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Comprehensive prescription

Harley Street (ITV), The Unseen Alistair Cooke (BBC4)

16 July 2008

12:00 AM

16 July 2008

12:00 AM

IT would have been fun to be at the planning meeting for Harley Street (ITV, Thursday), the new medical drama series about a group of stunningly good-looking doctors in private practice. ‘Look, we get all the bloody bits, the emotional traumas, and the scenes where someone’s pushed down a hospital corridor on a trolley at about 40mph while the doctor yells incomprehensible instructions — plus money! And fabulously beautiful settings!’

‘Yurss, problem is, people love the NHS. They suspect Harley Street is for hedge fund managers and diplomats from corrupt tyrannies. They’re not going to identify.’

‘So, we make the doctors deeply caring. One of them is black — ticks the inclusive box. Why not have him refuse unneeded skin injections to a young model who’s in the grip of an evil scumbag manager? So he pretends to give the injection but takes the cash anyway.’

‘That makes him look crooked.’

‘No, but he only sends the evil scumbag out to get the cash so he can make it look like he did give the injection! Now, the young white doctor.’

‘He has to be a serial shagger, so we can get lots of women in their underwear giving him simulated oral sex. But, I know, he gets attached to a poor mad patient whose pregnant wife is in turmoil.’


‘Maybe not. Why not make his sick father morally opposed to private health care? Turns out he’s getting terrific treatment from the NHS — great news for our C, D, E viewers.’

‘Another thing — we’ve signed James Fox. Who does he play?’

‘He plays James Fox, of course — doesn’t matter what name we give him…’

Problems, problems. It must have taken scores of meetings to work the thing out. Shows like this look clipped together from disparate parts, as if a child had taken all their favourite Lego bits and stuck them to each other. The result is interesting but doesn’t resemble anything you’d recognise.

Harley Street is, though, quite a bold experiment. Unlike American soap operas (Dallas, Dynasty) which are generally about the rich, British soaps tend to be about the poor — Corrie, EastEnders, Emmerdale. Presumably producers fear that we will resent wealthy people, whereas Americans aspire to be like them. So this lot have hedged their bets — the characters are greedy but caring, cynical but idealistic, money-mad but ready to take time to give help where it’s most needed. This isn’t just having your cake and eating it — it’s also barfing it up and eating it again. I don’t know if it will work, and I suspect that the characters just aren’t strong or interesting enough to carry the bonkers plot lines. But it will be fascinating to see if it catches on. It’s a show that’ll need word of mouth, so Thursday is a good scheduling night, because people have the following day at work to talk about it.

The Unseen Alistair Cooke (BBC4, Thursday) was a fascinating and beguiling programme. Cooke was already 60 when I joined the Guardian, for whom he was US correspondent, in name at least. He disdained day-to-day politics and diplomacy, but wrote wonderfully about his favourite sports, chiefly boxing and golf. Other papers would have a vivid account of some thrilling contest. One day later a more considered, gorgeously crafted piece would arrive from Cooke. In old age he devoted part of his life to sending courteous but pedantic letters to the paper’s Washington office, correcting some small but wounding mistake of vocabulary or grammar.

Everyone remembers him as the grave, maple syrup-voiced old gent (he was 95 when he both retired and then died). But when he went to the States in 1932, aged 24, he looked and sounded remarkably like Nigel Havers, as well as having an astonishing ability to ingratiate himself with the rich and famous. The home movies he took of his new best friend Charlie Chaplin — the two men were both hugely self-regarding — were hypnotic. In some ways, Cooke didn’t come over as a particularly nice chap, always putting ambition in front of family. He didn’t go to his parents’ funerals — guilt at neglecting them, thought his own children. It was a well-measured, revealing and rather sad programme. The most poignant moment came when his daughter described scattering his ashes over Central Park. It was only later that we learnt that much of him had been already cut out by body snatchers, now in jail, so there wasn’t very much left.

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