Tuesday, April 19, 2011

"What's the Bleeding Time?"

Popular fiction can often provide a fascinating insight into the prevailing attitudes of times past. I recently bought a job lot of Richard Gordon's Doctor novels from a charity shop. In their day, these were enormously popular, with a series of seven films made between 1953 and 1970, and a long-running TV series being spun off from them. Nowadays, apart from TV screenings of the movies, they're largely forgotten. Reading five of the books more or less in sequence, it is interesting to note how Gordon changed the series over time in order to reflect the most popular aspects of the films, with characters' histories and even names changing from book to book. Most notable in this respect is the character of Sir Lancelot Spratt, the senior consultant surgeon at the series' fictional St Swithin's hospital. In the first book, he appears in only two chapters, and retires after being diagnosed with terminal cancer. He comes over as ill-tempered and arrogant, rather than eccentric but brilliant, and with no sense of humour. When the book was filmed a couple of years later, the magnificent James Robertson Justice, (one of my favourite British actors of the 1950s and 1960s, a truly larger than life character), was cast in the role. Not surprisingly, the character dominates the film, with Justice turning in a career-defining performance, as Spratt terrorises his students. His version of Spratt comes over as a brilliant surgeon who doesn't suffer fools gladly, rather than simply being rude and arrogant. Most significantly, Spratt doesn't retire in the film, and reappears in subsequent films in the series, regardless of the fact that the character didn't appear in the source novels.

With Justice's version of Sir Lancelot proving popular with the public, Gordon eventually wrote him back into the books, this time in Justice's image. In Doctor and Son, the fifth book in the series, bored with retirement, (his terminal illness conveniently forgotten), he's trying to find a way back into St Swithin's hospital. This book makes another concession to the films by changing the narrator's name from 'Richard Gordon' to 'Simon Sparrow', the equivalent character in the early films, played by Dirk Bogarde, although he retains - more or less - the same personal history, and wife. Most interestingly, in this book the character has also acquired Sir Lancelot as a Godfather, something never mentioned in the films. But it isn't just characters which Gordon alters over the course of the books. As well as reacting to the popularity of the films, he is also clearly influenced by the growing popularity of the National Health Service (NHS). When he began the series in the early 1950s, the NHS had only recently been created and there was still both scepticism and resentment directed toward it by many in the medical profession. This is reflected in the early books, with doctors complaining that the NHS is turning them into administrators - it is clear that the socialisation of health care was seen as demeaning their professional standing, reducing them to the level of mere civil servants. Moreover, the whole underlying concept of the NHS - that health care should be free at the point of delivery - is dismissed by a GP character in the second book, who tells the narrator that people "won't value what they don't have to pay for."

However, as the series moved into the 1960s and it became apparent that the NHS was not only here to stay, but also hugely popular with the public, the tone begins to shift, with even Sir Lancelot Spratt declaring that he's in favour of the NHS. A reflection of the fact that the old guard of the medical profession - who had trained before it was established - was realising that the NHS was now their main source of employment, and that a whole new generation of doctors who had only ever worked in the NHS, and who happily embraced its egalitarian ethos, were now coming to the fore. As I said, popular fiction can provide an interesting insight into social attitudes and opinions of the era in which it was written. But time does move on, and the Doctor books are now badly dated in their portrayal of medical training. Or so I am led to believe, both by the recent BBC3 series about junior doctors, and a friend whose eldest son is in medical school. Sadly, the likes of Sir Lancelot Spratt no longer stalk the corridors, terrorising their alcohol-fuelled students. Personally, I can't help but feel that our modern NHS would be better for his presence, bellowing "Don't be impertinent" at students who answer his question of "What's the bleeding time?" with "About half past four, sir". Perhaps the BBC could use digital technology to resurrect James Robertson Justice, so that Sir Lancelot can bring his reign of terror to Casualty and Holby City...



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