Surgical Spirit

Surgical Spirit

1989 - United Kingdom

Review by Brian Slade

The medical profession has been a rich source of inspiration for television series, but comedy hasn’t always been able to find its feet there, unsurprising given the harsh realities of the subject matter. One show, however, managed to keep the laughs going on the commercial channels pre-Sky by keeping well clear of the patients, Granada producing seven series of Surgical Spirit from 1989 to 1995.

Sheila Sabatini (Nichola McAuliffe) is a fiery man-eater who runs the surgical team at Gillies Hospital. She has everybody living in fear as she runs her surgeries with an iron fist, in particular gunning after the old school old-boys club that has dominated surgeries in her hospital for years previously. Her perpetual venom for those around her is only stoked further by the fact that she is going through a messy separation from her husband of Italian extraction.

Surgical Spirit

Sabatini’s frustration with the male-dominated system is understandable when looking at the chief protagonists. Neil Copeland (Emlyn Price) is one of the country’s leading surgeons and together with snivelling sidekick George Hope-Wynne (David Conville), they bemoan the perceived encroachment of women into their territory with gender views that were outdated in the 1980s, let alone now.

Surgical Spirit

With such chauvinists around her, every male is in the firing line as she chews out every person for every mistake…’if it happens again, I shall nail your epiglottis to the ceiling’ she warns to one victim, and it seems very few will escape her wrath, including the women. That is, except for her only real ally in the hospital, Joyce Watson (Marji Campi), who juggles theatre administrator with being a more calming sounding board for Sabatini.

Surgical Spirit

Sabatini’s wrath is all encompassing, and few are worthy of being spared. However, one person who looks for the better side in her character, even though most believe she doesn’t have one, is Dr Jonathan Haslam (Duncan Preston). Despite her having insulted every male in the hospital, he allows her to believe she has tricked him into covering for her when she is required to give a lecture to student doctors. All other doctors would only stand in for her if it was so that she could emigrate to Mexico or head into space aboard the shuttle! Haslam knows he is being tricked but allows Sabatini to think she has gotten the better of him by showing a more vulnerable side…and of course, when she realises that he knew all along she is appalled and lets him face both barrels of her venom.

Haslam is old school. He concedes that he has never really understood women: ‘You open a door and you’re a chauvinist pig, leave clothes out and you’re an ill-mannered lout.’ But despite this, and in spite of acknowledging that if Sabatini doesn’t slag anybody off for 20 minutes, she’ll need another fix, he continues to dig for the better side in his boss.

Over seven series we meet Sheila’s son, Daniel (Andrew Groves), and Haslam continually sees past Sabatini’s aggression, and eventually they do become an item, despite having a rocky relationship.

Surgical Spirit

Surgical Spirit had a team of six writers at the helm for its 50 episodes, including comedy-great Graeme Garden. Some of the jokes miss on more recent viewing and as with any comedy several decades old, there are lines to drag out the inevitable ‘indicative of its time’ warning. Copeland and Hope-Wynne could be seen as stereotypes for their sexist banter and belief that if a woman isn’t interested in them then she must be a lesbian, but sadly such characters were probably based in reality, but in the same way Alf Garnett is tolerable because we are mocking him, not agreeing with him, so these two clowns are presented as discriminatory fossils not to be tolerated.

Surgical Spirit

The show isn’t a classic by any means, but it works because of McAuliffe and Preston. McAuliffe brings a harshness that is fully believable and almost frightening. The perfect antidote to this is Preston, best known for being one of the ensemble supporting cast of the late, great Victoria Wood, in particular carrying the part of janitor Stan in dinnerladies. His amiability and refusal to believe that anybody as outwardly nasty as Sabatini doesn’t have a better side brings the contrast needed to make the show work.

After seven series, Granada pulled the plug on Surgical Spirit, by then, Sabatini was head of surgery and married to Dr Haslam. Seven series is a healthy return for a show not always remembered that readily, which is testament to the performances of the cast and the ability of the writers to keep things running at a time when satellite television and edgier comedy were starting to encroach on the established channels’ territory.

Published on October 2nd, 2023. Written by Brian Slade for Television Heaven.

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