wed 16/04/2014

A Young Doctor's Notebook, Sky Arts 1 | TV reviews, news & interviews

A Young Doctor's Notebook, Sky Arts 1

Daniel Radcliffe and John Hamm in, of all things, a Soviet medical sitcom based on Bulgakov

The long and the short of it: Messrs Radcliffe and Hamm try their hand at Russian satire

Bulgakov gets about more than you’d think. As a character in the play Collaborators, the Russian novelist was most recently seen helping Stalin with his memoirs. Within the last couple of years his novels The Master and Margarita and The White Guard have both been adapted for the stage, while A Dog’s Heart was turned into an opera. All of these works were imbued with the Bulgakovian scent for phantasmal satire. So what's next for an author hooked on shape-shifting and the surreal?

Don’t run a mile quite yet, but his memoir of serving as a young doctor in rural Ukraine has been turned into a sitcom. Starring Harry Potter and Don Draper. As the same character. Not that Sky Arts are calling A Young Doctor’s Notebook a sitcom. Its four parts fall within its Playhouse Presents strand, but a sitcom is what it feels like, certainly in this first half-hour instalment. The protagonist is trapped among grotesques who pull unnerving faces in a place of work where the fixtures and fittings have a life of their own. It may be set against a snowbound Soviet backdrop, but this is essentially another comedy about an incompetent medic.

The comic texture is mostly of the relentless, high-octane variety typical of Russian satire

We find the doctor (Jon Hamm) musing in his office in Moscow during the Terror in the 1930s as his premises are searched by (not very) intimidating figures in uniform. As he leafs through his old notebook, we are spirited back to the day he arrived nearly 20 years earlier at his first provincial posting, fresh out of medical college. In the middle of nowhere he finds a trio of hideous, unsympathetic gargoyles (Vicki Pepperdine from Getting On and Rosie Cavaliero as nurses, Adam Godley as a doctor) awaiting someone altogether more impressively bearded and likely to match up to the imposing memory of his predecessor Viktor Viktorovich, whose self-portrait glowers from every wall.

It won’t be lost on anyone that, as played by Daniel Racliffe, the younger incarnation of the doctor is about a foot shorter than Hamm. There’s no escaping the discrepancy because, in a trope you don't get in Doctor in the House, the older doctor frequently appears to his younger self. “I really used to look like that?” wonders Hamm, whose role is to look down with wry amusement on the callow youth he once was and dispense tips, like a ghostly life coach.

The height thing is certainly not lost on scriptwriters Mark Chappell, Shaun Pye and Alan Connor, who have put a joke on almost every page about Radcliffe’s lack of inches. Not that physical difference is confined to this single furrow. “Is it just me,” says Godley’s gurning doctor after a tricky delivery, “or does she have an unusually shaped vagina?” Blood spurts profusely when a jawbone is extracted along with a molar. It’s that sort of comedy: light on the subtlety, heavy on the big bass drum. Radcliffe’s job is to play sweaty panic and antic anxiety. He does it more than competently, but the comic texture is mostly of the relentless, high-octane variety typical of Russian satire. It’s more hammer than sickle.

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In a trope you don't get in 'Doctor in the House', the older doctor frequently appears to his younger self

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