How Casualty tricked fans with Charlie's exit

casualty star derek thompson in character as charlie fairhead, writing in a medical report at the nurses' station
How Casualty tricked fans with Charlie's exitBBC

Casualty spoilers follow.

How do you say goodbye to a character who is the heart of a show?

It's the question fans have been asking since Casualty confirmed news of Charlie Fairhead's exit last year. Having appeared in the long-running drama since it began 38 years ago, Charlie, played by Derek Thompson, has become part of Casualty's framework, and there's little he hasn't seen or experienced. He's survived being held at gunpoint, two heart attacks and the devastating death of his soul mate Duffy to name just a few. He was the cat with nine lives – until now, it seemed.

casualty star derek thompson in character as charlie fairhead, writing in a medical report at the nurses' station

This also isn't the first time Charlie bowed out of the show (he took breaks in 2004 and 2005) but the BBC has unequivocally stated that this was going to be his last exit.

So when he got stabbed, in what we knew was to be his penultimate episode, it appeared the writing was on the wall. Surely there was only one way this was going to go?

Maybe. Maybe not.

In actual fact, Charlie ended up bowing out, grateful, graceful – and most importantly – fit and well, in Saturday's much-anticipated episode (March 16), which saw him survive the shock attack he suffered last week at the eleventh hour.

charlie fairhead, casualty

Stevie regained her confidence in time to realise Charlie had an internal bleed that had been missed in the previous scan and this served to be the missing piece of the puzzle in terms of his recovery.

Flashback scenes had alerted us to the fact that Stevie and Charlie had crossed paths in another decade, bringing both their journeys in the 'History of Violence' mini-series to a poetic end.

The interwoven '80s flashbacks introduced us to a much younger Charlie, as he recalled a momentous day at the start of his career while fighting for his life in the present.

young charlie fairhead, casualty

Here, we also met Shirley (played by former EastEnders star Annette Badland), who was the charge nurse at Charlie's former job before he joined Holby.

Refreshingly, this allowed us to see that Charlie wasn't always the indispensable, trustworthy diplomat we've grown to know and love. As a youngster, he was cocky, care-free and hungover on the job, and Shirley wasn't impressed with him. She did, however, spot his potential and therefore didn't accept Charlie's later attempts at resignation when a patient they'd tried hard to help tragically died.

Shirley told Charlie that being upset was a testament to how much he truly cared, in poignant words that later reverberated when he said the same to Stevie.

young charlie fairhead, shirley baldwin, casualty

Shirley also explained to Charlie that she was retiring because she finally felt she'd done enough, urging him to hang on until he felt the same. In a tragic twist of events, which gave viewers a tangible insight into where this story was ultimately heading (if we hadn't guessed already by this point), Charlie later discovered that Shirley had quietly passed away in the staffroom, never able to get the retirement she was so looking forward to.

And just like that, Charlie's past with Shirley ended up having a remarkable impact on his future.

Back in the present, Charlie, who was now miraculously fully-recovered, told Stevie that he was going to retire – imminently and on his own terms. He was ready. The ED was ready. And maybe we were now ready too.

charlie fairhead in casualty
Alistair Heap - BBC

Charlie's surviving death, again, and riding off into the proverbial sunset in his yellow beetle (another nod to his past) ended weeks of speculation that he was about to meet the same grisly fate as so many much-loved characters before him.

It's almost become the status quo with a hyped exit, and the return of Charlie's former friends Zoe and Josh for his swansong only seemed to corroborate that ("I don’t want to spoil it for the fans", Sunetra Sarker said on Zoe's return."I’m just pleased and proud to be part of his emotional end story.")

In hindsight, perhaps the clues had actually been there all along. If we cast our minds back to the initial announcement of Charlie's exit, it was suggested that Derek pitched this ending himself. This didn't really fit with the narrative of killing his gentle alter-ego off forever in such an abhorrent way.

Despite the last-minute intertwining of stories, the latest block of episodes have also predominantly belonged to Stevie. Charlie's role in this only ignited a few weeks ago and we'd be lying if we said it hadn't often felt like a frenzied race to the finish line.

But Charlie did, ultimately, want to prove there was good in the world – it was what he believed, and it's the legacy he'll leave us with. Death by violence would have contradicted all of that.

kyle, charlie fairhead, casualty

In reality, we really needn't have worried at all. Charlie was never going to die, and any hints that he might have was merely a clever ploy to create an online maelstrom and get people talking, in the way that prior confirmation of him retiring likely wouldn't have.

"When I first read the script, I didn’t have to think about it at all, because it’s just great storytelling", Derek said himself. " How Michelle Lipton wrote these episodes comes across like she’s written eight plays, taken from so many points of view. I don’t think there’s another writer who could have done it. I think my final two episodes are some of the best episodes of my career."

They were. And most importantly, we left the episodes feeling nostalgic and happy and hopeful, as opposed to emotionally wretched like we were when Holby City killed off their own linchpin Jac Naylor.

charlie fairhead, stevie, casualty

Elinor Lawless, who plays Stevie, agreed.

Speaking exclusively to Digital Spy, she said: "It was the right exit. Something that Derek really wanted to show over the course of that arc we've just seen was how Charlie's work has changed for him and how the nature of the workplace has changed for him.

"He's under pressure. He's finding confrontation more difficult. I think you get this idea of a natural retirement for somebody who is ready. I'm really glad that he got that."

charlie fairhead in casualty
Warren Orchard - BBC

But what does a Casualty world look like without Charlie now?

"The NHS is at the heart of the show and we are uniquely based to tell a story about a national health service that is completely unique to here ", Elinor said. "That is something Derek really wants for the show as well.

"I think what Charlie's legacy will be is that there is heart and care, and I think that's something that they will definitely continue to try and preserve. But somebody like Charlie – they don't just get forgotten and go away."

She's right. He won't. But while Charlie will forever remain in the fabric of the world he created in Casualty, the joyful nature of his exit has shown how the show can and will go on without him.

Casualty airs on Saturday nights on BBC One. The show is now releasing episodes early on BBC iPlayer at 6am on the day of transmission.

Read more Casualty spoilers on our dedicated homepage

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