This is a strong first series that unfairly slipped under the radar, relying on historical accuracies for the laughs and people's lives for the drama.
The new BBC Two series Quacks followed the exploits of early doctors in England in the 1840s. There’s the surgeon Robert (Rory Kinnear) and his wife Caroline (Lydia Leonard), the former a firm believer in smoking while operating and wearing a blood stained gown to show off his skills, the latter a nymphomaniac with dreams of becoming a doctor. There’s the dentist John (Tom Basden) who invents and experiments with new drugs, for scientific purposes that blur into recreational ones, and evades loan sharks. There’s William (Mathew Baynton) the psychologist, who believes in the sorts of modern medicine we practise today, which is laughable to the other characters. And then there’s the surprisingly hilarious Rupert Everett as Dr. Hendrick, with his innate mistrust and loathing of William and his new medicine, Jews and physical examinations. And it’s as funny as it sounds.
The beauty of this show is the amount of fact behind the fiction. The ridiculous remedies and treatments they practice, and the superiority that the characters invoke because of their beliefs in such medicine, are deliciously funny. Any GCSE ‘Medicine Through Time’ history student will tell you that a man did get his penis cut off in the process of an amputation, and that a young girl died of a chloroform overdose when she needed one of her toe nails removing. These people will get an extra kick out of watching it, but anyone with a dark sense of humour will do.
The humour is subtle but constant, and definitely rewards multiple watches. The more tragic elements to the series, with the strained relationship between Robert and Caroline and the loneliness of widower John, will aid the series’ longevity, if granted a second season. The comedy and tragedy work well together, as the elements of drama only make you invest further into these characters’ lives. All strong characters in their own right, they are able to lead their own narratives but bring the best out in each other when together. However one of the highlights has to be guest star Andrew Scott playing a hilariously perverse and egotistical Charles Dickens. It is the best Dickens I have seen and will ever see, hands down, and maybe even beats the original.
There was also a great Florence Nightingale (Milly Thomas) who Kinnear sparred with fantastically. Kinnear’s character Robert is potentially the strongest of the quartet, providing the best of both worlds, the sad and the hilarious: he possesses all the wrong ideas with infinite amounts of gravitas and charisma, severely undermines and is under appreciative of his wife but also has a heart of gold. Impossible to choose a favourite character though, which is always a good sign.
It’s also only the tip of the iceberg in terms of the inspiration and content they can bring into the show. With so many fingers in so many pies, the series has the freedom to experiment in lots of different directions. An embarrassment of riches, if not in terms of medical knowledge and sophistication.