Casualty boss on dramatic and permanent format change to show plus new spoilers

There are big changes coming to Casualty as long term fans will notice a brand new format at the end of this year and into the next.

The Casualty we are used to generally has featured a couple of injuries of the week (seriously, people need to stop climbing ladders) alongside a permanently long running arc with regular cast. this week sat down with Jon Sen, the producer of Casualty, who has worked on and off at the show for many years, and also had a recent stint at the helm of EastEnders.

Here, Jon Sen explains how the format is being shaken up dramatically into 12 week arcs, with the now predictable injuries taking a back seat.

He also discusses the changing landscape of soap, some new characters, departing actors George Rainsford and Jason Durr, and a very special episode of the show coming up.

How are you finding being back at Casualty?

I’m loving it. I feel a real affinity with Casualty, having written, directed, story-produced it for a while. I feel it’s a show I really know. The team are wonderful and have been really welcoming on my return. I think it’s a really exciting place at the moment. It’s really great to be steering it in a direction over the next few years. I’m really excited. I love medical drama, it’s just a brilliant format – life and death stakes through the door, every episode people faced with what could be one of the worst days of their lives. It’s great drama and that’s really exciting.

Can you talk a bit about the upcoming improvised episode that centres on the four paramedics?

At Casualty we always try to reflect what’s going on in the NHS, not in a political way but in a factual way. We all know that the NHS, certainly post covid, has been really struggling for resources. There’s increased waiting times and the stress on the hospitals as well as the paramedic services and we really wanted to show to an audience the personal toll that that takes.

A paramedics special was the best way of doing that because the ambulance queues outside NHS hospitals has becoming a real defining visual, I think, of current NHS hospitals.

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Everyone we’re talking to is talking about how difficult it is, increasingly, to get an ambulance. They’re queuing outside, people are being treated in ambulances outside, which is why we really show that fact but also the impact it has on the staff.

We felt the best way to do that, the most naturalistic way – because the success of an episode like this rests on its authenticity and the power to reflect the authentic experience of paramedics – was to ask our actors to improvise along themes. So they’re then dealing with the patients, the guest characters, almost in real time and allowing the action to unfold in front of our eyes.

I think there’s a really lovely, really gripping, tension in watching those scenes evolve. There’s a real live quality to it and also there’s an intimacy that’s really released from those scenes rather than, often you find in drama there’s that sense of hunting for a plot point.

What was really cool was to see actors working together to discover each other’s characters and deal with these situations in situ and that was really liberating. The power of the episode rests in its ability and its success in accessing that truth.

It’s a really special episode. Steve Hughes, the director, always delivers magnificent performances and visuals. It’s a real credit to all the actors in the episode. When you suggest an improvised episode to the team you fear have I pushed it too far? If it goes wrong how do we catch it?

What are the team going to think? Credit to all of them, they were so thrilled and excited even though they were rightly daunted by the prospect, they threw themselves in with both feet and deliver such compelling performances it’s really outstanding considering that’s not their day-to-day job, and it hasn’t been for a while, but they’re consummate professionals.

Are you looking forward to seeing how viewers respond to it?

It’s those episodes that really resonate with an audience. We are also showing it to an audience of real paramedics over the coming weeks to get their response. It’s always really fascinating to find how real medics – doctors, nurses, paramedics who experience the service day in, day out – respond to the episodes.

We have our medical advisers and many of them work in the NHS and they’re reflecting back all the time on the accuracy of our stories. But I’m really interested to see how that strikes a chord with real paramedics on the front line.

What can you tease about what’s coming up in Casualty over the next weeks and months?

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In the build-up to the paramedics’ special episode in December we have an ongoing story about Marcus and Stevie. We play a story where Stevie gets attacked by an aggressive patient – again reflecting the truth of what’s going on in the NHS occasionally.

There’s a lot of physical and verbal abuse of NHS staff. We look at how Stevie is affected by that attack and how it propels her, rather unwisely, into the arms of Marcus because she feels she’s got no one else.

She feels shattered by it and thinks she’s got no one else who is there for her to pick up the pieces. And so it begins a coercive story for her with Marcus, which is really fascinating to see.

What we’re trying with the future series of Casualty is to break them into discrete mini-series. One of my big learning points from EastEnders was always that the audience sometimes struggled to know when to jump in.

You would often get the response of, ‘We can’t watch EastEnders because we don’t know what the stories are.’ So the idea we’ve had with Casualty is to break the overall series into mini-arcs of 12 episodes to really give the audience a great jumping-on point.

