A Very Peculiar Practice – Contact Tracer

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At the start of this episode Lyn and Stephen enjoy a relaxing post-coital moment. Lyn tells him that she’s his best client and that their experiences (with the names changed of course) will make valuable research material. Is she attempting to unsettle him with her talk of other partners – all part of her researches maybe? Stephen, although he’s immensely grateful to Lyn, can’t help but feel like an experiment subject. At one point he likens himself to a “smoking beagle”.

John Bird returns as Vice Chancellor Ernest Hemmingway with Frances White appearing as his ever-loyal secretary Dorothy Hampton. The members of the practice are called to an early morning meeting with the VC, where the drinks on offer – apple juice – doesn’t meet with the approval of Bob (“I’m not a bloody hippy”).

Hemmingway is a jargon-spouting bureaucrat, keen for the practice to pay its way. Stephen’s weak protestation (made even less impressive by the way he’s clutching his carton of apple juice) that they have an impressive treatment rate piques the VC’s interest for a fleeting second, but since it’s not actually something that’s generating income he’s unsure of how they can spin it into a success story.

Stephen’s encounter with Jeannie MacAllister (Geraldine Alexander) has unforseen consequences. She’s charming and Stephen is his usual affable and friendly self, but she’s also a journalist and despite Stephen’s protests that he can’t discuss confidential medical matters with her, he attempts to put a positive spin on their treatment successes. Alas, this means that he turns into Doctor Blue Eyes whilst their success at treating VD becomes a major talking point of the article.

But then there’s a rash – as it were – of cases of sexually transmitted diseases. Stephen and Rose Marie, of course, are delicate, patient and understanding with their patients whilst Bob is forthright, brisk and uncaring. “Below the waist I take it? Front or back? So we’ve got a bit of tool trouble, well, well, well”. Jock is his usual avuncular self, telling one student that it’s “one of the minor penalties extracted from us by the goddess aphorpdite”.

With thirteen cases in two days (“trouble with the trouser snake” as Bob puts it) Jock and the others have a race against time to stop the epidemic growing. Graham Crowden once again ramps the intensity up and effortlessly steals the scene as Jock rages to Bob that they have to tackle this undercover and with a Falklands spirit. Later bulletins to the troops (“we’re holding the enemy, but only just”) are delivered in the same entertaining military manner.

With only a limited number of extras on hand, a little bit of creative work ensures that the illusion of a stream of patients is created. First, we see a number of mute patients before rapidly cutting to close-ups of the doctors as they continue to work their way through a backlog of appointmemts. By this point we simply have to accept that the unseen people they’re talking to are actually there.

Bob’s rundown of which departments were the worst offenders is a classic VPP moment. “Arts Faculty produced the largest number of cases. Idle sods. Too much time on their hands. Whole department’s going down like dominos. Similar pattern with the secretaries and porters, and Communication Studies lived up to their name. Waitresses and bar staff were a problem till we sewed up the catering managers’ trousers with cobbler’s thread. Sociologists only appear to do it with each other and we’ve got control there. Engineers, you’ll be interested to hear, have a very low rate of sexual activity. Singing about it in the bar seems to be their only outlet. And Physical Sciences hardly troubled the scorer”.

The nuns – who have been ever-present background figures – call in to see Jock. Stephen’s shocked expression – surely, they can’t have … ? – offers Peter Davison a lovely reaction moment. The late twist that even the VC is affected is another gift for Davison as Stephen is forced to reluctantly approach Hemmingway in his den. Naturally, the VC immediatly jumps to the conclusion that Stephen’s attempting to blackmail him.

The VC is appreciative but as a skilled politician he finds it impossible to believe that Stephen won’t attempt to use this embarrassing information at a later date. So Stephen’s told gently but firmly that his days at Lowlands are strictly numbered ….

The Galton and Simpson Playhouse – Variations on a Theme


Variations on a Theme is an interesting concept. It’s essentially two very short one act plays with the same actors (John Bird and Frances de la Tour) and the same setting (a park bench)  In both cases the story develops from the same line from de la Tour’s character – “Robert’s found out” – and both stories have a twist at the end.

In part one, the two are lovers – meeting in the park after their afternoon of passion the previous day.  The bombshell that Robert (her husband) has found about their relationship strikes fear into the heart of Bird’s character.  She consoles him that he had to find out sometime, which he disagrees with.  “We only met yesterday.  Some men get away with it for years.  Some men never get found out at all.”

Bird’s character is particularly anxious, since Robert is a television wrestler (the Streatham Strangler) who’s well known for his violent temper.  Another cause for concern is what the scandal will do to him – as chairman of the Marriage Guidance Council it’s more than a little embarrassing.  “I’m expected to save marriages.  You came into my office yesterday for advice.  Two hours later we were in bed together, people aren’t going to understand that.”

John Bird is excellent as the twitchy adulterer, constantly looking over his shoulder in case Robert’s lurking in the bushes nearby.  Frances de la Tour is equally good as a woman seemingly possessed of a deep passion.  However, the twist is that after he’s paid her £5000 to keep his name out of the divorce proceedings, she moves onto the next park bench where it’s clear that there’s another mark who she’s also enjoyed a one night stand with (and presumably she’ll be conning him out of a similar sum of money).

In part two, the pair are a married couple and Robert is their son – who’s found out about the facts of life from a friend.  Bird’s character reproaches himself.  “It’s a father’s responsibility to tell his son about these things.  I failed that boy.  I had it all planned about how I was going to tell him.  I mean it’s only three months since I brought the rabbits home.”  Although, as de la Tour’s character points out, the rabbits were both female, which was a bit of a problem.

It quickly transpires that Bird’s character, despite being a psychiatrist, has something of a hang-up when it comes to sex – so he’s very reluctant to broach the subject with his son.  He then wonders if Robert ever saw the two of them in bed.  de la Tour’s character thinks not, but Bird’s character isn’t convinced since “you usually have a pillow over your head and I have my eyes shut.”

Eventually he decides to employ a course of aversion therapy on Robert and then bring up the subject in a couple of years time.  She then reminds him that it’s Robert’s birthday the following day – when he asks how old he is (nine or ten he thinks) she informs him that he’s twenty three.  As they leave the park together, they discuss appropriate presents (she thinks a cowboy suit would be right, whilst he thinks a railway set would be ideal).

Again, Bird and de la Tour are excellent in another two-hander.  Had either of the two story ideas been stretched to the whole twenty-five minutes it probably wouldn’t have been as memorable an episode.  But spinning two totally different plots from the same opening is what make this stand out a little from the norm.