From one kind of arrest to another
As I’ve mentioned a few times on this site, I am, for better or for worse, an avid viewer of the medical drama Casualty and its spin-off, Holby City. As far as I’m concerned, both shows are well past their prime (barring the odd unexpected surprise, such as the two-parter Barbara Machin wrote for Casualty last Christmas, which showed that it was still capable of holding its own with the best of UK television, as well as the assisted suicide storyline that concluded the previous series of Holby City), but I soldier on doggedly, and, given that I watch very little live television, I’d estimate that they make up at least 50% of my weekly viewing schedule. Given that, as year-round “continuing dramas”, the two shows are pretty much being stretched to breaking point, I was understandably sceptical about the news that a third series was to be added to the franchise… and a police show at that, entitled Holby Blue. “Great,” I thought. “Just what the world needs - another The Bill.” Still, obsessive that I am, I tuned in on Tuesday night, expecting the worst.
Casualty in high definition - who’d have thunk it?
I was pleasantly surprised. The use of the “Holby” name, and the setting of the show in the same fictional world as its medical counterparts, turned out to be little more than a marketing gimmick designed to pull in viewers of the two other series. It’s essentially just a brand name, and, barring a brief visit to Casualty and an even briefer appearance by Charlie Fairhead during the pre-credits teaser, I suspect that the spin-off and its parent shows (which have, despite being filmed in completely different locations, managed to retain something of a tenuous link while just about managing to convey the fact that they are supposed to be set in the same hospital) will go their separate ways, never to interact again. Holby Blue, as it happens, is not produced by BBC, but rather by Kudos, the same company responsible for Spooks and Life on Mars. Tonally, it has far more in common with those two shows than Casualty, using music (which almost never features in Casualty), and operating at a somewhat faster pace. It’s also shot in non-interlaced high definition, with a film grain effect and digital colour grading applied to it, which automatically makes it infinitely more credible than its DigiBeta predecessors. (Seriously, I hope these stylistic choices are adopted by the other two shows, especially Casualty, which these days is so amateurish-looking that it resembles a home video.)
Looking beyond the aesthetics (which many will no doubt consider to be superficial, but I personally believe to be of the utmost importance), though, how successful is the show? Well, pilot episodes are always difficult to gauge, but personally I was very impressed by what I saw. At first glance, the show seems to suffer from the same bloated cast of characters as Casualty and Holby City, which I would imagine is going to cause some problems given that the first series is only eight episodes long. Indeed, as early as the first episode, four or five of the regulars all but disappear into the background. Many of them also come across as broad stereotypes rather than actual people (a problem also affecting its parent shows in recent years), although this could easily be put down to the fact that 15 or so of them had to be introduced to us in the space of just under an hour. The cast is also comprised of the usual mix of seasoned veterans (Tim Pigott-Smith arguably being the biggest name of the bunch) and former soap opera stars whose acting ability is, er, limited to say the least (unlike Holby City, which has a couple of soap actors whose acting has turned out to be quite impressive). The fellow who looks set to emerge as the main protagonist, however, seems to be an interesting chap. The structure, a sort of variant on the “guess the accident” routine established by Casualty, also seems fairly effective, cross-cutting between the cops and the criminals and/or victims to be in the run-up to all hell breaking loose.
HD + grain filter + patented BBC encoding techniques = MPEG soup.
Of course, whether or not this can all be maintained over a more extended period is anyone’s guess. As I mentioned earlier, the first series will only run for eight episodes, but, if it proves to be successful, I can easily imagine them stretching out to a year-long affair, and in doing so flushing any semblance of quality down the pan, à la Casualty and Holby City. For the time being, though, I’m certainly more than happy to watch another seven episodes in this mould. Ironically enough, I can see the use of the Holby brand name - the very element that the powers that be are hoping will be the biggest draw - ultimately losing viewers rather than gaining them, as people tune in expecting apples and getting oranges instead.