Review of Quacks (BBC, 2017)

Alison Moulds is a final-year PhD Candidate at the University of Oxford, where she is a member of the AHRC-funded project ‘Constructing Scientific Communities’. Her thesis examines the construction of medical practitioners’ professional identities in medical writing and fiction between 1830s and 1910s. In October she will be starting a postdoctoral position as Engagement Officer on the Wellcome Trust-funded project ‘A Theatre of Emotions: The Affective Landscape of Nineteenth-Century British Surgery’ based at the University of Roehampton. She is also the Communications Officer for the British Society for the History of Science. She is on Twitter @alison_moulds.

This week saw the finale of the BBC’s new six-part comedy series Quacks. Billed as a ‘raucous medical comedy set in Victorian London’, it immediately piqued my interest when it arrived on the small screen last month.[1] Nothing beats a spot of light entertainment you can smugly convince yourself counts as ‘work’. Having watched the whole series, I’m delighted to say that it didn’t disappoint, offering a whistle-stop tour through the mid-Victorian medical scene with plenty of deliciously farcical humour.

Quacks

Mathew Baynton, Rory Kinnear, Rupert Everett, Lydia Leonard, and Tom Basden star in the new BBC medical comedy series, Quacks. © BBC

Created by James Wood, the series revolves around a group of medical men: the showman surgeon Robert Lessing (played by Rory Kinnear); the anxious young alienist William Agar (Matthew Baynton); and John Sutton, a drug-addled ‘tooth-puller’ (Tom Basden). Quacks also features Lydia Leonard as Robert’s forward-thinking and sexually frustrated wife Caroline and Rupert Everett as the fusty head of the hospital, Dr Hendrick.

As its title implies, Quacks explores the blurred lines between orthodox and unorthodox medicine in mid-century Britain. It’s set in the decade before the 1858 Medical Act, which introduced minimal standards and a Register of qualified practitioners. The show colourfully depicts what historians have described as the mixed marketplace for medicine.[2] The plotlines extend outside the hospital, the asylum, and the homes of private patients. The characters visit a fashionable Indian mesmerist in a curry house along the docks, while John resorts to selling quack remedies in the streets in a desperate attempt to fend off his creditors.

The show engages with the struggles of cash-strapped medical practitioners and depicts the hierarchical nature of the profession. Robert is aghast when he hears a French rival-surgeon has been admitted to the fictional Westminster Medical Club. It is supposed to be the preserve of physicians, who typically enjoyed a higher rung on the professional and social ladder. Historians of medicine have increasingly moved away from the marketplace model to emphasise professional networks and communities, and I was pleased to see Quacks highlight the friendships between medical men, showing their camaraderie as well as their competitiveness.[3]

The series capitalises on popular stereotypes about Victorian medicine, featuring plenty of blood and gore. When I tell friends that my thesis looks at nineteenth-century practitioners, most assume medicine back then was little more than leeches,

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Robert Lessing © BBC

nostrums,and butchery. Quacks engages with these perceptions of barbarism. Robert dons a blood-drenched gown for the operating theatre and drinks to steady his hands before surgery. He also wields some medical instruments which look more like medieval torture devices. John the dentist liberally self-experiments with drugs, appointing a prostitute to act as his amanuensis and record his intoxicated ravings. One of my favourite scenes involves Dr Hendrick scoffing at the idea of examining a female patient and recommending she treat her UTI with fasting, horse-riding, and the application of a baked potato to the infected area.

 

The series has some cheap gags at the expense of the Victorians but it doesn’t simply adopt a condescending attitude towards the past. It also represents the middle of the nineteenth century as a time of innovation and advancement. The medical men regard themselves as pioneers. William is a sympathetic alienist who wants to reform the inhumane treatment of the insane though moral management. At times, his elaborate therapies yield farcical results. In episode three he stages a mock-trial in an attempt to cure a patient suffering from a persecution complex only for everyone to go off-script. Nevertheless, William has a social conscience and is the face of a more patient-centred approach to care. Meanwhile, John is working to refine anaesthesia and coaxes Robert to use it in operations to make the experience pain-free for patients.

