The fact that Day Hospital was shot on OB VT in real locations helps to give the episode a totally different feel to what we’ve seen before. As good as the studio sets always were, there’s just something more immersive and satisfying about the fact that you can look out of a window and see real life outside.
Set in a geriatric ward and attached day care unit, the episode manages to strike a good balance as it’s neither too maudlin (although there’s bleakness towards the end) or too superficial. Shirley had mentioned previously that the infirm and elderly are similar in many ways to children – today it’s Ailsa (Sylvia Coleridge) who fits that description the closest.
If you wanted someone to play an eccentric, then you couldn’t really do better than Coleridge. Petulant and deeply irritating at times, Ailsa exists in part to try Shirley’s patience through a series of wheezes (smashing plates, pouring water from a vase onto the floor to try and fool Shirley into believing that one of the other patients has wet themselves, etc). But she’s also given a few moments of pain and anguish, which enables the viewer to see the more complex person hiding beneath the dotty surface.
Dodi (Aimée Delamain) and Annie (Irene Handl) enjoy the best of the script though. Dodi is initially presented as an autocratic and imposing individual. Living alone (albeit with nursing support) in a big house, she views the prospect of making regular trips to the day hospital with dismay and disdain. But after one visit she’s quite won over.
Annie is a salt of the earth, speak as you find, type of person. A hospital regular, along with Ailsa (whom she has a love/hate relationship with), she also finds the idea of going to the day hospital daunting (although at least she only has to travel down the corridor to reach it). Like Dodi though, she becomes a firm fan very quickly.
At first, Dodi seems to be a rather broadly drawn character, but as the episode wears on she’s shaded in very effectively. The scene with Dodi and Annie in the day centre is beautifully played by both Delamain and Handl. Dodi’s lonely, spinsterish existence, allied to the early deaths of her brothers (due to WW1 and its aftermath), is teased out in a heartbreaking way. Derek Martinus, as he does elsewhere, elects for close-ups during these dramatic moments, which is a simple but effective touch.
Even though Annie’s tale is also shot through with suffering (she lay undiscovered in her house for three days after suffering a stroke) there’s something about Handl’s delivery of these lines which still manages to create a sense of warmth. No doubt residual affection from her long comic career is playing a part here.
With the guest actors featured heavily, the regulars are slightly pushed into the background, but those featured – Shirley, Maureen, Pat – still benefit from some decent character development throughout Susan Pleat’s script. After suffering run-ins with both Ailsa and Annie, Shirley has to work hard to retain her self control (even more so after another patient suffers a broken leg and Shirley finds herself accused of negligence by her relatives).
Shirley’s slightly stunted personal development may be the reason why she finds all one-on-one interactions to be somewhat trying, although nobody could blame her for getting a little irritated with either Annie or (especially) Ailsa. But by the end of the episode she’s definitely gone through something of a learning curve, leaving us with the impression that piece by piece she’s becoming more of a rounded person.
Although Shirley is having a trying time in the ward, Maureen (working in the day unit) appears to be having a much easier experience. Maybe this is just down to the luck of the draw, or possibly Maureen’s more placid nature just fits in well with the atmosphere of the place.
Pat’s place in this story is very interesting. She’s someone who we haven’t really explored in any great depth for a while, which makes this episode a very welcome one. With Pat’s mother being a friend of Dodi, Pat is instantly drawn to her – she may be occasionally tetchy, but Dodi also has the aura of a wise sage.
Pat finds herself telling Dodi things – about her strained relationship with her mother and her doubts about nursing as a vocation – which she claims she’s never shared with her friends. Given how close Pat and Maureen seem to be, this is a little surprising, but on reflection maybe not. It’s a nice character beat either way though, as it helps to show that the outwardly confident Pat is just as riddled with insecurities as, say, the socially awkward Shirley.
Dodi’s death at the end of the episode therefore comes as a jarring blow, not only to the audience (who no doubt would have grown to appreciate her as the story wore on) but also to Pat, who tells Maureen that she’s lost her new-found confidant. This seems to be a slightly selfish point of view, but it also feels quite truthful. Pat’s final visit to Dodi’s house – now covered in dustsheets and empty of all life – is nicely played, especially the moment when she picks up the small bell that Dodi was fond of ringing whenever she required attention.
The fact that Dodi died in a late-night fall down the stairs is a bleakly ironic twist. Previously pretty much bed-bound, the strong inference is that her new-found confidence after attending the day hospital was a contributory factor in her death. Maureen is quick to scotch Pat’s suggestion, but this lingering notion is left hanging in the air.
It’s pleasing to know that we’ll encounter Ailsa and Annie in another episode shortly. Thanks to the nuanced performances of all three senior actresses, Day Hospital is a thought-provoking and memorable episode.