22 March 2010

Angels (And A Bit About Casualty)

Angels 1981 opening titles.

Angels was a BBC series which changed track dramatically. Devised by Paula Milne, it began in 1975 as a seasonal drama series, thirteen fifty minute episodes per year, each episode focussing on a specific student nurse at the fictitious St Angela's Hospital in Battersea, London. One of the show's directors was Julia Smith, who would go on to create EastEnders with Tony Holland in the 1980s.

Early Angels producers included Morris Barry and Ron Craddock.

Firstly, lets dispel the myth that Angels was the first TV medical drama to illustrate that staff working in hospitals in the UK were NOT exclusively white. Emergency - Ward Ten had featured Joan Hooley as surgeon Louise Mahler, and General Hospital gave us Carmen Munroe as Sister Washington.

In 1979, big changes were afoot at St Angela's as Julia Smith became the producer of Angels, and the show switched to a twice weekly soap opera format - thirty-four thirty minute episodes per year. Julia had always felt that the serial format would suit the show.

It took some time, but Julia tracked down Tony Holland, with whom she had previously worked on the long-running Z-Cars series, and he became Script Editor on Angels.

The new soapy Angels moved into the 1980s by moving away from its original setting - St Angela's Hospital, Battersea, was replaced by another fictitious hospital, Heath Green, Birmingham - in reality a disused Coventry hospital.

The Angels were now not only women - Martin Barrass appeared as a token male nurse.

Nor were the new soapy Angels very angelic - they were on the Pill, having drink problems, and generally being young women of the early 1980s.

Some of the viewing audience did not like this, the alcoholism story-line was particularly unpopular, but Julia Smith said:

"There are a lot of tensions in a young nurse's life; it's no wonder some turn to drink. When you're just eighteen you've got a lot of growing up to do."

Some real life nurses were unhappy too - complaining that the sometimes slobby baggages on-screen were not like real nurses at all. Angels chief non-angel Rose Butchins (Kathryn Apanowicz) came in for particular criticism.

Soap historian Hilary Kingsley wrote about the end of the road for Angels in her 1988 book Soap Box:

Angels ended after nine series in the autumn of 1983, never having been granted the round-the-year status of a 'real' soap - perhaps because no group of characters was lovable enough or at least around long enough to become loved.

Angels definitely upped the "grit" rating in UK hospital soap drama a little, but it was not as influential as some history-rewriting modern day pundits claim. Casualty, which began in 1986 was breathtakingly political, gritty, and topical - a major departure.

Hilary Kingsley wrote of Casualty:

It was aggressively different from 'Angels' and closer to the American hospital-amid-chaos series 'St Elsewhere'...

Unlike 'Angels' too were the rude and rough language (aggressive patients were told to 'shut up'), the buckets of blood, gallons of tea brewed in the staffroom and healthy helpings of passion.

I preferred Casualty to Angels. The pronounced left wing bias of the Holby saga and fearlessly gritty portrayal of hospital life in the mid-1980s, cutbacks and all, left me gasping.

Casualty was truly groundbreaking.

Although Angels never struck me as being particularly fascinating, it was OK in its way - and does stir a few fond memories.

And the show featured future EastEnders stars Shirley Cheriton, Judith Jacob and Kathryn Apanowicz - who of course, was the disliked Rose Butchins.

Actually, out of all the characters, I fondly remember Rose, who slurped her food and was dead common.

But in the early 1980s I was dead common myself.


Cassie said...

Great article - Angels was so boring. I can't recall a single plot, except one where an elderly patient threw a tray at a nurse. The episode ended there, and I thought: "What a cliffhanger! I wonder if the nurse will be hurt by the impact?" Funnily enough, the incident was never referred to again.

Jean Gascoigne said...

Good grief - fancy you covering this! Early Angels, when it was in its fifty minute format, was all right, but the soap version was boring, moany trash. Whilst Emergency Ward Ten and General Hospital were great for the times, and early Casualty was bloody, political and absolutely groundbreaking, Angels 79-83 was a slow moving, misery fest, with pinned on "issues". I used to watch because we only had three TV channels back then, but I was always knitting and chatting to my family whilst I watched. Now the only thing I remember is that one of the nurses had a boyfriend who I think was a lorry driver, and he ate things like bacon sarnies during some of the scenes. This show was so slow it couldn't catch a cold - which was a damn good thing because I bet none of the "nurses" could have coped with one!

Maria said...

More is made of this series than should be because it began in the much-hyped 1970s. Anything that began in the 1970s is drooled over by modern critics and internet folk. No, it wasn't really that groundbreaking, but it did, as you say "up the grit rating a little", especially in the early 1980s soap format, and it was an interesting stepping stone between 70s General Hospital and mid-to-late 80s Casualty.

Anonymous said...

Angels had a great theme tune - really dramatic. Shame the programme wasn't.