❉ Why the surreal and satirical ‘80s TV drama is a dystopian vision of the now.
“Like in the later House of Cards, Davies explores the power games within the corridors of an institution. He challenges us to ask who holds the power, but it keeps shifting. There is the internal power battle at the heart of the medical practice, but it’s a symptom of a bigger war.”
Lowlands University is an institution in crisis. Profit driven ’80s sensibilities within a ’60s concrete aesthetic, its angst-ridden academics are on the edge of a precipice and just about hanging on by their fingertips. Financial cutbacks, creeping modernity and constant change, every move by the powers that be is seen as a threat to the status quo. And there we also find the worst medical practice in the country.
Into this world walks enthusiastic doctor Stephen Daker (Peter Davison). He strives to be a good doctor, a caring doctor, and is stunned to discover his new colleagues do not share his moral compass.
Broadcast on the BBC between 1986 and 1988, A Very Peculiar Practice is a bleak satire on the slow death of an institution. Written by Andrew Davies, who based the series on his own experiences as a lecturer at Warwick, it’s a surreal social commentary with added sexual politics and medical malpractice. Set at the height of eighties Thatcherism, it permeates everything. Yet there is a warmth to it, with the quirkiness of university life and the exploration of a unique group of characters at its heart.
It gained a BAFTA nomination for Best Drama Series and remains a critically acclaimed and culturally influential programme. A follow up single drama A Very Polish Practice broadcast in 1992 saw Daker travel to post-Communist Warsaw.
The dreamlike, insular world at Lowlands acts as an allegory for eighties Britain and a country in crisis. Yet those themes of corrupting power at the heart of society still ring true now. One person’s privatised utopia is another person’s vision of hell, and Daker is the ethical hero we all strive to be.
Being an Andrew Davies-penned drama, there’s little reverting to type and cliché. There’s no obviously sympathetic colleague willing to show him the ropes, no predictably happy endings. Each episode contains a mini parable, individual journeys through the complexity of modern life on campus. But the continuous arc of the main characters runs throughout, and we invest in them, even if we don’t quite sympathise.
Daker’s new colleagues are a frightening prospect. Resistant to new ideas, and Machiavellian in their plotting, they see his principled behaviour as a threat. There is suspicion at play about the motives and next moves of each other, like a particularly paranoid game of chess.
Head of the medical practice Jock McCannon (Graham Crowden) keeps watch over an untidy ship, his focus is on the whiskey bottle rather than controlling his staff. The truly frightening receptionist scares the patients. Jaded nurse Maureen is at the end of her tether. Practice doctors Rose Marie (Barbara Flynn) and Bob Buzzard (David Troughton) seem locked in an endless power struggle, and they don’t take the arrival of the diligent Daker well.
The growing friendship between Daker and drink-addled lead GP McCannon is rather touching, there is a real affinity and respect between them, with Jock seeing a former version of himself in his idealistic younger colleague. Perhaps he can achieve the things he couldn’t, “You’re a good man Stephen,” he often reassures him.
Despite his delusions of grandeur and poor lifestyle choices, McCannon’s heart seems to be in the right place. His faded glories are still in his mind, we see his last gasp attempts to be relevant as he works on his never realised book The Sick University, talking into his Dictaphone in a continuous tragic monologue.
Rose Marie is a fascinating character. Powerful, clever and manipulative, she calmly controls situations to her liking, yet her motivations are often unclear. She uses sex as a weapon and a bargaining tool. Bisexual and a radical feminist, who refuses to concede to the patriarchy, she says that “Illness is one of the things that men do to women.”
Bob Buzzard is presented as a tightly buttoned up showcase Thatcherite, all set on turning the medical practice into a profit-driven private enterprise and happy to be in the pocket of the corporate moneymen. He demonstrates little patient focus, and an appalling bedside manner. Yet his gradual emotional breakdown is documented over the two series. His whole world turned upside down by the end. As he slowly loses all he holds dear, his bully boy privately educated ego slowly shatters in front of us.
Daker himself is full of surprising naivety and wide-eyed innocence for a man of his age. Socially and romantically awkward, he sometimes comes across as less worldly wise than some of the students he treats. But he is always looking for how to make a difference, to make things better. To make Lowlands better. Or at least stop things becoming worse.
He has an enthusiasm for his vocation which his colleagues treat as a ridiculous flaw in his character, something he needs guidance to get over. He often seems bewildered by his situation, and his reactions are slightly bumbling. But he seems to be motivated by his liberal good intentions.
We all like to think we are Stephen Daker in this heightened, surreal scenario. We can all identify with him and his moral dilemmas. But some of us can’t be him, some of us must be Jock McCannon, some are Rose Marie and heaven-forbid some of us are Bob Buzzard.
