UK-born actor James Flynn, 71, is no stranger to hospitals and cameras. During the 1980s, he played a doctor in the BBC soap opera Angels. Now, he’s making a return to medical drama, but this time as a real-life patient in Channel Nine’s reboot of its hospital observational series RPA.

Having undergone surgery to clamp three aneurysms in his brain, Flynn is looking forward to watching the operation on television.

The new series of observational series RPA looks at a new era of medical technology.

“I can’t bring myself to be fearful of it,” says Flynn. “I’m more amazed at the technology. I remember thinking, ‘Oh, it’s a shame they have to knock me out,’ because there are some brain operations where you can watch on a monitor while they do it, but unfortunately, mine’s not one of them. Now I will have the opportunity to see inside my own head.”

Filmed at Sydney’s Royal Prince Alfred Hospital, and narrated by Rodger Corser, the series, which originally ran from 1995-2012, enters a new era of medicine, in which surgeons can operate via robots, perform minimally invasive heart surgery and conduct 24/7 clot retrieval procedures for stroke sufferers.

Along with Flynn, the first episode features a 43-year-old mother of three from regional NSW with recurring bone cancer in her thigh; and a 17-year-old rugby player presenting to the emergency department with a broken elbow.

This time around, the series puts more emphasis on the experiences of patients beyond the hospital, as they come to terms with how their diagnoses affect their lives. Producer John McAvoy says this was partly due to COVID restrictions, but was also a way to expand on the long narrative style that he says differentiates RPA from others in its genre.

James Flynn was happy for RPA’s cameras to film the operation that clamped three aneurysms in his brain.

“We did a lot more filming at home with the families,” says McAvoy. “So if we had someone who lives in the country, we went and filmed out at the farm, so people could understand their story without having to see them through a mask the whole time. What it allowed us to do was to really get to know these people.”

Interviews with doctors eschewed the “process” style interludes favoured by reality shows.

“It wasn’t about doctors sitting there and telling us something that we’ve just seen,” says McAvoy. “It’s about them telling us how they deal with telling someone that they’re dying, or explaining why they got into medicine. There’s one doctor [Associate Professor Robyn Saw] who’s just wonderful. We have a story on melanoma and it’s such a crusade for her, that she breaks down in the interview because she gets so frustrated that the message isn’t getting through.”

McAvoy acknowledges the subject matter will alienate some viewers, but urges the squeamish to consider the benefits beyond entertainment value. He recalls the original series, which he oversaw as then head of factual entertainment at Nine, prompting viewers to phone in to credit RPA with alerting them to their own medical issues.

The observational TV series RPA is returning to our screens on the Nine Network.Credit:Sam Mooy

“They’d say, ‘I watched RPA last night and I saw that person on your show that had a lump in their neck, and I noticed my husband had it, and we got it checked and it saved his life. We wouldn’t have known if we hadn’t watched the show,’” says McAvoy.

“I think that’s why the patients allow us to film their most vulnerable moments, because they want people to know what to look out for. They’re very generous of spirit.”

As Flynn prepares for more surgery to clamp a fourth aneurysm, he’ll be watching his favourite UK medical reality series, 24 Hours in A&E, on SBS On Demand.

“I’m interested in these programs as drama,” he says. “It’s interesting to see how different people react in these situations. I know there are people that don’t want to know what’s being done, but I’m the opposite.

“I’m quite fatalistic. I trust that the professionals are doing the best they can and we can’t ask any more than that. You can’t live life worrying about something that might happen.”

RPA returns at 9pm on Monday, March 27, on Nine, which is the owner of this masthead.

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