Happy Birthday Holby City


Holby City turns twenty years old today. I was eighteen when I tuned into the first episode. I watched it with the third year medical students who lived in my university halls of residence. It was useful having them around so they could clarify what certain procedures actually were. I do not consider it at all tragic that we often watched Holby with a stack of medical textbooks piled next to the TV. I am significantly older than eighteen now. I realised today that I have been watching Holby for most of my life. In fact, if you count up the hours I’ve spent watching the goings on on Darwin and Keller it comes to around 900 hours of viewing, which equates to almost a solid month and a half of observing medical procedures and clinical skills. By my calculations this is roughly equivalent to spending about a year and a half in medical school. I probably wouldn’t attempt open heart surgery yet, but I’d definitely have a stab, (no pun intended), at fitting a chest train or a tracheotomy tube. (Nb. I once successfully performed the Heimlich on a baby with skills gleaned entirely from Casualty/Holby City).

Over the years I’ve seen some fantastic Holby characters come and go: Nick Jordan, Anton Meyer, Faye, Raf, (who murdered Penny the paramedic in Casualty and three months later appeared upstairs as a hot shot surgeon. Surely, this must be the  casting department’s best ever continuity error), Michael Spence, Mo, Malick, (who’s arm came off), Joseph Byrne, (poshest doctor in the history of the world), Digby and Morven, Olly Valentine and Tara, quickly followed by Olly Valentine and Zosia, Mary-Claire and Harry, (who’s face came off), Chantelle and Elliott Hope and Elliott Hope’s dog, and my all time favourite Holby Character, Dr Alex, (who was also in Natalie Imbruglia’s video for Torn), and got in trouble for accidentally operating on somebody drunk after drinking cranberry juice spiked with vodka and not noticing, (hmmm). I’d also like to pay special tribute to the late great, sadly missed Penny Valentine who was a brilliant character for about two seasons and then was written off, unbelievably quickly, in the space of one show. (Passing orderly: “Have you seen Penny Valentine this afternoon?” Senior Consultant: “Oh, no, she just died.”)

I have learnt a lot about life from watching Holby City, for example, it is ok to bring your dog/parrot/goat into hospital with you so long as it is a particularly pathetic example of the breed in question, and you have nowhere else to leave it. As a patient in a hospital, facing an essential surgical procedure, you are expected to repeatedly resist this procedure and insist upon getting home as quickly as possibly only to collapse in the corridor/lift/car park. You are also expected to conceal key facts about your condition so they can be discovered later at a particularly fraught moment in surgery. It makes not one jot of difference if the consultant treating you tells you that your condition can be controlled without surgery, 35 to 40 minutes after your diagnosis, something inside you is going to rupture/shatter/collapse and you’ll end up in the operating theatre anyway. Every single senior consultant keeps a bottle of something strong and alcoholic in the top drawer of their office desk.

Despite the fact that Holby is one of the lynchpins of my adult life, I am often asked by friends, (even close friends), how it differs from Casualty. These people don’t seem to understand why, as a person who doesn’t own a TV and watches little else, (save the Morse franchise), I insist upon maintaining obsessive allegiance to two almost identical medical dramas. I consider these people to be quite ignorant, and reasonably poor friends. Approximately 40% of the conversational content which has come out of my mouth in the last two decades concerns either Holby or Casualty. If they’d actually listened to anything I’d said they’d know that Holby and Casualty are set in the same hospital: Casualty‘s the emergency department and Holby focuses on the wards upstairs. Ie they are two very different shows. However, seeing as it’s Holby‘s birthday and some of you might not be fans, (yet), here are ten easy ways (aside from asking yourself if it’s Saturday or Tuesday), to know you’re tuned into Holby and not Casualty.

