A lot of actors struggle to perform sleep. They look too sweet and peaceful by far, when everyone knows that the condition is ugly and sweaty, and twisty and turny (or maybe that’s just me). But not Ben Whishaw. In the opening scene of This Is Going To Hurt, the BBC’s adaptation of Adam Kay’s bestselling medical memoir, he’s deep in slumber in the front seat of his battered car: gob open, neck at an awkward angle, all guinea pig noises and drool. Zzzzz. He looks blurry, a sketch that has been half rubbed out. “Aren’t human beings strange?” you think, taking all this in. Don’t our bodies seem to betray us even as they’re doing exactly what they ought to?
Bodies, treacherous and miraculous, are what this series is all about, and once Adam (Whishaw) is awake – his pager does it – they’re everywhere, leaking and creaking, swelling and subsiding, and sometimes breaking down altogether. In the hospital car park, Adam, an acting registrar in “brats and twats” (obstetrics and gynaecology), finds a woman whose labour is so advanced, a tiny hand can be seen dangling between her legs, a moment that sets the tone for what follows: a bloody and unceasing kind of chaos that doesn’t, perhaps, quite speak to the way most people would like to see the NHS. Here are lost swabs, crappy equipment (“why have you welded a laptop to a zimmer frame?”), sarcastic midwives and patients so stupid they imagine their terrifyingly premature baby weighs several stone.
I haven’t read Adam Kay’s book, but I think it’s possible that what works on the page has a somewhat different effect on screen (he also wrote the screenplay). On the plus side, the series looks amazing – the corridors, the wards, and especially the operations – and I really like Ambika Mod as Shruti, the junior doctor Adam takes such pleasure in abusing; beneath her hangdog expression lie guts and determination. But on the downside, there is something badly amiss with the tone of the script. Is it supposed to be funny? Obviously, it is. For instance: Mr Lockhart (Alex Jennings), the posh, supercilious, Aston Martin-driving consultant on the ward, is straight out of Doctor in the House (I’m thinking of the irascible surgeon, Sir Lancelot Spratt, who was played by James Robertson Justice in a film that came out in, ah, let’s see… 1954). And the dialogue is all punchlines, to the point where you expect to hear drum rolls and cymbals. The word “vagina” does an awful lot of work.
But if the show’s as sharp as a scalpel, it’s as cold as a speculum. Let’s put to one side the vengefulness that comes out as malpractice (Adam stitches the belly of a racist patient so the two halves of the dolphin she has tattooed on it no longer match up). Let’s put aside, too, that, away from the hospital, Adam’s friends are the public schoolboys from hell. How to get away with this kind of verbal savagery? I’m afraid that I think Whishaw has been miscast – and not only because working as a doctor is not his “lived experience”. (I’m being mischievous here: in a recent interview, he seemed to suggest that straight actors cannot convincingly play gay characters, something I disagree with profoundly, not only for reasons to do with freedom and the imagination, but because sexuality is complicated and quite fluid, and actors should be allowed to keep theirs private if they so wish.)
No, the simple fact is that he’s insufficiently warm. I can imagine – off the top of my head – David Mitchell or Simon Bird saying these lines and managing to keep the heavy sarcasm intact, while also making them seem funny and wistful, too. But not Whishaw. The wit in this “comedy drama” never quite induces a smile. I’m not someone – this is not a newsflash – who demands that characters be likeable, let alone that their experiences “resonate” (ugh) with my own. Unlikeability, however, is a problem here. Because when things start to go wrong for Adam – and they do go quite badly wrong – the viewer can’t help but withhold sympathy, just as he withholds his for his patients and his colleagues. I know he’s weary: so tired, he can barely sleep. I realise he may be suffering from PTSD. But does he have to be so mean? I knew it was going to hurt, but not this much.
[See also: Brian and Charles: a witty robot bromance]
This article appears in the 09 Feb 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Sunak's Game