'The biggest hurdle is yourself' ITV's Trauma team on creating the show and making it in TV
ITV’s Trauma is a fictionalised version of what could happen inside a trauma unit as well as the aftermath of tragic situations and the drama has been praised as "gripping" by reviewers. Mandy News sat down with creator Mike Bartlett and producer Catherine Oldfield to discuss how the idea for Trauma came about, just what happens in a trauma room and insight into their writing/producing process.
Taking place over three episodes, Trauma stars Jon Simm (Life on Mars) and Adrian Lester (Hustle). Simm plays the father of a son who dies in the emergency room and Lester, the doctor on duty, who, coincidentally, also happens to be a father.
At this point is Trauma a one-off series?
Mike Bartlett: Yes, it is a one-off. I don’t tend to write documentary-style pieces about places. I like to mix things from my own life with things I see in the world and also mix research with imagination and create fictional stories. So for me, Catherine invited me to go this hospital and I suppose I was thinking I could format a medical show sort of like Casualty or ER.
Inevitably or literally, in [the trauma] room, I started to see not just the technology but started to look at the human beings behind it.
Catherine Oldfield: We were thinking about sound and the way they talk to each other. The atmosphere.
Bartlett: Yeah, and we asked ourselves questions like, "Who would want to be a trauma surgeon? What drives people? What would they enjoy about that job?" and then immediately thinking, "what does it feel like for the patients coming in?" or for the relatives for people coming in going through the most traumatic elements of their lives.
Oldfield: I was first drawn to it because of the American model that Britain adapted. It’s still pretty new to the UK but they saw that America did it first and they saw how successful it was; the mortality rate. The mortality rate decreased together by 50 percent and when we first went, there was only four in the UK. That tells you how long it takes to make a TV show.
Since then, they have sort of rolled them out across the country and it just really is fascinating. It has sharpened immensely and we break to the best people in the hospital, all worked on one end, which is that the person who comes in the door gets everything brought to them. You don’t have to be shuffled around the hospital and we really love ... I just really love The West Wing because there is nothing cooler than people who are brilliant at their jobs and in Trauma, there are people like that.
How long does it take to get this off the ground?
Bartlett: It didn’t take long to get this off the ground. I just was quite busy so it’s taken a while to get the ducks in a row.
Talk about the experience of writing this.
Bartlett: I’m a playwright originally and for me it’s a bit organic. Describing the writing process can sound a bit crazy sometimes but you want the characters to almost talk to you, to say things you are not expecting. So yes, I had a plan, and yes, I had some sense of where I was going but you’re looking for the characters to organically come to life and do something that doesn’t fit the plan.
Then you’re following them and you’re following the reality of the story and there’s a greater chance you’ll get to a more surprising place with them. Because, if it's schematic, you’re sort of copying other structures, whereas, if people are just acting like people, then people can do anything and be really surprising.
That’s also the advantage of a limited three episodes. It’s that you don’t have to come back and do 22 episodes. It doesn’t have to have a format. It has to be one story and it can go anywhere.
Did you actually go and spend time in a trauma unit while you were writing it or going through the process?
Bartlett: Yes, we started off by going to trauma centres and then we had a great consultant – who was a surgeon – who would give great ideas, also read all the scripts, come in and change things, help with language.
Oldfield: We all spent time in the hospitals so what you see on the screen is dressed by an actual trauma nurse. She set the room up and the prosthetics. The surgeon was very involved in making … where you see the heart thing. So yes, we did the research.
For me the authenticity shows. It makes you not question what you are watching because it just feels real.
Do you feel the pressure of getting it right for the audience?
Oldfield: Yeah, you do. When you are dealing with a workplace like this, you have to get it right. Also, hospitals; a lot of people have been in hospital and a lot of people know doctors, so any whiff of inauthenticity or badly researched moment will result in a conversation on the sofa between people, "Hang on, that’s not what happened" and if they do that, they’re not talking about the characters in the story or the drama.
What can go wrong in trauma centre?
Bartlett: I think there are a millions things that can go wrong which is why they have to be so highly trained and why there has to be so much of the right equipment. If I get an episode of television wrong, the ratings might go down or I might be unhappy or the reviews might not be so good. If they get something wrong somebody could die and that’s a cliché but I think that’s the status, yeah.
Any advice for anyone who might want to write or produce?
Bartlett: The advice I always give to writers is write. The biggest thing that will stop you writing is yourself. You’ll read other things, you’ll watch other things and you’ll write something and you will go, "It’s not as good as that so I should stop". Or you will write 10 pages and go, "Oh it’s not what I want it to be" and you’ll stop. And that’s the biggest hurdle – your own self.
Actually, what you need to do is write not one thing but 10 things and then throw them away and write another 10 things and the more practice you get, the better you’ll get. It’s hard to do that because you want every piece of work to be the one but actually, like any job, the more you practice the better you’ll get and the more you write, even if it’s just for yourself, that’s the way to move forward.
Oldfield: [Whether] you go onto a production team or intern development, now is the perfect time to be doing this. There has never been more content being made. It’s very competitive but read anything you can get your hands on, watch television, go to the theatre and just keep knocking at the door and the door will open. It will.
It took me a very long time to get in but if you are persistent, and want it badly enough, it can happen.
Do you go to conventions or anything like that, to try to shop things around?
Oldfield: Most of the projects I make, I just have direct conversations with broadcasters that I’ve built up relationships with over time but I do go to some of those things because it’s good to get out and see what the rest of the industry is doing, within limits. I don’t go to all of them because if you did, you’d be going 365 days a year.
I go to Cannes or things in London, especially if you are launching a show, that’s when you get out.
Any upcoming projects?
Oldfield: Coming to Britbox later this year from Tall Story, which is a label that I work on, we made a show called Bancroft. You know Jane Tennison on Prime Suspect? Imagine if she was the worst woman in the world. [Bancroft]'s the antithesis of Jane Tennison. This is an entertaining, rip-roaring thriller about a policewoman who's really not quite as good as she should be.
Oldfield: Sarah Parish from Broadchurch and Faye Marsay who’s from Game of Thrones. It’s really fun.
Bartlett: Press. It’s on the BBC at the end of the year. It’s a six-part show about journalists. It’s co-produced with Masterpiece and PBS.
Trauma is available on ITV Hub in the UK and Britbox in the US.Tags: