Preview: Medicine Balls

For a bit of a change, yesterday, I headed off to watch a pilot Radio 4 show being recorded. Medicine Balls attempts to make the burning medical questions of the day into a funny panel show. Hosted by Dr Phil Hammond, it might well be making it onto the airwaves, some time in the next year or so, so I thought I’d let you know my thoughts on it.

Dr Phil (as long-time fans might think of him) writes the MD column of Private Eye and used to be one half of the stand-up act Struck Off and Die. Back in the early 90s, he and fellow junior doctor Tony Gardner (now best known as the restaurant owner in Lead Balloon, but formerly known as “Dr Tony”) used to tour universities, mocking the medical profession and the NHS on a rather good Radio 4 show.

Now he’s decided to recycle some of that material into a panel show. For the pilot episode, the panel consisted of Dr Ben Goldacre, writer of The Guardian‘s “Bad Science” column, Dr Sarah Jarvis – doctor to the stars, and Arthur Smith, premier stand-up comedian and, it turns out, brother of the former editor of the BMJ and former sufferer of severe acute necrotising pancreatisis. Providing musical accompaniment and a certain “I’ll name his disorder in five” quality to the show was Dr Adam Kay (Ha! Having a go at people with autism. You should talk, matey).

The general format of the show was for the panel to answer various questions, some already formulated, some provided by the audience, and for the audience to pass verdict on the answers, answering “Medicine Balls” – or something similar – if they didn’t agree.

That, at least, was the plan. However, it wasn’t long before it became clear that the show was, in fact, going to be

  1. a Struck Off and Die greatest hits show
  2. an excuse for the assembled doctors to whinge about management consultants and be a tad leftie
  3. not desperately funny

Dr Phil used a load of jokes and anecdotes familiar to those with long comedic memories (“ash cash” – the amount of money doctors get paid to have a body cremated – got revivified, for example); Dr Ben wasn’t desperately interesting, tending towards the fey and quiet, rather than the dynamic and exciting qualities needed of a panellist and probably wouldn’t have said anything without the desperately leading questions of Dr Phil; and Dr Sarah spent most of her time needling Dr Phil about not being a full-time GP anymore (God, locums hey?). Arthur Smith, clearly on the show mainly because a producer running a panel show needs a sure-fire comedy source when there’s the possibility the other panellists are going to fall flat, was his usual entertaining self, but still came across as a little irrelevant.

Dr Adam was probably the funniest of the lot, but a programme created entirely from his songs and slightly serial-killeresque demeanour probably won’t last that long.

If there’s a complete revamp of the format, I imagine this might make series. Otherwise, this cunning agitprop combined with the usual black humour of doctors is destined to lurk in someone’s audio in-tray for the near future.