“YOU know what? I just love the miracle days.”
It begins tonight with both an expanded regular cast and hospital world.
If you liked Monroe the first time around, then you’re going to love series two.
Creator and writer Peter Bowker is always a guarantee of top quality drama.
And Monroe is one of the very best things you will see on British television.
We return 18 months on, with brilliant neurosurgeon Gabriel Monroe – played by the equally gifted James Nesbitt – living alone after the separation from his wife.
Episode one (of six) hits the ground in much the same way as Mo Farah approaches the final lap after the bell.
Our initial focus is on mechanic Terry, played by Steve Evets – an actor you will know from many previous roles, including Colin in Rev.
It’s heart surgeon Jenny Bremner’s (Sarah Parish) first day back at St Matthew’s after her maternity leave.
The father is her now live-in partner Lawrence Shepherd (Tom Riley), who also happens to be Monroe’s anaesthetist and best friend.
Wise and welcome additions to the regular cast are Neil Pearson as the newly appointed Head of Clinical Services Alistair Gillespie and Tracy-Ann Oberman as Nurse Specialist Lizzie Clapham.
The opening story features guest roles for ex-Corrie actress Julia Haworth and former Shameless star Jody Latham as Julie and Paul Herd.
With other names to look out for in the coming weeks, including Sean Gilder, Dystin Johnson, Craig Kelly, Michelle Holmes, Rebecca Ryan, Danny Seward, Tony Haygarth and Ukweli Roach.
Monroe is a medical drama that entertains, involves, uplifts, thrills, makes you think and surprises.
If you’ve not seen it before then I recommend you put that right tonight – assuming, of course, that you’re in a part of the world where you can access.
The London press launch was held early last month and my transcript of the post-screening Q&A is below for those who want a longer read.
Monroe returns to ITV1 at 9pm tonight. (Monday October 1)
Q&A with creator and writer Peter Bowker / James Nesbitt (Gabriel Monroe) / Sarah Parish (Jenny Bremner) / Tom Riley (Lawrence Shepherd) / Neil Pearson (Alistair Gillespie) / Tracy-Ann Oberman (Lizzie Clapham).
Q: James – what was it like coming back from working on The Hobbit in New Zealand straight to filming Monroe in Leeds?
James Nesbitt: “I always knew that I was coming back in January to do Monroe. Peter Jackson had given me that time off. So I was excited to come back. I had a fantastic year in New Zealand. An amazing experience. But I was also very keen to come back and slip into the familiar writing of Pete. He’s written for me a lot before and it was a show that I loved doing the first time. So I was absolutely ready for it. I couldn’t wait to get cracking. That’s in no way to denigrate what was happening in New Zealand. It’s two very different things on two very different scales. It was very easy. If you’re coming back to writing and characters as strong as that, from an acting point of view it was something I couldn’t wait to do.”
Q: Do you get at all squeamish?
James Nesbitt: “No. That was first really challenged just before the first series when we were afforded the amazing opportunity – which turned out to be also incredibly important, I think, in terms of the authenticity of the show and performance…right from the beginning Pete had a surgeon who he could work with from Leeds General Infirmary, which is itself a teaching hospital. So I saw operations before the first series. I went in with Tom, actually. I think it’s something we’ll never forget. We were invited to an operation in London by Henry Marsh, an outgoing and rather brilliant neurosurgeon who I think in many ways changed the face of neurosurgery.
“And at the beginning we stood very much at the back as they were about to – in a very agricultural and fairly invasive, industrial way – get into the brain. Once you’re in there it’s incredibly delicate and very balletic and choreographed and rather beautiful. But to get in there, it’s like you need a JCB…so he brought us over and you’ve no idea what to expect, really. That really was kind of jumping off a cliff. But I think we were fine with it. And then actually it became something that was enormously helpful to us. Because having sat through the operations – and I stood through four or five – I knew what to expect when we were in theatre. We always had the luxury of having a surgeon, a registrar, and medical staff there from the Leeds hospital.
“But, no, I wasn’t squeamish. In fact, if anything, I was fascinated by it. Maybe if it had been something else – I think it might have been more tricky if I’d been put in Sarah’s position. I’m sure Sarah can talk about that. There was something about maybe going into a heart and seeing that, that I may have found more difficult. But to just be able to view the organ and to see the work that they were doing, and to have someone who when you see your first brain – as Henry Marsh did to both of us, he said, ‘See that, that’s thought.‘ That sets you up rather brilliantly and magically for the whole process. To the point where I now am fairly confident that if you gave me six months I could be a brain surgeon.” (smiles)
Tracy-Ann Oberman: “I had a friend who they thought had a brain bleed over the summer after we finished filming this and I was in a panic. She rang me in a panic and I nearly got the number to ring Jimmy in New Zealand because he was the only person I could think of to ask what she should do. I didn’t, by the way.”
