Suzanne Packer knew what she was letting herself in for when she assumed the role of Tess Bateman in CASUALTY, having appeared in the drama as a guest in 1995.
‘My character was a patient who had swallowed some drugs and was trying to leave the country. The guy who set me up tried to kill me and I ended up being dragged out of a river.’
The role of nurse practitioner Tess Bateman seems to be a little closer to the actor’s heart. Tess is a traditionalist and is keen to maintain the standards she was taught at nursing college. ‘She is a stickler for the rules and I think it pays off because she gets results with few mistakes. It is not that she is out to make people’s lives a misery, more that her experience proves it is the best way.’
‘I think she’s very comfortable in the fact that she’s been doing the job a long time, she a very experienced nurse and as far as she’s concerned its about doing the job as effectively as possible and if that means sometimes she steps on people’s toes, then so be it in her world because the most important thing is getting the job done well.’
‘Her character is very balanced,’ Suzanne continued. ‘You do see her as a tough character but in later episodes you see her sense of humour, its quite subtle but you do see she has a glint in her eye if she thinks something is funny!’
‘I was nervous because at first she seemed so tough and that there was no lighter side but what I found is her real sympathy lies with the patients and when the patients come through – you can see she came into nursing because she really loved people and wanted to help them. And as time went on she rose up the ranks because she was an effective nurse and wanted more responsibility. But I think at the back of her mind she always remembers why she went into nursing. So I try to draw on that as I play her’
It is Tess’s job to keep the numbers down and her appointment at Holby reflects the real-life move towards recruiting more nurse practitioners in NHS hospitals. She gets on well with Harry Harper and with Charlie, but is likely to clash with Dr Kaminski, who doesn’t always tow the line. ‘There’s no tension at all with Harry. Where she shows a lot of her edginess is with Simon Kaminski and with the younger nurses. But she doesn’t do it because she’s tetchy and harsh, its because they haven’t gone by the book.’
She also struggles with new Mental Health nurse Abs’s unconventional and laidback work ethic but, Suzanne claims, ‘He brings out the mummy in her. There is a lost little boy in there somewhere, so I don’t think she could ever be really tough with him.’ If Tess had the choice to be a doctor, she would still rather be a nurse because there is a part of her that’s ‘maternal,’ she says.
Welsh-born Suzanne can relate to the maternal instinct, having just had a little boy named Paris (after Greek mythology rather than the city).When at work, Suzanne’s parents look after her six-month- old baby in Cardiff and she’s looking forward to settling there herself when her husband, American actor Jesse Newman, follows her to England after their two-year stint in New York.
Suzanne first met Jesse on tour in Europe. They planned to stay in Britain but thought they’d test the waters in the US for ‘another experience and another opportunity’, and New York felt comfortable. Of her experience in the States, she recalls, ‘It was an adventure. The competition is much harder over there, because the standards are very high.The audition process is a lot less ‘touchy feely’ and you really have to be hard-nosed.There’s no time for a warm up! That was a big shock, and I wasn’t ready.” Jesse is still in the States but Suzanne is not worried: ‘New York is only five hours away. And when we’re apart we communicate a lot.’
Suzanne had her baby in the States and has a high amount of respect for the nursing practices abroad. ‘I felt my care was fantastic over there. However, I think a lot depends on how good your insurance package is though! ‘
She didn’t have long to rest before returning to work just three months after having Paris, ‘It was all very serendipidous,’ she said. ‘I came back to England to show my son to the rest of my greater family and they happened to be casting for CASUALTY at the same time. So I had the audition in the morning and by the afternoon I got the job! The next week I was doing the first read through and then we were filming two weeks after that!’
‘I knew about the character last November, but thought they had cast the part already in January so I didn’t keep it in my head, then obviously something must have happened and the character resurfaced again!’ she says of the role of Tess.
But she has no regrets of how things have panned out, ‘I was ready to come home. Having a baby makes you want to see your own mum! I don’t regret anything as it was meant to be.’
Suzanne has felt a strong community spirit working on CASUALTY so had no nerves on joining such an established show. ‘There’s no starry element in this show, no one who you can’t approach and I’ve never felt I can’t sit next to someone or ever feel uncomfortable. Everyone just seems to get on.’ She continued ‘I know it seems namby pamby but it really is a lovely feeling.’
‘Also what’s very new for me is that the supporting artistes who have been on the show for many years are so integrated. In one scene I had to do a log role, and I asked an SA what to do and he knew exactly how to do it. I thought ‘wow!’ as eventhough they don’t get the same wage or profile, they are so important to the show and make it’s success. Its quite shocking how much they know’
But she did find it difficult learning the medical jargon, ‘It’s hard for many reasons. After having a baby I had ‘nappy brain’ and I also haven’t had to learn a script for over a year as I hadn’t been working and then learning dialogue – which I didn’t understand to its core,’ she said. ‘I think it’s a double whammy as it’s easier to understand dialogue that you understand so when I’m having to say a difficult line as well as do actions, its very tough. I remember in my first read through, watching Simon MacCorkindale reeling off these really long medical words and I was very impressed!’
