General Hospital 40 Years On

This week Emmerdale celebrates 40 years since its launch, but it isn’t alone. Emmerdale Farm, as was, launched as part of the then new ITV daytime programming which saw a host of new shows arrive such as children’s series Rainbow and another serial, General Hospital

Today the BBC reign supreme with medical sagas but it was ITV which pioneered the format in the UK with the first British hospital saga, Emergency Ward 10, launching in 1957. It ran for a decade, but was dropped after an unsuccessful revamp saw the Oxbridge Hospital, near London, go from a cosy story of the everyday lives of the medical staff and occasional patient problem to an Americanised fast-paced serial which didn’t fare well with viewers.

Ward 10 was frothy in its original format, cosy most of the time, but it did occasionally break into taboo storytelling – from suicidal patents flinging themselves out of windows to the famous interracial relationship between surgeon Louise Mahler and Doctor Giles Farmer, leading to controversy when a scene of the pair kissing was recorded. It wasn’t afraid to lean into variety too. ATV presenter (and later actress) Noele Gordon even appeared as herself in one 1964 edition involving a hospital open day.

Boss of ATV Network , Lord Lew Grade, pulled the plug on the Oxbridge after 966 half hour episodes, 50 one hour installments, one spin-off series – Call Oxbridge 2000 and a feature film released in 1959. Grade later admitted axing Emergency Ward 10 had been a mistake.

Learning from that failed attempt to make Ward 10 more appealing to the US market in 1972 production company ATV set about reviving the original premise of  Emergency Ward 10 for the new to launch full daytime service. Yes before 1972 ITV went off the air for part of the afternoon.

It has been suggested it wasn’t just the fact there were more hours of TV to fill for ITV returning to home-grown medical dramas, it has been said that Lady Grade having missed Emergency Ward 10 kept nagging hubby Lew to bring it back.

The British General Hospital – which had no connection to the American version – was to be based in a fictional Midland town. Although the programme itself was made at ATV Elstree, where its predecessor had also been produced.

Devised by Max Marquis and Dick Sharpes the story of the Midland General would once again surround the lives, professional struggles and loves of the doctors and nurses – rather than the woes and illnesses of the patents, who would be secondary in storylines to the medical characters.

ATV Network in its 1977 publicity for the show sums it up with this statement: “The programme is not to preach, but to entertain. Within the framework of a fiction series, the private and professional problems of both patients and staff of a large hospital complex are investigated in depth. Sometimes dramatically, sometimes humorously  – but always interestingly.”

The setting for The Midland General was the real Luton and Dunstable General Hospital where outdoor scenes were recorded (as well as ATV Elstree’s grounds at times to save time) – and while the fictional world thrived on the homely patient care storylines, and the relationships of the staff, it did also slide into a melodrama slant at times. Viewers raised their eyebrows when Jill Gascoigne’s character – patient Janey Hart – tragically died after Dr Neville Bywaters – actor Tony Adams – had fallen in love with her. But not to worry, a few episodes later and Jill Gascoigne returns to the hospital as Janey’s twin-sister!

Dr Neville did eventually find happiness when General Hospital aired an edition entitled ‘Spectre at the Feast’ celebrating the characters marriage to Caroline Pennington – actress Joanna Van Gyseghem – in 1977. There were also many other memorable characters including the comedy caretaker Arnold Capper – played by John Halstead – stern, verging on sinister, senior doctor William Parker-Brown – portrayed by Lewis Jones – and administrator Matthew Armstrong played by David Garth.

The show also at times ventured into deeper medical storylines, this was the exception rather than the rule. But topical, and sometimes graphic scenes of hospital operations were aired from time to time including when writer David Fisher wrote the storyline ‘Twice Shy’ which revolved around a rabies crisis.

ATV publicity in 1977 notes the script: “accurately anticipated the frightening implications of an outbreak of rabies, many months before the subject became headline news.”

Nick McCarty’s storyline entitled ‘All Fall Down’ was praised for its truthful and sympathetic portrayal of a young man coming to terms with epilepsy and how it affects his social and professional life. ATV note that this storyline generated many letters to the studios offering congratulations on the sensitive way in which the emotive subject was handled while Liz Gebhardt’s moving performance as an anorexic also gained much praise.

The formula clearly worked, after 270 episodes, in 1975 General Hospital left daytime and its twice-weekly half hour slots and headed to Friday nights as an hour-long drama dishing out the usual love triangles, staff rivalry, social issues and weekly medical problems.

The show also had a change in direction, with a new more gritty, dramatic, theme tune in place ‘Red Alert’, replacing the gentler daytime version. The content of the drama also re-focused to show more medical storylines and procedures. The BBC had its gritty hospital saga Angels to rival ATV Network’s counterpart and so the ITV serial upped its medical game providing much more detailed scenes of surgery and medical discussion.

