On The Mat opens at Jo and Ruth’s flat. As before, it’s a delightfully dishevelled environment (the attentive viewer can amuse themselves by observing the various knick knacks and posters scattered about). Their conversation ranges from the cruelty of keeping houseplants, Ruth’s infatuation with Dr Crozier (we may not actually see him again, but it’s a nice callback to the previous episode) to her old friendship with Clare Truman (Cheryl Hall). Clare is a former nurse who – post pregnancy – is now a patient at St Angela’s.
The way the camera lingers over a picture of Ruth and Clare (although we didn’t know who she was at that point) suggests she may turn out to be important. That’s the case and Len Rush’s script then proceeds to spell it out. Ruth has fond memories of her former flatmate (telling Jo she was the life and soul of every party, as well as a radical supporter of nurse’s rights). Ruth goes on to say that Clare’s still a cheerful type, but we then cross to the hospital to observe a very unhappy-looking Clare.
So within the first few minutes the disconnect between Ruth’s impression of her old friend and the reality is made plain. Another observation about this first scene, minor though it is, is that both Jo and Ruth look quite different with their hair down. Anyway, pressing on …
The pair elect to walk to work. Their journey takes them past the Thames with Julia Smith’s direction at this point being rather noteworthy. A film insert like this (which doesn’t advance the story) might be seen as an indulgence, but so is the fact that Smith elected to use some type of crane for a swooping tracking shot. Double indulgence maybe, but it helps to give the scene a little extra gloss.
Clare’s the ideal that Ruth aspires to – marriage, a baby, loving husband, nice house – except the audience knows that the cracks are already showing. She’s clearly a woman of means, demonstrated by the fact she has a private room. Different times, but the way Clare casually lights up a cigarette – with her baby only a few feet away – was slightly jarring.
The contrast between Clare’s room (with its air of angst) and the main ward is marked. There, everyone’s smiling: the patients, the nurses and maybe also – when they stop crying – the babies.
It seems odd that Ruth doesn’t seem to have picked up on the fact that Clare’s so unhappy, especially since her colleagues – Sita for example – have. It doesn’t really say much for her skills as a nurse (this is addressed towards the end of the episode). As for Sita herself, she has a very uncomfortable encounter with Clare (who wonders if she’s a man-hater). This is the first time that the normally placid Sita has been flustered and provides her with a welcome spot of character development.
Given the restrictions placed on the use of children and babies during studio sessions, the production could have taken the easy way out and used dummies, but luckily they didn’t. Indeed, Clare’s baby was clearly a talented little actor as they lustily cried throughout several scenes. My first thought was that these screams might have beem dubbed on, but I do think they were genuine.
After being absent for the last few episodes, Pat and Maureen reappear midway through. Maureen’s distracted and rather snippy towards Pat, but this isn’t connected to their falling out at the pub. It’s to do with Maureen’s money problems. Sensible Pat tells her they should go to the office and sort it out – possibly too much is being deducted from her pay packet.
These scenes are very incidental to the main plotline, but since both nurses haven’t featured recently they help to remind the viewers that they are still around. Given that their training is ongoing, I daresay there was only so much dramatic capital which could be mined from their current experiences. Hence the reason why the series has recently been concentrating on the likes of Ruth and Jo.
Bill Owen makes the first of two appearances as Harry Jameson, the head porter. His appearance here is quite brief though, it’s the second – Confrontation – where he really features.
Clare’s husband, Bob (Robert Gary) arrives to visit his wife. I’m afraid I was mesmermised by his moustache, which looks patently false. But musings about his apparently fake face fungus have to be put to one side after Clare disappears ….
It turns out that Clare’s not too far away, so her sudden absence only generates a few minutes of panic. It’s the following scene – when she tells Ruth exactly how unhappy she is – which is more interesting. Ruth’s comment (“if the doctor prescribes pills, then for god’s sake use your loaf and take the bloody things”) is an eye-opener.
The second Ruth-centric episode (Jo only tops and tails this one) is another strong vehicle for Lesley Dunlop. Concentrating mainly on Clare, On The Mat does appear to be inferring – either by design or accident – that her sort of post natal blues is fairly uncommon. The other mothers (only seen in passing) all appear to be quite jolly and well adjusted whilst Clare’s treatment – a handful of pills and an entreaty to pull herself together – implies that a non-physical illness isn’t really an illness at all.