Twenty years on, how a hospital serial first diagnosed the rise of the docusoap

When cameras were allowed into a Leeds hospital, not everyone was happy. Twenty years on, Nick Gray, the man behind Jimmy's, looks back at how the first docusoaps won over the viewing public.

Twenty years ago, the world of television was a very different place.

Back then no one had heard of reality television, so when the idea was mooted for an ITV series called Jimmy's, going behind the scenes of a Leeds hospital, there were some who were understandably nervous.

The title was the local nickname for St James's and 30 half-hour programmes about its staff and patients had been planned as part of a new daytime schedule. The ITV bosses had convinced the Government that programmes for schools could be cleared away, and in their place an ambitious new morning schedule was delivered. To use the morning hours for popular programmes would increase the channel's advertising revenue.

As one of the Big Five ITV companies, Yorkshire Television was contributing to the schedule, but Jimmy's was a bit of a risk. It was a new type of programme, a twice-weekly real-life soap opera, with no glamorous presenters. It showed ordinary people, in ordinary surroundings. And the hospital was not a well-known one, even in Leeds.

The Leeds General Infirmary was better known because of its occasional celebrity porter Jimmy Savile. In fact, some people thought that the hospital and the series was named after TV's Mr Fix-it OBE. But when the audience figures came in for the first few weeks, we realised that we had a hit on our hands.

In the first episode, medical students were introduced to the hospital, a nurse in intensive care talked to her latest patient, a man was prepared for an operation to remove a cancer from his throat, and a mother gave birth by Caesarean section. That child will soon be 20 years old.

The man who made the decision to let the cameras in was the hospital's chief executive, Ian Donnachie. He faced the opposition of his board, whose chairman was concerned that if the series was perceived as a mistake, it would compromise his chance of a knighthood. In the event, he probably got his knighthood quicker because of the media attention, for Donnachie guessed (correctly) that exposure on television would benefit the hospital.

His ambitions for the series were that it should be positive, that there should be instructive health messages, and that it should – in a way that does not happen in real life – introduce members of the hospital staff to each other. To this end we could film everywhere, making the hospital the star of the series. Obviously a shrewd operator, Mr Donnachie has now left the public service, and is now a senior vice-president of a private company Nations Healthcare which provides services commissioned by NHS Primary Care Trusts and offers a choice of private provision to patients.

The audience eagerly followed the stories of ordinary people. They liked not being told what to think by a "voice of God" commentary. Viewers could quote back to me whole scenes of dialogue as though it was classic text. Without quite realising it, we had invented a new television genre now called the "docusoap".

Twenty years on, it is difficult to believe how revolutionary Jimmy's was. It was a serial, constructed like a soap-opera (I had previously worked on Emmerdale) in that it had four or five storylines running at any one time. There were no interviews and except for a brief "Previously on…" at the beginning of each programme, there was no commentary. We knew we were inventing a new form – threading several narratives together in a single programme – and knew the risks.

As it was airing at midday, Jimmy's did not receive the same scrutiny as peak time programmes, but I remember one executive at YTV was very critical. "Without a commentary the audience will never be able to follow what's going on," he said. He was not the first TV executive to underestimate the audience, nor the last.

We were resigned to the fact that if the audience did not catch on, the bosses would descend on us and insist on changes, or drop it. But the opposite happened. The serial started to be noticed – not just in the hospital, but countrywide. Even the critics reviewed it.

Its success was as much a surprise to us, the producers, as it was to the bosses. There was a report from Bedford where a man involved in a road accident had asked the ambulance-driver to take him to Leeds so that his favourite doctors in Jimmy's could treat him and a researcher came in one Monday morning having spent his Saturday afternoon at Elland Road where he claimed to have joined in with the crowd as they sang the theme tune. Some viewers thought the programme might not be documentary, but drama: a letter praised the dialogue, claiming to detect the hand of Leeds playwright Alan Bennett.

There were occasional disasters. After all, people can die in hospital. One case we were following ended in tragedy when the patient suddenly died of an illness unrelated to his treatment. After a few weeks we approached his widow to ask her permission to show the film that ended his story. She assented, on the grounds that she and her family wanted to see him again as he had been in life.

For several weeks we followed the hospital's treatment of an old man in intensive care. It became obvious that he was not going to recover so we asked his wife, who was always at his bedside, if we could continue filming. She was a kind, thoughtful lady who lived not far from the hospital. In time, the old man expired, and we duly asked his wife if we could use the film to show the work of the Intensive Car Department.

She looked confused, but we persisted. "We need his nearest dependant's consent for the film to be shown."

"Oh," she said, "You need to speak to his wife. She lives in Leicester. I'm no relation at all."

The daytime ratings were so startling that Yorkshire Television's programme controller John Fairley scheduled a Thursday night hour-long repeat of the week's two programmes back-to-back after News At Ten. When he showed the figures to his opposite number at Thames TV, together they convinced ITV to run the second series twice a week at 7pm peak-time.

Within a year, the BBC had a meeting of senior programme-makers to discuss a response, and started Children's Hospital, which used commentary and interviews. The next "docusoap" to emerge was BBC's Airport.

Over 10 years, Jimmy's ran for 160 episodes. The highest rating was of 10 million viewers. It was sold to many parts of the Commonwealth. We were told that Jimmy's would be sold to South Africa if we cut out all black contributors, which of course we did not do. The format was copied in similar hospitals serials in France, Eire and Australia. The Hollywood producer Steven Bochco asked for tapes while developing his hit hospital drama series E.R.

I was responsible for the first 54 episodes, but Jimmy's has remained in the viewers' memories. When in 2005, to celebrate its half-century, ITV invited viewers to vote for their Greatest Shows Ever, Jimmy's came in at number 36, up there between Blind Date and Sunday Night at the London Palladium. Did Jimmy's have Cilla or Brucie? Did we 'eck! Our stars were a lot of Yorkshire folk.