TV blog: Celebrities on the NHS Frontline

Benjie Goodhart / 21 June 2018

As the nation prepares to celebrate 70 years of the National Health Service, four celebrities spend a week working at King’s College Hospital. Plus, the best of the rest of the week’s TV.

Celebrities on the NHS Frontline 1/2, Thursday 28th June, 9pm, BBC One

The NHS is 70, and to mark this august milestone, the BBC is dedicating a season of programmes to our health service in all its chaotic, bureaucratic, remarkable, life-saving glory. Part of that season, this two-part series sees four celebrities going to work on the frontline, spending a week doing jobs in King’s College, London, one of the country’s busiest hospitals.

Happy birthday NHS! Read our feature on the people that were there at the very beginning

It’s a stroke of genius. Never mind the government’s recent £25bn windfall to the NHS – all we need to do is pack our understaffed hospitals with celebrities ostensibly there to make documentaries, and we’ve got free labour. Just imagine: Look, there’s David Dimbleby emptying a bedpan. Michaela Strachan’s back with your X-Ray results. Here comes Barry Chuckle, ready to perform your triple bypass.

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The four celebrities in question all have a connection with the NHS. I mean, pretty much all of us have a connection with the NHS, what with the whole needing-to-stay-alive thing, but these four have more experience than most. Reporter Michael Moseley trained as a doctor in the 1980s, before deciding on a career in broadcasting. Paralympic sprinter Jonnie Peacock owes his life to the NHS, having lost a leg to meningitis aged five. Stacey Dooley has reported on healthcare issues around the world, and had a mother who worked for the NHS. And Ann Widdecombe was shadow Health Secretary, and had a holiday job at a cottage hospital in her youth.

Ah, Widders. She’s back. It seems that, post-politics, this redoubtable force of nature has discovered something of a fancy for appearing on reality TV. You never quite know when she’s likely to pop up on screen. All I’m saying is don’t take your eyes off Love Island in the next few weeks. (Except, well, do, because it’s Love Island, and we’re better than that, right? RIGHT?)

It’s not difficult to see why producers keep going back to Widders, though. There is something utterly mesmerising about her. She is blunt, forthright, and probably last had an unexpressed opinion back in the early 1970s. She may have the bedside manner of a roll of barbed wire, but there is something undeniably impressive about her no-nonsense, practical approach to life.

Ann is working in the urgent care department. Her first patient is a man who’s been bitten by a dog. Not surprisingly, he seems a little surprised to see Ms Widdecombe calling his name in reception. “Have you done this before?” he asks nervously. He looks like he’d rather go for a second round with his canine nemesis.

Rather more serious are the cases to which Jonnie Peacock has been assigned. He’s a theatre assistant. In another building, that might mean collecting people’s tickets and selling ice cream in the interval. Here it means mopping up blood and watching people being sliced up. He’s been assigned to the neurosurgery team, and can’t wait to get in to surgery. Rather him than me. I could never have been a neurosurgeon. I’m not keen on blood. Oh, also, I was absolutely hopeless at science, and don’t deal well with stress.

Stacey Dooley is in the liver ward, looking at the medical and ethical decisions that have to be made every day to determine who goes where on the transplant list. Michael Moseley, meanwhile, is in the trenches. A&E, where there isn’t even time for a cup of tea.

There are lots of programmes about our hospitals out there. In fact, these days, if you want to have a TV career, your best bet is to go and get a job with the NHS, and just wait for the camera crew to pop by. But there’s a reason why we make so much telly on the wards: Because it is gripping. This is life and death, mortality, humanity, triumph and tragedy writ large, every minute of every day. And what shines through, time and again, is the astonishing dedication, professionalism and decency of the people who staff our NHS. This programme is no different. You cannot watch it without being humbled by what these people do for a living every day. I mean, it’s not writing about telly, but it’s almost as vital. Happy birthday, NHS.

Inside the US Embassy, Monday 25th June, 10pm, Channel 4

Last Sunday, the BBC showed a documentary about being the manager of the England football team. It was called The Impossible Job. It’s not hard to see why. You have to deal with a collection of players who make Croesus look like a pauper, and who have egos the size of European republics. You have the almost-guaranteed antipathy of that notoriously mild-mannered of constituencies, the football fan. And you have a seemingly endless phalanx of tabloid journalists with their pens dipped in poison, just waiting for an excuse to tear you to shreds.

But not only is it not the most impossible job – it’s not even the most impossible job depicted on TV this month. Because that honour goes to the US Ambassador to the United Kingdom, Robert Wood Johnson, the subject of the opening episode of this three-part series taking a behind-the-scenes look at the US Embassy in London.

