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Eastern region's top ten nurses on the big and small screen

1 Mar 2016

Lyndsay Buckland, RCN Eastern communications manager: Just as nurses play a huge role in society, so have they done in the worlds of TV and film. Whether they are portrayed in serious shows with traumatic storylines or in more light-hearted comic characterisations, fictional nurses often leave a lasting impression on viewers and may even shape how the profession is viewed by the public. As the Royal College of Nursing celebrates its centenary, I asked colleagues in our Eastern Region office to tell me their favourite nurses from the big and small screen. We’ve narrowed it down to our top ten (in no particular order). As it was my idea, let me go first…

Manuela (Cecilia Roth) – All About My Mother

This 1999 Pedro Almodóvar film centres on Argentine nurse Manuela, who oversees donor organ transplants at a hospital in Madrid. On his 17th birthday her son Esteban is hit and killed by a car and Manuela has to agree with her colleagues that her son's heart be transplanted to a man in A Coruña. There follows a somewhat complex plot – this is world cinema after all – where Manuela follows her son’s heart then also sets off to find her son’s father, a transvestite, who does not know he has a son. She then meets a series of characters with even more complicated lives who she attempts to help – ever the caring nurse.

I chose this character not just because a liking of subtitled films makes me appear quite the intellectual, but also because I am fascinated by the area of organ donation and those involved in this difficult job. Dealing with both the tragedy of one family’s loss and the potential joy of those given a new chance at life must be incredibly challenging. I also saw a stage version of the film which, if anything, was even more powerful.

Carol Hathaway (Julianna Margulies) - ER

As nurse manager at Chicago’s County General Hospital, Carol was always on hand to stand up for nurses and call for greater recognition of their skills and experience. She would often challenge doctors who appeared to belittle her nurses’ ability.

Carol once told surgeon Peter Benton: "Haleh may not be able to cross clamp an aorta, but she has over 20 years’ experience in emergency medicine and if you would step off your pedestal maybe you would realise it's the nurses that make this place run and not you."

Regional Administrator Deb Bentley said: “I loved Carol Hathaway in ER – she was the character you would want by your side if you or a loved-one was ill.

“You also had a good chance of seeing Doug Ross (played by George Clooney)!!

“She defended the nursing profession and told the surgeons they couldn’t do their work without them.”

Charlie Fairhead (Derek Thompson) – Casualty

In terms of longevity, Charlie Fairhead from BBC hospital drama Casualty has to score some serious Brownie points. He has appeared as a nurse in the busy A&E department since the show began in 1986. While many colleagues succumbed to the same sort of “you could see that coming a mile off” accidents that regularly befall Holby residents, Charlie has survived. That’s not to say his career has been without drama. Of course there was the time he had to save his junkie son Louis from selling his kidney in Romania (a common parental dilemma surely?!). Then there was his near-death cardiac arrest during a gang siege. And yet Charlie prevails.

RCN Senior Officer Chris Hill said: “Charlie from Casualty was a bit of a hero for me back in the 90s.”

As he was to us all, Chris. And continues to be, for as long as he can dodge run-away tractors and rabid cows anyway.

Matron (Hattie Jacques) – Carry On films

I’ve read the plot line of Carry on Matron and, quite frankly, I’m none the wiser. The same goes for the other four films in the series in which Hattie Jacques played the formidable Matron. But what we can say about the Carry On films is that they had some great lines, so let’s focus on those. For example:

Hattie Jacques – I’m a simple woman with simple tastes and I want to be wooed.

Kenneth Williams – Ooh, you can be as “wude” as you like with me!

Or what about:

Hattie Jacques - (handing over envelopes) By the way, your mail.

Kenneth Williams – Yes I am! And I can prove it, d’you hear? Prove it!

Patch administrator Carole Vincent said Jacques was “hilarious and larger than life”. Maybe you have a colleague who also fits this description!

Jo Longhurst (Julie Dawn Cole) – Angels

Second Year Student Nurse Jo Longhurst appeared in TV show Angels back in 1975. Once described as “the Z-Cars of nursing” the show, which ran for eight years, certainly left an impression on Senior Officer Mike Kavanagh.

