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Drama that rubs salt into old wounds

Jed Mercurio, writer of the BBC's Cardiac Arrest and the new medical drama Bodies, was in Leeds this week to inspire and advise budding writers. Arts reporter Nick Ahad met him. You wonder if Jed Mercurio made the right decision when he left the medical profession to become a full-time writer.

Nothing that goes wrong during our meeting – and quite a few things do – seems to faze him, one of the most important qualities, one would imagine, that a doctor needs to possess.

It begins with the red tape we have to pass through to get into the Leeds College of Music, where he is due to give a talk to aspiring script writers. After a good five minutes of wrangling – punctuated by much rolling of eyes yet keeping of temper by Mercurio – we are granted access, only we both realise this leaves us with an inadequate 20 minutes for an interview before his appointment.

No problems. A short phone call later, conducted with impressive efficiency (it takes Mercurio all of two minutes to tell a publicist that he will be late and to start a screening of his show without him), and we are given as much time as we need.

Mercurio's temperament would, one thinks, be most welcome in a hospital.

Yet the medical world's loss has been to many people's gain and his scientific background has allowed him to write truthfully and honestly about the medical profession.

Sometimes, however, his writing is a little too warts and all for some.

"A lot of people don't want to see the negatives of the profession," admits Mercurio, who is inconspicuous in the bar of the College of Music only because of his age and not because of his outfit, which reflects the way that many of the young students themselves are dressed.

"Most medical dramas don't go into what is difficult and stressful about being in the profession – so I decided to show things like doctors making mistakes and explain that and explain why they act the way they do."

Cardiac Arrest was Mercurio's first crack at a medical drama, written after the author saw an advert from a television company in the back of the British Medical Journal.

Screened on the BBC in 1995, it provided a launchpad for actor Helen Baxendale, and set out Mercurio's stall as a fresh new voice in a stale world of medical drama. It also angered much of the medical world.

"I was surprised by how many people were slagging the series off and saying it was inaccurate, but people seem to have a rose-tinted-glasses view of the medical profession," says Mercurio.

At the time many in the profession denounced the series for its portrayal of some doctors and nurses as uncaring of their patients. "I ended up writing a letter to the BMA, a newsletter that comes out with the BMJ saying that I was sick and tired of hearing a load or retired old consultants whingeing about what I was writing."

Mercurio says that he is now wiser to the machinations of the press, blaming sections of the media for stirring up controversy where there was none. He is happy to let the viewing figures – expected to be healthy for his new series, Bodies – speak for themselves.

The series, launched on BBC3

earlier this year and on BBC2 last week, tells the story of a young doctor who kills a patient through a mistake – but finds himself beholden to a senior consultant who covers for him – in accordance with the "unspoken practices" of the profession.

It has been lauded as a moving portrait of the loss of innocence, the healing power of passion, and a young man's quest for redemption in a world that seems to have lost its sense of right or wrong.

"A lot of people write in a way that seems they are trying to sell the profession," he says. "For me as a writer, what is more interesting, is the darker side of the profession, something which is not often dealt with. I think that just makes for better drama."

And with that he's off to tell the same, simple rules, to a lecture theatre of waiting would-be-writers.

Bodies is on BBC2 on Wednesdays, 9pm.

 
 
 

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