Casualty: Series 2 Review
Because the formula of Casualty is retained throughout each series, I shall quote the premise I outlined in my review of the first series' DVD release:
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 Clinical 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.
In spite of the controversy surrounding Casualty's first series and the question mark hanging over its future, the medical drama returned in Autumn 1987 for a second series of 15 episodes. Apparently, had the scripts not already been in the can, it would almost certainly not have returned. The series, as it happens, mirrors the events that were taking place behind the scenes, in that the first episode shows the staff's desperate bid to have the night shift reopened following its closure at the end of the first series. Indeed, it's hard not to see the portrayal of slimy bureaucrats with their disdain for unions and most interest in cutting costs than saving lives as a thinly-veiled swipe at the BBC's management, who by all account were rather embarrassed by the show after its condemnation by both the medical profession, who accused it of glamourising the job, and the Thatcher government of the time, who saw it as a left-wing attack on its policies.
As the series progresses, the criticisms of management continue to come thick and fast, although some shades of grey are introduced through the character of administrator Elizabeth Straker (Maureen O'Brien). Initially introduced as a traditional suited menace, her steel visage quickly cracks after she spends a night in casualty and observes first-hand just what the staff are up against. After that, although she and consultant Ewart Plimmer (Bernard Gallagher) continue to fail to see eye to eye, a mutual level of respect develops between them and frequently becomes something more. That this change takes place seamlessly over the course of 15 episodes is a testament to the writers' growing ability to paint a world in which there are no true goodies and baddies.
Elsewhere, the rest of the main characters continue to face the trials and tribulations of the job, and if their experiences do tend to verge on sliding to the soap opera side of drama, they are generally interesting and likeable enough that spending time with them is no bad thing. In particular, the writers take the time to flesh out some of the less developed characters from the previous series, including receptionist Susie (Debbie Rosa), who, having saved the life of a man with a severed artery thanks to her quick thinking, breaks down in tears due to the lack of respect and gratitude she perceives from the medical staff. This second series also takes Charlie into considerably darker territory than in the first series, with the sudden disappearance of his girlfriend Baz in the first episode shattering his happy-go-lucky façade.
The strongest episode of the previous series was the attack and rape of Duffy (Cathy Shipton), and likewise, Series 2's stand-out episode deals with an attack on a member of staff. This one, however, proves to be fatal, as paramedic Sandra Mute (Lisa Bowerman) is stabbed by a drunk patient. The shock of losing a member of the original team in such a vicious way, coupled with the devastating effect her death has on her lover, fellow paramedic Andy Ponting (Robert Pugh), serves as a brutal reminder that the characters may be heroes, but are certainly not invulnerable. As scripted by series creators Jeremy Brock and Paul Unwin, Cry For Help is a brilliant piece of writing and one that, in an era before Casualty started killing off main characters left, right and centre, is as unexpected as it is shocking. It's a shame, therefore, that the new paramedics who replace the original duo, following the devastated Ponting's departure, are hopelessly bland. Certainly, Shirley Frankin (Ella Wilder) is introduced in a stand-out episode, The Raid, which deals with all-out warfare between the police and the inhabitants of a predominantly black neighbourhood following a disproportionately heavy-handed raid to capture a local drug dealer, but she and partner Keith Cotterill (Geoffrey Leesley) give the impression of merely treading water and have none of the chemistry exhibited by Bowerman and Pugh. They show the danger of creating characters without flaws: Keith and Shirley are dedicated to their work and do a fine job, but that's about it.
The other new characters, luckily, are more interesting. Of particular note is SHO Mary Tomlinson (Helena Little), who comes from a working class Sunderland family but has done everything possible to shed her roots and adopts an air of superiority, coldly dishing out orders to the nursing staff. Like Straker, though, she thaws considerably as the series progresses, and eventually has her moment of glory when she bravely ventures under the wreckage of a bomb blast to treat a critically injured man. This is very much her turning point, and her relationship with the rest of the staff improves considerably following this incident.
Like the first series, Series 2 was shot using a multi-camera format which, while generally smoothly executed, has a habit of giving the acting a rather stage-like theatrical nature. Generally speaking, the exteriors fare considerably better, with the first episode in particular, directed by Antonia Bird of Priest fame, and the aforementioned The Raid, directed by Sharon Miller, achieving an almost cinematic appearance despite being shot on video. Greater care seems to be taken in general in making Series 2 appear to exist in a living, breathing world with various extras wandering in and out of frame, in contrast to the overly static nature of the first series. The show also gets its own set for the first time, moving into the Bristol warehouse that it has gone on to occupy ever since, leaving behind the set it shared during Series 1 with Top of the Pops at the BBC's Television Centre in London.
As with the previous series, Casualty's second year on air is far from perfect. The episodes are often very uneven in quality, with the second episode, which ends with the entire staff wallowing in a drunken stupor, being frankly embarrassing and having more in common with the more recent episodes of the show, in which it has degenerated into a soap opera in the worst sense of the phrase. The stronger episodes overshadow the weaker ones, however, and while not as good as many of the series that would follow it, Casualty's second series remains a strong and, for its time, confrontational piece of television.
As with Series 1, the image quality of the episodes in this set is fine provided you understand their origins and don't expect miracles. These are, after all, 1980s broadcast masters, and as such they suffer from the requisite low definition, smearing and dot crawl associated with material of this vintage. Ultimately, for all its problems, I strongly doubt that it ever looked, or ever will look, substantially better than this.
The same goes with the audio. It's mono Dolby Digital 2.0, and, like the show's visual style, rarely goes in for anything fancy (on the few occasions in which it does, such as some extremely clumsy synthesiser effects, it tends to fall flat on its face). The dialogue, however, remains pretty clear throughout, and the optional subtitles are legible and largely accurate.
As with Series 1, the only extras included are audio commentaries, the number falling from three on the previous set to the two that are included here. The first, on the opening episode, A Little Lobbying, features writers/creators Jeremy Brock and Paul Unwin, and is an informative if slightly sporadic overview both of the episode itself and of the two men's memories of their work on the series as a whole. Occasionally, they deliver some inaccurate information (they assert that the move to a new studio between series was mirrored in a move to a different department on the show itself), and at times they become caught up in watching an episode that they clearly haven't seen for a long time, but fans should enjoy this nostalgic look back at the early days of the show. Less effective, however, is a commentary by Derek Thompson (Charlie) and medical adviser Peter Salt, who cover Cry For Help and generally don't have a great deal to say. It's a nice inclusion, but I can't help thinking that another commentary by Brock and Unwin, or alternatively another writer on a different episode, would have been more fruitful.
Series 2 of Casualty is probably best described as "more of the same", both in terms of the episodes themselves and 2 Entertain's treatment of them. Image and audio quality are about as good as can be expected, and the commentaries, while clearly an afterthought, are most welcome given that many shows of a similar vintage are being put out in a bare-bones form. The second series is definitely not Casualty's finest moment, but those old enough to have seen it when it originally aired, and younger fans eager to see where it all began, will certainly want to add this set to their collections.
Last updated: 20/04/2018 19:16:08