Angels – Concert (18th May 1976)

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The second of Susan Pleat’s two scripts set in and around the geriatric ward, Concert, like Day Hospital before it, is an OB VT production shot on location.  As previously touched upon, this helps to make the story seem just that bit more real.  Sylvia Coleridge and Irene Handl return (the ranks of familiar senior actors is supplemented with the appearance of Leslie Dwyer) but it’s some of the background elderly players who, along with the location, are key to the documentary-like feel of the production.

They clearly are infirm and so don’t have to act the part.  We see Shirley attend to them via a series of brief vignettes – fulsomely praising one lady after she walks a handful of steps to the table, gently cajoling another into taking a bite of food – and these moments spark mixed emotions.  Shirley’s ever-growing connection to all her regulars is plain which makes her quick to react with anger when quizzed about the futility of looking after people who are clearly never going to get better.

This theme is developed when Jo, curious about the regular musical concerts organised in the hospital, decides to drop by and lend a hand.  Jo’s reluctance to get involved with the geriatric side of nursing has been mentioned in previous episodes and is put into words today by another character. “Feed ’em and clean ’em and that’s your lot. They’ll addle your brains and break your back”.

That seems to be a commonly held view and it’s the reason why many nurses elect to give geriatrics a miss.  Concert, aiming to challenge this opinion, is helped by the fact that both Annie (Handl) and Patrick (Dwyer) are still mentally sharp, even if physically they’re beginning to fail.  Their quick wits ensures that the viewer isn’t always dwelling on the frailer and more hopeless-looking cases.

But a feeling of melancholy is never far from the surface. At the same time that most of the old folks are having a jolly singalong at the concert (My Old Man being amongst the highlights) Ailsa, back in the ward, is being told by her son that they simply couldn’t cope with her at home.  She, naturally enough, descends into bitter tears whilst elsewhere Jim Murphy (Colin Higgins) lectures Jo about the growing population of old people and the issues with caring for them.

The series didn’t often take the opportunity to revisit one-off characters.  They do today though, with Gordon Massey (Colin Higgins) making a return (he’d previously featured in the series one episode Saturday Night). He doesn’t have a great deal to do in this episode (and there’s no particular link back to his previous appearance) but it’s still a nice touch.  Like Shirley, he’s passionate about his work on the geriatric ward – for him it’s because he knows what it’s like to be abandoned and therefore is adamant that it’s not going to happen to any of his charges.

No doubt Shirley would have loved to have been at the concert as well, but instead she’s sharing an evening from hell with the drippy Roland (Norman Tipton). Quite what their previous relationship has been isn’t too clear, but Roland – shortly to depart for a lengthy trip abroad – is keen to demonstrate to Shirley just how much he cares for her.  However it’s pretty obvious that the sooner he packs his bags and leaves, the better off she’ll be.  Shirley may usually be bereft of male company, but you have to draw the line somewhere ….

It’s bad enough when he’s attempting to force wine on her at the restaurant, but things get even more toe-curling when he decides that playing a deep and meaningful record on her Dansette is the way to go.  Not a good move. He may feel unfulfilled due to a lack of personal contact, but Shirley doesn’t.  She has her work, and that is her life.

When they can’t talk very much, or even talk at all, they can’t hear you, well then you really have to look at them. Because people’s eyes are really where they are. And if I have to talk to them in that way, then I can. But, say with you or my mother then I can’t do that at all. Or with a lot of people. But there I just get on with things. It’s me and it’s right somehow.

This is a nicely delivered monologue by Clare Clifford, which sees Derek Martinus flicking back between close-ups of her and Norman Tipton (an ironic touch, given Shirley’s comment about people’s eyes).

Concert may have a lecturing tone, but it isn’t done in a heavy-handed way. Jo, like the audience, is pitched into a strange new world and by the end she seems to have learnt something, although there’s still a sense that she’s reluctant to get too involved, unlike Shirley.  The episode doesn’t offer any pat solutions (given how complex the issues are, how could it?) but plenty of food for thought is generated.

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Angels – Day Hospital (4th May 1976)

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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.

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