The darkly surreal masterpiece that is A Very Peculiar Practice was first broadcast on BBC 2 on 21 May 1986. Written by Andrew Davies, in the days before he devoted himself exclusively to adapting other people’s literary works for television, the series follows the story of hapless, idealistic medico Stephen Daker (played by the ever-reliable Peter Davison), who joins the barking-mad medical practice of the worst university in the country, if not the world – Lowlands.
The medical centre is run by drink-sodden eccentric Jock McCannon (the sublime Graham Crowden), until he relinquishes his power and hands over the reins to Stephen in the second series. However, like King Lear (a Shakespearean character with whom he often compares himself), Jock finds it difficult to leave well alone after his abdication, and hangs around like a ghost made flesh, memorably turning up unexpectedly, on several occasions, at his fellow doctors’ homes, cheerfully announcing, ‘Old Jock has come to stay with you’.
The other two doctors Daker finds in the medical practice are no less bizarre in their own special ways than the crack-brained patriarch who runs the place: Bob (‘Do you think you could manage Robert?’) Buzzard is a venomous, misanthropic ball of frustration, brilliantly played by David Troughton; and Rose Marie (the excellent Barbara Flynn) is a creepy, scheming über-feminist, who sleeps her way around the university, seducing men and women alike, as part of her elaborate (and quite incomprehensible) power game, designed to facilitate her rise to the top of the ‘phalocentric’ hierarchy. Well, maybe not the top – she would undoubtedly be happiest remaining behind the scenes, pulling the strings of the foolish male puppets who supposedly rule the roost.
Outside Jock’s ‘kingdom’, we meet Lyn Turtle (Amanda Hillwood), a policewoman studying psychology at the university whilst on a sabbatical from the force. Stephen meets her when she saves him from drowning in the university pool. Lyn’s interest in body language leads her to make a project of helping Stephen overcome his issues with physical intimacy, and a relationship develops between them. Lyn is possibly the only weak point in an otherwise superb series – ordinary to the point of dullness, she ends up being eclipsed by the rampant eccentricity that surrounds her. In series two, Stephen finds a new love interest – the fiery and enigmatic Dr Grete Grotowska, who brings a whole new meaning to the phrase ‘complicated love life’. Grete is a vast improvement on her predecessor, and Joanna Kanska’s portrayal is one of several factors that make the second series just that bit better than the first.
The principal antagonist in series one is Chancellor Ernest Hemmingway (John Bird), whose plans for the university are invariably motivated more by his desire to make money than by any interest in the institution’s academic standing. Jock, who christens Hemmingway ‘the poison dwarf’, sees the chancellor as the root of the sickness that pervades Lowlands. But Hemmingway’s evil is as nothing compared with what is to come in the second series – the new chancellor, Jack Daniels, is easily more Machiavellian, and his schemes even more sinister. Over the course of the series, Jack Daniels’ sanity begins slowly to unravel, until, in the final episode, we find him ranting and raving about his vision for the university as a new ‘Plato’s Republic’.
A Very Peculiar Practice ended with the final episode of the second series, but a one-off film called A Very Polish Practice appeared in 1992 as part of Screen One. In it we find Stephen and Grete have married and moved to Warsaw. Stephen works in a hospital and Grete teaches at the University of Krakow (she commutes there – it isn’t the least appropriately named university in Central Europe). Bob Buzzard is the only other character to return (unless you count a brief cameo by the nuns – I haven’t mentioned the nuns yet, have I?). He’s now working for Hamburger, a company that supplies hospitals with equipment. New characters include Krapowski, the hospital director (Trevor Peacock), Ewa (Polly Hemmingway), a secretary with an unhealthy interest in Angora wool, and Tadeusz (Alfred Molina), Grete’s ex, who just happens to be a gangster. It’s an enjoyable, if rather downbeat, addition to the Peculiar Practice canon.
So, the nuns. There is no explanation at all for their presence. They crop up at some point in every episode and, as just mentioned, even find their way to Warsaw for the Screen One sequel. They run around smoking, littering and generally behaving in a way totally inappropriate to their calling. They probably represent the ultimate rebellion against a higher authority and as such are emblematic of the main characters’ struggle against the upper echelons of power at the university. But there’s no need to read meaning into their role. Their incongruity is perfectly in keeping with the prevailing insanity of what is one of the oddest TV dramas of the late eighties.
Published on February 11th, 2019. Written by Duncan Thomas (February 2012) for Television Heaven.