It’s slightly staggering to realise that Casualty has been running for thirty years (just exactly where have the last three decades gone?). It’s longevity is quite an achievement, as is the fact that it still pulls in a regular audience of around five million, but it’s fair to say that whilst it’s become a British television institution, the series has ended up as television wallpaper (myself, I bailed out as a regular viewer some twenty years ago).
This wasn’t always the case though – when it started in 1986, Casualty was a show that burned with crusading zeal. Jeremy Brock and Paul Unwin were inspired to create the series after they’d both been hospitalized. Brock and Unwin were dismayed with what they found – doctors and nurses crushed under an unforgiving system, battling too much bureaucracy and having to work miracles with too little money.
This came over clearly in their series pitch and helped to reinforce just how polarised the 1980’s were. For many people it was a simple choice, you were either for Margaret Thatcher and her policies or against. Casualty was firmly against and politics would feature heavily in the first few series, thanks in part to the young firebrand Charlie Fairhead (Derek Thompson).
Just as Casualty’s rough edges have been smoothed off over the years, so have Charlie’s (which makes revisiting the first series something of an eye-opener). Medical dramas had been a staple of television for decades (Emergency Ward 10, General Hospital, Angels) but the early Casualty episodes offered the audience a glimpse into a more visceral and politicised medical world.
This biting agenda couldn’t last and by the early 1990’s the show had already begun its transformation into a more conventional soap opera. A sign of how comfortable Casualty had become by the time it celebrated it’s tenth anniversary is demonstrated by comparing its mid 1990’s output against Cardiac Arrest (1994 – 1996). Written by Jed Mercurio, Cardiac Arrest is the blackest of black comedies – it has something of the feel of early Casualty, but Mercurio pushed further to create a nightmarish vision that uncomfortably might very well be true. Mercurio’s status as a former doctor suggests that he knew exactly where the bodies were buried.
This weekend’s thirtieth anniversary episode, Too Old for This Shift, had a stunning set-piece stunt although for impact it didn’t rival Boiling Point (original tx 27th February 1993). Maybe it was a different era, but when a gang of disaffected youths decided to firebomb the A&E department for no good reason it touched a nerve amongst sections of the viewing public (the debate seemed to resonate for a while).
It might not be the series it once was, but the fact it remains as one of the fixed points in an ever-changing television age is reason enough to celebrate. Happy Birthday Casualty.