All Saints: articles

No hope among hospital soaps

I used to watch Ben Casey on TV in my formative years and wonder whether real doctors were as nonchalantly intellect-ual, as well as inbelievably hairy.

Ben's old mate was a bizarre-looking ancient specialist who rather resembled a philosophical light globe. He was known as Dr Zorba, and was usually a fairly gentle grandfatherly doctor who whizzled and shuttled up glossy corridors.

Ben Casey was sometimes stroppy but never unkind - in my memory of him. He quarreled about universal cliches and had a terrible neck problem. He was all slouched-over, as though he carted bags of mallee roots around after he knocked-off from the hospital.

He had a lot of sex appeal and used his considerable eyebrows to erotic advantage. He muttered a great deal about things like ethics as he sawed the poor patients in half, or else he looked forlorn at priests when they died. Ben Casey was a grouchy friend you loved to put up with.

Doctor Kildare was another kettle of anaesthetic altogether. Richard Chamberlain played this urbane big-lipped quack with a nice mixture of over-acted irony and detached melancholy, due to the endless pages of script he had to learn whilst performing a brain tumor operation after a big night out. I believe in one episode he had the horrors. This doctor was modern and approachable, it didn't matter that he was homosexual as well as a Pommy.

He had a friendly bedside manner that went down well with global viewers who sat entirely mesmerised by his mellifluous voice and Palmolived hands. Every woman in Preston wanted him.

These were my two doctors from the swinging '60s. Eloquent as electroplasm and avuncular as owls nesting in a TV tube. I knew when I was a teenager that either Ben or Dick would pull me through if I got crook, not that I never really was, much, not that I can remember now.

A few months ago I got chronically sick from salmonella poisoning and endured a week at Ballarat Base Hospital, where I met the new breed of real-life soapie doctors. They were even grimmer than Richard and Ben.

One evening in the ward I shared with scared old men all too impoverished to afford private health cover, I flipped my remote TV button on to Channel Seven's latest hospital melodrama, entitled All Saints, and tuned into Australia's interpretation of stoic surgeons and neurotic nurses. The writing was equal of a spoken frontal labotomy.

Cretinous cliches and banal climaxes. Make doctors in reality look interesting. In the lifeless episode I watched under the influence of sleeping pills and old blokes either crying or snoring, a young woman lies desperately bleeding upon an obscure boat-ramp whilst a team of paramedics buggerise around wondering what to do with her.

It cut back to the cardboardesque hospital where exhausted nurses thought about sex whilst stuffing round with unidentifiable fluid in bottles or else they just seemed to hurry a lot towards nowhere; looking lonely.

The camera tantalisingly infiltrates the nurses' noses and when they pash on with a stroppy middle-aged senior surgeon in a backroom, their intensity is as hot as their unfortunate dialogue.

She: "I need you, Kevin. I am desperate for you!"

He: "I have to say, Thelma, I have thought of you, often, as my patients go under the knife."

They blurrily grope.

The frightened boyfriend or husband of the bleeding woman on the boatramp is told to help her as the doctor from All Saints calls for backup, which means a chopper, urgent.

Cut to a commercial break about private health cover. Then a Big Mac ad.

The doctors and nurses in All Saints are as rivetting as watching workmen complete a bluestone roundabout in a heatwave. They speak and you don't listen. The women cry and you think about hotdogs or answering your mail on an ironing board. Does it rate well? I'm sure it does, in the way of all crap the whole country watches it eagerly, obsessively, continuously.

As it is, all concentration is upon the suave specialists using ghoulish dialogue that instantly frightens the always-uneducated patients. Electrocardiograph, for example. Brain scan. Heart disorder. The women nurses are never droll, whereas in real life hospital women nurses always speak mordantly as they are so close to casual death or dramatic life.

When Ben or Dick made friends of lonely kids stuck in melancholy and loveless wards, even if the talk was gauche, it seemed real in some way. Possibly Doctor Kildare and Mr Casey were better actors. The actors though, who are stuck in All Saints can't do a single thing about their dialogue or pastecard situations.

Meantime, back on the stark boatramp the brave chappies from All Saints are requesting locals to assist them in their desperate efforts to get the over-bleeding woman helped up the jetty towards a mint-new gleaming ambulance. When the weeping young husband tries to hop in the back of the van to be with his missus, he is forbidden by the head doctor.

Back at base the lovelorn women nurses fantasise about senior surgeons giving them what they really want, because it's hard being a lonely nurse in a place filled with agony, the agony of having no dialogue or even the remotest interesting situation in a drama that isn't dramatic or funny. Like death, it just goes on and on. For exactly one hour. Then it stops and you watch something else or die.

I think what irritated me more about All Saints more than any other aspect was the pseudo-working class dialogue of the real he-men. The way nurses, doctors and other characters are depicted is not so much unreal as unalive, to all powers of wit, observation, dread, intrigue and intellect. Why can't there be a dash of pity in the soupy hospital soaps?

Or a doctor admitting that a certain patient is beyond their understanding. Perhaps it is time for characters who are memorable rather than marble. If they were, we could identify with them, perhaps, sympathise. Why are there never any lonely neurotic newsagents as patients?

October 26, 2000
The Age