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Elaine Reilly

Casualty EXCLUSIVE: Derek Thompson on why Charlie's exit storyline is so good it's 'worth leaving the show for'

Derek Thompson as Charlie Fairhead in BBC1's Casualty. .

Derek Thompson — an exclusive interview on nurse Charlie Fairhead’s final Casualty chapter.

On Saturday 6 September 1986 TV history was made when BBC1’s groundbreaking medical drama Casualty aired for the first time. 

Among the cast portraying hard-working NHS medics in fictional Holby ED was a fresh-faced nurse called Charlie Fairhead.

Now, after almost 38 years of capturing the hearts and minds of generations with weekly life or death dilemmas, charged romances, and the birth of more than one namesake, Derek Thompson is preparing to say goodbye to his iconic character in what promises to be an emotional and high-octane farewell.

After last week’s dramatic stabbing, the veteran medic’s life hangs in the balance in an episode poignantly and simply titled Charlie on Saturday 16 March at 9.25pm on BBC1.

Charlie Fairhead is at death's door in his final Casualty episode. Will he exit Holby ED alive or dead? Either way, we'll be sobbing and shouting at the screen. (Image credit: BBC Studios)

While his friends and colleagues race against time to save him, Charlie drifts in and out of consciousness recalling a pivotal day from his past in revealing flashbacks starring Annette Badland as retiring charge nurse Shirley Baldwin and Jack Franklin as a certain curly-haired young man who has a lot to learn about his profession, but even more to give.

As big fans of Charlie and Casualty, What To Watch made an appointment to chat to the star behind the much-loved character.  

Here, in an exclusive interview, the delightful and insightful Derek Thompson, 75, tells us about bowing out of the role of a lifetime…

Derek Thompson on his superb career in Casualty

We can’t imagine Holby Hospital without Charlie, Derek. How did you feel when you learned the details of his exit storyline?

“When I first read the script I put it down pensively and let it cook a little, because it’s such a lovely piece of work. It’s beautifully written by Michelle Lipton and directed by Mike Lacey, two of the best who’ve ever worked on the show. I was really thrilled with it and thought, ‘Who would want to change a word of this?’”

That’s wonderful to hear! Quite rightly, whether Charlie lives or dies is under lock and key, but what can you tease?

“Michelle knows exactly what she’s doing. Every character is true to the moment and to themselves, but still manages to tell you something you wouldn’t have spotted easily. I couldn't actually go through the whole 38-year history of Casualty and find a better fit. For me it’s a work of poetry and I just thought ‘This is worth leaving for’ I think my final episodes are some of the best of my career. They were an absolute joy to do.”

Stevie Nash is integral here, as the doctor faces a crisis of her own while treating Charlie. Did you enjoy working closely with Elinor Lawless on this critical chapter for both your characters?

“Eli and I both love storytelling. Getting on set together and with a story that’s just our two characters is hog heaven for us! The wonderful thing about Casualty is their responsible take on the National Health Service with that kind-of soap opera ducking and diving throughout it. It's a really challenging combination, but Eli was so on it, took us into work and I got a lot out of it because of her. She’s a virtuoso actor.”

Tearful Stevie, played by Elinor Lawless, is doubtful if she can save Charlie... (Image credit: BBC Studios)

What have been your favourite stories over the years?

“The one I felt most personally attached to was the death of Charlie’s wife Duffy [played by original cast member Cathy Shipton] through vascular dementia in February 2020. 

True romance. Charlie Fairhead tied the knot with Lisa 'Duffy' Duffin 2017. (Image credit: BBC)

Cathy Shipton on Charlie and Duffy's wedding

“We also did a storyline [in May 2015] about Charlie’s son Louis turning into a drug addict and almost getting his throat cut in Romania, with Connie Beauchamp [the ED clinical lead at the time] and Charlie making a last minute run to the country. Myself, Amanda Mealing [Connie] and Greg Foreman [Louis], had some laughs, even though we were filming outside in February in summer clothes! I remember in one scene, it was sleeting hailstones, we were soaked through, and I made up a song that went ‘Casualty - next year in Jamaica!’ Everyone joined in and we were all crying with laughter and singing!”

Charlie and Connie worked closely together in Holby ED. (Image credit: BBC)

“But the first episode has to be my most memorable, when Charlie was in his little yellow Beetle coming over Bristol’s Clifton Suspension Bridge before ending up at Holby City Hospital. When he gets out of his car in his bomber jacket, with his hair all over the place, and looks at the hospital building, is an image that’s stayed with me throughout my time on Casualty.” 

Jack Franklin plays a young Charlie Fairhead in the nurse's final Casualty episode.  (Image credit: BBC Studios)

Why do you think Charlie has struck such a chord with viewers?

“The simple reason is that he is the Everyman and a connection with the audience. He’s immediately empathetic and the moral compass. If ever you feel that a conflict is not going to be resolved he gives things a nudge in a certain direction. I’ve always felt a great responsibility to the character.”

That must have been an exhilarating time…

“It was staggering. I remember at the end of our first read-through, the show’s first producer Geraint Morris made a speech. [Here Derek slips into a perfect Welsh accent] and said ‘Right, we’ve done our bit, now we’re sharing it with you. Take it, it's yours, bring the bits that no writer can put there, and have a bloody ball.’ In making that speech he handed it over to the actors and said do what your instincts tell you. It was groundbreaking.”

What has working on Casualty meant to you?

“Actors work, if they’re lucky, 10 weeks a year. But you couldn’t really say that was my story. I’ve been in a play that’s lasted 38 years! 

“You think you might get a bit repetitive or sink into cliches, but you find you don’t; there’s a kind of delight in it, it doesn’t get boring and you become better at it than you thought you would be. It’s a team sport and the regular and guest actors make it. No two shows are the same. It’s been such a graceful experience to observe all that effort, energy, trust and creative ability. Everyone lifts each other up and supports each other, and that was set up on day one.”

Excitingly it’s been announced you will be starring in series two of BBC police drama Blue Lights. How are you feeling about this new chapter in your fabulous career?

“I’m thrilled to be appearing in the second series of Blue Lights as retired special branch officer Robin Graham, whose past and conscience catches up with him. I was hooked on the first series. The actors on it are brilliant and the writing is just wonderful. You know, Casualty has been a job I’ve loved, and a hard one to walk away from, but I’m looking forward to the future now…”

First look: Derek Thompson in season two of Blue Lights

Derek Thompson played charge nurse Charlie Fairhead from 1986 until 2024. (Image credit: BBC Studios)

Watch Derek Thompson’s exit from Casualty on BBC1 on Saturday 16 March 2024 at 9.25pm.

Charlie Fairhead’s final episode of Casualty

Elinor Lawless - exclusive interview on working closely with Derek Thompson on Charlie Fairhead’s historic exit from Casualty

Casualty exclusive: Sunetra Sarker on returning to Holby ED as doctor Zoe Hanna for Charlie Fairhead’s final chapter

Amanda Mealing: An exclusive interview on her extraordinary career, Father Brown, Casualty, and her plans for the future.

Melanie Hill: ‘It means a lot to be in Charlie Fairhead’s final scenes’

Neet Mohan: 'Charlie and Derek are Casualty'

Nigel Harman: 'I’m really grateful I worked with Derek Thompson'

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