DARK ANGLES, GOOD ANGELS
IT is not often that a TV show catches this old watcher off guard, but the first episode of the new season of Kings Cross ER: St Vincent’s Hospital did, and emphatically. I’ve always been fascinated by surgeons and TV shows about them: the theatricality of the operating theatre as highly trained medicos in white gowns fight for life makes for big-time drama and irresistible viewing. Doctors and nurses hustle rattling trolleys from ambulances into hospital corridors and then into operating theatres. They even carry seriously ill people into vacant corners of the emergency department to save them, as happens in tonight’s first episode. And does the blood flow freely.
Sydney’s St Vincent’s ER is administered by Professor Gordian Fulde, the longest serving emergency director in Australia. And as he says at the start of this new season, shot against the streets of the Cross, his precinct is really a giant entertainment hub, ‘‘ the centre of the city’s naughty place’’.
Fulde is, as they say in TV, ‘‘ great talent’’, loquacious with an arresting turn of phrase and a slightly battered face straight out of a pulp crime novel. There is something of the adrenalin junkie about him, an insouciance under extreme pressure. He needs it too. ‘‘ No hospital in the world has the case mix that St Vincent’s has,’’ he says. ‘‘ In one bed you might have somebody who has very dirty feet because he has an alcohol problem; in the next someone with more wealth than you or I could dream of.’’
Eyeworks Australia and co-produced and written by Claire Haywood, this series offers medical adventures not for the squeamish and captures the Cross in all its brassy, alluring and violent picturesqueness. St Vincent’s is situated at the centre of a fate-haunted universe illuminated at night by neon. The lascivious painter Donald Friend was attracted to the Cross in the 1940s, looking for its ‘‘ genuine Berlin air, where everybody is wicked’’. And despite expensive renovations that have transformed parts of the district into stylish apartments, not much has changed. Areas of the precinct remain scruffy and risque, sucking suburban Sydney dry of the young and not-so-young, the single and not-so-single. You can still see pasty faces and hotpants backed into doorways. Some of them end up in the frenetic environment captured by McAvoy’s cameras.
In this first episode, Fulde’s staff are faced with a once-in-a-lifetime case when a young man, Australian hip-hop artist and X-Factor contestant Jelal Edmonds is rushed to St Vincent’s by paramedics. He’s been stabbed in the heart with a long thin blade during a fight outside a nightclub after performing.
In the against-all-odds fight to bring the patient back from the brink of death, the St Vincent’s team, lead by Dr Lee Blair and Dr Michael Byrom, perform a procedure called a thoracotomy, an incision into the pleural space of the chest, to gain access to Edmonds’s heart. No pristine surgery or operating theatre is available, so they operate on the spot, in the resuscitation bay.
‘‘ We need to go in now,’’ Blair commands his staff who cram into the cramped space, blood everywhere, calmly managing the chaos. They cut the young artist apart using a pair of scissors more usually employed to cut through fabric. Then Byrom, racing the clock, is forced to plug the beating heart of the neardeath man with his finger and stitch it, in a rare medical manoeuvre. It leaves you breathless at both the procedure and the way the camera crew blends so seamlessly with the medical staff to capture it.
‘‘ In a situation like that you just don’t know what’s happening so you are shooting in two ways,’’ producer McAvoy says. ‘‘ You film as if you have consent already and make sure at the same time there’s enough footage from both cameras so that you would not identify the person in the edit.’’ He has his cameramen film from different angles, from behind doctors and from oblique places where the face of the injured person isn’t shown, so the story can be told regardless of legal permission. Of course, McAvoy has the co-operation and full authority of the hospital and all the staff involved in any incident. And in this instance, consent to show the case of Edmonds also came rapidly, his family on the scene and quickly involved in his ordeal and its filming for TV.
Two cameras are used for the show’s interiors, the two operators unobtrusive and nimble, one being the episode producer. A sound person accompanies them as inconspicuously as possible. They use the lightweight Sony C300 digital camera system, which is better in low light than conventional professional camcorders and produces a brighter image with less noise.
This is the kind of camera frequently used to shoot TV commercials, indie feature films and high-end documentaries but it fits into the palm of the hand and is easily manipulated to provide almost limitless angles. If you know cameras — and these days we’re all photographers — think of the C300 as a full-blown cinema camera but with a weight and form factor similar to a Hasselblad.
McAvoy’s style of presentation is familiar. He and Haywood were also responsible for the clever Foxtel factual series Kalgoorlie Cops and Territory Cops, with the rough-and-ready hallmarks of being shot in natural light and under pressure. Sometimes there’s lens flare, loss of focus, camera shake and impromptu framing. In cases where permission to film has not been gained, faces are pixilated, becoming odd ghost-like blurs.
But McAvoy cleverly takes his cameras outside the hospital as well, avoiding the sense of claustrophobia that sometimes bedevils the real-life hospital drama format. ‘‘ Second time around we ramped up the external vision, the streets of the Cross, put more thought into it, provided more context,’’ he says
The vibrant, fluoro-lit exteriors contrast brilliantly against the grey and metal, slightly eastern European bunker feel of the hospital. There is much overlapping dialogue and an authentic unrehearsed quality, with scenes shot on the run in the company of the emergency staff. This is not simply fly-on-thewall documentary, this is in-the-thick-of-it TV. ‘‘ You are there and you are not there,’’ says McAvoy. ‘‘ That team is so completely in the
The emergency department staff at St Vincent’s in action