Belfast Telegraph

Charlie Fairhead has been a stalwart of TV's Casualty for 30 years ... thank goodness he came back from the brink of death yet again

Northern Ireland writer Jan Carson, a huge fan of the hospital drama series since it began three decades ago, on how she wept when it looked like scriptwriters were about to kill off the show 's longest serving character, played by our own Derek Thompson

I was born in 1980 and like many Eighties kids, Saturday nights in our house followed a careful routine; Chinese takeaway, pyjamas in front of the fire and an episode of Casualty before bed. Familiarity breeds obsession, and over the last 29 years I have become something of a Casualty addict.

I've barely missed a show. When work took me to America for three years, my poor parents faithfully recorded dozens of Casualty episodes so I could binge upon my return, and I once successfully performed the Heimlich manoeuvre with no medical training - aside from Casualty.

At university, the first poster I pinned on my dorm room was a poster of Charge Nurse Charlie Fairhead, played by Belfast-born actor Derek Thompson. In fact, over the years, I've probably spent more time in his company than my own grandparents.

Charlie's face, perpetually bewildered and infinitely reassuring, has become a touchstone for me, an assurance that regardless of how chaotic life may seem order will reassert itself eventually, (usually within the span of a 50-minute episode). So, when the BBC began posting teaser clips which suggested Charlie might be on the way out, I began to steel myself for a sad summer. It's only a year since ITV killed off Poirot. I wasn't sure how I'd cope with another bereavement, albeit fictional.

I, like over four million of you, spent Saturday and Sunday evening glued to an action-packed double dose of Casualty. The BBC had thrown the entire season's special effects budget at four linked episodes. In the course of one evening Holby City ED was subjected to explosions, guns, returning heroes, (what a treat to see Duffy back on the wards after a lengthy hiatus), an evacuation and, of course the prerequisite woman giving birth in the midst of chaos.

More is always more when it comes to the first episode in a new series of Casualty. Over the years we've seen collapsing stadiums, helicopter crashes, bombs and every possible combination of the six-car pile-up.

It's difficult to believe that one, mid-sized British town could suffer so many horrific, and indeed varied, tragedies without folding beneath the weight of its own misfortune.

However, this weekend's episodes - if somewhat far-fetched - were nothing if not essential viewing.

While the usual madness played out in resus and cubicles, Charlie Fairhead, slipped down a side corridor unnoticed and suffered a massive heart attack. I shouted at the TV. I cried.

I may even have prayed a little and in the end it worked. Charlie came back from the brink of death for at least the fifth time in a Casualty career which has seen him shot, driven off a pier, run over by a stolen ambulance and twice previously stricken with stress-induced heart attacks.

Casualty is the world's longest running medical drama and Charlie the only original cast member left.

When the BBC's new flagship hospital drama aired in September 1986, it was Charlie in his signature yellow Beetle who opened the first episode, driving over the Clifton Suspension bridge on his way to another long shift at Holby City.

Local actor Derek was already well-established as a performer with multiple TV appearances and an early turn as a singer, duetting with his twin sister, Elaine around Northern Ireland's clubs and music venues. He had more hair back in 1986 and a very fashionable sheepskin jacket which featured in most early episodes.

Derek naively assumed that Casualty would keep him busy for three seasons at least. He couldn't have been more wrong.

Thirty series later, Derek Thompson is still the most-recognised face in the Casualty team. He has enjoyed the kind of career longevity usually reserved for Archer's cast members.

While many young actors such as Kate Winslet, Orlando Bloom and Helen Baxendale have used appearances in the show as stepping stones towards Hollywood fame, Thompson has established himself as the nation's best-loved nurse and, if Sunday's episode is anything to go by, he shows no sign of changing career any time soon.

Of course, much has changed for Charlie Fairhead during the course of his almost 30 years with the NHS.

Original Casualty characters such as Baz and the much-loved Megan, (played by Brenda Fricker), have left the show, the yellow Beetle has long since bit the dust, filming has moved from Bristol to Cardiff and in 1999, Holby itself expanded upwards to encompass the hospital's other wards with the creation of spin-off show, Holby City.

Times were tough for NHS workers back in the late Eigthies: bed shortages, long hours, pay cuts and the constant threat of strikes were all reflected in the early series of Casualty.

Series creators Paul Unwin and Jeremy Brock were intent upon developing a programme which both critiqued Thatcher-era austerity within the NHS and championed the doctors and nurses on the front line.

In a Saturday night line-up which featured feelgood shows like Noel's House Party and the Generation Game, Casualty was, at times, a somewhat gritty and unlikely fit. Occasionally it was forced to flirt with the dark side of the watershed or argue against the sceptics who seemed to think that the programme had outlived its time.

The BBC has never been able to bring itself to get rid of Casualty, though it has occasionally come close. There are many reasons why the nation loves this particular programme: great characters, predictable endings or perhaps, in this age of austerity, the opportunity for the viewer to watch someone else having a worse time than themselves for a change. However, at its best Casualty has also asked difficult questions about the NHS, about patient's rights and the working conditions of healthcare professionals.

While, at times it has tried to pander to the easy-watching world of competitive viewing figures, it is interesting and perhaps worrying to see the grim themes of the Eighties beginning to resurface in recent storylines. Bed shortages are back, alongside over-worked doctors and insufficient resources. Poverty is still the driving factor behind many of the patients presenting at the reception desk; while endless paperwork and bureaucracy is portrayed as a "great" new invention of the post-millennial healthcare system. The haircuts are better, but very little else has changed since Charlie Fairhead first stepped through those famous swing doors in 1986.

It's been a very big year for Charlie. He's fought gangsters in Romania and watched his son, Louis spiral into heroin addiction. He's lost his long-term sidekick Tess Bateman and barely survived a heart attack. It's hard to imagine how life could get much harder for Charlie.

By the end of Sunday evening's episode he looked like he was carrying the entire weight of the NHS on his own shoulders. His department was in pieces, his staff deflated. Yet, when he sat up in bed, and said, "Now lads, let's see what we can do with the rest of our lives, shall we?" it felt less like an admission of defeat and more like a call to arms. The NHS continues to function because of quietly, determined heroes like Charlie Fairhead. We can't afford to lose even one of them.

  • Jan Carson's novel, Malcolm Orange Disappears, Liberties Press, £11.99, is on sale now

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