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Bedpans and Bandages Episode 5: Life’s a struggle

March 18, 2014

Arrrrrgh! Kelly! How could you let me down like this? It was an open goal! A one-in-a-million opportunity to combine a triumphant nursing moment with the eloquent Nordic wisdom of an Abba lyric – and what did you do? You blew it, that’s what! Oh Kelly, you’ll never get a chance like this again. The patient was called Fernando for goodness sake!

By last Friday, Kelly, we’d been on the journey for three solid episodes, willing you to overcome your fears as our stomachs heaved alongside yours at the thought of snot, pus, ‘yellowy cheesy substances’ and assorted bodily nasties. And then, finally, you nailed it (well not literally, obviously): you marched into that room, you donned your apron, you lanced those blisters, you didn’t faint and afterwards you stood tall and capped it off with the immortal words “if I had to do the same again I would, my friend Fernando”. Er, no. Actually you said “the Dermovate cream and popping the blisters has really made a big difference, so hopefully he’ll just get better now.” Oh Kelly!

To be honest, by the Week Five milestone I was starting to get just the teensiest bit fed-up with the whole ‘squeamish Kelly’ thing. That’s not, you understand, the same as saying I’m fed-up with Kelly herself – far from it. With her enthusiasm, her honesty and her quirky sense of humour, Kelly has easily made it into my all-time BnB top three. No, what began to grate was that despite all this, despite all Kelly’s many positive attributes, lazy programme-makers appeared determined to portray her as this oddly one-dimensional person. The voice-over even introduced her as ‘squeamish Kelly’. All right! We get it!

To start with I, along with many others I’m sure, found the squeamishness rather endearing: brave Kelly’s quest to vanquish her demons and succeed in nursing. But when Episode Five rolled around and we still hadn’t moved on from it (there was Kelly, face to camera, reeling off yet another list of unedifying personal secretions), I found myself wondering if some other subtext wasn’t being subtly slipped in. Namely: in nursing you have to get used to the yuk factor pretty damn quick, and girls, with their congenitally delicate stomachs, can’t cope and go a bit neurotic.

Boys, thankfully, are ready to step up to the plate: in Episode Three, Alistair was shown emptying a bedpan while matter-of-factly observing that “There are pros and cons to every job. I’m not saying it’s a pro for me, the cleaning [of human wastes], but it’s got to be done”. Compare this with the relentless focus on Kelly’s aversion to bodily fluids and the implication is obvious: while the girls are sitting around with their stress heads on, the boys are rolling up their sleeves and quietly getting the job done. In this context, editors must have viewed first-year Mental Health student Kelsie’s instruction to self to ‘man up’ in the face of her needle phobia as something of a gift.

“But” I hear you cry “Haven’t you been watching? The female students are totally amazing!” And yeah, OK, I  agree the programme does indeed feature a number of strong, motivated women like Diane and Kelsie – and Kelly too – whose determination to overcome the obstacles in their way and achieve their goals is by any measure impressive. But considered more broadly, even these stories – though individually heroic – ultimately do little more than confirm the impression that as far as the female students in Bedpans and Bandages are concerned, the overriding script is one of personal struggle. The big problem is that for the male students, it’s a script that’s almost completely absent. For them, what we seem to be getting is a narrative centred on the success of a calm and rational approach.

As an illustration of what I mean, let’s look at how the academic element of the training is depicted (insofar as it’s depicted at all). On the one hand, we have disciplined TK (Episode Four), diligently buckling down to his books after a hard day at work with the words “right now, revising is one of the last things I’d choose to do…but with deadlines creeping up, you’ve got to get down to things”. His reward arrives three weeks later when he ‘aces the first of his Year Two exams, scoring 84%’. On the other, we have Dany (in a clip repeatedly shown in the opening sequences) head-in-hands in front of a computer and wailing that “nothing’s going in!”

Does any of this matter? Well, to the extent that struggle is indeed the daily reality of many women’s lives, what we are getting here is a truthful picture: between them, the female students have experienced, or are currently experiencing, single parenthood, adult caring responsibilities, financial hardship, low self-esteem, ill health, long-term conditions and family tragedy. But it’s also a dangerous picture. Especially when counterpoised against the apparent serenity of the male students, the casual viewer is free to interpret the female students’ struggles not as part and parcel of society’s continuing expectations around the role of women, but instead as the result of individual – and stereotypically female – failings: irrationality, emotionality, stupidity. Sisters, you deserve so much better!

