Set in the New London Hospital in 1962, Breathless follows the lives of a group of doctors and nurses in the gynecology and obstetrics department. The series focuses on not only the work they do in the hospital, but also in how intertwined their personal lives are outside of work, complete with hidden secrets and burgeoning affairs.
The central doctor in the series is Otto Powell (Jack Davenport). Well regarded and very capable, Dr. Powell also presents a carefree persona, the polar opposite of his friend and colleague, anesthesiologist Charlie Enderbury (Shaun Dingwall). Enderbury is often nervous and high strung, while surgeon Richard Truscott (Oliver Chris) is the young, handsome, charming, doctor that all the nurses love. Angela Wilson (Catherine Steadman) and Jean Truscott (Zoe Boyle) are the two nurses who round out the hospital staff. Jean is engaged to Dr. Truscott at the beginning of the series and their young marriage is an integral part of the series.
As the Breathless is set in the early ’60s, abortion is illegal and female patients are often treated more like children than spouses by their husbands. Since OB/GYNs are the focus of the series, many of the stigmas associated with abortion, menopause, and miscarriage are all addressed through the lens of the time period. The ways in which women were treated, and often dismissed, is an important part of the series. For instance, one woman sees her Dr. Truscott because she’s feeling depressed and as she sits in the doctor’s office with her husband, she reveals that she knows her husband is having an affair. Both the Dr. Truscott and the husband ignore her and she is prescribed medication and sent on her way. The almost callous way in which Dr. Truscott deals with this patient only reinforces the gender roles of the time, regardless of the maverick ways Dr. Powell operates.
The ways in which the male doctors often defer to the husbands of the women they’re treating is in direct contrast to the service frequently provided by the nurses. Nurse Wilson is especially sensitive to her patients, to the point where she becomes embroiled in the personal life of one in particular. Powell and Enderbury are also involved in an underground abortion practice, whereby a more modern sensibility frames the issue rather than the period’s own standards.
Starting slowly, the series really gets going once some of the ties between the characters are revealed, particularly as the situation involving both Nurse Wilson and Nurse Truscott is further fleshed out. Steadman and Boyle are an integral part of the success of the series, if only because they bring a genuine humanity to a cast that sometimes feels a little larger than life. Davenport’s Dr. Powell frequently straddles the line between charming and smarmy, but it is in his interactions with Nurse Wilson, as well as with his family, wife Elizabeth (Natasha Little) and son Thomas (Rudi Goodman), that he is at his most appealing.
Powell’s shared past with Enderbury is referenced cryptically throughout the series, often mentioned only as “Cyprus”, which took place nine years earlier in 1953. This past has clearly bonded the two, despite their obvious differences and Powell’s insistence on leaving the whole thing behind. Enderbury brings it up with a frequency that makes the context and his motives unclear at times. Enderbury’s home life is a happy one, as he clearly loves his wife Lily (Joanna Page), herself a highlight, in a series filled with many strong characters. She is cheery and supportive, but not blind to her husband’s secrets. A former nurse, Lily understands the demands of the hospital and is more intelligent than some would give her credit, yet she shines when she interacts with the other women, especially Elizabeth and Jean.
The shadowy past that lingers over much of the series becomes an even more ominous threat when Inspector Ronald Mulligan (Iain Glen) is called in to investigate the disappearance of his niece Maureen (Holli Dempsey). His own past is also tied up in Cyprus, and coupled with his obsession with Elizabeth; Mulligan’s appearance brings to light much of the past. Glen is genuinely menacing as Mulligan’s investigation becomes more and more personal and leads to revealing much as much about the Powell marriage as to what happened in Cyprus.
Breathless is an entertaining glimpse into a time period certainly dominated by men, yet also on the cusp of great change. The soapy quality to the series is to its benefit, as it offers a familiar way to bring the viewer into a complex web of personal and professional secrets and misunderstandings. Similar to how Downton Abbey highlights the role that social niceties and expectations play into the lives of the characters—although not to the greater degree as in Victorian England—Breathless makes good use of the restrictions of the time.
Unfortunately, the DVD release does not contain any special features.