Bramwell Series 1 and 2 Worth a Look
by Kristin Battestella
Young, stubborn Doctor Eleanor Bramwell (Jemma Regrave) struggles to fit in with the male dominated Victorian hospitals and instead opens a Thrift Street Infirmary in the downtrodden East End – establishing 1995's Bramwell in a worthy seven episode debut.
The London 1895 operating theater opening “The World of Man” is full of men with scalpels giving instructions on removing ovaries to cure a woman's hysteria. Bloody bandages and dirty rags visualize the risky surgical statistics as our eponymous woman doctor suggests the opposite – would we cut off the testicles of an unhappy man? Sass and piano music contrast the amputation shockers as the upper glass gents barely tolerate this annoying female. After all, it is a woman's fault if she can't have a baby because her aristocrat husband gave her syphilis! Female tears and men's dirty secrets make it difficult for a doctor to find the truth, and Bramwell goes for the heavy topics early. Rather than have medicine bow to social graces, our lady finds new causes via her Thrift Street Infirmary. However, the clinic gets off to a rocky start with chloroform but no masks, delicate bowel surgeries, and jerky patients high and low wanting morphine or champagne amid vaudeville songs, bawdy humor, and a little romance with Shirley Anne Field (Lady Chatterley) in “The Threat of Reprise.” Our doctors promise not to talk about blood and gore when meeting the bishop for a donation, but they will poor tea and discuss urine tests and gutting patients. Drunken men just don't want a woman operating on them, and Bramwell layers The Thrift cases, personal dramas, and underlying themes per episode as mistakes are made and lessons are learned in this still relatively barbaric time in medicine. Sadly, a laundry woman in labor and her husband Idris Elba (Prometheus) fear they'll be found out in “The Outcast's Baby” as of the time whispers about not having delivered any black babies add to the “But she's English!” racist reactions. Fine performances make up for anything on the nose as heathen jokes and thieving suspicions add to the primitive attitudes before a premature breach birth, blood loss, and antiquated equipment lead to gruesome conflicts at the all important society dinner party. Wet nurses must be bribed, everyone argues if the child belongs with its black father or in a white orphanage, and Bramwell's dilemmas don't always have an easy answer.
However, Bramwell's Second eight episode 1996 Season struggles with an uneven start before a strong mid-season thanks to the cholera outbreak of “The New Formula.” Vomiting and boiling water escalate to quarantines and radical new medicines – The Thrift is ill equipped for such contagious crowds and blood everywhere. Doctors disagree on the source, disinfecting the ward, and how to treat foreign patients. The more ambitious physicians accept the treatment risks, jeopardizing one to save another with desperate and ambiguous but necessary decisions resulting in shocking miscalculations and upsetting fatalities. “The International Connection” begins with stereotypical Native American views and judging intelligence on the size of the so-called sub race skull as imperial rich white attitudes decide it's better for a poor child to be adopted abroad. This suave would be savior claims he's helping the children even as he calls them dumb, dirty urchins prone to steal and shouts at his fainting and bruising young wife Kelly Reilly (Eden Lake). Barbaric positions on battered women, self harm, and the measure of human intelligence being the deciding factor on how you treat a person are rightfully called ridiculous while those who stand up because the needs of the child are more important are berated as sentimental and spineless. This is a surprisingly timely and strong episode layering several issues. Alas, the street fair, fun house mirrors, and bemusing mermaids of “The Carnival Attraction” lead to monstrous stigmas and dangerous surgeries to correct a girl's facial deformity. Is she better off in the freak show or risking an operation for a chance at a normal life? The procedure goes forth despite disagreements on the course of action, employer interference, and the possibility of brain damage. Once again, The Thrift oversteps its bounds of care amid abuse, abandonment, and blame before a post-carriage accident exam reveals a lady patient is really male prostitute Hans Matheson (The Tudors) in “The Identity Loss.” Our female doctor understands the role reversal despite others' homophobia and sodomite pointing fingers hypocrisy. They cut his long hair over his preference for a feminine appearance, and when he's attacked by other patients, the police don't exactly care. No one's willing to donate blood for a jury rigged transfusion, and although he's conflicted at his so-called wickedness, he asks what he did wrong. While this is a very topical episode today, in the mid-nineties such themes were not often discussed, yet sophomore Bramwell does so a year before Dr. Quinn: Medicine Woman does in its fifth season.
