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Monday, November 19, 2007

10 On TV Drama #4: Cops N' Docs, Pt 2 - Dashing Docs and Naughty Nurses

SPOILERS PRESENT AS ALWAYS

Carrying on with our "Cops N' Docs" theme, I am going to investigate a long-running medical drama that I have watched from the start: Holby City. What makes it work, what brings the audiences back, week on, week out? Let's take a look...



HOLBY CITY (1999 - PRESENT)

LOGLINE: The everyday lives, professional and personal, of the doctors, nurses and patients who find themselves, for various reasons, in the wards of the frenetic cardiac unit of Holby City General Hospital.

Casualty began back in the eighties and whilst I have also watched this from the start, unusually I consider its "spin-off" Holby City far superior. There are many reasons why, but the short version is I like its characters better. Casualty, whilst very dramatic with its accident re-enactments (some incredibly daring and others, plain weird - I'll never forget the woman playing squash with a wooden racket that splinters and gets stuck in her neck), just doesn't do it for me in the same way.

Perhaps it's because there are so many great characters, past and present, to choose from? As far as Doctors go there has been the megalomanic consultant Anton Meyer who wants his underlings to worship him like a God; the arrogant Nick Jordan who believes his own publicity to the detriment of his patients; the exhuberant and (frustrated) maternal Lola Griffin, ex-wife of consultant Ric Griffin, a doctor with a gambling problem and the weight of the world on his shoulders; the unstoppable Abra, weak to the core emotionally yet wanting to save the Third World through any means possible including illegal; Owen, an obstetrician who loves women but leaves them at the drop of a hat; the repressed Joseph Byrne who will always be in the shadow of his surgeon father; Jac, who will do anything if it means she will make it to the top; Elliot, a gifted surgeon yet impossibly scatty; Diane, a brilliant surgeon who consistently puts her emotional happiness in the hands of fickle and irresponsible men; Sam, a womaniser who just wants to be loved and my two absolute favourites of all time, the lovable rogue consultant Dan Clifford (just departed) and the irrascible and tenacious Connie Beauchamp who is not only fantastic at her job, she ensures anyone who crosses her pays. Forever. This includes Sam, who fathered her new daughter Grace after a one night stand. I'd almost say "poor guy", but he's such a muppet let's not. Go Connie!


Yet Holby City is not just about its doctors, but its nurses too and I think it's this that separates it from other medical dramas. Whilst others do obviously have nurse characters, most of the time they *seem* more secondary, "it's the doctors that are important really", yet in Holby City they have picked up on this conflict and exploited it to the full. Doctors look down on nurses; nurses resent doctors. Doctors might "save" the patient, yet without the nurses' help they would get nowhere and we are reminded of this over and over again, from MRSA storylines through to doctors dumping their babies for the day on already put-upon nursing staff.

And the nurses are every bit as colourful as the doctors in Holby City, with even an entire family amongst the nursing staff ranks: The Williams Family. Chrissie is the matron of Darwin Ward and it wasn't long before she was joined by her mother Tricia (who very unhelpfully went out with Chrissie's Ex Owen). About a year after that Tricia's estranged husband Mark turned up out of the blue wanting to reconcile with both women which went quite well until Chrissie's grandfather saught the same... It came out that Chrissie's father Mark was really her brother, for Chrissie's grandfather raped Tricia after her engagement party to Mark some thirty years beforehand.

Tricia was subsequently diagnosed with breast cancer which she *almost* beat, but unfortunately she died in a car accident setting off on her honeymoon with Mark; he was later charged with drunk driving having been over the limit at the time. Mark is now a cocaine addict, something only Scatty Elliot knows about as he has a son, James, addicted to heroin who turns up from time to time looking to score at the hospital. Mark is desperate to keep his addiction from Chrissie a secret and has almost given himself away on several occasions. Other nurses of note include the irrepressible Donna who is the epitome of the OPPOSITE of the caring profession, Jess, Eric's daughter who is dogged by bad luck and even accused of harming her own baby and Kelly, a nurse about five years ago who was an obvious comment on the case of Beverley Allit.

Holby City was originally only about its cardio-thorassic ward but in recent years has opened up to include General Surgery it seems which I believe is called Keller Ward. This means sometimes cases are transferred up from "downstairs" (Casualty) so we get an opportunity to follow on storylines from the other show. At Christmas we are usually treated to a "Casualty @ Holby City" Special which basically means the characters from both shows are put together in some kind of life-altering event/accident. It also means there will some sort of annual cull of characters: in recent years we've said goodbye to Ellen, who was knocked over and killed outside the Casualty dept by a motorbike in front of ex-Partner Harry who then had to try and save her in vain; Paramedic Woody was killed by inhaling chlorine trying to save a baby from a car accident; paedrician Jim saved pregnant midwife Rosie by letting himself fall from unstable scaffolding after a juggernaut crashed right into the Holby City building and practically demolished it. All this in addition to characters getting stabbed, run over, poisoned and beaten up on the regular shows. Holby General is positively the most dangerous place to work ON EARTH.


