All Saints: articles

Saint be praised

Georgie Parker has traded her seven-year stint as a TV nurse to host a program about… hospitals.

Georgie Parker, saintly practitioner of the blessed art of medical melodrama, is about to take one of the most critical steps of her seven years of dedication, determination and compassionate caring at what is surely Australian television’s best-known hospital.

This week, with the tears and fond farewells sweeping aside the bitching, bedpans and bloodletting, she will finally pull the plug on television’s much-loved nurse Terri Sullivan.

Not a bad performance. Georgie took the nation through her nunnery, those shaky, overcrowded, pastel-painted sets of Ward 17, the great fires of Western General, a ruck of ill-fated lovers, husbands, doctors and surgeons, and the most exotic diseases and spectacular accidents to plague the southern hemisphere.

She drew from the scents of the Seven Network’s carbolic soap opera a stressed character whose enigmatic, soulful and spiritual bedside manner inevitably produced miracles with All Saints patients, ratings and Logies alike. Critics loved her, and now network beatification must surely follow.

St Terri? Well, why not? What better way to draw attention to the stressful and heroic professional realities of underpaid nursing in Australia today than to put that soulful, sad-eyed superhero of All Saints up there among a growing band in the stained-glass windows of soap opera? St Madge, St Charlene, St Krystle, St Alexis and St Donna of Dallas move over. You have a wise and dignified companion joining your ranks.

Now do we feel better? We have always liked our TV nurses and doctors to be different from the rest of us, above all that hard yakka and the hurtful, messy stuff that really goes on in hospitals, perhaps a little holier-than-thou as they rally the poorly for one last gasp. It’s a comforter to keep us away from the less spectacular, grubby and bedsore side of hospital sickness realities.

While we will stomach the bloody heroics of ER’s surgeons, interns and nurses, we prefer a reassurance that ultimately their knowledge, understanding and conscience will overcome the intolerable stresses of their jobs. We certainly don’t want to hear about budgetary cutbacks, fewer nursing shifts, overworked people in tears over the bed sheets, or nurses only a little less helpless than ourselves. TV soaps like All Saints clean all that up for us, keep us from getting too anxious.

Since politicians with their hands on medical purse-strings also watch shows like All Saints and ER, this may not necessarily be doing us any long-term favours. Do they really think that, just like on TV, doctors and nurses work better with less? Or that only American researchers know how to use whirly-bleepy lifesavers? Polishing the halos at All Saints may give them false ideas about the miracles our hospitals are capable of without their technology, research and educational funds.

But let’s cut the message to Canberra and get back to Georgie and that big-hearted character Terri. The actor has turned her into one of the great female icons of Australian television, alongside Lorraine Bayly’s much-loved Grace in The Sullivans. Are we looking flushed? Well, I’m a bit of a late convert to All Saints and Ms Parker; it took a bit to get used to those sorrowful spaniel eyes looking up at Von or Mitch, and I could never understand the romantic or religious prevarications. Still, she’s been great of late.

There is, of course, security for actors in soap opera. Just ask William Roache, who has spent 45 years of his working life almost exclusively as Ken Barlow in the series Coronation Street. But does the role eventually take over the player? Can an actor’s performances suffer? Is there a right time to get out?

Georgie Parker has always managed to find herself in healthy demand in Australian film, theatre and television. But she came to the attention of most Australian viewers as nurse Lucy Gardiner in A Country Practice. Her performances in ACP won her the 1990 Logie Award for most popular new talent as well as the Silver Logie for most popular actress in 1991, 1992 and 1993.

From nursing drama, she has now turned to look at the real thing in Seven’s new factual series Medical Emergency. Intriguingly, as host, she has an immediate calming effect as she takes us through the lives of surgical and nursing staff at The Alfred Hospital Emergency and Trauma Centre in Melbourne. There may be none of the fun of Dr Frank Campion’s barks, but when you see what you see here you’re almost grateful for that.

As with RPA, we find ourselves appreciating one of the better aspects of Australian medicine, the relationship between hospital staff and patients. There is reassurance rather than isolation, attempts to explain rather than steamroller through. Like the All Saints nurse herself, there is about their emergency ward manner always that encouraging, uplifting impression of professionals you would trust. And from the ghastly experiences of paramedics called to deal with a corpse to the heart attack victim facing a nightmarish decision, Georgie is there to hasten our recovery.

In All Saints, nurse Terri Sullivan found herself with an even more complex background than Lucy’s in A Country Practice. Terri had suffered through domestic abuse, the daughter of a bullying, drunken, devout Catholic father and martyr-like mother. Her father adored his daughter. “God’s chosen my little girl,” he said to his friends, boasting that one day she would be a nun.

She was drawn to nursing, though, and to young doctor Mitch Stevens. Marriage seemed on the cards, but after episodes of angst, Terri went religious. Eventually, she returned to Mitch and made her decision to leave the religious order. It looked as though they might have a life of their own, beyond the hospital, beyond their work.

It was never to be. Mitch carked it and Terri suffered from a heart tumour. As if that weren’t enough, Ward 17 ran out of beds, leaving her in Emergency. There was a little more love, but that quickly faded. It left her finally with what has been looking like her most valuable partnership in the All Saints series, the growling affectionate counter-punching with John Howard’s irascible ward supervisor Frank Campion. This has produced some of Georgie’s best work. Like Frank, TV’s patients are going to miss the feisty saint.

All Saints: Satisfaction , Tuesday 8.30pm, Channel 7, Medical Emergency, Tuesday 8pm, Channel 7

By Brian Courtis
June 19, 2005
The Age