Tuesday, August 29, 2000 by Jack Kibble-White
It’s late night television and the heat is off. Unencumbered from producing ratings winners, programme makers who occupy the twilight zone are able to kick back a little and construct more diverse and idiosyncratic television. It is customary for such programmes to either implicitly or explicitly recognise their position in the schedules. Channel 5’s “erotica” may be an obvious example of this, but quasi-dinner table discussions and darkened backdrops seem to bind together countless late night offerings ranging from The Late Show, After Dark, Late Night Poker and The Midnight Hour. Pretentious and self-seeking people have often populated such programmes, ensuring that a potentially interesting format is sacrificed as the blowhards presenting them aggrandize and aggravate, causing the rest of us to reach for our remote controls. Hypotheticals offers us something a little different.
A number of late night offerings have pursued a course of shock tactics, usually with an undesired effect. Hypotheticals is not such a programme, instead residing among the intelligentsia of the genre. A perennial, if unpredictably scheduled addition to the late night BBC2 schedule, the first of this series’ three programmes (as ever stripped across consecutive nights Millionaire style) invited us to enter the morally fraught world of the NHS. Conceptually, Hypotheticals is a gem of an idea. Invite a number of distinguished figures from a professional discipline empowered with making moral decisions, and put them to the test with a made-up story, designed specifically to eke out those morally grey areas of their professional, public lives.
Tonight’s “Moderator” (Clive Anderson) began the programme seemingly intent on revealing the daily equations doctors are forced to make between human life and monetary value. Although he conducted himself with his usual self-confidence, his much-vaunted “incisiveness” seemed to desert him a little as the inquisition began. What had begun as a story of two patients requesting Prozac from their GP, seemed to evolve in a rather hurried fashion. Anderson began by quizzing the panel on whether or not they would continue to prescribe Prozac to a convicted rapist, yet chose to divert attention away from the issue just as an engaging debate seemed to be forming. Instead, he decided to paint a rather familiar picture of the resourcing issues that dog the NHS. Clive posed and re-posed the standard under-funding dilemmas to a group of people who – far from being mentally stretched by having to seek out a response to such questions – were happy to admit that Clive’s scenarios formed part of their daily lives.
One of the strengths of Hypotheticals has always been the eloquence of its panel and tonight was no exception. Whilst, Anderson may have been a little off form, the group spoke with an insight and an honesty familiar to regular viewers. Tonight’s most telling exchange occurred when one of the doctors openly admitted that he would secretly prioritise younger patients over older. One of his colleagues seemed a little shocked by his response, citing issues of public accountability. The doctor’s response was frank: “I didn’t ask to be asked that question. It’s a difficult situation and I just answered honestly.” Such was the standard of disclosure for the entire broadcast. Ultimately, Anderson was unable to take the debate in to any areas of moral ambiguity that could trouble his panel. Thus by the end, he seemed a little worn out. His concluding comments ensured that his hypothetical hospital received all the extra funding it required, yet as the panel happily applauded, one was left with a sense that these ashes could have been raked some more. Not a fine episode, but an indicator of a fine programme nonetheless.