It’s the start of the swinging sixties, and Otto Powell is the brilliant head gynecologist in a London hospital. He suavely saves lives in the operating room and then makes after-hours house calls with his friend, anesthetist Charlie Enderbury, to perform “specials”—illegal abortions. Charlie needs the extra cash, but from the look of Otto’s luxurious home, fashionable wife, well-mannered son, and snazzy car, he doesn’t.
However Otto does need love, which red-haired nurse Jean Meecher once gave him, along with assistance on the “specials.” She is now engaged to Otto’s overconfident junior colleague, Richard Truscott, who has gotten her pregnant. Embarrassed by her working-class home life with a mentally disturbed father, Jean claims her family was killed in the war.
Then a new nurse catches Otto’s eye: Angela Wilson, who is sent by Jean to assist with one of the “specials.” Unbeknownst to Otto, she is Jean’s sister, which Angela conceals to smooth Jean’s way to the altar. Angela also hides that she herself is married, although abandoned by her sailor husband, Joe.
Angela and Otto’s paths cross again over the case of Maureen Mulligan, a young woman whose life Otto saved and who is now ready to leave the hospital—except Maureen is suicidal at the thought of marrying the man approved by her parents. Angela, who has bonded with Maureen, tells Otto that she will report his illegal activities unless he prevents Maureen’s discharge, which he does. Despite the blackmail, Otto desperately tries to get Angela to join him for a drink, tea … anything. Her friendly but firm rebuffs only stoke his interest.
To protect Maureen, Angela takes her home with her, where the young woman can be safe from a coerced marriage. Ominously, Maureen’s father is Chief Inspector Ronald Mulligan, who, coincidentally, recognizes Otto in the hospital and goes to his house to snoop around. Later Mulligan visits a rundown boat, where he keeps an old file with photos relating to Otto’s military service in Cyprus, nine years earlier. Charlie was also stationed in Cyprus at this time.
On the morning of her wedding, Jean miscarries but insists on going through with the ceremony without telling Richard, since this may be her only chance to marry a doctor. Otto helps Jean through her medical crisis and also serves as the stand-in father of the bride. Wedlock starts well enough for Jean and Richard, with an up-to-date apartment supplied by his pushy parents. But then Richard learns of Jean’s miscarriage and Otto’s complicity, and he starts to resent the turn of events that landed him with his mercurial bride. For her part, Jean is coached in her domestic duties as a doctor’s wife by Charlie’s perky spouse, Lily—without much success.
Meanwhile, Charlie is experiencing the torments of the damned on three matters: he lost his bid for Chair of Anaesthetics to a zealous newcomer, Dr. Omprakash Mehta; Angela has refused payment for her part in the most recent abortion, suggesting that she disapproves and will squeal to authorities; and the mysterious events in Cyprus in 1953 won’t stop haunting him.
Cyprus also obsesses Mulligan, who visits Otto’s wife, Elizabeth, at home, where he delivers a rambling rant about his dead son, the bribe Otto once paid him, an American airman, and the scandal that will ensue if he exposes what Otto and Charlie did. He particularly stresses that Elizabeth and Otto’s young son, Thomas, will have his life destroyed.
In the course of this tirade, Elizabeth pulls Otto’s revolver from a desk drawer and threatens to shoot, but Mulligan coolly disarms her. “What happens is up to you,” he says cryptically and leaves.