Jed Mercurio started writing while a doctor. As he was still practising at the time, his credit on the BBC series Cardiac Arrest was a pseudonym, "John MacUre". Cardiac Arrest ran for three series between 1994 and 1996 and is available on DVD. He then became a full-time writer under his own name. More recently, he's known as the writer and showrunner for, so far, two series dealing with police corruption, Line of Duty. But back in 2002, he drew on his medical background for a novel, Bodies, which formed the basis of the TV series of the same name, which began in 2004. The recent decision to change BBC Three into an online/streaming channel rather than a broadcast one, has caused plenty of people to highlight the channel's best output, mostly comedies such as Little Britain. But as far as I know, no one has mentioned Bodies, made for and premiering on that channel, and one of the best British drama series from any source this century.

Bodies begins with Rob Lake (Max Beesley) on his first day as a registrar in a hospital obstetrics and gynaecology department. His consultant is Roger Hurley (Patrick Baladi). Rob also meets the other consultant, Tony Whitman (Keith Allen) and his registrar Polly Grey (Tamzin Malleson) and the ward sister Donna Rix (Neve McIntosh) with whom Rob starts an affair, even though she is married. However, soon Rob hears disturbing things about Roger: that he was promoted because of his research work and that he is an incompetent surgeon. Lives are at risk because of this. Maria Orton (Susan Lynch), anaesthetics consultant, is prepared to blow the whistle on Roger, but soon the hospital closes ranks against her.

Hospital drama goes back a long way: in the UK, for example, Casualty started in 1986 and its sister show Holby City in 1999. Even further back, we had series like Angels in the 1970s and Emergency Ward Ten in the 1960s, all of which are basically soaps with a medical setting. However, Cardiac Arrest caused controversy due to its depiction of the National Health Service and Bodies continued this, depicting the NHS as an organisation riddled with privilege and vested interests, where it's more important to cover your back, play the game and advance your career rather than the main job of saving lives. Add to that some distinctly shades-of-grey characterisation: the nominal protagonist Rob isn't always likeable and the main villain Roger has plenty of more positive shading to him, particularly in the second series when his marriage comes under threat. The shows mentioned above are all pre-watershed, though medical and surgical detail has never been something the British viewing public has been worried about. However, Bodies was both on a minority channel and shown after 9pm, and is if nothing else definitely for an adult audience, containing strong language and relatively explicit sexual content as well as highly convincing and very graphic scenes of childbirth and O & G surgery. The depth of writing in the first series, all episodes by Mercurio, is aided by pitch-perfect acting from all the principal cast. As well as the characters above, the series features Lithuanian actress Ingeborga Dapkunaite, often turning up at the time in Britain playing East Europeans, as the cynical Russian nurse Katya Bredova, who gets a memorable exit scene. Hospital administrator Paul Tennant was carried over from Cardiac Arrest and is played again by Nicholas Palliser. By the time of the Finale, he had become Sir Paul.

The first series ran for six hour-long episodes. As well as Dr Orton's attempts to expose Roger, which she asks Rob to help her in, much of the series involves the fallout from an emergency involving Rob in the first episode which results in the death of a patient. The series premiered on BBC Three in 2004.and had a repeat showing on BBC Two later the same year. While the first series does come to a natural close, there were sufficient open ends to allow a second series, which was co-commissioned by both channels and broadcast in 2005. There were ten hour-long episodes, each one premiering on BBC Three and repeated the following week on BBC Two, followed immediately by the next episode on Three. This series ran to ten episodes, eight of them written by Mercurio (Richard Zajdlic and Rachel Pole wrote an episode each), and Mercurio directed the last two.

Some characters did not return from the first series, Maria Orton and Katya Bredova most notably. Others who had previously appeared took more prominent roles, such as junior doctors Maya Dutta (Preeya Kalidas), whose urge to be on Roger's good side causes rumours to start, and the hapless Tim Sibley (Simon Lowe), often on the receiving end of mockery from Tony Whitman. New characters included departmental manager Chrissy Farrell (Vicky Hall) and paediatrics registrar Beth Lucas Hall (Hattie Morahan) to whom Rob becomes close when his relationship with Donna lands on the rocks. The series also delved deeper into Roger's life, in particular his and his wife Harriet's (Katy Cavanagh) difficulty in conceiving another child. Meanwhile, Whitman gets himself into trouble and Polly runs into difficulties in her personal life. However, the main thrust of the series continued: Roger's surgical incompetence and the conspiracy of silence about it.

The strength of depth in the writing, direction and acting continued. Critical acclaim continued, but audiences were low, not hugely surprising considering how dark and challenging this material often is. A third series was not commissioned, but instead there was a ninety-minute Finale, broadcast on BBC Three in December 2006. That remains its only TV showing, as a promised repeat on BBC Two never happened.

This takes place three years after the end of Series Two, so possible spoilers for previous series are in this paragraph. Rob is now a consultant, and is living with Polly, who is expecting their first child. However, circumstances bring him back into the orbits of Donna, Tony...and Roger. In a very black turn of events, a minor incident partway through Series Two has major consequences for Rob, who clearly cannot escape Roger, his fate forever entwined and marked by him. This Finale is as unsparing as the series had always been, right up to a very dark, but intentionally open, ending.

Both series won awards from the Royal Television Society, for Best Make-Up Effects (quite deservedly), and the second series also won Best Drama Series. The first was nominated for Best Series and Mercurio was nominated for both as Best Writer. Meanwhile at the BAFTAs, both series were nominated for Best Drama Series, but lost to Shameless and Doctor Who respectively.


The Discs

Series One and Series Two and the Finale of Bodies are available as separate releases from 2 Entertain (two and four discs respectively). Also available is the edition I have at hand, The Complete Collection, which has the two single releases as digipaks inside slipcases inside a larger slipcase. Each disc has three episodes except for the last, which has Series Two Episode Ten, the Finale and the one extra. All discs are encoded for Region 2 only.

As I say above, this is a distinctly adult series. However, all but one of the episodes gained 15 certificates from the BBFC. The one exception is Episode Four of Series Two, due to a scene near the end of "strong drug misuse", gaining it, the second series and the complete boxset the 18 certificate it bears. The episodes are all complete, including the “previously on Bodies” recaps at the starts, and the “next time on Bodies” previews at the ends, just before the final credits.

Bodies was a series from before the HD era, so both series and the Finale were shot in standard definition PAL in a ratio of 1.78:1, anamorphically enhanced on these DVDs. The camerawork (most episodes by Nick Dance), goes for a muted palette, dominated by greys and cool blues. By rights this shouldn't look any different to what was shown on broadcast television, and it doesn't.

The soundtrack is Dolby Surround, and it's as clear and well-balanced as you would expect. Like a lot of non-5.1 TV productions, it's mostly front and centre with very little use of the surrounds. English subtitles for the hard-of-hearing are available.

The only extra is on the final disc (or disc four of series two if you are watching the series separately). This is a short featurette (11:13) which begins with Max Beesley reading the opening of Mercurio's novel (which turns out to be narrated by Rob in first person present tense), followed by interviews with Beesley, Mercurio and Patrick Baladi.




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