Casualty - time for a reappraisal
Back in September, the medical drama series Casualty began its 22nd series with an opening two-parter that did much to restore my faith in a show that I had been becoming increasingly disappointed by (see my thoughts at the time here). I concluded my appraisal of the season premiere by surmising that the show had been brought back from the dead, and begging the writers to retain the newly-retrenched ideology of hard-hitting medical drama rather than sliding back into soap opera antics.
Ten weeks later, and the show, by my estimation, celebrated its 600th episode last Saturday. I say “estimation” because, thanks to numerous specials and cross-overs with sister show Holby City, it’s difficult to determine exactly how many episodes there have been that are officially counted. A shame, because, back in 1999, when the show celebrated its 250th episode, there was a big hoo-ha with documentaries, “viewers’ choice” votes and so on. Nowadays, though, with 48 episodes produced a year, I suppose there’s not much point in counting such milestones any more.
Anyway, I thought it was about time for a reappraisal, particularly because, so far, the writers have done a piss-poor job of living up to the potential shown in the opening two-parter. While it’s true that the “who’s doing the horizontal with who” element has mercifully yet to return (barring a new character eating a journalist’s face in a lift at the end of his first episode, an event that has thankfully not been repeated), the inconsistent characterisation, implausible plots and poor storyline follow-through have fairly quickly crept back in. (It also doesn’t help that I’ve recently been rewatching Series 13, which, while not a perfect series, and in many ways the one that laid the foundations for the soap period of Series 16-21, at least had writers who had an understanding of how to tell an engaging and satisfying storyline over the course of a not unreasonable 28 episodes, using believable, likeable and consistent characters.)
This is most apparent in the departure storyline for paramedic Josh, who, having been in the show for the past 18 years, was its second longest-running character (and, if this episode truly was Episode 600, then it feels like a fitting time for such an icon of the show to bow out). According to a recent interview given in some newspaper or other, actor Ian Bleasdale actually made the decision to leave two years ago, which makes the unconvincing and slipshod manner in which he was written out all the more baffling. Basically, a storyline was manufactured in which he supposedly fell in love with Devika, a woman he had met while on holiday in India, and decided to jack in his job to head off into the sunset with her and her daughter. All well and good, and, let’s be honest, given the amount of grief that had been lumped on the poor guy over the last 18 years (including losing his entire family in a house fire in a Series 11 episode that definitely belongs in my personal Top Ten), it was about time he was due a bit of happiness.
It’s just too bad it was handled so poorly. Over the course of the handful of episodes in which this storyline was been developed, we were constantly told, by various characters, how much Josh and this strange woman cared for and were made for each other, and yet we were never shown a single shred of evidence to back up this fact. On the contrary, what we did see was Josh paying for an operation for Devika’s daughter, twice asking her to marry him and twice being rejected (the first time because she felt insulted by his suggestion that it would solve the problem of her visa, and the second because she felt she couldn’t leave India). Then, finally, after suffering a panic attack when confronted with a stabbing victim, reminding him of his own ordeal at the hands of a knife-wielding maniac last Christmas (what, would the writers have us believe that this was the first time he had come into contact with a stabbing victim since resuming work in May?), he decided to jack in 18 years of hard work and strong friendships by running after whatshername to the airport and hopping aboard a plane with her. Um, no. It also didn’t help matters that in his final scene with his best friend, Charlie, there was oodles more chemistry between the pair of them than there ever had been between Josh and his bride to be… and that includes Charlie’s peck on the cheek and Josh’s “I love you mate” line! At least this, coupled with Charlie’s line to a gawping passer-by, “He’s left me for a woman,” will give the slash fan writers plenty of food for thought.
As it stands, after having such high hopes for the series back in September, I’m once again finding it difficult to feel anything other than incredibly pessimistic about the show’s future. Having lost what I consider to have been one of its main anchors for the past 18 years, there is now a massive void that I strongly doubt the current managment will be able to fill. I suppose I shouldn’t be too surprised - nothing lasts for ever, it’s been painfully obvious for some time now that neither Josh nor the actor playing him have been particularly happy in their respective jobs, but still, it’s hard not to feel downhearted at this development. It wouldn’t have been so bad, I suppose, if there had been a whole cavalcade of believable and well-developed characters to take his place, but the sad truth is that there isn’t. Barring the three or four remaining characters that I actually like, the rest are as one-dimensional, clichéd and unengaging as they come. Therefore, while I don’t want to give the impression that things are now as bad as they were when the previous series was at its worst - improvements have definitely been made in most respects, particularly production values and the toning down of the soap elements - we seem to be backsliding at an alarming rate, and once again I’m beginning to find that I tune in on a Saturday night more out of habit than because I’m genuinely looking forward to the latest instalment.
So, whether or not the powers that be actually care to acknowledge the 600th episode milestone, I’m going to recognise the moment by listing my Top Ten episodes so far:
1. Perfect Blue (11.24, written by Barbara Machin, directed by Graeme Harper) - Casualty had done explosive season finales before, but this was the first one to take place over two episodes (much of what transpires in this one is set up in the previous episode, Monday, Bloody Monday). This one sees the team fighting to save the life of one of their own, nurse Jude, after she is found lying in a pool of blood in a corridor, stabbed by a mentally unstable patient.
