Today, folks, we’re talking about bad TV. Or bad TV that isn’t.
You’ll read a dozen BuzzFeed lists about Guilty Pleasures, but if we’re talking about entertainment, I’ve come to the conclusion that there’s no such thing. There is simply good TV and bad TV, and good music and bad music, and good films and bad films. There seems to be some confusion as to which is which, so to clarify: a supposedly bad film that entertains you is not a bad film; it is a good film. Agadoo is the subject of collective scorn amongst the establishment, but the second the DJ spins it at the office Christmas party, you’ll be down on the dance floor with the accounts team – how can that be a bad thing? There is a reckless snobbery to the idea that certain shows and songs are beneath us simply by virtue of not holding the same artistic ‘worthiness’ as something by Lars von Trier (I’m not giving you a hard time, Lars: Melancholia is a work of genius). It may be time we abandoned the concept of guilty pleasures entirely, at least in media circles, and just accepted that an enjoyable piece of work is not a bad piece of work simply because it doesn’t have subtitles. As a disclaimer, I think I pinched this idea from Stuart Maconie. Credit where credit’s due.
Still. If we must go down that road, and if there was one guilty pleasure in our house, then Holby City would probably be it. Because Holby City is the one soap I allow myself to watch, given that an hour a week is a reasonable time investment (to contrast, Coronation Street has recently gone to six episodes a week; with production schedules this punishing, it’s a wonder the cast don’t all have heart attacks and end up at… well, at Holby). Sitting pretty at 19 years old, or thereabouts, the Casualty spin-off charts the daily lives of surgeons, nurses and administrators at the fictional Bristolian hospital, their ups and downs and personal lives all meshed seamlessly with car crash victims, workaholic cardiac patients, and wayward teens with secret addictions.
It is, in many ways, quietly awful. I have no idea whether it’s in any way accurate – my friends in the health sector assure me it isn’t, despite the BBC’s use of designated medical consultants – but it’s overwrought, overacted, and as predictable as an England penalties defeat. Plotlines are always resolved with formulaic military precision before the final credits roll: mysterious ailments are diagnosed faster than you can say ‘Quincy’; operations always happen the same day, however crammed the theatre schedule; awkward patients who’ve withdrawn their consent find the decision made for them with astonishing convenience after a sudden seizure. Most irritating of all, staff decide to leave and then leave immediately, without so much as a sniff of a contractual notice period. Weddings are a disaster – we counted six over the last three years, and they all ended in death or separation, where they happened at all.
I debated including a rough episode structure, so you know approximately how it works, but decided it would be more fun to construct the Holby City Drinking Game:
- “FBCs, LFTs, Us and Es, and a head CT scan.”
- Jac Naylor provides acidic metaphorical castration
- “I think you should go home.”
- Hanssen is seen in ridiculous outfit or other humiliating setup
- “Are you absolutely sure there isn’t something else you need to tell us?”
- Jason doing embarrassing autism cliches
- “Um… where’s Mr Jarvis?”
- Oliver Valentine is a bundle of neuroses
- “He’s tachyocardic!”
- You have a lesson to learn, doctor, and you will learn it from this patient whose emotional issues mysteriously mirror your own
- “We’ve got a bleed. Suction!”
- Hanssen provides unexpected emotional support
- “CRASH TEAM!”
- AWOL character is located on rooftop/ bench/ peace garden patio, seventeen minutes from the end of the episode
- “My office. Now”
- Camera pans up through skyline
As anyone who actually watches this will tell you, spotting the tropes is all part of the fun. And as a consequence, Holby City is not a guilty pleasure, a badly-written serial drama that you watch because it’s kind of enjoyable in places, but rather a show that thrives precisely because of its formalism – and the cast, who it must be said acquit themselves well. Guy Henry (also seen in Rogue One, hiding behind the CG) is the best thing in the show bar none, excelling as socially awkward but unexpectedly compassionate CEO Henrik Hanssen. Rosie Marcel (cardio specialist Jac Naylor) is a constant joy to watch – icy, shrewd and brilliant. And Raf di Lucca – played with boyish enthusiasm by Strictly winner, Joe McFadden – has come full circle from flashy know-it-all to dedicated philanthropist and surrogate uncle, a journey that concluded with his tragic death just a few weeks ago. Holby’s not the best run hospital in the world, but the people are nice. Well, most of them. Oliver Valentine’s a dick.
Then there’s Paul McGann. Making his debut earlier this month, striding into Holby with a lorry full of research equipment and swiftly taking the bull by the horns on one of the hospital’s darkest days, Professor John Gaskell is a man to watch, and indeed it’s difficult to take your eyes off him even when he’s simply glancing into a test tube. McGann’s quite the casting coup – there’s something awfully familiar about his performance (more on that in a bit) but at least it’s a fresh face amidst all the returnees. We have a recurring joke in the Doctor Who forums that Britain only has half a dozen actors, endlessly recycled. “It’s not like it is in America,” says the New York hipster or the Cincinnati graphic designer, “where there are thousands of young hopefuls chomping at the bit to get into Hollywood”.
