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Blood and guts: What it's really like acting on a medical drama

We spoke to the star of a Sky One show about her experiences.

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BLOOD, GUTS AND more blood are all in a day’s work for actors on a medical drama.

Luckily for them, the human bits and pieces are all actually fake, but the stars usually have to spend some time around the real deal to learn how to, well, deal like real doctors.

For Irish actor Catherine Walker, who stars as surgeon Fiona Lomas in Sky One’s Critical, prepping for this show meant getting over her terror of what she might be faced with.

c walker sky 1 Source: Sky One via YouTube

Critical differs from other shows because its creator, Jed Mercurio, wanted to go down a very realistic route for the real-time drama.

“Jed was a doctor himself, so his whole thing was he had done two medical dramas before, Cardiac Arrest and Bodies. He was tired of the genre being nonsense about medicine, so the whole premise of our show was that it’s completely accurate medicine,” explained Walker.

jed mercurio Source: Sky One via YouTube

“What I wanted to do with this one was push the boundaries as much as possible,” said Jed of Critical.

Each hour-long episode of the UK-based drama is based around in the first hour after the patient arrives at the hospital – the all-essential first 60 minutes of treatment.

“You honestly feel that you are seeing this world more closely and more vividly than in any other medical drama,” said Mercurio.

critical gif 1

To make sure the actors on Critical weren’t betraying in their lack of real-life experience, they were sent into training.

We trained at St George’s hospital, shadowing doctors, going to surgeries, that sort of thing, doing the trauma training, because we’re a trauma team, and we had consultants with us all the time.

Walker said the whole thing was life-changing, as well as “a privilege to meet these people and go inside their world”. It affected her so much that when she sees a medical emergency, she immediately thinks of the staff:

There’s no ambulance that passes me [now] that I don’t go ‘what the fuck is actually happening there’, you know what I mean? These people are heroes, they’re extraordinary, the work they do. Amazing.

It was “eye-opening” to study the surgeons’ work, and an intense eight months of non-stop filming.

Real-life surgery

critical gif 2

Is she squeamish? “I thought I was but I’m not any more,” said Walker.

The first time she witnessed a real-life surgery, she was “terrified”.

I thought oh my God – what if I can’t take it, and I have to play this role for eight months, what if I can’t manage.
I remember saying to the consultant who i was shadowing, what do I do if I faint? they said look just stand by the wall…
I remember my heart beating, I was sweating. It wasn’t an intense surgery, it was an arm they were opening up.
I started off by the wall and then within a couple of minutes I was in the middle of it. And then suddenly three hours had passed. It’s fascinating.

Though Walker was dreading the experience, it turns out that it was life-changing for a number of reasons.

“It was a fantastic experience,” she said, adding that if she’s in the next series, she wants to get hands-deep into the actual trauma work. A far cry from the woman who was worried she might faint in the operating room.

Blood on the TV


Source: MartinekeDP/YouTube

When you think of medical drama, you think of ER – the Michael Crichton-created 1994 classic US drama that ran for 15 years. With its long tracking shots, uncompromising plots and up-front look at real-life medical conditions, it became a massive success.

One of the reasons why it hit home with audiences was because of how real it seemed. In this behind-the-scenes clip above, actor Noah Wylie said:

“We all really, really wanted to master the medicine and to have the medical community look to our show as the most authentic medical drama that had ever been on television”.

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“The medical consultants on this show saved the show,” said his co-star Julianna Margulies, pointing out that you can trail a nurse “forever” but you need to get hands-on to get things done.

They wanted things to be accurate, or else the show would just look stupid – and people watching at home would get the wrong information too. And that’s why – along with the catch-your-breath storylines and lovable characters – the show lasted as long as it did.


This British drama is closer to home, but that doesn’t mean it shied away from getting intense with the action.

In this clip you can see how much work went into staging a van accident:

Source: Brian Kellett/YouTube

This weekly drama series has been running since 1986, and even has its own spin-off, Holby City. Like ER, its key points were believable medical scenarios, and characters you believed in.

It’s the world’s longest-running TV medical drama, proving that we love a bit of blood on our TVs.

Read: Inside the writers’ room: Meet the Europeans bidding to create TV on a par with America’s best>

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