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Bedpans and Bandages Episode 8: Through the looking glass

April 8, 2014

And so, after eight roller-coaster weeks, it was almost time to bid farewell to our friends from Bedpans and Bandages. A time to regret how quickly nurse training speeds by, but also a time to reflect on lessons learnt, and to look to the future with hope in our hearts. Alistair, all mature and wearing lightly his newly-acquired mantle of gravitas, was thinking ahead to a possible career in theatre; while Helen, with training almost done, was on the cusp of transition from student nurse to independent practitioner. For her new journey, she had words of wisdom: “you never stop learning” she said “and I think through doing the job, I’ll learn more and I’ll develop my skills even more than I have over the past three years”.

Of course, a series of just eight half-hour long programmes can’t even scratch the surface of nursing. It’s just a taster menu really; and the final episode, all mellow, should have lingered on the palate like fine liqueur at the end of a memorable meal. Alas, how little time we were granted to savour that lovely image! Because barely forty-five minutes after the final credits rolled, Bedpans and Bandages was back – and this time, it wasn’t so much on the table as down the toilet. Why? Because its  unexpected resurrection was on none other than Gogglebox (Channel 4) – the programme that re-heats leftover television and turns it into a big fat four-course helping of dodgy curry. Urrggghhh!

To be honest, I quite like Gogglebox. Obviously I worry about silent Jay: is he the Ron Mael de nos jours (link below for anyone too young to remember the 1970s pop phenomenon that was Sparks), or is he a lamb to the slaughter, the only person on Gogglebox who has tragically failed to comprehend what he’s gotten himself into? But that aside, what’s truly fascinating about Gogglebox is that it’s a show where people sit at home shouting a screen, watched by people sitting at home shouting at a screen. What does it tell us about how we construct television – and how television constructs us?

In the last week, there have been dark mutterings elsewhere in the media about how the Gogglebox participants’ conversations are scripted and not really spontaneous at all. Personally, I don’t think it matters – Gogglebox isn’t about presenting a reasoned critique of British television. As I’m going to argue below, what’s important is not what the Goggleboxers actually say, but how the audience at home reacts to it. On the other hand, it may be significant that the section of Bedpans and Bandages selected for review on Gogglebox was the sequence in the Skills Lab. To me, that suggests the producers didn’t feel safe to let loose the acid tongues of such as Mrs Michael on real patients. It suggests anxiety that their fledgling stars would be so uncomplimentary about people who were already sick (“He’s just some waster! Why doesn’t the NHS make people like him drink their own wee!”) that they’d land Channel 4 in court, being sued for psychological damages.

So what did  Gogglebox make of Bedpans and Bandages? For any nurses watching, things got off to a distinctly unpromising start when dippy narrator Caroline Aherne introduced Skills Lab with the words ‘these days, the students train in a pretend hospital with plastic patients’. For the Goggleboxers themselves meanwhile, any conversation about nurses seemed to degenerate into one about sex with depressing rapidity (Linda to George: You’d like to go out with [a nurse] wouldn’t you? Pete: Them ones with the suspenders on in them funny films that you watch?). There was also some (mildly diverting) role-play loosely centred on the prospects of Jake, the Skills Lab’s dummy child, finding  spare-time work as a horror-film creepy. But the most eye catching exchange came, inevitably, from the Michael family – and in particular from the unashamedly opinionated Mrs Michael.

Mrs M: I don’t think that nurses need to do academic stuff because if you’re a nurse, you’re not academic. Coz if you were academic, you’d be a doctor.
Daughter: That is so bollocks!…When your life is in the hands of these people, you’re gonna want them to be as qualified as…
Mrs M: For fuck’s sake! Your life is never in the hands of a nurse!
Daughter: What! What if there are no doctors! And there are only nurses!
Mr M: Like at weekends…

For those who hoped that Bedpans and Bandages would do something to redress misconceptions about nursing, the realisation that the series’ brief but explosive afterlife gave the last word to someone who appeared to have absolutely zero knowledge, must have left rather a sour taste. But to dwell on that is to miss a wider point, and one that, funnily enough, we need programmes like Gogglebox teach us. It’s complicated, but to put it at its simplest it’s this: insofar as Bedpans and Bandages has any meaning, that meaning is constructed solely by those who  watch it. But equally, those who watch it are themselves validated by the meanings they construct. For viewers who do not know them personally (the majority), the only reality the Goggleboxers have is gained through their relationship to television – but that doesn’t stop us creating a form of relationship with them.  Meaning, ultimately, can only be produced when viewers and the objects they view interact with each other.

If this seems like a difficult (or irrelevant) concept, think of it in terms of the relationship between Alistair and patient Rosalyn in the final episode of Bedpans and Bandages. Alistair, scrubbed up and ready to go into theatre, demonstrates his compassion for Rosalyn even when she is under anaesthetic by saying “I think it’s important to go through every step with the patient, so you know what they’ve been through, if there’s any pain or trouble…you can deal with that better, I think, if you’ve been there and seen it. I think it’s key to providing that top-level care that’s needed”. But Rosalyn also has an opinion of Alistair: “he must be a caring sort of bloke” she confides “coz if he weren’t, he’d be no good”.

One of the many problems with ‘compassion’ as the guiding principle of nursing is that while it may – if properly implemented – enhance the nursing role, its effect on patients is the opposite: it reduces them to nothing more than passive consumers of care. And yet time and time again, we hear patients say that while they value compassion, what they value just as much is the opportunity to be active co-producers of their health care. The only way to bring the two together is to view compassion not as some static entity, but as a dynamic relationship, a process negotiated by patient and carer in partnership. Looking at Alistair and Rosalyn, it’s clear that without her, his compassion would have no meaning;  she ‘creates’ a meaning for it firstly through her receptivity and secondly through the interpretation she puts on it. She and Alistair validate each other.

One of the most important ways by which such relationships are mediated are the various life experiences that both sides bring to them. Following a stint as a patient herself, Aimee has gained valuable new insights. “To know how a patient feels, and know how uncomfortable people are when they’re in hospital, I think it’s important to take that experience, and when I’m working back as a…student nurse, take time to say to a patient ‘how are you feeling? Is there anything that you’re worried about?’” We can only hope that the next time Mrs Michaels is in need of hospital treatment, a nurse as thoughtful as Aimee is on hand to gently challenge her preconceptions.

For an iconic performance by Sparks on Top of the Pops in 1974, see:

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