Andrew Billen - Blood and guts

Television - Fine verite drama at the NHS obs and gynae ward from hell. By Andrew Billen

Bodies

The team at South Central Infirmary's obstetrics and gynaecology department are not a bad lot; you just wouldn't want to have a baby with them. There's the older consultant Tony Whitman, a professional cynic, who when confronted with the options of radiotherapy or surgery for a patient suggests a third way - "a pine box". There's Rob Lake, the registrar, who tries to do the right thing but is a coward. And then there's Donna Rix, the ward sister, who doesn't want to rock the boat, either, but doesn't mind making the earth move for Rob even though she's married.

But none of these is the problem. The problem is the really nice guy among them, Roger Hurley, the other, younger, better-looking consultant. Roger is on the phone to his wife and children all the time and when Rob cocks up, ineptly performing emergency throat surgery outside his competence, he is on his side. He is the sort of forgiving boss we all crave. The problem is that he is just as forgiving of his own mistakes. And these are legion. Mr Hurley doesn't deliver babies. He kills them.

After you've watched Bodies (9pm, Sundays) for a bit, the real suspense comes from wondering if any baby or mother is going to survive. The miracle of birth has never looked more miraculous. Initially, however, the conventions of medical drama do not prepare you for the thought that the headman is simply incompetent. R A Hurley, FRCOG, MSc, PhD, played by Patrick Baladi (Dave Brent's smooth boss in The Office), is just the sort of consultant you would wish for yourself: cool, calm, articulate. When he nearly sterilises a patient desperate for kids, you admire his sang-froid when the error is pointed out. If you were the cancer patient Winifred, you'd take his advice to opt for surgery. The trouble is that it does not, as promised, make you more comfortable. Winifred dies in screaming, blood-vomiting agony.

With some speed, by 30 May's second episode, Bodies had turned from a medical procedural into a conspiracy thriller. The good-humoured Rob, played by Max Beesley, is on a collision course with reality. The viewer waits for the last straw to break this camel's back. Will it be Winifred, the comically named Angela Strawberry, or Karen Taylor who, under Hurley's expertise, loses first her baby, then her womb and finally her mind? It is not easy to watch such television: the blood, the pain, the yelling. After an hour, you might want to hire a video of Kill Bill just to cleanse your palate.

Bodies also asks uneasy-making questions about where a professional's loyalties lie. Are they to his colleagues or to his patients (customers)? Everyone knows that Hurley, a brilliant academic whose research brings funding to the hospital, is a disaster, but no one wants to say so, partly because of the profession's code of omerta but also partly because people fear being scrutinised themselves. Rob, too, has killed someone. Tony Whitman's dirty little secret is that he likes cancelling his patients' operations. When the anaesthetist Maria Orton (Susan Lynch) does blow the whistle it sounds a lonely note, and she is suspended on psychiatric grounds.

As this programme is written and co-produced not by some malcontent like G F Newman, but by a former National Health Service doctor, Jed Mercurio, there is nothing reassuring about Bodies. Nothing medically reassuring, that is. In television terms, it is the best news for British drama since Tony Garnett's The Cops. I am not talking here about the depiction of reality - I am sure the truth is either much worse or nowhere near as bad. I am talking about verisimilitude. You believe you are in an NHS hospital. You can smell it. The dialogue is neither smart-arse nor sparse but what you might overhear. The acting is wonderfully plausible - from Keith Allen's ill-tempered Whitman and Baladi's complacent Hurley to each and every one of the bereaved. The plot is taut when it needs to be and elastic when it can afford to. I'll even forgive Mercurio his unfunny comic sub-plot about the female sexual dysfunction survey (and the old joke: "Where's the most unusual place you've had sex?" "Up the arse").

Given that my tastes and the public's are at odds when it comes to British drama, I dread to think what will happen to this uncompromising serial when it hits BBC2 this autumn, but it is certainly the best thing BBC3 has ever shown. My pleasure in praising it is all the more acute for it disproving my theory that only America makes decent ensemble drama. The latest season of my beloved ER has been a huge disappointment mainly because, unlike Bodies, it has not been careful enough in its casting of character actors.

With their original young stars all gone save for Carter (Noah Wyle), the producers made the lunatic decision to drop a helicopter on one of the few remaining compulsively watchable characters, foul-mouthed Dr Romano (Paul McCrane). It was hard to say whether Rocket Romano was being punished for his political incorrectness or for having previously lost an arm to the same helicopter. In any case, his killing was vicious and dishonoured a fine actor. Suffice to say that there are suggestions on Jump the Shark, the website that monitors the moment when TV series lose it (named after the Fonz's notorious surf ride on a shark in Happy Days), that it should be renamed Drop the Chopper.

Andrew Billen is a staff writer on the Times. His column resumes in a fortnight