Angels – Ambition (20th April 1976)

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Up until now, Alison Salter (Cheryl Branker) has been an exemplary student nurse, which makes her recent erratic and tardy behaviour all the more puzzling. Both Shirley and Sister Easby attempt to discover what’s troubling her – but the fiercely private Alison is reluctant to divulge her secrets ….

There’s plenty of interest in Ambition, although unlike the previous episode it’s not a matter of life and death (unless you count Alison’s career).  One slight drawback with this one is the fact that Alison’s purely a one-shot character (never seen before, never seen again) which does mean that her background and character has to be verbally sketched in by the others very rapidly.

The problem with this approach is that we only ever witness the fraying and irritable Alison and not the remarkably efficient nurse destined for great things (according to Jo, she’s sure to be another Barbara Castle).

Leslie Duxbury’s script does its best to wrong-foot the viewer.  It opens with Alison dropping two pre-school children off for the day (either with a neighbour or a paid carer – this isn’t quite clear).  The inference is that they are her children, but they turn out to be her sisters. Equally, it’s easy to believe at first that Frank Salter (Oscar James) is Alison’s husband – and not, as later becomes clear, her father.

Throughout, Alison is quite effectively portrayed as an isolated figure in the hospital.  As the other nurses bustle into the locker area – chock full of gossip and rushing to get themselves together – Alison is always shown to be in her own self-contained bubble.  Presumably this is a change from her usual personality, although as previously stated the audience doesn’t really know what is usual for her.

I do like these scenes though. Shirley, Sita, Jo and Sandra are mixed in with a group of four or so minor players, with the result that there’s a fair amount of hubbub as they arrive and then later depart each day.   These scenes – and others throughout the episode – are also helpful as they solidify the attitudes of the regulars.

Sandra and Jo, rather like Maureen and Pat, really do seem to be chalk and cheese.  Sandra’s already planning her future (occupational nursing) whilst Jo doesn’t seem to have any ambitions at all.  Whilst Sandra rifles through the library looking for job opportunities, Jo is content to quote love poetry and dream of what might be ….

Shirley’s desire to work with geriatrics is teased out a little more. Indeed, the solid “b” plot of today’s episode concerns Shirley’s relationship with a cantankerous elderly patient, Mrs Cosgrove (Betty Romaine).  I did wonder whether there was going to be some sort of twist in this tale – but no, the storyline proceeds along a fairly predictable route.  Mrs Cosgrove doesn’t have a good word for anyone (she decides that Alison should get on the next banana boat home, for example) but most of her ire is directed towards the woman in the bed opposite her.  She’s a non-speaking extra though, so we’re denied any verbal contretemps between them.

Instead, Mrs Cosgrove crosses swords with Shirley who eventually manages to pierce her shell to discover the more approachable woman underneath.  Shirley’s patient, steely but jocular approach is a revelation compared to her more by-the-book nursing from series one and serves not only to demonstrate her growth as a nurse but also as a person.

Also lurking on this ward is Sister Easby.  The slipshod Alison receives a few hard stares whilst her interactions with Shirley are also noteworthy.  Sister Easby isn’t someone who dishes out praise that often, so Shirley isn’t sure whether her success with drawing out Mrs Cosgrove is being applauded by Sister Easby or mocked.  What’s interesting though is that when Sister Easby later joins Shirley and the others for lunch she’s quite affable and willing to chat.  Clearly she’s a very different person depending on whether she’s on or off duty.

Miss Windrup, making a late appearance, is the one who finally gets to the bottom of Alison’s issues (following failed attempts by both Shirley and Sister Easby).  It’s a nicely played scene, directed well by Derek Martinus.  Martinus maybe doesn’t throw in quite so many directorial flourishes throughout as in his previous episode, but there’s still some unusual low-angle studio camera angles and a couple of surprisingly panoramic film shots (a bit wobbly it’s true, but still effective).

Ambition doesn’t provide us with closure on Alison’s story, but it seems more than likely that she’ll be forced to leave nursing, much to Miss Windrup’s regret.  As has been seen before, Angels didn’t always go in for pat and happy endings – it would have been easy enough to leave the viewers with a sliver of hope, but real life is often untidy and unsatisfactory and this episode rather mirrors that.

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