Waking the Dead creator Barbara Machin returns to CASUALTY to write the two-part Christmas Special. In what promises to be both a spectacular and shocking storyline.
holby.tv were honoured to have be given the opportunity to talk to Barbara about what’s in store…
It’s been nearly 10 years since you’ve written for CASUALTY, have you enjoyed writing for the show again?
Well, to be honest I approached it with some trepidation. To write well for CASUALTY is tough. Before you can even start you have to get under the skin of a whole series of storylines and all the lives of all the regular cast. And you have to use the structure of the show brilliantly. And I had left on a high – an award winning episode – so was it really sensible to go back and try and top that?
And since then I had been writing films and two parters and of course my own series Waking The Dead, where I have had a lot of freedom, bigger budgets and a more expansive writing schedule – so yes – I was more than a bit nervous. The team were expecting a lot of me. So could I still cut the mustard?
And then I made life even harder. I wanted to write a really really unusual double episode which would fascinate the audience, be an amazing thriller and yet at the same time deliver the best brand ingredients of CASUALTY.
Basically when Mervyn Watson the Executive Producer first asked me to accept the invitation for the 21st birthday series I said yes – but only if you let me do something really different. He said – go on then – convince me. I replied that what I had in mind they would never entertain. But he and then the team kept saying – tell us more.
So, rather inspired by the incredible guest episodes which Tarinto wrote for ER and CSI – I evolved the idea of a big story which was told from three different points of view.
So the episode begins with a scene which includes the start of all the stories and then after the titles we begin story one. This is Josh’s story and we stay just with him all through his incredible day. Just as we get to the climax of his story we suddenly roll back time and start the next point of view.
This is Ellen’s story and now we are just with her. But of course as we follow her day we start to see scenes we have seen before but now we are seeing them differently, and suddenly we are getting new understanding of events and watching the jigsaw of the evolving story come together. And just as we get to the exciting cliffhanger of Ellen’s story – wham – we run time backwards again and begin the final point of view.
This is the big guest story – the medical thriller element and a patient we have met before in a previous episode played the wonderful Holly Aird. Now we are just with her and inside her head and now as her day unfolds – and includes of course all our regular cast – the thriller really kicks in. At the end of her story – finally Josh’s and Ellen’s days begin to make sense and for the first time we run the stories onwards to a truly shocking cliffhanger at the end of part one.
Part two picks up the story but uses time running backwards and forwards to push up the tension and to reveal different parts of the story. Josh and the cast are truly driven to the edge and there is a terrible shock, which comes straight out of nowhere. It’s a powerful and very moving episode bringing together all our much loved regulars.
Are you pleased with the finished article?
Very. I had some very special ingredients; a terrific award winning director Diarmuid Lawrence (“Messiah”) who did an utterly brilliant job. I had worked with Diarmuid before on a film called CARLA (Lesley Sharpe and Helen McCrory/ Ian Glenn.) And a wonderful guest actress, Holly Aird, with whom I had also worked on Waking The Dead . So with both I had a great shorthand and we worked on the script together before shooting – a luxury you don’t often have on a fast-turnround show like CASUALTY.
And of course the cast of all the regular characters were just totally wonderful. They are the most amazing team of actors with huge talent and ability and they utterly committed to trying to achieve some of the aspirations we had for the story. Apart from wonderful individual performances – can you imagine how complicated it was to shoot time from three different points of view! The cast had to work very hard with Diarmuid to always be in the right place in huge sequences. And to achieve the urgency and pain of the medical scenes I often wrote two scripts with foreground and background dialogue which made huge extra demands on every member of the cast and team.
Every member of the team went the extra mile. And I think we were all very excited about trying to really achieve something unusual and special – and indeed a first in storytelling for UK series.
I also have to mention my rather brilliant series producer Jane Dauncey, who was brave enough to take this huge idea on, my exceptional producer Jane Steventon who worked night and day across the scripts to ingeniously achieve all the special requirements and my superb script editor, Lindsey Alford, who had even more lists than me! Basically they were at the head of a huge army which makes up the amazing CASUALTY team.
How long did it take you to write the episodes from start to finish?
The two episodes add up to two hours. And the actual writing time was between March and July during which time I turned round four drafts of both.
But we first started talking about the ideas back in November 2005 and the show will finally be dubbed by December 5th 2006 – and I have been involved through-out.
How much research do you have to do for an episode like this?
Lots! You always do. None of us writers are doctors so you have to work very hard to find good and convincing medical stories and then find a way to tell them brilliantly through your drama. I do like to do my own research because as I dig away at the layers I can really discover the potential of the story. But I also had lots of help from the great research team.
CASUALTY also has an excellent team of medical consultants – real docs and nurses and paramedics and I met up with them all and phoned and e-mailed them a great deal!