My thesis looks at the Victorian medical-woman movement so I was delighted to see Caroline portrayed as an aspiring woman doctor. In one episode, she dons a male disguise to slip into a lecture at the Society of Apothecaries. This is one of those plotlines that has mass appeal but holds extra piquancy for anyone familiar with the history of women in medicine. Caroline’s cross-dressing recalls the incredible story of James Miranda Barry (who was born Margaret Ann Bulkley but later adopted a male identity and gained a medical degree from the University of Edinburgh in 1812). Meanwhile, Caroline’s commitment to gaining recognition from the Society of Apothecaries anticipates the career of Elizabeth Garrett. In 1865, she’d become the second woman on the Medical Register in Britain by exploiting a loophole in the system.

The way in which the series looks both forward and back is characteristic of its approach to historical authenticity. The show’s consultant is Richard Barnett (author of The Sick Rose and Medical London). In an interview, series writer James Wood talks about the back-and-forth email exchanges he and Barnett had over historical accuracy. Wood suggests the show ultimately favoured an authentic ‘feel’ if not ‘absolute precision’.[4] The series’ mishmash of medical history can be a little dizzying but is for the most part a success, since it means every episode is crammed full of wonderful new material. Across six episodes, it touches on a range of medical theories and treatments, from mesmerism and phrenology, to anaesthesia and record-breaking amputations. One episode features an as-yet unknown Florence Nightingale who ruffles feathers in the hospital with her new approach to nursing, pushing for sober nurses and good ventilation. Looking back over the series, my one fear is that it has already mined so much material that it may struggle to fill a second outing.

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Milly Thomas as Florence Nightingale in Quacks. © BBC

As part of their preparation, the show’s creative team also engaged with objects in the Wellcome Collection and the result is a series which brings out the materiality of medical practice. In one scene, William shows Caroline a phrenology skull, while in another Hendrick uses a diagnostic doll with a female patient to preserve her modesty. John is busy developing apparatus which will allow for the inhalation of ether and chloroform – only to have it broken by an angry debt-collector. The show’s rich engagement with medical objects helps elevate it above pure farce and into the realms of period drama.

The high point of the series for me was episode two – ‘The Lady’s Abscess’ – which features Andrew Scott (better known as Sherlock’s Moriarty) as an outlandishly egomaniacal Charles Dickens. When Caroline is invited to dine with her literary hero, she drags along William as her chaperone. Infatuated with his friend’s wife, William claims to have read every Dickens novel in a bid to impress her. But he’s scuppered when Dickens grills him on his favourite characters over the dinner table. The tortuous scene will strike a chord with anyone who’s ever claimed to have read something they haven’t! The episode also implies Dickens poached his concern with public executions from William; it’s a clever aside which will have special frisson for any Victorianists watching.

At the same time, the series doesn’t presume any knowledge on the part of the audience. I watched it with my partner and he found plenty to enjoy in the almost pantomime humour (which is usually more silly than incisive). Nevertheless, those familiar with either the history of medicine or of mid-Victorian London will probably derive more from each episode. Quacks is something of a slow-burner which finds its feet several episodes in, as it gradually opens up a panoramic view of mid-century medical practices. One of the joys of watching is that the stellar cast seems to be having real fun with the material, which proves quite infectious. With the full series available to watch on BBC iplayer, Quacks is an ideal tonic for Victorianists seeking a little light relief masquerading as work.

 

Works Cited:

[1] BBC, ‘Quacks’, http://www.bbc.co.uk/mediacentre/mediapacks/quacks [accessed 17 September 2017]

[2] Anne Digby, Making a Medical Living (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994) and The Evolution of British General Practice, 1850-1948 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999).

[3] M. Anne Crowther and Marguerite W. Dupree, Medical Lives in the Age of Surgical Revolution (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007). Michael Brown, Performing Medicine: Medical Culture and Identity in Provincial England, c. 1760-1850 (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2011).

[4] BBC, ‘Interview with James Wood (creator and writer)’ <http://www.bbc.co.uk/mediacentre/mediapacks/quacks/james&gt; [accessed 17 September 2017]

One response to “Review of Quacks (BBC, 2017)

  1. Interesting Review of colourful TV series which confirmed what I found when writing about Spa tourism in the !9th Century – it was much safer and therefore probably more curative to “take the waters” than to go anywhere near a hospital!
    Ref: https://www.academia.edu/4389020/19th_c_Spa_and_Seasonal_Travel_post_edit_reading_version_pp.13-30_Apr_2012_in_Medical_Tourism_and_Transnational_Health_Care_Ed_D_Botterill_et_al._ Palgrave Macmillan 2013

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