Why the Holby City actress slowed down the #BERENA romance
“From the beginning, people were really rooting for #Berena and asking the writers to make it happen”
When Major Bernie Wolfe hit Holby City’s wards, a certain group of viewers snapped to attention. The maverick trauma surgeon had been airlifted out of Afghanistan and was mumbling about a colleague called Alex. Gender neutral name? Conspicuous lack of pronouns? Sudden reluctance to be in the same room as the handsome doctor husband she hasn’t seen in months? It could only mean one thing. When Alex showed up – played by Heather Peace, no less – Bernie and her backstory came tumbling out of the closet, but the relationship that really caught viewers’ attention was with Serena Campbell, the Shiraz-swilling, seemingly-hetero consultant, fond of telling Bernie how terrific she is.
While most shows can’t put two ambitious women in the same room without turning them into rivals, Bernie and Serena bonded from the start, and actress Jemma Redgrave was happy to step out of her scrubs (probably not literally – we didn’t ask) and talk about why #Berena is still so groundbreaking.
“What’s really been lovely is to build a friendship, and a friendship between two women of a certain age who are both professional women, who have a shared language. That was really easy for Catherine and I, because we had that shared language anyway. They really like each other and support each other and everything comes from that. Anything that happens beyond that is luck, but I think the chemistry is very good.”
From the start, both Jemma and Catherine knew where their onscreen friendship was headed but wanted to let things take their time. “I think it was quite organic. We were aware which way it was going to go, but I think because it’s played out in real time we were very careful from the very beginning not to let it feel forced. Early on, a few directors said, ‘Oh, let’s just get that longing look in,’ but we felt it was early days and we didn’t want to rush it.” Fans might disagree – from Bernie’s first episodes, the hashtag #Berena started to show up on social media, and by the time the two kissed at the end of August it was trending on Twitter.
“From the beginning of the friendship, people were really rooting for it and asking the writers to make it happen. We were surprised, because people caught on before we even really started to play it!” Clearly you just can’t suppress that level of sexual chemistry. And while this is new territory for Serena – despite an attempt to play it cool with a story about once having kissed a girl at a party in Stepney – Bernie has been established as queer early on. “I don’t label her, I don’t know if she labels herself. What I’ve always thought is that she grew up in a conventional family, probably a military one, and it was very difficult for her to explore her sexuality in a way the she might have done if she was growing up now. I think the big revelation of her life was falling in love with Alex, and now with Serena.”
And what about Bernie’s first love? Will we see Alex again? “I hope so,” Jemma enthuses. “I think Heather’s fantastic, I love working with her. I hope she does, but I’ve no idea.”
The show’s producers have admitted that they based Bernie on one of Jemma’s other characters – Doctor Who fan-favourite, the no-nonsense head of UNIT, Kate Lethbridge Stewart – and Jemma has been enjoying her new sci-fi fanbase. “I had no idea before that there was such a community, and when you become part of the fabric of the show, you’re adopted by a community and they’ve been incredibly warm and generous. And the wonderful thing is that for a generation of children, I will never age!”
Jemma’s on-screen feminist credentials are longstanding – her breakout performance in the 1990s was as another doctor, strong-minded Victorian proto-feminist Eleanor Bramwell (in ITV mini-series Bramwell), and women’s rights are clearly an issue important to her. “It was an outstanding part in an outstanding series, this woman fighting against patriarchal oppression and that struck a chord with a lot of young women at the time. Even now, we’ve got a woman [Hillary Clinton] trying to smash the highest glass ceiling in the world; equality is still something that we’re struggling towards.”
It’s one of the things that makes Holby such a refreshing experience, she says. “There aren’t so many relationships between women of our age, so it’s been huge and quite overwhelming that there’s been such an incredible response.
With Bernie fleeing Holby after Serena confesses her feelings, is this the last we’ve seen of Major Wolfe?
“I know a lot of lesbian storylines are quite tragic, but we don’t want to do that,” she promises. While Bernie has been off dealing with her feelings for Serena, Jemma was roadtripping around America with her family – and since she was fresh off the set when we spoke, it’s safe to say that Bernie will be back.
Catch Holby City on BBC1, Tuesdays at 8pm.