BBC dovetails plots as `Casualty' gives birth B`Casualty' spin- off hopes to lure loyal viewers

Paul McCann Media Editor
Monday 04 January 1999 00:02

THERE ARE no new ideas in television it seems, only spin-offs. This month sees the start of Holby City, the latest in a long line of hospital dramas. But the way the BBC is using every trick in the book to ensure its success shows how far programme marketing techniques have come since the days of Dr Kildare.

Holby City starts with the advantage of name recognition because it is set upstairs in the fictitious hospital that has played host to Casualty for the past 12 years.

Given that Casualty is still bringing in 12 million viewers a week, and is the BBC's most valuable Saturday evening property, it was only a matter of time before the corporation decided a brand extension was in order. A second weekly episode of Casualty was rejected in favour of a hybrid, with storylines moving from the casualty ward to upstairs and into a new programme with a different cast of regulars.

While Lillith from Cheers has occasionally appeared in Frasier, no two television programmes have tried to pass on storylines and viewers so explicitly.

On Saturday Casualty viewers will see a girl crushed during a riot. But this time her battle for survival will not be decided by the end of the programme. Instead she will be taken to a ward and viewers will be encouraged to tune in to Holby City the following Tuesday to see if she comes out of her coma.

In fact, since November, the soon-to-be stars of Holby City have been making walk-on appearances in Casualty. In a novel twist the BBC has been trying to introduce people from the hitherto unheard-of wards upstairs to get viewers primed for the new series.

The corporation is also taking no chances in its choice of new stars. Most of the actors will be familiar to viewers because they have almost all come from other soap operas.

Nurse Julie is played by Nicola Stephenson, the actress made famous for being the recipient of Anna Friel's lesbian kiss in Brookside. Nurse Jasmine is Angela Griffin, who was last seen as Fiona the hairdresser in Coronation Street, and one of the doctors is played by Michael French, once David Wicks in EastEnders. At least three other stars are familiar television drama faces. And in an effort to guarantee ratings success, the BBC is scheduling its new show to run after EastEnders on Tuesdays.

"The series is filled with well-known faces," admits Mal Young, executive producer of Holby City. "That's because some of the best performances on screen have come from soaps in the last few years and there is a fantastic amount of talent from those shows."

Mr Young believes the days of snobbery about soaps is over. "Everyone admits to watching them," he says. And it seems the BBC is taking no chances with its latest offering.

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