After weeks of rumours, it’s been confirmed that Catherine Russell has left Holby City and Serena Campbell’s final episodes will be aired in the new year, in what Digital Spy are calling a “heroic departure”. Not for Ms Campbell an urn upturned in the shrubbery beside the ambulance bay, as was Bernie’s fate in this week’s episode.
I’m not going to dwell on their contrasting ends – so much has already been said about the pointless destructiveness of killing off an iconic lesbian character simply to offer a bit of mood lighting – but I do want to say something more about Holby City and Berena now that we know it’s ending.
Lots of people saw this coming (hoped for it, even), while others are shocked. There’s talk of relief in some quarters: finally, after months of doubt and speculation about Bernie’s true fate and all of the emotional weight that bears, viewers know they can start to put this experience behind them in January, with no temptation to tune in just in case. There’s also a lot of anger.
The Berena break-up was justified by the producers on the grounds that with only one character, Serena, left on screen, the storyline had run out of road. An off-screen relationship for Serena didn’t leave Catherine with enough exciting material to work with, according to the executive producer, Simon Harper. The constant references to “actor availability” made it clear that with Jemma Redgrave, who played Bernie, only wanting to come back for guest appearances, the show’s makers had made decisions that they felt would keep Catherine in the cast. She was, evidently, one of their biggest stars.
Yet the drawn-out nature of Bernie’s death (she was first reported dead in a July episode) means that Serena has yet to emerge from its shadow. And before too long, she’ll be off. Just as viewers wondered why the Coronation Street couple, Kate and Rana, couldn’t have had a happy ending when both actors left within six months of Rana being killed off, Berena fans are understandably perplexed by what’s happened on Holby City.
Would it really have been so hard for Serena and Bernie to leave together? If not when we last saw Bernie, then in the new year. Perhaps it wasn’t known far enough in advance that Catherine was also planning to move on, but even from a purely narrative perspective, killing off Bernie within a few months of her departure in order to drive a few moments of angst for Serena and (predominantly) Cameron seems wasteful. If Holby is anything, it is character-driven, and Bernie is the sort I’d keep for a rainy day.
But what do I know?
Since 2017 it’s become increasingly clear that Holby City is storylined off the hoof and with as much disregard for previous events and characterisation as is needed to satisfy the whims of the instant. For the regular cast it’s a lovely place to work, while for the writers it’s a chance to cut their teeth. And if the show wants to allow its actors to exit on their own terms rather than those of viewers, there’s nothing stopping it.
The most important lesson from the past couple of years isn’t that programmes like Holby and Corrie ought to rise up and buck the conventions of soap-making (though plenty of us would love to see that; how about a ‘no workplace deaths’ year, for starters?), it’s that representation really does matter. It’s not just a slogan. It matters because whether you’re 18 or 80, as a woman-loving woman, you don’t tend to see yourself on screen. You very rarely get to see wlw involved in dramas outside of their relationships. You’re not a regular character on primetime pre-watershed BBC family television.
Representation matters because it signals to you and to everyone else that you’re all right. You’re not so bad. Not so strange.
As someone involved in making television or film, maybe representation also matters because there are awards and talk shows in it, and honestly, crack on. Have at it. We’ll bask in your deflected glory. But you can’t talk the talk if you’re not also going to walk the walk. And that means the lion’s share of the compromise and planning and selflessness being taken on by those behind the screen, not those sat in front of it.
Addendum: I’ve mentioned in the past some plans for the future, and I’m currently working on a bid to fund The Sapphic Screen Project. As well as an oral history project around the perspectives and experiences of wlw viewers, it’ll involve (collectively, collaboratively) developing guidelines and other materials for film and television makers who want to engage with wlw audiences. “Representation matters” is easy to say – it rolls right off the tongue, and makes a neat hashtag. There is work to be done to ensure that anyone saying it really knows what it signifies, and thus what it entails. “Representation matters” isn’t a tagline. It’s a promise.