Review: Secrets are perilous medicine in ‘Breathless’ on PBS

IN “Breathless,” Jack Davenport portrays a womanizing OB-GYN.
IN “Breathless,” Jack Davenport portrays a womanizing OB-GYN.
(ITV Studios / Masterpiece)

For viewers who find “The Knick” too gory and “Masters of Sex” too graphic, the answer can be found, as answers so often are, on PBS’ “Masterpiece.”

There the three-part period medical drama “Breathless” addresses all the social/sexual repressions and technological limitations of the 1960s while throwing in a dash of soap and a hint of mystery. (It airs under the “Masterpiece Mystery!” banner, which seems a stretch but gives us a few short minutes with Alan Cumming, which is always fun.)

“Pirates of the Caribbean’s” Jack Davenport stars as OB-GYN Otto Powell, who, between fabulous diagnoses and flawless surgeries, flirts with nurses and the “darker” side of medicine. (He performs then-illegal abortions on the side.)

Powell has another secret, of course, possibly more than one. His marriage to Elizabeth (Natasha Little), for one thing, seems constrained even by Brit standards. Then there’s Chief Inspector Ronald Mulligan (“Game of Thrones’ ” Iain Glen), who arrives late in the first episode, brimming with bitterness and ill intent. Mulligan apparently knew Powell “back in Cyprus,” where Powell and his perpetually agitated colleague Dr. Enderbury (Shaun Dingwall) served in the military together.


Meanwhile, the issues of the day are addressed and explored, along with the styles and social habits. Enderbury, a fine and believable mix of self-aggrandizement and self-loathing, finds himself competing with an Indian-English doctor for promotion. Nurse Jean Wilson (Zoe Boyle) is torn between joy over “catching” young Dr. Truscott (Oliver Chris) and the nagging suspicion that she has sold herself short.

She is being replaced at the hospital by her sister and fellow nurse Angela (Catherine Steadman), who quickly finds it necessary to keep the smitten Powell at arm’s length while offering support to various female patients made miserable by their very clearly second-class citizenry.

With period pieces a dime a dozen these days, the past has become as familiar as the present, and it’s impossible to watch “Breathless” without mentally footnoting shows like those mentioned above, as well as “Mad Men,” “Call the Midwife” and “The Hour.”

This is not necessarily a bad thing. As with those series, “Breathless” offers viewers a trip back through time, in which the glorious fashions and accouterments do battle with the grim realities of sexism, racism, repression and limited medical knowledge.

Davenport’s Powell is chilly yet chivalrous, and the performances are universally solid; “Gavin and Stacey’s” Joanna Page shines in particular as Enderbury’s amiably giddy wife, Lilly. If “Breathless” isn’t saying anything terribly new about the old days — Women had it tough! Secrets can ruin your life! — it is lyrical nonetheless, and some points do bear repeating.


‘Masterpiece Mystery! Breathless’

Where: KOCE

When: 9 and 10:30 p.m. Sunday

Rating: TV-14 (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 14)