ATV publicity on the series, released in 1977, comments that the success of the show: “owes much to the almost documentary accuracy of its medical details – from the smallest piece of hospital equipment, to the technical expertise in a highly complicated heart transplant operation.

 “Written mainly by a small team of leading television writers under the supervisation of producer Royston Morley. …After approval of the basic theme by producer and script editor, the writer spends several weeks researching his subject. Every detail is then checked by the programme consultant before being approved for production.”

However by 1979 management at ATV had changed and it was felt that the show was – like Emergency Ward 10 before it – becoming irrelevant, corny and out of touch. The cosy nature of General Hospital with its attractive doctors and sexy nurses was deemed out of date for the 1980s and after 70 hour-long episodes, and 340 overall editions, the Midland General closed its doors for the final time; leaving home-grown medical drama success – in its more graphic, gritty less glamorous style – to the BBC with shows such as Casualty and Holby City. The latter produced at the same studios as Emergency Ward 10 and General Hospital ironically.

Had ATV not lost heart with General Hospital it may still be on air today. After all by the late 1980s daytime audiences clearly had a desire for the gentle style of medical drama when ITV began showing Australian import The Young Doctors. It became a ratings hit for ITV daytime.

Like Doctors and Emergency Ward 10 the show also had a host of star names appear over the years. Midland General staff included porter Ernie Penrose played by future Coronation Street killer Richard Hillman – actor Brian Capron, Tony Adams – Dr Neville Bywaters – moved over to Crossroads where he remained for a decade as smooth manager Adam Chance, Lynda Bellingham played Nurse Hilda Price – now more famous for her role on gossip show Loose Women and sitcom Desmond’s actress Carmen Munro as Sister Francis Washington.

Patients included Joanna Lumley (some mistake her role in this show for the none-related American serial with the same name), Carry On star Patsy Rowlands, Birds Of A Feather actress Linda Robson, Allo’ Allo’s Carmen Silvera, Coronation Street’s baddie Marc Eden and other Crossroads’ faces including Roger Sloman and Peter Hill.

Medical Soaps TV Timeline

1957 –  ITV launch Emergency Ward 10, the first twice weekly medical serial in the UK.

1959 – Emergency Ward 10 hits the big screen in movie form as Life On Emergency Ward 10

1962 – Spin-off series, Call Oxbridge 2000 (2000 being the telephone number) launched with former Ward 10 heartthrob Richard Thorp as Dr Rennie in the lead role. The storyline saw the Ward 10 doctor join his uncle at the Oxbridge country practice. The show ran for a year. A second series was delayed due to a strike, it later returned revamped as 24 Hour Call in 1963.

1966Emergency Ward 10 undergoes soap’s first major revamp with new titles, theme tune and format.

1967 – ATV axe Ward 10 due to ‘a decline in ratings’

1972 – General Hospital launches alongside Emmerdale Farm in ITV daytime as a twice-weekly serial (Right, TV Times cover star, actor Tony Adams as Dr Neville Bywaters.)

1975General Hospital is repeated airing five episodes a week in daytime

1975 – BBC One launches its drama Angels

1975 – New episodes of General Hospital are aired on Friday nights in a new hour-long drama format

1976The Young Doctors takes the Ward 10 and General Hospital format and recreates it for Australian audiences, by the mid-1980s ITV would start to screen the programme in the daytime schedules.

1979General Hospital admits defeat against Angels as seemingly viewer tastes have changed. The former is deemed corny, while the latter is thought of as gritty.

1983Angels ends on BBC One as it gives way for what would become EastEnders

1986Casualty airs for the first time on BBC One, many more gritty medical dramas follow it – most fail to last. Casualty, set in the Holby City emergency ward, however continues to run.

1999 – The first spin-off from Casualty is launched – Holby City.

2000 – Its back to Birmingham as BBC Pebble Mill launch lunchtime medical serial Doctors for BBC One.

2003 – The Royal launches. Set in the 1960s, its the first successful medical drama produced for the network since the 70s. It runs until 2011.

2008Emergency Ward 10 is released on DVD for the first time, three volumes are in total released.

2008 – ITV Daytime launch a modern day hospital daily saga, The Royal Today. It ends after one series.

2010Doctors celebrates ten years on-air.

2011Casualty relocates to new studios in Cardiff, leaving its original home in Bristol behind, the show also marks its 25th anniversary, becoming the longest running prime time medical saga.

2012General Hospital is released for the first time on DVD in its 40th anniversary year. A second volume is scheduled for issue in 2013.

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7 Replies to “General Hospital 40 Years On”

  1. To think ATV Elstree used to make some of Britain’s best shows. Now it makes Eastenders.

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