Casualty, review: Charlie Fairhead’s 38-year A&E shift came to a beautifully fitting end

Somebody call 999 because I feel severely discombobulated. Charlie Fairhead, a fixture on medical drama Casualty (BBC One) since its inception in 1986, has finally hung up his scrubs and stethoscope. It’s the televisual equivalent of the ravens leaving the Tower. If Ken Barlow departs Coronation Street’s cobbles, we’re really in trouble.

Actor Derek Thompson has been putting in shifts at Holby City Hospital’s A&E department for a whopping 38 years, making him the medical soap’s last remaining original cast member. In the list of longest-serving characters on British TV, he’s beaten only by a few of Corrie’s old guard, while sitting just ahead of Emmerdale’s Eric Pollard and Ian Beale from EastEnders.

A special instalment entitled “Charlie” (what else?) saw our hero’s life hanging in the balance after being stabbed last week by a patient. Could Dr Stevie Nash (Elinor Lawless) regain her confidence in time to save him? Across 850 episodes, the beloved senior charge nurse has been shot, run over by an ambulance, nearly drowned, held hostage and suffered two heart attacks. No wonder wise old paramedic Jan (Di Botcher) reassured colleagues that he was “tough as old boots”.

The usual glove-snapping, monitor-beeping, jargon-spouting action was intercut with flashbacks to a fresh-faced Charlie (Jack Franklin) as a rookie nurse during the 1980s. Some period signifiers were clumsy – did we really need punks ranting about Mrs Thatcher? – but in a neat twist, we saw Charlie meeting Stevie as a young girl and inspiring her career in medicine.

It also happened to be the retirement day of his mentor, Shirley (the reliably brilliant Annette Badland). When she died at the end of her final shift, was it a portent that Charlie was about to do likewise? They teased us for a tense half-hour but – spoiler alert – he pulled through and decided to quit while he was ahead.

As Charlie handed in his lanyard and took one last misty-eyed look around the bustling emergency ward, a rollcall of familiar faces returned to say a fond farewell. Duffy! Ash! Baz! Josh! Possibly others I missed due to something in my eye! He drove off into the sunset in his surprise retirement gift, a vintage yellow VW Beetle – the same car he had back in 1986. “It’s a bit old and knackered but aren’t we all?” said Josh (Ian Bleasdale).

It was a typically understated performance from the unerringly excellent Thompson, now 75. No big speeches, just crumpled, careworn and full of heart. That’s what three decades working in the NHS will do for you. How will the show cope without its lynchpin and moral centre? The BBC better have contingency plans to ensure Casualty doesn’t go the way of its axed sister show, Holby City.

An elegiac episode was ultimately bathed in a feelgood glow. This was populist drama, beautifully judged and powerfully delivered. Casualty might not be fancy or fashionable but it did Charlie proud.

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