Adam Kay found an innovative solution to the usual junior doctor problems of antisocial hours, exhaustion and daily encounters with death, disease and dreadful patients: he became a superstar writer instead. This Is Going to Hurt was one of those monolithic bestsellers that takes up in the charts and stays there, seemingly a permanent fixture. It has been translated into 28 languages, won a bagful of awards and spawned sell-out live shows.
Now Kay, who has also written for some excellent comedy shows as well as Mrs Brown’s Boys, has turned his book into an eight-part comedy drama on BBC One – one of the best of the year so far. He has had the good sense to cast Ben Whishaw in the lead. Unsurprisingly, given that it’s a memoir adapted by its author, it is a sympathetic portrait. As an overworked junior registrar on a hospital labour ward, Adam is knackered but always does his best. You never get the sense there is anything other than a shining golden heart beneath his occasionally brusque humour. “So near and so yet so s***,” he tells an incompetent junior doctor, Shruti (Ambika Mod), early on in this first episode. But by the end she has redeemed herself, he has helped her navigate some racist patients, and he has proved his own fallibility.
Whishaw’s last outing was in his performance as Q in No Time to Die. It’s refreshing to see him freed from the shackles of that claggy franchise into a role better suited to his gifts. Reassuring, too, because This Is Going to Hurt relies almost entirely on him. Adam is spiky but empathetic, and displays fluent comic timing when quipping to a patient, or breaking the fourth wall to observe, for instance, that a woman asked to see his medical ID only after he has peered into her vagina.
Doctors tell me their relationship to Kay’s work is complicated. He is funny and depicts the NHS without the cloying clap-for-carers veneration apt to infect people who don’t work for it. They also suggest a surprising number of hospital urban legends seem to have happened to him personally in the course of a short career. I can see why that would be annoying if you are obliged to deal with a more mundane day-to-day reality, but it makes for better entertainment. Kay’s irreverence means he builds a more detailed and believable world than other medical dramas. This hospital is a kingdom of blood, s***, anger, exhaustion, swearing and other unmistakable hallmarks of real people. I loved the dad-to-be with his top off, ready for the hallowed skin-to-skin contact with his newborn, while the doctors wrangle with the forceps and his partner writhes in agony. The only weaker note is Mr Lockhart (Alex Jennings), a stern Jaguar-driving consultant there to cover up Adam’s own errors.
Around the edges of all this life and death, Adam somehow has to fit in the regular obligation of a man in his twenties: relationships, family, a social life. He leaves a mate’s stag to go back to hospital. “You’d rather be at work,” the friend tells him, in disgust. Adam doesn’t deny it. Holby City this isn’t, but the same principles apply, in TV and in life: the stakes are always high in a hospital. When the hurt comes, it is all the more bitter for the sweetness of the highs.