“What do you expect?” is my standard reply. “Our country is tiny. We have history. You’ve got the space. It’s a trade-off. You think a hundred years is a long time, and we think a hundred miles is a long way. Besides, most British people are too ugly to ever actually make it in show-business.”
“That’s not very nice.”
“It’s true though. I ought to know; I live here.”
I wanted to call this article ‘Holby seeing you in all the old familiar places’, but that’s probably a pun too far. But it’s something you notice when you watch: the recurring appearances from people you know. Strewth, you even have actors popping up multiple times playing different characters – and unlike Doctor Who (at least in its contemporary incarnation) there is no need for a tedious in-universe explanation as to how two completely unrelated people could look vaguely alike. “Mr Tavistock? Didn’t we see you a couple of years ago for a heart murmur? Only you had a beard and spoke with a Yorkshire accent?” said no Holby nurse, ever.
It’s weird that Doctor Who has to do it now, really – a strange, almost patronising approach to a contemporary audience that decries its ability to actually accept the same actors playing different parts, the way that, say, Justin Fletcher plays every character in Gigglebiz without your average three-year-old batting an eyelid. We were talking about recycled performers, and serial casting was a big thing back in the ’70s – to the extent that I once produced a lengthy examination of every Classic Who actor who also appeared in Michael Crawford’s hapless slapstick vehicle, Some Mothers Do ‘Ave ‘Em. There are quite a lot of those; it’s like watching one of the Perry/ Croft sitcoms, which relied on serial casting to the extent that Su Pollard was basically on our screens for about 20 years straight. I will leave it to you as to whether or not that’s a good thing.
Holby isn’t quite like that. But there are ‘Aha!’ moments when Doctor Who actors turn up, either in hospital gowns or surgical masks. There is no other reason to actually compile these people in a list other than to celebrate the arrival of McGann, but John Gaskell really is incredibly like the Eighth Doctor – a charismatic, natural leader with unorthodox solutions to difficult problems, both personable and infuriating, but usually kind, and usually the smartest person in the room. He even starts waffling about regeneration, for goodness’ sake. So we’re running with that and we’ll see where else we end up. This isn’t an exhaustive list, more a consolidated highlight reel (to be specific, the ones that had videos) – and if I’ve missed your favourite, that’s what the comments section is for.
In Holby City: Consultant General Surgeon/ Trauma Surgeon Bernie Wolfe
In Doctor Who: UNIT’s Chief Scientific Officer, Kate Lethbridge-Stewart
The Redgraves are legends of stage and screen and it was inevitable that one of them was going to show up here sooner or later, but Jemma’s turn as a former army surgeon who leads (and then loses) Holby’s trauma unit is not a million miles away from the character arc they designed for Kate Lethbridge-Stewart. Just as the Brigadier’s daughter became increasingly militant with every subsequent appearance, Bernie was forced to choose between hospital protocol and the army methodology she could never quite abandon.
She’s supposedly returning to Holby in 2018, and it is hoped that she’ll get at least one scene with McGann, if only because the caption possibilities are endless. Eventually outed as a lesbian, in a move that vindicates the plethora of Rule 37 Kate / Osgood fan-fiction that exists on the internet, according to a friend of mine.
In Holby City: Consultant General Surgeon Jesse Law
In Doctor Who: Lance Bennett (The Runaway Bride)
He’s apparently famous for Eastenders – but Doctor Who aficionados will remember Don as the treacherous Lance, who romanced Donna Noble despite being secretly in league with the Empress of the Racnoss. He’s a one-story character with very little perceived depth, although he also plays a pivotal role in fleshing out Donna’s character (and that line about Pringles is still funny).
Still, he also turned up in Holby playing Jesse Law, anaesthetist par excellence and old friend of Guy Self, which led to some tension when he then slept with Guy’s daughter, before unceremoniously dumping her. Jesse then dallied with trainee nurse Adele, only to have her call off the wedding minutes before the ceremony, while the guests were still assembling in the hospital chapel: this is probably not a bad thing as in all likelihood she’d simply have dematerialised halfway up the aisle. Would also appear in weirdly nostalgic CBeebies show Old Jack’s Boat, alongside Wilfred Mott, and playing (oddly enough) Martha Jones’ father.
In Holby City: Consultant Cardiothoracic Surgeon Lord Charles Byrne
In Doctor Who: Physician/ The Old One/ etc.
