younger sister turns up and is resentful and uncivil. In a way its a shame that the story has to become any more eventful than this, particularly as a wonderfully funny and clear-eyed scene where Patricia talks to her supposed best friend and the pair really have nothing to say to each other is immediately followed by a major plot crunching into gear. But both the two major plotlines turn out to be quite gripping; the boy back home at the farm who appears to be waiting for Maureen, and the collapse of Pat’s parents’ marriage and their unreasonable expectations of their daughter.

There is a lesson in this episode, more resonant for never being articulated: For many people home isn’t a place of respite and comfort, but the place that you have to get away from to become a healthy person.

COMING TO TERMS: Terminal illness this week, with a b-story about anorexia. Not much in the way of levity, but a very involving story that returns again to the quintessential Angels dilemma of how much to get involved in patient’s problems.

Michael E. Briant’s direction is terrific. He brings a lot of mobility to events and is continually prepared to shoot from low angles and through crowds. The average shot length for this episode must be comparatively short for this period, and the general style feels quite modern. But good, rather than fidgety, direction that never detracts from the story or the performances, but encourages the viewer to gain an atmospheric understanding, presenting of hospital life as a busy environment of continual activity, where staff are always on the move, at the mercy of events and where nothing is ever wholly fixed. This combination of directorial sensitivity and imagination is particularly evident in the sequence of a tired and upset Patricia in a staffroom, worn into complaint by a nightmarish barrage of quick shots of chattering nurses and blaring television sounds.

CELEBRATION: The psychiatric unit, as written by P.J. Hammond and directed by David Maloney. As you might except from the theme and pedigree, this is an extraordinary drama in its own right, albeit one that veers so radically away from the template of a popular TV series that it probably alienated a lot of its audience. It does continue the series’ central on-going narrative of Nurse Brent learning about herself through dealing with the anxiety and hostility of disturbed patients, though.

Hammond’s scripts (see also Z Cars, Within These Walls, The Gentle Touch, The Bill, etc.) always leave me feeling chilled, not so much through being scary, but by the total avoidance of any sort of palliative warmth. Everybody, including cheerful regular characters, always speaks in a different register in a Hammond episode, with any simple conversation about tea or the weather rendered into existential speculations into the nature of existence and the isolation of the soul. The comedy is quite cruel, and takes the form of arresting, ironic, images of characters in bizarre and extreme situations, seen here in a birthday party populated by silent, catatonic adults in paper hats holding balloons.

I tend to find adjusting to this tone makes for taxing viewing, requiring a lot of patience and ability to withstand upsetting ideas. I am always glad when I do exercise manage the imaginative effort required to really concentrate on a Hammond script, though. The ending of this episode is a good case in point, when an situation that one would expect to be violent and dangerous turns out to be something else, but the significance of the scene is probably only evident if you’ve been attentively listening to the demanding elliptical dialogue. And I would imagine that the structure and themes of the play would become more resonant and moving with repeated viewing (not something easily available to the 1976 audience).

You couldn’t ask for a better interpreter of the script than David Maloney, who manages to pick out the pertinent details within a scene that indicate how situations can quickly turn, and bring out the rhythm of group therapy through pacey shot selection and thoughtful casting (and, presumably, rehearsal).

There’s an interesting performance from Alan Lake, who’s asked to do something more demanding here than his usual villains. His menacing cockney sometimes sounds unfortunately like a Harry H Corbett impersonation but it does build into something that you really want to draw back from, and that I rather fear is uncomfortably drawn from life.

Oh, and this week’s music is ‘The House That Jack Built’ by The Alan Price Set – an appropriate, but somewhat tactless record for Nurse Longhurst to play at a psychiatric unit party!

WALKABOUT: Nurse Morahan gets seconded to a district nurse (Miriam Margolis) and learns not to be judgemental when she nurses a terminal alcoholic (Maurice Denham). When you watch a series in quick succession, you pick up on storylines that require rather sharp changes of character in a way that the weekly audience wouldn’t have done – we haven’t seen Morahan be unsympathetic before. But Paula Milne creates a story that’s worth telling, as the situation is set up with really interesting dialogue between and about the friends Rutherford and Morahan about how jobs change people and the essential Angels question of how much nurses should get involved.

The patient changing the nurse is a scene that could come across as pat and unconvincing and needed an actor as interesting as Denham to be able to carry it. You can see the thought that lies behind the performance, the actor going beyond cues in the script to respond to the two nurses differently, think through how much the man needs the bottle moment by moment, etc.

This degree of care, thought and intelligence has been a keynote of all aspects over the whole of Series 2, a testament to the quality of British TV drama of 40 years ago. I’ve been particularly struck by the calibre of directors who were available for an ordinary BBC series in 1976. Derek Martinus, David Maloney, Christopher Barry – each had their own stamp and way of making studio drama exciting and arresting, while always being sensitive to the material.

[1] Although… one dramatically important, but rather routine, dialogue scene between the two friends is broken up by being located in an empty park spoken at some volume with one on a bridge and the other on the ground. The visually arresting spatial separation of the pair makes the scene more memorable than it would otherwise be, and illustrates the schism between the friends.

[2] Or perhaps Steak Diane – this is the mid-seventies, after all.

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