Edgar Pascoe (Nigel Hawthorne) is a leading Cardiac surgeon who finds himself embroiled in difficulties inside and out of the operating theatre. His wife Lileth (Dearbhla Molloy) is a GP who becomes increasingly distanced both professionally and personally from him whilst their daughter Nicola (Helen McCrory) causes friction due to her single-minded desire to follow in her father’s footsteps.
The death of a patient during a routine operation sows the first seed of doubt in Edgar’s mind. Later, during a trip to China as the head of a medical delegation, he finds himself confronted not only by an ethical dilemma but also by his own failing health. Could traditional Chinese methods of healing possibly hold the key? The rational Edgar has always viewed such things with disdain, and yet ….
Written by Paula Milne and broadcast over three episodes during November 1996, The Fragile Heart has somewhat slipped into obscurity despite Nigel Hawthorne’s BAFTA-winning performance (this would be Hawthorne’s sixth and final BAFTA award).
Paula Milne’s writing career stretches back to the early seventies (beginning with an episode of Crossroads). Shortly afterwards she would develop the medical drama Angels before contributing to a number of established series including Z Cars, Coronation Street and Juliet Bravo. Her first single drama – A Sudden Wrench – was aired in 1982 as part of the Play For Today strand, whilst later career highlights include Driving Ambition (1984), Chandler and Co. (1994-95) and The Politician’s Wife (1995).
The opening of episode one sees Edgar give a speech to a roomful of fellow professionals. This is a handy device, as it allows him to state his medical ethos quickly and succinctly. He believes whole-heartedly in the advancement of medical science – especially when connected to the development of new technology. The Fragile Heart is something of a time capsule of the period – it was a period when computer technology was becoming increasingly sophisticated (even if some of the examples look a little low-tech today).
This early monologue is a fine showcase for Hawthorne, who – as you might expect – doesn’t disappoint. And as we proceed, further layers are added to Edgar’s character. Existing in the rarefied upper echelons of the medical profession, he conducts his professional business with efficiency but little personal empathy.
This is exemplified when an anxious patient, Peter Sedgley (Sebastian Abineri), expresses doubt about the operation Edgar has arranged for him. Politely but firmly disagreeing with Sedgley that herbal alternatives may be beneficial, the routine operation goes ahead but tragedy strikes as Sedgley dies on the operating table. Hawthorne again impresses during these scenes, especially during the moment when Edgar is confronted by Sedgley’s grieving widow, Margaret (Marian McLoughlin). That he chose to delegate a junior to break the bad news to her is a telling character moment.
Whilst Edgar maintains a dispassionate profile, Lileth is quite different. The contrast between their working environments is immediately obvious – his patients are wealthy and private whilst hers are poor and public. Lileth’s tactile interaction with her patients makes the point that technology is only part of the medical solution – personal contact is also important. Further to this, witness her reaction when confronted with a demonstration of a long-distance diagnosis (with a doctor at the end of a computer screen). This theme of science versus nature is one which occurs multiple times across the serial.
As for the rest of the family, Nicola’s naked ambition quickly comes to the surface. Happily plagiarising the work of others, she’s unrepentant when confronted by her colleague, Dilip Satsu (Ian Aspinall). This was an early role for Helen McCrory who immediately catches the eye. Nicola’s twin, Daniel (Dominic Mafham), is the one non-medical member of the family and there’s the sense that this is something of a disappointment to Edgar.
The return of a vengeful Dilip – threatening to expose Nicola as a fraud – is a key part of the second episode. They don’t confront each other directly (she, along with Daniel, are both in China with Edgar) but the fall-out is very interesting anyway. Nicola’s casual admission of guilt to her father, followed by a suggestion that he should fake the records to support her story, is a dramatic moment which triggers another of Edgar’s attacks (which have been increasing in frequency).
The aftermath – Edgar is treated in his hotel-room by a Chinese doctor – begins the process of chipping away at Edgar’s belief that science is always right. This is developed across the third and final episode, which sees Edgar continue his journey of self-discovery.
Running for three episodes each of approximately sixty six minutes duration (an unusual format) The Fragile Heart is a somewhat leisurely watch, but it’s held together by Nigel Hawthorne’s magnetic central performance. There’s something undeniably poignant about watching him act the part of a man whose powers were waning (just five years later he would die of a heart attack). Easy to see why he won a BAFTA for this role and two decades on his playing has lost none of its power. This one is well worth checking out.
The Fragile Heart is available now from Simply Media, RRP £11.99, and can be ordered directly from Simply here (quoting ARCHIVE10 will apply a 10% discount).