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Casualty series one
cast: Bernard Gallagher, Derek Thompson, Brenda Fricker, Cathy Shipton, and Julia Watson

creators: Jeremy Brock and Paul Unwin

731 minutes (12) 2006
2Entertain DVD Regions 2 + 4 retail

RATING: 8/10
reviewed by Gary Couzens
By 1986, the BBC had a hole in its Saturday night schedule. The long-running cop drama Juliet Bravo had come to an end. Casualty was devised by young writers Jeremy Brock and Paul Unwin as a replacement and so, on 6 September 1986, Gas, their opening episode, was shown on BBC1. Set against the background of the nightshift in the Accident & Emergency Department of Holby City Hospital (Bristol in all but name), Casualty was from the outset part hospital drama (with a regular supply of accidents and emergencies) and part soap. At times over the 20 years to date that the series has run, one or other of these elements has predominated: you'd have a series of 'guess the accident' episodes, or you'd spend much time with the personal and romantic entanglements of the staff.

But what ruffled feathers early on was a strong dose of politics. The Conservative government of the day did not care for this vision of the NHS as an overstretched, underfunded resource staffed by flawed characters. The show was held up as an example of the BBC's political bias (though to be fair it wasn't entirely one-sided - Charlie's socialist principles, for example are often shown to be naïve), and it was questionable whether a second series would have been commissioned. The characters were certainly flawed: Consultant Ewart Plimmer's (Bernard Gallagher) dedication to his job has wrecked his marriage. Charge Nurse Charlie Fairhead (Derek Thompson) and Senior House Officer Barbara 'Baz' Samuels (Julia Watson) are having an affair. Staff Nurse Clive King (George Harris) has a drink problem. Some of this is certainly unsubtle - King's alcoholism could have been better conveyed without showing him with a hip flask and five o'clock shadow - others less so. Take paramedics Sandra Mute (Lisa Bowerman) and Andrew Ponting (Robert Pugh). They don't appear in every episode, and in some where they do it's brief, but a strong bond between them is very well established before it is revealed, late on, that they too are having an affair - and he's married. In addition to this, Nurse Megan Roach (Brenda Fricker) becomes a patient for a hysterectomy after a cancer diagnosis and Staff Nurse Lisa Duffin (known as 'Duffy') is raped. The night shift is threatened with closure. However, this early on the series didn't resort to the overused device of killing characters off. (They waited until series two for that.) But what comes across particularly well is the sense that this is one big team - or family if you like, with Megan and Ewart as surrogate parents. Even a character like Kuba the Polish porter (Christopher Rozycki), mainly there for comic relief and seeming a caricature at first, becomes a rounded character.

Most of the cast were unknowns at the time. Belfast-born Derek Thompson had, up to now, tended to be typecast as IRA men in films like The Long Good Friday. He's the only original character still in the series (although Duffy and Baz have left and returned more than once each). Casualty was always an ensemble piece, though earlier on there was a sense that Charlie was the closest thing to a central character. That's become less so in recent years, and Charlie has appeared less frequently, but he and Thompson are so much at the centre of the series that it's hard to imagine it without him. The inspiration for the character was a real-life nurse, Peter Salt, who can be glimpsed in the opening credits and who still serves as a medical advisor to the show. Amongst the guest cast, Alfred Molina appears as a sleazy journalist and three episodes are the early work of future feature-film director Antonia Bird.

In these days of almost all-year runs, it's a surprise to realise that this first series had all of 15 episodes. These are: Gas, Hide And Seek, Night Runners, Jump Start, Blood Brothers, High Noon, Professionals, Crazies, Moonlight Becomes You..., Teeny Poppers, Drunk, Quiet, No Future, Survival, and Closure. Teeny Poppers has been edited by some five minutes to remove a subplot of a man who dresses as Spider-Man, which could not be cleared for this release. (The episode can be seen uncut on UK Drama.) There may also be some edits for music rights issues.

As well as the youthfulness of the cast, this first series of Casualty may give anyone used to the glossier production values of nowadays something of a shock. The series was always recorded on video, but didn't have a permanent set until series two, so shared a studio with Top Of The Pops. As you might expect for 1980s' television, the DVD is in 4:3 with a Dolby digital 2.0 mono soundtrack. The extras comprise commentaries by Jeremy Brock and Paul Unwin on episode one, and by Derek Thompson and Peter Salt on episodes 11 and 15.

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