Home TV by Decade TV Shows - 1950s Your Life In Their Hands

Your Life In Their Hands

1 9 5 8 – 1 9 6 4 (UK)
1 9 8 0 – 1 9 8 6 (UK)

Before 1958, British television had confined its view of hospital to the romantic tales of Emergency – Ward 10 where the only gory red thing to be seen was when a nurse had overdone her lipstick.

But in February 1958, the BBC took the revolutionary step of transporting their cameras into a real operating theatre to witness actual surgeons at work in a series called Your Life in Their Hands. The result divided the medical profession and the nation as a whole.

This innovative series was conceived with three goals; to investigate new medical techniques; to applaud the medical profession, and to provide “reassurance” for citizens at home.

The series ran for six years and enthralled up to 10 million viewers, but for many, the blood-and-guts visuals were too frightening and did anything BUT reassure.

It was reported that the programme was partially to blame for the suicide of three women, as well as many injuries. The pre-recorded programmes interviewed sick patients, watched their admission to hospital, heard the prognosis of the experts and learned of the action intended by the surgeons.

Overhead mirrors, microscopes and numerous cameras were then used to capture events in the operating theatre before the patients’ recovery was monitored in the weeks and months that followed. Never before had gallstones been removed on British television.

Open-heart surgery was even more dramatic and caesarean birth was demonstrated just as graphically. One woman gassed herself after watching a heart operation – She was facing a similar operation.

Two more gassed themselves after seeing an episode about cancer. Both thought they had cancer and were said by their husbands to have been very disturbed by the programme. In fact, neither had the disease.

In spite of the fact that the BBC always put out a warning to prevent the squeamish from watching, when the heart operation was screened many viewers suffered shock in their own homes.

A Cardiff man fainted and gashed his head as he fell off his chair, an elderly Birmingham woman was so shaken that she dropped a pot of tea over her hands and legs and was severely scalded, and a Yardley housewife bit her lip so badly that she needed seven stitches.

The British Medical Association strongly attacked Your Life in Their Hands and accused the BBC of ‘pandering to the morbid’ and called the first programme (showing six polio patients being kept alive by artificial breathing pumps) “deplorable”.

It was concerned that the series would increase people’s fears about their own health. A Harley Street psychiatrist called it a “psychologically dangerous experiment that could turn people into hypochondriacs”.

Yet the series was made with the full cooperation of the staff in the hospitals that were visited, and the vast majority of doctors supported the programme, saying it provided a valuable service in dispelling fears about surgery.

Thankfully, colour television had not yet been introduced into Britain. . .

When the series was revived in 1980, operations were shown for the first time in full, gory colour and were definitely not for the squeamish. For this series, surgeon Robert Winston acted as the informative narrator.

Five more editions were later screened in 1991.