“If I need the last rites, I’ll ask for them.” As Holby City’s final episode opens on gritty heart surgeon Jac Naylor (Rosie Marcel) speaking from her deathbed, her icily determined words might be said not just on her behalf – but on behalf of the long-running medical drama itself.
Casualty’s cousin had started working its notice in June 2021, with a clear determination to hold strong until the very last moment. Rather than flatlining, it roused itself to deliver its best ever episodes in its last few months. And, instead of blowing itself up or forming a lynch mob (like El Dorado and Brookside), viewers tuned in to find Holby’s last ever televisual outing doing something far more dignified: going out gracefully.
As you watch the action unfold, you see no big disaster, no bomb, no gunman on the loose – just a beautifully and subtly played goodbye. The action centres around Jac, who along with fellow Holby/Casualty badass Connie Beauchamp (Amanda Mealing) is the beating heart of the hospital – and who has rarely showed her soft side. Instead she has spent years being that classic Holby City character: a woman who is more than a wife or love interest, but a person who does her job, and does it well.
Having been on a knife-edge leading up to veteran surgeon Elliot’s attempt to remove her brain tumour, we see her have a stroke after it fails – a quiet way to go, which, for a show that was never afraid to use guns, sieges and car crashes as punctuation, is all the more powerful. The finest moments come as staff gather round Jac’s bed, tearfully reminiscing about the insults she’d thrown at them over the years: “She once said I looked like a big bag of yoghurt,” “Paddington Bear with a stethoscope,” “Pound shop pearly king.”
It’s the end of more than a soap. Holby was a labour-intensive serial drama that has helped along the careers of actors such as Jodie Comer, Olivia Colman and Michael Fassbender (minus his character’s spleen) – all of whom have swung through the doors over the years. Its cancellation supposedly means a less London-centric focus to BBC soaps, given that it ended due to production halting at Elstree Studios in favour of other parts of the country. Waterloo Road, which went off air in 2015, will return in Manchester and there are rumblings of two new northern soaps (a brave move, particularly given the plot powerhouses of Emmerdale and Coronation Street). The decision seems odd, given Casualty’s survival (as it’s filmed in Cardiff) – and both shows being set in a hospital in the south-west. For viewers, Holby doesn’t have a sniff of London about it.
Before the show could bow out, though, there was one thing left to do: transplant Jac’s exceptionally cold heart, along with the rest of her organs. To watch is to wonder: are the writers making amends for the maligned 2013 episode that provoked complaints about its portrayal of the organ donation process? They certainly give fans one last treat: a glimpse of departed characters. Her spleen is delivered to Ric Griffin (fan favourite Hugh Quarshie) while her kidney goes to another hospital where #Berena – Serena and Bernie (Catherine Russell and Jemma Redgrave) – exchange wistful looks as they scrub in together. And as “Horrid” Henrik Hanssen insists on accompanying Jac’s liver to Leeds, fans get the chance of witnessing a romantic reunion: with sharp surgeon Russ, clearly the man he’s meant to be with.
It’s a final episode that celebrates a hospital full of characters with good intentions. It gives nods to the harsh reality of food banks, ambulance waiting times and the sheer stress of working in the NHS. It’s full of warmth and a great fondness for the NHS, illustrated by Jac’s majestic closing monologue, as steely as the woman herself. “This is what the NHS means to us. Not a badge on a cabinet minister’s lapel. Not a number down the side of a bus … it’s all of us doing the best we can in impossible circumstances.”
The camera pans, yet more ambulances arrive and in the background, you can almost hear Nadine Dorries shouting about defunding the BBC. Farewell Holby City, your fans will miss you.