After three years of trying, I’ve finally got a sitcom on the telly. I cut my comedy teeth in medical revues and I’m saddened that the tradition seems to be dying out. Medicine has become far too managed and serious, and I hope this sitcom will give those who work in the NHS, as well as those who use it, a few much needed laughs. If not, I’ll be back behind the desk with the rest of you, mumbling "there’s a lot of it about”.
As with stand-up comedy, it’s impossible to predict what an audience will like. You can only write what you personally think is funny, and hope it rings bells with viewers. It’s a lot less lonely writing with a partner, and the criticism you give each other makes it a lot more focused. My writing partner Nigel Smith was head of comedy development at Carlton TV when he asked me to help write a hospital-based sitcom.
I’d done one of my SHO jobs in Jersey, and we liked the idea of setting the hospital on an island, where people can feel isolated, trapped and forced into doing things they wouldn’t attempt on the mainland. But it had to be part of the NHS, so we hit on the Isle of Wight.
We wanted our doctors and nurses to work in a non-sexy specialty, neglected and under pressure, and orthopaedics has the longest waiting lists. So when a friend described the Isle of Wight as "a nursing home floating in the Solent”, it all fell into place.
The characters are conglomerations of lots of doctors, nurses and managers I’ve worked with but not transparently so I hope, or I may be hearing from their lawyers.The aim is to make them clearly defined and different, and above all real. Doctors are not gods (although some enjoy trying to be) and nurses aren’t superhuman caring machines. They’re just human beings trying to do a good job under very difficult conditions and occasionally screwing up.
A lot of the story lines are based on reality, but tweaked to protect the guilty and maximise the laughs. There’s a general rule in sitcom that ‘nobody gets hurt’ - you can be a funny corpse (as, most memorably, in Fawlty Towers) but you mustn’t be seen to have suffered too much in getting there.
All NHS staff screw up on occasion, and everyone knows someone they wouldn’t let within five feet of them with anything sharp. Whether laughing about it is the correct response is open to debate, but that’s what most doctors do.
The toughest part has been making politics and ethics funny. Each episode has a contemporary issue in it - How can you ration fairly? Should doctors always tell the truth? Do smelly, abusive patients get the same standard of care as clean, delightful ones? - and we’ve tried to make each as entertaining as possible without trivialising it too much.
Doctors and Nurses started on BBC 1 on 13 January, and by the time you read this I should know if it’s likely to get a second series. In the old days, sitcoms were allowed to find their audiences and grow slowly over several series. Just about every classic British comedy (Dad’s Army, Fawlty Towers, Blackadder, Only Fools and Horses) was slated by critics on its first outing but was given a second chance. These days, as in the NHS, you’re expected to get it right first time, or you’re stuffed.
Doctors and Nurses is on Tuesdays at 10.35 pm on BBC 1.