Unfortunately, Bramwell does have several less than stellar outings including “The Doctor's Committal” when the Thrift staff go looking for tuberculous and find a foul mouthed man refusing to admit he's in ill health. The gentleman doctors at the club have wealthy patients throwing their money away on new, unproven electric therapy, but our doctors won't walk away from those who don't want to be saved – and intrude right into their family affairs with elite no divorce attitudes and institutionalizing a man who'd rather live in uncouth happy squalor over upper class fronting. When doctors are causing trouble rather than helping, it makes for an unlikable hour. Bramwell has an early series arc establishing the clinic, but most episodes are individual crusades of the week with heavy social commentaries and no lighthearted breaks, simple Victorian cases, or explorations on the supporting cast. The overall drama is fine, but early in Year Two, A/B style plotlines tackle too much. Newfangled elevators, rail cars, and train delays lead to a well done disaster with sideways cameras, screaming zooms, and darkness in “The Rule of Thuggery.” Rescuing those trapped, leg injuries, broken arms, and dangerous debris provide fine shocks in this Series Two premiere as in the field amputations without morphine escalate into lingering trauma and gangrene. Sadly, this disaster plot degrades into thugs coercing patients because a crook wants to launder his dirty money through the infirmary. The gangster charity cum East End intimidation is hammy when neighborhood strong arming could have been an ongoing issue instead of shoehorning such themes into another story. St. Jude's Hospital is looking for a clinic assistant in “The Strain of Conscience,” and the stuffy committee that won't hire women makes Eleanor prove herself yet again by taking a test when there's a pregnant teen prostitute at The Thrift asking for an abortion so her pimp won't beat and starve her. Our lady doctor will probably always have to prove herself, but social vindication should not be what's the more important plot here.
Jemma Redgrave (Holby City and yes of those Redgraves) as Doctor Eleanor Bramwell chooses to be a surgeon in East End, eighteen inch waists and fainting spells be damned! She's not afraid to stand between an angry man and his quarry if medicine and compassion warrant, for her goal is to preserve the healthy and to work where she's needed, treating people regardless of what kind of person they are – an admirable but not always practical quest. Eleanor crudely sews a skirt into wide leg trousers to ride her bicycle and gets loud with unruly patients at The Thrift. She's both educated and determined but inexperienced as a doctor and often in over her head. Eleanor will crusade for the poor even when terrible people don't deserve such care yet she gets snotty with her frumpy society patients and looks down on a dance hall maven. Her judgment is clouded, and Bramwell allows its lead to be imperfect. Although sometimes the pursed lips and scene chewing is obvious, Eleanor can also be stubborn and fresh to those who help her, and she's too busy taking on every battle to notice when others exhaust themselves for her cause. Despite child welfare and labor injuries, “The Thrift of the Hunter” is the first time anything other than doctoring gets her attention – and it's the titular too good to be true neurologist who's curious about this radical lady surgeon. Scandals, marriages of convenience, and deceptions make for a more personal, humanizing episode as Eleanor cries at her bureau over men making her look the fool. The Series One finale “The Ideal Suitor” also has men arguing over how strong willed women need strong willed men, and Eleanor is taken down a peg over the barefisted boxing, army uniforms, and knockout injuries. She insists she's not a schoolgirl, but the awkward courting leads to a choice between marriage or medicine, for in this era, a woman can't do both. Blind patients and brain surgery are also tense enough without Bramwell resorting to sexual violence threats as proof of why she needs a man to protect her, but Series Two has her neglecting her clinic for a charming Irish rogue. It's surprising to see her crusade so easily dropped since the entire show is about her being emphatically against the malaise of high end medicine, but by “The Final Days” Season Two finale, Eleanor is off on a secret weekend vacation with her best gowns and hair down, forgetting any medical disagreements with Doctor O'Neill when they are mistaken for Mr. and Mrs. Bramwell. Maybe she's always meant to be unlucky in love, however it's frustrating that she can be so naive and emotionally attached to a man who does not give or earn her professional respect.
