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The good doctor of When the Boat Comes In
James Leggott

This chapter considers the portrayal of medical practices and practitioners in the 1970s British historical drama When the Boat Comes In, produced by the BBC between 1976 and 1981. Set in the depressed town of Gallowshields in north-east England, and spanning the period from World War I to the Spanish Civil War, When the Boat Comes In is perhaps best remembered for its charismatic central character Jack Ford (James Bolam), but this chapter pays attention instead to the broader ensemble of characters. In particular, it focuses upon the character of Billy Seaton (Edward Wilson), first introduced as a trainee doctor. As time progresses, we follow Billy’s completion of his studies and his moral dilemmas about the community role of the ‘good doctor’. Although When the Boat Comes In is not remembered as a ‘medical’ drama, this chapter notes how many of its plotlines hinge upon health crises or questions, in a way comparable with other long-running serial dramas such as Poldark (1975–1977; 2015–2019) and Downton Abbey (2010–2015). But more than just providing historical texture or the motor for melodramatic turns of events, the medical issues woven into When the Boat Comes In are crucial to the show’s conceptualisation of conflicts between collectivism and individualism, and between socialism and capitalism.

in Diagnosing history
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Medicine in television period drama

This collection examines the representation of medicine and medical practices in period drama on television. It explores the fascination that the genre has with the history of illness and the medical profession, which is apparent in the huge number of shows which have medicine as either their narrative focus or as important subplots. Chapter topics are interdisciplinary in nature and range from the professionalisation of medicine in Poldark to the representation of mental illness in Peaky Blinders. This volume reflects on the ways popular culture has constructed and considered the frailty of the human body, the progress – or otherwise – of science, the intersection of medicine, race, class, and gender, and the provision of public healthcare. These dramas do not only reveal much about how we view our corporeal past, however. All these issues are still pertinent today, and frequently they also function as a commentary on, and often a critique of, the issues surrounding medicine in the present day – in particular debates around public health provision, the politics of reproduction, genetic testing and research, and global pandemics.

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Byrne Katherine, Taddeo Julie Anne, and Leggott James

This Introduction provides an overview of the collection of chapters, situates the book within the existing scholarship on medical television, and argues for the relevance of period TV in presenting the history of medicine as well as engaging with contemporary fears and debates about disease, the body, scientific research, professionalisation and the power of ‘the expert’, and more. A brief description of each chapter and the dramas under analysis (Outlander, Poldark, The Knick, Mercy Street, La Peste, A Place to Call Home, Penny Dreadful, Peaky Blinders, etc.) is provided.

in Diagnosing history