Silent Witness: Series 17 – Coup De Grace

Series 17 – Coup De Grace. Parts one and two. Written by Graham Mitchell, Directed by David Richards.

When I was introducing Silent Witness to this blog last week, I think I was keen to demonstrate and explain precisely what makes up your standard episode, such as a relatively complex intertwining of multiple storylines, each of which is linked either explicitly or implicitly to one of several deaths. However it is clear from this week’s offering, that this is not always the case and also there are some other elements that can come together to comprise a particular episode arc.

In Coup de Grace it was clear that whilst there remained a reasonable body count, and there were also now semi-traditional Nikki in peril and Nikki dates an inappropriate man contributions to the plot, this storyline followed the fortunes of one criminal court case and the consequential fall out of outcomes and decisions made, as much as it did the background plot of a killer on the loose and rising body count. And whilst I am certain that it would not necessarily have been Nikki that drove such a case forward outside of the world in which Silent Witness operates, you only need to look at the all-encompassing press coverage of some events to have an understanding of the concept of the role the media play in such matters.

Anyway, back to the episode and we started with a young man in a custodial environment and later in familiar prison transport reflecting back on memories of his past, specifically being with his partner at a desolate water front location before that particular scene is replaced by a body, lying dead in the very same place and we’re in with the music.

The Storyline

The premise of the opening plot elements was simple, as Nikki – looking spectacular in that suit I have to say – was being called as an expert witness for the high profile appeal hearing on behalf of David Benetto, the young man who was in prison for the homophobic murder of his ex-partner Daniel and another young man. It transpired that he had initially been accused of killing Daniel but was released without charge, before subsequently being re-arrested, tried and convicted after the second murder however his barrister was keen to show the court that far from being a potential serial killer who had been stopped, this was a vulnerable young man who had suffered a miscarriage of justice. With the psychiatrist called by David’s legal team stating his bipolar disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder would have influenced his decision to initially confess, Benetto’s solicitor Greg Walker (played by the epic Tobias Menzies) – with whom Nikki had grown more than a little close – was confident that with sound testimony from Nikki about time of death, there was a strong case for getting the conviction quashed.

Nikki’s case as presented to court related primarily to the presence of diatoms on the victims face, which indicated an emersion in water post death and therefore brought the time of death for one victim forward by approximately 2 hours until a time when David had an alibi, giving her reason to provide a key confirmation to the court that she believes this means he could not be guilty. This is immediately challenged on cross-examination, in relation to whether wind direction and the resulting spray from the water could have caused such deposits and has to concede it is feasible. However on leaving court she quickly re-checks her evidence, whilst I am once more fangirling over her hair, and has an epiphany moment as she studies the crime scene photographs. On making her new evidence known to Benetto’s team, Nikki is recalled to the stand to explain that livor mortis, the phenomenon of “blush” pigmentation being caused at pressure points in the first two hours post death, indicated that the victim’s leg had originally been placed in an alternative manner at the point of life extinction, as there was no presence of this despite the knee lying against a tree in the crime scene photos. This gave more weight to the theory that the body had been placed there earlier than originally believed and the tidal water had caused the body to move after the livor mortis timescale had passed. As a direct consequence of Nikki’s evidence which the Crown was unable to contradict, David Benetto is released immediately with no threat of retrial and outside court the press have a field day with the photos.

Subsequent scenes show that the now free David is staying with his sister Jill, her husband Mark and their children. It is obvious they’ve all done it tough since his arrest, with the press having consistently targeted the family to get news of the “gay slayer” and whilst he doesn’t say much, it is clear David and his sister are close. Therefore once she has gone out, he heads over to the offices of the newspaper still printing incredibly personal articles about them all and pins the man concerned up against the wall of a life before being removed by security. It becomes clear that Peter Masham has known of this case since the start and contacts Walker to pick him up, but as they leave together David spies Charlie, son of Peter arriving and watches him with interest, as he does several other young men in town after Walker has dropped him off telling him to keep a low profile. There is one particular person who Benetto makes eye contact with, someone who glares back at him but the moment passes and the world continues.

Back at the Lyell Centre, Thomas has asked to see Nikki alongside Richard Parkwood from the Home Office and DI Rachel Klein, played by the ever brilliant Lorraine Ashbourne, and she is informed that the police want them to help find the killer given that Nikki “so successfully dismantled” the original pathologists case as DI Klein puts it without any grace. As Jack and DS Adam Kemp join them for a case discussion, Jack queries if it was David’s discharge of psychological grounds from the Royal Engineers that triggered his involvement in the case but is advised that David was both in a relationship with Daniel and keeping this a secret from his father, plus his fingerprints were on the knife. Thomas states the Lyell Centre is willing to work for the case as long as the police are paying before DI Klein makes it clear to Nikki, who has just had the largest bunch of flowers delivered as a thank you for her work in getting David released, that she believes the guilty man was released.

Nikki’s later drinks date with Walker, at which they discuss the resentful policewoman and Walker’s own dedication to getting David released, is interrupted by a call in relation to a body. Nikki and Jack attend the scene alongside DI Klein and DS Kemp, and conduct their examination whilst avoiding the sarcasm of Rachel about the occurrence of the death after David’s release. The body is that of the young man who glared at Benetto earlier on, and he has been murdered with the same MO as the two previous victims, beaten, scarred and shot. Thomas later does the PM on Byron Lee, identifying injuries from a beating, scars and semen as a way to get DNA.

Jill and David are both awake in the middle of the night, unable to sleep and discussing old photos and letters which he has found at hers. They talk about his flashbacks of Daniel and whether he could have told his dad about him, but upon his imprisonment he had written to him every week with no response having believed his guilt. Jill confirms their dad disowned him, but still offers him his old flat and acknowledges that whilst he may not want to be there, there is no pressure from her at all.

At the Lyell Centre Nikki , wearing an amazing jacket, joins Thomas to discuss the two different semen samples – one healthy and one with no sperm – with a DNA result due back by the close of the day. Simultaneously Jack and the police are examining Byron’s place of residence, where it is established he was a rent boy. The police bring CCTV of Byron’s street to the Lyell and as the team sit down to watch, they are all directed to see David Benetto walking down the very same street leading to DI Klein calling for armed police to move in, not wishing to wait for any test results.

DI Klein interviews Benetto after he has been arrested at gun point at Jill’s house and Nikki has taken a multitude of photographs and samples from him for testing purposes, and whilst she asks him about the newspaper offices the previous day and the body, Walker barely lets David answer any questions, as the man himself is preoccupied with the seemingly ever present haunting image of his deceased boyfriend. It is left to Nikki, who has heard from Jack that there is no gunshot residue or evidence on his clothing, to break the news to Rachel who accuses her of having a lot riding on the case, despite Nikki’s insistence that it is a scientific process without the presumption of guilt or innocence.

As a result of the escalating tension, press interest and Nikki being a perfectly photogenic expert witness, she is subsequently dismissed from the case by Thomas and Richard and is angered that it will be her head on the chopping block if things go wrong. However whilst she departs the Lyell Centre and starts to ignore all contact, she eventually speaks to Clarissa and establishes that neither DNA matched Benetto, news which obviously causes her a significant degree of relief.

Therefore whilst the police track down Callum Jordan, the only identified sample, and a man with a penchant for street boys, Walker takes David home following his release where he is promptly thrown out by an angered Mike, who just can’t take it anymore, triggering Benetto to take out his frustrations by punching a photographer on the doorstep before disappearing off with Walker on his heels.

David ends up at his father’s flat, on a traditional poor inner city estate, and after reading an article in a paper he had swiped about Daniel, he reflects back on his childhood with an abusive father and a sister he failed to protect before rummaging through the flat until he finds a gun that he obviously knows how to use. He is later outside Peter Masham’s house, where he and another son, Robbie, are at home, but receives a call from Jill to check up on him. However despite Peter later hearing noises in the house, it transpires that this is Charlie having returned before a night out and David is next seen back at his flat in an agitated state.

Nikki and Walker are on another date, as she tipsily questions whether he could be using her to get information about the case but as he goes to reassure her with a kiss, after establishing he is intending on spending the night, his phone rings and they end up heading over to Benetto’s flat together where the young man is increasing hyper, shouting about the press and police and obviously requires some urgent support. Whilst Walker deals with that, Nikki receives a phone call from Thomas to inform her that Byron was drugged prior to death with benzodiazepine and that they have another body, as Jack examines the darkened scene of crime, and it becomes apparent that this is Charlie Masham. Nikki’s interest is piqued by a closed door and after taking the opportunity to have a rifle through David’s bag and finding both the gun and the medication, she takes another phone call from Thomas and tries to get out all the words in a frantic whisper as to where she is, why and what she has found, before David grabs the phone off of her at gunpoint, leaving Thomas shouting her name in fear as the end of episode one music stirs.

Things recommence the following morning with Jack, DI Klein and DS Kemp keeping watch on the flat as armed police and a helicopter keep the place under surveillance. David has remained in an agitated state and Nikki looks distraught but Walker convinces him to speak to the police, only for DI Klein to cause him to hang up when she references his past crimes. After David admits that he can’t see Daniel, and he should be there, Walker reminds him that he was going to give up the gun the previous night and if he does that now, no one will hurt him. However whilst Benetto does do as he is told, he also grabs Nikki, moves to stand by the window and mimes shooting her, triggering the police to shoot him – although by some miracle from the distance not fatally – in an attempt at suicide by cop, bringing things to a far swifter resolution than I had imagined.

As Nikki returns to the Lyell Centre, Peter Masham is there having come to see Charlie and he vents at her for putting David back on the streets before he spends some time in quiet reflection with the body of his son. After the post mortem, which for the first time locates a bullet, the police and Thomas discuss time of death and bullet comparisons, but when Nikki attempts to intervene she is dismissed once again before she is informed by Thomas, after a debate with Richard from the Home Office, that she will not be suspended but it will be announced she is subject to a disciplinary.

DI Klein releases Curtis, who despite being dodgy had no involvement in the case, and she relishes in having David in custody before her and DS Kemp visit Jill. They ask her, and an unimpressed looking Mark, questions about the two recent victims and the gun, which she identifies as her dad’s but is clear he would never have given it to David. At this stage Peter Masham phones Mark, calling him out on his loyalty to the man that has now killed Charlie and it is clear Mark has been leaking sensitive stories all along. The police later interview David with Walker present, who keeps interrupting and making it clear that his client had been trying to hand over the gun not shoot anyone.

Jack starts to examine some of Byron’s possessions after a prompt from Clarissa, and it is established that one is a memory card with photos and another is a handwritten letter – unusual for a young male to have these. Jack continues by running tests on the gun to get bullet comparisons at Thomas’ behest whilst Nikki is secretly doing some investigation work on her own, but she is relieved to be informed by her colleague that not only did the bullet not come from David’s gun but he also didn’t file his prescription for benzodiazepine.

