A Very Peculiar Practice

A Very Peculiar Practice is a BBC comedy-drama series, which ran for two series in 1986 and 1988. The series was a surreal black comedy, set in the health centre of a British university. The two series were followed by a 90-minute made-for-television film, A Very Polish Practice (1992), following some of the characters to a new setting in Poland.

It was written by Andrew Davies, and was inspired by his experiences as a lecturer at the University of Warwick, and it has been interpreted as a commentary on contemporary trends in education. It was one of only two original television series that he wrote.

In 2010, The Guardian ranked the serial at number 5 in their list of “The Top 50 TV Dramas of All Time”.

The series is a black comedy with surreal elements about an idealistic young doctor, Stephen Daker (Peter Davison), taking up a post as a member of a university medical centre. The centre is staffed by a group of misfits including the bisexual Rose Marie (Barbara Flynn), self-absorbed Bob Buzzard (David Troughton) and decrepit Scot, Jock McCannon (Graham Crowden) who heads the team in the first series.

A leitmotif is the commercialisation of higher education in Britain following the government cuts of the early 1980s, with the Vice-Chancellor Ernest Hemmingway (John Bird) trying to woo Japanese investors in the face of resistance from the academic old guard. Hugh Grant made one of his first television appearances as an evangelical preacher; Kathy Burke also had a bit part. In the second series an American Vice-Chancellor Jack Daniels (Michael J. Shannon) took over from Hemingway, continuing the running joke of naming the VC after a famous American (although the whiskey distiller’s name was Jack Daniel).

In the first series, Daker had a romance with a post-graduate policewoman, Lyn Turtle (Amanda Hillwood), who rescued him from drowning in the university swimming pool. In the second series broadcast in 1988, Daker was head of the centre with a new love interest in Polish academic Grete Grotowska (Joanna Kanska). Rose Marie became romantically involved with both Grotowska and Daniels.

In the sequel television film, A Very Polish Practice (1992), the couple live in Poland, where Daker struggles with the former Communist country’s antiquated health service. Grete encounters an ex lover (Tadeusz Melnik played by Alfred Molina), who helped her get out of Poland and to whom she had promised herself, should she ever return, if he ever asks. She battles to decide whether to stay with Stephen and their child or to go with Melnik (with or without the child), confessing that she still loves him as well as Stephen. The idea for the second series was said to have come from the actress Joanna Kanska, who played Grete.

Lowlands University (the fictional institution at which the series was set) was based on the University of East Anglia campus near Norwich. The BBC wanted to feature the UEA campus in the programme’s credits but the University refused permission. The locations for the series’ filmed sequences were the universities of Keele and Birmingham. Also used for exterior filming was the BT engineer training school in Staffordshire. The selection of UEA by the producers was not unintentional as it was the base for Malcolm Bradbury, to whose development of the British campus novel the series is much indebted. Most of the interiors were shot at BBC Pebble Mill (first series) and London (second), in the common combined film/video format.

The series had its genesis in writer Andrew Davies’s discovery that he owed the BBC approximately £17,000, due to him being commissioned and paid to write a TV project that he did not deliver. Davies decided that the best means of paying the debt was to write a new series, which became A Very Peculiar Practice. In a deliberate case of art imitating life, the final episode of the first series introduces a character named Ron Rust (Joe Melia), a writer who, for reasons that he doesn’t quite understand, owes the BBC £17,000 and is trying to write a black comedy about a university to pay the debt. The Ron Rust character also appeared in Davies’s A Few Short Journeys of the Heart (an adaptation of his short story collection Dirty Faxes), first shown in the Stages series on BBC2 on 10 August 1994.

The theme tune, “We Love You” was written by Dave Greenslade and performed by UK singer, Elkie Brooks.

Cast

  • Peter Davison as Stephen Daker
  • Graham Crowden as Jock McCannon
  • David Troughton as Robert “Bob” Buzzard
  • Barbara Flynn as Rose Marie
  • Amanda Hillwood as Lyn Turtle
  • Joanna Kanska as Grete Grotowska (2nd series)
  • Lindy Whiteford as Nurse Maureen Gahagan
  • John Bird as Vice-Chancellor Ernest Hemmingway (1st series)
  • Takashi Kawahara as Chen Sung Yau (1st series)
  • James Grout as Professor George Bunn (2nd series)
  • Michael J. Shannon as Vice-Chancellor Jack Daniels (2nd series)
  • Colin Stinton as Charlie Dusenberry (2nd series)
  • Gillian Raine as Mrs Kramer
  • Joe Melia as Ron Rust
  • Kay Stonham as Daphne Buzzard
  • Elaine Turrell and Sonia Hart as Nuns

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