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Drama that gets right to the heart of the matter; Graham Keal finds out what's new and what's familiar about Casualty spin-off Holby City.

No one could accuse Holby City surgeon Anton Meyer of not having a heart - you can see him manhandle one, pulsating in all its gory glory after he plumbs it into his latest transplant patient in episode one.

Meyer, played with a charismatic combination of autocratic arrogance and dry wit by George Irving in BBC1's new Casualty spin-off, starts off as a ferocious, unbending, unsmiling hate figure, but he's more complex than that. You soon realise there is muc h to admire too.

Meyer's manner and his work in the theatre, set to soothing classical music as he delves deep into the blood, muscle and bone, is the star turn in our introduction to Holby City, and his curt communications to right-hand-man Nick Jordan (ex-EastEnder Mic hael French) form the programme's primary double act.

Both actors prepared for their roles by observing heart by-pass operations at Papworth Hospital: "An operation like that is miraculous to someone like me, but it's the kind of thing they knock off in about 45 minutes. It's like pulling a tooth out for pe ople of that calibre," says Irving.

"It was an enormous privilege. I had seen operations on film, but being just two feet away is something else."

Viewers get the kind of close-ups that prompt vivid memories of Your Life In Their Hands, but despite the carefully wrought realism of the organs and incisions on view, the operating scenes owe everything to brilliant make-up artists and nothing to neatl y inserted documentary footage.

BBC Head of Drama Series Mal Young is also Executive Producer of Holby City and is credited with the idea of feeding off Casualty's success to fuel the new medical drama that BBC1 was looking for.

No rival in recent years, including the excellent Cardiac Arrest on BBC1 or ITV's axed Medics, has come anywhere near Casualty in the ratings, so why not simply develop the existing hit?

Past rumours that Casualty might be turned into a thrice-weekly soap or similar ran a great risk of changing a winning formula in a way viewers might not accept. This way, Casualty carries on, come what may, and the new series can stand on its own merits while still flirting with A&E.

Walk-ons from Charlie Fairhead and appearances by other Casualty faces provide familiar reference points amid the new faces, and some patients seen through the doors of A&E resume their treatment as they progress to other wards.

"Casualty is limited to stories about a certain entry point to the hospital," says Young, "the 'accidents of the week'. In Holby City the stories are much more about long-term care. . . It's not about a life and death decision of the moment."

That view is not entirely borne out by the heart transplant drama that dominates episode one, but some plot strands are allowed to develop over time, like the story of coma victim Nicola Fallon, first treated in Casualty after being injured in a riot. Yo ung's influence also extends to the casting.

He's a former Brookside executive who moved on to establish Channel 5 soap Family Affairs, so it's not surprising to see so many soap names crop up on the Holby City Staff.

Apart from Michael French (alias former EastEnders baddie David Wicks) there's Angela Griffin from Coronation Street (she was hairdresser Fiona for five years) as Nurse Jasmine Hopkins, Nicola Stephenson (who shared a lesbian kiss with Anna Friel in Broo kside) as her best friend Nurse Julie Fitzjohn.

And from episode two onwards Lisa Faulkner joins the cast as glam blonde House Officer Dr Victoria Merrick.

Lisa played stroppy teenager Louise in Brookside but has now dispensed with the nose ring and braids to play a "searingly intelligent junior doctor" with a good haircut.

People in the business can be snotty about the acting abilities of soap stars but Mal Young is not among them: "Some of the best performances on screen have come out of soaps in the last few years and there is a fantastic amount of talent in those shows, " he says.

It's a fair point, and if episode one is any guide, Young's soap stars don't let him down.

Heretical as it might seem, I liked Holby City more than Casualty, not least because the formula is so much more flexible and unpredictable.

There's no call to 'spot the accident' before it happens. "Holby City is not just another medical show," insists Young, and he's right. It's another good one.

Holby City starts on Tuesday on BBC1.
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Author:Keal, Graham
Publication:The Birmingham Post (England)
Date:Jan 8, 1999
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