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Very Peculiar Practice, A (1986-88)

Courtesy of BBC

Main image of Very Peculiar Practice, A (1986-88)
2 series of 7x50 mins each
plus 1 special (A Very Polish Practice, tx. 6/9/1992)
DirectorDavid Tucker
Production CompanyBBC TV
ProducerKen Riddington
ScriptsAndrew Davies

Cast: Peter Davison (Stephen Daker); Graham Crowden (Jock McCannon); Barbara Flynn (Rose Marie); David Troughton (Bob Buzzard); Amanda Hillwood (Lyn Turtle)

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A young doctor in his new job as part of a group practice at Lowlands University. But his enthusiasm takes a knock as he gets to know his new colleagues and observes life at the University.

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During the 1980s, universities, like many other public sector bodies, were rocked by the Tory government's funding cuts and promotion of private enterprise. A Very Peculiar Practice (BBC, 1986-88), set in the fictional Lowlands University, is a cutting but touching satire on a university in crisis.

Idealistic doctor Stephen Daker (Peter Davison) starts work in the medical centre. His colleagues are alcoholic radical Dr Jock McCannon, unprincipled feminist Rose Marie and underachieving entrepreneur Bob Buzzard. Daker has to cope with students' emotional trauma, an academic on the verge of a breakdown, an outbreak of a sexually transmitted disease and, finally, the restructuring forced on the university by financial cuts. Meanwhile, through his slowly developing relationship with research student and policewoman Lyn, he tries to redeem himself as a human being.

Andrew Davies, now best known for his adaptations of 19th century novels, won a BAFTA for a script full of memorable lines, from Rose Marie's "Illness is one of the things that men do to women" to Jock's "this University is a swamp of fear and loathing". The budding affinity between the raddled Jock and the naïve Daker is as moving as the savage characterisation of Buzzard and Rose Marie is humorous.

While Davison is always effective at portraying gawky innocence, the series' most impressive performance is Graham Crowden as Jock, keenly capable of feeling his patients' pain but deprived by alcoholism of the ability to cure. Like King Lear, he taunts his colleagues with the prospect of his demise and their succession, dictating into a tape recorder, 'The Sick University', a text with echoes of 1960s radical psychiatry.

A black surrealism complements the series' social commentary: each episode begins with the ever more bizarre antics of two nameless nuns, and Jock's alcoholic mania becomes ever more apocalyptic. Davies' sense that reality might be overtaking his satire comes to life in the character of Rust, a creative writing tutor penning a television series based on Lowlands, who complains to Stephen that "every damn fool thing I think up really happens".

In the second series, American Jack Daniels takes over as Vice Chancellor, instituting further privatisation that results in a student rent strike, and the closure of the university. A final, one-off sequel, A Very Polish Practice (BBC, tx.6/9/1992) saw Stephen and his new wife Grete living and working in Poland. In 1986, Davies published a novel based on the series.

Danny Birchall

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Video Clips
1. Stephen's trial (1:55)
2. The practice meeting (2:27)
3. Jock's medical (1:19)
4. Stephen and Lyn (1:49)
History Man, The (1981)
Crowden, Graham (1922-2010)
Davies, Andrew (1936-)
Davison, Peter (1951-)
Medical Drama