The 1993 Screen One drama Tender Loving Care was a major departure Dawn French, then at the height of her fame as one half of the hit comedy duo French and Saunders and one of the Comic Strip Presents ensemble. In this unsettling drama from the pen of Lucy Gannon, French stars as Elaine, a lowly SEN (State Enrolled Nurse) who effectively runs the night-shift on an increasingly under-staffed geriatric ward with none of the perks of promotion or an increase in wage. Regardless of being overworked and underpaid, Elaine gets by with a bubbly demeanour and a pragmatic air. She's a diligent, caring professional, a good friend to her elderly, ailing neighbour (Joan Sims) and a wife and mother whose marriage to her endlessly chipper husband (Robert Pugh) is hitting the domestic doldrums - she's pretty much an everywoman then, and certainly any character in a generic medical soap you could care to name. But these qualities mask a dark secret: Elaine is murdering her patients.
It's a bold bit of casting. One of the joys of stand alone drama from the '80s and '90s was its refusal to pigeon-hole performers. As such actors who were normally associated with comedy often appeared in a Screen One, Screen Two, The Play on One or Screenplay in heavy dramatic roles; Ade Edmondson (Honest, Decent and True, News Hounds) Lenny Henry and Robbie Coltrane (Alive and Kicking) Alexei Sayle (Night Voice) Tony Robinson (The Silent Twins) Griff Rhys Jones (Ex and A View of Harry Clark - which also starred Elaine Paige!) and David Jason (Amongst Barbarians) For many, this was just the start of an impressive secondary career as a straight actor - just look at Edmondson's recent turn in War and Peace and Jason's many years on A Touch of Frost for proof. Nowadays they wouldn't gamble on such interesting choices, they'd just cast some former soap star or the current 'flavour-of-the-month' to ensure the production scored the biggest ratings possible.
Elaine's criminal actions were not born of malice or revenge (though Gannon's script repeatedly makes much of her constantly being passed over for courses that could help see her get a foot on the career ladder) they were - as the quote at the start of this review explains - 'nursing decisions', borne out of a skewed belief that she was providing a merciful release and always mindful of the fact that the extra-work required to maintain these patients in palliative terms would impact on how they could treat and help the others in her care who stood a greater chance of recovery. In French's performance and Gannon's script, Elaine is the archetypal Angel of Death figure; capable of tenderly combing the hair of a sleeping homeless patient she had just administered a lethal dosage of medication to. She's a particularly good, dedicated and caring nurse, extremely capable of doing her job...despite her unsettling desire to play God.
This chilling nature is revealed and subsequently threatened when Elaine takes co-worker, Mary (Rosemary Leach) into her confidence - or rather, when Mary reveals that she had known about Elaine's activities for some time, thereby forcing her into taking the older woman into her confidence. Despite clearly laying down the rules as she saw them (again, the above quote), Mary soon goes decidedly off-piste. She claims she has started receiving messages from God and uses this excuse to enter the business of mercy-killing with a tendency to bend and break the rules and 'nursing decisions' that Elaine has carefully adhered to. When she kills a suicidal rent-boy in retribution for what she sees as his 'sins', Elaine is naturally aghast at the actions of her 'apprentice' and fears the perils of any subsequent investigation which would threaten to uncover her activities and have justice come crashing down upon her head. She needs to act, fast, and in the meantime her neighbour isn't getting any better...
Inspired by a real-life Austrian case in which 42 patients died, Tender Loving Care has taken on greater resonance since its initial broadcast in 1993 when Britain has revealed itself to have its own Angels of Death working away within the NHS; the crimes of Beverly Allitt came to light around time of transmission, with Harold Shipman in 2000 and, just last year, Victorino Chua. Watching it again now, for the first time in probably over twenty years, these real-life, close to home incidents, make Gannon's drama all the more disturbing.
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