A Very Peculiar Practice: Satirical sexism from classic 1980s comedy still hits a nerve – Laura Waddell

Last night I watched, for the very first time, the first episode of classic black comedy A Very Peculiar Practice.

Readers of a certain age likely recall it fondly, but for those new to it, it follows the eccentric staff of a modern university’s health centre. The campus, a sprawling specimen of Brutalism, is only a decade or two old but already looks defeated.

Through it, the cast seem to endlessly stroll; across a vast car park, passageways and bridges, and into oddly angled rooms. Outside is all moody, blocky concrete; inside, dark wood and leather. Once in a while, a beautiful shaft of light spills across a corridor, ushering in some life.

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Although the sharp look at weird and bleak Thatcherite Britain was novel for its time, I was reminded of Scottish actor Katie Leung’s essay in anthology East Side Voices about actors of any Asian heritage being expected to mimic Chinese accents.

But there is some great, mischievously conceived character acting; Graham Crowden’s Dr Jock McCannon, a mad-eyed Scot whose on-edge delivery and ironic cadence are an uncanny forerunner to Peter Capaldi’s Malcolm Tucker.

Barbara Flynn’s Dr Rose Marie is a sex-positive, power game playing überfeminist spearing men with her steely gaze; I imagine the portrayal is meant to be mocking, but I immediately adore her.

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Then there’s David Troughton’s slimy Bob Buzzard, representing the era’s political mania for privatisation. In an interview, writer Andrew Davies said Buzzard’s character was “sadly… truest to what was happening in the universities, and most other places”. Buzzard looks like the bargain bucket Don Draper of dodgy deals and corporate cuts, assured of a place at the top of the food chain and still keen to kick downwards.

1980s BBC sitcom A Very Peculiar Practice followed the exploits of the eccentric staff of a modern university’s health centre1980s BBC sitcom A Very Peculiar Practice followed the exploits of the eccentric staff of a modern university’s health centre
1980s BBC sitcom A Very Peculiar Practice followed the exploits of the eccentric staff of a modern university’s health centre

A TV show that debuted the year I was born is a gamble. Is the humour good enough to still land, or will it be weighed down by tedious, crass sexism? In the end, I got a lot out of it, but greasy Dr Buzzard did make one remark that hit a nerve.

Showing around a new doctor on campus, Buzzard sneers: “My personal view is, there’s nothing wrong with Rose Marie that a damn good rogering wouldn’t sort out.”

When this episode appeared on the BBC in 1986, 36 years ago, the character speaking those words was meant to be seen as a villainous boor. Earlier the same day I’d read the Daily Record reporting that a senior lawyer sent texts about the head of Scotland’s largest rape charity saying he would “s**g” her “just to have something over her”.

The day before that, the Scottish Football Writers’ Association made headlines for guffawing away at sexist after-dinner jokes, with sports reporter Eilidh Barbour tweeting she’d “never felt so unwelcome in the industry I work in”. Appalling any time, but as a new audience flocks to women’s football? What an embarrassment.

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Sexism isn’t hot air, just dissipating into nothing. When spat at women like little poison darts of malice, for the sport of other men, it is cruel, humiliating and intimidating. Not only is this behaviour shockingly unprofessional; it’s just not funny that some of Scotland’s professional bodies are showing themselves to be stuck in the 80s. Many stopped laughing decades ago.



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