If you discount the comedy drama Doc Martin and the thankfully short-lived Sweet Medicine, ITV hasn’t had a GP series since Peak Practice bowed out in 2002. Now ITV is revisiting medical drama with an original twist on the genre. Its new series, Harley Street, is set in the glossy, upmarket world of private medicine.
“It’s a modern ITV heartland show. We’ve tried some shows that have been a little bit riskier such as Echo Beach; this is not one of those. I’d like to think it’s a natural descendant of Peak Practice but not made in an old-fashioned way,” says ITV director of drama Laura Mackie.
“It shows what private medicine is about but I think it’s done in a very warm, accessible way,” she explains. “The chemistry between the central characters is wonderful and because it’s the world of private medicine you get some issues such as plastic surgery that you wouldn’t get in a conventional medical drama.”
Harley Street stars Suranne Jones, Paul Nicholls and Shaun Parkes as three private doctors running a chic, modern practice. It is a world far removed from that of the traditional Harley Street doctor, the buffer in a bow tie. “We want Harley Street to be relevant to everyday people. The series delivers big medical action sequences, which bring a new take on medical emergencies via a GP,” says Nicholls, who plays Dr Robert Fielding.
The starting point for the series came in February 2006 when Carnival Film and Television executive producer Christopher Aird received a speculative script for what became Harley Street from Marston Bloom’s agent, Jago Irwin. Bloom, a former TV and stage actor, had no writing experience other than a spell working on script development at a film company.
The script had been “turned down by everyone in town”, recalls Bloom, but Aird saw promise: “I read it and straight away thought it was something we could make. It’s very rare for a spec script to do that. Marston had identified a world that had never been dealt with before in a primetime TV drama.”
Having marked out ITV as a potential broadcaster, Aird and Bloom worked on the script, broadening the subject matter beyond the narrow world of private health care, which Aird thought would be unacceptable to ITV. Dr Fielding, for example, continues to work night shifts in a busy hospital A&E department.
The medical drama is a crowded market but producer Joy Spink says Bloom’s script was a world away from Casualty, Holby City and the legion of US medical imports: “They are much more hospital-based
and very much about the drama of operations.”
Aird co-executive producer and Carnival creative director Sally Woodward Gentle says: “We’ve gone back to the basics about the vocation of being a doctor, the adherence to the Hippocratic oath and that need to make people better.”
Woodward Gentle has always tried to give new writers a chance. While working at Kudos in the late 1990s she commissioned David Wolstencroft, on the back of a speculative script, to write Psychos,
the Channel 4 drama set in a psychiatric unit.
Nicole Taylor, who wrote an episode of Harley Street, was brought on board after she sent Carnival a short script for a children’s programme.
“The luxury that a series affords is that you can take the odd risk with a new writer. We’d far rather have someone who’s got the enthusiasm to really go for it and has something to prove,” says Woodward Gentle.
Bloom has written the first two episodes, Taylor the third and more experienced writers - Howard Overman, Andy Rattenbury and Jack Williams, all with episodes of Carnival series Hotel Babylon under their belts - have penned the final three.
Mackie and ITV controller of drama commissioning Sally Haynes greenlit Harley Street in June 2007. Was Mackie taking a chance letting new writers loose on one of ITV’s glossy primetime shows? “It is a risk but there are only so many Russell Ts, Pete Bowkers and Paul Abbotts to go round,” she says.
“But you have to give new writers time. So, the one thing we were very strict about on Harley Street was that we weren’t going to rush it. I liked Marston’s voice and I felt that if we gave him time we would get something that felt fresh.”
The actors, writers and directors spent time with Harley Street doctors and plastic surgeons, and medical experts checked scripts to give the series authenticity. Nicholls visited a Harley Street GP. “To develop my character I asked her about the emotional side to her career and how she manages to maintain her professionalism during difficult cases.
She told me how when she drives home after work she does a mental detox to let everything go,” he says.
Suranne Jones, who plays Dr Martha Elliot, met Dr Samina Showghi, “a
Harley Street practitioner who is very much like Martha”, according to Jones. “She consulted on the show; checking that all the medical aspects were accurate, we discussed the scripts and spoke about what it’s really like to be a female doctor on Harley Street, working in what is still a predominantly male world.”