  1. The basement features heavily – the basement is like the dark underbelly of Holby: it is where most Holby characters go to get killed. Various pets, homeless people and runaways have been hidden down there. Gaskill’s mad science lab was in the basement and Tara’s experiments into shrinking her own brain tumour. Petrenko goes down there to pummel a punch bag. If anyone’s going to be trapped somewhere with an unexploded bomb/dangerous contagion/unhinged gunman, you can bet it’ll be the basement they find themselves in.
  2. Everyone’s going to Albie’s – For years and years everyone in Holby has gone to Albie’s for drinks after works. Though the characters in Casualty work in the same hospital they only ever drink in The Hope and Anchor. Both drinking establishments appear to be situated in the car park of the hospital. This has never struck me as the best location for a pub.
  3. Nobody ever goes outside – Once in a blue moon a Holby character will leave the wards and venture to a medical conference. Otherwise their world consists of the interior landscapes of the hospital, Albie’s, the memorial garden, (which signifies a contemplative moment), or the car park, (which usually means a patient’s about to collapse while leaving or be pitched out of a speeding car to land, bleeding profusely, on the hospital steps). Casualty characters get to roam wildly round the fictional landscape of Holby the city, which includes a beach, a river, a mountain range, a mid-sized airport, a football stadium, several ropey looking shopping centres, a high security prison and a housing estate, which may or may not have been lifted from the set of Shameless.
  4. Someone’s always trying to convince Jac Naylor to let them transfer to Darwin: These conversations usually go as follows. Incompetent Young F1: “I’d like to do my next rotation on Darwin because I am passionate about a career in Cardiothoracics.” Jac Naylor: “No! Go away. I am very angry with you.” IYF1: “Why can’t I move to Darwin?” JN: “Because I don’t like you and you are also incompetent.” IYF1: “Ok, I guess I’ll just stay on Keller.” Approximately 40 minutes later. JN: “You have proven yourself capable of a cardiothoracics rotation by sewing up a heart  using only your teeth/operating in pitch black after the generators failed/talking the elderly anaethetist down when he had an anxiety attack in the middle of surgery. You can start on Darwin, immediately.”
  5. Fletch’s children have rocked up unannounced: Nurse Fletcher is a single dad to approximately 47 children. The all look like urchin-esque extras from Oliver Twist and spend more time on the wards of Holby than they do in school. When he worked in the Casualty department they never appeared, but now, since transferring upstairs, they are pretty much ever-present. They are probably drawn to the vending machine in the corridor which dispenses generic chocolate bars with names like Chocco and Caramel Delight.
  6. Someone is making a passing reference to a past character: Eg. “Here’s a postcard from Zosia, she’s having a great old time, not being mad in the States.” “I just heard from Malick. He is getting married, but he still only has one arm.” “It is sad that Digby’s still dead.”
  7. People are carrying takeaway coffee cups around in a very unconvincing manner: For some reason people in Casualty use full coffee cups as props, while Holby characters sip from coffee cups which are clearly only filled with air.
  8. Henrik Hansen is ever present: Despite being in charge of the entire hospital, everyone’s favourite lanky Swede seems somewhat disinterested in his A&E department and only visits Casualty once or twice a year, while he’s pretty much omnipresent, loitering around the corridors of the upstairs wards.
  9. Lexy the Vicar is sick again: Lexy is the chaplain of Holby City. She is lovely but she is not a very good chaplain, in that she mostly talks about how much she is doubting her calling and gets sick, (heart attacks, cancer, becoming impaled on a large stained glass depiction of Jesus). However, it is also good when Lexy appears in Holby as it usually means someone is going to get married by the end of the episode and require an emergency vicar with doubts and a gaping chest wound to do the honours. Lexy does not seem to care about the spiritual well-being of the patients or staff in Casualty.
  10. Groundbreakingly innovative new medical techniques: Not content to function like a regular NHS hospital the staff at Holby City are always pushing the boundaries of research. They make mechanical hearts out of what look to be bits of insulating pipe. They try to make people with spinal injuries walk again by doing something fiddly and never quite defined with stem cells and ankle muscles. They conduct rudimentary versions of face transplants. Unsurprisingly enough these research projects never fully succeed, but the consultants involved always seem able to pull off another half-assed attempt at a powerpoint presentation for the funders and, in doing so, secure a million or two for their next crazy scheme.

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