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Knickerbocker Glory? Knickerbocker Gory, More Like

28/10/2014 14:42 GMT | Updated 27/12/2014 10:59 GMT

Tightly scripted, well-written, superbly shot and brilliantly acted. Nevertheless, it's a complete bloody mess.

A fraction over three minutes into the first episode, we see a heavily pregnant woman as she's wheeled into an operating theatre. An actual theatre would be closer to the mark because she's being looked down on by what appears to be a paying audience. Oh God! it's like something I once saw at the Almedia in Islington.

The audience in question are, of course, a mix of surgeons and students eager to learn about the latest medical advances.

If The Knick wasn't a show set in New York, 1900, you could be forgiven for wondering whether the the action was taking place in an up to date NHS training hospital. I'm kidding, I think.

No sooner has the mother-to-be pleaded with the doctors to save her unborn baby than she's sliced open and the poor infant is dragged out of her gaping abdomen.

Put to one side as if it's a piece of resting beef on Masterchef, attention then moves back to the fast deteriorating patient. Blood is sucked out of her at an alarming rate. The whole scene is reminiscent of oil being extracted from the North Sea. "More vacuuming", shouts the most senior doctor to a junior colleague. "Come on, put your back into it, man".

By all rights, this series should be sponsored by Ariel, Persil, Surf, Daz or Vanish Oxi Action.

But none of these brands were plainly confident enough in the efficacy of their products to remove quite that many bodily secretions and return a surgical gown to its original brilliant white.

Instead, like all drama on Sky Atlantic - the only UK satellite station worth regularly tuning into - the 10-parter is sponsored by Volvo. Shame they aren't called Vulva. At least that might be more appropriate, but perhaps too gynecological for some. Besides, the jokes about the kind of people who drive a Vulva would be endless.

The Knick takes its name from The Knickerbocker, an actual hospital from over 100 years ago.

It's directed with great aplomb by Steven Soderbergh. Cinema's loss (he's supposedly given up making movies, although no one would seriously bet one of their kidneys on that remaining the case) is without question TV's gain.

Featuring Britain's Clive Owen as Doctor John Thackery, the experimental Chief Surgeon ahead of his time, it doesn't exactly make for comfortable prime time viewing. You're best advised to have finished eating before it starts. Anyone tucking into meatballs in a tomato based sauce could find the similarity between what's on their plate and what's on their screen a little hard to stomach.

As with many doctors, both in fact and fiction, Thackery is far from perfect. He has more than his fair share of personal problems and demons to deal with. Then again, being a medic is that kind of job, isn't it? Sort of goes with the territory.

The ultimate early 20th century Dr. Feelgood, he's a cocaine addict. Rather handily for him, he's never short of a supply since the hospital uses it as an anaesthetic. We witness t his when a man suffering from an Aortic Aneurysm has a syringeful of Charlie administered into his back to numb the pain of an upcoming operation.

Thackery, however, is so fond of this particular narcotic, he's run out of useful veins in his arms, meaning he has to inject it in-between his toes. As if the reliance on one drug wasn't bad enough, he spends his nights in an opium den. This smacks (pun intended) of Johnny Depp's portrayal of Inspector Frederick Abberline in From Hell.

Owen is obviously the star - seldom, if ever, has he been better - but he is ably supported by a number of other actors and characters.

Almost his equal in terms of presence is Andre Holland who plays Doctor Algernon Edwards, a highly competent black surgeon. Against the will of everyone else, he is hired as Assistant Chief Surgeon by Cornelia Robertson (Juliet Rylance), daughter of the hospital's main benefactor, August Robertson (Grainger Hines).

While the racism is understandably a reflection of a certain period in history, it still manages to repulse and astound. It extends to Edwards being frowned upon by the mother of a child who needs stitches and being relegated to a dank basement "office" where, outside of hours, he treats those who because of the colour of their skin are initially refused treatment.

Also worthy of mention is Jeremy Bobb as Herman Barrow, the manager of the beleaguered facility. He is siphoning off funds to pay for his debts to a mob boss who takes a pair of pliers to Herman's teeth as a warning to the fate that will befall him if he doesn't come up with what he owes.

After two episodes, this antidote to the boring banality of our home grown Casualty, is quickly becoming compulsive viewing. No wonder that in the U.S, where it is broadcast on Cinemax - an offshoot of HBO - it has already been commissioned for a second series. Unaware of its impending success, Owen only took it on as a stop gap between film roles.

For all its apparent seriousness, don't get the impression though that The Knick is devoid of a sense of fun.

In addition to humors (yellow bile, black bile, phlegm and blood), it's not without its moments of (black) humour. For instance, when the badly installed electricity fails just as a wound is being cauterised by what looks like a pair of toasting forks, the patient's body suddenly catches fire. A nurse then throws water on a live cable resulting in her death. Well, it tickled my funny bone.

Rarely have TB, Diphtheria, Typhoid and Syphilis been so entertaining.

I strongly advise you to catch them and a host of other very nasty diseases every Thursday at 9pm.