Bye bye Holby City

An operating theatre. A doctor in blue scrubs with a face-mask on holds his hands to his face while a patient lies unconscious with a breathing tube in their mouth on a table in front of him.
Kian Madani in theatre, Holby City, 8th June 2021

Last week the BBC announced that the long-running hospital drama Holby City is going to be terminated next March. The reason given was that the BBC was looking to produce dramas that “better reflect, represent and serve all parts of the country”. Holby City is filmed at Elstree studios north of London, but Holby has traditionally been understood to be Bristol, although Casualty, ostensibly also set in the city (and not being axed), was moved to BBC Wales a few years ago and on-location scenes are shot in and around Cardiff. The explanation relates to the BBC’s commitment to moving jobs and predictions to areas outside London and to shoot 60% of its content outside London by 2028. Not everyone who heard the news was convinced; some suggested that a drama focussed on the NHS and its heroic staff was not in keeping with the government’s agenda.

I’m not all that convinced. Yes, Holby City depicts a fairly diverse staff in terms of ethnicity, gender and sexuality at every level of the hospital hierarchy but the way they are depicted is anything but heroic: the hospital has played host to one egomaniac and backstabber after another and we have seen them rise to consultant level and bully junior staff. I’ve often had the feeling that I would not like to be operated on by surgeons anything like those depicted as they bicker in theatre with a patient’s body open. In recent years, however, the drama has followed the path of the earlier Liverpool soap opera Brookside which, following a big ratings boost from a major domestic violence storyline, ran a series of bizarre storylines derived from recent news stories such as a deadly African virus (brought back from someone selling holiday homes in a part of Kenya exposed to the situation in Somalia) and a drug bust in Thailand. Early series were overseen by Mal Young, originally an extra in Brookside and later its producer who was blamed for the drift towards drama over reality.

Holby City’s variant on this theme has been a procession of doctors who have turned out to be psychopaths, among them a guy who was peddling a treatment for spinal-cord injuries which had in fact already killed patients, a fact he concealed and then killed two people to try to further conceal the fact before drowning himself in a lake when the deception was revealed. More recently, a rising junior doctor called Cameron Dunn not only abused female colleagues he started relationships with but also made serious errors, set colleagues up to take the blame and even murdered one of them. Ric Griffin, a long-standing consultant in the show, was also nearly murdered on the operating table by a fellow consultant. Another oddity of the show, even before the recent turn for the ridiculous, was that when junior doctors or nurses got cancer they tended to die (Tara Lo, Arthur Digby, Essie Harrison) but consultants usually survived (Nick Jordan, Ric Griffin).

So, whatever the BBC’s stated reasons, it could be that the soap has run its course and run out of story ideas and that the succession of bizarre and ridiculous plotlines, some of which could have been viable as dramas in their own right but were out of place in a drama about everyday life in an average NHS hospital, put a lot of people off and reduced viewing figures. Since the pandemic, the length of each episode has been reduced from an hour to 45 minutes and Casualty has also been reduced from 50 minutes each to 40. Perhaps during a pandemic, it has become more difficult to produce full-length episodes while maintaining social distancing, and nobody knows if this problem will still be around early next year. It’s a shame as I enjoy watching it and have done for a few years now (though, as with Casualty, not for its whole lifetime), it does beggar belief at times and maybe the team decided it was time to move on.

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