It’s 17 years since Casualty’s Charlie Fairhead and Martin “Ash” Ashford worked side by side in the hectic emergency department of Holby City Hospital. Before he departed for pastures new – or at least less perilous than those surrounding Holby – Ash was a stalwart of Casualty, during which time he and Charlie formed something of a bromance. Their double act defined the medical drama in the 1990s. Piecing together the broken bodies and souls of those who passed through their care, Ash and Charlie were Casualty’s safe pairs of hands, its moral compass and beating heart.
So has Ash’s return to Casualty – no longer a nurse but now a doctor – given Patrick Robinson and Derek Thompson, the actors who play Ash and Charlie, the opportunity to catch up on the intervening years? And there have been a few of those – after all, Robinson left the series in 1996, although he did pop up in the episode in which Charlie got married in 1998.
“Er, how can I put this? No,” jokes Thompson. “Pat and I are great mates, and have been since we first met. We liked working together from the get-go, and we’ve seen a fair bit of each other over the years. We care a lot about each other.” They never became strangers.
Robinson agrees, recalling his first days on Casualty – and how Thompson’s reputation preceded him. “I’d seen him in The Long Good Friday and other things, so I was a bit in awe of that,” says Robinson. “When I joined Casualty [in 1990], I assumed everyone else was tightly together and I was the new boy, but Derek made me feel warmly welcome.”
The intervening years have seen Robinson embark on endeavours as diverse as starring in The Bill and playing opposite Steven Seagal in a Hollywood action movie, while Thompson has cemented his position in television history as the longest-serving cast member on the world’s longest-running medical drama.
Which means there’s no one better placed than Thompson to ponder Casualty’s ebbs and flows. “Casualty goes in generations – people cycle through it in periods of three, four, five years – and Pat’s was one of those great generations,” says Thompson.
“There was him and Robson Green and others, and I knew that they were destined for things beyond the show. I had done everything I had wanted to before I started on Casualty. In fact, when I first started as an actor, I wanted to do a job just like this – social realism on television, with the notion of a series in it. But Patrick was a strip of a lad when he joined – not an old codger like me – so it was only natural that he had an appetite to try other things.”
For Robinson though, it sounds as if it was more than the mere appetite of a young actor to spread his wings. “Casualty was very cosy. I knew I had to leave, because I didn’t want to get a bad attitude to the work, and that was a danger. I didn’t want to be in the position of saying to new producers and directors, ‘Oh, my character wouldn’t do that,’ because it’s such a cliché for actors to say that. So I had to leave, get sweaty and do some art”.
“But,” says Thompson, “if the actors don’t defend their characters, who will? There were producers who would come on board and ask us actors to defy or contradict years of work we’d done on characters. And that makes you hostile. If I’m honest, I thought the writers and producers got worried that we were hard to handle – because we were sometimes.”
All of which begs the question: why did Robinson come back? “It’s a very big challenge,” he says, “re-creating the character, moving him on 15 years. For me, enough time has passed for it not to be the clichéd thing of someone leaving the long-running series they’re recognised for, nothing happening for them, and then returning. I’d always said, ‘Never say never’, so to come back now is fantastic.”
In fact, Robinson says, he almost returned in 2006 to be the love interest for a departing character – Martina Laird’s paramedic Comfort Jones. “I did seriously consider it, but it didn’t feel quite right.”
While all of this might be actor-speak for “I have a mortgage to pay”, there’s no doubting Robinson’s sincerity when he speaks of working with Thompson again.
“Even doing the most mechanical scenes, there’s an element of life in it that no writer could put there – because it’s us,” argues Thompson. “The two of us walk on set and we’re a big lump of history. That’s what we have.”
And, adds Thompson, it’s not just him and Robinson who benefit from this throb of nostalgia. “One of the real charms of Pat coming back is that it plugs into something for the audience. They can go, ‘Oh, great! We love Ash,’ and it brings genuine enjoyment for the older members of the audience,” he says. “It’s testament to the show’s place in people’s affections that for a lot of people, Pat will always be Ash.”
Robinson nods: “Even though I’d left the show ten years previously and done a lot of work in that time, people would still remember me from Casualty.” “Oh, I get the opposite,” grins Thompson. “People come up to me and say ‘Casualty? Are you still in it?’”
Charlie and Ash are reunited tonight on Casualty – 9:10pm on BBC1