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The fierce women doctors of Maternal show that TV drama is moving on

Not so long ago, every successful working woman on screen was either a secret wreck or a man-in-training.

By Rachel Cooke

People (I may mean men) will say that ITV’s new hospital drama is soapy, and it’s true that in the first episode, a doctor attempts to have sex with her colleague in a stockroom, paper towels and boxes of latex gloves flying. The same people may also think, with some justification, that it is clichéd: snooty male professors have been a staple of on-screen hospitals ever since Doctor in the House, that great hit of the 1950s. But don’t be taken in. Beneath its suds lies something a bit more edgy. In essence, Jacqui Honess-Martin’s series demands to know just what it might take for a woman to make it as a doctor, particularly if she has decided to have children.

Though it’s called Maternal, it has nothing to do with midwives, and nor is it set in a labour ward. But it is about three mothers, newly returned to their hospital jobs after maternity leave: Maryam (Parminder Nagra) is a paediatrician, Catherine (Lara Pulver) is a general and trauma surgeon, and Helen (Lisa McGrillis) is a registrar in acute medicine.

Unfortunately, their new babies aren’t the only impediment to their sleep and their sanity. Maryam’s husband would rather she’d look after her wobbly mental health at home; Helen’s, a consultant in the same hospital, is furious about their non-existent sex life and has had a fling with his 24-year-old house officer. Catherine is a single parent with the boomer mother from hell. Babysitting? She can whistle for it. Doesn’t she know that Anne (Haydn Gwynne) has Pilates and Nordic walking to do? “I wasn’t interested in your father’s god complex, and I’m not interested in yours either,” she says crisply, when Catherine tells her she performed a thoracotomy on her first day back. 

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It seems unlikely that a surgeon would patrol the corridors in such high heels. But I like Catherine’s self-sufficiency: she is far more organised than Maryam and Helen – mostly, but not entirely, because she has to be. Having a baby has changed her the least. Her ambition isn’t just intact; it’s flashing like a Belisha beacon. “Someone has been stabbed!” she yelps, thrilled by the message on her pager that will enable her to escape a dreary woman with stomach ache in A&E. While Maryam and Helen are permanently knackered, she’s always casting frisky looks in the direction of her ex, Jack (Raza Jaffrey). Her hair is immaculate. Her cheekbones are as sharp as her elbows. Dinner is a glass of red and a bowl of muesli. Yes, I really do like her.

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But the others are just as fierce in their way: Maryam punching a towel dispenser in delight after she succeeds in getting a struggling newborn to breathe (she hits it so hard, it falls off the wall); Helen besting her husband (played by Oliver Chris, always a pleasure) as he trains junior doctors (though it’s hard to believe a couple would work so closely together, it sure does make the plot go with a swing). Backstage crying and crises of confidence are mostly kept to a minimum, a decision I take as encouraging evidence that TV drama is at last beginning to move on. When you binge on this series – once the first episode has aired, it will all be available on ITVX – do remember that not so long ago almost every working woman on screen who was even vaguely successful was either a secret wreck (lonely, alcoholic) or a man-in-training (cold, ruthless, swaggering).

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It’s a shame that Anne is so unsympathetic. I weary of the combination of ageism and internalised sexism that makes older women forever the enemies of the young; this is so far from my own experience. But I had to laugh when Catherine apologised to her mother for having interrupted her ceramics class (the babysitter had called her, having found her number on the fridge). “My pot is unglazed,” she said, in a fury, making for the door. It may be that Honess-Martin is asking another perfectly valid question here. Why, after all, should clever, energetic, older women want to be full-time grannies any more than their clever, energetic daughters want to be full-time mothers? Solidarity is complicated: as tricky as surgery, in its way.

Maternal
ITV, 16 January, 9pm; available on catch-up

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This article appears in the 18 Jan 2023 issue of the New Statesman, How to fix Britain’s public health crisis