DI Klein, a Commissioner and Thomas give a press conference where they’re asked a number of questions about Nikki and Walker being at David’s flat before Peter Masham arrives and rants to the crowd about tame pathologists. However before Thomas can give his pre-prepared statement he receives a text from Nikki and departs without a word, leaving uproar behind him. There is a following tense debrief between the police and Lyell team about guns, medication and mismatching tyres but with Walker arriving at the most inopportune moment – unwanted by everyone bar Nikki – even Jack has had enough, and makes it clear that he is doubting her version of events. However as a consequence of the queries, the police have no choice but to release David although DI Klein puts him under surveillance, still debating as to the whys and wherefores of his apparent murderous tendencies as she does so.

Despite advice to the contrary, and money from Walker to get himself a hotel, David goes back to his dad’s flat where he sits alone with his thoughts, memories and the remembering of Daniel. He’d given Walker a tight hug before leaving his car, showing that underneath the man accused of murder he was also someone who just wanted to feel connected with humanity once more. He eventually heads back out, police at a reasonable distance, but frees himself of his shadows in a less than salubrious part of town before stopping to glance through the paper where he spies copies of his own personal photographs, which had been given to Peter Masham by Mark the night before.

In the meantime Nikki and Walker meet for lunch, where she questions why he had failed to tell her about his wife and child whom she saw with him upon her arrival. He explains that his wife and he had been unable to have children and that after years of IVF they eventually adopted Bella before he walked out on the family. He is adamant that they are separated and his failure to tell her related to his own guilt over leaving them, but Nikki remains unconvinced.

Upon returning back to the Lyell Centre Thomas asks her to join him to look at some marks on Byron and Charlie’s faces, which Nikki establishes were also present on the first two victims. The marks alongside the condition of the eyes would indicate the victims were asphyxiated, having been repeatedly taken to the brink of death on numerous occasions before bringing bought back. Nikki tries to explain this to DI Klein but whilst she finds the theory interesting, she doesn’t change her mind over it being David. In the meantime Jack and Thomas have been able to ID Bryon as a young man who donated bone marrow before his recipient died, and it would appear that he had written to her regardless of her death.

As Jack, DI Klein and DS Kemp travel to tell the relatives of Byron about his death, Nikki meets Walker to discuss her new theory about the killer. She explains that the victims were not targeted because of their sexuality, as sexual violence and torture isn’t about that, and it was instead about young men looking for highs who had their life taken away. Walker has an interesting response about David’s controlling father causing him to have no self-respect or control, whereas giving him power over a person to decide if they live or die must make you feel “as if you’re on the cusp of existence”, that is real control. He concludes by saying that the person she described isn’t David, because they both know he is innocent. In the meantime David has let himself into Jill’s house where he is hallucinating Daniel once again, before attacking Mark on his return for selling the photographs and is consequently arrested once again.

Jack returns from seeing the news delivered about Byron worked up about the fact DI Klein is still totally focused on David despite there being no real evidence. Nikki and Thomas listen to the discussion as they conclude the murders were either Benetto with a fantastic lawyer, massively coincidental or as Nikki suggests staged. They agree if that was the case it would need to be someone who knows where he has been, what medication he is on, everything about him and with barely a word Nikki indicates she believes it was Walker. When questioned why he would have fought so hard to release him, Nikki elaborates that with David in prison, Walker would be unable to kill again. He has control fantasies, he saved him at the siege so he had a patsy and he targeted people that there could be a clear motive for David to have killed, such as Charlie. It is in that moment that Nikki realises he has been confessing to her all the way through and on working through the evidence – such as how he saw her on both days he could have killed someone, that he cannot have children and potentially gunshot residue he left on Nikki’s jacket, the team decide to approach DI Klein. Unfortunately she is not as easily persuaded but Thomas leaves her with very little option but to get on board with their trail of thought.

Nikki accompanies DI Klein to speak to David, who confirms David directed him to walk down the street on the CCTV outside Byron’s place of residence and he knew about his medication. David is reluctant to tell them anything about where Walker could have gone, although it is obviously dawning on him that he had been set up by the man he trusted. Afterwards Nikki, in an awesome jacket, brings Rachel a coffee and they both acknowledge they’ve been played by Walker. However DI Klein is preoccupied by the fact she has lost out on her promotion and angrily says they can shove their job.

In the meantime Walker is cruising around town, driving whilst his eyes track young men on the street before he pulls up back in the same desolate place episode one started. On DI Klein’s suggestion Nikki calls Walker and after a brief conversation, his number is traced and the entire team race to the scene as David receives a phone call from Walker upon his release from custody to tell him it is over, before he hangs up and sees Daniel once again. Just as an aside, I do hope upon his release this time Jill helps David buy some more clothes, because he was superglued into the same tracksuit in almost every scene. As the police arrive to where Walker is and surround him, he is ordered out of the car but is shot multiple times when he points a gun at the police. Nikki and Thomas rush to resuscitate him, which Nikki manages to do, with Rachel demanding she needs him alive.

The show ends with a distraught Nikki being comforted by Jack as David stands alone back in the same bleak place where he used to secretly meet his lover, where he and Daniel will always be together.

Nikki

Now this as very much a Nikki led episode, and Nikki being Nikki she had to put herself in danger, date an unsuitable man and question her own judgement all in the space if a few hours, and all whilst wearing the most amazing wardrobe. Sorry, I know it must seem as if I am obsessed but when did pathology look this good? Anyway back to the analysis and it was clear from the start that Dr Alexander had had her head, and heart, turned by Walker as they flirted from the outset after what I can only imagine was quite a period of preparing the case in close proximity. Despite the high profile media coverage Nikki did her job in court well, calmly exiting after her evidence and returning with all the answers and proving that despite all the drama she always was a damn good pathologist.

Her antagonistic relationship with DI Rachel Klein was an interesting one, as they were forced to work together despite being of opposing opinions and their complete belief that the other was either incompetent or, well, incompetent. However despite their apparent differences, the characters worked well as mirrors of each other, given how personally connected they became to the case and how much they had riding on it professionally speaking. In many ways they spent the majority of the episodes so convinced they were right they were unwilling to see another’s point of view but in the end it was Nikki who blinked first and accepted she had made a mistake.

As always it was Nikki’s new boyfriend who turned out to be dodgy, although I do not believe even she has before dated a controlling serial killer unless I missed something. Despite that there was excellent chemistry between Nikki and Walker due to faultless performances from Emilia and Tobias, and I was smiling as she offered to buy drinks given he was a solicitor with champagne tastes whilst earning legal aide lemonade money. I was already uncomfortable with Walker by the time he told her he was an honest man, knowing full well Nikki could never date one of those but when they met for later drinks and he tried to reassure her tipsy paranoia about his knowledge of the case, it was more than a little apparent his interest in Nikki was not just as a date. In using her as a witness to the unstable Benetto unravelling with a gun in his hands, he put her in danger and used her to cover his tracks, and I found myself saying aloud “Don’t do it Nikki” many times.

Throughout the episode there was an undercurrent of debate about innocence, and whether it is okay to presume someone is innocent or guilty, which turned the similar debate from last week’s episodes almost upside down. Nikki asserted that scientific processes do not presume guilt or innocence and yet Walker constantly stated that they both know Benetto didn’t do this. Upon reflection it is obvious that Walker’s insistence perhaps had more to do with his own attempts at a confession, because as things begin to unravel it is Nikki who finally puts everything together – using her closeness to the case as an advantage for once – just as Walker knew she would. The question is does that make him a serial killer trying to evade the law, a man playing a cat and mouse game with authority where he believes he is in control, or someone who wanted to be found out? Do you know what, I am not actually sure but I know that no version leaves his connection with Nikki in a good place.

At the end of the day it was Nikki who rightly got David Benetto released, and Nikki who made the final evidential connections to get the killer put behind bars, and that is because she is a brilliant pathologist despite her complete inability to sustain a healthy personal relationship with any man. And it was also Nikki who brought Walker back to life to face justice, acting on pure adrenalin and determination alone. She may not be perfect, but she is human and when she makes a mistake, she will do anything in the world to put it right once more.

Nikki & Jack

Jack and Nikki’s relationship remains one of the key elements to the success of last series and this one, and whilst they do not have the same closeness Nikki and Harry used to, their ever strengthening connection is something I am really enjoying unfolding. They are able to tease each other, get angry with each other and criticise each other’s working practices and yet still, when it really comes down to it, they are still standing side by side.

With Nikki up in court giving evidence, it was Jack there waiting for her and it was him who was teasing her about being pathology eye candy for Thomas’ profit making ideas. However when things start to get difficult Jack struggles to offer her the requisite support a friend might, citing that he cannot make Benetto innocent in much the same way she cannot be objective, both of which are true but said in a way that contributed to Nikki’s increased isolation and therefore support for Walker.

Despite that it is Jack who spends the night in a scraggy flat with the police, anxious for her safety and angry about the lack of action, when Nikki is held hostage in the siege. I can’t imagine the action man in him would have been comfortable in staying there whilst she was in danger, but on her release he only managed to express this via the medium of shouting at her that she never listens. He was right, she doesn’t and she put herself in danger as a result, but it was his own pent out frustration about what could have happened he was letting out there – in much the same way he did when he grabbed her quite violently when he accused her of being worked by Walker and not having a clue what she was doing.

At the point when it dawned on Nikki that Walker was not squeaky clean, even she referenced that she was bowing to Jack’s greater insight as she could now see he had been correct all along. It spoke volumes that she was able to make that admission to him, that Walker was economical with the truth personally speaking at least, because it showed that despite all that had gone on, she trusted him enough to confide that. It was also through their discussions that Jack finally questioned her feelings towards Rachel, telling her she was not objective and suggesting they bury the hatchet – but not in her head, and Nikki was able to offer him advice about providing his evidence to the police over Byron’s real identity.

Actually as a side note, that moment where Jack, DI Klein and DS Kemp visited the family home and DS Kemp broke the news was one of the most beautiful of the entire episode. There were no words as we could not hear what DS Kemp said to the mum, but her reaction and the reaction of Jack and Rachel back in the car spoke volumes and proved that sometimes silence is worth more than words. All scriptwriters need to keep that in mind for key scenes such as that.

At the very end when all was said and done, Walker was shot but alive, David was released and Nikki was sitting there devastated, emotional and vulnerable after the events that had unfolded, it was Jack who placed an arm casually over her shoulder. There needed to be no more than that, it was just Nikki and Jack, friends and colleagues, but able to rely on each other when they need someone to turn to.

Thomas

Thomas Chamberlain is an interesting character. He is not just a pathologist but a business man, and far more convincing than Leo ever was as someone trying to make the Lyell Centre a profitable enterprise. He was happy to get involved in even the most controversial of cases as long as someone was picking up the tab, although I really do hope he does not see Nikki as pathology eye candy because whilst she is, that sounds so very weird. Thomas is firm, but fair, when managing the Lyell Centre and I felt that was demonstrated by his refusal to suspend Nikki when he was told to. His vehement answer of “my surgeon, my call” shows he has real confidence in his decision making and is willing to stand by his team – but also prioritise what is right for the business. When Nikki thanks him for standing by her, his response that they would have come after the Lyell next makes that clear and yet I am sure there is more to it than him just using her as a firewall as she put it.

