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12 January 2017updated 02 Aug 2021 10:25am

A new documentary reminds me why I love the NHS (but hate its bureaucracy)

Hospital, filmed inside St. Mary's hospital, makes you feel intensely proud of the NHS, but furious at its structural problems. Plus: Taboo .

By Rachel Cooke

Hospital, a six-part series filmed at St Mary’s in London (11 January, 9pm), is without doubt the best and most revealing documentary I have seen about the NHS. Like any such series, it is about doctors, nurses and patients, and it comes with the requisite stories of courage and sadness, kindness and expertise. I challenge anyone not to have the occasional lump in their throat as they watch it.

But what its makers are interested in are the logistical decisions that its hard-pressed staff must take every day, every hour. St Mary’s, put simply, does not have enough beds, and the logjams that this causes leads to the wasting of other precious resources: surgeons stand around waiting (and waiting) to be told, yes, they can go ahead and operate (or not); patients sit, frightened but abidingly grateful, wondering if, this time, the life-saving procedure they require will happen.

Perhaps the guilt is worse than the frustration. How must it feel to know that your surgery will take place only if a woman who is en route to the hospital in an ambulance dies before she arrives? What a thing to be worrying about at a time when you already feel frail, adrift in the unknown. “It is a privilege to operate on a fellow human,” said Professor George Hanna, as he finally set about trying to save the life of a man with oesophageal cancer after a 24-hour wait for a bed in intensive care (this was where his patient would recover). But the real privilege here was ours: such forbearance on his part, and that of his patient. Contrary to what politicians on both sides would have us believe, it is possible simultaneously to feel intense pride in the NHS and to have heretical thoughts in the matter of how its structural problems might be alleviated, if not entirely solved, and this series understands this. It’s brilliant and brave.

There were, and perhaps still are, good reasons to be suspicious of the BBC’s new Saturday night drama Taboo (7 January, 9.15pm). First, its title: I would have gone for something that doesn’t sound quite so Eighties-nightclub-in-a-small-northern-town. Second, its genesis. Tom Hardy, its star, cooked the whole thing up with his writer father, Chips, the idea being that père would help fils to fulfil his great dream of playing a character who is Bill Sykes, Sherlock Holmes, Hannibal Lecter, Heathcliff, Dr Faustus and Donald Duck all rolled into one. OK, not Donald Duck. But you get the picture.

There is a feeling, then, that the Hardys, their co-conspirator Steven Peaky Blinders Knight, who wrote most of the scripts, and the director Kristoffer Nyholm have thrown everything at this epic tale of a young man, James Delaney (Hardy), who returns to London from Africa, where he was presumed dead, to claim his inheritance. Setting out their stall, in the first scene Delaney pulled the coins from his dead father’s eyes and whispered in a weird accent that comes from who knows where (Wales? Congo?) the cheesy line: “Forgive me, father, for I have indeed sinned.”

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The weird thing is that it works. It’s nasty and clever and, besides a slightly Etch a Sketch St Paul’s Cathedral, it all looks madly and filthily pre-Victorian (it is 1814 and Britain is at war with its colony America). The scenes in which Hardy tells the representatives of the East India Company that he will certainly not be selling them a vital strip of land he now owns in Canada were masterful: slow-paced and tense, the lace tablecloth of the gathered gentlemen’s gentility covering, but not entirely obscuring, their greed and hypocrisy.

It’s also chilling. Delaney arrives trailing rumours of his depravity: he is not, we’re given to understand, as other men. Did he and his half-sister, Zilpha – played with trembling brilliance by Oona Chaplin – once have an incestuous relationship? Hardy, the Ollie Reed of his generation, is completely convincing. He reminds me of certain boys I was at school with, massively good-looking but so likely to blow a fuse they could only be contemplated for a nanosecond out of the corner of one’s eye. Watching him feels dangerous, illicit, for which reason I will be there next time, smelling salts in hand.

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This article appears in the 11 Jan 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's revenge