Casualty legend Charlie Fairhead still stealing show 30 years on
Belfast-born actor in brilliant form as he takes centre stage in special anniversary episode
Casualty's 30-year anniversary feature length episode on Saturday night was spectacular - and our own Derek Thompson, aka Charlie Fairhead, who turned in a fine performance, deserves considerable credit for its success. The show's 1,005th episode, entitled "Too old for this shift", had been trailed as one that would make viewers both laugh and cry, and it was a brave and shocking instalment.
Centred around Charlie, played by Belfast-born Thompson, and plans for a surprise party to mark his three decades as a nurse, the episode married all levels of drama with intrigue, leaving viewers both traumatised and nostalgic as they journeyed through literal snapshots of old characters, and an occasional line about how nursing has evolved over the years.
The show, like nursing, certainly has lasted the course from when it first aired in September 1986, holding the distinction of the longest-running emergency medical drama TV series in the world.
This was not an episode for the squeamish. The click as consultant Connie Beauchamp puts her shoulder back into place is more gruesome than the gore. Viewers were kept on the edge of their seats, first believing that her daughter Grace had perished when their car bursts into flames, then again as she is discovered some distance away, and requires an airlift to the hospital.
It's not every day a helicopter is hit by a drone, crashing into an emergency department, less so when it is carrying a patient who has already survived a car plummeting down a ravine.
The scenes were executed beautifully, shocking viewers to the core - and it was entirely believable. Shards of flying glass and metal knocked people off their feet, fatally injuring some, while horribly incapacitating others. Sparks flew in the emergency department as lights came down, but so too among the staff, as Jacob briefly lost it and was calmed by Charlie reminding him of the sterling work NHS staff do (largely unnoticed) every day: "This place is going downhill fast, nobody knows that better than me, but somehow it manages to cling on, because all of these people, each and every one of them, performs together as a unit."
There were other references throughout the programme to "mucking in", and even the new agency staff nurse Amira found the Florence Nightingale within her to go from lazy mode to part of the team by the end of the episode. There was a beautiful and poignant shot of Charlie as he looked around the ward at a nurse blowing up rubber gloves to put a sick child at ease, to staff working, a patient being wheeled in, and smiling to himself as he calmly takes in the chaos around him. That's his allure as a character - we all need a Charlie when we are at the hospital - and he belies the archetypal female angel nurse that we are so used to seeing portrayed when we think of nursing. The shots of Charlie being Charlie worked so much better than the party and the interspersing tribute videos to him - even if they did contain faces that we haven't seen on our screens in a while.
Loyal Casualty fans will have been delighted to see the return of paramedic Josh, nurse Duffy, and others, and for a moment, despite Connie and Grace's lives hanging in the balance, the reappearance of the old-hands projected a calmer, safer environment. The show manages to portray this, but in a subconscious manner, where the human stories of the afflicted take over to remind us of the humanity of those caring for them.
EastEnders stalwart Pam St Clement even made a cameo as patient Sally, though her Irish accent was off-putting, and her character's backstory seemed thrown in and detracted from an excellently written script.
Casualty managed to pull off a film-standard episode on a television budget - no mean feat in an era of cutbacks.
And, while it helped give Charlie's 30th anniversary a special feel, it was the man himself who made the episode, a constant presence, even offering cake around in the final scenes, as the sun sets over the disaster zone of an emergency department around them.