Review: A Fortunate Man – Summerhall, Edinburgh

First published in The Times, Thursday August 16 2018

Three Stars

It was the year that England won the World Cup and swinging London became known as the centre of pop culture. Yet for several months in 1966 John Berger, the iconoclastic writer and cultural critic, opted for a quiet life in the Forest of Dean, documenting the work of a rural GP.

The resulting book, which wove together Berger’s detailed, lyrical observations with stark photography by Jean Mohr, remains a key text for those embarking on a career in medicine. The enduring appeal of A Fortunate Man is intriguing, not least because the range of practice it describes, from kitchen-table operations to person-centred counselling sessions, is unrecognisable from today’s experience of visiting the GP.

A Fortunate Man Matthew Brown credit Julian Hughes

Pic: Julian Hughes

In the 70th year of the NHS, the book is ripe for re-examination, and the figure of Dr John Sassall makes for a poignant focal point for this multifaceted piece from New Perspectives, staged by the writer and artist Michael Pinchbeck.


Presented as a lecture with slides by the performers Matthew Brown and Hayley Doherty, alongside dramatic passages and verbatim accounts from contemporary medics, the show goes some way in explaining why the dedicated Sassall (a pseudonym) should have fascinated Berger and Mohr and later generations of doctors. Recreations of Sassall’s interactions with patients reveal a man who really cared, almost to the point of obsession.

A Fortunate Man Hayley Doherty credit Julian Hughes

Pic: Julian Hughes

The piece is moving and understated if a little too illustrative of the book rather than uncompromisingly theatrical. Sassall’s eventual fate (he committed suicide in 1981) shed a different light on Berger’s observation that the Gloucestershire landscape was “less a setting for the life of its inhabitants than a curtain behind which their struggles, achievements and accidents take place.” Pinchbeck and his company attempt to look again at the good doctor in light of this tragic postscript but their subject remains somewhat elusive.


Box office: 0131 560 1581, to August 26

Author: Allan Radcliffe

I am a writer, freelance journalist, subeditor and theatre critic, based in South Queensferry. My short fiction has been published in anthologies such as Out There, Elsewhere, The Best Gay Short Stories, ImagiNation, Markings, Gutter, New Writing Scotland and Celtic View. I have won the Scottish Book Trust's New Writer's Award and several of my stories have been adapted for broadcast on BBC Radio 4. As a journalist I write regularly for The Times, the Scotsman, Scotland on Sunday, Sunday Herald, Sunday Times, Metro, Big Issue and I was formerly assistant editor of The List magazine.

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