On that note, Thomas as Nikki’s senior has had a bumpy start, not helped at all by the events of this episode. It would seem that for every time something pushes them to opposing viewpoints they are then brought back to working as a team, but it will be interesting to see whether that changes as they get to know each other more.  Thomas was understandably hard on her and without hesitation removed her from the case when it was clear she was too close to it, as well as dismissing her several times in front of their police counterparts. He is obviously not shy in expressing his opinions or his expectations, but perhaps his tough love angle is precisely what she needs.

It is clear that there is backstory to this man that we the viewers have yet to see, which was clear in his discussions with Masham over Charlie’s death as he explained how grief can freeze you up long term. It will be interesting to see precisely how that all unravels as we get to know him better.

Overall

This was another strong episode from Series 17, despite it being completely different to the pairing of episodes the week before and there was a great plotline. My main criticism was that the central twist became obvious to early on for me, in that I had my suspicions about Walker before he should ever have been a suspect. Therefore whilst there were still elements of the plot that took me by surprise, there were stretches of what felt like unnecessary explanation and filler, and parts that should have held dramatic tension were over too soon, such as the siege. As an example, how many times was David Benetto arrested and released during a two hour show? He and his tracksuit spent most of their time being released from police questioning, acting in a manner likely to get himself arrested and then being taken back to custody once more. Additionally whilst last week was far-fetched in a way that a small suspension of disbelief could cure, this week had quite a bland presentation of mental illness. David was meant to be suffering from BPD and PTSD, but instead spent his time hallucinating visions of his dead ex-boyfriend and acting in an agitated state. I don’t know, but it just didn’t feel real to me and I am sure that more could have been done to accommodate it in a more realistic fashion.

However all of the above aside, there was a great deal of character development of Thomas in this storyline, mainly through the layers of man that we were treated to, and also of Jack, who despite being very much Jack-the-Lad most of the time, showed real care, concern and also annoyance in respect of Nikki. I love the fact that it was through his anger he was able to demonstrate that he does see her as more than just a person he works with. And as for Nikki…. Well Nikki my love, please don’t ever date a man again, especially one with a penchant for killing people. It won’t do you any good, and I’d rather you weren’t permanently traumatised.

Roll on next week, can’t wait to see where the series takes us next given how different the two story arcs have been so far.

 

Casualty – Here Come The Boys!

Casualty Preview: Here come the boys….

Okay so in advance of the screening of Series 28 episode 20 on television tonight, and episode 21 next Saturday, here is my blog post about my experiences in Cardiff at the Casualty Preview Screening which I was lucky enough to be able to attend. I hope you enjoy and it gives you a few tips for things to look out for in the episodes concerned.

It was 5th December 2013 at 8pm when I arrived at Cineworld in Cardiff having travelled down from London that afternoon, and on making my way to the top floor in a state of eager anticipation I had no idea what to expect . I was one of the first to arrive, which was probably a good thing given how nervous I was, but having been greeted by the lovely Vicky – my host for the night – and Erika Hossington – the new Casualty Producer – I felt instantly welcome. The next thirty minutes was a blur of faces, introductions and smiles as I got to meet, and chat to, a variety of cast, crew, executives and guests over a drink. I was able to have discussions with people such as Oliver Kent, the Executive Producer of Casualty and sister show Holby City, Simon Harper who produces the latter, and key people from the story, casting and other teams from Casualty itself.

Additionally I was introduced to Amanda Henderson (Robyn), Tony Garcia (Noel), Richard Winsor (Caleb) and George Rainsford (Ethan), and I was also able to catch up with Steve Hughes, the director responsible for the two episodes I was about to watch and a man I consider a friend after all of our conversations. It was lovely to see him and for him to talk me through some of the clips in the Winter Preview that were being shown behind the bar, especially as he had only just finishing editing them that very day.

There was only half an hour in the bar before the screening commenced but it was a wonderful time, and so great to speak to that many people who are involved with and passionate about the show I adore – and one day hope to write for – plus I was treated to so many Casualty and Holby spoilers that I didn’t stop smiling for days. However do not ask me to tell you anything, my lips will remain sealed except for a few sneaky teasers until the episodes themselves air.

As the screening got underway, I joined the others in the cinema under strict instruction to give feedback afterwards on behalf of the fans and general audience. I ended up sitting between Steve Hughes and Ez Hossington, with Oliver Kent in the seats in front, a surreal experience if ever there was one and I went more than a little red in the cheeks when I was asked to stand up in front of everyone so they could see the VIP guest!

We watched the two episodes concerned, plus two behind the scenes short films, and I also got a sneaky preview of the epic new theme tune, redecorated hospital set and the new feel of the show – all of which I got to see for the first time on television last week as I referenced then in my blog.

After the preview was over, people gathered back in the bar to have a post episode discussion and there was a bizarre moment when I realised that I was having the same conversations I have with fellow fans online each Saturday but this time with the people who work on and within the show itself. It was great to be able to give George and Richard feedback on how I felt the audiences would take their characters and to discuss with Steve how I liked particular shots he had undertaken, or how a certain scene had been managed, plus I was also introduced to Jamie Davis (Max) at this point.

I was subsequently invited to go on for drinks with some of cast and crew at a bar in town to continue conversations over a glass of wine and at some point later on when I eventually arrived back at my hotel in the small hours of the following morning, I do recall considering how absolutely surreal and yet brilliant my night had been. I have no intention of repeating all of what was discussed that evening as the majority was private discussions, however there are a few key points I would like to highlight:

  • It was an honour to be able to attend the preview screening and I am so grateful to Ez, Oliver and the team for allowing me to be there and for the warm welcome I was extended from the moment I arrived.
  • The people who work on the show are so passionate about what they do and their role on Casualty, and I am certain that you can see this through the screen even though most of these people never make it onto television.
  • I will never tire of talking to Steve Hughes and he has been so generous in the time he took, on what was a special night for him, to chat to me and take me through the episodes. It was an absolute joy.
  • I would like to thank everyone, but especially Oliver Kent and Lucy Raffety, for all the conversation about Casualty, the television industry in general, storylining and characters, plus the advice about how to pursue a writing career within television. I learned a lot from talking to them, and it especially made me consider how committed I am to writing as a career (e.g. 100% completely to the point at making some significant decisions about my future as a consequence).
  • I would like to say that Amanda Henderson is absolutely lovely, and it was so great to talk about Robyn’s character development and future. George Rainsford is also a complete sweetie, and he definitely made me laugh. However it was Jamie Davis who was absolutely adorable, and it was absolutely brilliant to be able to have an in depth discussion with him about the role of Max, characterisation and portrayal of this on screen, and the process of bringing the script to life as an actor.

Behind the scenes

These short films were put together by Simon Norman, who also worked on that standout red button episode relating to Iain and Sam’s colleague from Afghanistan. They were cracking pieces of work, with each candidly setting up the episode – showing both how they were put together but also interspersing them with anecdotes and amusing introductions to Caleb and Ethan’s characters respectively. I was definitely smiling to see the people sitting around me up on screen being interviewed about their roles in creating the show, what was special about these two episodes and how they set up the two new doctors perfectly to settle into the show. Oh and also about *that* stunt, more on that in a second.

Episode 20 – a few key moments to look out for

  • Ethan’s opening scene and a real introduction to the ED via a great shot, with both his awe and awkwardness perfectly on show
  • Ethan and Lily interactions, but especially “Go Lily”
  • Ethan just being Ethan!
  • Dixie’s difficult decision between two possible life options
  • Two great patient storylines
  • Charlie screentime
  • Iain’s assessment day
  • Dixie’s heartbreak
  • Ethan’s terrible news

And in my opinion, Dr Ethan Hardy is a bit like what you would get if you threw all of the bits of Dylan Keogh up in the air and they came down in an even better way – a less grumpy way too. I fell in love with Ethan without even realising it and was rooting for him before I had really gotten to know him, so all credit to George for his incredibly convincing portrayal of a strong new character. He is slightly geeky, bookish and most unlike Caleb but what he brings to the table is qualities no one else has as a character right now.

Episode 21

  • Caleb showing his colours right from the start
  • Caleb’s brilliant first ED scene, again with an excellent long shot
  • *That” most stunning stunt on a bridge and a real stomach lurching moment
  • The return of the fire commander
  • The ED staff reacting to Caleb, especially Jamie!
  • Dixie and Jeff having a moment
  • Dixie and Rita’s friendship
  • Two excellent patient storylines
  • A perfect Lily and Ethan moment right at the end
  • Caleb just being Caleb!

And in my opinion, Dr Caleb Knight is what the character of Tom Kent could have been, as in they have a similar stunt filled arrival episode and have that edge, yet the way Richard portrays Caleb managed to get me on his side even when he was doing the wrong thing and I already love the character more! He has definite potential to be a character I adore as much as I once did Patrick, there are similarities there for sure, but in a new and exciting way.

Overall impression

First of all I would say I was initially concerned on hearing that Casualty was hiring two new male doctors that there would be an overkill of men within the ED department, however both Ethan and Caleb are interesting characters that I want to see develop and they are unique in comparison to everyone else already on screen. For that reason, I am very much looking forward to seeing where their stories go next….. there is so much more to come from them let me tell you.

Additionally to that I would add that these are two amazing episodes (with much more to offer than just the parts I posted above), well worth a watch as they’ve strong scripts, excellent direction by one of my favourite people and a great vibe. The episodes are Ethan and Caleb in many ways: One is introspective, retrospective and considered, the other is high octane, energetic and buzzing. What you get is who they are and it is so enchanting to see their very essence as individual characters being captured within every scene, every shot and every spoken word. An absolutely great team effort on behalf of everyone concerned.

Enjoy getting to know Ethan and Caleb, just like I did over a month ago now.

Here come the boys….. and it is going to be just perfect!

Casualty: Series 28 – Auld Lang Syne

Series 28, episode 19. Auld Lang Syne. Written by Tony McHale, Directed by Tim Leandro.

So we’re back and 2014 is off to a fabulous start. This was the Casualty I have been waiting for and I for one am so incredibly pleased to have Erika Hossington’s name on the credits alongside Oliver Kent’s. I’m all for marking a new year with a solid episode to kick things off, but this delivered far more than that. The visuals were crisper and sharper, there is a new remix of the theme tune, the hospital has had a makeover and everything looked that little bit more real, that little bit more swish and that little bit more Casualty. Having seen the next two episodes in a cinema I was intrigued as to how well it would transfer to the small screen, but oh my it was fantastic.

The start

We were taken straight into the thick of things with the preview clip, being treated to a reminder of the Fletch and Tess relationship and also how he covered up for a mistake she made with a patient Peter Trenton, that escalated to him being carted off whilst everyone else got all Christmassy in the last episode. And then bang…. In with the new theme tune, which has been in my head since I first heard it a month ago and no it will won’t leave – not that I want it too, it is the best theme music the show has had in over a decade and this is just the beginning!

