Great friends and former colleagues Derek Thompson and Brenda Fricker act their hearts out this week in a hard-hitting Casualty special which features just the two of them, plus Casualty regular Suzanne Packer (Tess) and newcomer Jennie Jacques (Lily). As they filmed one of the most moving Casualty episodes ever, they talked to Programme Information about their 30-year friendship and what it’s like to work together again.
Academy award-winner Brenda Fricker returned to Casualty this month to play the much-loved character she created over 20 years ago, Megan. But it’s a bittersweet moment for Casualty fans as Megan has terminal cancer and has returned to seek help and comfort from her old mate Charlie (Derek Thompson), asking him to do something which goes against all his instincts.
“I think it was intentional that Megan was brought back to explore such a serious issue,” says Derek. “These characters have known each other for 24 years so it’s interesting to see where they are in the world with each other, and their relationship is almost as interesting as the issue itself. The director described Brenda coming back and the stuff between our two characters as taking two atoms that had a 20-year run-up to collide. And eventually when they do collide it’s got to set your hair on fire!”
“It was a real pleasure to come back and do these particular episodes,” adds Brenda. “The storyline is very moving and it’s been beautifully written (by Sasha Hailes) and brilliantly directed by Declan Eames. It’s been going like a dream and the whole experience has been a pleasure.”
Since Brenda’s departure, the two actors had been reunited for a couple of special episodes but the nature of this storyline made the experience quite different. Derek explains: “It felt wonderful in the sense that it was a challenge but it was very emotional and very draining,” he says. “It was quite an exceptional combination of feelings but the real excitement was that we were doing something that we’d both always wanted to do – which was perform a script with that level of strength and that intelligence behind it.
“We pretty much knew that we could trust each other as actors and we came away from some takes and some scenes thinking wow – we’ve just scored a goal!”
Another big player in the episode is Suzanne Packer, who plays Casualty regular Tess and who was a pillar of sense and support for Charlie during the scenes.
“It was an acting feast for all of us,” says Derek. “Brenda and I are both quite disciplined about what we do and we balance each other very well but if there’s a third party and they’re not terribly fast on their feet then that could have been quite uncomfortable. But Suzanne is a beacon of good acting and good taste and we found each other in the way that three jazz instruments find each other – with a perfect sense of their own and each other’s place in the arrangement!”
“It was an extraordinary time,” agrees Suzanne. “It was almost like working on another show and not like doing Casualty at all because Brenda comes with such a wealth of experience she brings something different with her. She uses the script and the words the same as we all do but somehow she makes room for everyone – it’s very difficult to explain.
“This storyline presents a big dilemma for Tess,” adds Suzanne. “What Megan is asking them to do goes against everything Tess believes in, both as a person and as a health professional. She’s spent her whole working life trying to keep people alive. But the other element of that is that she knows about Charlie’s connection with Megan and she feels a great loyalty to him as a working colleague as well as a friend. She is very, very, very torn and has a difficult decision to make.”
Was it difficult for Suzanne, knowing that the others have so much shared history?
“I didn’t feel left out at all even though Brenda and Derek have donkey’s years of history!” she says. “I was always invited into every conversation and we did all spend a lot of time together, along with Jennie Jacques. Brenda isn’t a selfish actor and she’s not a selfish person, she’s very inclusive. And although she’s won an Oscar she carries it very lightly. She’s like a jobbing actor and she isn’t grand in the respect of wanting to be treated differently at all.”
With the Casualty episodes now filmed, Brenda is back in front of the movie cameras, filming a feature film in Canada with Olympia Dukakis. But will the two old pals still keep in touch?
“Derek and I have kept in touch with phone calls over the years but I think we’ll keep in touch much more after this experience,” says Brenda. “I think he’s one of the 10 best actors in the world. Sometimes I think he’s not used enough in Casualty but he has an awful lot of acting in this episode and he doesn’t let you down. I’d walk over broken glass to work with him.”
“Top 10? She’s demoted me!” laughs Derek. “I used to be in the top five! Seriously, if Brenda didn’t do most of her work in the United States she’d be a name you’d hear much more in this country, alongside the likes of Dame Eileen Atkins and Dame Judi Dench. She’s one of the most exciting actors I’ve ever watched and is fantastically versatile. I feel that Britain has missed out on Brenda Fricker and I wish that she’d done a lot more over here so that I could crow about the fact that she’s my mate!”