Agonising pain in your groin? Pop a potato on your crotch. Splinter through your leg? Amputate it when you get the chance. Leaking bodily fluids in your sleep? Down a liberal dose of mercury sprinkled with a relative’s urine. Preferably four times a day.
All inexplicable real remedies of old, illustrated in one of the most original and gruesome comedies prescribed from the BBC in recent years: Quacks. From Bafta-winning Rev Writer James Wood, this raucous sitcom follows the tale of 1840s medical pioneers, the mavericks with a will to broaden the horizons of knowledge – but the methods only to raise the death toll. And unlike Woods’ slow-paced bittersweet ecclesiastical comedy, Quacks is injected with a laugh-a-minute concoction, courtesy of the brilliant cast of absurd medics.
At the helm of the show’s quartet of quacks is Robert (Rory Kinnear), the vain star of Victorian surgery, who entertains banks of wooping women in his amphi/operating theatre. After a brief warm-up act, Robert takes to the stage, assuring the audience “The bloodier the apron, the better the surgeon” as he dons his umber-splattered smock, before wheeling in the patient, placing a cigarette in his mouth and an unwashed scalpel in hand. Thus the operation commences with all the showboating of Elvis and all the grotesqueness of, well, a leg being sawn off without anaesthetic.
So far, so fabulously hideous. But there’s more: joining Robert is part-dentist part-experimental-anaesthetist John (Tom Basden, Plebs), whose home-brewed concoctions lead to mixed results/casualties. Plus, The Wrong Mans’ Mat Baynton plays a fantastically hapless alienist (the pre-Freudian name for psychiatrists) madly in lust with Robert’s sexually and professionally frustrated wife, budding doctor Caroline (Lydia Leonard).
And last but not least foul is Rupert Everett’s scene-stealing Dr Hendrick, an ever-grumpy anti-Semitic hospital head (“Are you Jewish? Better put your name in my black book just in case”) who swears by diagnosing all patients without a glimpse of the affected area.
Although these very separate medical branches often cross paths in slightly contrived set-ups – mainly chance meetings down the local pub – each character is strong enough to carry their own plotlines. In particular, Kinnear shines through each episode as the vainglorious king of quacks, a big-headed celebrity doctor in public and a cringe-inducing ignoramus during the show’s surprisingly gore-light surgery scenes.
Just a warning: the debut episode might leave you with the unwanted side effect of thinking the script is simply a list of amusing misinformed treatments, but later episodes should invite a second opinion. Instead of solely pointing fun of the rusty hygiene of the past, the series soon expands with gloriously damning parodies of historical icons: a fantastically abrasive Florence Nightingale enters in episode two, alongside an egocentric Charles Dickens played perfectly by Andrew Scott. It’s here that Quacks evolves from a string of medical history factoids to a historical comedy to rival Blackadder.
Andrew Scott as Charles Dickens
And it is very Blackadder. Kinnear’s supercilious surgeon harks to Rowan Atkinson’s ever-frustrated and self-serving lead and Everett’s occasionally-appearing eccentric figure echoes Stephen Fry’s pompous General Melchett. Mat Bayton’s naive psychiatrist looks particularly Baldrick-esque with a cunning plan to stage a fake trial for a mentally ill patient, a silliness only matched in sitcom-form with the court martial in – you guessed it – Blackadder (RIP Speckled Jim).
The inevitable comparisons also cover the storylines borrowed straight from the history books. For instance, in one episode Caroline cross-dresses in a top hat and suit to gain access to a mens-only apothecary society – a plot based on Margaret Ann Bulkley, who lived as a military surgeon called James Barry. Similarly, in Blackadder The Fourth, Gabrielle Glaister plays a woman passing herself off as a male soldier, Bob. Again, that’s a plot grounded in a real story, specifically that of Dorothy Lawrence, who secretly posed as Private Denis Smith to fight on the front lines.
However, Woods goes beyond Richard Curtis and Ben Elton’s classic in terms of accuracy. Whereas the historical context of Blackadder is generally painted with a large brush, peppered with the occasional true anecdote, Quacks’ scripts are bursting with fine detail. No matter how odd the plot appears, Quacks is typically alluding to real events, from Robert’s vow to hack off a leg in less than 92 seconds (a real feat boasted by Victorian surgeon Robert Liston), to the doctors’ fondness for wine mixed with cocaine. As Woods himself tells us in his handy introduction to the series, although it all might seem more absurd than other sitcoms, it almost all really happened.
It’s this use of truth what makes Quacks even more ridiculous, poignant and, dare we say, perhaps funnier than Blackadder at times. But even if that’s up for debate now, there’s every chance Quacks will become an all-time classic if it pulls another Blackadder and raises its blood-stained bar to real greatness with a well-deserved second series.
Quacks is on Tuesday, 10pm BBC2. The whole series will be available as a boxset on BBC iPlayer once the first episode has aired