Screen • World Productions • Cardiac Arrest

Off-Cut: Cardiac Arrest

Margaret Matheson and I talked about a medical show. We had just done a cop show and the next television banker was a doc show. There was a long history of medical doctors who were writers, Chekov being the most well known, so we advertised in the medical press. Over a hundred sent us samples. Some of them were good. We picked Jed Mercurio.

With the possible exception of Casualty’s early episodes, all medical series had been the drama of reassurance. However grisly and realistic the surface gloss, who wouldn’t want to be taken to ER’s emergency room and be saved by George Clooney? In British shows, nurses are angels and doctors are miracle workers, some with rough manners, but all with kind hearts. I know, I acted in six episodes of Emergency Ward 10.

We wanted to revisit this staple television drama, but to bury, not to praise it. It was not our business to do public relations for the medics or to make the audience feel reassured.

Jed was a brilliant, witty, acerbic writer, still in his twenties. Most importantly, he was a working hospital doctor. His take was blunt. Don’t go into hospital if you can avoid it. They might kill you. But if you must, don’t go in August, when the consultants are away on holiday and the just qualified are coming fresh on to the ward, because they’ll certainly kill you. It was comedy with a razor sharp edge and its black humour exploded all the comforting medical clichés which had reassured audiences for generations. Jed was a quick learner and his writing talent was equal to the challenge. His subsequent career has built on this early promise. He wrote every episode, at first while he was still doing long hours as a houseman. He gave up medicine for writing after a while.

We found Jed by going to those who know. We wanted news from the front. It proved yet again that talent is everywhere. It just needs discovering, nurturing and above all a chance.

We cast a young unknown, Helen Baxendale, in the lead. From day one, with impressive authority, she gave the show its core, its stance. Other fresh talents were supported by older, more established actors. We used this familiarity. The audience would see them and know the kind of character they were playing, only to discover they were, darkly, not at all like their stereotype.

Margaret wanted to shoot in her native Scotland, so we went to Glasgow where she and Paddy Higson put together a good crew. It was the first networked drama series using the new digital cameras.

Cardiac Arrest drew howls of protest from interested parties and we were inevitably accused of irresponsibility. This meant that we were telling some truths they didn’t want told. Even the Health Minister intervened. So, business as usual.

But the series was later used in medical schools to help train future doctors.