BBC move to axe Doctors is ‘disastrous’, says screenwriter

<span>Elisabeth Dermot Walsh as Zara Carmichael, left, and Janice Connolly as Rosie Colton in Doctors.</span><span>Photograph: Grab/BBC</span>
Elisabeth Dermot Walsh as Zara Carmichael, left, and Janice Connolly as Rosie Colton in Doctors.Photograph: Grab/BBC

A screenwriter who described the decision to axe the daytime drama Doctors as “disastrous” on social media has been inundated with support from the public and TV industry.

Philip Ralph said soaps were collapsing as he marked the last day of filming the show, a programme he has worked on for nearly 20 years.

The BBC announced in October the show would end in December this year due to “super inflation in drama production”.

Doctors, which is set in a Midlands GP practice, launched in 2000 and has featured many household names, including the Game of Thrones star Emilia Clarke, Ruthie Henshall, the Fantastic Beasts film franchise actor Eddie Redmayne and Sheridan Smith.

In a long thread on X, Ralph said as a writer on the show for 19 years he had been “personally impacted” by the “disastrous decision” to cancel the soap.

Ralph said Doctors, in its 24-year history, had given “opportunity and experience” to budding actors, writers and production staff.

“Over 600 guest actors every year likewise got the chance to work, be seen, renew their faith in their abilities, and keep going,” he said. “A writing team of up to 60 writers crafted original, bonkers, moving, real (and often surreal!) stories based around the lives of our regulars.”

Fans of the show – and those working in the TV industry – took to X to voice support for Ralph’s intervention.

In an interview with the Guardian, the screenwriter said the level of response to the thread highlighted the wider anger at a government “who see the arts as something for dilettantes and layabouts”.

“In fact it’s one of the most important economic drivers for the country,” said Ralph, a Rada-trained actor, whose contemporaries include Andrew Lincoln and Michael Sheen.

He also said the impact of axing Doctors would have a huge effect on all writers on the series, and on him personally.

“As experienced as I am, I now have nowhere to go,” said Ralph, who wrote the verbatim play Deep Cut. “When the decision came down [to axe Doctors] last October, I walked downstairs to my partner and said, ‘Well, it looks like we might have to sell the house’.”

Ralph’s tweet comes a week after James Hawes, the vice-chair of Directors UK and the director of the Apple TV+ spy drama Slow Horses, said television soaps could be created by AI within the next three to five years.

Hawes told parliament’s culture, media and sport committee inquiry into British film and high-end television that digitally made scripts will soon be upon us, particularly for soaps.

Hawes said: “We at Directors UK held a forum about Doctors, the BBC show that’s been cancelled. One of the members there started talking about AI and it sent me investigating how long it would be before a show like Doctors can be made entirely by generative AI.”

Ralph told the Guardian he and his fellow writers on the series were “deeply upset” by Hawes’ comments in the runup to the end of production.

He added: “It’s placing profit over people yet again. Could AI write soap episodes? Sure. Would they be any good? Would they actually speak to human situations, difficulties, foibles, idiosyncrasies? Of course not. So, why do it other than to save the money you would pay to a human writer? It would be utterly disastrous for artists, creatives, writers and the audience. ”

In the post, he said there was nowhere for TV workers to find the experience to get into the industry. “The TV industry is contracting. Production across the board is way down. Bectu [the union] recently surveyed its members and found 68% of them are out of work. Doctors was a much-needed ‘finger in the dam’ of this terrible situation. And now it’s gone with nothing to replace it.”

He said people from “less well-off and more diverse backgrounds” would be excluded.

“The soaps are collapsing,” he added. “Mid-scale drama is contracting. This leaves just the high-profile writers and creatives succeeding, and everyone else scrabbling around for scraps, hoping to somehow ‘win the lottery’ and get on to an existing show or – even more miraculous in the current climate – get their own original series idea commissioned.”

A BBC spokesperson said: “We would like to thank all the Doctors cast and crew who have been involved in the show since 2000. We know the crucial role Doctors has played in nurturing talent, and we will work to develop new opportunities to support skills in scripted programming.”

They added: “We are engaging with the unions and talent, including actors, directors and writers, on the show regarding onward opportunities for them. As previously announced, we have already committed to increasing investment in training and development opportunities to help grow the next generation of scripted shows from the Midlands, including BBC Writersroom activity to grow authentic voices and stories.”