Quacks review: 'The bloodier the coat, the better the surgeon'

The BBC’s new comedy looks like a medical marvel in the making

There's a throwaway joke in Star Trek IV – the "save the whales" instalment – in which the crew find themselves on Earth in 1986. Bones, the ship's doctor from the future, encounters a woman in hospital undergoing a gruelling treatment. "Kidney dialysis?" he scoffs. "What is this, the dark ages?" (He heaps similar scorn on chemotherapy and brain surgery.) The gag is poised somewhere between bright optimism and bad taste; a promise of instant cures to come, with less sensitivity to those currently suffering.

In Quacks (BBC Two, Tues, 10pm), the new BBC comedy set in Victorian London, we laugh from a safer distance. Following the shenanigans and breakthroughs of a "butcher" a "tooth-puller" and an "alienist" – or a surgeon, an emerging anaesthesiologist and a proto-psychiatrist – writer James Wood extracts laughs from a heady brew of material: the age of change, hindsight humour, preposterous vanity and timeless awkwardness, not to mention squirm-inducing body horror.

Rory Kinnear is a rockstar amputationist, Robert, showboating (and smoking) in medical theatres while hacking the broken legs off his apologetic patients. "Some say the more bloody the coat, the greater the surgeon," he preens before his audience. To judge from the state of his coat after this botched operation, that makes him pretty bloody marvellous, even if he loses the leg, a more delicate appendage, and the patient in the process.

But progress is in the air. His dentist colleague John (Tom Basden) gently urges putting the patient to sleep before sawing through them. Elsewhere, in the asylum, Matthew Baynton's timid do-gooder, William, inspects an obsessively clean inmate, whose current course of treatment involves regular beatings with a stick. He advances a radical therapy: "Have you tried talking to him?" It could catch on, and, on the evidence of its brisk first episode, Quacks certainly will.


Viewers of Stephen Soderberg's excellent and much-lamented The Knick may find it all eerily familiar, as though that period medical drama had simply been given a Blackadder transfusion. But director Andy de Emmony has struck an assured and distinctive tone for his fixed camera comedy already: the cast administer the right doses of quirk and ham; the pacing is fleet but not frantic; Lydia Leonard is excellent as a neglected wife with professional ambitions and insurgent desires; and Rupert Everett's supercilious hospital president is wisely underused.

"I don't mind the patient dying, that's to be expected," he complains at one point. "What I do mind is when the paying spectators are unhappy." It's too early to say if Quacks will be a medical marvel, but its spectators should be perfectly content.