The spectre of one of the great modern fictional TV doctors looms over Monroe like Banquo’s ghost haunting Macbeth – but while there are traces of a certain Dr Gregory House in James Nesbitt’s Gabriel Monroe, it’s criminal psychologist Dr Edward Fitzgerald who is immediately brought to mind (as it were) by this new ITV drama series. Monroe isn’t House remade for the UK; it’s Cracker remade in a hospital – and that’s a good thing.
Monroe is a neurosurgeon at St Matthew’s Hospital in Leeds. He’s charismatic, profanely funny and brilliant at what he does, but he’s obsessed with gambling and his private life is a mess, with his marriage to Anna (Susan Lynch) stretched so thinly it could be made of muslin.
At work, he has his likes – anaesthetist and fellow gambler Lawrence Shepherd, played by Tom Riley, alongside nervous, squeamish but keen and willing trainee Kitty Wilson (Michelle Asante) – and his dislikes – know-it-all trainee Daniel Springer (Luke Allen-Gale) – but his most interesting relationship is with apparently humourless and strait-laced cardiac surgeon Jenny Bremner (Sarah Parish). They’re opposites in many ways – Bremner is cool, distant and practically emotionless, while Monroe uses his emotions to help him work and becomes involved to the point of familiarity with his patients – but there are enough sparks in their feisty badinage to light up half the hospital. You don’t need to be a brain surgeon to suspect there’s romance ahead for the two of them.
Yes, a lot of this is hardly new ground for fiction, let alone TV medical drama, but Monroe is no upstart rival to the overstretched Holby family – it looks, sounds and, in general, is too good to be judged by such soapy standards. Comparisons to House will be hastily drawn, but it’s not too far off being worthy of a place in such exalted company.
The direction by Paul McGuigan is very much in the same fluid, fast-paced style as his Sherlock episodes – several uses of overlaid hospital monitor screens are reminiscent of seeing Sherlock’s text messages onscreen – while Peter Bowker’s script is superb. The dialogue sparkles (Bremner: “Why are you so threatened by me?” – Monroe: “I don’t know; it could be the size of your penis”) and there are many hitherto un-mined evocations of hospital life: the endless, anxious waiting; the silence, punctuated by brief and unexpected bursts of noise and people rushing past; and the uneasy feeling that a hospital is as much a place of death as it is of healing.
James Nesbitt perhaps starts off by being a little bit too Nesbitty – as if, once again, he needs time to grow out of being Cold Feet’s Adam Williams – but by the end, he is genuinely believable (and, crucially, eminently likeable) in the role of a man with, in his own words, “a medical degree and a borderline personality disorder”.
The supporting cast have the potential to grow in power and performance as the series goes on; and for lovers of guitar music, there are references to the likes of Belle & Sebastian, The Specials, Arctic Monkeys, David Bowie and John Squire.
The episode even closes, rather wonderfully, with ‘People Ain’t No Good’ by Nick Cave; and we can offer no higher praise than by saying the series is worthy of the song. Monroe is modern medical drama in quite literally rude health.
Airs at 9pm on Thursday 10th March 2011 on ITV1.