Amidst the Brutalist concrete jungle, the culture at Lowlands is shifting. Academic jobs for life are a thing of the past. Student radicalism and ambition for change seems a distant memory in the modern university, but many can’t let go of past glories. Commerce and big business are now taking an interest, making for a challenging juxtaposition and a “A swamp of fear and loathing.”
There’s a gradual erosion of the soul of the university, as the powers that be sell it to the corporate devil. Rationalisation and ritual sacrifice of the arts and social sciences, cynical exploitation matching the systematic erosion of the country’s cultural base. The students suffer, the staff grow ever more desperate. As one aging academic laments, “Financially we flourish, morally we wither.”
Oh, and then there are the nuns. Two unexplained silent nuns stalk the campus throughout the series, seemingly presiding over gradually more apocalyptic scenes as it reaches its denouement. Their constant presence reflecting the feeling of impending doom, and perhaps demonstrating that the most extreme realities are never far from the truth.
Through Daker’s experience, the programme creates that feeling of being just a cog in the huge wheel, and the instinct to fight against becoming institutionalised. He finds the concrete jungle impossible to navigate, a feeling anyone who has worked in a similar sprawling environment would sympathise with, and perhaps a manifestation of his own jumbled thoughts.
Daker’s emotional journey is well documented. His seemingly constant inner turmoil, the stress dreams and night sweats, we feel his powerlessness. Recently single, falling in love is easy for him but finding it reciprocated is not. In series one he becomes obsessed with straight-talking research student Lyn Turtle (Amanda Hillwood) and series two he sets his sights on emotionally complex art history lecturer Grete Grotowska (Joanna Kanska).
He has emotional guidance from Lyn in series one, but he has to navigate his own path to find the answers. Sometimes this relationship feels like she is there to flatter him, to soothe his fragile ego. But like in his dreams about her, Lyn is never fully present in his life. She ultimately follows her own path, confident in herself and her future, something Daker seeks for himself. With Grete in series two, she controls the pace of the relationship, allowing him glimpses of her true self and her vulnerabilities until she is comfortable and trusts him.
Daker’s anxiety is perhaps mixed with an underlying belief in himself. His marriage has collapsed, and he’s found himself in this bizarre place, but he has a quiet determination to succeed. His ambition is not as obvious as Buzzard’s perhaps, not as emotionally manipulative as Rose Marie’s, but he is Jock’s chosen successor to the crown as head of the practice, a prize his colleagues continue to vie for throughout. He might not win the war, but he has the moral victory in the end.
Like in the later House of Cards, Davies explores the power games within the corridors of an institution. He challenges us to ask who holds the power, but it keeps shifting. There is the internal power battle at the heart of the medical practice, but it’s a symptom of a bigger war.
In series one the Vice-Chancellor Ernest Hemmingway (John Bird) is trying to woo Japanese businessmen to invest. A US takeover of the university in series two sees a new Vice-Chancellor, Jack Daniels (Michael J. Shannon), who is prepared to sell the place down the river for the sake of corporate research status. When pressed to acknowledge the impact of his radical policies on staff and students, Daniels comments, “This is the late eighties, people don’t have expectations anymore.”
In a key scene, the university heads of department are all assembled at senate, the supposed decision makers at the heart of the institution. Daker challenges that assertion, “But we never seem to make any decisions, do we have any power?” That’s a position we can all identify with.
We all risk becoming institutionalised in a public sector setting. A hospital, a university, a school. Those colleagues you are trapped with, the pointless meetings, the futile power struggles, the awkward after-work drinks and the dodgy relationships. The endless, “But we’ve always done it this way,” attitude of some and the frustrations of those fighting against the tide.
Over 30 years later, parallels with the surreal world of A Very Peculiar Practice remain. Widespread government cuts in public sector funding have impacted across the board. Access to higher education is at risk for many. There have been frightening cuts to syllabus subjects and a lack of respect for the arts in favour of sciences. There’s job insecurity across the public sector, and further moves towards private sector appropriation of the NHS.
Big business takeovers and sponsorship pushing their own agenda and interests, secret investments, corruption and collusion at the heart of the public sector. The linking of research to corporate interests and outcomes. Sounds familiar? Not much has actually changed since A Very Peculiar Practice, we still feel like we’re on the edge of that precipice, holding on by our fingertips.
Stephen Daker was searching for a personal utopia at Lowlands, but all he found was a dystopian future. That future felt close then, it felt horribly possible, and yet here we are again. A cultural shift of huge proportions is still on the cards now, but like Daker still we keep fighting the good fight.
❉ ‘A Very Peculiar Practice – The Complete BBC Series’ is available on DVD from Network, RRP £11.99.
❉ Anna Cale is a UK-based arts and culture writer with ideas above her station. She specialises in film and television, often focussing on the things you might have overlooked. When she isn’t writing, she spends far too much time on Twitter (@real_meaning) asking people to read her film blog:http://restispropaganda.wordpress.com/. One day she will write that book about Bill Forsyth.