Operation Ouch! co-presenter Dr. Xand van Tulleken tells TV Kids about why the series, represented by Serious Lunch, works and what’s in store for the future of the show.
The BAFTA Children’s Award-winning Operation Ouch! revels in being gross—and kids love it. Fronted by twin brothers Chris and Xand van Tulleken, who are both doctors, the series uses humor and experiments to demystify the human anatomy.
TV KIDS: As doctors, what made you and Chris decide to enter the world of children’s television?
VAN TULLEKEN: We wanted to make the show that we wished we could have watched when we were kids. We loved science shows, but there was nothing really about the human body. Maverick, the company that makes Operation Ouch!, had an incredible track record with Bizarre ER and Embarrassing Bodies, two iconic medical shows of the last couple of decades in the U.K. [featuring] amazing bits of public health with incredible access. So we knew Maverick would do a very good job. And there’s something quite fun about [the fact that] if you’re siblings, you can mess around on children’s telly in a way that you can’t on adult telly.
TV KIDS: How does Operation Ouch! help young viewers become more comfortable with doctors and hospitals?
VAN TULLEKEN: The message in every episode is that if something goes wrong, there are teams of people who are there to help you all over the country. No matter what goes wrong, whether you’re having an asthma attack at school, whether you get lost on a mountainside, whether you get stuck in the mud or you drift out to sea—whatever the situation is, there are people who can help. We’ve filmed with paramedics, firefighters, police officers, Coast Guard—all sorts of different people. Then in the hospital itself, there are a few things that we try to do. First, we get the kids to tell the stories themselves, so you hear what’s happened from the kid. The story is then animated, so there’s heightened reality, but you get a good idea of what’s happened. And then we show a huge amount of the details. A lot of the show is quite gory, but it removes all the mystery [behind] stitching and injections and the processes. The way that we put it together, we don’t show kids in pain, we don’t show kids who are embarrassed or screaming; we usually show kids having a pretty good experience, which is quite typical of an emergency room. A modern emergency room is pretty good at managing pain, at getting kids comfortable and relaxed, and we show that. The nicest feedback we get is when we’re filming in hospitals now, the staff will say, Your show makes kids better patients and they’re just more relaxed. We give them enough information that they’re quite informed about their body. The hospital is demystified. They’ve seen lots of doctors, nurses, radiotherapists, physiotherapists and all kinds of other people in the hospital—all of whom we show the best side of.
TV KIDS: Is there anything on the series that can still gross you out?
VAN TULLEKEN: I was doing the voiceover for a little girl who had been rolling down a hill and had her arms above her head so that as she rolled, her arm pushed her earring inside her earlobe. It’s sometimes the small things that make you squeamish; watching the doctor get the forceps and have to pull hard to extract this thing from her earlobe while I’m in the recording phase was like, Eww!
Every time something gross is going to happen, there is a big “gross” alert on the screen; there’s a voiceover saying, Look away now if you’re squeamish! Don’t look now! Whenever we’re filming in schools, we ask everyone, Should we make it more gross or less gross? And we have never met a child yet who doesn’t say, Make it more disgusting!
TV KIDS: What are some of your favorite experiments from the show?
VAN TULLEKEN: When we were little, our dad used to do weird experiments with us. When we went to the butcher shop, he would buy hearts and show us that if you held a heart under a tap of running water, you could fill it and squeeze it and make it pump the water in one direction; the valves still worked. Then we’d cook them and eat them. We did that as a proper experiment in Operation Ouch! and showed it to our dad. It was just a silly thing that he did one afternoon to amuse his kids—which was cheap and easy and a bit ridiculous—so it was nice to have our old dad’s idea on the screen.
There’s another experiment where we show how sneezes work. If you get a room full of doctors or medical students and ask them what a sneeze is, most of them will give you the same answer, which is: A sneeze is an irritation in your nose; you take a deep inhalation and when you sneeze, it blows the irritation out of your nose. That is completely wrong. If you sneeze in a relaxed way, your entire sneeze comes out of your mouth and nothing comes out of your nose at all. You can direct it out of your nose, but a free sneeze comes out of your mouth. It’s stimulating pressure receptors at the back of your mouth, which effectively trigger mucus production and your nose will start to run. So, your sneezes are about getting your nose to wash itself out.
TV KIDS: How do your interactions on the show compare with how you and Chris behave around each other in real life?
VAN TULLEKEN: Because we’re not actors, we can only be exaggerated versions of ourselves. So in real life, I’m the sillier one and he’s quite serious and stern. The characters are sort of caricatures of us. You know how when you’re with your family, you regress and go back to being about 12 or 14? That’s every day filming Operation Ouch! [Laughs] You can’t pretend to be someone else when you’re with your brother.
TV KIDS: How do you achieve the right balance between being both educational and entertaining?
VAN TULLEKEN: We start with the idea that we can take something fascinating that people don’t know and the material is engaging. It’s so interesting to understand your body. And then because it’s fun explaining it, it’s not too hard. The body up close is just full of poo and pus and blood and guts—all of this disgusting stuff that’s intriguing as well. The material of what makes us human is so fascinating, particularly to children. There’s a limitless supply of it. You make it as fun as possible.
TV KIDS: Is it challenging to keep the show fresh season after season?
VAN TULLEKEN: Medicine is just endless; every patient is different, every human body is different, every condition is fascinating. Medical stories, particularly in which people are getting ill or injured, have a beginning, middle and end; they’re just such perfect natural stories. I felt that after six years of medical school, we’d barely scratched the surface. I’m still learning things now when we do Ouch! And then science is always evolving. It’s just the gift that keeps on giving. We haven’t even covered all the organs in the body yet.
TV KIDS: What’s in store for the future of the series?
VAN TULLEKEN: We constantly get emails saying, Because of your show, a kid was able to call 9-9-9 and save their parent’s or grandparent’s life; they knew how to treat a severe injury, they were able to stop some bleeding, they were able to do some CPR, etc. We wanted to recognize those kids, so in the next series, we’ve got the Ouch Awards, which is for kids who have either showed immense personal courage in coping with an illness themselves, have called the emergency services to help someone or have done amazing first aid.
We have a burp filmed from the inside. We managed to get a camera to the back of my throat and then up and around into the back of my nose to see my nasal turbinates, which is a view that I cannot find anywhere on the internet.
We’re also doing more search and rescue. We’ve done paramedic stuff in the past where we’ve gone out with a rapid response vehicle and got to the scene of emergencies quickly. The next season, we’re going out with a proper ambulance and follow the patients all the way to the hospital. We have a boy who’s lost his leg and we’re following him as he deals with various prostheses and his ambition to become a sprinter. We’ve also got a little girl with scoliosis who’s got a magnetic spine. They’re serious health problems, but the kids are all super lovely and all the stories are very optimistic.
And we’ve got a new presenter who’s joining us! She is an emergency department doctor and she’s phenomenal.