At the hospital

The general hospital scenes had a good all round New Year’s Eve vibe, what with the many drunken extras marauding around at the back of shot and generally getting in the way. Louise and Noel trying quite unsuccessfully to keep the peace in the general chaos, supported by the ever present Charlie (who just is Casualty in so many ways) gave the entire episode a warm undercurrent. The newly redecorated ED set got its first airing too and I have to say the colour scheme is tremendous, as it removes the slightly garish yellow and gives the entire set a more realistic feel. I can’t wait for everyone to get to know it better in upcoming weeks. The episode long saga of Louise attempting to find a singer to perform at midnight ran successfully through the show as none of her colleagues a) seemed particularly keen, b) considered they might be too busy at midnight to enjoy it and c) did not want to sing. However I always know when the show is at its best when even potentially inconsequential scenes such as those hold my interest, my only quibble being that I would have loved to see Max on his guitar for the occasion – Jamie Davis, this has to happen!

The on location stunt

A packed bar in town, full of partygoers enjoying New Year’s Eve was always going to have a chaotic outcome in Casualty world, but when you add in a barman distracted by arguing punters knocking a gas canister, fireworks were guaranteed – and that was before actual fireworks were added into the mix. An incredibly stupid young man set off said fireworks inside the bar causing both sparks and people to fly everywhere, with the majority of partygoers fleeing as the walking wounded onto the street, and into the care of a passing nurse, as a few brave souls stayed behind to put out the flames. However with the canister acting as a ticking time bomb in the corner, it was only a matter of time before sparks met gas and the whole place exploded in dramatic fashion.

Be careful kids, leaking gas canisters and fireworks to do not mix, a classic style Casualty disaster has unfolded.

The partially destroyed and crumbling building was done well and it was soon apparent that it would collapse around those stuck inside, especially when someone referenced getting out alive. Isn’t that always the way? By the time the ceiling caved in there were firemen and a paramedic all trying to free those who were trapped out of reach, including a patient, who’d looked like a blood covered ghost prior to the collapse never mind after it. It was good to see everyone having to dig themselves out of the rubble before they could start freeing people, and I loved the added bonus of a final collapse just as everyone had made their way out of the perilous site to the relative safety of outside.

Patient storyline one: Peter Trenton

The main patient storyline is a good ‘un with characters of the past coming back in dramatic style and bringing all of their unresolved baggage with them. This was a complex tale of an uncomfortable Peter Trenton, his more confident partner Matt and Peter’s less than impressed son Adam, who upon learning his dad may be getting engaged decided to get the gay bar they were frequenting shut down by setting off fireworks inside, as you do of an evening.

Post explosion the main protagonist of this tale was trapped inside injured, having remained behind to put out the initial flames prior to the place falling down around his ears, as outside an anxious Matt waited for news and a burnt Adam, and his pal, were taken to hospital. Unfortunately for Peter his only companion in the crumbling building was Fletch, the nurse he and his partner had accused of assault and malpractice in previous episodes, but despite this, a good old leg manipulation at the scene, the building collapsing once more and a diabetic moment, Peter was eventually rescued from the bar in quite a bad state.

Old hostilities between Matt and Fletch were quickly recalled upon Peter being safe, and given the events of previous episodes Matt refused to leave his partner’s side when he was admitted to the ED. It subsequently transpired that the now bandaged up Adam had no idea his dad had been trapped, having believed him to be outside at the time of the fireworks, but the conflicted lad almost left without seeing his father until he was challenged to do so. This led to a classic resus showdown, as Peter and Matt learnt via the pointed comments of Lily, who upon treating Adam had quickly deduced he had been holding the fireworks when they were set off, that it was he who was behind the events of the night, a fact that was quickly confirmed by Adam’s friend Sean on hearing he may get prosecuted for it too.

With Big Mac taking the opportunity to introduce Adam to the police before they tracked him down, Peter realised that it was Matt’s unnecessary provocation of Adam about an engagement he himself had known nothing about that had led to his son’s behaviour escalating, and it was this, along with his dawning realisation that it had been the man he had previously accused of assault that had saved his life, that triggered him finally seeing Matt for who he was – a bully. Therefore with Matt showing little regard for Adam’s fate, Peter made the decision to choose his son over his partner and called time on his relationship. With Matt’s response being to attempt a guilt trip, Peter found the courage to tell Matt precisely what he thought of him and suggested in no uncertain terms he should go find someone else to manipulate.

N.B As a minor but notable addition to this storyline, the barman Terrance who was also trapped provided a few laughs amidst all the trauma – from his comment that the fireworks were like the Olympics all over again as he lay injured in the rubble, to his obvious flirtation with Max, he was a real character and a good piece of light within the overall episode.

Patient storyline two: Damon the singer

The secondary patient storyline was a heart-warming tale of a young man who presented at the ED having lost his voice, but it transpired that instead what he had lost was his confidence. Placed into Robyn’s care by Charlie, the nurse used the very same social networking skills that kept getting her into scrapes last year to track down Damon online and identify him as a talented singer, songwriter with a gig to play that night. On hearing him speak involuntarily as he reacted to a fellow patient being dramatically sick beside him, Robyn became determined to get him to talk and eventually tricked him with a mouth spray, curing him of his silence but providing her with the explanation that he was scared. Refusing to just write him off as a time-waster, Robyn opened up to the young man and got him to acknowledge that he just needed to believe in his talent before she provided him with sunglasses and a guitar, telling him he was the new mysterious Damon and no one will know he is scared.

Key staff storyline: The fall out of Tess and Fletch’s affair

Tess and Fletch were an affair that I did not warm to, as I couldn’t initially buy into why the very moral Tess would have gone there with a married man in the first instance. However the fall out of their relationship has been very believable and it continuing to resonate through the actions of the two characters provides a real insight into how such indiscretions can have an impact for quite some time.

Fletch was having a bit of a nightmare end to the year by the time this episode got going, having split up with his wife after finding out she was pregnant and Tess had had an abortion, facing the sack for a mistake that Tess made but he admitted to, oh and the small matter of being arrested right on top of Christmas. However I am sure he was looking forward to a New Year’s Eve celebration with his family after bickering with his ex he was told his children were too tired to see him, and that was before he stumbled across the post fireworks chaos on the street. His instant decision to enter the bar on hearing that Peter Trenton was inside (was it just me or did the world appear to slow at that moment?) showed exactly the type of guy Fletch is, but by the same token so did his insistence on making his point to the trapped man himself that he was neither homophobic or violent, nor any of the other things Matt had previously accused him of being. He remained true to himself throughout, and whilst some may say that was to save himself – as Fletch said, if he had let Peter die in there, he would have most likely been accused of killing him – or not, he consistently did the right thing in keeping his patient safe, even though he was suspended from work and trapped in the tight confines of the collapsed bar.

Tess was another one having a bit of a rough night, as her conflicted emotions over Fletch led to her being somewhat preoccupied with his well-being when she found out he was on scene and there was obvious relief shown when she found out he was safe. In spite of this I did have to laugh at Charlie’s response when she queried aloud why he was at a gay bar as her face was a picture – “Well his missus has kicked him out, maybe he’s decided to shop around”. Throughout her dealings with Peter Trenton in the hospital, Tess demonstrated she’d definitely rediscovered her feelings of guilt over the mess Fletch had found himself in because of her mistake and on more than one occasion took steps to confess yet without actually saying “I did it not him” really loudly to someone, I don’t think anyone was going to listen.

It was at the point of Tess attempting to speak to Peter himself that Fletch made an 11th hour intervention and his storyline and that of Mr Trenton converged for one last time. On having changed into scrubs as his own clothes were ruined, it had become apparent to Fletch that it may be now or never leading to one final attempt to reason with the man who held his fate in his hands. It was this moment that provided a metaphorical mirror between the two men – both guilty over past events, Peter in so much as he felt he had covered Matt’s behaviour and Fletch over the complex fall out of his affair, and both having been left feeling desperately lonely despite having people around them in recent months. This left them both in a position to make positive choices for their own future, with Peter having made the choice to be alone and now to let go of past events by withdrawing his evidence against Fletch. With Fletch “dodging the bullet” he put it, this gave him the opportunity to make the transition with Tess from the tetchy end of an affair to a friendship, and whilst I don’t think this story is concluded, especially given how much Fletch has lost in the interim and his baby due in the near future, it gives them both a new way forward. I am definitely interested to see where they take both these characters next.

Supporting staff storylines:

There was really good use of the cast within the episode, as characters that were acting much more in a support role than being the main drivers of action such as Zoe, Lily and Max (who has a teddy bear with sunglasses in his porters room? Adorable and cool as always there Max!) were utilised in a realistic way – coming and going as required, giving the impression that they were elsewhere busy working away as the rest of the action unfolded. Additionally to this there were a number of smaller elements to the episode that managed to move characters forward without detracting from the central focus or key storylines.

The development of Robyn continued apace through her dealing with both Damon and Charlie within the episode. Robyn’s a character that has consistently been portrayed as quite immature, as her bet with Jamie – and subsequently Charlie (who joined in despite pointing out how unethical it was!) – over getting Damon to speak proved, but whilst this itself was a little mischievous, her reaction to him admitting his fears, in so much as she didn’t feel like she had won at all, showed the real person behind her bravado. This was taken to another level when in order to make Damon realise he could perform, Robyn confided in him how when she first started as a nurse she kept waiting for someone to realise she couldn’t do the job, but the more experience she has had, the more she realised that she could. It was a sweet moment and I have to say, I am warming to Robyn more and more with each episode.

Robyn also contributed to Charlie’s story within the episode, as she enquired after his relationship with his son, whom Charlie spent the entire episode trying to get hold of as he didn’t have his most recent number. By the end of the episode Louis had obviously found out his dad wanted to speak to him, as Charlie had a missed call but I was pleased that there was a reference to Louis, and an implication Charlie has a life outside of the ED (is that allowed?!). I wonder if we will get Louis back at some point, Charlie needs a new focus and a storyline of his own this year.

Jeff and Big Mac were the other two characters used widely in this episode, and I am intrigued to see where they take the dynamic between them. I love them both as individuals, but as they can both be quite cheeky chappy types I wondered if they would work well together as a double act (especially because I love Jeff & Dixie and Big Mac & Noel pairings already). However their joint comedy in their opening scene together was perfect as it highlighted the differences between them, with Jeff being quick to want to get moving in comparison to Big Mac not wanting to set off until he knew precisely where he was going. At the incident their key interaction was with the Fire Commander, played stormingly by Angela Lonsdale, and it was interesting to see how despite Jeff being the one in charge, Big Mac showed he had his back from the offset. When they later on were ordered out of the collapsing building and it was clear Jeff was staying, Big Mac’s immediate answer was “They’d have to drag me out and I’m quite heavy” showing that he was with him one hundred percent. It is a nice little friendship they’ve got there, I hope it develops as Big Mac continues on his new career and I also look forward to the consequences of Jeff being written up for failing to follow the Fire Commander’s orders, they will lock horns again no doubt about it!

