Ben Whishaw has become synonymous with two great British traditions, having voiced Paddington Bear in the recent movies and joined the James Bond universe as MI6's resident mad inventor, Q. In This Is Going To Hurt (BBC One, 9pm) he shines an unglamorous light on another institution the UK holds dear, portraying an over-worked, terminally bone-weary junior doctor at the frontline of a crumbling NHS.
The setting is a labour ward in a major London hospital, where staff are permanently sleep-deprived and the patients a cross-section of hypochondriacs, weirdos and racists. Tonally, it flips from funny to poignant. And then to heartbreakingly gory – if the words “bodily fluids” make your stomach lurch, keep a cushion to hand. You’re going to need something to hide behind.
There isn’t much of a plot in the first episode, which follows Whishaw’s doctor Adam across a double-shift that brims with dark comedy only to take a sudden turn for the tragic. It starts with Adam waking with his face mashed against a steering wheel, having nodded off in his car from sheer exhaustion.
He enjoys some zinging gallows humours on the ward with other medics before an encounter with a paranoid mum who mistakes her taste-buds for an urgent medical condition. Later, Adam joins his Irish boyfriend (Rory Fleck Byrne) at the stag party from hell – and is only too ready to dash back to work when his replacement fails to turn up.
Even if you can't tell a stethoscope from a horoscope, This Is Going To Hurt feels bruisingly true to real life. That's because it is based on This Is Going to Hurt: Secret Diaries of a Junior Doctor by doctor-turned-comedy writer Adam Kay (who oversaw the BBC adaptation). This is the NHS in the fuggy light of a sleep-deprived dawn, without the doorstep clapping or the Danny Boyle Olympic opening ceremony rhapsodising.
Adam is a grey streak of misery and disillusionment. His boss – the reliably venal Alex Jennings, aka Edward VIII from The Crown – is a scathing snob who drives a Jaguar and expects underlings to work themselves to the bone. Patients are an interchangeable blur, the other staff distinguished only by the depths of their cynicism.
Then comes the wrenching twist. That mum-to-be Adam dismissed earlier as a neurotic time waster turns out to be have gravely unwell. Adam, tired and a little too sure of himself, failed to spot the signs of a pregnancy about to take a dramatic turn for the worse. Suddenly we’re in the operating theatre for one of those horrible scenes featuring spurting jugulars and jump-cuts to squishy internal organs. Having ducked immediately behind a pillow, I can’t tell you exactly what happens. But judging by all the squelching sounds it isn’t pretty.
Medical dramas are, of course, a genre unto themselves – even RTÉ has had a go with The Clinic. This Is Going To Hurt is different. There are no Doctor McDreamies here, just overworked staff who'd hock their kidneys for 20 minutes of uninterrupted sleep. And Whishaw, with crow's feet beneath his crow's feet, sells the sense of an entire profession living on nothing but nerves and caffeine. Even hugely squeamish viewers will be glad they stayed with it.