A Very Peculiar Practice – Wives of Great Men

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Professor John Furie (Timothy West) is a middle-aged senior academic going through a serious mid life crisis. Suffering from listlessness and a lack of drive, he reacts with anger after Stephen tentatively suggests they dig a little deeper to discover what the problem might be. But Furie is a man of wild mood swings and shortly after he informs Stephen that he’s made an enemy for life, he’s suddenly changed tack and decides that Stephen is “one hell of a doctor”. Although whether it’s better to have Furie as an ally or an enemy is debatable ….

The obvious highlight of Wives of Great Man is Timothy West’s barnstorming bewigged performance as Professor Furie (aptly named, since he’s in constant state of … well, fury). But the rest of the episode is excellent too, kicking off with a typically entertaining practice meeting.

Today there’s an innovation as Maureen (Lindy Whiteford) is an unwilling attendee. It’s interesting to see whilst Rose Marie supported her presence, after Maureen praises Stephen there’s a decidedly chilly atmosphere between the two women. And even affable old Jock, who brought Maureen into the meeting in the first place, is irritated by the fact that she actually has the temerity to open her mouth and voice an opinion. The practice hierarchy (with Maureen at the bottom – despite doing a good deal of the work) is made very clear here.

Clashes between Jock and Bob are always a highlight.

Jock: Bob has some figures for us, culled from his rinky-dinky little computer. Bob!
Bob: Thanks Jock! [pause] Do you think you could manage “Robert”?
Jock: I’ll try, Bob. Old habits die hard.
Bob: Riiight.

Bob continues to look for savings. Closing down the sick bay and ceasing treatment for the wives of the staff would certainly be one way to streamline (and then they could look for some lucrative private income). But everyone else rejects this, leaving poor Bob frustrated (Troughton’s tight-lipped affability at this point is perfectly done). When Jock calls him “cynical” and an “opportunist” Bob doesn’t react with annoyance, instead he agrees with him. “Not dirty words in my book”. It is the 1980’s after all.

Stephen later has several meetings with his colleagues. First of all Jock, who tells him to “search out the deep sexual anxiety” when dealing with his patients. Stephen later does this with Furie of course, with disastrous results. Rose Marie once again unsettles him (she describes Furie as a “hollow plaster phallus”). Davison may not seem to be doing too much during these scenes except react (as he also does when facing the Furie onslaught) but it’s the way he reacts that’s key.

Stephen’s first meeting with Furie is rocky. “You insulting little bastard” rages the Professor after Stephen has tentatively attempted to find out how Furie’s tiredness manifests itself. Stephen’s suggestion that Furie undertakes a full medical doesn’t go down any better. “Oh yes you’d enjoy that, wouldn’t you? Feel a little more in control of the situation if you had me naked and bent double with two rubber-gloved fingers up my arse”.

Post consultation, a shattered Stephen seems to have regressed to a schoolboy, anxiously looking out the window and then skulking in corners when he does leave the practice, convinced that Furie will leap out at any moment and duff him up. Jock and Bob – united for once – offer no comfort as they tell him that whilst Furie isn’t exactly a homicidal personality he’s definitely a bit of a ruffian. The glee on Bob’s face makes it plain that he’s anticipating some pain (a few broken ribs maybe) to come Stephen’s way.

When Furie suddenly treats Stephen as his best friend (“one hell of a doctor”, remember) it’s another wonderful opportunity for Davison to play the straight man. But he’s gifted some nice comic touches too – when Stephen spies Furie advancing on him and Lyn he dives under the table, convinced that a battering is on the cards. So when Furie instead wants to shake him by the hand, Stephen has to do so from under the table ….

Earlier, Stephen had reacted with surprise at the news that the wives of the university staff required so much treatment. Rose Marie wasn’t (telling him that their husbands make them sick, literally). As per the episode title, this is a theme developed throughout as Furie’s manic suspicion that his long-suffering and ever-loving wife Helen (Philippa Urquhart) is having an affair colours his every action. Thanks to his manic mood swings (not helped by mixing the pills prescribed by Stephen with alcohol) he changes from acidly suspicious to remorseful in a heartbeat.

Although given that it seemed to be earlier set up that Furie was unsure about whether his wife was having an affair, when we later discover that she is (and Furie knows about it) it does feel slightly odd. Why was he so suspicious if everything was already out in the open?

The humour of Furie’s earlier, unbridled public insults (telling the waitress after an indigestible steak that he wished to pass “my compliments to the chef, and would he care for a fistfight with Professor Furie?”) gives way to a quieter tone as Helen unburdens herself to Stephen. That he reacts in horror to the tales of her home-life whilst she treats the stories of her husband’s manic mood swings with amused indulgence is an interesting touch.

Furie has been down, then up and then down again. His climatic encounter with Stephen – now once again more his enemy – is another classic moment. Having walked through the pond to reach the surgery, he bursts into Stephen’s consulting room, convinced that the mild Dr Daker has been conducting an affair with his wife.

Stephen: Do sit down, I was hoping we could have a chat.
Furie: About my wife, perhaps?
Stephen: No. I did speak to her yesterday, I hope you don’t mind.
Furie: In bed, no doubt. While you were shafting her, no doubt! Typical of you cold-blooded Tavvy types! Yes I do mind, very much indeed, does that surprise you? My God, I thought of Buzzard, I even thought of McCannon, but it was you, you all the time, Daker! And don’t think I’m unaware of the part the Chilean government played in this!
Stephen: [pressing intercom, meekly] Help!

Delightfully, after pressing the intercom, Furie’s continuing diatribe is then broadcast to a rapt waiting room full of patients who soak up every word!

Help arrives. Bob is felled with a single blow and Jock cowers in the corner, so it’s possibly not too surprising that Rose Marie is the one who takes charge – efficiently pinning Furie to the floor whilst calmly advising Stephen that he should phone for an ambulance.

The parting shot of the episode – Rose Marie suggests to Stephen that she is the person Helen is having an affair with – is intriguing. Whether it’s true or not – and with Rose Marie you often can’t be sure – it ensures that the episode closes on a reflective note.

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