Monday, 3 February 2014

Monday Musings: Holby City

Eleanor Catton confessed to 'being strongly influenced by long-form box-set TV drama' in a recent-ish interview with the Guardian, citing The Sopranos, The Wire and Breaking Bad as some of her favourite series. This may be a controversial statement, but I would go a step further; I think there are things that novelists can learn from not only good, intelligent TV series like the ones Catton mentions, but from decidedly less thoughtful ones as well. My current guilty pleasure is Holby City. This has only partly to do with my slight obsession with medical drama (I hate Casualty); the other part of the programme that attracts me is the inner workings of the hospital dynamic and the way that characters are used, both to facilitate plot lines and to be affected by incidents that make them change. This is never done well, and the scripting is both heavy-handed and predictable. My favourite tropes, which turn up in virtually every episode, are Comedy Old Patient of the Day! (™), The Patient Who Starts Off as A Nuisance But Has Something Important to Teach Us All (™) and, most importantly for Holby's emotional resonance, The Patient Who Has The Same Problems As One Of Their Doctors (™). (Extra points when all these characters are combined into one.) Occasionally, Holby goes a bit wild and uses flashbacks to demonstrate the incredible parallels between character arcs - this usually happens when an important character is leaving - but, generally, we have to rely on cheesy background music to let us know what's important.

And yet, I love Holby City. I think what I like most about it is the sense of improvisation. Juggling an ever-shifting cast and dealing with characters that leave too abruptly and characters that stay too long, the numerous writers of the series have to think on their feet. Unlike drama series like Downton Abbey that feel confined by the constraints of each season (although Downton engages in much randomer plot twists than Holby would ever consider), Holby has to keep plodding on every week, fifty-two weeks of the year, and I think this is where it becomes better than it really ought to be. It's in the holes between obvious character arcs and predictable plot lines that the most interesting things happen. Holby is also able to make fun of itself, in a particularly endearing way, although it's difficult to give an example if you don't watch the show regularly. 

Most importantly, the writers understand how to use stock characters. The CEO of Holby is a key role in this respect. Back in the day, Anton Meyer ruled the roost, and it's no coincidence that I stopped watching Holby as a teenager after he left. Holby suffered under numerous inappropriate CEOs in the interim before finally striking gold with Henrik Hanssen, who was basically Meyer reincarnated in Swedish form. Hanssen has now sadly left, and the jury is still out on his replacement. What does the good CEO of Holby need? (Note: this is entirely a consideration of producing good drama, not good NHS care.) Essentially, they act as a moral centre for the hospital, but they usually have an uncomfortable past. They're brusque and cold and say as little as possible, but have endearing quirks. If their emotions are ever engaged, nobody must ever know. They're also willing to take risks for the sake of their patients. As I think the writers realised when they created Hanssen, the programme needs a CEO like this at its centre, or else it tends to collapse in on itself. But as we can see from the differences between the characters of Meyer and Hanssen, there's space to play with the trope, to become creative; perhaps more space precisely because of the relentless pressure to carry on creating.

The only other medical drama I currently watch, besides Holby, is House. (If Greg House could manage his morality a little better, he would be an excellent CEO at Holby.) House is clearly a better programme than Holby in every way. It is better-scripted, better-constructed, less predictable, and less melodramatic. And yet, I have to confess, I enjoy Holby more. Why? I think I like the way it tells a continuing story; that there are arcs within episodes but they aren't constrained within a particular episode or a particular season; that, although it is far more predictable in the short term, it is somehow less predictable in the long term. (I never know what's going to happen in House. I have always known how House is going to end up.) Here is where I think writers can learn. I don't think we can learn from shows like Holby because they're brilliant shows. I think we can learn from the glimpse they give us of the nuts and bolts of the imagination; the quick plot contrivance; the hasty tying-up of threads; the sudden invention of a new obstacle. As Philip Pullman says about Neighbours: 'There is no distracting realism, the acting is terrible, and the characterisation is negligible, so all you are left with is the story.'

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