Appellate Judge James A. Stewart believes Coronation Street would be a parking lot if it had backstage antics like this.
"We're like one big happy family."—Donna Sinclair
Joanna Lumley isn't a doctor, but she played an actress who played one on TV, at least for six episodes, in Dr. Willoughby. The British actress is a familiar face and comedic presence from The New Avengers and Absolutely Fabulous, so it's not surprising that Acorn dug up this forgotten 1999 sitcom about backstage life at a TV soap in the land of Coronation Street.
Facts of the Case
Dr. Willoughby has six episodes on one disc:
• "Fan Mail"—Dr. Willoughby star Donna Sinclair is jealous when she discovers that she gets less fan mail than co-stars Ralph (Brian Protheroe, Reilly: Ace of Spies) and Crystal (Paula Bacon, Food of Love). Ralph fears a jail term for unpaid spousal maintenance.
• "Young Pretender"—With objections from producer Emma (Isobel Middleton, Cracker) and raves from lusting star Donna, a muscle-bound actor with no discernible talent gets a plum role on the soap. Ralph's nervous about not being in the script.
• "Family Wedding"—Donna's upset because her home doesn't have enough bedrooms to get her an OK! magazine profile. She's also not too fond of her son's fiancee.
• "Speculation"—Donna checks into a clinic. Ralph's the only one who's upset—but that's only because Emma hired another actor in Donna's absence rather than plumping up his role.
• "Scandal"—"Brother of TV celebrity living in squalor" isn't the kind of headline that ITV wanted as a sponsorship deal is in the works. Ralph and Crystal both hope that a reworked show will put their name first.
• "Awards"—Dr. Willoughby is nominated for an award, but Donna's not happy: she'd like a new dress for the ceremony, and the show can't fit it into the budget.
Dr. Willoughby opens on the set of Dr. Willoughby, quickly establishing that, while Dr. Willoughby is a crack surgeon, you'd probably rather do your own bypass than let Donna Sinclair anywhere near you, even if she's not bearing a scalpel. She drops an f-bomb at co-star Ralph, angry at his ad-lib. As the show goes on, Donna turns out to barely know her son and brother, constantly sabotages naive younger actress Crystal with some really bad advice (and even suggests to the writers a storyline in which Crystal's character gets acid in the face), and has to look up Finland when she learns her soap is now on the air there.
To play an actress playing a surgeon, Joanna Lumley apparently had to study making funny faces. Fortunately, she did her job well and you might even laugh as soon as you see her previously cold visage start to twist. "Scandal" makes her gradually shabbier appearance as she becomes more haggard the main gag, and perhaps the series' funniest.
The secondary plots are usually left to Brian Protheroe as Ralph, a neurotic actor who tends to blow up a lot; he's usually dreaming of filling a gap left by a departing Donna, at least when he's not fearing his own abrupt departure. The strongest supporting character is Emma, a producer who begs to get out of her contract—and away from the difficult cast.
Dr. Willoughby generally has a realistic look to it; it appears to be filmed on an actual soundstage and backlot. The backdrop actually makes the silly, (hopefully) exaggerated gags on the show seem a tad more realistic, which adds to the humor. It's interesting to note that several of the actors, including Lumley (a veteran of General Hospital and Coronation Street), have experience with TV suds.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Dr. Willoughby is often funny, but Joanna Lumley's undignified, hilariously nasty performance carries the show. Anytime she's off camera, the show's still nasty, but not amusingly so. The inside dirt aspect of the show is a lot weaker than it should be, thanks to the one-note characterizations in the script. Even when it is funny, do you really want to watch unpleasant people in action?
Dr. Willoughby was done in 1999, yet this release is in widescreen format. I can't say for sure, but I do suspect there was some chopping of the picture.
Dr. Willoughby is worth a look for fans of Joanna Lumley, but keep in mind it's a relatively minor item on her resume. If her name didn't pique your interest, Dr. Willoughby probably won't.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Acorn Media
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