Casualty: Series 1 Review
In the 20 years that it has been on the air, Casualty has become a staple of British Saturday night television. A show that has gone through countless reiterations and cast changes, it's sometimes easy to take it for granted and forget the splash that it made with its first appearance on 6th September 1986, and although it is no longer the cutting-edge, contentious piece of television that it once was, to have survived this long while still managing to draw in a decent audience is no small feat.
For most readers, the series probably requires no introduction, but for the sake of completeness, a one-sentence summary will suffice. Casualty tells the story of the daily struggles of the staff of the A&E department of the fictional Holby City Hospital. This, and the continued presence of department Charge Nurse (later Nurse Manager) Charlie Fairhead (Derek Thompson), are pretty much the only aspects of the show that have remained the same during the course of its 20-year run. The first series concerns itself with an experimental night shift and the struggles of the staff to keep it open, despite budgetary cuts and hostility from both patients and management. A cast of ten overworked, underpaid and flawed characters become the focus of the series, and the entire department, it seems, survives thanks to them.
Right from the word go, Casualty has always had three main elements: the politics, the soap opera and the patients. Over the years, the amount of emphasis placed on each element has shifted, with the show enjoying its greatest success when the patients were the main focus. In recent series, it has been criticised for paying far too much attention to the ongoing soap operatic storylines of the staff (an accusation that I would definitely agree with, although if you ask me it has come pretty close to getting back on track in the last 12 months). What is immediately striking about the first series is the extent to which the first two elements - the politics and the soap - are to the forefront. The overarching storyline involves department head Ewart Plimmer (Bernard Gallagher)'s constant battle to keep the night shift operational, and as such a considerable amount of screen time is occupied by his heated arguments with management, as well as his demoralised staff complaining to him about such pressing issues as security problems, faulty equipment and leaking toilets.
What's surprising, though, is just how prominent the soap opera element is at this stage in the show. Indeed, over the course of these initial 15 episodes, the staff go through easily as much emotional turmoil as those of the more recent 48-episode seasons. (The emphasis on the staff's private lives, which have a habit of spilling over into the workplace due to their seemingly insatiable habit of forming relationships with each other, would continue until the fourth series, at which point it underwent a regime change and adopted the infamous "guess the accident" framework that would survive for at least a decade.) Suffice to say ill-fated romances, a secret abortion, a rape attack, alcohol addiction and patients coincidentally turning out to be family members or close friends form the bulk of the storylines.
The actual patient storylines tend to be pretty mundane, with the accidents themselves rarely being shown and the stock in trade being comprised of incontinent vagrants in need of a bed for the night, teenagers that have overdosed on Paracetamol and children with fingers trapped inside household appliances. Occasionally, the writers comes up with something more meaty - a student in denial over having an epileptic seizure, a restaurant manager who loses his finger in a meat grinder - but by and large the casualties themselves are merely window-dressing. One reason for the lack of outlandish accidents, admittedly, is probably that, with most of the action taking place after dark, the Dogme-like attitude towards lighting that the show adopted in these days would have limited the opportunities to indulge in visual spectacle. (Then again, I seem to remember Series 6 ending with a spectacular nocturnal plane crash.)
The other main element, the political aspect, turns out to be surprisingly opinionated, especially for a show commissioned by that "public service broadcaster", the BBC. Subtlety, it must be said, has never been the show's forte, and throughout the first few series, it wears its politics on its sleeve, with characters regularly getting on their soapboxes to make impassioned speeches about the evils of privatisation and the Tory government. In one episode, an infuriated Charlie states that the country is structured around a divide between us and them, rich and poor, Tory and Labour, and so on - and it's abundantly clear on which side of the line the series rests. Not many people are likely to remember, but Casualty at one point became a topic of heated debate in the House of Commons, and the series' future was very much in jeopardy (indeed, mirroring that of Holby City Hospital's night shift). At the same time, though, the writers acknowledge that there are two sides to any story, with the socialist Charlie (who goes as far to greet colleagues at staff meetings as "comrade") frequently shown to be governed by emotions and idealism rather than common sense.
The lack of tact spills over into the characterisations too. It's not enough, for instance, for upper-crust surgeon Rupert Thalton (James Snell) to be a bit stuck-up, he also has to be blatantly sexist, racist and homophobic. Likewise, staff nurse Clive King (George Harris) is not only battling an alcohol addiction - he also shows up to work complete with five o'clock shadow and a hip flask. On other occasions, the writers manage to be considerably more subtle, such as in their portrayal of the relationship between paramedics Andy Ponting and Sandra Mute (Robert Pugh and Lisa Bowerman, both fantastic), which is not explicitly shown until the ninth episode. That Ponting is in fact married helps to underscore the fact that, while the cast are very much portrayed as heroes, they are not angels. Likewise, an early episode paints a commendably sensitive portrait of a gay couple who have been together for 25 years while managing to make a valid point about the then-growing public fear surrounding HIV/AIDS. Meanwhile, in the best episode of the season, Drunk, the attack and rape of Duffy (Cathy Shipton) is handled with admirable subtlety. On other occasions, however, the show definitely falls flat on its face, with the impending death of an elderly man being inexplicably played for laughs, while the character of Polish porter Kuba Trzcinski (Christopher Rozycki), despite frequently providing some much-needed comic relief, is too broad a caricature to ever be taken seriously.
