Weak medicine


"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"

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.

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The strange death of boozy Britain: why are young people drinking less?

Ditching alcohol for work.

Whenever horrific tales of the drunken escapades of the youth are reported, one photo reliably gets wheeled out: "bench girl", a young woman lying passed out on a public bench above bottles of booze in Bristol. The image is in urgent need of updating: it is now a decade old. Britain has spent that time moving away from booze.

Individual alcohol consumption in Britain has declined sharply. In 2013, the average person over 15 consumed 9.4 litres of alcohol, 19 per cent less than 2004. As with drugs, the decline in use among the young is particularly notable: the proportion of young adults who are teetotal increased by 40 per cent between 2005 and 2013. But decreased drinking is not only apparent among the young fogeys: 80 per cent of adults are making some effort to drink less, according to a new study by consumer trends agency Future Foundation. No wonder that half of all nightclubs have closed in the last decade. Pubs are also closing down: there are 13 per cent fewer pubs in the UK than in 2002. 

People are too busy vying to get ahead at work to indulge in drinking. A combination of the recession, globalisation and technology has combined to make the work of work more competitive than ever: bad news for alcohol companies. “The cost-benefit analysis for people of going out and getting hammered starts to go out of favour,” says Will Seymour of Future Foundation.

Vincent Dignan is the founder of Magnific, a company that helps tech start-ups. He identifies ditching regular boozing as a turning point in his career. “I noticed a trend of other entrepreneurs drinking three, four or five times a week at different events, while their companies went nowhere,” he says. “I realised I couldn't be just another British guy getting pissed and being mildly hungover while trying to scale a website to a million visitors a month. I feel I have a very slight edge on everyone else. While they're sleeping in, I'm working.” Dignan now only drinks occasionally; he went three months without having a drop of alcohol earlier in the year.

But the decline in booze consumption isn’t only about people becoming more work-driven. There have never been more alternate ways to be entertained than resorting to the bottle. The rise of digital TV, BBC iPlayer and Netflix means most people means that most people have almost limitless choice about what to watch.

Some social lives have also partly migrated online. In many ways this is an unfortunate development, but one upshot has been to reduce alcohol intake. “You don’t need to drink to hang out online,” says Dr James Nicholls, the author of The Politics of Alcohol who now works for Alcohol Concern. 

The sheer cost of boozing also puts people off. Although minimum pricing on booze has not been introduced, a series of taxes have made alcohol more expensive, while a ban on below-cost selling was introduced last year. Across the 28 countries of the EU, only Ireland has higher alcohol and tobacco prices than the UK today; in 1998 prices in the UK were only the fourth most expensive in the EU.

Immigration has also contributed to weaning Britain off booze. The decrease in alcohol consumption “is linked partly to demographic trends: the fall is largest in areas with greater ethnic diversity,” Nicholls says. A third of adults in London, where 37 per cent of the population is foreign born, do not drink alcohol at all, easily the highest of any region in Britain.

The alcohol industry is nothing if not resilient. “By lobbying for lower duty rates, ramping up their marketing and developing new products the big producers are doing their best to make sure the last ten years turn out to be a blip rather than a long term change in culture,” Nicholls says.

But whatever alcohol companies do to fight back against the declining popularity of booze, deep changes in British culture have made booze less attractive. Forget the horrific tales of drunken escapades from Magaluf to the Bullingdon Club. The real story is of the strange death of boozy Britain. 

Tim Wigmore is a contributing writer to the New Statesman and the author of Second XI: Cricket In Its Outposts.