Holby City fans would be forgiven for thinking that Ric Griffin wandering the empty AAU ward in his hospital gown reminded them of his purgatory episode last year, but this time the eerie setting and hospital workers in cleaning equipment was far from pretend. Ric was waking from his coma after his brain operation to a situation that was completely real – the coronavirus pandemic.
The long-awaited return of the medical drama saw us quickly learn that Holby was at the height of the crisis, and everything had changed.
Three months off air and Holby could have returned with normal episodes, and chosen to not show life in the hospital managing coronavirus. But after 21 years on our screens, telling stories of characters with problems so many of us face, they had a responsibility to tell this story.
Being the only drama on air right now that shows us life inside of a hospital, it was up to Holby City to tell the story of thousands of NHS staff working on the frontline during a global crisis, unaware of what would happen within the next hour, let alone the next day.
There was an overwhelming amount to think about for the return, and yet Holby City successfully managed to cover everything in 40 minutes. We saw HCAs, new nurses, face masks, PPE, a pregnant patient on her own in the hospital with the virus, which quickly turned into a situation where her and her baby's life were hanging in the balance as she rapidly deteriorated. The show paid homage to the NHS in the best possible way they could.
When CEO Max McGerry told Donna, Louis and new nurse Alex Duval they didn't have adequate PPE equipment for 24 hours, the three of them collectively summarised the resilience of every single nurse in the NHS.
They prioritised patients' lives over their own and they walked through Keller Ward, ready to battle an invisible and deadly disease, but we were reminded of the harsh and horrific reality once more when Donna said: "People call it a fight, but that implies we have weapons – we don't."
In the midst of the constant drama and uncertainty, there was a moment to pause, in the form of a beautifully directed scene by Steve Brett, which saw Donna, Max, Alex and Cam force their aching and tired bodies around to the front of the hospital to hear echoes and echoes of people clapping and cheering.
It was the perfect five minutes to stop and reflect on what they were doing, and how the loud sound of people hitting pots and pans wasn't necessarily enough to fix their situation, but it was enough to give them the boost to head back into the layers of uncomfortable personal protective equipment, and put their lives on hold.
Written by Patrick Homes, the dialogue in Tuesday's comeback even allowed us to catch up with the characters' lives, as well as handling coronavirus. We discovered (for once) that Cam was finding things difficult, but it didn't take long until his hero complex was shown once more and he featured in a newspaper, praised as one of the many NHS heroes.
Of course, as we left the show back in August having just watched Essie pass away after battling cancer, we had to see how Sacha Levy was coping, and as actor Bob Barrett told us in a recent interview, getting tangled in Jodie Rodgers' troubles isn't going to help how he's feeling as he continues to grieve for the love of his life.
Continuing dramas and soaps have the power to tell life-changing storylines. We all know how exceptional the NHS has been throughout this pandemic, but telling their story through dramatisation is different than documentaries.
Tuning into Holby City, we all have our favourite characters, we all have the ability to connect with them on a level that feels like we know them, so showing how Max manages to keep a hospital running, or seeing the redness in Ange's face and seeing how genuinely worn out she felt after wearing PPE meant we could feel for these characters, all highlighting the extreme lengths the real NHS workers were prepared to go.
Due to the pandemic, Holby City is currently airing 40-minute episodes. Cutting 20 minutes out of the usual hour-long show is a pretty brave move, and tuning in on Tuesday, you may have thought that they wouldn't have been able to cover everything in a shorter space of time. But, if anything, making it 40 minutes long has given the show the opportunity to increase the intensity.
Bringing the real world into the fictional world is something soaps and continuing dramas tend to do, and when it came to Ric and Max watching the moment Boris Johnson announced the lockdown, suddenly Holby had broken another boundary. They had brought Holby City hospital more into the realm of the real world. They could have stopped there, but of course they didn't.
The concluding scenes on Tuesday saw Max talk to some of the Holby staff to let them know that the peak had passed, a moment in our lives that felt like change. The sense of togetherness they felt was something we had all felt too.
There was a constant mirror to the real world throughout: the characters endured hell as they worked day in day out, but it created new camaraderie among the staff. Watching Max talk to everyone, and break that fourth wall as she said 'thanks to all of you' to the camera, was not only referring to the doctors and nurses of the hospital, but was referring to us too.
Holby City came back with a bang. They came back to BBC One and they said: 'Look at what we can do'. This chapter has put Holby City at the forefront of honouring so many voices, and telling the story of the most difficult year of our lives.
It was an outstanding instalment, delivering constant chaos in every scene and showing us what working as a nurse or a doctor in our glorious NHS is really like. This episode has proved how vital and brilliant this show is, now with the capability to step into new territory, and tell so many more phenomenal stories.
Holby City had a role to play, and my God, they delivered.
Holby City continues next Tuesday (November 17) at 7.50pm on BBC One.
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