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Medical Drama

A brief history of docs on the box

Main image of Medical Drama

The National Health Service (NHS) opened its doors on 5 July 1948 - for the first time everyone was entitled to free medical care. With its combination of modern treatments and unrestricted access, the new service quickly became a symbol of a new postwar society based on science and compassion. What is difficult to understand is why it took almost a decade for broadcasters to realise this could make for compelling TV drama.

Emergency Ward 10 (ITV, 1957-67) quickly captured the country's imagination, but the series which helped create the genre's blueprint was the product of a misunderstanding. Its creator, Tessa Diamond, was looking for a new programme concept when her agent suggested a series about daily hospital life. He had meant a documentary, but Diamond misunderstood and instead created a drama.

A range of medical drama soon followed, including the BBC's highly popular Doctor Finlay's Casebook (1962-71), set in a quiet, pre-NHS village practise in the Scottish highlands. Elsewhere in the TV schedules, other medical disciplines were entertaining audiences. Silent Evidence (BBC, 1962) featured a police pathologist, while Thorndyke (BBC, 1964) followed the adventures of a forensic criminologist.

The modern medical drama, typified by Casualty (BBC, 1986-), didn't arrive until 1975, when Angels (BBC, 1975-83) replaced bed rest and thermometers with the more complex dramatic elements of death and disease as seen through the eyes of overworked student nurses.

Broadcasters realised that their output had to match audiences' experiences of the NHS if their programmes were to succeed. As long as the health service remains mired in political debates there is little prospect of a return to the less critical world of Emergency Ward 10, where lying in was not only a universal restorative, it didn't create a beds shortage.

Anthony Clark

Related Films and TV programmes

Thumbnail image of Angels (1975-83)

Angels (1975-83)

Groundbreakingly realistic portrayal of the lives of NHS nurses

Thumbnail image of Bodies (2004-06)

Bodies (2004-06)

Often harrowing drama painting a black portrait of the modern NHS

Thumbnail image of Cardiac Arrest (1994-96)

Cardiac Arrest (1994-96)

Hard-hitting portrait of junior NHS staff, written by a disaffected doctor

Thumbnail image of Casualty (1986-)

Casualty (1986-)

Hugely popular, long-running BBC medical drama series

Thumbnail image of Children's Ward/Ward, The (1989-2000)

Children's Ward/Ward, The (1989-2000)

Junior hospital drama set in a Manchester paediatric ward

Thumbnail image of Dr Finlay's Casebook (1962-71)

Dr Finlay's Casebook (1962-71)

Classic early TV medical drama set in the Scottish lowlands

Thumbnail image of Emergency - Ward 10 (1957-67)

Emergency - Ward 10 (1957-67)

British TV's first long-running medical drama series

Thumbnail image of Expert, The (1968-71, 1976)

Expert, The (1968-71, 1976)

Medical/crime drama based on the cases of a pathologist

Thumbnail image of General Hospital (1972-79)

General Hospital (1972-79)

Daytime hospital soap, intended to replace Emergency - Ward 10

Thumbnail image of Nation's Health, The (1983)

Nation's Health, The (1983)

Uncomfortably realistic depiction of the British medical profession

Thumbnail image of Very Peculiar Practice, A (1986-88)

Very Peculiar Practice, A (1986-88)

Satirical drama series about a crisis-stricken university

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