The conclusion

So it is New Year’s Eve and it wouldn’t be a NYE episode (even on 4th January) without a countdown and a song. Charlie is meeting Louis in the new year, Tess and Fletch can now be good friends, and both Peter and Damon are entering 2014 with a new perspective. Damon, and his gorgeous girlfriend, are back for him to perform and as Noel leads the team in bringing in the new year, mass hugs and a group sing song of Auld Lang Syne, it is time for the theme tune once more……

In Summary

So things are definitely different now. Tom and Sam left at the end of last year and I know some fans were concerned they would leave a gap, but the show has moved on and is going forward. There was a completely different feel to the episode, in terms of lighting, camera work and direction, and there were strong patient storylines which helped further those of the main cast without feeling clunky. It was sharp, focused and inspired with a good script, excellent performances and good use of cast, in a way that just made it feel like a hospital should.

This is the Casualty I’ve always known and loved, back to its roots and back to its best, but with a thoroughly 2014 take on the situation. It was a cracking episode, well done Oliver and Ez, I look forward to seeing where we’re going and joining you and your team on Casualty’s journey through the coming year.

The next two episodes are the ones I’ve seen and I tell you now they manage to top even this one, and then some, and they’re directed by my favourite person – Mr Steve Hughes no less. Next time around meet Ethan, be prepared to fall for him, oh and bring tissues – you will need them more than once!

Casualty – An introduction

A number of years ago when I began my scriptwriting career, a friend asked me what television show I would want to write for if the opportunity ever arose. Without hesitation my answer was Casualty and to this day that sentiment still stands. Therefore before starting this post I should first point out that I write not only as a fan of the show and someone who has been lucky enough to visit the set, but also a writer with ambitions to one day work there.

As of today, 4th January 2014, I will be writing a post episode review of all Casualty episodes that are screened on BBC1 and supplementing this with added blog entries about the show itself, my thoughts on it and the direction it is travelling. As I have previously referenced, I was given the opportunity to visit the Casualty set in Cardiff in December 2013 after attending a preview screening of episodes 20 and 21 of the current series in a cinema with cast and crew. These episodes are due to be screened on 11th and 18th January, so I will be trailing them on my blog ahead of broadcast.

The big question to answer is what it is about Casualty that I adore quite so much, and the answer to that is not as simple as to say “everything”. When you look at what makes a Casualty, it is clear the show itself balances the patient stories of the week, usually an A, B and C storyline, with the ongoing character development and storylines of the permanent hospital cast. There is a mixture of epic stunts, day-to-day injuries, accidents and illnesses, and deep emotional trauma that are all uncovered, managed and treated by the various Doctors, Nurses, Paramedics and support staff, and that is the way it has always been.

I guess in that case you could surmise that Casualty hasn’t changed, and whilst I would accept there is a basic formula, the show is far more than A+B=C or D. Casualty doesn’t shy away from tackling issues that really matter, and is able to responsibly educate it’s audience on the horrors of FGM or the harsh realities of anorexia, whilst simultaneously entertaining them with characters attending the hospital for nothing more than a broken ankle or the staff getting up to hijinks. When Casualty is at the top of its game, it has a clear voice and opinion that shines through above all else – and I would say a small girl talking about organ donation after the death of her sister or a solider discussing the aftermath of the trauma of war would be two such moments I recall from last year.

It is also a show that is ageless, in that almost anyone could sit down to watch it and get something out of it. There is a dedicated young fandom following the show on twitter/Facebook at one end of the spectrum, and yet it was my 80-something year old Nan with whom I debated a recent red button episode. Not many shows can call on that wide a span of appeal across the ages, nor sell themselves as a drama that the entire family can watch.

My first memories of Casualty are hazy snippets of a show my mum used to watch when I was a young child, but by series 12 I was a regular viewer and have remained that way for the past 15 years. That is not to say that I have thoroughly enjoyed every episode or loved every character, because that would be unrealistic and untrue. There were entire series that I adored or characters I fell for completely, such as George, Tina, Holly, Lara, Nina (all strong females I’ve just realised) but there were other points where I felt the show was not at its best. I think for me, the key element is striking that balance between the main cast story arcs and the episode specific patients so that neither element dominates the other, but instead compliments the storytelling of the series overall.

In 2011 there was a significant change when the show moved from a set in Bristol to the new state of the art set in Cardiff at BBC Roath Lock, which I have been lucky enough to visit on a number of occasions. As sad as it was to say goodbye to the memories of the previous set and location, the new studios have reinvigorated the show in a way I could never have imagined. The first half of 2012 provided Casualty with some of the strongest episodes I’ve seen in any continuing drama for years and whilst I didn’t think series 27 (August 2012 to July 2013) was as strong, the show has remained on an upward trajectory as it moves forward to this coming year.

There have been some significant cast changes in 2013 with a number of key characters (Nick Jordan, Sam Nicholls and Tom Kent) departing but also an influx of interesting newbies for the viewers to get to know, such as Robyn, Lily, Rita and Max. However the first quarter of 2014 sees the arrival of two new doctors – Ethan and Caleb, a new nurse – Lofty, and the return of the legend that is Connie Beauchamp, transferred from sister show Holby City. All of this makes me incredibly excited to see how the onscreen chemistry between the cast of characters plays out and gives me confidence that the show is going to continue on its forward march.

However it is not just the actors and actresses behind characters that make an episode of Casualty, there are so many people working behind the scenes who make the show what it is. Oliver Kent has recently returned to the show in the Executive Producer role and Erika Hossington starting as Producer, with her first episode going out tonight. Having recently had the opportunity to spend an evening in the company of both of them, I’ve never been more convinced that the show is in safe hands nor have I before met people so passionate and true to what this show is about. It was an absolute honour and pleasure to meet them and to hear from them their views on the upcoming year ahead, in terms of taking the show back to its core roots and values, something everyone is committed to and I much appreciate.

Additionally to that the storylining and writing teams are incredibly strong this series, with some of the scriptwriters I rate highly being given some of the biggest episodes to script. Again I had the honour of speaking to Sally Abbott at the London Screenwriters Festival back in October, and it was a joy to see how enthusiastic she was for the show, characters and storylines – plus learning about Casualty story conferences was the best insight I could have wished for. On top of that I’ve made a great friend in Steve Hughes, who had directed some of my favourite episodes, including 20 and 21 coming up from next week, and I’ve loved our discussions about the show and also learning about how he puts together an episode. I could not have wished to meet a nicer man to learn from.

I think the point I am making is that as I look to the future with Casualty, what I see is a team full of people who are inspired, enthused and passionate about the show and have a clear direction for where they want to take it. I know twitter fans have been abuzz upon seeing the winter highlights clip on the BBC website, as this has given them an insight as to what is ahead and also on hearing the remixed theme music, which again holds true to the concept of taking the show back to its roots – as it sounds like a 2014 version of the old theme.

Casualty is, and always was, the show that made my Saturday nights complete and is a show that I have stood by for over 15 years. However as I settle down to watch tonight’s episode I am certain I can say that not only am I confident this year will be a great one, but I am looking forward to blogging about it too.

Silent Witness: Series 17 – Commodity

Series 17 – Commodity. Parts one and two. Written by Timothy Prager, Directed by Daniel O’Hara

Who is Rachel? As ever Silent Witness begins with a question that must be answered, with a man returning to his darkened house, calling out to her, with one of those definite someone is at home but all is not right moments that this show and others like it are so good at. He heads up the stairs to find her and…. There are the dead bodies. Welcome back Silent Witness, welcome back.

The Storylines

In Commodity there were three main fatality storylines:

  1. The deceased Rachel and her son Nathan
  2. Footballer Isaac Dreyfus landing himself in hot water
  3. An unidentified female corpse being found at a waste dump

So firstly to Rachel: She and her son were found by her husband Adam Freedman, who does not want people cutting them up. DS Burchett (played by the fabulous Kaye Wragg) is investigating, and she has some back and forth with Nikki over whether the mum or dad could be the killer as Rachel died of a single gunshot wound, whereas little Nathan was killed by a drug overdose. When it transpires he was autistic, Mr Freedman is questioned about whether his wife could cope with their son, to which his answer is “Shame on you” accompanied by an exquisite explanation of how they saw beauty in Nathan which the world didn’t see, not unlike how some people do not understand certain pieces of art. This doesn’t prevent her asking him if he ever drugged his son, which causes him to question her sanity and proves to him that she does not have children. Oh and Rachel was visited by her sister in the mortuary, only it transpires she doesn’t actually have a sister, but the woman involved and a male are hanging about outside the Freedman house in a car.

Secondly to Isaac: Mr Dreyfus is a wannabe superstar footballer with an ego and attitude to match, who also happens to have gotten himself into twitter related mischief being a Jew who made a comment about the Prophet Mohammed and that was before a tape turned up of him allegedly beating up a woman whilst having sex with her. His agent, Mousa (played by Ace Bhatti – last seen burning to death as Zainab’s ex in Eastenders) is defending him to anyone who will listen, but as the club and sponsors all make plans to drop him, there are few left willing to hear. Isaac does not take anything seriously at first, playing video games whilst making jokes about death threats, taking steroids and his wife needing to hire an ugly nanny, however after lamenting that the club wants rid of him, he concedes and gives Mousa the money to pay her off. Also DCI Burke from Taggart is running the football club, having now appeared on BBC one twice in as many days having been in a New Year’s Eve drama too.

Lastly to Miss Unidentified: When a body is discovered in such a desolate place as a riverside waste disposal depot, you know someone didn’t want them to be found. By the time Nikki and Jack arrive the police have compromised forensics by placing a blanket over the body, but whilst Jack berates DI Leighton for this he quickly covers her back up when he gets a good look at her injuries. The girl was knocked out and strangled, but was apparently not dead when acid was poured over her face and for once I am glad they obscured the on screen image so I didn’t have to see that. Nikki and DI Leighton briefly reference there is no moral answer to this before he contributes that it shows the world is an awful place when the fact the unidentified woman wasn’t raped is scarier than she was. Jack and Clarissa do some science around grass, whilst she also attempts to track down both skip trucks and breast implant manufacturers. They cleverly establish that the grass must have come from a professional sports pitch, and the only one fitting the bill is the Thames City training ground, where DI Leighton later meets Bazza the helpful groundsman who shows him, Nikki and Jack where the acid is stored.

Upon being questioned, Isaac denies knowing the unidentified woman despite this being an obvious lie and by the time he gets home the police are there interviewing his wife Monica, who has confirmed Eva used to be their nanny. The police and pathologists debate time of death, before there is a search of Isaac’s house which is quickly wrapped up due to his small daughter Zara accidentally sitting down to watch the sex tape DVD.

Episode one ends with the police officers having a fling, Isaac detained in custody, Mousa face down dead in a pool of vomit and the discovery that Nathan and Eva both had the same concoction of drugs in their system. Five dead bodies and three stories just became one.

Episode two begins with Mousa’s post mortem, as the police pull his life apart and his nephew Sami is consoled. Nikki and Jack identify the strange presence of a copper bullet, that he was killed elsewhere and through some mirror trickery that he was sitting on a graffiti covered bench when shot.  Isaac Dreyfus takes the opportunity of a DNA swab to flirt with Nikki (not that I blame him, Emilia is rocking the new hairdo) before his police interview where his defence, delivered by his father-in-law, is that Mousa can confirm everything. He admits “being intimate” with Eva, which is one way of putting it, but says Mousa was dealing with everything and he is the victim. He does look most put out when the police advise him that the man in question is now dead, having been murdered trying to pay a blackmailer who had been dead over a week.

