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Quacks: a medical comedy that will have you in stitches

Mathew Baynton, Rory Kinnear, Lydia Leonard and Tom Basden
A quacking lineup ... Mathew Baynton, Rory Kinnear, Lydia Leonard and Tom Basden.

Meet Robert Lessing, a Victorian surgeon who is lustrous of hair, vast of ego and handy with a hacksaw. Robert can amputate a leg in 92 seconds, which is a good deal longer than it takes him to relieve a lady of her corsetry while off his tits on absinthe. He has performed more than a thousand procedures in front of rapt audiences who, in the age of God-fearing morality, can’t get enough of squirting pus and the sound of steel hitting bone.

Robert, played with virtuoso dickishness by Rory Kinnear, is one of the gaggle of medics strutting their surgical stuff in Quacks (15 August, 10pm, BBC2), a deliciously gruesome comedy-drama set in 1840s London. There’s also Tom Basden’s John, a dentist and fledgling anaesthetist with a fondness for liquid opium; psychiatrist William (The Wrong Mans’ Mathew Baynton) who eschews the beatings dispensed to mental patients in favour of a revolutionary new treatment known as “talking”; and Robert’s wife, Caroline (Lydia Leonard), a wannabe doctor wrestling with both the patriarchy and her own unruly libido.

Quacks is based on a period in the mid-19th century when huge strides were made in medicine and its pioneering young doctors were treated like rock stars. This week’s opener finds Robert operating on a humble haberdasher with a broken leg, while women furtively clutch their nether regions in the gallery and declare the spectacle “more fun than Madame Tussauds”. Speed is of the essence with amputations since the patients are unanaesthetised – and, really, there is only so much screaming an audience can endure. As the haberdasher flails in agony, Robert lops off his left bollock by accident. No matter: it’s all grist to the mill of surgical showmanship.

There is a hint of Horrible Histories in this series, rooted in historical accuracy and brilliantly milking it for lols. Created by James Wood, who co-wrote Rev, it depicts a society caught between centuries-old belief systems and a more liberal-minded modern age. Thus, dark personal dilemmas reside between the sight gags and smart one-liners. Robert kicks against the medical establishment but his progressive nature doesn’t extend to women: he is exasperated by his wife’s desire for a career and disgusted to find Florence Nightingale opening windows and cleaning instruments in his hospital. Meanwhile, William may be at the bleeding edge of neuroscience but his prudish streak means one touch of a lady’s hand and he’s fleeing the scene while hiding his boner behind his medical bag.

Rupert Everett’s Dr Hendrick, imperious president of the hospital and physician to the aristocracy, represents the old guard here. Rather than examine his female patients, he hands them a ceramic figurine in order that they may point to where it hurts. Visited by a lady with an obvious case of cystitis, he observes: “Clearly you’ve got this problem because you are a woman … You need to fast for a week, ride a horse for two hours a day, not Sundays, and place a freshly cooked baked potato on the infected area.”

Quacks is my kind of costume drama: one where bladder infections are treated with vegetables, man-baby medics get twatted on nitrous oxide and ether cocktails, and the jokes are so good they might just prove fatal.

This article titled "Quacks: a medical comedy that will have you in stitches" was written by Fiona Sturges, for The Guardian on Saturday 12 August 2017 09.00am

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