DOCS SERIES OF NOTE, PAST AND PRESENT:

THE FLYING DOCTORS (1986 - 1991, 9 Seasons) The chronicles of the Royal Flying Doctors Service in the Australian Outback, that covers distances too far and remote by conventional roads.
I remember watching this as a child and loving it: the funniest thing is, the actor Peter O'Brien (who was also in Neighbours incidentally) has since turned up as a doctor not only in Cardiac Arrest (below), but Casualty, Holby City's predecessor. Just like Ken Stott plays world weary policeman, this Ozzie Actor will play doctors... Even if that means emigrating.

CHICAGO HOPE (1994 - 2000, 6 Seasons) The lives and trials of the staff of a major hospital in Chicago.
I was surprised to see this had six seasons, since I was pretty sure I only watched one - I recall it being on quite late, perhaps they moved it even further back on the schedule. Certainly I recall the newspapers saying it was "too like ER" but I thought its focus was entirely different and actually extremely good.

CARDIAC ARREST (1994 - 1996, 3 Seasons) A visceral, wryly humorous look at the NHS in the 1990s.
I absolutely loved this and rued the day it went off-air, though thinking about it, that was probably what it needed else it might have "gone soft": hard-hitting, dark, funny, it spared no punches. Brilliant.

BODIES (2004 - 2006, 2 Seasons) A young English surgeon discovers his obstetrician Boss is not quite the living up to his Hippocratic oath.
From the writer of Cardiac Arrest, this was bound to be good, but perhaps was a little over-ambitious in its second series (ordering ten episodes instead of the usual six) which *might* have accounted for why people stopped watching.

ER (1994 - PRESENT)The work and lives of a group of emergency room doctors in Chicago.
I loved this when it first started and of course it's famous as a series for launching the career of George Clooney. I found him captivating as Dr. Doug Ross and there were some great storylines that really stuck in my mind, such as the death of Dr. Mark Greene from a brain tumour and arrogant consultant Romano's emasculation as a surgeon when he loses his arm in a freak accident with a helicopter. Magic.

HOUSE (2004 - PRESENT) An antisocial maverick doctor who specializes in diagnostic medicine does whatever it takes to solve puzzling cases that come his way using his crack team of doctors and his wits.
I love to hate this: its storylines are for the most part ridiculous (oh, you *could* have cancer? Let's irradiate you before we find out for sure!), yet there's something mesmerising about it, probably its wonderfully acerbic character observations courtesy of House himself.

SILENT WITNESS (1996 - PRESENT) The activities of a Home office pathology team.
I liked this better when Sam Ryan was at the helm, but nevertheless this is good solid drama, if a little unbelievable. But who's to let truth get in the way of a good yarn, hey?

What's your fave medical drama and why? Discuss...

17 comments:

Tom said...

I tend to watch Holby if anything and was surprised to realise that I've been watching it on and off since Anton Meyer got shot which is what? 6 years ago?

What's great about it is the quality of the actors they get: Hugh Quarshie, Peter Wingfield, Denis Lawson, Art Malik, Ronald Pickup... quite a lineup!

Lucy said...

About 6 years I think Tom... And that's what I like about Holby City, it's engaging and effortless without being entirely mind-numbing because of the talent attached as you say. People can be very rude about Holby City because of its status as a continuing drama ("soap snobs" as Tony J would say) but I think keeping a huge machine like that running for so long and keeping its audience's interest is a skill in itself.

riboflavin said...

I loved Cardiac Arrest too, I'd completely forgotten about it though until you mentioned it... What does that mean? Loved the dark humour in it though. In real life I was a nurse before I was a teacher and was living through the 1990s budget cuts in the NHS first hand when it was on and it was a welcome relief.

Steve said...

Soap snob.

So it's probably just as well I didn't get through in Red Planet :-)

Is it really snobbery? I don't know [sighs heavily]. I shall probably end up insulting someone, so I apologise in advance. It's just my personal opinion, of course, and only applicable to me.

I feel like it's a waste of time watching the melodramatic trivia of ordinary people's lives. (Ouch!) Except, of course, people's lives aren't like that at all.

There are other things I'd rather being doing with my life.

Then again, I'll watch hours of Heroes, Battlestar Galactica, and I think House is phenomenally good. I liked Silent Witness generally but didn't mind missing it.