I have a massive medical sequence in part two and I went to see my doctor consultant (Dr Ian Higginson) to work that out – he was staying at a B&B in Weston Supermare where he was doing a consultant locum job at Weston hospital and we sat together for a whole morning drinking gallons of coffee – drawing diagrams of bodies and working out every minute of all the medical procedures. And of course that is only the start – after that we e-mailed massively to fine tune the material before I could even start to try and write it up as scenes!
My nursing consultant, the brilliant Pete Salt (the real nurse on whom Charlie was based) also sat down with me for hours working out the medical detail. They have to be very patient! What I kept trying to do was to really get inside the raw emotions of the medical scenes and so I kept asking “what if ” and “tell me how you would feel” and “what would you say ” and “what might go wrong?” I really wanted to understand the human interior of what I was making my medics go through.
I also needed speciality advice for my guest character story. I went to a senior Consultant at the Bristol University, Dr Jonathan Evans, and he gave me very detailed research advice. And became very excited about the fact I was allowing the viewer to see this woman from her own point of view and that by the time the story ended we will have a very empathetic portrait of her. That was a very important ambition of the piece and I think Holly’s stunning and very sensitive performance totally delivered.
There’s some great guest artistes in this episode (Holly Aird & Gary Kemp). Are you pleased at the casting?
We were so lucky to have such excellent guest actors. To be honest I wrote the big guest story for Holly – as I always try to think of an actor for the part I am writing – and I just love her work. She was a marvellous Frankie – my forensic scientist for Waking The Dead. I was delighted when she was accepted the part and talked to her a lot about the journey of that character. Holly was very excited to get the opportunity to play the role of a woman in such an extreme situation in her life – and embraced the challenge very powerfully. I watched many of the scenes with her and Georgie (Ellen) and was blown away with the emerging chemistry.
Gary Kemp was such a bonus. He played Holly’s husband and it was tough one as he had to burst into the story and vividly deliver the secret of their life together – and all the misery which had stayed hidden. And he had to confront the dreadful consequences of leaving his wife and daughter as the thriller unravelled. He achieved this with great power and his final scenes with Holly are hugely moving.
And of course (I’m sure Gary will forgive me for this) but what a plus to hang out with him and talk about Spandau Ballet and what it’s really like to be a huge a pop icon!!!
Do you have any favourite CASUALTY characters that you enjoy writing about?
Honestly – I love them all. Everyone offers so much talent. And I really love to find stories which stretch them and push them to places they don’t often go. And of course to work with Derek Thompson whom I have known as Charlie since series 5 – was a great thrill. Charlie was shot in my very first episode of CASUALTY and in my last before this I married him in the double “Everlasting Love” – so we have shared a lot!!!
To write emotional scenes for him and Josh (Ian Bleasedale) whom I have also known for many years and is such a much loved character was a great treat . This double is huge for Josh and we see years of storytelling coming to a head in his journey. And he gives the performance of his life. You will cry!
You’ve written a number of episodes of CASUALTY over the years, which have been some of the most memorable to write?
Ok, Charlie’s wedding was pretty amazing. And my first episode, when I was allowed to bring a pyschotic gunman (Kenneth Cranham) onto the department who held Megan (Brenda Fricker) hostage. Brenda was just about to get her Oscar for “My Left Foot” and the cliffhanger for the series was…. would Charlie live? I spent a whole summer with everyone asking me would he survive (?) and that made drama feel pretty powerful.
And out of many many episodes some are very memorable. Charlie’s day when I wrote every scene with Charlie in it was fun. Blowing up 200 vehicles on a motorway for a Christmas special was pretty good – although the best story in that episode was nothing to do with the accident and very moving – as Sam (Jonathan Kerrigan) found out his boyfriend was cheating on him. His pain shared with Eve (Barbara Martin) was the most poignant moment of that huge story.
But my favourite was the double when Jude (Lisa Coleman) was stabbed. Lisa was one of those amazing characters and the pain the rest of the cast had to endure was incredibly powerful.
CASUALTY celebrates it’s 21st birthday why do you think it has maintained it’s success?
Superb storytelling. Wonderful acting. And a classic format. The cast are the “family” – the folk we really care about. Our flawed heroes. And every week life pours through the doors of the A&E department. Every patient and relative are facing hugely extreme situations and we are enthralled to watch their stories play out. And to see how our regulars cope and to see their own lives unfolding around their work.
CASUALTY has managed to continue to tell these stories for over twenty years and to directly reflect what is going on in all our lives. It is a show which truly and at its best – connects.
But like all long running series it has to constantly renew and refresh. CASUALTY takes that very seriously and as the show begins a big new reassessment as it comes of age – I have accepted an invitation to help the show with that process as Series Consultant. Watch this space for this wonderful show as it grows into its new era.