It was 1986, and BBC’s Head of Drama Jonathan Powell was searching for a new Saturday night drama series to replace cop show Juliet Bravo.
The BBC had two ideas for a hospital drama – the ‘cottage hospital’ idea, which was seen as the safe option or an A&E department (‘Front Line’ – as CASUALTY was originally titled), an off the wall idea which posed more problems for the team. ‘I went for CASUALTY’ said Powell about his decision. ‘Because there was a feeling of life and passion and, well, I was anxious for new young people to create something. I put them (creators Jeremy Brock and Paul Unwin) with a very experienced producer, Geraint Morris, and hoped for the best’.
As the 15 episodes were aired, viewers grew a fondness with each of 10 main staff members who all had their individual strifes and woes including curly-haired Charlie, Duffy who lost her confidence after being raped on the way to work and passionate Consultant Ewart Plimmer.
On screen the hospital A&E night shift was fighting to stay open, meanwhile the show CASUALTY itself also struggled to stay on-air after being slammed by the Government. The Royal College of Nursing also objected and nurses resented how they were being portrayed.
After eight episodes, Jeremy Brock was called in by the BBC management to defend the series. Changes were made such as cutting down on characters smoking, but the show stuck firm to its stories about NHS funding and hospital conditions. And after all the controversy, CASUALTY looked unlikely to make it past it’s first year.
With fifteen more scripts already prepared and paid for, the BBC decided to continue with the series despite political controvery which threatened to kill the show. A permenant place for the show was found in a warehouse in Bristol, having previously been filmed in London.
However accompanying the newspaper publicity stories for the Series 2 start, was the news that there would be no more programmes. Producer Geraint Morris was quoted as saying ‘We felt it should end on a high after thirty episodes’.
But as the hospital team battled to save their night shift, a quieter battle was being waged – and won – behind the scenes. Six weeks on air and there were no government complaints, critics were warming and following the show’s dramatic stabbing of paramedic Sandra Mute, audiences of more than 10 million seemed secure. All these things combined to give the kiss of life to the seemingly doomed show.
Perhaps what really saved CASUALTY, strange as it seemed then, was the first ‘baddie’. Elizabeth Straker was a tough but human administrator. She had frequent clashes with Ewart Plimmer, a love/hate relationship between the pair that was bound to end up with an affair.
Those who even called the show far-fetched had to take back their words when only hours after an episode involving an IRA bomb was screened, life imitated art at Enniskiline.
By Series 3, CASUALTY moved to a new Friday night slot and by Series 4 was shown after the watershed so the writers could develop stronger storylines. New Producer Peter Norris also decided the fictional town Holby should not be Bristol under a different name and accordingly, Duffy’s West Country accent magically disappeared.
By Series 7, CASUALTY was at one of it’s peaks. The show was almost too successful. The BBC not only wanted more of it, Producer Jonathan Powell wanted much more of it, half hour episodes twice a week, every week. ‘It was a fantastic show by then,’ he says. ‘It cried out to be turned into a bi-weekly at 8 o clock like The Bill. It was too good an idea to miss. It would have boosted our audiences for the rest of those evenings and solved the problem of getting viewers back after Coronation Street. Everyone inside television thought that’s what would happen. I’m pretty sure that’s why ITV decided to run The Bill three times a week. So we started to plan for it. Geraint Morris was keen – all producers enjoy making changes and a successful bi-weekly is a terrific achievement. The main actors were signed up, too. Once we explained that things would not be done on the cheap, they were happy.’ But John Birt, the BBC’s Director General Designate, was not. ‘He did not want more than two soaps in the schedules after 7.30pm. So I had no alternative but to go with Eldorado, the Spanish soap, as a replacement for the 7pm Wogan show.’
Soon after Eldorado began in July 1992 it acquired the label ‘the flop soap’. It’s ratings were meagre and in March 1993, the decision was taken that it would end only one year after it began.
Geraint Morris was not opposed to turning CASUALTY into a twice weekly, half hour show. ‘We did a feasibility study and it could have worked very well. But it would have been a very different CASUALTY. We’d have to double up on everything. We’ve always been guided by our medical experts. The whole programme is worked around them. All our stories are based on facts. It takes time to get things right.’
The solution for the BBC was to make a much longer series, 24 episodes, which would effectively run for half the year. ‘It became clear that had we gone ahead and changed CASUALTY we would have been losing a unique phenomenon. There is no other 50 minute drama which has been so successful for so long. So it would have been foolish to allow it to mutate into something different’.
Over the years, the idea of a bi-weekly CASUALTY kept lurking it’s head but it was finally laid to rest when sister show HOLBY CITY was launched at the beginning of 1999 in the hope that it would become the weekly soap medical based in London that CASUALTY wasn’t able to achieve.
As each series went on, so did the increase in episodes. By Series 16, 40 episodes had been commissioned. Character storylines were also at it’s peak and became the main focus infront of patient storylines.
Now after 20 years and the show is still going strong and as the programme prepares for it’s 21st series opening with a special in Cambodia, current producer Jane Dauncey added, ‘We wanted to shout out loud that it’s still top quality, event TV on a Saturday night. CASUALTY performs so well for audiences, it’s almost taken for granted as a success and we wanted to make a mark’.