Obstetric doctor Adam Kay (Ben Whishaw) grapples with the exhausting daily demands of working in the NHS and handling a new trainee (Ambika Mod), while trying to maintain a relationship with his boyfriend (Rory Fleck Byrne) and avoid getting struck off for malpractice.
Airing on: BBC One
You wait ages for a TV drama exploring the raw, unfettered reality of day-to-day life for those working in our great public service institutions, then two come along at once. BBC One has only just finished airing The Responder, writer Tony Schumacher’s autobiographical dramatisation of what it’s like on the gruelling late-shift for a first responder in the police force, built round a career-peak performance from Martin Freeman. With barely a pause for breath, BBC One has now unleashed all seven episodes of writer Adam Kay’s autobiographical dramatisation of what it’s like working a gruelling 90-plus-hour week for a junior doctor in the NHS, featuring a career-best performance from Ben Whishaw. As well as sharing a similar visceral, brutally honest tone, both shows provide an unflinching account of how such challenging jobs can affect the mental health of those brave enough to take them on.
Whishaw’s performance is a superbly judged high-wire act.
Initially, This Is Going To Hurt feels more directly comedic, reflecting Kay’s own post-medical career as a comedy writer and stand-up, as well as the source material — his own relentlessly funny memoir of the same name. Kay does an extraordinary job with his own adaptation, turning a fairly free-form book of diary entries into an entirely coherent, vibrantly directed (by Lucy Forbes and Tom Kingsley) drama serial which works on multiple levels – it’s simultaneously a politically charged love letter to a health service stretched to its absurd limit, a deeply involving relationship saga (Rory Fleck Byrne is unflashily great as Kay’s heroically supportive boyfriend), and a character portrait of a man on the edge, desperately trying to keep it together while delivering triplets, removing foreign objects from women’s vaginas and saving lives on a daily basis.
Whishaw’s performance is a superbly judged high-wire act; his relentless sarcasm softened by an infusion of charm when dealing with patients, but curdling into something nastier, bordering on bullying, when “mentoring” his new junior colleague Shruti (a star-making role for newcomer Ambika Mod). Then when we see him at home, Whishaw’s Adam clams up, unable to share the traumatic details of his work life with his partner. Yet Kay the TV character does share his inner-most thoughts with the viewer, intermittently talking straight to camera, which could have been annoying, but as with Fleabag, the fourth-wall-breaking moments are among the funniest of the whole series.
The dramatic arc of the series, built around a patient’s malpractice complaint about Kay, provides a tense undercurrent which bubbles along ominously throughout, while one particular episode dealing with a possible case of domestic abuse is a heart-breaking mini-masterpiece handled with total care and empathy. Yet even that devastatingly moving episode in the middle of the series will not prepare you for the spectacular emotional rollercoaster ahead. It really is going to hurt.
Mixing tragedy and comedy to stunningly powerful effect, former doctor Adam Kay turns his own experiences into the stuff of TV gold while showing us the stark reality of a routinely under-funded, over-stretched NHS.