Maybe I just prefer the melodramatic trivia of exceptional people :-)

(As regards the medicine on House, there is a website that does a critical analysis of the problems and diagnoses, and says that they're quite accurate -- though you wouldn't expect to see even one of these cases in 20 years.)

Though I did use to listen to the Archers quite avidly, and like to tune in now and again just to keep track of what's going on :-)

Ha! Not only a snob, but a hypocrite too.

Rach said...

Used to watch casualty religeously with Mum's commentary. She'd been a casualty nurse in a mining town so had seen it all. Oxygen mask upside down was a classic.

And there was always guess the diagnosis.

Holby is now a guilty pleasure. Kids in bed, do I grab a chance to write or tune in. So I get about 1week in 4. Sigh.

Anyone remember Angels? Or am I the only old one here?

Lucy said...

"I feel like it's a waste of time watching the melodramatic trivia of ordinary people's lives. (Ouch!) Except, of course, people's lives aren't like that at all."

You are so right... None of us are heart surgeons - apart from heart surgeons of course. My sister is training to be a doctor and her hero is Connie Beauchamp though, so perhaps there is some sense of a role model there, for a select few.

And I watch simply because these people's lives aren't ordinary or melodramatic - they're HYPER-DRAMATIC: you need a heart transplant?? Well that's bad enough, but what do you mean my mother is my sister AND I am really adopted?!?

As for House, I can't believe that you can really get sleeping sickness from unprotected sex with a random bloke when your husband who you also sleep with doesn't get it...

Lucy said...

Rach, you were commenting when I was commenting then... Is Angels the one that was on c4?

Rach said...

No a BBC one in the late 70s. You followed a group of new student nurses through training and beyond. A mix of private life and work.

Caused lots of outrage because it didn't show them as sweet little innoscents. More like the modern stuff.

Me old Mum insisted it was true to life and I enjoyed it. Probably the first "grown-up" thing she let me watch.

Liz Holliday said...

Going back to the novelisation thing - Angels was remade. It was going to be called Angels 2000, then they changed the name to Staying Alive. It was one of the last novelisations I did. There was another nurses' thing after that, but I'm blanking on the name.

Rach said...

Aaah, forgot the remake. Ta.

Rob Stickler said...

I like Holby but I think it's a bit too 'clever' in the way it's filmed sometimes.

Plus it looks weird now no one films on video anymore.

Remember 'Medics' on ITV?

Paul Campbell said...

Nice article, Lucy.

I've just spent the weekend trying to outline a Holby episode. It ain't easy!

I remember watching it just as a fan, and never really noticing or caring who works in which ward or who works with whom etc. But they have three Wards (Darwin, Keller and AAU) - one does cardiothoracic, one does general surgery and one is acute admissions (sort of Casualty Plus). Each ward has its own team of nurses, doctors and consultants.

From a writing point of view, there are three regular storylines to each episode - one in each ward. And three guest stories to go alongside them. Again, one in each ward. There's the odd exception to this rule, but it's generally the case. And there's very rarely any connections between the three pairs of stories.

To an extent this is because they shoot on three different sets in parallel, so the logistics of having characters wander from set to set are just very complicated. Holby is a machine that produces 60minutes of television drama 52 weeks a year, so scheduling rules like this are just par for the course.

This weekend's work was just an exercise - a dry run. But it was tough. Trying to get a sense that you're watching a single episode, rather than six stories patched together, was really hard. But sometime next year, I'll get to do it for real - the prospect is terrifying! (but also very exciting!)



And I remember Angels the first time round. It was excellent!

Lucy said...

Hey Paul, thought a post on Holby might draw you over here! ; )

Very interesting background there, thanks - I'd clocked Keller and Darwin obviously but had absorbed AAU only subconsciously before you said it... Of course! Jess worked there when she was in the programme and isn't Lola in charge of that ward now?

Logistics can play such a massive part in story decisions in continuing drama: another problem I would imagine for Holby City and "crossover" with Casualty is they're made in entirely different places... Holby in London and Casualty in Bristol.

Paul Campbell said...

We've been on visits to the two studios and seen both ends of the magic lift - you know, the one where you step into the lift in Bristol and it takes you to Elstree. There's a magic corridor too.

Lucy said...

Not the lift where Lola had her heart attack! Oh I'm so jealous. Good news she didn't end up on the wrong set hey, she'd have never got from London for surgery in time.

Good Dog said...

ER from the US, Cardiac Arrest, Bodies and No Angels in the UK.

All the rest are dramatic flatlines.

Lucy said...

Oh you...Go back to drowning kittens you beast ; ) !