The first one begins in January and it’s all about Dylan solving an abuse case. That’s the big spine of the 12 episodes. Later next year we’ve got some new entrants, some new young nurses who are joining the team.

That mini series is going to be all about their experience of joining an ED, and so on. It helps us editorially because I think it gives the audience a stronger idea of a spine, an arc. Like a mini series. It enables the audience to know they can jump on at certain points and if they miss it they can always catch up on iPlayer.

Do you think it’s important that the serial drama format keeps evolving with changing viewing habits?

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Given the level of competition from other channels and the proliferation of content we really need to make sure that we are constantly appealing to our audience.

I think there’s always a danger with serial drama, continuing drama, soaps, of catering to our loyal audience – which we need to – to the exclusion of our lapsed audience who are leaving us. I think we need to be bold and courageous enough to cater for that loyal audience but then go, actually we are modernising.

We may be a 37 year old brand but we aren’t predictable, boring, stale. We are exciting and modern. We’re marketing to an audience stories that really chime with an audience. We’re updating the way we tell stories to keep them in line with every other drama that’s out there.

We know that Holby’s Sacha is making a wee appearance soon. Is there potential for other Holby characters to crossover and could any be permanent?

There’s always potential and it’s always on our minds. Holby was a great loss to TV. It was obviously a different show to Casualty but we were sister shows and had a great affection for one another.

The premise of Casualty is very different to the premise of Holby – the hospital politics, the wards is very different to the life-and-death immediacy of Casualty. However I think there are some much-loved characters who are missed from our screen.

You referenced Sacha Levy coming back for an appearance and I think there’s always scope because there was so much loyalty and affection for that brand. We would be silly not to acknowledge that as a fact and want to attract that Holby audience who may be desperate for a fix of those old characters.

Casualty’s been going for so many years, does it become more difficult to work out ways for people to come to the hospital?

I think we feel the brand itself, that narrative brand that we’re all really aware of – we meet the guests, what’s going to happen to them? They have an accident, they come into the hospital.

That narrative brand that it’s very famous for, we’re moving away from because I think that feels too predictable. I know it was a great game in some quarters to guess what the accident’s going to be and we’re slightly sad to deny that part of the audience that joy, but I think our model going forward is for a far more visceral, exciting version of medical drama where people come in to the hospital already injured.

Then we look at how the medics deal with their medical conundrums and how the guest characters’ lives unfold once they’re in the hospital, as opposed to setting them up in a slightly artificial way outside. We’ve got five brand values that I keep extolling to the team: heart, wit, adrenaline, authenticity and entertainment. I think authenticity is a particularly key one for us.

Saturday night entertainment is really important for us, we need to absolutely deliver on being a Saturday night entertainment drama. But authenticity in terms of ‘would it really happen?’

I think an audience disengages when they think what they’re watching is an inauthentic portrayal of real life. The team and I are working together to make sure that the patients who come in feel much more real, so we’re losing that silly accident of the past where someone comes in having tripped over a kerb and injured themselves on a lamp-post.

That has gone, we’re no longer that show. Now it’s a person having had their severe accident with their arm hanging off and the impact that has on a person’s life and showing the doctors and nurses dealing with that patient. That’s the power of the medical drama – what happens within the hospital as opposed to outside it.

Ethan and David are leaving the show soon. What can you say about how they might be leaving?

Both of them are on a break. There’s never any permanent exit for characters that are so (a) much loved and (b) brilliant and we’ve developed them over years and years and years. It’s been a joy to develop those characters and I would never, ever want to lose them as potentials for the show.

They wanted to flex their acting muscles elsewhere and Jason and George are very talented actors who wanted to flex their muscles on other shows, theatre and film etc. There’s absolutely no doubt that they will return to our screens as soon as possible, really.

Is there a big difference between working on EastEnders and Casualty?

There’s a different approach to making Casualty but I think the engines of both shows are very, very different. With Casualty there’s a massive medical drive and it’s a workplace drama.

Obviously EastEnders is less so. It’s a bigger cast. They are equally exciting in their different ways. Both shows get lumped under the same umbrella and it’s tempting to think they are more similar than they are but I think writers, directors, everybody who works on the shows knows that they function in very different ways, the engine of both is completely different and it’s important to acknowledge that as you go between the shows.

Equally lovely teams, incredibly dedicated professionals. The talent to be able to deliver on the budgets that we have constantly astounds me. That’s why we’re finding now in this golden age of TV a lot of our crew, a lot of our editorial teams are being snapped up by the big players because there’s so much training and such a big chance to hone your craft on our shows.

People are finding in the 9 o’clock dramas actually that level of skill is really valuable.

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