The sexy nurse, the prudish matron, the ball-breaking Sister with a heart of gold. We've seen all of these stereotypes grace our televisions over the years from Carry On to ER. TV critic Sarah Hughes explores the portrayal of nurses on screen and talks us through some of her favourite characters. Sarah writes about television, film & books for The Guardian, The Observer and The Independent.
When it comes to television nurses haven’t always had a good deal. Where writers are happy to present doctors as three-dimensional and flawed characters capable of doing both good and bad, nurses are too often lumped into one of two categories: stoic angels or lazy gossips with one eye on the clock and the other on the doctors they hope to entrap.
Think of Doctor in the House’s giggling flibbertigibbets or the grumbling sisterhood of Jed Mercurio’s Cardiac Arrest, who appeared to spend most of their time drinking coffee at the workstation, apparently oblivious to the under-slept and over-stressed junior doctors carrying out their tasks.
Even the more three-dimensional nurses such as Open All Hours’ formidable Gladys Emmanuel or M*A*S*H’s Margaret ‘Hot Lips’ Houlihan were too often used as shorthand for a certain kind of no-nonsense attitude and unexpected sex appeal, a harking back to the days when matron knew best. These nurse-as-dominatrix takes continued into the present day, most notably with Scrubs’ Carla Espinosa, the object of Turk’s obsession and the gang’s mother hen, snappy one-liners and all.
That’s not to say there weren’t occasional attempts to show nursing as it really was. Long-running 1970s series Angels was notoriously described as ‘the Z Cars of nursing’ and praised for its hard-hitting treatment of subjects from alcoholism to unwanted pregnancy in addition to its acknowledgment of the difficult decisions many nurses faced. Similarly in 2006 Toby Whithouse came up with No Angels, a raucous, witty take on the lives of four nurses in Leeds starring Kaye Wragg and a pre-EastEnders Jo Joyner while Bodies, Mercurio’s follow-up to Cardiac Arrest, featured Neve McIntosh as the whistle-blowing Sister Donna Rix, the nearest thing that dark show had to a heroine.
Most recently we’ve had three one-season wonders: Frankie with Eve Myles as a warm-hearted and committed district nurse, The Crimson Field which stared Oona Chaplin, Hermione Norris and Suranne Jones as nurses on the Flanders frontline and the over-worked, under-appreciated crew of America’s Mercy, which was slammed by critics but won praise from actual nurses for its depiction of the daily rhythms of hospital life.
Then there’s Call The Midwife. The 1950s-set nursing drama continues to dominate Sunday nights despite the departure of Jessica Raines and it’s easy to see the appeal. Often derided as cosy and certainly saccharine, Call The Midwife might be idealistic but it’s also surprisingly honest about women’s issues during this time. It sugarcoats the truth but it doesn’t deny it.
Yet good as many of the above programmes are, none of them can compare to the nurses who made our top three. First up is ER’s Nurse Carol Hathaway, played by Julianna Margulies with the same combination of steel and sympathy that would later turn The Good Wife into must-watch TV. Unusually when we first meet Carol it’s not as the competent nurse manager of the ER but as a patient, rushed to the hospital following a failed suicide attempt. Despite this emotional vulnerability, Carol was more than capable of giving as good as she got both in her turbulent relationship with Dr Doug Ross and in the workplace, memorably telling the arrogant Peter Benson that ‘if you would step off your pedestal maybe you would realise it’s the nurses that make this place run and not you.’ ER would give us other memorable nurses in the course of its 15 year run including Linda Cardellini’s stoic single mother Sam Taggart and Maura Tierney’s troubled often tremendous Abby Lockhart but none left as much of a mark as Carol, ER’s head saint.
Lord alone knows what Carol would have made of the bellicose, brilliant Nurse Jackie, a woman who never met a prescription pill she didn’t like or a relationship she couldn’t torpedo. Now entering its seventh and final season, Nurse Jackie was written by Liz Brixius because “every medical show out there has been about doctors. Doctors are absolutely unable to do what they have to do without nurses. We want to tell those stories.” At its centre was Edie Falco’s Jackie, a dedicated, sharp-tongued professional with an unfortunate weakness for prescription drugs although honourable mention should also be given to Merritt Wever’s student nurse Zoey, the warm centre of an often-spiky show.
That balance between sharp and sweet is the central appeal of nursing’s number one show, the brilliant and occasional brutal Getting On which has managed to become a critical hit both in its original UK format and more recently for HBO. The story of life on a geriatric ward in an over-stretched NHS hospital, the British version of Getting On manages to be both television’s most realistic look at nursing and its funniest. From the world-weary Nurse Kim Wilde (played with just the right amount of deadpan despair by Jo Brand) to the paper-work obsessed Sister Den Flixter (a brilliant Joanna Scanlan) and the strict but fair matron, who just happens to be male (Ricky Grover) Getting On is a perfectly cast gem filled with sharp jabs at the way in which the NHS has become increasingly consumer-obsessed rather than care-based and unflinching in its portrayal of the daily grind of nursing life. The US version has its moments and some lovely performances from Alex Borstein and Niecy Nash, but the UK version is the original and remains the best.
Watch clips of Sarah's top three in action below.