Casualty: Series 3 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.
Autumn 1988 saw the staff of the night shift returning for a reduced run of 10 episodes, down from the then usual 15. That it returned at all was something of a surprise: the show had consistently met with consternation from the Tory government due to its less than flattering portrayal of management and privatisation, and producer Geraint Morris had stated that the show would end with the second series, going out on a high with 30 episodes in the can. And yet return it did, sticking largely to the same premise, albeit with some subtle alterations.
In Series 3, a new air of pessimism permeates the cubicles of the A&E department. Consultant Ewart Plimmer (Bernard Gallagher) is back at work, having survived the heart attack he suffered towards the end of the previous series, but his relationship with administrator Elizabeth Straker has collapsed after she eloped to the States, and it is very clear that he is living on borrowed time. In stark contrast to the driven Plimmer of the previous series, devoted to his beloved night shift, he spends a considerable amount of time as far away from the hospital as possible, and generally looks like death and is in a foul mood whenever he's in the office. It is therefore no real surprise that he suffers a second, and this time fatal, heart attack only a few episodes into the series, which is tinged with a bleak sense of irony in that it immediately follows one last valiant battle with management in which he wins back the recently reacquisitioned obs ward (the writers have him collapse while inspecting the fruit of his labours). Devoid of their surrogate father figure, the staff's dynamic is irreversibly altered, losing the family structure that had come to define it for its first two years.
Ewart's death is but one of many pieces in this puzzle, however, for it seems that the entire staff is wrestling with crippling personal problems. In the first episode, staff nurse Duffy (Cathy Shipton) learns of the suicide of her HIV-positive ex-boyfriend Peter, while the usually cheery porter Kuba (Christopher Rozycki) worries about the future of his job in the face of the impending privatisation of the porters. The usually reliable Megan (Brenda Fricker), too, breaks down mid-shift at one point, fed up with the lack of respect that she, as low-grade State Enrolled Nurse, has to put up with from the very nurses to whom she showed the ropes. This particular event, occurring in the fifth episode just before Ewart's death, is a phenomenal achievement in writing, by series co-creator Jeremy Brock, and acting, by the Oscar-winning Fricker, and it is a testament to how far the show has progressed at this point that those involved are able to pull off an impassioned speech from the heart and make it sound powerful rather than completely ridiculous.
The patient storylines, too, become increasingly bleak, and, if the writers lay off on their criticism of management through the introduction of a sympathetic administrator, Valerie Sinclair (Susan Franklyn), they don't lack for new targets. One particularly powerful storyline highlights the problems stemming from the need for parental consent in order to harvest the organs of a dead 16-year-old. Here, the fact that the boy was carrying a donor card is over-ridden by his father, who refuses to allow his son's body to be hacked up, despite the fact that, as one medic points out, the nature of his death means that the body will be cut up during the mandatory coronary inquiry anyway. In a further touch of dramatic irony, the father changes his mind after the boy's life support machine has been switched off, but at this point it is too late for his organs to be used. Further bleak storylines include a teenage mechanic permanently paralysed from the neck down after a car falls on her; and old man who spends the entire night being shunted between cubicles, before eventually dying in an ambulance on the way to a bed in another hospital; and the death of a baby whose neglectful father fails to notice that he has stopped breathing.
The changes extend to the look of the show, which, while still maintaining its stubbornly reserved, realistic style, abandons the multi-camera format of the first two series (usually associated with sitcoms) in favour of a single-camera approach, more like that of film. The difference may not be immediately noticeable, but there is a subtle change of pace, and the resulting material has a less staged feel to it than its predecessors. The change in shooting style also heralds a new team of directors, among them Michael Owen Morris, who, in a tenure on the show that lasted through to Series 15, has directed more episodes of Casualty than anyone else. Additionally, while there are still plenty of familiar faces among the main cast, by this stage only five of the original characters are present - which will have fallen to a mere three by the start of the next series. And, as usual, a number of familiar faces make up the guest stars of this series, including Pauline Quirke, George Irving (later Anton Meyer in Holby City) and Clive Mantle (later Mike Barratt in both shows).
If there is a major flaw in the third series it is that it loses momentum towards the end of its run, before finally petering out in a distinctly unremarkable final episode. Casualty in these days was, admittedly, never about explosive finales, but, for all intents and purposes, Episode 10 is simply another night in Accident and Emergency, with nothing untoward happening other than the occasional death and a troupe of colourful patients. In their audio commentary on Episode 5, series creators Jeremy Brock and Paul Unwin mention that their challenge, with the third series, was to establish a format that could survive without their involvement much longer than had originally been intended. It was at this stage, I suspect, that any notion of bringing the show to a close in the foreseeable future was abandoned, with the creators signing off on their project quietly rather than with an explosive finale, thereby leaving the way clear for other hands to continue the show seamlessly instead of feeling that they were starting from scratch.
Despite Casualty's third series in many ways it feeling like the end of an era, being comprised of the final moments on the show for more than one member of the old team, in other respects it also feels like the beginning of a new departure. Stylistically, the show settled into a groove that it would continue to maintain, more or less unchanged, for several years, while the more subtle writing and increasingly downbeat plots demonstrated an increasing awareness of the lack of black and white in the world that the writers would continue to hone for the next several years. The fourth series brought in many other changes, including a new producer and an increased emphasis on patient storylines rather than those of the staff, but, with Series 3, the formulation of the Casualty that came to be an institution of British television in the 1990s was already well under way.
As with Series 1 and 2, 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 the first two series, the packaging carries the warning that some episodes have been edited due to rights issues. In this particular instance, most of the episodes seem to be uncut, running for between 49 and 50 minutes, although the second episodes runs for a mere 44 and is, in my opinion, likely to have been attacked with the editor's scissors, although what precisely is missing is unclear. One or two other episodes run for around 47 or 48 minutes, but it's hard to say whether these were actually cut or simply naturally ran shorter.
As with Series 2, two commentaries are included. The first, featuring co-creator/writer Jeremy Brock and co-creator Paul Unwin on Burn Out (Episode 5), is comfortably the weakest of the three commentaries that they have given over the course of the first three series. There are continual lapses into silence, and neither speaker seems to have a very clear memory of either the episode itself or the specifics regarding the show at this point in its history. Some interesting information is divulged, such as the fact that Brenda Fricker worked heavily on the script for the scenes involving her breakdown, but the track is often entertaining for the misinformation the creators spout. Among other things, they don't seem to be aware that Casualty in fact passed the 200-episode milestone several years ago, and they seem to be extremely mixed up about dates, claiming that Paul Lacoux's character, SHO David Rowe, was in the show for several years, despite the fact that, at this time, Casualty was factually accurate in that its SHOs were only conscripted to A&E for a single year.
The other commentary, by Derek Thompson (Charlie) and Peter Salt (who has been the show's media adviser for every single episode to date), on Inferno (Episode 9) is, conversely, the best one given by this particular duo. Thompson gets the most air-time, spending a considerable portion of the track's duration discussing how surprised he is that the show ran for so long, and noting the differences between the earlier series and its more recent incarnations. They also discuss the ways in which the show has increased the medical knowledge of its viewers, as well as the usual bugbear, the perceived left-wing bias.
A question mark currently hangs over Casualty's future on DVD. So far, 2 Entertain have managed an impressive rate of three series in one year, but whether or not any further sets will be released remains to be seen. The first three series serve as a fairly logical "block" of episodes in many ways, in many respects constituting a single 40-episode era. It would be a real shame, however, if more DVDs were not produced, as the best is yet to come and, far from merely serving as an end, Series 3 of Casualty also functions as a new beginning.