At first glance, it might look as though Ambassador Johnson has something of a charmed life. He is chauffeured everywhere in a luxury car. He lives in regal splendour in a Regents Park mansion with a 12-acre garden, making it the second-largest private garden in London. After the Queen. He has a team of acolytes hanging off his every word 24/7, and ready to do his bidding without question.

But the work – the actual work in his actual job – isn’t what you’d call straightforward. Being an ambassador must be pretty hellish at the best of times. You rise early, work hard all day, and then in the evening, rather than going home and polishing off a little too much Chablis and catching up on The Crown, you have to get dolled up in a dicky bow and pretend to be interested in the trade delegation from Panama.

But being an ambassador to President Trump – that’s a whole different bucket of enchiladas. The President has got himself elected on a ticket that is stamped very firmly with the words “America First”. In other words, I’m sick of you lot, we are going it alone from here, thanks all the same. Now, whether or not you think he has a point, this doesn’t make for easy diplomacy.

So Ambassador Johnson, needless to say, has to summon all of his extensive expertise in the world of diplomacy, and draw upon his lifetime of diplomatic experience, in order to tackle the job in hand. Except that on the day he became Ambassador, Robert Wood Johnson was spending his first ever day as a diplomat. He is, in fact, a billionaire businessman, heir to the Johnson & Johnson empire, and owner of the New York Jets.

This, then, is a fascinating look at a man taking on a seemingly impossible job, with absolutely no experience, in the midst of a period of almost unprecedented international turmoil. And it is riveting viewing. To be fair to Ambassador Johnson, an enthusiastic Trump supporter, he is a committed, determined and no-nonsense individual who seems more than up for the challenge. But it’s difficult not to feel a pang of sympathy for him when you see him eagerly suggesting, in a meeting, that it will be a key part of his first year to play up the move to the new embassy in Nine Elms as a good news story. “We’ve got to sell it. Why is this the best thing ever?” Because what he doesn’t know is that shortly after masking that statement, he will have to deal with President Trump’s tweets about the dreadfulness of the new embassy and its poor location, and what a ‘bad deal’ it was.

Someone commissions a polling organisation to find out what the British people think of President Trump. At the same time, President Trump is retweeting some tweets by Britain First. Every time the Ambassador’s beleaguered press team appears on camera, they look just a little closer to breaking point. The new embassy has been built to withstand truck bombs and chemical weapons. But there isn’t a building yet that can withstand the most damaging weapon of all: An impulsive tweet.

The best… and the rest

Sunday 24th June

MOTD Live, 12:10pm, BBC One: England, fresh from an absolute thrashing of mighty Tunisia, by the extraordinary large margin of 2-1, are now guaranteed to win the World Cup. Tune in to their undoubted massacre of Panama as they continue their inexorable march to glory.

Tennis: Queens Final, 2:30pm, BBC Two: Sue Barker presents live coverage of the final from West London, between [insert name of square-jawed, big-serving player here] and [insert name of ridiculously quick terrier who uses a racket like a wand here].

Monday 25th June

Tennis: Eastbourne, 2pm, BBC Two: Clare Balding presents coverage of the tennis from Eastbourne, with today’s first round match between [insert name of player who screams like she’s being attacked by wolves every time she serves here] and [insert name of East European you’ve never heard of who has a forehand like a howitzer here].

How the NHS Changed Our World, 7pm, Monday-Friday, BBC Two: Showing as part of the BBC’s NHS at 70 season, every night this week a programme will tell the story of a different aspect of the NHS, from a different part of the UK. Followed each night by…

Britain’s Best Junior Doctors, 7:30pm, Mon-Fri, BBC Two: Jo Brand continues the NHS celebrations with a nightly quiz to find out who are Britain’s best junior doctors.

Tuesday 26th June

NHS at 70 – Live, 8pm, BBC Two: Nick Robinson and Anita Rani present this live 90-minute programme from the Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Birmingham, looking at the history of the NHS, and at its future, with contributions from everyone from comedians to consultants.

Thursday 28th June

FIFA World Cup 2018, 6:15pm, ITV: Tune in to England 7 Belgium 0. Arise Sir Harry. Congratulations Lord Southgate. Etc etc.

Japan’s Secret Shame, 9pm, BBC Two: Documentary telling the story of Shiori Ito, a woman who shocked Japan’s conservative and private culture when she went public with allegations of rape at the hands of a well-known TV journalist.

Good Evening Britain, 9:15pm, ITV: Good Morning Britain tests out an evening slot in this one-off experiment, with Piers Morgan, appropriately enough, on after the watershed.

Friday 29th June

James Martin’s American Adventure, 8pm, ITV: New series in which the chef hits the highways and freeways of the US in search of adventure, the open road, and a few culinary titbits along the way.

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