Suzanne is better known as Josie, the estranged wife of poor Mick in Liverpool soap Brookside. She is delighted to be reunited with her co-star, Louis Emerick, who joins CASUALTY for four episodes, once again playing her on-screen husband – fireman Mike. ‘It was a really lovely surprise when I found out. I always enjoyed working with Louis.’ And says it’s been easy working with him on CASUALTY, ‘You don’t have to do all that getting to know the actor before you go on screen, so that was done and dusted so its almost like we haven’t had to act the made up history as we’re already comfortable working with eachother and enjoy it.’ Mal Young, BBC Controller of Drama Series and ex-producer of Brookside, said, “It’s like unfinished business, just in a different incarnation.”
Suzanne, who herself has been married six years says of her character’s relationship that she’s yet to know how it will progress, although Tess needs to support herhusband when he is suspended, following decisions he made in the opening episodes train crash ‘I think they’re relationship is pretty solid, they’ve been married 18 years and have 3 children and I would imagine a marriage that long to be quite secure’
On her working relationship with Louis she explained ‘We go back further than Brookside. My second-ever job was with Louis in Playboy Of The West Indies at the Manchester Contact Theatre in 1985, so we didn’t need to worry about the ‘getting to know you’ bit. We dived straight in.’ Suzanne hasn’t watched Brookside recently; she asked to be written out because she felt the longer she stayed, the harder it would be to let go and she might not have had the chance to play other parts. ‘I got out of Brookside technically 10 years ago although I came back three times after that but I had pretty much left. I had to keep coming back to see Louis! Now that Brookside has finished I guess me and Louis need to get our own show so we can continue our partnership!’
On Brookside’s recent demise she added ‘Everything has it’s time and Brookside had a good run. When I was there, there was such a sense of community so if it is like that now, then in that respect it will be very sad for the cast.’
Suzanne admits to being a bit of a stickler for the rules in real life, which suits her newest character quite well. Suzanne trained as a teacher at Goldsmiths in 1996 and, when she’s not acting, she teaches drama. She has worked as a supply teacher in London, Brooklyn and New York at inner-city schools. ‘It is very challenging – doubly so as a supply teacher because the kids think that means holiday!’
She is frustrated that there are so many drama teachers without work because so few schools value it these days. ‘It just doesn’t make sense. In drama you learn so much, especially about life and working as a team. It teaches kids to be different and see themselves as individuals.’
Suzanne managed to combine her love of music, children and acting when she filmed an educational programme for the BBC called Music Makers six years ago. ‘It is teaching music and rhythm to under-fives. It is a really clever little programme with a futuristic setting. It keeps getting repeated and repeated. Kwame is in it too!’
‘I find the more I teach, the more I feel that it is probably the best job in the world,’ she says,though acting is definitely her first love. ‘Teaching is even bigger than being a doctor in a way because you literally shape these young minds. How I treat a child could make a difference for the rest of his or her life, and I’ve suddenly realised that it is a pretty responsible role.’
‘I loved school myself. I had a great time and nearly all my teachers had a big influence on my life. Part of the reason why I did drama was that my music teachers were very good.The highlight back then would have been the school musical.’
‘I really feel that responsibility myself when I teach and I’ve had some of my highest highs teaching.’
Suzanne confesses that she never used to watch CASUALTY for the simple reason that her mother was a nurse. ‘If you were a teacher, you wouldn’t watch programmes about teaching, – when you work every day you don’t want to use your down time watching a programme about what you do. So it was never on in my parents house and then after that I used to only watch it infrequently’ she says.
Her mother was also in a position of authority in her hospital in Wales. ‘My mum was a nurse although she’s retired now but she was of great resource obviously. When we were younger, my dad used to pick her up from work and we used to hang out in the waiting room for her. Sot there was a lot going on there, just observing.’
‘For the part it was fantastic as I brought scripts to her and go ‘what does this mean’ and she explained it to me. She’s been and amazing help as she was in the nursing profession for nearly 30 years so she’s seen a lot of the changes. She was brought up in the ‘old school’ way when they had a matron, and they had to have the crisp starch collars and all that to then going into the so called ‘better times’, so she’s seen all the cuts and the unhappiness. In that respect I feel I haven’t had to go into the hospital and shadow anyone for the role.’
Her mother and father hail from Jamaica and they moved to Great Britain where they met in the Fifties and had Suzanne and her kid brother, champion Olympic hurdler Colin Jackson ‘ I’m very close to Colin,’ she said. ‘We passed on the motorway just this morning. I’m sure he will be an inspiration to my little boy – we’ve already tried to teach him ‘on your marks!’
But Suzanne remains she could never be a nurse in real life, ‘No, because its not really a respected profession and I think unless you really saw it as your vocation then I think it must be very tough being a nurse.’