Thames City deny knowing about the blackmail and the car couple watch events unfold on the news, whilst DS Burchett has established Eva was nanny for Nathan too. Nikki has to explain to little Zara why she is needs to put a cotton bud in her mouth, as the family is tested for DNA, and Monica questions whether they believe Isaac did it. When the police and Lyell Centre teams meet to discuss the cases, they debate if Isaac could be clever enough to blackmail himself to cover up a murder before Nikki is criticised by DI Leighton for providing commentary but not physical evidence. It is clear the police are keen to nail their suspect, who DS Burchett calls a selfish, immature boy and after a reconstruction of the Freedman crime scene, this leads to a showdown between Nikki/Jack and DI/DS with DI Leighton calling on the Lyell team to step up and later lead to him accusing Jack of assault.

Nikki joins Jack at the gym before a fight, where he has gone to satisfy – in Clarissa’s words – his masochistic tendencies and promptly has a crisis of confidence over whether she should be looking to prove a man guilty or innocent, whilst back at the Lyell Centre, Clarissa gets the shivers when she is convinced someone else is there in the darkness. The fight obviously did Jack good, as he comes back as wired as he is beaten up with the cataclysmic idea that this is a hate crime with Eva, the nanny, as the link and Clarissa later confirms that in addition to being Jewish, both Mr Freedman and Mr Dreyfus were significant financial contributors to Israel.

Nikki has paperwork missing from her desk and goes to accuse Chamberlain, but upon Clarissa checking CCTV they establish it was Ruth, Rachel’s faux sister, who had snuck in whilst she was alone. Chamberlain has to try and establish what happened between his team and the police, and based on Nikki’s confident ascertain of events that could have occurred in the case they meet with the police and put forward the theory that Preston and McNally from the club knew about the blackmail, and their fingerprints will be on the tape. Despite their denials, when it becomes apparent McNally was a police officer in a former role and therefore his DNA and prints are on record, he cracks and when prompted confesses he knows about the extortion.

The police fear for their jobs as they have to release Isaac, who returns home via a scrum of journalists to find someone had been attacking his house. He tells his wife that they are leaving and phones his agent to make necessary travel arrangements, where his call is passed to Sami. Simultaneously Nikki discovers fibres on Nathan’s blanket are a familial match for Mousa, making Sami himself the killer.

Nikki and Jack are called out to attend the scene with the DI and DS as Mousa’s colleague lies murdered on the floor but before they can get started, DS Burchett opens the door to his office triggering a pre-set explosion. As they gather themselves outside and the DS is comforted by her husband, DI Leighton is informed Zara has been abducted. Nikki makes a leap of sense to guess that Nathan was an abduction target too, but when he reacted badly to the abductors they accidentally killed him with an overdose to quieten him.  She also makes the connection that Ruth could either be an accomplice or trying to catch the abductors, leading Chamberlain to request information from the Home Office and speculation from Jack about the Israeli secret service.

Isaac goes to drop off the requested ransom in woodland and is confronted by a gun toting Sami, who shoots him in the leg when he tries to follow. By the time he reaches open ground he sees Sami being shot by the mystery couple, who had earlier met with Mr Freedman. The team unexpectedly can’t locate the bag, but clues in the dirt provide them with a trail into the woodland where they locate a drugged Zara within a shed. The police track down the bag, with DI Leighton taking armed police to the location however before they can get to the bag, shots are fired and Bazza the groundsman is dead with the mystery couple fleeing the scene.

The next day Clarissa and Jack attend the football, whilst Isaac recovers at home with his family and Freedman takes down the football posters on Nathan’s wall. Chamberlain and Nikki have brief words about him being told he was easy to like once upon a time, and when he walks away she turns to find Leo’s old squeaky chair by her desk.

The new guy

Whilst all of the above is taking place, Nikki and Jack have to adjust to the arrival of Thomas Chamberlain in their midst as the new man in charge. When he arrives, he appears to be Mr Suit and I immediately feel myself glower at him for not being Leo before I tell myself to grow up a little but he rightly identifies the team, and viewers more than likely, are quite passive aggressive towards him. He has been doing his research, as he knows Jack accounts for 27% of profits – well done Jack by the way, for a newbie you’ve made them a decent amount of money there. I did laugh when Chamberlain immediately antagonised Clarissa by asking her “What are you?” which she states is offensive and asks him if he thinks she is a monster. You go Clarissa. She also clarifies that she isn’t what she does when he states her job title, which prompts the response “I am” from the new guy. I am guessing Thomas has little else in his life except pathology and I look forward to finding out why.

He also makes the unfortunate mistake of informing Nikki that he is replacing Leo, which she quickly corrects by informing him that he is taking over the job. Nikki had definite father related issues, which you would do with a parent as useless as hers, and therefore I don’t blame her for being so pointed with anyone trying to replace the man who had come to be her dad. It was a little strange for Chamberlain to attempt to engage with Nikki as she is about to have a shower, therefore I was amused when she asked if he was intending on staying to perve over her before clarifying, in case there was any doubt, that this was not an offer.

Chamberlain manages to unsettle Nikki by rearranging Leo’s office, which is redecorated to mark him out as a “man of distinction” as Clarissa sarcastically puts it. He challenges Nikki to push the boundaries with the evidence, by asking her to play with the information and checking if she has the skills to do that causing Jack to advise him that a) Nikki doesn’t do that and b) he is surprised Chamberlain is still alive. Their relationship worsens when she goes to accuse him of removing the document from her desk and he tells her not to accuse him after first praising her post mortem.

However there is a thawing of the ice when she attempts to apologise and he advises if he had to apologise for everything he had thought, he would never stop. At least her apology is more successful than the woeful one from Jack which is read directly from Clarissa’s typed up words. When questioned about the case, Nikki finally finds the confidence to put stand by her belief in what occurred and this both prompts Chamberlain to both obtain an apology from the police also put Nikki’s opinion forward as that of the team. Later on he advises Nikki that he was told at school that he was easy to like, and that is an ability you do not lose. He is right, it isn’t. I liked him already by this point, especially as he had rescued Leo’s squeaking chair for Nikki’s use.

Clarissa and Jack

I love the dependence that Jack has on Clarissa, as she grounds him in a way that demonstrates how connected they were. She knew without question he was lying when he said he had been with a girl when he was called out to the Eva crime scene, as she reckoned he would have complained far more if he had been. Jack also goes to the football at Thames City early in episode one and Clarissa questions why he did not take her, something he himself lives to regret when she takes him to the next game at the end of episode two and because of her chair they get front row seats. To say he is impressed is an understatement, although personally I would have had him down as a United supporter.

Nikki and Jack

The banter between Nikki and Jack feels incredibly real to me, especially as colleagues. In fact I can imagine me saying similar to one of my male friends at work, and I can now say I’m channelling my inner Nikki Alexander when I do. She tells him he oozes charm, he tells her she wants to be the boss because she acts all bossy. He also points out in relation to a photo of Isaac in a magazine that every woman wants to be a wag, which Nikki denies and says she would not let her existence be defined by a man. Please let that be the case this series, Nikki and relationships always end in disaster.

Despite their bickering Nikki defends him to a fashion when DS Burchett questions his reputation, by stating that he doesn’t like the police although it does lead me to wonder quite how many police officers has Jack managed to irritate in London by this point?

It is also with Jack that Nikki has some of her most retrospective moments, such as when she queries if it wrong to like things that are familiar. Jack appears to compare her life to Leo’s old chair at this point, stating it needs oil to make it run smoothly and Nikki says she doesn’t want anything in the room to change. Jack quietly points out it already has, making the point that so has she.

Nikki

I’m glad that the show didn’t make Nikki the boss, primarily because I don’t think the character is experienced enough or mature enough to pull it off and Nikki wouldn’t be the same if she couldn’t keep getting herself into scrapes every second episode. However I also think from Nikki’s point of view, it will do her good to work under someone else before she gets that extra step up as this will develop her further. Throughout the episodes several people questioned Nikki’s opinion and she also spent a lot of time contemplating her thoughts whilst staring into the darkness, understandable given that Leo died and her world has therefore changed irrevocably.

Nikki also has a significant crisis of confidence over her abilities, stating she used to have clarity over what she thought and yet now she is stuck on the fence but wants certainty. She cannot even decide if she is looking for evidence that someone is guilty or that the very same person is innocent, losing her purpose for a search for the truth regardless of who it is believed carried out the crime. She is so worked up and engrossed that Jack has to brush her aside to go to his fight but it is on re-focusing on his new lead that gives her the kick she needs to get herself back on track, and give her the ability to stand up and be counted with her opinion once more.

Nikki is back in business.

Overall

There was a good interlinking storyline that managed to keep my interest and also introduce Thomas Chamberlain to the team in a manner which did not feel clunky. He has already fitted in with the team, Jack is back on top form as always and Nikki travelled quite some distance within the space of two hours of television time. Silent Witness managed to feel both the same as it always has and have a new flavour. As a result I am definitely looking forward to watching the remainder of the episodes of series 17, and at the same time am beginning a re-watch of my DVDs. Series 9 to 16 here I come!

Silent Witness – An introduction

I’ve been watching Silent Witness since I was a teenager, although perhaps at that time I was far too squeamish to truly appreciate it, especially the graphic post mortems. However despite it occasionally making me feel queasy, I quickly learned to enjoy the spectacle of watching the central trio of fictional protagonists on a quest for the truth. This was back in the days of Dr Sam Ryan, expertly played by Amanda Burton, but despite my interest, there was nothing in the show that grabbed me.

And then Emilia Fox arrived.

Nikki Alexander was a breath of fresh air to a programme that I was concerned was becoming stale before Sam left, but I still cannot believe it is now 9 series since she landed on the doorsteps of the Lyell Centre back midway through series 8. The character sent the show off in a new direction but also brought it back to life, ironic really when you think of it. Emilia and the other central cast of the time, Tom Ward (Harry) and William Gaminara (Leo) had great chemistry, and it was both the interplay between them and their individual strengths as characters that pushed Silent Witness forward.

And that was how the show stayed for 7 series.

It was Leo, Harry and Nikki and that was what I, the viewer, was familiar with. Yet as much as I adored it, the same issue that had afflicted the show all those series began to return. Therefore whilst I would never have said aloud that perhaps it was time for someone to leave, with the benefit of hindsight I can very much see that it needed to happen for the show to continue so strongly. Tom Ward left the cast at the end of series 15 with no fuss and no exit, one day he was there and one day he was not, with Harry’s absence being explained by a new job in America. It was a departure that felt necessary but simultaneously without payoff, not helped by the BBC having to screen series 15 in an alternative order due to an episode posing a likeness to cases going through the courts in reality, meaning that the last episode the fans watched on screen with Dr Harry was one where he was closer than ever to Nikki and had no reason to leave.