Indeed, there is a certain theatricality to the early years that doesn't sit well with the minimalist, glaringly realistic manner in which the series was shot at the time. For the first two years, Casualty was shot using a multi-camera system similar to sitcoms and stage plays, and, because the first series used the same set as Top of the Pops (for the second series onwards the show moved to its own permanent warehouse set), very little time was available for filming, meaning that every episode was rigorously rehearsed. As such, for all the show's attempts to provide a sense of cinéma vérité, there's something undeniably false about the characters and their impassioned dialogue. The chief culprit is Julia Watson, whose character, SHO Baz Samuels, would seem more at home on the stage. Others, such as the aforementioned Pugh and Bowerman (who I wish had remained on the show for longer) are much more naturalistic, while future Oscar winner Brenda Fricker as nurse Megan Roach and Bernard Gallagher as Ewart are excellent in their roles as surrogate parents for the medical profession's own dysfunctional "family". Indeed, this notion of a family unit, which did not survive beyond the departure of these two characters, remains one of the biggest casualties (sorry) of the series.
Variable in quality and always very rough around the edges, the first series of Casualty is certainly not perfect, but possesses a sort of bare-faced honesty that makes its flaws seem almost appopriate. While the show would go on to bigger and better things, the original 15 episodes serve as something of a time capsule, and arguably accomplish the series' aims and objectives more successfully than any subsequent series.
Bearing in mind the source format - broadcast masters of a show shot on video in the 1980s - Casualty's first series looks about as good as could reasonably be expected. Certainly, it's unlikely that it will ever look any better than this, and it's generally watchable for the most part, although it does suffer from all the usual problems - dot crawl (especially visible on the blue lettering that the series used for its logo and title cards for its first 10 years), colour bleed and a general sense of murkiness (although the latter probably has more to do with the incredibly flat lighting than anything). The pilot episode fares the worst, with some unsightly strobing affecting bright colours - look at the shirt Susie (Debbie Roza) is wearing in the first scene inside the hospital.
The audio is Dolby Digital 2.0, and it sounds like mono to me. Again, this is in keeping with the original broadcast format. It fares better than the video, although at times the dialogue can become a little difficult to make out - especially when it comes to the strong West Country accents that were so prevalent in the show until the fourth series, when it was decided to tone down its Bristol roots. The title theme, at least, is as strident as ever, although the brief instances of minimalist synth music that were, thankfully, never repeated beyond a couple of early episodes in this series, tend to be a bit overbearing.
Clear English subtitles are provided for all 15 episode. They are generally pretty accurate, occasionally missing out the odd word. The commentaries, unfortunately, are not subtitled.
It is also worth mentioning that the episode Teeny Poppers has been cut, for copyright reasons, to remove a plot involving a patient who dresses as Spiderman, taking the running time from 50 minutes to only 44. (The episode continues to air uncut on UKTV Drama.) A few other episodes have slightly lower running times than expected, although it is unclear whether they have been cut or simply always ran shorter.
The only extras provided with this release are three audio commentaries. The first, on the pilot episode, Gas, featuring writers Jeremy Brock and Paul Unwin, is undoubtedly the best of the bunch, as the two take a spirited and occasionally tongue in cheek look back at the series they created more than 20 years ago. As well as discussing their memories of making the episode, they compare it to the more recent episodes and take the opportunity to critique their own rather heavy-handed writing. Although neither of the duo have been involved in the show since its third series, they clearly have a lot of fondness for their creation.
Two other episodes, the excellent Drunk and the finale Closure, feature commentary by Derek Thompson (Charlie) and medical advisor Peter Salt. These two gentlemen are more or less the only people who have been with the show for its entire (so far) 20-year run, and, like Brock and Unwin, they spend a great deal of time reminiscing about various actors and comparing the first series to its present output. These tracks are somewhat drier than the creator commentary, and at times lapse into silence, but Casualty fans will probably get a kick out of hearing them all the same.
20 years is a long time to wait, but it's nice to finally have Casualty's first series on DVD. This 4-disc set should be of considerable interest both to long-time viewers who remember watching these episodes when they first aired, and to newer fans raised on the more recent episodes who haven't yet had the chance to see how the show started out. The first series is far from perfect, and the fact that at least one episode has been edited is certainly a shame, but otherwise 2 Entertain have put together a decent enough package. Let's hope more series will make their way on to DVD in the future.
7 out of 10
5 out of 10
7 out of 10
4 out of 10