Holby City at 20
As the hit BBC1 medical drama celebrates its 20th birthday we chat to three of its stars about life on the set of Holby City Hospital
Holby City knows how to celebrate. Not content with just one episode to mark its 20th birthday, the medical drama has quite the party planned.
“We’re doing a whole year of treats,” reveals Rosie Marcel, who’s played consultant cardiothoracic surgeon Jac Naylor since 2005. “There’ll be new characters, old ones resurfacing, crossovers with Casualty and much, much more.
“There’s a great episode that kicks off with me, Bob Barrett and Hugh Quarshie, the three longest-serving cast members,” she continues. “Jac, Sacha and Ric go on this road trip to a conference, get horribly drunk and there’s a fight. It’s a very girlie fight, like the one Hugh Grant has in Bridget Jones’s Diary.”
“I can’t wait for the viewers to see that. It’s one of my favourite ever episodes. We had a ball. It was hilarious. A great kick off to the year,” chuckles Bob (who plays surgeon Sacha Levy).
So, what’s the secret to Holby’s rare
‘They are absolutely my second family’
longevity? “Clearly, people love hospital dramas,” says Bob. “They love the life or death stakes. And what set Holby on its way was when they decided to not make it about the patients, but more about the lives of the staff. You’re hooked because you care about the characters.”
“The fact we keep hold of long-running characters helps. The audience likes familiarity. With characters diverse in age, class, ethnicity and sexuality, people are more likely to see someone like them on screen,” says Rosie.
“That’s what makes TV work,” agrees Bob.
Catherine Russell (who plays surgeon Serena Campbell) calls the constant flow of excellent guest actors ‘absolutely vital’, too. Holby City is made at BBC Elstree Studios in Hertfordshire – also home to EastEnders. “We share the same canteen,” says Rosie. “I often meet Kelly Bright (Albert Square’s Linda Carter) for lunch.” Asked what they love most about life on the show, aside from the acting, there’s no hesitation. It’s what Bob calls the ‘warm, nurturing, family atmosphere’ on set. A warmth replicated on screen. “They’re absolutely my second family,” says Rosie of the cast and crew. “I care deeply for everybody there.” You couldn’t manage the long hours of a weekly serial – a full day is 7am to 7pm – if you didn’t love the work and people. Fun and friendship keep spirits high. “Jaye Jacobs (senior staff nurse Donna Jackson) and I can often be
‘We’ve had the occasional director who’s wanted to faint’
found singing a show tune much to the delight or horror of the crew,” laughs Catherine. Holby would be nothing, of course, without the incredible team faking those body parts. “The prosthetics are the jewel in the crown of the show,” Catherine enthuses. “Whenever we do an operation, we have a real surgeon in with us. They always say the prosthetic is an exact replica of what they’re seeing in reality.
“I don’t have a squeamish bone in my body,” she adds, “but we’ve had the occasional director who has to block off half the screen when she watches the monitor because it makes her want to faint.”
“It does look real,” says Bob, “it just smells plasticky. They used to make the blood out of sugar and colouring.”
Catherine isn’t so keen on theatre scenes. “I find them hard,” she admits. “It’s like rubbing your stomach and tapping your head having to do medical dialogue alongside pretending to operate. Rosie
has become so deft with doing stitches her hands have substituted for those unable to do a particular stitch.” Between them, they produce great drama, but the team’s legacy is so much greater.
Holby has changed lives. The cast often receive letters from those they’ve inspired to enter the medical profession. Bob explains: “I was on a train once and a guy said: ‘I want to thank you for getting me through med school. My friends and I used to watch the show and diagnose as it went along’”
Sacha’s suicide attempt caused people to seek help for their own depression
after seeing how they felt mirrored on screen. “That’s overwhelming for me,” says Bob.
And then there’s ‘Berena’. Reaction to the love story between Serena and her former colleague Bernie Wolfe (Jemma Redgrave) took everybody by surprise. It helped women struggling with their sexuality and even played Cupid to spark real-life romances.
For some, fact gets jumbled with fiction. “Years ago, we had a party at (Holby co-creator) Tony McHale’s and someone had… I don’t think it was a heart attack, but a heart tremor, and fell to the floor,” recalls Bob. “It was awful. In the end, he was fine, but nine or ten cast were there and everyone looked to us as if to say ‘Do something!’ Thank goodness, there was a real doctor there who helped.”
■ Holby City kicks off its anniversary year with a special episode on Wednesday, January 2 on BBC1. If you miss it, you can catch up on BBC iPlayer.
Was it really 20 years ago? It seems like yesterday… Some of the original line-up of Holby City
CONSULTANT CARDIOTHORACIC SURGEON HOLBY CITY Marcel Played by Rosie Jac Naylor
CONSULTANT GENERAL SURGEON HOLBY CITY Played by Bob Barrett Sacha Levy
Cast and crew mark the 20th anniversary of the medical series. Action-packed episodes are promised this month
Played by Catherine Russell CONSULTANT GENERAL SURGEON HOLBY CITY Serena Campbell