A few years back, the award-winning scriptwriter Lucy Gannon (The Best of Men, Soldier, Soldier, Bramwell) had an idea for a new nursing drama: “I’d been dabbling around with ideas for a series about midwives. I took it to ITV and they said, ‘No. We don’t want a birth-of-the-week story.’ The BBC said, ‘Well, we’re already thinking of doing a midwifery story, so do you want to do midwives or do you want to do a series about district nurses?’ And, like the man who turned down the Beatles, I chose district nurses!”
While comparison with Call the Midwife is inevitable, Gannon’s contemporary drama Frankie is a worthy stable mate. Set in Bristol, it stars Eve Myles as the leader of a team of district nurses. With its formula of human interest, humour and heartbreak – the first episode has all three – the series has “hit” written all over it.
As the nursing profession comes under Government scrutiny (the Care Quality Commission in March reported worrying levels of patient dissatisfaction), Frankie is a timely reminder of nursing at its most resourceful. “While everybody is up in arms about nurses – the idea that they have no compassion – there’s one strand of nursing that there’s no complaint against, and that’s community nursing,” points out Gannon.
Before she turned to writing, she worked both as a nurse and a residential social worker. “District nurses make it possible for people to be treated at home and, crucially, make it easier for their families to deal with their illnesses. Nobody ever talks about them – they think it’s all ingrown toenails and varicose veins – but that’s the stuff that keeps people out of hospital. They’re not the SAS of the nursing profession – they’ve moved on from the bicycle with the basket on the front. They’re the unsung heroes of the NHS.”
For Eve Myles, last seen saving the world in Torchwood, the part of Frankie is a very different kind of challenge. “People are used to seeing me on the BBC as a leather-clad, gun-toting girl, so it’s lovely for me to play someone with a warmer soul. When I told friends I was doing a drama about district nurses, they said, ‘Do they still exist?’ They’re the ghost of the medical profession because they’re not based on a ward or in A&E; they go out on their different journeys with their ten or 12 patients every day and they’re on their own.”
According to ex-community matron, Zara Beeden, who acted as district nurse advisor, getting into patients’ houses can be a challenge in itself. “Strangely, a lot of people don’t want anybody to know they’ve got the district nurse coming. I don’t know whether they consider it an admission of failure, or just a matter of privacy, but particularly with the elderly, you never know what reception you’re going to get. I had a situation – it features in the series – where I’ve had to coax a patient to the door by posting biscuits through the letterbox.”
A welcome upshot of Call the Midwife’s immense popularity is a surge in applications to midwifery courses. Beeden is hopeful of a similar reaction to Frankie – “I’d love to think this would encourage existing nurses to consider working in the community” – but has long since come to terms with the profession’s low profile.
“Yes, district nurses are invisible, but in a way that’s how it should be. Because they operate in a world of sick and sad people and you have to hope that most of the world is quite happy. But the families who need them know their value. And the job is fantastically rewarding. It wears you out, it can plummet you to the depths. But then it can also lift you to the heights, all in an hour.”