“I don’t mind the patient dying, that’s to be expected. What I do mind is that the paying spectators are unhappy.” That’s Robert (Rory Kinnear), pompous surgeon, self-centred husband and floppy-haired idiot. He’s our entry into the Victorian world of medicine, and the hero of Quacks, BBC Two’s new comedy, which puts the ER in “Blackadder” – although it’s not always the smoothest of procedures.
The show, which is created by Rev’s James Wood, fails to live up to the subtle nuances of that modern miracle, which managed to blend character drama, social commentary and sharp wit with the casual ease of a vicar at a tea party. Quacks is a notably messier affair, both intentionally and unintentionally. It’s to be commended in its liberal use of blood and guts, as the outdated medical scene gives way to gory operations and hideously poor treatments. It’s less so in its balance of laughs and lobotomies, and the splicing together of its main characters. It’s a Frankenstein’s Monster of The Knick and Horrible Histories, and you can still see the stitches.
The cast, though, go a long way to remedying the script’s ills. Kinnear, who is one of Britain’s best character actors, relishes the chance to use his comic timing as the pompous surgeon Robert, who cuts legs off in 90 seconds, thanks to the liberal use of brandy. On himself. He’s supported by a depraved Tom Basden as John, a dodgy dentist, and the altogether more charming Mathew Bayton (a Horrible Histories veteran) as William, a psychiatrist with a revolutionary new idea – it’s called “talking” – and a crush on Robert’s wife, Caroline (Lydia Leonard).
The opening episodes are your typical male-centric sitcom, but with added blood-stained aprons (the bloodier the clothes, we’re told, the better the surgeon). But if the initial chapters may not quite go down without a dose of patience, Quacks eventually finds a rhythm that beats with far more heart and confidence. That’s primarily thanks to Wood giving the excellent Lydia Leonard more and more chances to steal scenes from all of the blokes, as she fights to become more than just Robert’s wife. Combined with Milly Thomas as a delightfully pious Florence Nightingale, who shocks Robert by doing the unthinkable and opening the window to let in fresh air, the show benefits hugely from the realisation that it’s ok to laugh at its male characters, rather than force us to be on their side. Once that slight shift happens, the whole thing begins to click, even making Robert (who openly struggles with confessing his feelings for his wife) and William (whose affection for Caroline is more timid than lecherous) more likeable in the process.
The show’s magic pill, though, is its roster of guest stars, which ensure that the laughs build more and more with each episode. Andrew Scott is hilarious as an arrogant, entitled Charles Dickens, whose favourite topic of discussion is how important he is, while Kayvan Novak is enjoyably outrageous as Llantha Kapoor, a doctor who specialises in mesmerism, complete with hand gestures and chanting.
The result is more a string of skits than a sitcom, but the silliness escalates to entertaining excess, as our characters get sucked into a battle with peddling fraudsters (Simon Farnaby), relationships with people even more disturbed than they are, the frowning old guard of the scientific establishment (watch out for the ever-watchable Rupert Everett), and put limbs, appendages and body parts from both adults and children at risk. Ben Willbond tops the lot as Robert’s French rival surgeon, Patrice Dupont, who compete to out-operate each other with luscious wigs and a love of randomly guessing how much chloroform to use. Is it a modern classic? No, but spectators won’t be left unhappy. By the end, you’ll probably want a repeat prescription.