David Calder (Widows) as Eleanor's father Robert is often caught in the middle between the man's man doctoring and when his daughter is in the right. He wants her to tend the ladies in his private practice, but warns high horse Eleanor when she meddles with patient emotions or vulnerability without any social discretion or considering their own family reputation. Robert wishes her late mother had been there to soften their daughter rather than let the hard world harden her, but he has a medicinal whiskey with Eleanor each night whether she heeds his regimental surgeon expertise or not. Kind Dad gives up his train seat to a little girl, goes on house calls despite his own broken arm, and tries to set up his uninterested daughter with a former soldier friend when not objecting to her new style low cut gown. He still wants to pick the man to look after Eleanor, failing to realize she doesn't need looking after by anyone. Robert's often angry over the risks at The Thrift and the surgical dangers at such improper facilities but in his own practice he'd rather not cheat a patient or tell them what they want to hear – making an enemy of important colleagues who provide high society placebos. However, certain cases also bring back painful wartime memories, and Robert questions his daughter's ambition when her patients are caught in the crossfire. When she lies about her relationships with men, Robert's shocked by her behavior yet relents on her romance because he is a good father who loves her regardless. In “The Return of the Betrayer” the elder Bramwell begrudgingly allows his penniless sister to return home amid the upscale dinner parties, sing a longs, and well earned fellowships threatened by her arrival. It's twenty years too late for forgiving her debts or scandalous living in sin with a married man, and this hour is one of the stronger episodes from Year Two in balancing both the at home and the hospital. Eleanor suggests her aunt take on The Thrift administrator role, and it might have been interesting to have a charming, outspoken society dame as a recurring character. Unfortunately, this spicy sister can't quite get respectable thanks to a young doctor Andrew Lincoln (The Walking Dead).
Kevin McMonagle's (Your Cheatin' Heart) Scottish Doctor Joe Marsham is also right when he says Eleanor brings everything on herself. He's comes to Thrift Street as a part time anesthetist before becoming a full time surgeon not afraid to tell it like it is to patients or either Bramwell. Marsham plays the soundboard for both father and daughter, toeing the line on their high ideals as needed because loyalty to the patient is the more important than lining his pockets. Though married and forced to do a dangerous operation on his own daughter, Marsham's jealous of Eleanor's suitors, saying she has more understanding that his wife and her strength is often what keeps him going. She likewise relies on his peacekeeping, but Marsham deflects on his true feelings to keep their friendship undamaged. He takes his doctoring seriously and wants everybody to pretend like they are in a proper infirmary without all their emotional turmoil. Andrew Connolly's (Fair City) introduction as St. Jude's doctor Finn O'Neill, however, is much more upfront. He doesn't want a woman doctor at his hospital but any antagonism with Eleanor is forgotten in half an episode – he wants her to lecture and loves her unusual personality! Of course, she uses his research opportunity to shock all her male colleagues with her latest infirmary case, and using a patient to prove a point impresses him. Finn also tosses out an ill woman running into his hospital screaming for help, and he's a two faced, unlikable example of what's wrong with medicine then and now. Eleanor calls him out over his using her infirmary when it suits him, but Bramwell rushes their relationship with his soulmates talk, making her look the other way when people die amid his trial and error medical science. He claims he's dedicated to saving lives and will do whatever it takes to treat the sick, glowing things Eleanor falls for while her father rightfully calls him a seducer and scheming opportunist. He confesses his love and asks for her hand in marriage a little late – after everyone is supposedly overreacting over his scandalous history.
