Victorian medical comedy Quacks begins Tuesday 15th August on BBC Two. Sophie Davies has had a sneak peak at the much anticipated new series…
A leg amputation might not sound like the ideal opening to a new sitcom, but in the world of Quacks – where medical practices couldn’t be more different from what we’re used to in the modern day – it’s a scenario ripe for comedy.
The idea for Quacks came to series creator James Wood (the man behind Rev and the recent BBC adaptation of Decline and Fall) after he visited a surgery museum and became fascinated by medicine in the Victorian era. This was a time when top surgeons were treated like rockstars. They could amputate a leg in under two minutes, and had to because there was no anaesthesia. About half of patients died during surgery, which was considered totally normal and unpreventable. But despite its relative primitiveness, this was also a period when lots of medical procedures that we use today were pioneered.
At the centre of Quacks are four characters trying to progress 19th century medicine. Rory Kinnear (Count Arthur Strong) plays pompous surgeon Robert, perhaps the least progressive of the group. He smokes, drinks and showboats his way through operations, which at this time were all performed in front of a paying crowd. Tom Basden (Plebs) is John, a hedonistic dentist who’s experimenting with anaesthesia and determined to convince surgeons like Robert of its potential. TVO regular Mat Baynton (The Wrong Mans) is William, a kind hearted “alienist” (or psychiatrist as we know them today) who has the radical idea of actually talking to mental patients instead of beating and torturing them. And last but not least, Lydia Leonard (Life In Squares) plays Robert’s wife Caroline, an ambitious woman stuck in an era where being female restricts her from pursuing her dream of becoming a doctor.
The establishment they’re trying to challenge is represented by scowling royal physician Dr Hendrick, played by a scene stealing Rupert Everett. He prides himself on being able to diagnose patients through conversation alone, supposedly with no need for physical examination, and coldly dismisses patients dying during surgery (or shortly afterwards) as an inevitability.
Watching Quacks, it soon becomes apparent that Victorian medical practices were so head-scratchingly barmy, it’s really a wonder that no-one has based a comedy around them before. In the first episode alone, we witness surgery performed with dirty instruments by a surgeon wearing an equally blood-soaked gown, a woman advised to cure cystitis with a baked potato and mercury recommended as an effective medicine, all of which were things that truly happened. Biomedical research charity The Wellcome Trust was enlisted to make sure the series could be as historically accurate as possible.
Quacks isn’t just about ludicrous medical practices though. It’s a show with heart, and storylines where we really want to find out what happens next. The most engrossing relationship throughout the series is a love triangle involving Robert, Caroline and William. While her husband seems to always be discouraging her ambitions, Caroline feels respected by William and so an attraction forms between them. Mat Baynton plays lovestruck particularly well, with an hilarious facial expression that displays a perfect mix of lust and terror. Caroline’s pursuit of education, in which she at one point impersonates a man in order to attend an exclusive lecture, also proves to be absorbing and adds a welcome extra layer to a show which, if it had been made ten years ago, would probably have been solely about a group of men.
Historical figures don’t make a habit of popping up in Quacks, although episode two does feature two of them – namely Florence Nightingale, who causes uproar in the hospital by suggesting that medical instruments should be cleaned between uses, and Charles Dickens, here played as a smug, self-satisfied fool by Andrew Scott (Sherlock). But one of the best guest performances of the series comes from Lisa Jackson (who you may remember as the maths lecturer in the shortlived Campus) as a simpering, slightly unstable woman who’s intent on marrying poor William.
As for the TVO regulars among the rest of the cast, Geoff McGivern has a recurring role as a dim pub landlord who gets some cracking lines like “the ladies can’t get enough of your amputations, can they sir?” There are also appearances from Kayvan Novak as a charismatic mesmerist, Jamie Demetriou as a delusional patient, David Bamber (Camping) as the head of the mental asylum and Simon Farnaby as a dodgy ‘medicine’ salesman. Mat Baynton’s Horrible Histories/Yonderland co-star Ben Willbond also shows up in the series finale playing an arrogant French surgeon.
Without revealing too much, Quacks ends in a way that leaves the door open for more. Based on the standard of this six-part series, I would say it certainly deserves it. There are quite a few new comedies coming in the second half of 2017, including several BBC pilots, but Quacks is going to be a tough act to follow…
Quacks begins Tuesday 15th August at 10pm on BBC Two.