And then he was gone. (It is a good job I have the DVDs – makes more sense when you watch in the correct order)

Series 16 brought us Jack, expanding the show – and the Lyell Centre – further into the field of forensic science as well as pathology, and despite my active desire to despise him when he arrived to fulfil the void left by Harry’s departure, within one episode I could already see how exciting David Caves’ contributions to the episodes would be. His jack-the-lad character’s arrival, along with Clarissa, a character portrayed most notably with wit and intelligence, with her disability being an important but secondary element, once more breathed life back into the show and helped Silent Witness have what I believe to be one of the strongest series it has ever had.

And then Leo was blown up.

In the last episode of series 16, the team travelled to Afghanistan where Leo suffered the more than unfortunate fate of being killed by a suicide bomber, whilst he protected Nikki from harm, leaving me traumatised and stunned. I actually had to sit in silence for a short period afterwards to process what had just taken place in front of my eyes. I did wonder how they could bring it back, and to be honest the thought of anyone filling Leo’s shoes did not sit comfortably with me, nor did watching Nikki now continue with the absence of her father figure, but upon finding out they had cast Richard Lintern, I was intrigued to see how he would fit within the cast and carry on the legacy of the show for future series.

So how does it work?

For those of you who don’t watch the show, there are some basic rules as to how Silent Witness episodes work out. Within each episode, or pair of episodes, there are multiple storyline strands focusing on a number of different fatalities with pathology, forensics and the police working side by side as they endeavour to establish what caused the deaths. The investigations into the deaths continue, and usually become linked – either explicitly so from the start, or becoming more apparent as the storylines develop, and the team must not only identify the cause of death but also why the person met the fate that it did. Some may see that regular routine as formulaic, which I understand and accept, however I would rather view it as familiar. You know what you are getting – unexplained deaths, post mortems, heightened emotions, a quest for the truth and people passionate about their jobs. There is nothing in that I wouldn’t want to watch.

The various teams involved tend not to always see eye to eye, sometimes over budgets or organisation practice, sometimes due to politics and in a lot of cases due to personality clashes. It usually involves the pathologists, and now also forensics, doing far too much detective work to make it completely realistic but always with one eye on furthering the case or their belief about it. Unlike criminal courts, Coroners Courts have a guiding principle of searching for the truth and therefore acting on behalf of the court, the bereaved and the bodies – who are after all the silent witnesses in their own cases – the team must uncover the answers, and also learn something about themselves along the way.

Looking to the future

Series 17 is now upon us, with Nikki, Jack and Thomas at the helm, alongside Clarissa. It is an interesting team, a new dynamic and all change to where we were a matter of two series ago. Despite this I am once more excited to see what direction the show is taking this year, and whether this will enable it to continue for many more years.

Silent Witness is back. With the familiar music and credits. Perhaps not everything has to change then. Enjoy series 17.

Key episodes

For anyone who knows the show well, the following episodes are my top three Silent Witness episodes of all time. This should give you a steer as to what I love about this show and what it is that brings me back to it time and again:

  1. Shadows (Series 13) – Primarily about a shooting within a college, this is the only piece of television I’ve ever turned off to gather my thoughts before continuing. The first hour is one of the rawest pieces of drama I’ve ever witnessed and the second follows it up perfectly.
  2. And then I fell in love (series 15) – The episode that the BBC were not allowed to screen for a while due to its close nature to real life events, this tells the story of teenage prostitution in a world defined by race, social media and young girls desperate to grow up without knowing what that actually means.
  3. Greater Love (series 16) – The team travel to Afghanistan in relation to the case of a missing solider believed killed by terrorists in this complex, well thought out episode that brought about the ending of the lovely Leo.

A Night at the Rocliffe!

Some of you may recall that back in May 2013 I attended my first BAFTA Rocliffe New Writing Forum and wrote a blog on my experience. As it turned out there were a fair few people interested in hearing what happened that night and my blog itself ended up linked to the official BAFTA Rocliffe page; a slightly surreal experience – although it did explain my sudden upsurge in readers that week.

Following on from that post, I was more than happy to be asked back to attend upcoming Rocliffe events and blog about the goings on, the whys and the wherefores, and that is how come I am here today blogging about the Rocliffe Forum of last Monday.

Unlike last time where the focus was television drama, this forum was focusing on the art of writing for film which is a medium I am less familiar with as a writer but have an endless fascination with as a viewer so I have to say I was more than a little excited. For those of you who have never attended a Rocliffe before, the rules of engagement are as follows:

  • Three script extracts are selected from submissions put forward by emerging writers across the UK.
  • The extracts are cast and directed as three short theatrical pieces to be performed in front of a live audience on the night itself.
  • Each extract is given approximately 30 minutes of time on the night – ten minutes of which is for a performance followed up by a 15-20 minute discussion on the piece. This is moderated by Farah Abushwesha, the Producer of Rocliffe, with the writer and two special guests joining her on stage. Farah leads the panel in discussing the performance, giving feedback on the piece and leading the audience Q&A.
  • The event concludes with a thirty minute panel discussion with the two special guests, in this case Michael Kuhn and Andy Harries, looking at their own experience, background and their rules for success in the field concerned.
  • There is then the opportunity for post event drinks in the bar, a must for emerging talent in all creative industries as an excellent networking opportunity.

Based on the above, all I can say is if you haven’t attended a Rocliffe yet, make sure you attend the next one. I can’t think of many better ways for new writers to spend an evening than hearing a critical analysis of fellow writers work and having the opportunity to spend time in the company of such a varied group of people from the wider industry.

Anyway, back to the event itself and so I settled down with the rest of the audience – in a relatively packed auditorium at BAFTA on Piccadilly – to experience the three extracts. It was immediately clear to me that the pieces chosen were very different in tone, writing style and genre, and each had strengths that I could identify with, which in its essence is one of the key strengths of the Rocliffe programme and events. I have linked to the programme of the event here for anyone who wishes to obtain further information.

The first piece was “Submerged” by Dan Hall, which was directed by Susan Jacobson, and was a ten minute script extract from the second act. The plot of the film comprised of a plane crashing into the sea and how the surviving small group of passengers battled to stay alive, and we joined the six of them stuck in an air pocket inside the cabin as things began to deteriorate. It was immediately clear that the writer had undertaken a significant amount of research into the piece and the narration given as part of the dramatisation was incredibly visual and descriptive of the events being represented upon a stage – meaning that the extract did not suffer from the lack of film set.

In the panel discussion Dan confirmed his extensive research, looking at medical aspects, aviation (via Easyjet!) and the likely outcome post-crash through discussions with an engineer, and the panel discussed that with such a technical environment, it was important the research was 100% accurate as it would be costly to make amendments post filming. The director explained from the floor that on reading the script, it was clear Dan had a good grasp of both audience and the structure of the genre within film.

The panellists both found the idea positive, with Michael commenting that it was easy to understand and had tension, but felt that there needed to be more of a twist to enable the audience to have sympathy for the protagonist. He was pleased to note that Dan was clear on the genre pattern for structuring such films, citing that only a fool would not follow, but felt that the script would benefit from having something that would “turn it in the light” so that it did not immediately have the appearance of a pure genre film. Michael cited Jaws as a film that does the traditional cabin in the woods style story so well, because it turned it on its head by setting it in daylight in a beach environment. Andy reflected that he had felt engaged by the piece, although the back of his mind had been questioning how expensive it would be to film. He noted that whilst this was not something the writer would need to keep in the forefront of their mind, as writing should come first, they would need to be aware of this. He also cited a fondness for the neatness of the enclosed environment, but agreed with Michael that there was a lack of emotional tension between the main characters within the extract and would have liked to see that embellished more.

The piece itself was humorous, and the audience clearly enjoyed it from their reaction. Dan did give us the ending, but I won’t give away any more details here – because I wouldn’t want to spoil what could one day be a future film blockbuster for you.

The second piece was “Limehouse” by Stuart Black, directed on the day by Paul Cavanagh, which told the story of the founder of London’s Chinatown – Brilliant Chang – and a journalist Jackson Verger. The extract was taken from early in the script, and whilst the settings within the film were recognisable as key London landmarks, the writer provided significant description to assist the audience in travelling to the 1920s. Stuart identified that he had a personal connection to Limehouse, Soho and to China himself, and it was that, plus the identification as Brilliant Chang as a potential subject, that drew him to write the script.

In the panel discussion Andy felt like the world portrayed in the script was great and had a feel of the recent BBC hit Peaky Blinders, however he also commented that some of the characters felt passive and that he was looking for more understanding of a clear protagonist as a driver of the story. Michael agreed that the concept was an interesting one, but surmised that as a writer you need to create a piece where the rubber hits the road straight away. He suggested, and Andy concurred, that the script felt leisurely in pace, which can give people the opportunity to switch over or turn off. Michael suggested that in the final cut, the elements we saw on screen may be scaled back or chopped to give the script more of a starting bang, going right to where the story truly started. It was discussed, with the Godfather cited as an example, that slower films work best when the watcher knows immediately who to follow and who holds their attention.

This led onto a discussion about the two apparent protagonists, Brilliant Chang – a man based very much in fact – and Jackson the journalist – a fictional invention. Stuart explained that he had stuck very close to the truth with Brilliant Chang, but was aware that he may need to take it up to the next level to progress the script, with Andy feeding back that in his experience it is the elements you create around the truth that people recall the most, with him recalling that a scene from “The Queen” with the stag (if you have seen the film, you will know precisely what scene this is) being the most talked about in some audiences despite it being a completely fictional element. Michael also contributed that his viewpoint is that whilst it may be based on true events, the real truth comes out of the invention and as a writer you must look for that in the work – truth is not the same as sticking to the facts. The director also suggested from the floor that Stuart may need to make a call over who is his primary protagonist, in Brilliant or Jackson, but also considered that the script could be a screenplay but also a television drama, with the continuing world that such an environment can create.

The piece had a very different feel to the first, and was clearly designed with an alternative audience in mind. Stuart himself advocated that perhaps now is the time to reintroduce slower movies, and given it is only the second draft, I would look forward to seeing the finished article.

The last piece was “To Hell and Back” by Paul Marx, and directed on the night by Chris Brand, which was a comedy feature film telling the story of the death of a bitchy woman and her subsequent attempts to get herself out of hell. The extract was from near the start of the film, as we followed the main character through her death into her introduction to death, hell, the River Styx and of course a meeting with Satan himself. Paul cited that the film was oddly enough inspired by a Meatloaf song, as well as the film “Heaven can wait”.

In the panel discussion Michael stated that he enjoyed the piece, but was struggling to place it in terms of how it could be best conveyed to an audience. He deliberated that with an imagination so great, it would be difficult to contain it within the budget and capacity of a film. He suggested that the medium of radio may be a great possibility, as it was how the stunning visuality of the scenes could be portrayed to an audience within a film that was causing him difficulty. Andy added that the idea definitely had legs and was a genuinely great idea, but questioned whether one of the supporting characters would follow the lead protagonist and act as the central comedic character for her to interact with.

