Why you should be watching BBC2 documentary Hospital

"No other series I’ve seen about the health service has captured the operational, skin-of-the-teeth side of it so well," says David Butcher

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“We cope, somehow, that’s what we do,” says a consultant at one point in tonight’s second episode of Hospital. Later, there’s a weary aside from a passing a surgeon: “At some point, somebody will be telling us whether we’re allowed to do any work….” he sighs.

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This, it turns out, is what it’s like in the NHS now: philosophical staff, wishing they were able to do their jobs. Instead, they’re hamstrung by the fact that their hospital (in this case, St Mary’s in Paddington, west London) is full to bursting.

There are no spare beds, just a kind of clinical traffic jam. The system is more clogged up than the arteries of an overweight smoker. What makes Hospital such a gripping series to watch – in an awful, tragic sort of way – is that we see the human cost of that chronic overstretch.

In last week’s opener we saw an awful situation unfold as Simon, who urgently needed an operation for his cancer of the oesophagus, sat around in limbo. His entire surgical team waited too – surgeon, anaesthetists, nurses, and so on. An operating theatre sat in readiness.

But for Simon to start his seven-hour operation, the hospital would have to be sure there was an intensive care bed to put him in afterwards. And that was a problem, because at that very moment a retired teacher was being rushed by ambulance from Norfolk with an aneurysm in her chest that could burst at any moment.

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She needed an op and an intensive care bed too. Being closer to possible death, her need trumped his, and there was only one bed spare – or there might be, in a few hours, with luck and a bit of nip and tuck from the relevant departments.

So eventually, after much to-ing and fro-ing, Simon’s operation was cancelled (for the second time), he and his wife went home, and the disconsolate surgical team stood down. Fascinatingly, the programme’s cameras and microphones captured all the gentle argy-bargy of the situation, the expert-to-expert negotiations, the polite wheedling between eminent professors of surgery – and above, all the frustration.

It’s at once brilliantly skilled observational film making (so a pleasure to watch) and evocative of the many problems in the NHS (so quite depressing.) No other series I’ve seen about the health service – and there have been plenty over the last few years – has captured this operational, skin-of-the-teeth side of it so well.

Some commentators have suggested that lately, hospital trusts have become more honest about their difficulties, less defensive, because resources have reached snapping point. In this case, the openness has paid dividends. Over two million viewers saw the first episode – an amazing number for a BBC2 documentary on a thorny subject. That’s heartening, and given recent headlines, joining them feels like the least we can do.

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Hospital continues on Wednesdays at 9pm on BBC2. Catch up on episode one on BBC iPlayer