Angels – Vocation (13th April 1976)

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A suicide attempt … Miss Windrup’s 30th anniversary … both disturb Nurse Sandra Ling … (Radio Times Listing).

The series opener, Round The Clock, concentrated on reintroducing the regulars from series one.  There would be one absentee though (Lesley Dunlop declined to return for this second run) which meant that Angela Bruce (as Sandra Ling) would now feature as a new regular (the character had appeared in a single first series episode).

Given how busy Round The Clock was, it made sense to hold Sandra back until this second episode.  She features strongly in the “A” plot (a young woman clings to life following a suicide attempt) with a “B” plot (Miss Windrup celebrating thirty years at St Angela’s) running alongside it. Although Paula Milne does manage the feat of tying both of these plot-threads together towards the end of the episode ….

Attentive first series viewers would have been able to pick up various unspoken touches which reinforce Miss Windrup’s previously established loneliness.  Some are quite subtle (switching off No Regrets by the Walker Brothers on the radio) although others are much more explicit – such as the way Miss Windrup’s face falls for a split second after Joan White (Sheila Keith) announces her intention to retire.

A contemporary of Miss Windrup, Joan has clearly had enough of trying to teach classes of disinterested students.  Although Miss Windrup attempts to dissuade her by declaring that she’ll be bored within a matter of weeks, it seems that Joan (presumably also single) has no such fears about finding activities to fill her days with.  Presumably Miss Windrup is most concerned about losing a friend, confidant and lunchtime companion.

This is interesting enough, but most of the drama today is occurring in the intensive care ward. The first sight we have of Sarah Carter (Lois Ward) is stark enough and things only get bleaker as the episode progresses.  For a series that was pre-watershed (this episode went out at 8.10 pm) Sarah’s later resuscitation attempt feels quite harrowing.

Derek Martinus’ direction throughout is noteworthy. For example, when we cut to Sarah’s resuscitation, the camera lingers on the flat-lining monitor for the first few seconds.  No dialogue is required, the visual image provides the viewer with all the information they need.

Martinus also favours framing shots of characters peering through glass doors – beginning with Mrs Carter (Josie Kidd) observing the work of the intensive care unit from the outside.  The mute, slightly distorted picture Mrs Carter sees is effectively disorientating.  Later, Sandra is pictured on the outside looking in at Mrs Carter (in the waiting room).

When Sandra does enter the room on one occasion, the scene begins with the camera still outside for a while, leaving the viewer voyeuristically witnessing Mrs Carter’s upset countenance but unable to hear any words.  A later, also mute, scene (the Doctor explaining how Sarah died to Mrs Carter, whilst Mr Carter rocks back and forward in his chair, obviously unable to process the news) also stands out.

Mrs Carter simply can’t understand why her daughter would have taken an overdose of sleeping tablets and since Sarah never wakes up we’re denied the answer to this question.  Her estranged husband (played by Bill Treacher) only features briefly, but his pleading final question to Sandra (wondering if Sarah could have taken the overdose by accident) is heartrending. After several beats, Sandra does confirm this might be true but it’s pretty clear that neither she or Mrs Carter believes it.  But it does give Mr Carter a faint hope to cling to.

Sarah’s death occurs offscreen, but I think this is a plus not a minus.  There’s something more powerful about the sight of Sandra observing the now quiet room than there would be in the cliché of a failed life-saving attempt.

Sandra’s bottled-up anguish following Sarah’s death comes spilling out on two separate occasions. The Intensive Care Ward Sister (played by Marcia King) is the first to clash with her.  Sandra’s hurt contrasts sharply to the Sister’s icy-cold control.  This is a theme familiar from countless hospital dramas – there’s simply no time to wallow in self-pity about the demise of one patient as there are always others who require care and attention.  King is so good in this pivotal scene that it’s surprising to see that she only has a handful of television credits to her name.

This opening skirmish merely sets us up for the grand finale – as Sandra finds herself a fairly unwilling attendee at an informal party held to celebrate Miss Windrup’s thirty years at St Angela’s.  The other nurses are indulgent, if occasionally mocking, towards ‘Windy’ although it’s no surprise that Shirley is the one who appreciates Miss Windrup’s efforts the most.

Pat is quite perceptive though – the fact that Miss Windrup’s office is decorated with the portraits of so many of her students but not her friends or family speaks volumes.  Miss Windrup has fully embraced the vocation of nursing, but at what personal cost?

Unlike Joan White, it seems that Miss Windrup simply can’t contemplate retirement (despite having to deal with giggly and irritating students). Her life is her job.  Sandra feels quite differently though, declaring that the vocation of nursing is little more than a “con”, designed to keep them compliant.  The intelligent nurses are the ones who walk away ….

She doesn’t find a great deal of support amongst her colleagues though and eventually the status quo is restored.  Sandra and Jo make their way home, with Jo promising something entertaining for tea.  But the cracks remain on both sides, meaning there’s the sense another eruption could happen again in the future.

Impressively uncompromising, Vocation is far removed from the cosy, soapy image that Angels sometimes conjures up (indeed, when it conjures up any image at all). A promising early series two instalment, this sort of quality bodes well for the stories to come.

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