22 May, 2007

Why Casualty deserved its Bafta

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Why Casualty deserved its Bafta
John Yorke

When Casualty picked up the Bafta for Continuing Drama this week, there were a few raised highbrows. But, as John Yorke argues, it was just reward for a drama that has re-connected with its DNA.

"Soap bosses were feeling sick last night after EastEnders, Corrie and Emmerdale got beaten at the Baftas- by Casualty", thundered The Sun, yesterday.

This was news to me as a "soap boss". Although EastEnders does fall under my jurisdiction (as does The Street and Life On Mars), so does Casualty - and I have to say, with all due respect to the other three shows, I was overjoyed.

Casualty is one of those shows that journalists tend to take for granted. For 21 years it has been toiling away on a Saturday night as the bedrock of the BBC1 schedule. Often perceived as less glamorous - or as not sensational - as the soaps, but still profoundly successful, it is largely ignored by critics but loved by its legions of fans.

Complete makeover

Over the past two years the show has had a complete makeover, a process that began when we asked Barbara Machin, the creator of Waking The Dead and one of the original writers on the show, whether she'd be interested in 'coming home'.

To our astonishment she said "yes" and took as her brief the ambition to return it to its halcyon days, the days when Casualty was referred to as "Britain's Hill Street Blues" and was written by many future stars of British TV Drama; Peter Bowker, Brian Elsley and Bill Gallagher to name but a few.

Barbara and her team believed in one simple maxim: "make the good popular and the popular good". In other words they believed that you can still be intelligent on prime time Saturday night TV. They began to rebuild the team, to re-invest in plot and character, to scale back the soap and sensation and treat the audience with the respect it deserves.

Watching the episode

After the BAFTA's I spoke to a number of journalists who seemed shocked that Casualty had an award. But when I asked them if they'd seen the episode concerned (the awards are based on single episode submissions) they sheepishly admitted they hadn't.

What they missed was a brilliant piece of popular telly at its best. It was shot entirely on Steadicam, employing an extremely complex narrative style (the same story told from four different points of view). It had a director (Diarmuid Lawrence) and actress (Holly Aird) who were brave enough to come back and work on a show that neither of them needed to do. Plus it had the regular Casualty team raising their game to heights they hadn't touched in years.

No more killer viruses

Barbara's episodes were just the beginning of a much wider renaissance both on Casualty and - I hope - across popular telly; a realisation that if you endlessly explode things or unleash mystery killer viruses, your audience drifts away through lack of plausible belief.

Twenty-one years ago Casualty established its reputation by being brave, radical, hard hitting and true to its subject matter; all these years later it has found a way to re-connect with its DNA - and it was brilliant for BAFTA to recognise that achievement.

John Yorke is the BBC's controller of continuing drama series and head of independent drama.

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