OK, this could be complicated. If the BBC’s drama The Hour was an ersatz Mad Men, then what is ITV’s Breathless (Thursdays, 9pm)? It’s a pale imitation of a pale imitation, that’s what. Still, I liked it. No, scratch that: I loved it. You have to love a series whose writers’ pitch was clearly: “This is Mad Men on a budget with doctors and nurses.” The chutzpah of it! Also, the slight campness. “You’ll find London full of temptations,” says Matron Vosper (Diane Fletcher) to Angela Wilson (Catherine Steadman), a pert new nurse recently transferred from Portsmouth. “And this hospital is no exception. Try not to make a fool of yourself.” If Leslie Phillips had appeared from behind the nearest curtain, a part of me wouldn’t have been surprised.
It is 1961 and things are about to change: Betty Friedan, the Pill, all that. For the time being, though, girls still wear pearls and contraception remains a tricky business. A lot of women want nothing more than to get hitched and keep house. And if you’re in the market for a husband, where better to work than a hospital bulging with dashing, well-paid, highly sexed doctors?
Angela’s sister, Jeanie, is about to tie the knot with a junior doctor called Dr Truscott (Oliver Chris), a union that will see her moving up in the world about a thousand notches. She has done her last shift on the wards – married women don’t work, or not in this version of the early Sixties (in fact, many did) – and is already socialising, slightly uncomfortably, with her new peers, among them the queenly Elizabeth (Natasha Little), the wife of her husband’s boss, the gynaecologist Otto Powell (Jack Davenport).
I liked the way these relationships were drawn, the attention the writers (Paul Unwin and Peter Grimsdale) have given to social class: think of Breathless as a medical pyramid with Otto at the top. Ah, yes, Otto. Davenport, who can often be something of a plank on screen, is so well cast here: his expression when he told a newly married man that his wife was still, alas, virgo intacta was (to pinch from those voice-overs he does for MasterCard) priceless, only the merest hint of a curl at the edges of his mouth. But beneath his smooth exterior – I’ve seen conkers and even silk handkerchiefs that look rougher – kindness lurks and perhaps a touch of righteousness. For by night, Otto dashes about London helping rich girls out by giving them illegal abortions.
I’ve just written a book about this period and the way women’s lives were then, and although I don’t buy every detail in Breathless – in the Powells’ kitchen, there’s a Tuscan-style wine rack that’s straight out of the Magnet sale – its heart seems pretty authentic to me. I’m glad the series acknowledges that not all terminations at this time were Vera Drakestyle backstreet; they weren’t. You just had to know the right people and be able to afford to put the right number of banknotes in the brown envelope.
The pragmatism and low-level ruthlessness of its female characters is also just right: leftover Forties stoicism combining with late- Fifties glamour and consumerism to produce women whose placid, lipsticked exteriors tell only half the story. Like ducks, they sail along, all the while paddling furiously. They are fragrant opportunists, because they have to be. Their sisterliness lies, at this moment in history, in turning a blind eye to such things as a pregnancy before marriage. So, I will keep watching, in spite of the feeling that this is a copy of a copy. There’s something soothing about drama set in a time when so much went unsaid. And the clothes are fantastic, if, like me, you’re in the market for ogling paste earrings and a good swing coat.