Simon Harper Interview

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Executive Producer of Holby City and Casualty, Simon Harper talks ahead of HOLBY CITY’s 20th Anniversary year …

How does it feel to be celebrating Holby’s 20th anniversary?

It feels really exciting to celebrate the continued success of Holby City, the UK’s most beloved medical drama (along with Casualty of course!). The series has now been on screen for an unbelievable 20 years. I’ve been involved with the show for a number of years, working my way up from Script Editor to now Executive Producer of both Holby City and Casualty – so on a personal level it’s been really rewarding and enjoyable, exploring and drawing upon my own quite extensive knowledge and sense of the show’s identity across those two rich decades. It’s been a bit of a passion project.

What can audiences expect from the anniversary celebrations?

What we’re giving the audience is a whole anniversary year of treats which celebrate the new, but also pay homage to the old – the show’s heritage and history. We’ve got some delicious returns – some classic returning characters, kicking off with Denis Lawson as Tom Campbell-Gore, Holby’s original bad boy and the glorious Sharon D. Clarke as Lola in the first couple of weeks. Later in the spring we’ll also see the return of Camilla Arfwedson as Zosia. We can look forward to some other returns too… There are former cast we are talking to at the moment – watch this space!

This year will also include the 1000th episode of Holby City, which is scheduled to fall around Bonfire Night. Viewers can look forward to a very explosive story indeed…! The huge driving theme at the heart of series 21 has always been part of Holby’s DNA – family, relationships and bloodline.

What is the secret to Holby City’s success?

Soaps and continuing dramas continue to thrive in the era of Amazon and Netflix binge-viewing, I think because of the “real-time” aspect. Audiences can experience very visceral, emotional, character—driven stories that reflect important issues and viewers’ own lives over a long period. For example, Zosia’s bipolar storyline – we followed this from incipient clues in the beginning to full-blown breakdown over a period of 18 months. More heightened narratives like the Gaskell storyline too… this had a year-long arc that transformed a character from a supposed hero to murderous villain. So I think the pace and depth to storytelling that the timeframe allows us really helps. I might
also add the power of watching characters fall in love in real time, as with Berena!

Holby also has a very special tone- it is first and foremost a medical drama set in the NHS, but there has always been something heightened, glossy and aspirational about the series – dare I say even sexy. It has a wit and panache the audience relish as their Tuesday treat – and it thrives on comedy, humour and risk-taking, as well as intense emotional and medical drama. For research purposes I
watched the first episode written by Tony McHale – and there’s an iconic moment in which we see Anton Meyer (played by George Irving), having just completed the show’s first heart transplant, delivering a swathe of machine-gun fire, highly characterful medical handover, while struggling out of his scrubs into his tux for a night at the opera. It was such clever, stall-setting writing to establish the tone and ambition of a new show.

People also love the gore – thanks to our brilliant prosthetics team, it’s all so realistic you’d never think some poor soul was crouching under the operating table pumping a valve to make all the fake blood spray out of that ruptured aorta!

What are you particularly proud of from Holby’s 20 years on screen?

There are so many things! But recently I was watching Mo’s (Chizzy Akudolu) return episode and I texted Chizzy to tell her what a fantastic response the episode was getting on social media. In response Chizzy forwarded me a lovely text from a friend which said: “Yay! A black woman saving the day!” We’d never even thought about that, as it’s a perfectly normal scenario here with a hugely popular character like Mo – and Chizzy said “that’s what makes it a great show”. Something as simple as an empowered black female supersurgeon saving lives and being brilliant sends out an important message. Twenty years before the current discussions about diversity in the industry, the
creators of Holby (Tony McHale and Mal Young) created a show that was already ahead of the game with on screen representation. Sharon D. Clarke often talks very graciously about Holby in her press and what it meant to her at the time to be cast as a Consultant. I believe we have also been groundbreaking with LGBT representation with the Berena storyline and David Ames’ character Dominic. There was also Malick (Jimmy Akingbola), who was a black, alpha, male surgeon who just happened to be gay. The showrunner at the time, Justin Young, created the character as there was a sense there hadn’t really been one like that before.

Another first was casting a non-neurotypical actor (Jules Robertson) to play our non-neurotypical semi-regular character Jason. This inclusivity is really something to celebrate.

What’s life like off screen on Holby?

Behind the scenes, some of the cast are so unlike their characters! (By which I mean nicer, not the other way around!) Guy Henry, for example, is hilarious – he couldn’t be less like Hanssen! He makes everybody laugh on set. He’s such a brilliant actor, he can be joking around but then immediately slips into the iceberg that is Henrik. Also Rosie Marcel as Jac – even after knowing her for years if I
bump into her in the corridor, I somehow don’t recognise her for the first couple of seconds, she looks exactly the same, but it’s because she’s not wearing that mysterious outer shell she somehow adopts from the inside as Jac – it’s the same with Amanda Mealing on Casualty, and shows how clever their performances are. Bob Barrett is even nicer than Sacha, were such a thing possible, and the lovely Alex Walkinshaw IS Fletch.

What are your plans for the future of the show?

We’ve had a great year with the exciting Gaskell storyline which was quite genre-busting for us – a dark thriller indeed – so it’s safe to say things get jollier again, with perhaps less of a body count than 2018….

People often ask if Holby City is a soap or a continuing drama – I’d say it’s both to a degree, the operative word being “opera” – where stories are full blooded, passionate and larger than life, rooted in explosive secrets and lies – which are some clues for what you can expect from storylines in 2019. You’ll see classic returns and event episodes to celebrate our anniversary, sometimes playing with our format – which we did very successfully with the Sacha mental health episode – as well as an exciting influx of new characters to shake things up. There’ll be a bit more romance – to paraphrase the late, great Victoria Wood, you can’t beat a sizzling eye meet over a diseased kidney.

There’ll also be more collaborations with Casualty – with something very exciting coming up in the spring! And the show will of course remain true to the question that has always summarised it – how do you balance work and personal life in a profession that demands everything in the pressured landscape of the modern NHS.

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