Thursday, 19 February 2015

Angels Series One : Review

Following my theme time post in October last year, I decided to purchase the first series of Angels on DVD last month and quickly set about making my way through all fifteen episodes at a rate of more or less one an evening.

It was no chore to watch, each episode was so enjoyable it fair licked along for me and was a great thing to watch before turning in of a night. OK, the series was made in 1975 which means a lot of the production is dated by the obviously studio bound VT shot interiors and film exteriors, a measured/slow pace, some stiff performances and mannered dialogue, but I don't have an issue with that as I can adjust my expectations rather quickly and I appreciate it from a nostalgic point of view anyway. But the fact that the series is dated adds an extra interest for anyone keen to see how much different the NHS and nursing was forty years ago, and what similarities still remain in the profession today. 

The general press release for the DVD describes the show thus...

'Created by Paula Milne, the series chronicled the personal and professional lives of six student nurses, and controversially, tackled issues such as contraception, alcoholism and promiscuity as part of the nurses' lives. Grittily authentic each actress taking part was required to work on a real hospital ward to gain experience and thus contribute to the realism of the production.

With its winning combination of the soap-opera like personal lives of the young nurses and the often starkly detailed and harrowing medical aspects of its drama, Angels was a slickly produced series that can now be seriously regarded as the all important bridge between the gentler medical series of the 1960s such as Emergency Ward 10 and the intense, harder edged offering of today such as Casualty and A&E'

Ignoring the fact that A&E was cancelled thirteen years ago now and, as such, is almost as much a historical document as Angels, that Casualty lost its intensity and hard edge somewhere around the early 00s and that they're clearly trying a little too hard to suggest a slickness that a forty year old programme can't possibly possess, I would say that's more or less a fair account of the first series.

The series concerns itself with disparate characters who have one thing in common; they are all student nurses at various stages of their training. Each episode largely focuses on one or two of them at a time and we're treated to the gently unfolding story of their experiences at the fictional St Angela's Hospital, Battersea (in reality, St James's, Balham) The first two characters we meet in the debut episode, entitled fittingly, Arrival are the chalk and cheese pair Pat Rutherford (future Bond girl Fiona Fullerton) and Maureen Morahan (Erin Geraghty) Both are pictured in the traditional nursing capes below.

Pat is 22 and upper middle class. Considered flighty, she has already tried her hand at teaching before deciding it wasn't for her. Her father (guest star Geoffrey Palmer) feels she's just playing at nursing and making a big mistake and his fears are shown to be shared by her superiors at St Angela's specifically her tutor Heather Windrup (Faith Brook) who believe she is intelligent and articulate but not committed enough to succeed. Maureen, on the other hand, is a naive devoutly Catholic Irish girl of eighteen whose life's ambition has always been to be a nurse, following in her beloved 'mammy's' footsteps. She is shown to leave Ireland and her large family to arrive in London incredibly wide eyed and innocent before hooking up with Pat. They are both the complete opposite of one another but they become firm friends, helping one another through the rigours of training in a very touching and satisfying way for the viewer to see. 

Other characters include third year student 'Surly' Shirley Brent (Clare Clifford) a bespectacled wallflower of a young woman with an inability to form friendships or be anything other than professional with patients and their relatives. She is one of the most interesting characters whose cold, somewhat haughty personality is neatly undercut by sensitive writing and an equally sensitive, often tragic performance from Clifford. The episodes which see her persuaded into letting her hair down (literally too, and with Clifford dispensing with the ugly thick framed glasses to reveal her genuine statuesque beauty) and attempt to break out of her lonely existence are some of the most incredibly bittersweet. 

Second year student Jo Longhurst is the complete opposite to Shirley. Played by Julie Dawn Cole (Willy Wonka and The Chocolate Factory's Veruca Salt!) is a pretty and charming nineteen year old who can be accused perhaps of being too impulsive and outgoing with the patients. She is shown to share a one bedroom flat with a third year nurse who - as they're so similar in build - could effectively be called her 'sister from another mister' Ruth Fullman. A sharp tongued opinionated and committed union member from Leeds, Ruth is played by Lesley Dunlop who, of all the cast, has remained the most prominent on our screens down the years. It's easy to see why; she was only twenty here but delivers an assured performance in each and every episode tackling some of the more political aspects of the storylines regarding the low pay and long hours nurses endure and, memorably, having to choose between her union and her ambition for a Staff Nurse post. It came as a real disappointment to me to find, on buying series two (which I'm watching now) that Ruth was written out after just one series to be replaced by the similar blunt speaking, North of England character Sandra Ling (Angela Bruce) who appeared briefly in one of the later episodes of this first series.

