Holby Blue: Series 1 Review

The Series

Holby Blue may be the BBC's most cynical marketing ploy yet: take the name of a successful drama series, in this case Holby City, itself a spin-off from the venerable Casualty, and craft an otherwise unconnected police series around it. If nothing else, you've got to admire the leap in logic. In much the same way that Doctor Who has Torchwood and The Sarah Jane Adventures, Casualty is rapidly building up a city full of emotionally unstable and accident-prone emergency personnel, all intent on doing their level best to leave you with zero faith in the services they represent. The action unfolds in and around Holby South, a police station in the fictional Wyvern county and the place DI John Keenan (Cal Macaninch), a charming but irascible rule-breaker who loves his job but whose personal life is a shambles (hmm, do you think originality is going to be at the top of this programme's list of traits?) calls base. In the first episode, Keenan is teamed up with the newly arrived DS Luke French (Richard Harrington), a bright-eyed and bushy-tailed young go-getter who went to university, has flown up the professional ladder and who always plays by the rules (see what I meant about originality?). Rather predictably, they don't exactly hit it off, but, over the course of the next eight episodes, will have to put aside their differences and work together to take down a local drug lord who seems to have half the city in his grip.

I wonder which bright spark decided to promote this otherwise nondescript cop show by tying it to a medical drama. If they're taking suggestions for other possible spin-offs, might I submit Holby's Burning (Holby with fire engines, natch) or Holby International (the trials and tribulations of the employees of the local airport, having to deal with such calamities as baggage going missing and delayed flights leading to much moaning and family squabbles to be sorted out)? Or, better yet, Holby Morgue, which in addition to opening up all sorts of opportunities for gallows humour might also provide our first opportunity for prime time necrophilia. Given that Casualty and Holby City have between them explored just about every other sexual taboo known to man, and given that the two series' insanely high mortality rates combined would allow for a near-endless supply of stiffs, I'm surprised some enterprising producer hasn't seized on this opportunity already.

Ahem. The end result, as you might have been able to gather, is very much a cop show which utilises its police elements in very much the same way that Casualty and Holby City exploit their hospital setting: in other words, the day to day business of cracking cases and apprehending thugs competes for air time with the ongoing personal affairs of the staff, with mixed results. Its biggest problem is that it doesn't seem to know what it wants to be. On the one hand, at the time of its initial transmission, the show's prolific creator and executive producer, Tony Jordan (EastEnders, Hustle, Life on Mars), made a big deal of how this was a "post-9/11" (possibly the most overused buzzword on television after "highly irreverent" and "non-PC") series which would tackle head-on the challenges facing the police in this new political climate. Likewise, the presence of Tim Pigott-Smith in the cast certainly adds a degree of class, and the slick high definition photography has a level of professionalism that its sister shows can't touch (as of writing, both have, through various means, attempted to ape Holby Blue's aesthetic using a variety of post production filters, with Casualty, now shot in progressive scan, generally doing a more convincing job than Holby City), and something of a stylistic departure is also achieved through the use of Mark Hinton Stewart's rather classy backing score. The series is produced by Kudos, the same company responsible for Spooks and Life on Mars, so expect a lot of soundbite dialogue, smash cuts and adrenaline-packed action: stylistically, it may not be everyone's cup of tea, but it works.

At the same time, though, it's hard to shake the feeling that this is all just smoke and mirrors. Pigott-Smith does what he can with the role of DCI Harry Hutchinson, but is often reduced to playing the immediately obvious traitor in the ranks who throws his weight around by raising his voice and constantly badgering Keenan to do things "by the book". (After this barrage of clichés, you'd be forgiven for expecting loose cannon Keenan to bark back "But I get results!") His character actually receives one of the series' more interesting arcs, but it's a pity his role in the dodgy deeds is so blatantly telegraphed from the outset. Likewise, the post-9/11 concerns are name-checked in the first couple of episodes (including a rather effective scene in which the point is made that an inordinate number of bobbies are on standby at the major airports in order to counter terrorism, to the extent that far fewer are actually patrolling the streets and protecting the public from everyday thuggery, despite the fact that vastly more people die as a result of everyday assaults, robberies and the like than from terrorist activity), but otherwise there's nothing to distinguish the police procedure from that of any other police series. Certainly it never comes even close to approaching Casualty's position in the late 80s and early 90s as a daring, thought-provoking social commentary with its finger on the pulse of current affairs.

