Holby City 1999. I had been asked by Mal Young (Head of Series drama at BBC1) to produce the second series of this critically acclaimed medical drama. The first series had not been the ratings success the BBC were looking for to cement it’s place in the prime time on channel 1. That’s not to say it was floundering, no siree, this fledgling (as it was then) series was regularly attracting 6 million to the telly box on a weekly basis but the Beeb wanted to build on this potential. So I had to do something about it.
Mal was instrumental in shaping my approach to the scripting and storylining side of the process and I was glad to learn at his side as it were, because coming from Brookside, as he had, there was nothing much he didn’t know about series drama and about long running story telling.
So I thank him here, for what he taught me, and now, 13 years later, I still use the basic facts I learnt then about making great, popular television drama series.
Holby City had already proved itself in terms of it’s healthy, strong, returnable premise or as it’s known in telly circles, the Precinct. This clearly was a great backdrop to the sort of stories we wanted to tell, given that the sister show Casualty, was doing (and still does) great storylines and delivering repeatedly solid ratings.
Holby had to be the same, but different. A conundrum definitely, but not an insurmountable problem.
Series 1,thanks to Tony McHale and his collaboration with Mal Young, had made sure this new kid on the medical block was up to the task, but I had to make sure I didn’t do the unthinkable, which was fixing something that wasn’t broken in the first place.
So, the precinct was in place. We also have a solid core of characters to which we return on a weekly basis to pick up their particular on-going storyline in conjunction with the story of the week, which is brought in (often at speed) through those increasingly familiar double doors.
But I needed, (with the help of my talented script editors and team of writers that I had managed to create in record time), to come up with storylines and characters that not only fitted the established formula, but ones that gave a fresh approach to the new series aswell.
I also had another problem. Quite a big one. This series, the BBC had ordered 16 x 60 mins. Series 1 of Holby had been 9 x 50 mins so I had a lot more drama to create and for 10 minutes longer per episode. 10 minutes. It’s a life time on screen.
And there are two major elements of each episode we had to keep in control of as the series progressed. 1/ The on-going series element 2/ The story of the week.
Taking the series element first, here are the 3 main questions I constantly asked myself, my script editors and writers as we began the process of creating story for this unwieldly drama beast.
1/ Is the storyline Dramatic?
2/ Is it engaging?
3/ Does it allow for character growth and development?
The storylines that did not deliver all three and did not immediately strike as ‘having legs’ or to put it another way, to be able to go further than one or two episodes, was rejected at the Story Conference.
Character was a major factor in determining whether the story made the cut or not. Holby City 2 had great characters, my favourite being the arrogant Surgical Consultant Anton Meyer (created by Tony McHale) and played by George Irving. Then there was Michael French as Registrar Nick Jordan and Lisa Faulkner as senior house officer Victoria Merrick. Angela Griffin as Jasmine Hopkins and Nicola Stephenson as nurse Julie Fitzjohn. The girls in particular presented a raft of great storyline possibilities and even though Michael French rather infamously left the series half way through, we felt he was a great character and delivered some lovely emotionally real scenes. Michael came back to Holby but a little later on. Perhaps it was something I said, but I know that it probably wasn’t. (!)
The story of the week was where we made the most difference to the series format.
This time, what concerned me more when coming up with story of the week ideas, was what not to do. We mustn’t therefore:
1/ Repeat the same operation in the hope it was dramatic (like too many prosthetic heart ops).
2/ Chose a storyline too reliant on medical voracity to make it dramatic (too much ‘medi-speak’ in the dialogue that only managed to ostrocise, not include the audience. Also a storyline would be rejected if we had to bend too many medical rules to fit the story we wanted to tell).
3/ Exclude the series storyline and create a story ‘bubble’ that had no connection with the rest of the hospital.
Finally, after much walking around the carpark at Threshold House (I used to smoke in those days!) I hit on what we should do in order to guarantee a different take, but still deliver a solid story of the week.
I told the writers they were in fact writing a single piece of drama. They had to fill 60 mins of television with a truely resonant, layered, emotionally engaging story. I suggested they look to favourite films. Look to fairytales. Look to folklore. Look to popular music and the stories told in songs. We, the Holby City team, I said, would wrap the series element around the central A story that they, the writers, created.
Their choice of story had to resonate with a least one member of the regular nursing or surgical staff, and it must also bring out elements of the characters involved that we hadn’t seen before.
I also said that the medical side of the storyline, had to be maliable enough to create a relevant, human storyline and not be reliant on merely the condition to create drama.
Maybe this doesn’t sound so revolutionary now. But then, Producers were pretty much fixated on creating storylines that presented the opportunity to blow something up, or rattle a few cages by featuring a risque kiss, or making the storyline Issue, rather than Emotionally, based.
And so Holby City Series 2 featured stories about isolation and fear of the unknown via the interaction of an Aspergers boy and Nick Jordan as he proposes to leave his beloved hospital. ‘Faith’ was written by the late Al Hunter Ashton and delivered a whopping 9.8 million rating. We did a Holby City take on the story of the Nativity ‘Tidings of Comfort and Joy’ by Tony McHale which easily brought home 9.64 million.
It wasn’t the fact that we chose to do a story about Cystic Fibrosis that was important. We chose it because the need to find a blood match in either parent so they could donate a part of their lung to their dying child, ultimately revealed the mother’s infidelity.
The medical story of the week had to have resonance with the fraility of us, as people, as flawed human beings.
If the job is too create popular (and by that I mean audiences in their millions, regularly watching the show; making an ‘appointment to view’ it, then the following elements must be there in it’s makeup.
1/ Relevant to a wide audience base. (the ‘what would I do in that instance?’ factor)
2/ Engaging on an emotional and or an entertainment basis.
3/ Contain enough jeopardy to engage initially. (not necessary edge of the seat tension, but ‘what’s going to happen next?’ factor has to be there)
There was quite a lot of negative press at the time regarding the forumlaic quality of the show, but there was also a ton of great responses to our intensely researched, emotionally engaging, relevant and above all dramatic storylines which explored the human condition at it’s most vulnerable.
I am a fan of structure. I am a fan of pattern. I am a fan of commerically viable, dramatically engaging storylines. I am not a fan of something formulaic without a soul, but I am most defintely 100% behind a formula that works, time and time again. Year on year. Series after series.
Holby City series 15 is currently airing. Holby City series 2 was a wet baby compared with the lively young adult it now is, and although some changes have had to happen to it’s forumla, the overall shape and tone of the episodes remains the same.
Back in 1999 we were creating a blue print that is still used today. Love it or hate it, formula has won out.