Former patient and amputee Bentley becomes porter at The Thrift, using his crutch against unruly ruffians a time or two. Although as the series progresses, he goes sans support and Bramwell goes out of its way to never show Cliff Parisi's (EastEnders) from the knees down, leaving the audience to forget his missing foot rather than address any struggle. In Series Two, Ben Brazier (Layer Cake) as Bentley's equally sarcastic son Sidney helps at the infirmary, and both have a cantankerously endearing relationship with Ruth Sheen's (Another Year) Nurse Ethel Carr. Initially there as required, Nurse Carr makes an interesting counterpoint to the doctors with her affectionate bedside manner. She rightly prescribes that sometimes all a young patient needs is love and stands by Eleanor even when struck by attackers. Bentley calls her the pearl in his oyster who's a pain in his ass and “soft as shit,” but Nurse Carr enjoys giving Sidney some tough love. She confronts Eleanor too, thinking the doctor is often her own worst enemy for picking the wrong battles over the wrong clientele. Keeley Gainey (No Bananas) as Kate the Bramwell's long time maid is also solid as maids go, remaining supportive and praying for patients, but Bramwell could have done much more with its ensemble, focusing on their plights or dilemmas rather than tackling so many big issues. Michele Dotrice (Some Mothers Do 'Ave 'Em) as the ward's widowed benefactor Lady Cora Peters is initially shocked and fainting, but she wants to be where her wealth will do good. She handles the clinic's administration while charming more dough from other elites. Despite growing frail herself, Lady Cora wears a brave face and questions why Eleanor always criticizes or creates problems where there are none. It could have been fun to see her become more medically hands compared to Robert Hardy's (All Creatures Great and Small) mean, arrogant Doctor Herbert Hamilton. He'd rather do a hysterectomy on a healthy woman to cover for her noble husband, and Eleanor rightly calls him a greedy, past it charlatan placing politics above medicine when he tells her women were only made to be wives. He presents himself as doing no wrong in “The Trust of Kings,” but even his young medical students question his practice. Hamilton refuses to take The Thrift seriously, denying their use of a new x-ray machine and doing a patient more harm by ignoring overexposure warnings. He prescribes laudanum for the rich and misdiagnoses a woman as emotional when it is really a then fatal appendix. Typical!
Such maids, tea time, and English decorum add to Bramwell's late Victorian feathers, top hats, long skirts, fitted jackets, puffy sleeves, silk frocks, pocket watches, and white gloves. Those giant sleeves seem just a little impractical amid the blood splattered surgery aprons, medical bags, and nurses caps! How does all that fabric get into the tighter fitting coats? Despite candlelight dinners, gas lamps, ink blotters, crystal, pianos, and carriages; the downtrodden cobblestone and industrial mood remain gritty and dirty thanks to leeches, gross autopsies, intestines, bone saws, and onscreen amputations. Bramwell is a more realistic drama compared to the romantic, bright, western style of the earlier set but released two years prior Dr. Quinn: Medicine Woman. The subdued palette and older, flat picture isn't very colorful, however, that adds to that East End bitter, primitive Victorian medical equipment, retro needles, vintage tourniquets, and bad teeth. Bicycles, boat races, and park strolls provide some whimsy amid cluttered period interiors relying on window light schemes – early microscopes, flash powder cameras, tea cups, and walking sticks carry an old fashioned charm. I chuckle also at every episode title needing an unnecessary “the,” and you could have a drinking game for every time they say “anesthetist” with their decidedly British pronunciation. Brief crass language and slang are also nothing too offensive or overly Cockney amid each largely dialogue driven fifty minutes. Ten episodes from Series One and Two were written by Lucy Gannon (Peak Practice) with director David Tucker (A Very Peculiar Practice) helming eleven hours of Bramwell, creating a cohesive but sensitive journey for our lady doctor.
Bramwell is a fine period drama not only less saccharin than the more well known Dr. Quinn, but easier to marathon thanks to its shorter seasons. Topical issues and the breaking of Victorian taboos are well presented in a likable feminine frame, making Bramwell a fine little piece that shouldn't be overlooked.