How we made Embarrassing Bodies: Christian Jessen on TV’s intimate hit

·4-min read

Dr Christian Jessen, presenter

I had done some TV before and a friend told me about a fly on the wall series that needed a male doctor. I thought: “What have I got to lose?” Originally, though, the show was called Embarrassing Illnesses, but after pressure from us doctors, the producers changed it. We shouldn’t be calling illnesses embarrassing.

Myself, Dawn Harper and Pixie McKenna had meetings with the producers to talk through the cases each week. If we thought something was inappropriate, or a patient was particularly vulnerable, we wouldn’t use them. We drove the producers mad with our constant back and forth, but people came on the show because they felt they knew us – there’s a lot to be said for seeing a doctor you trust.

Some people felt let down by the health service, particularly with things such as wonky boobs, which the NHS might consider just cosmetic. I think we were a lifesaver for some people who were told by their GP that there was nothing that could be done. We also got people who wanted to be the person to portray the disease they had and raise awareness, knowing others with it were hiding away, just as they had done for many years.

We didn’t meet the patients until the cameras were rolling. Our Live from the Clinic show, first introduced in May 2011, was genuinely live. We used Skype to diagnose patients, which at the time was quite revolutionary. There was a lot of criticism from medics who said we should examine patients face to face, but a lot of people find it easier to talk over camera. I don’t want to say I told you so, but look where we are now.

The best moments were my personal diagnostic triumphs: spotting rare conditions and knowing exactly what they were. There was a little girl called Charlotte who came to me with bad verrucas. This was actually the sign of a new, unseen immunodeficiency (weakened immune system). I am proud of spotting that. She went on to have a bone marrow transplant.

It’s amazing the show is still being watched. There’s a natural voyeur in all of us: we want to see behind the curtain. It’s also partly to feel better about yourself and think: “I’m glad I don’t have that.” I’m permanently bemused by the fact it was so successful, because it’s just my job and it’s not that interesting. But people love medical stuff. And we certainly didn’t hold back on what we showed.

Sarah Trigg, director of series 1, executive producer 4-7

I’d made quite a lot of shows involving surgery, so I wasn’t squeamish. The show was all about dispelling myths. We were creating this really definitive, strong visual identity. It felt groundbreaking. We filmed series one in a penthouse in Birmingham. It had this amazing central living space that we turned into the reception area and made look really glamorous. The rooms in the apartment became the consultation rooms.

The format was to follow four main stories from the clinic throughout their treatment. We put ads in GP surgeries to find patients: they weren’t paid. We also got the doctors to do immersive stunts. Christian swallowed a pill camera so you could see a digestive system. Dawn had a smear test and Pixie had a polyp checked.

There were mixed reactions when it came out. It certainly felt new and some of the content was probably quite shocking, although we were never gratuitous. I think people liked it because it was brave and honest. It really grew a following and some of the campaigns we did, such as for testicular and breast cancer, were life-changing.

The show made me feel a huge amount of humility and compassion for people whose lives are devastated by ill health. Ultimately, it was about the contributors, and making them feel comfortable and relaxed. We had a really high-level duty of care. It gave me a lot of respect for the medical community – and as a series we relied on them. It was real, factual information wrapped up in a fun format, so it needed to feel entertaining – not in terms of laughing at people, but just upbeat and positive.

Embarrassing Bodies is on All 4.

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