Part of the problem, it would seem, is that Jordan and his writers are not really interested in the nitty-gritty of police work and what it actually means to be a cop but rather in the everyday mundane domestic squabbles involving the regular characters. Holby Blue is ultimately a soap opera disguised as a drama, and that much is clear from the presence of former EastEnder Kacey Ainsworth and ex-Footballer's Wife Zoe Lucker in prominent roles. The latter, incidentally, puts in a painfully bad performance as Keenan's estranged wife, who later lands a desk job at the station, under the nose of Keenan's current catch (oooh, the tension), and seems to believe that that the same closed-mouth half-smirk is an adequate facial expression for any given situation. Seriously, it's amazing: she has the same look on her face when horsing around with her new boyfriend as when discovering that her husband has brought the kids home with a knife-wielding drug addicts whom he has just arrested in the car with them. At times the casting gets a bit more interesting: Keiran O'Brien, previously seen getting his end away in Michael Winterbottom's 9 Songs, plays the part of a roguish PC who eats, drinks and breathes sex, while Elaine Glover does well as the naïve, wide-eyed Lucy Slater, a new recruit who gets lost on her way to the briefing room and who can scarcely contain her excitement at the prospect of "saying the words" (i.e. reading someone their rights). She's likeable enough to be a character the audience can relate to, but at the same time just about annoying enough for her colleagues' frustration at her bumbling ways to be understandable. Velibor Topic, who seems to be the first port of call for any television producer requiring someone to play a sinister eastern European, also does a good turn as the series' main villain, drug baron Neculai Stenga. The character who gets all the best dialogue, meanwhile, is custody sergeant Christian Young (James Hillier), who treats the cells under his control like rooms in a bed and breakfast and welcomes newly arrived convicts as favoured guests. By and large, though, the cast isn't particularly distinguished, and in some areas is downright shoddy.

As there series progresses, it becomes abundantly clear that there was never any real intention of connecting the programme to its parent shows, making clear just how marketing-oriented the naming convention was. Apart from an ultimately pointless visit to A&E and a "blink and you'll miss it" appearance from Charlie Fairhead (Derek Thompson) in the pre-credits teaser of the first episode, the new series never actually interacts with either of its predecessors (something that was rectified, albeit temporarily, in the first episode of Holby Blue's recently commenced second series, although that will no doubt be the subject of a future review). Likewise, barring some location shooting in Bristol in the first episode and a couple of shots of the Clifton Suspension Bridge notwithstanding, the bulk of Holby Blue is in fact shot in Surrey, further distancing it from the Bristol-located Casualty and Elstree-based Holby City. On the one hand, viewers may breathe a sigh of relief that they don't have to watch three different programmes to keep up with the storylines, but at the same time I wonder to what extent the marketing backfired. By tying this programme to Holby City, the producers may have set up certain expectations and have ended up actually driving audiences away from it: viewing figures were generally underwhelming, even when the BBC placed it in Holby City's Tuesday slot, probably in the hope that some viewers of that show would tune in by mistake, but also (and far more realistically) in order to avoid going up against ITV's venerable The Bill.

One strength that Holby Blue does have over its sister shows is its comparatively short duration (a mere eight episodes, whereas Casualty is now up to 48 per series and Holby City runs all year round), which ensures that the storylines move along at a brisk pace and don't end up being overplayed. Likewise, the writers do a fine job of ensuring that each of the thirteen regular characters gets their time in the spotlight, although they do have an unfortunate tendency to rely on embroiling their bobbies in crime (either as victims or perpetrators) in order to generate drama, a criticism that can also be levelled against its sisters shows in recent years. Likewise, the insistence on having each episode tell a self-contained story means that, barring the season-long Stenga arc, means that each investigation has to be wrapped up in the space of an hour, which not only leads to a sense of things being rushed but also tends to result in rather mundane cases. Still, the "case of the week" storylines are rarely boring, and if they do tend to be a bit obvious, there is enough diversity to them to prevent things from becoming rote.

Holby Blue seems to suffer from something of a crisis of identity. Piggy-backing on the success of a medical series, it masquerades as a police drama when in actual fact it seems to want to be nothing more than a soap. With The Bill running bi-weekly on rival network ITV and the likes of Waking the Dead and various American imports fulfilling the higher brow end of the market, it's questionable whether there is really room for another police series, let alone one so unsure of its own target audience. It's watchable enough, but it all seems a bit pointless, and, for all its surface gloss and high aspirations, doesn't really seem to have anything fresh to say.

DVD Presentation

Upon hearing that Holby Blue was to receive a DVD release, my first reaction was one of surprise. After all, the 22-year-old Casualty has only seen its initial three series released, and Holby City has yet to see the light of day at all on DVD. Why, therefore, would what is the youngest and comfortably least successful of the three series be given such preferential treatment?

Regardless of reasoning, this is a fairly standard release from 2 Entertain. As per usual, there are no extras at all, and audio options are limited to a serviceable stereo track and optional English subtitles. Like the audio, the transfer is fine but nothing more. Holby Blue is the only one of the three "Holby" series to be shot in high definition (Holby City, as of mid-Series 9, is deinterlaced in post production and Casualty, as of Series 22, is natively progressive scan, but both are shot in standard definition), and the DVDs appear to be sourced from the same masters used for SD broadcast, albeit with some added filtering. My recordings straight off digital TV actually show more detail than the commercially released DVDs, which is rather surprising and not a particularly strong advertisement for buying them. A further black mark against these DVDs is the removal of the "Previously" and "Next week" recaps from the start and end of each episode, often extremely jarringly (no attempt has been made to smooth over the abrupt jumps in the music caused by the missing material).

6 out of 10
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out of 10

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