Michael interjected that when someone ever came to him with a project like this, a completely mad idea, he pondered about saying no to it – otherwise it might just come true in the maddest of ways. He was convinced the dialogue was great but how was concerned about how can you do an idea like that justice. This triggered a group discussion about exploring the option of a theatrical production, as Paul stated when he watched rehearsals of the extract, he considered this as a viable option for the first time with this script. It was discussed with much amusement that the only companies able to deliver an idea of this nature in a high quality film would be Pixar or alike, but in this case they would have to make a significant exemption for the swearing!

The audience really took to the extract, and there was general positive feedback about the concept and strong character with one person commenting in the Q&A session that the lead was very real, in that she was someone we all know, someone who controls our lives and as the audience we would love to see it so that people can realise they may not be mourned when they are deceased!

The piece was both funny and surreal, with comedic moments that did not feel forced and very witty, fast paced dialogue. The possibility of a theatre or radio piece are definitely options I hope the writer explores, and as Paul had two pieces long listed for the Rocliffe event I am sure this is not the last we’ve heard of him.

After the dramatisation extracts and individual panel based discussions were completed, Farah asked Michael Kuhn and Andy Harries, who both have illustrious careers within the industry, to give an insight into how they got into the business and what they are currently working on.

Michael started out by explaining that he trained as a lawyer, which he found most boring, before moving on to work for a client in the music business. After ten years he set up Polygram which was responsible for Four Weddings and a Funeral, Notting Hill and Trainspotting amongst others, before setting up Qwerty films. Andy added that he was a journalist before making his way through the realm of jobs within television including presenting, documentary maker and then working as Controller of Drama, Comedy and Film for Granada. He is the co-founder of Left Bank Pictures, who produce Wallander and he is also responsible for The Queen and The Audience. Michael is in post-production on Suite Francoise and Last Days of Mars is out in 2014, whereas Andy is focusing on TV work primarily but also a project based on the story of the school behind the Pink Floyd “Another Brick in the Wall” hit. Farah advised that Michael has been a patron of Rocliffe since he chaired a forum ten years ago, and Andy had just agreed to be a patron also.

In looking at his work, Andy said he sees his current role as to find and nurture talent, and by talent he means writers, all of whom are interesting and challenging in their own way. He explained that he tends to work with a writer for the long term, as it is this type of relationship that gives both parties the ability to broaden horizons and become together better than the sum of their individual parts. He joked that in a lot of cases he will speak to his key writers more frequently than his wife, so it is a big commitment, but the benefit is that those writers will trust him with their ideas. He gave an example of the writer behind the stage hit “The Audience”, which he knew was a great idea the moment it was pitched, however the writer, a long term collaborator of his, only wanted to do it if Helen Mirren would be part of it – and Andy had that connection, having worked on The Queen with her.

Michael reflected that what he found frustrating was that so many writers plug away for years on something that was always a bad idea, and he sees his role as being the stone in their shoe reminding them constantly to keep in mind how good the idea is. He advised that he has seen so many people insist on going on with a project, even when everyone has told them it was a bad idea, and that this can be a massive waste of excellent writing talent. He gave the advice that you have to balance between the fact that if you only do what has already has worked before you will fail – you have to take it to the next level – and the fact that if you do something everyone else has already proved won’t work you will be lost. He considered that the key issue for him is that sometimes writers are so caught up in their projects they’ve no idea what the landscape around them looks like and therefore they’ve no concept of being lost until they look up many years later on.

Farah suggested that people should never commit to one screenplay, but instead commit to a career as a screenwriter which was agreed by the panel. Michael added that writers frequently underestimate how much work is required to make a script brilliant, citing that Richard Curtis would not show anyone the script for Notting Hill until he was on draft 38 as an example of that. And as a side note to this, I would be so interested in seeing scripts 1 to 37, just to see how the evolution process on that worked – how much of the film people know and love was in the original idea I wonder?

In closing points Andy explained that the film industry is difficult to get financed, as there is no one central place to go, therefore budding screenplay writers should never rule out television, as there is a real appetite for series production presently. Michael added that absolute determination is what is needed, with the right idea and script coming together and the attitude that faint hearts never won a fair maiden. The conclusion from both panel members was that emerging writers must not give up; there are real avenues out there for work to be made when you have a great script, a strong central idea and a good understanding of your audience, market and genre.

Having listened to the panel discussion and the Q&A from the audience with Michael and Andy, I have to say I found them both willing to offer such honest, insightful advice based on their own experiences within the industry. It was refreshing to hear their thoughtful pointers based in the reality of films or shows they had worked on themselves, with their ability to demonstrate a point by putting it into context of a project the audience have all known and loved over the years. I wondered how relevant their comments would be to me, as someone with a passion for television writing, but found their comments incredibly sincere about wanting to develop writing – the real talent behind the industry from their words – across the board, and how flexible their attitude was to film, television, theatre and radio.

Farah concluded the night by citing that in 2013 over a thousand scripts were submitted to BAFTA Rocliffe, which led to over 120 scheduled meetings between agents, producers and execs with writers. Events and schemes such as this do open doors, but as she advised without writers it wouldn’t work. Therefore the closing point of the evening was that all writers, emerging or otherwise, should make 2014 the year they write plenty of scripts and I for one intend to wholeheartedly live up to that.

To 2014, to writing, to attending more BAFTA Rocliffe events and to try my best not to get lost along the way! Good luck to us all emerging writers, these are such exciting times.

Encouragement of diversity or having an agenda?

Yesterday I asked a question on twitter that led to a debate with several people of opposing viewpoints chipping in and it sparked some thoughts in my mind.

The question itself is whether I should specify each individual character as having a particular ethnical background. Basically, if irrelevant to the plot, should I state that Ruby is white, Abi is asian and Jade is black? In my head they are but that’s because I’ve attributed a picture to them that is individual to me but would I then be acting as casting director as well as writer when I’ve no need to be.

I have never stated the skin colour of my characters unless it is relevant to a particular plot point or characteristic, I don’t feel I need to tell people. However I am conscious of the fact that I want to encourage diversity, reduce the likelihood of a ‘whitewash’ casting and also ensure my characters represent the demographic of their supposed home town.

If I state the script is set in London, I would expect to see cultural diversity in casting but perhaps that is naive of me. When I turn on my television I rarely see a cast that reflects modern UK culture in terms of their ethnicity. For example, where are the Eastern European people in Eastenders? Why only minimal BME characters? The London I know is not the same one that Walford seems set in.

I am perturbed that when unspecified people assume characters are white, and that someone could indicate that mainstream characters would be white unless the ‘issue’ requires them to be otherwise. However likewise I’m not sure I agree with portraying someone with a particular name or behaviour to signify or infer their ethnic origin.

I say this because it was once suggested to me that a character eating rice and peas or jerk chicken would indicate someone black/Caribbean, or a character called Anja would be Polish. I’m a lover of jerk chicken, rice and peas myself and the Anja I know is as Cornish as you can be.

Go figure.

I want to promote diversity, not because of some overwhelming political desire to do so as such, moreover that the world I see portrayed through my television screen does not represent the world based outside my window and I want that to be different. You don’t have to have an agenda, just an understanding that things only change because people make them change.

If I specify the ethnicity of Ruby, Abi and Jade it restricts the casting of those characters. If I leave it open, I appear to run the risk of having yet another script where there is potential that people read it and assume a ‘whitewash’.

Surely there is a middle ground? To cast the characters based on the ethnic makeup of the area they represent as opposed to naming specific characteristics for each person.

And more importantly, as a new writer in 2013, should I be more concerned that this still has to be a debate because no one appears to have an answer?

Promises to keep

This time last week feels like a lifetime ago now, and whilst I have every intention of blogging about my experiences at London Screenwriters Festival over the coming weeks, right now the enormity of the events seems strangely overwhelming.

When Chris stood up on the first day and spoke about us all becoming a family, I was intrigued by how the weekend would pan out. As with most writers, I’m not an overtly social animal and the prospect of networking with hundreds of people was more than a little daunting. When my name, picture and quote

Surround yourself with creative people

came up on screen I smiled, but I didn’t understand how much that would come to mean.

The three festival days, and networking/chatting/drinking nights passed like a blur. I’ve never experienced time moving so quickly and yet so slowly all at once before. It was intense, exhilarating, and mesmerising simultaneously.

And so it came to be that I was once again sitting listening to Chris speak at the end of the festival. When he referenced us being a family this time, it was no longer an obscure concept of what could be but a statement of who we were. The experience we had all been through together had bound us in a way other people, people who are not as passionate about storytelling and scriptwriting as we are, are not privy to understanding.

The incomprehensible range of emotions I felt upon watching the video for the second time and now not only identifying with, but also recognising, the people within it was something I’d not prepared for. From the funny to the serious and from the warm to the sincere, the quotes were all ones which I felt could now belong to me. Is scriptwriting a religion? I cannot recall the last time I felt a sense of belief as strong as I did in that moment.

Which brings me onto the promise.

Chris asked us to make a promise, something we would achieve and report back on at the next festival. It couldn’t be a promise you could cheat at, it needed to mean something.

I made two:
Firstly as a confirmed workaholic I am reducing down how many hours I give to my day job so that it no longer consumes my entire being. This frees up time for me to be me and for me to explore my writing.

Secondly I am submitting to the Spring BBC Writersroom. I need a deadline to motivate me, therefore I have given myself one.

And next year I will be back at London Screenwriters Festival, ready to enjoy three days back with my writing family and taking another step forward in my writing career. Oh and report back on my promises, plus hold others to their own.
I can’t wait to see you all again.

Musical Interludes

I know that many writers have very specific routines they follow when they are settling down to get pen to paper (or more likely fingers to keys these days) and a number of people I speak to have a particular place to sit, position to be in or other special requirements when they commence their writing.

I don’t really have that because as long as I’m with my laptop or notebook I can write. Yes I would have a preference for being curled up on my bed when trying to get certain things written but I can genuinely write anywhere without anything other than a plug socket or spare pen.

And yet I’ve noticed that my most efficient way of writing does include one other factor and that is the ability to listen to music. I cannot tell you the name of individual artists or albums that best support my writing but usually there is a song that I most associate with the mood of the piece I’m caught up with or something that could easily be a supporting song in the scenes soundtrack.

That one piece of music will get inside my head and won’t let go until the story is told, chapter/scene is completed or the character has had some kind of breakdown. It is not unusual in that regard for me to play the same song on repeat for over 24 hours straight until it is as much part of the ambience as where I’m actually sitting.

These songs are not always obvious choices although sometimes it really is a piece of contemporary pop music that reaches into my mind and wants to tease a story out. I have to say there is also a significant difference between characters and the song choice they elicit. My Sophie is very much an angry angst ridden kinda girl with dance music interludes whereas I have characters who think a bit of Michael Buble or Nessum Dorma is the way to go.

Music definitely influences my mood and can change how I feel quicker than almost anything else that I know. I guess on that basis I use it to get me in a suitable mood to write a script in much the same way an actor might to give an accurate portrayal of a particular emotion.

I now plan out my play lists before writing commences in order to ensure I get the best possible outcome depending on what I’m aiming to write. So if you ever pop round and you’ve got a bit of Rihanna blaring then I’m sure that Sophie and I are having a rave up but if you’re hearing Skinny Love,  Born to Die or The Weakness in Me then perhaps come back tomorrow!