Neil Pearson: “I obviously joined for the second series and was lucky enough to witness the removal of an aortic aneurysm, which after open-heart surgery is the most invasive, planned, clinical procedure. you can do. I knew I wasn’t squeamish but there’s always something…you think will sideswipe you. It was them telling me the mortality rate, as it turned out. The surgeon was quite rightly proud of the fact that the national mortality rate for the operation was six per cent. And his was only three per cent. And that turned out to be the thing I hadn’t thought of. That I might see someone die. It didn’t happen. It was a happy ending and it was fabulous.
“But you can see that stuff in a documentary. So really that’s just the sort of perk. It’s the icing on the cake. It’s a license to be nosey, what we do. But what you don’t see in the documentaries is the room. And that’s what’s most useful. How many people are there in the room? What do they do when they’re not needed? What’s the coversation about? Are there biscuits? That sort of stuff is the stuff that you don’t see in the documentaries. And that was the stuff that was most useful. But it was most thrilling and a great privilege to be in the room.”
James Nesbitt: “Is it time to wake up the anaesthetist?” (laughter)
Tracy-Ann Oberman: “I followed round the nurse specialist – Roisin – that the character was based on for the day. That was really interesting for me. There are only 20 of them in the country. Because cardio and neuro surgery is so invasive, the patients and their families often need to have some sort of nurse specialist pastoral care that goes with them from the beginning almost to the end of the procedure for them. It was just seeing what those nurses do and how involved with the families they get and how important they are to those patients was a great privilege for me.”
Q: What were you trying to achieve in this second series?
Peter Bowker: “Our main policy was to cast more Mancs. It’s a scheme I run. (smiles) After the first series I just wanted to broaden it a little. I suppose the one thing I wanted to change was dramatically I wanted to explore what it would be like if there was somebody who could say no to Monroe and no to Bremner. I don’t think that was lacking in the first series. I thought it was necessary in the first series to stake the territory. Obviously threre’s a long tradition of medical dramas in this country and the two dominant ones are obviously Holby City and Casualty, which go for a very spare realist approach. And so it was very important to me to be doing something different. So with the second series, the opportunity to inject more energy, in terms of crowding the cast a bit more, crowding the hospital a bit more, using the set we’ve got in Leeds to open out into things like the cafeteria and the rest of it.
“It’s no secret that the first series was, in a way, an extension of my experience of my daughter’s brain operation. So I was especially keen that we focused very forensically on the individual genius and the very lost parents in empty corridors. I felt in the second series…in a way I’ve kind of moved away from my personal experience and moved into something where I wanted to explore more how the kind of trappings of the hospital, how that environment informs this kind of franticness and then the moments of calm within it. So I suppose what has changed is the rhythm and the scale of the piece, slightly. I also feel that it’s just an opportunity in a way to then throw more crap at your lead characters. That’s what drama is. Am I quoting Tom Stoppard there? Possibly.
“So I was keen to explore more professional conflict. Although there’s a massive story about Nick (Monroe’s son) getting married and his emotions, I’ve probably gone home less with Monroe. I want to go home more with Shepherd and Bremner and explore that whole relationship of two people working at the same place, who have a baby at home. And the dilemma of the work/life balance, if you like. Just broadening the geography and widening the whole thing. But all with the same purpose in mind, which is just cranking up all your lead characters, because in the end those are the people that people want to watch and that’s what people come back to it for, hopefully.”
Q: Has anyone confused you with a real life brain surgeon?
James Nesbitt: “There is an element of that. But I played terrorists and people didn’t think I was going to bomb them. It’s impossible not to get very involved in it. What I understood most about Monroe is the duality of his life. His work/life balance is often skewed and he can get a bit lost in work. Because the intensity of the job was such that I was away from home, there’s something to relate to there. The difference, of course, is that Monroe is working in a life or death situation every day. I’m just lucky enough to say Pete’s words and then get in a nice car and go to a nice apartment. I feel very close to the show. Maybe closer than other jobs I’ve done because I’ve enjoyed it so much. But I’m not thinking of getting into the medical profession yet. It’s because we were so supported by the medical team, by the surgeons, by the staff, it just makes the job so much easier and then means you can concentrate on really exploring the characters and, hopefully, making it as authentic as possible.”
Q: Has anyone suffered a headache during the making of the series and suddenly wondered if it was something worse?
James Nesbitt: “Ah, well I would think that anyway. We’re a very insecure breed.”
Q: Guest actors involved in operating scenes – as the patient – have to be checked in advance to ensure they’re not claustrophobic?