Verisimilitude clearly matters in medical drama. “Over and above the medical profession, who are probably far too busy to write or phone, viewers know probably better than we do,” says Spink. “They watch all these medical shows and would spot if one of our actors put a tourniquet on wrongly. If the adviser on set says [a practice] is not quite right, we will shoot it again.”
But, more than any other component of a drama, adds Spink, it is the quality of writing that matters. “You can get the best actors in the world and shoot it beautifully, but if the script doesn’t work you haven’t got a chance. You can ruin a good script but you can’t fix a bad script.”
Lead director Paul Whittington, another veteran of Hotel Babylon, was charged with setting the style for the series, which was shot in the first half of this year. “Once you’ve read the first couple of episodes you start to get a feel for the tone of the show - getting that right is all important.”
A lot of time was spent polishing the script, rehearsing the actors and building back stories for their roles. “In the first episode of a new series the audience has to quickly find recognisable, fully rounded characters. Look and style are important but, particularly with a piece like this where we are telling human stories, you have got to get character right first.”
Like much new drama, Harley Street was shot in high definition. Fortunately for Whittington, Bafta award-winning director of photography Peter Greenhalgh was available. “Peter has pushed it to get the best possible look out of that format. We wanted a classical style that was rich in its texture and Peter’s able to get that out of HD. He’s given it something more akin to a filmic quality,” says Whittington.
In almost 30 years in the industry, Greenhalgh has worked on some of TV’s biggest and best dramas, including Inspector Morse and Clocking Off. He sees HD as “just a different way of capturing images”.
“I’m not anti HD, but a lot of people are because it shows up a lot of detail. You can’t get away with things like you used to be able to on film, so you have to be much more careful in terms of exposing the images.”
A smooth shoot was ruffled only by continual misgivings about the title of the series, which has changed from Harley Street to Tender Loving Care and back again. “We thought Harley Street was a very clear, ‘does what it says on the tin’ title,” recalls Mackie. Doubts surfaced when the programme-makers began to wonder whether audiences would assume the series was only about private medicine and plastic surgery.
“But we saw the first three episodes and we all thought Harley Street was the best name. It’s an iconic London street and it clearly says “medicine”. When you see the show, I’m confident the audience will see it as a very mainstream, accessible medical show.”
Actor-turned-writer Marston Bloom on…
- playing Arnie Rheinhardt in 29 episodes of ITV series The Knock in the 1990s: “Arnie was the weedy, intelligent one. The Knock was exactly the kind of thing that provides you with an insight into what you need to create a long-running series. It went off the boil when it moved away from the characters and become about the guest stories. That was the important lesson I learned there: once you’ve created your characters, stick with them and keep the action tightly around them.”
- leaving acting: “My last proper job was at the National Theatre with Sir Ian McKellen in an Ibsen play. I stopped acting when my daughter was born - I was rehearsing all day and performing at night and it seemed daft. I also felt I had a limited shelf life as an actor.”
- becoming a writer: “I worked in development for a film company [Haystack Productions] for a while, plucking up the courage to write myself. It wasn’t until I started reading scripts that I realised that I could write. If I was asked to describe the atmosphere of a room I couldn’t do it, but writing a script is different: all you have to do is type, ‘In a pub, two blokes talking’, and then you get down to the talking.”
- creating Harley Street: “The medical genre is very familiar but not from this angle. So, it’s just a new way to tell old stories really. I don’t think I’ve had another good idea since.”
- writing: “The bit that really makes my head hurt is the plot. I find interpersonal relations come quite easily, but nailing down a story for a treatment is the ‘blank page moment’ that can go on for weeks.”
Producer: Carnival Film and Television
Starts: Thursday 17 July, 9pm
Length: 6 x 60 minutes
Commissioning editors: Laura Mackie and Sally Haynes
Creator and writer: Marston Bloom
Writers: Nicole Taylor, Jack Williams, Howard Overman, Andy Rattenbury
Directors: Paul Whittington, Colin Teague, Barnaby Southcombe
Producer: Joy Spink
Executive producers: Christopher Aird,
Sally Woodward Gentle
DoP: Peter Greenhalgh BSC
Production designer: Matthew Gant
Make-up and hair designer: Jane Walker
Costume designer: Ralph Wheeler-Holes, John Lindlar
Casting director: Maggie Lunn
Editors: Nick McPhee, Xavier Russell,
Music composed by: John Lunn