The biggest comeback since JR rose from the dead
If you’ve been reading this site for any length of time, you’ve probably had the opportunity to observe me waxing lyrical about the medical drama Casualty and its fall from grace. In spite of featuring an excellent two-parter penned by former writer Barbara Machin, which were as good as anything the show had to offer in its prime, the most recent series was the worst ever by a long shot, and, not for the first time, I was just about ready to give up on it entirely. Last night, however, such thoughts were banished from my mind. The 22nd series began this weekend, with a two-parter spread over Saturday and Sunday, and, if their quality is in any way indicative of what we can expect from the rest of the season, this might just be the most miraculous return to form I’ve ever seen on television.
Casualty, in recent years, has been characterised by many problems, not least a gradual ramping up of the number of episodes per series (going from 24 to 48 in the space of a scant eight years) and a slow but steady decline in the quality of the writing, acting and characterisation, while the “medical drama” aspect of this medical drama became increasingly sidelined in favour of second rate soap opera storylines revolving around who fancied who and managed to knock who up. The influx of soap content was gradual enough that it took a few years for the problems to become readily apparent, but by the sixteenth series everything more or less fell apart.
Last night, however, it felt as if someone had turned back the clock. While I don’t know if the five-week gap between Series 21 and 22 can truly be considered an end-of-series break, these five weeks would appear to have been put to excellent use, as the new production team, which came in towards the end of the previous series, have performed a blitzkrieg on the show. Rather than gradually phasing out the soap, they have done what was in my opinion the only thing they could have done: obliterated it entirely in the blink of an eye. The opening two-parter focused around a bomb blast in the centre of town which left the hospital swamped with casualties and barely able to cope, and in the process reaffirmed everything that the show used to be about.
Like last Christmas’ two-parter, the same storyline was told from two different perspectives, the first episode being shown entirely from the point of view of wide-eyed, bumbling new recruit Toby (Matthew Needham, a shockingly good screen debut), and the second through the eyes of world-weary Charlie (Derek Thompson, the only actor to have been there since the first episode), who, having lost all sense of purpose in the job he does, receives a generic letter commending him on 35 years of nursing. Showing the same events from two different points of view might seem like a cheap gimmick (and, when I first heard about it, I was worried that this would simply be an attempt to replicate the more superficial elements of the Christmas episodes), but the effect is extremely powerful, the first episode throwing the audience into the thick of an extremely confusing situation and the second adopting a perspective of jaded detachment.
In the first episode, the decision to feature a new character in every single scene certainly helped make a character who, on the surface, was quite annoying, more sympathetic. I felt that some of the narrative contrivances were a bit silly (Toby just happens to be in the vicinity of the bomb blast, then just happens to run into not one but two people in need of urgent medical attention on his way home), but by and large I found it incredibly effective. This was a properly character-driven episode, the like of which we haven’t seen for a long time. Oh, and the banter between the regulars was some of the best and most natural I’ve heard in a long time.
As good as the first episode was, the second just blew it out of the water, surpassing it in every way imaginable. If Episode 1 was trying to be the Casualty of old, Episode 2 actually was the Casualty of old. This was a true nursing-oriented episode, with not a shred of soap in sight: just 60 minutes about a normal guy trying to get through a job he no longer believed in, only to have has passion for it re-ignited before the end. Just as with Toby in the first episode, the way in which it was structured really helped get inside Charlie’s head, and the benefit of him being such a familiar face made it all feel that bit more real. You could really feel his total sense of displacement and uselessness, being treated like a spare part (oh, sweet justice, the writers finally seem to have noticed how they’ve been treating him for the last couple of years) and pushed around by people who didn’t value his experience and expertise. Seemingly innocuous moments like him lighting up a cigarette outside the hospital entrance, something he last did way back in Series 2 in 1987, hammered home just how close to breaking point he had come.
As for the terrorism storyline, it was handled quite well. Originally, the idea was for the perpetrators to be Islamic fundamentalists, but this concept was nixed by BBC standards and practice goons, who decided that it would be too “controversial”. The result? The bombers are now animal rights activists, who accidentally detonate their explosive device in a crowded street rather than at its intended destination. (I’m not sure why this is any less controversial - more likely, the BBC bosses are less scared of reprisals from animal rights activists than suicide bombers.) However, it ended up working a lot better than I was expecting, and the fact that one of the bombers was by far the most sympathetic of the guest characters (a superlative performance by Nigel Terry) gave the episodes a much-needed angle of balance, avoiding any sanctimonious hand-wringing.
On the technical side of things, the show has now finally abandoned the cheap-looking, interlaced video format used for the previous 21 years and switched to a progressive, film-like appearance. The film effect (actually the result of shooting in 25p DigiBeta) is a big improvement on the tacky “remove every second line so everything looks like a jaggy mess” technique used on most TV shows shot on video but made to look like film, including sister show Holby City, which recently adopted this look. It actually looked like film on some occasions, and I thought the design of the bomb site, with all its smoke, debris and monochromatic colour palette, was hugely effective. For some reason, no director was credited for these episodes, but, whoever he/she was, they did a sterling job. They decided to shoot the scenes in the aftermath of the explosion in the manner of a horror film - a very effective choice. Yes, the overuse of clumsy, hand-held shots and haphazard editing remains, but the filmic look, coupled the more dramatic lighting, helped make it less objectionable than it has been for some time.
Seriously, I could rave and rave about these episodes all day, but I won’t bore you with the details. Suffice to say that, if the rest of the series is even a smidgen as good as this, I will be more than satisfied. I never thought they’d pull it off, but they really have brought Casualty back from the dead, and my faith in the programme has been restored, just when I thought there was no hope left. While I doubt that anyone could maintain a further 46 episodes of this quality, I would like to think that the ideology they represent will remain in place. Writers: please, please keep things going in this vein and don’t be tempted to go back to the soap and silliness.