Sarah Parish: “I think all of them have been (claustrophobic) actually. It’s a horrible situation to put an actor in because they’re on a proper operating table, which is hard and very uncomfortable. They have to be there for the best part of a whole day. They’ve got a huge prosthetic chest over them and they’re not allowed to move. It often feels like you have actually done the operation. We’ve had a few freak outs on set. We’ve had to ‘take five’. People have had to have a little time out.”
James Nesbitt: “They’re clamped and then I have to shave their heads, which they’re not that keen on either.”
Neil Pearson: “It takes longer to shoot an operation than to conduct an operation.”
Peter Bowker: “The operating theatres in Monroe are the envy of all the medical advisors. It’s the best equipped operating theatre because, obviously, it’s going to be on telly, the people who make the equipment are far happier to lend you their stuff.”
Q: Filming big budget The Hobbit and then moving on to this?
James Nesbitt: It’s funny…of course you would think the shoots are different. But what I loved about Monroe…it is different…The Hobbit is huge and I suppose you have to emotionally fight sometimes for your part and to make sure you’ve got screen time. It’s a very different process. In Monroe I can just arrive like Monroe himself would just arrive at the hospital. You get into your scrubs, you’re in make-up for a minute and then, bang, you’re into it. And I love that. And that actually helps me in that particular dynamic of the show in that Monroe was shot on a pretty…we were afforded incredible sets, wonderful scripts, great directors, fantastic cast… but you’re working to a pretty tight schedule and you have to get things done.
“On The Hobbit you may spend a day on the shot. And that is very different in a sense. But in terms of the work, I don’t see a really huge difference between a massive film like that and a drama like this. I think it’s difficult, particularly in this country, to be snobby about film because a lot of the best stuff that we shoot here is shot for small screen anyway. So the approach to the acting doesn’t change at all. It just that it was lovely and very comforting to be able to get back into dealing with the nitty gritty realism and humour of Pete’s writing. Because, of course, that can get sometimes lost on a project as huge as The Hobbit. But I’m very lucky to be involved in both. I’d fight to appear in Monroe. It’s something I love.”
Q: Can you talk us through your costume in The Hobbit?
James Nesbitt: “It’s just a big heavy thing that you need to work out for a year to be able to wear.”
Q: Sarah, can you tell us – is it true that you have recently been in a relationship with Kevin Costner? (laughter)
Sarah Parish: “Yes it is true. Before this last season of Monroe I did a mini-series with Kevin Costner. It was for the History channel. A piece called Hatfields & McCoys. It’s a very famous story in America. I’d never heard of it. But it’s about two feuding families in the early 19th century who fall out over a pig and consequently end us massacring each other.
“They were looking for a mostly American cast, obviously, but they were also looking for English actors as well. And I had the privilege of being cast as Kevin Costner’s wife, which was fantastic. So we were all flown out to Romania, bizarrely enough, because up in the north of Romania, in a place called Brasov, it looks a little bit like the Appalachian Mountains. So we filmed in Romania for three months. We were all stuck in the same hotel. It was a surreal and bizarre experience to be having your eggs on toast next to Kevin Costner and Bill Paxton every morning. But it was fantastic and great. And consequently it’s done incredibly well. We’re up for 16 Emmy nominations, which is fantastic. It was the highest watched cable drama ever…”
James Nesbitt: “All right…(laughter).
Sarah Parish: “So yeah. It was good. I was Kevin Costner’s girlfriend for three months.”
Q: Tom – is it true that you have gone from being a very mild-mannered anaesthetist to playing Leonard Da Vinci as an action hero?
Tom Riley: “Yes. I’m doing it right now, which is why I have this beard.”
James Nesbitt: “I thought you were going to say, ‘This amazing body.’” (laughter)
Tom Riley: “The amazing body was being worked on for months and months but the beard just took a couple of weeks. It’s a series called Da Vinci’s Demons, an American series, a co-production with the BBC, which I’m shooting at the moment. And having played second fiddle to a genius in a hospital, I’m now playing the genius and someone else has to look at me as adoringly as I look at Jimmy. It’s quite nice.”
Q: James – what do you like to watch yourself on television?
James Nesbitt: “Just stuff I’m in, basically. (laughter) Reports a while ago of the demise of British television I think were hugely exaggerated. I think there’s an incredible amount of good drama on. I was watching Anna Maxwell Martin last night in Accused. She’s extraordinary. Just beautifully nuanced. So stuff like that. And as an actor, working with Pete is an ongoing pinnacle every time I work with him because he seems to find what an actor wants to do – you want to be challenged, you want situations that people can relate to. He seems to find a voice. He’s an incredibly intelligent writer yet extraordinarily accessible. So I think it’s a golden age of drama. You don’t like to watch lazy acting or lazy writing and I think there are plenty of things around that are challenging that notion. I don’t watch a lof of the bargain buy house stuff that goes on. But I’ll watch anything. I usually watch sport. I’ll watch tractor racing if it’s good enough.”
