TV's early attempts at mainstream hospital-based dramas shot their medical stars through a rose-tinted lens. But by the mid-1970s this cosy style was being swept away by a new, grittier realism that saw shows like The Sweeney (ITV, 1975-78) consign older, gentler police series such as Z Cars (BBC, 1962-78) and Softly Softly (BBC, 1969) to the archive. A similar storytelling approach was clearly applicable to other genres, but the nation's favourite medical series, General Hospital (ITV, 1972-79), was too closely blood-matched to a traditional soap opera to allow it to attempt a more realistic depiction of the everyday life of busy doctors and over-stretched nurses. Something new was clearly needed.
Angels (BBC, 1975-83) took a far less romantic look at the lives of nurses in the modern NHS. Created by the writer Paula Milne, the series chronicled the personal and professional experiences of six student nurses based at the fictitious St Angela's Hospital in Battersea, London. The show started life as a 13 week run of 50-minute episodes but was sliced in to two half-hour episodes a week in 1979 to strengthen the BBC's peak-time ratings. Despite its popularity, Angels drew criticism for its uncompromising portrayal of nurses' lives which included alcoholism and sexual promiscuity.
The then producer Julia Smith, who went on to launch EastEnders (BBC, 1985-), replied by saying: "There are a lot of tensions in a young nurse's life; it's no wonder some turn to drink. When you're eighteen you've got a lot of growing up to do."
Angels helped establish the acting careers of Shirley Cheriton, who went on to appear in EastEnders, and Pauline Quirke, who made her name in the long-running comedy Birds of a Feather (BBC, 1989-98). But just as important was its role in reinvigorating medical drama, providing a link between the cosy world of Emergency - Ward 10 (ITV, 1957-67) and harder-edged shows such as Casualty (BBC, 1986-) and Holby City (BBC, 1999-).