There's also characters who could be classed as semi-regulars (ie they have storylines in their own right but feature less than the previously discussed five student nurses) such as Karan David as Sita Patel, a character who helps represent the broad ethnically diverse range within the NHS - and Angels certainly helped to represent that as realistically as possible with many extras and small speaking parts being given to Black British actors, which was still unheard of in mainstream drama at the time. Sita's backstory also highlighted the political situation of the 1970s that impacted upon immigration to the UK in that she and her family had been kicked out of Uganda by Idi Amin. In seeking help from a social worker, Sita was told of the shortages and need for nurses within the NHS and commenced her training as a result. She's depicted as a sensitive and conscientious young woman who (initially) avoids the social life that goes hand in hand with the medical world because of her traditional upbringing.

Another semi regular is staff nurse Linda Hollis played by Janina Faye who, over the course of two episodes, is shown to juggle the demands of her career with the demands of her husband, who is bitter because he believes he doesn't see enough of her. This is a really fascinating insight into how nursing was viewed at the time, a perception that was little more than it was a job to do before you decided to have kids and become a full time housewife as opposed to being a career in itself. Indeed Angels explores the difficulties of the personal and professional life extremely well throughout the series, be it Shirley's ongoing loneliness or a secondary storyline in the episode Off Duty which sees Pat and Maureen stuck in a pub with a tragically middle aged drunken former nurse called Beryl who, it is revealed at the climax to be the secret lesbian partner of the no nonsense Sister Easby (June Watson) the implication being the pair were brought together slowly after sharing a flat as student nurses and are struggling now they no longer have their work in common. Off Duty is probably one of the weakest episodes in the series, but its a testament to the programme as a whole that even the odd dodgy episode can deliver a rather groundbreaking subtly matter of fact storyline as this. What Angels sometimes seems to delight in is showing the main student nurse characters how their own life may pan out if they're not too careful; with Sister Easby and Beryl's troubled relationship alluded to be a warning for Pat and Maureen, and Shirley's own isolated existence being drawn as a parallel to the tutor Heather Windrop who has been a nurse since just after the war but whose treasured memories are all regarding her students, having never found time to marry or start a family herself.

All in all it's a very character driven show and each one is well rounded and perfectly performed making it incredibly easy to emphathise with.

And it's worth pointing out, if I may lower the tone for a moment, that the young cast of Angels were all rather pretty as the following photos show

(Image from the Angels Annual 1977 at Little Storping Museum of Film/TV Memorabilia)

As I said earlier much of the fun of Angels is (like with Call The Midwife nowadays) seeing how nursing was then and how it is now, what the differences are and what the similarities are too. The classroom study scenes for Maureen and Pat are very authentic and quite educational, putting me in mind of my own health and social care training. It's also very amusing to see the pair having to prepare themselves for their arrival into the nursing profession and the twelve week introductory period; purchasing clinical scissors and the regulation shows like school children buying their uniform. Naturally Pat's heeled shoes do not meet with Windrop's approval and she baulks at the rules and regulations laid down at the nurses' home.

It's also interesting to see how almost virtually absent male nurses are in the show, with only one or two depicted as being on Maureen and Pat's induction and neither get a line of dialogue. It's very indicative of the time, as is the events in a subsequent episode entitled Saturday Night which sees Jo Longhurst and Shirley Brent at a party where Jo is instantly seized upon by one would be romeo, only for him to start to feel uncomfortable around a male nurse there played with increasing unease at the man's innuendo and suggestions towards his sexuality by Colin Higgins. 

Look out too for scenes in which student nurses are left to lift a patient up out of bed by themselves - totally against the health and safety rules now! - and a young surgical SHO who greets Lesley Dunlop's Ruth by shaking her warmly by the arse, which no one bats an eye at, least of all Ruth who goes on to prepare him an omelette in the staff room because he hasn't eaten all day, incurring the wrath of her senior nurse 'the number 7'.

The role of the over familiar SHO was taken by John Duttine, just one of many guest performances throughout the fifteen episodes. Others include Last of the Summer Wine's Bill Owen as a head porter and staunch union man, James Grout as a consultant surgeon, a young Karl Howman as Maureen's streetwise London cousin who attempts to pull Pat, Lewis Fiander as a difficult patient, Cheryl Hall as a former nurse now a patient on maternity and even Dot Cotton herself, June Brown, is seen propping up the pillows on the women's surgical ward.  

The series closes with both Shirley Brent and Ruth Fullman seen passing their finals (and some nurses are shown to go off to the pub to celebrate mid shift!) and considering their futures whilst Maureen and Pat find themselves working the wards and ruminating on what lies ahead for them too.

Released by Simply Media, this is an efficient no frills package which continues sadly no extras or packaging information such as a precis of the plots for each episode. It's a shame as the DVD is quite pricey - though going down in price all the time - but this is a minor criticism for what is a great show whose best attributes are strong characterisation and subtlety of storylines. I'm already six episodes into the second series and if they release any of the other series, I think I'd happily buy those too.

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