2. Love Me Tender (12.22, written by Tony Lindsay, directed by Gary Love) - Notable not only for Claire Goose’s outstanding performance (one that I seriously doubt has ever been bettered in the entire history of the show) as Tina, but also for the writer’s bold (and incredibly successful) decision to intercut her recounting being raped in the hospital toilets with scenes of a wife-beater attempting to justify why he does what he does and explaining what goes through his mind when the rage comes over him.
3. Boiling Point (7.24, written by Peter Bowker, directed by Michael Owen Morris) - An impressive pyrotechnics display and an episode that, among all the carnage, also manages to hammer home what the show was all about in its glory period, this one sees the entire A&E department going up in flames after a group of rioters start a fire in its basement. This, the final episode of Series 7, was also the last to be overseen by original producer Geraint Morris, and he certainly went out with a bang.
4. Silent Night (21.16, written by Barbara Machin, directed by Diarmuid Lawrence) - Every time I heap scorn on Series 21, I have to remind myself that, for all its faults, it did contain two of the best episodes ever produced, a two-parter penned by one of the show’s best writers, who came back for a one-off gig after nearly a decade missing in action. While its stablemate, Killing Me Softly (see below) is the more innovative of the two, I feel that this one beats it for being tonally closer to classic Casualty and for several stand-out scenes which, in terms of writing and performance, succeed in tipping the balance in its favour. In particular, Charlie’s eventual confrontation with the deranged guest character Laura (a wonderful performance by Holly Aird), who has stabbed Josh and indirectly contributed to nurse Ellen’s death, is a wonderfully satisfying piece of rage-venting.
5. Treasure (11.20, written by Lisa Evans, directed by Ken Hannam) - The aforementioned episode in which Josh loses his family in a house fire, this one packs an incredible emotional punch, not just because of Ian Bleasdale’s performance as Josh, but also because of how the rest of the regulars react to his loss. The scenes of their desperate attempt to resuscitate his daughter, burned virtually beyond recognition and with her breath coming out in ragged gasps, are some of the most unsettling in the entire series.
6. Killing Me Softly (21.15, written by Barbara Machin, directed by Diarmuid Lawrence) - Silent Night’s partner in crime, this episode employs the unusual (particularly for a stylistically conservative show like Casualty) technique of repeating the same events three times, showing them from the perspectives of three different characters and each time adding a further piece to the puzzle. Also incredibly memorable for its highly effective use of the hymn Miserere by Gregorio Allegri at key moments.
7. Charlie’s Anniversary (22.02, written by Mark Catley, directed by Simon Meyers) - “Don’t even think about [killing yourself]. I’d resuscitate you.” “Why?” “Because I’m a nurse.” This episode, along with 22.01 My First Day, constitutes one of Casualty’s all-time strongest season premieres, and, had both parts been up to the standard of this one, probably the best ever. After so many years in the wilderness, this episode reaffirmed everything that Casualty used to be about, while demonstrating sharper, more accurate characterisation than had been seen for years. At the same time, it employs several highly effective narrative tricks, showing the entire day from Charlie’s perspective and, towards the end, having him, the longest-running character and the only one who has been there since Episode 1, walking alone through the otherwise evacuated department. This, in effect, takes it all right back to the beginning by stripping the show down to the only two elements that have been consistent right from the beginning. Oh, and any episode to feature Charlie answering his mobile phone with the words “No, Maggie, I haven’t been blown up yet,” has got to be worth the price of admission.
8. Burned Out Hearts (14.23, written by Susan Boyd, directed by Tim Leandro) - This episode deals with the murder and aftermath thereof of consultant Max’s son, Frank, and, after Treasure, is as effective a study of grief as I think the show has ever achieved. Once again it succeeds in showing the effect of a death not just on the deceased’s immediate relatives but also on those caught in the crossfire, including the staff, the killers themselves and the woman who called the ambulance. And, of course, just to add a touch of bitter irony to the situation, Max ends up saving the lives of the very people who killed his son after they are involved in a collision.
9. Cry for Help (2.04, written by Paul Unwin and Jeremy Brock, directed by Alan Wareing) - Looking back on it, I have a feeling that this episode probably set the stage for the inordinately high death rate that has plagued the last few series, but back in the day, the sudden and completely unforeshadowed death of paramedic Sandra Mute (just one of Casualty’s many stabbings by mentally unstable patients!), would have been quite shocking. Casualty, in its first couple of series, was very much a game of goodies and baddies, and the goodies (the A&E team) had clearly definied opponents (management, the Tory government). Killing off one of the show’s most charismatic characters at the time was a huge gamble, but it paid off, underscoring the fact that this world was far from cosy and that good people could suffer for no good reason. The final scene, in which Sandra’s partner, Andy, learns of her death (“No, no, don’t say it, Charlie”), is incredibly poignant.
10. Burn Out (3.05, written by Jeremy Brock, directed by Michael Owen Morris) - Creators Jeremy Brock and Paul Unwin had no involvement with the show beyond its third series, and this episode, penned by one half of that duo, shows the programme coming of age with a far more complex (and, ultimately, bleaker) outlook than the first couple of series. Although the most significant moment is probably consultant Ewart Plimmer’s heart attack and subsequent death at the end of the episode, by far the most powerful is his earlier scene with a depressed and disillusioned Megan, where Oscar-winning actress Brenda Fricker delivers an impassioned, powerful and surprisingly convincing monologue about how sick she is of being treated like a second-rate member of the team.