Weak medicine

Television

"Mediocrity is what we want," the late John Junor is meant to have scolded a young recruit to the Sunday Express who had pretensions of brilliance, "consistent mediocrity." It is not only newspaper editors who so aspire. People complain of the sameness of popular television as if the channel controllers had achieved it by accident, whereas it is often their entire design. BBC1's hospital drama Holby City (Tuesdays, 8pm) is, for instance, only three weeks old, but it took all of three minutes - and the appearance of Charlie from Casualty - for viewers to feel at ease. So this, we realised, is what goes on upstairs of the casualty department at Holby; these are the lives of those extras from other wards whom we fleetingly glimpse. Holby City is a kind of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are as Comfortable as Can Be Expected.

I follow no soaps regularly (as a reviewer, it is my shame and, as a human being, my over-arching achievement) but Holby City's human ambience is suddenly familiar even to me: a hairdresser from Corrie is here, Anna Friel's lesbian lover from Brookside is there. As a star we have good-looking young doctor Nick Jordan, played by Michael French, formerly "EastEnders love rat" David Wicks. This is casting shorthand, for French plays another love rat here. Once upon a time ambitious young actors used to complain of type-casting.

The most compelling character is Anton Meyer, the senior consultant surgeon, played by George Irving, who hails from somewhere much more dark and actorly than a soap, possibly Bram Stoker's Transylvania. Holby City's scriptwriters are normally content to tap out soap-operatic lines such as "We have a very serious infection on our hands" and "Do I make myself clear?", varying them occasionally with passages of medical arcania (this week we were expected to digest something that sounded like: "BP fluctation works on the same principle as other AC inhibitors. It blocks the reno-nagion tensile axis."). But, faced with a true thesp, they let themselves go with Mr Meyer, who, in the tradition of William Daniels' Dr Mark Craig in St Elsewhere, has a tongue as sharp as his scalpel. "I could make a better incision with a lawn mower," he will say, or, "Being a surgeon, Mr Roberts is extremely good at stitching people up." Occasionally Meyer finds himself saying, "Some people are their own worst enemy," but we must understand the long hours these junior hospital writers work.

The stories are safely unoriginal: hearts are helicoptered in for transplant with seconds to spare; stepmothers fight with stepchildren round pater's deathbed; a patient's boyfriend has an affair. The only storyline that surprises concerns a ward clerk who forms a unilateral relationship with a coma victim and is caught kissing her forehead. Yet if the series dared to aim above mediocrity, its premise allows it to follow the vicissitudes of each patient's recovery and trespass beyond neat, weekly plot resolution.

The writers could take a look at ITV's Trauma Team (Mondays, 8pm), which films the trauma service at the John Radcliffe in Oxford. It is just another docu-soap but it is producing a haunting narrative in the case of Nigel Wesson, an animal keeper from Chipperfield's whose left arm was chewed off by a tiger. Initially, surrounded by newspaper cheque books (a paramedic unhelpfully tells the reporter from the Mail that he cannot confirm Wesson's arm went down the tiger's throat; it was simply "not available"), he is quite up for (forgive me) lionisation as the bravest man in Britain. This Monday, however, we witnessed the agony of his subsequent stay in hospital and his desperate cries for pain-killers, a depiction of prolonged physical distress to rival the ear scene in Reservoir Dogs.

It is the opposite of paradoxical to observe that the staff and surgeons seem more real in Trauma Team than they do in Holby City, but they still aren't as real as those in ER, which returns to Channel 4 next week but which I have been enjoying impatiently on Sky One. It is not a matter of stories. Both HC and ER are exploiting the new convention that medics are fallible deities (watch out for ER's deeply incompetent new recruit Lucy Knight). Both emphasise that hospital staff spend as much time fretting over office politics as medicine. The difference is in the execution, production values in the broadest sense.

Holby City's corridors are over-lit and underpopulated. Cook County General's are crowded and emit the phosphorescence of ill health. Holby City meanders; ER's scenes make brisk narrative points and jokes about character. The dialogue is daringly verbal: the other week a whole plot rested on whether "acting" was a better qualifying adjective to "chief of staff " than "interim". And the actors! While Holby City cynically casts viewer-friendly mediocrities from prime time, ER struggles to keep George Clooney and Noah Wyle from all-out careers as Hollywood stars. The only soap actor in view is a rubber-faced guy experiencing problems with his waterworks, Ken Kercheval, aka Cliff Barnes from Dallas. When ER recruits from soap, it chooses Imperial Leather.

Andrew Billen is a staff writer on the London "Evening Standard"

By Andrew Billen

Andrew Billen has worked as a celebrity interviewer for, successively, The Observer, the Evening Standard and, currently The Times. For his columns, he was awarded reviewer of the year in 2006 Press Gazette Magazine Awards.