And, frankly, nursing deserves better too. In a week when the government attempted to muddy the waters of all-graduate entry by floating a new ‘apprenticeship route’ (and yes, I do know it will incorporate a built-in foundation degree, but public perception is everything here) and a national newspaper shamefully allowed former newsreader Angela Rippon to launch a staggeringly ill-informed broadside against the current  training regime, I wanted BnB to show me why nurses need degrees – and it didn’t deliver. In particular, it must have been a cruel irony for Kelly to learn that after all her anguish, the only thing she’d ever really needed in order to pass her first placement was a fully functioning internal satnav system; at least, that’s how it must have looked to the audience when they heard mentor Lucy purring that “If somebody asks you to get something, you’re quite competent to get it. Pharmacy run…knowing the outline of the hospital…I think you’ve done everything”. Whatever happened to the big issues in patient care? Palliative care for instance?

One person in Friday’s episode who I wouldn’t have minded hearing more from was Syd, a patient of Dany’s who had end-stage cancer of the prostate. Syd knew he was dying – he actually died just three weeks after being filmed – but he was facing his situation with dignity and equanimity. His only aim was to get out of hospital as fast as possible so that he could host a special meal he had arranged for friends and family. Listening to Syd made me wonder whether the time is now right for a programme or maybe a series of programmes about people who are in the final stages of life. Recent high-profile court cases, parliamentary activity and publicity about the Dignitas Clinic have perhaps got us to the stage where the public is ready for more debate on this. Why not commission a series of programmes that explores end-of-life issues with the people who are facing them as well as their families and the professionals who care for them with such sensitivity and skill. Dr Kate Granger to front?

In the meantime, Syd’s stoicism and trouper-like resolve to live his life his way right up to the end provided the stand-out memory to take away from Friday’s edition of Bedpans and Bandages. Ladies and gentlemen, I think you can see where this is heading. Take it away, Agnetha:
For Angela Rippon’s interview with the Daily Telegraph, see:
You’ll need to scroll down to the penultimate paragraph.

Only three more episodes to go! Want to write a review of one of them? Contact me via Twitter to discuss.

  1. Stuart permalink

    Its a slightly long, possibly tedious read for non media folks, but to understand just why we have even more than ever of those ‘lazy programme makers’, with even more pressure to churn out hit after hit (or not get paid), I highly recommend “The Dream That Died: The Rise and Fall of ITV” by Raymond Fitzwalter.

  2. Thanks. I didn’t mean to imply that the programme makers are not hard-working; I’m sure they work very hard. My point is more that the way the various students are presented appears to follow unimaginative and stereotypically gendered scripts. Maybe you are saying that this is inevitable given the constraints under which programme-makers work? It’s a depressing thought, isn’t it, if the perpetuation of these stereotypes is already built into the content of cultural output before it is even commissioned.

  3. Stuart permalink

    I wouldn’t go so far as inevitable, and just to say I quoted you on lazy because on a cultural level I agree 100%, there is no doubt that on the studio floor (if you can find one left) the programme makers and self-employed, subcontracted staff are working hard – harder than ever, that’s possibly the biggest issue. There is no time for risks (read: mistakes), research, internal debate within the production team, etc… when it could jeopardise the production and/or your next gig. This isn’t a new thing, I remember the torrent of abuse from the old-guard when the BBC came out with the likes of Airport and Driving School in the early 90’s. It wasn’t all bad news at the time. Anyone who remembers the ‘4later’ strand on C4 in the mid to late nineties might have thought this was the future of TV, democratic, open to anyone with a camera, *but* not afraid to get it wrong and cultural values from the basement to the ivory tower. What happened? The same old ‘safe’ faces doing the same old shows. ITV’s latest wheeze? A spinoff series from Morse filmed in ‘a Scandinavian noir style’. Don’t even get me started on Junior Paramedics 🙂

  4. Thanks. I think the portrayal of health services (and public services generally) on TV easily contains several PhDs’ worth of material and I have written before (No Stress: How the media hides the truth about nursing) about the tendency in drama commissions to remove the action to the past or to foreign countries as a way of avoiding confrontation with difficult actual problems in the UK public sector. Casualty (does anyone still watch Casualty?) is set in the present, but from what I’ve seen (which isn’t much recently) tends to major on highly improbable story lines about personal relationships between members of staff.
    We also have the ‘reality’ strand – cheap television, the novelty of which is now fast wearing off. And as you point out, time and budgetary constraints, and the need to safeguard one’s career and pay packet all militate against imaginative thinking or any challenge of the accepted societal ‘scripts’.
    One interesting aspect of the ‘reality’ strand (although not admittedly, Bedpans and Bandages) is that it does not always paint service-users, as is now common elsewhere in the media, as innocent victims of callous public service professionals. We do sometimes see members of the public who are drunk, rude and actively abusing services. Of course they are there to provoke a reaction in the viewer rather than for any ideological reasons (and in that sense, they too are being abused); and of course they represent a tiny minority. But showing their behaviour does provide a useful counterbalance.

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