The real sense of ‘hurt’ in Adam Kay’s BBC drama portraying his former career as an NHS doctor in the Obstetrics and Gynaecology ward, doesn’t come from the bloody scenes of Caesarean sections, the shrieks from women with their ankles above their heads, or the internal heart massage – no.
It comes from the smack of realism; the smack of state underfunding, utter exhaustion and chaotic bureaucracy of NHS wards.
But it is certainly not all ‘sorry, there’s no room’ and gloom – for Adam Kay, the lifeline in a day job which eats away at his personal life, mental health and professionalism, is a healthy injection of darker humour.
Tying the narrative together is an undeniable focus on humanity, where the doctors and midwives are indeed just as much survivors as their patients – Or, should I say, “clients”, which is apparently what we should call those who don’t suffer from, but live with, not a disability, but a differently-abled condition. The frustration and ludicrousness in several scenes is beautifully executed by Kay’s continual breaking of the fourth wall, wheeling viewers right to the forefront of both the action and the humour. And, it has to be said that the humour feels as though you’re giving in to a ‘guilty pleasure’ which compliments the unapologetically grisly surgeries.
In a daily battlefield of queuing patients – some outrageously racist, some accompanied by drunk partners, some suffering from domestic abuse – viewers are scrambling for as much empathy as they can find. But, it often seems mostly dried up in the character of Adam Kay. His satirical disbelief at the bizarre habits of humanity, which meet in the melting pot of A&E and “brats and tw*ts” (as he refers to the labour ward) are highly entertaining. He also leaves room for the occasional, but craved-for moments of genuine care for his patients.
Some more dissatisfied viewers have found the portrayal of life on the labour ward as misogynistic. A female patient answers “Pom çi, Pom ça” when asked how she is, and it has even been accused of “women’s trauma being played for laughs” by feminist writer Milli Hill. In defence, however, the series is certainly not indulging in a laugh at the patients – but rather the lack of real support the doctors are equipped with, in order to deliver the best care. No doubt, it does not hold back from the more alarming, gruesome aspects of child-birth. But to turn the camera away at the last moment or encourage the dramatization of a “Hollywood birth”, would be to go against the most powerful purpose of the programme. The realism.
Leading on from this, the series also addresses a starkly concerning crisis of the mental health of consultants, doctors, nurses, midwives, and indeed medical students. The ‘head-in-the-sand’ response “I’m fine” is the default when Kay is questioned about his day at work. The echo of that phrase booms down the corridors of the hospital, as the exhausted faces in scrubs rush to the next emergency accompanied by screaming bleepers.
Indeed, Kay himself commented in a 2017 interview after publishing his book, “I think if I had kids I would put them off medicine”. It does make you think of the slightly depressing thought that the dream you are constantly told to follow, in fact turns your life into a nightmare. Nevertheless, one of the hardest-hitting messages is the stark contrast between his singular shift at the private St Agnes Hospital, where the waterfall showers, Californian beds and freshly served asparagus risotto fall miles short of successfully and safely delivering babies. As one of the NHS midwives says, “It’s a shame we don’t see any of the cash those poor patients pay” when they end up in the NHS obstetrics ward.
THIS IS GOING TO HURT steers clear from glamourising the heroic, ‘knight-in-shining-armour’ perception of doctors and nurses. But it in fact does just that in another sense; by shining a light of authenticity on the truth behind the blue stained curtains.
If you’re looking for an opportunity to laugh, to be totally transported from what you think is your very stressful day job, head over to BBC iPlayer and watch Ben Whishaw’s brutally mesmerising performance as Dr Adam Kay.