A brief appearance in The Reign of Terror aside, veteran actor Ronald Pickup is perhaps more famous for his voice work than anything else in the Whoniverse, having voiced head honcho Kestorian in Big Finish’s Time Works, as well as a memorable turn in Jago & Lightfoot. But his role in Holby raised a few eyebrows: Ronald played Lord Charles Byrne, a cardiothoracic consultant of the old school, shrewd and manipulative to a fault. His story ended in tragedy when he slept with the equally Machiavellian Jac Naylor, who was dating his son at the time. He will, at least to my generation, always be the definitive voice of Aslan the Lion.
In Holby City: Medical Director Nina Karnik
In Doctor Who: Solana Mercurio (Planet of the Ood)
Ayesha’s appearance in Doctor Who is brief but telling, and served with a hefty side of dramatic irony: she is given the opportunity to help the Doctor, refuses, and is dead within minutes. During her time at Holby, she presided over administration as Nina Karnik, a polite authoritarian with an irritating dose of self-righteousness and a SECRET PAST THAT COMES BACK TO HAUNT HER. Her on again/ off again romance with erstwhile estranged husband Matteo was her chief storyline; sadly it really wasn’t very interesting.
In Holby City: Director of Surgical Innovations John Gaskell
In Doctor Who: The Eighth Doctor
The reason we’re here. There’s not an awful lot we could write about the Eighth Doctor that hasn’t been written here already, but certainly his turn in Holby has attracted a fair amount of press interest. Thus far Professor Gaskell hasn’t had a great deal to do other than swagger about, acting as if he owns the place, being both brilliant and irritating – but when he does it so well, who are we to complain?
In Holby City: Clinical Lead Ric Griffin
In Doctor Who: Solomon (Daleks Take Manhattan / Evolution of the Daleks)
Oh, America. Pity us. You had Dick Van Dyke. We had Hugh. The chap’s got screen presence but his American accent in those Dalek stories was atrocious. Everyone has their favourite ‘EXTERMINATE’; this one was mine, if only because Quarshie was playing an unenlightened idiot who thought he could reason with the Daleks, and did so with some of the worst writing the show had offered up since Time and the Rani. It’s not that I dislike Solomon; it’s just that I thought we left this sort of idiocy behind in 1963. It’s a shame, because Quarshie is a talented actor, as his lengthy stint on Holby proves in abundance: Ric Griffin is a complicated character, multi-layered and carrying more secrets than Laura Palmer. He’s also devoted, competent, and unquestionably loyal. Just don’t ask him for marriage advice.
Sharon D. Clarke
In Holby City: Post-operative Care Consultant Lola Griffin
In Doctor Who: To Be Confirmed
I’m getting ahead of myself with this one. There’s nothing we can see about Sharon’s role in Doctor Who because, as we go to press, most of us don’t know anything about it – we don’t even know her name, just that it’s a recurring role and that she’ll most likely be playing somebody’s mum. But she spent a number of years at Holby as cardiothoracic registrar (and later head of AAU) Lola Griffin: domineering, omnipresent and… well, feisty, for want of a cliche that is less frequently mined. Lola dug her own hole by marrying Ric Griffin not once but twice, but eventually swanned off into the sunset with Adrian Edmondson. Decent singing voice to boot.
In Holby City: Consultant Radiologist Rhys Hopkins
In Doctor Who: Ianto Jones
It’s Ianto Jones! It’s Ianto Jones playing a consultant radiologist! It’s Ianto Jones playing a consultant radiologist in a shirt he nicked from Tom Selleck! It’s Ianto Jones playing a consultant radiologist in a shirt he nicked from Tom Selleck getting a drink spilled over him because he’s a love rat! Where are the 456 when you need them?
In Holby City: Phil Hargreaves/ Ray Daniels/ Noel Scanlon/ Ted Percival
In Doctor Who: Coal Hill headmaster Frank Armitage (mayherestinpeace)
He may have wound on on the wrong end of a dragon’s claw in the second episode of Class, but Mr Armitage isn’t going to let a simple thing like death put a stop to his acting career. The recently deceased headmaster of Coal Hill School (the only educational institution with a worse OFSTED than Grange Hill and a higher body count than Sunnydale) has appeared in Holby on no less than four occasions, playing an assortment of characters, most of whom have some sort of wisdom to impart to that week’s regular-in-crisis. There are, alas, no videos of his hospital appearances on YouTube – and not an awful lot from Doctor Who either (although if you do want to see him in action, I advise putting on The Caretaker and going by the mantra, “It’s okay; Danny Pink dies at the end of the season anyway”). But here’s a little something from The Catherine Tate Show. You’d forgotten he was in that, hadn’t you?
That’s all for now, folks. I’m officially Holbied out. I trust you have enjoyed our little whistlestop tour through soapland, whether you’re a fan of the show or not. And at least one of you is going to ask, and the answer is yes – there’s probably scope for a Casualty version. Maybe in the new year…