Q: Did the baby scenes cause any particular problems?
Tom Riley: “Well we had two lovely babies.”
Sarah Parish: “You always get two. You always get twins. So if one kicks off you just bring the other one in. They were great, actually.”
James Nesbitt: “When we did Cold Feet there were loads of different babies. And they were entirely different.”
Q: Tom and Sarah – we go home more with your characters in this series. How did you feel about having the chance to delve deeper into that relationship?
Tom Riley: “It’s really nice actually. It was really lovely to do all the stuff because we hadn’t really explored it at all in the first series. They were just two people who had an attraction at work. And then actually being able to see how they lived at home and what the pressures of work was doing to their relationship outside of it, it’s really interesting the way Pete constructed that.”
James Nesbitt: “It’s just interesting the notion that the workplace is the life and death thing. But, of course, all around that and outside of that life is going on and that has it’s own complications. And I think very much because of the work that they’re involved in. The divorce rate amongst surgeons is pretty high, I would think, Pete?”
Peter Bowker: “It’s very high. One surgeon I met was living in a through terrace. But he said you can tell which marriage a surgeon is on by how high up the hill their house is. And they were like £2 million houses. And he said, ‘That’s the first marriage, that’s the second…’ I just think.., it’s the hours, the fact you’re never really off, the fact that your real life is in the hospital and everything else is secondary to that. And the adrenaline and the excitement that brings. A bit like in Occupation, a bit like soldiers, you feel that there’s certain things you can’t share. That your most intimate moments, in a way, are at work. It seems like it’s a miracle…Phil, who advises in Leeds, he looked rather askance when I – having met all these surgeons with broken marriages – rather tactlessly said, ‘So what marriage are you on then?’ He said rather tersely, ‘I’ve been married very happily for 32 years.’ (laughter)
Q: Are current NHS cuts reflected in this series?
Peter Bowker: “Probably no. They’re within a context. Although the level of surgeons that I’m writing about and that I research with are acutely aware of services beneath them diminishing, their job – because of the emergency nature – remains largely protected. It was a deliberate decision of mine quite early on to not write a polemical drama, if you like. In a way this is…the politics are very personal politics. In my writing there’s always going to be a slight dig at the Tories at every possible opportunity. But this probably isn’t the series in which I explore that to any great extent.”
Q: The response from doctors who have watched the series?
Peter Bowker: “I have to say the surgeons love it. I think they love it because it shows a certain degree of pressure. They love the reality of the operation. They tend to be very detailed, focused and they love the technical detail that mightn’t be an issue for you or I. The thing they like…at least two phrases are now used in surgery that they’ve picked up from the scripts. ‘Bob’s your knob’ is one. And, ‘You’re only two A-levels away from being a psychopath.’ So I like to think that I fed into that. I think they think…because the decision making isn’t done maybe as quickly in a faster turnaround show, I think they quite like that. And they’re being played by very good looking people, so what’s not to like?”
Tom Riley: “I had a little accident, nothing major, on set about a month and a half ago and I went to the Swansea hospital and was rushed through A&E because they were Monroe fans.”
James Nesbitt: “Which is reason enough to go into acting…”
Q: Jimmy – do you have any input into the script?
James Nesbitt: “Pete and I have a shared love of Manchester United and almost every job I’ve done he’s managed to get (a reference). But if you keep watching the show there’s a few more brilliant United echoes. And I love that. There’s a great quote he uses of Alex Ferguson later on where he quotes Alex Ferguson as saying, ‘When I first saw Ryan Giggs it was like watching a cocker spaniel chasing a bit of silver foil in the wind.’ Which I loved. It’s good that we have our own little victories there.”
Q: When you go away to film in Leeds or New Zealand, what do you miss most?
James Nesbitt: “Well, I miss my family. Although they were in New Zealand with me for most of the time. I feel very blessed. To be able to go from Pete Bowker’s amazing writing and working with this fabulous cast and to have Neil and Tracy-Ann join us this year was a real, unexpected, brilliant fillip. And I’ve worked particularly closely with them throughout the series and it enters just a whole new dymanic from another character. But also for me, to find new people to work with and bounce off is very gratifying. So any negatives of having to go away to Leeds, or whatever the negatives of having to go to New Zealand for a year with your family, they’re certainly far outweighted by what is a very privileged life, really.”
Q: Did you get time to go out in Leeds?
James Nesbitt: “I took this lot out, didn’t I?”
Tracy-Ann Oberman: “You treated us a couple of times down the steak restaurant.”
James Nesbitt: “Ah, we’re too old for that.”