“I was a student nurse at the time and really fancied Jo, although I subsequently realised that in 1975 she was only 17 and so too young to be a second year student,” Mike said.

“But, on a positive note, she was only a year younger than me.

“Angels had a significant impact on me and my colleagues as it was the first TV series to focus on student nurses as a major focus of the storyline and in many ways reflected our lives even if their lives tended to be more interesting.

“We often used to hear people say how it was nothing like real life for nurses but in many ways we had even more adventures.”

And just in case you look up Julie Dawn Cole and think ‘she looks familiar’, think back a few years prior to her Angels debut when she starred as Veruca Salt in Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. Her nursing skills may have proved handy for her character in that film, who was dropped down into a furnace holding room after being rejected by a machine checking for “bad eggs”.

Nurse Monica Hicks (Shvorne Marks) – Endeavour

Nurses on TV and film have also played a big part in highlighting the contribution of nurses from outside the UK who continue to be a major force in our health services.

Nurse Monica Hicks in Inspector Morse spin-off show Endeavour certainly fits this bill for many viewers.

Ruth Burey, RCN Facilitator of Professional Learning and Development, said: “Nurse Monica is a second generation immigrant nurse in England in the 1960s.

“She is professional, kind and caring and comes into the life of Inspector Morse (aka Endeavour), when he is struggling emotionally and they become involved in a relationship.

“During the 1960s and 1970s it was fairly common for nurses and policemen to date and marry. Nurse Monica is a realistic and positive portrayal of nursing and nurses from a black and minority (BME) background.

“She also reminds viewers of the amazing contribution of nurses from the Caribbean to the NHS.”

Chummy (Miranda Hart) – Call the Midwife

Surely there isn’t a bad word to be said about the loveable Camilla Cholomondely-Browne, or Chummy as she is better known. The daughter of an upper class family, she decided a career in nursing and midwifery was her calling from God, much to the displeasure of her parents. But her good humour and kindness, often in the face of the desperately deprived conditions of her patients, show that she has chosen the perfect vocation. Even if her bike-riding skills leave a little to be desired. Regional Communications Officer Sue Wilton said: “Chummy has a cheerful and no-nonsense approach which make her a very enjoyable character to watch.”

Peggy Snow (Pam Ferris) – Where the heart is

Set in the fictional Yorkshire town of Skelthwaite, Where the Heart Is was a long-running drama which focused on the professional and private lives of district nurses. Peggy Snow worked alongside her sister-in-law Ruth, played by Sarah Lancashire, caring for the local community. But while Ruth’s exit from the show involved a move to Australia, poor Peggy tragically died following a road accident involving a horse which also left her daughter Lucy fighting for her life. Deborah Haynes, Learning and Development Facilitator, said: “Peggy was known and respected in the community and brought common sense and tough love to situations while retaining a warmth and compassion towards patients. She was also very much a family person and seemed to look after everyone.”

Gabrielle (Audrey Hepburn) – The Nun’s Story

Made in 1959, The Nun’s Story follows Gabrielle "Gaby" Van Der Mal as she enters a convent of nursing sisters in the late 1920s in the hopes of becoming a missionary nursing sister in the Belgian Congo. She first enters a school of tropical medicine, before working in a mental hospital and eventually the Congo. She later returns to Belgium where her struggle with sisterly obedience becomes impossible as she is forced into repeated compromises to deal with the reality of the Nazi occupation. Regional Director Karen Webb said: “I like Gabrielle because like lots of nurses who serve in areas of war and conflict she is extremely brave and whatever the atrocities being committed she works to help patients and colleagues to care.”

Nurse Gladys Emmanuel (Lynda Baron) – Open All Hours and Still Open All Hours

There was much joy when the BBC announced in 2013 that popular sitcom Open All Hours would return to our screens almost 30 years after the original series finished. For many, the joy was amplified by the news that Lynda Baron would be reprising her role as Nurse Gladys Emmanuel. Much of the plot of the original incarnation was taken up with shopkeeper Albert Arkwright’s clumsy attempts to woo Nurse Gladys. In what would surely be covered by some kind of anti-stalking legislation these days, Arkwright could often be found trying to climb into her bedroom window using a ladder. Regional Service Manager Pat Taylor said: “Nurse Emmanuel is very funny. She just makes you smile.”