Maternal, review: witty hospital drama exposes the hardships for working mums

Lisa McGrillis, Parminder Nagra and Lara Pulver play doctors returning to work after maternity leave - ITV Studios
Lisa McGrillis, Parminder Nagra and Lara Pulver play doctors returning to work after maternity leave - ITV Studios

This Is Going to Hurt was an accomplished TV drama, based on a hit book and featuring a typically excellent performance from Ben Whishaw, but it had two faults. The first was the streak of misogyny that ran through Adam Kay’s writing (come back to me when you’ve been through childbirth yourself, pal) and the second was a rather lofty sense that the show had Important Things to Say about politics and the NHS.

So hurrah for Maternal (ITV1/ITVX), which is also about harried doctors in a busy hospital, but does not have the above problems. It’s a wittier show with much more of a focus on the personal lives of its main characters – if you loved The Split, then you’ll love this – and the three leads are women.

Maryam (Parminder Nagra), Helen (Lisa McGrillis) and Catherine (Lara Pulver) have all just returned from maternity leave. While this is a hospital drama, their experiences will chime with any woman going back to work. There is a great opening scene of the three doing nursery drop-off on their first day back, and Maryam (just before securing the button of her trousers with a hairband to make them do up) asking: “What if I hate being away from them? Or love being away from them – that’s worse, right?” I don’t know whether all of the details in this show are accurate – the writer, Jacqui Honess-Martin, has no medical background – but when it comes to the anxieties of women returning to the workplace, she’s bang on, having developed the show following her own experience of returning to her job full-time after maternity leave.

Nagra can do the doctor stuff with her eyes shut, having appeared in ER for years. Here she’s playing a paediatric registrar, a job now made more testing by the fact she has become a parent herself. Helen is in acute medicine, working with her husband and – awkward – the junior doctor with whom he’s been having an affair. Catherine is a surgeon and single parent who has, until now, run her life with sleek efficiency.

If you’re a man of a sensitive disposition then you may want to give Maternal a miss, because every male character here is a smug, entitled a--e. As a signifier, Helen’s husband is played by the same actor (Oliver Chris) who plays Anna Maxwell Martin’s uninvolved husband in the similarly themed Motherland. Occasionally it gets overly soapy – Catherine telling a colleague that he’s the father of the baby she had nine months ago – but it’s mostly smart and funny, and the medical drama moments can be surprisingly hard-hitting.