Yorkshire Television's The Royal - full name: St Aidan's Royal Free Hospital - was already known to Heartbeat fans as the cottage hospital in nearby Elsinby, one of the locations in Nicholas Rhea's Constable books. The series retains the Heartbeat connection, with The Royal sharing Heartbeat's much loved setting in beautiful Yorkshire and the 1960's period flavour.
But as the focus shifts to the hospital, the date of the story takes on a new significance. One of the features that shapes the Heartbeat stories is Nicholas Rhea's recollection of his early days in the police service, as detailed in his Constable books; the seed for The Royal was likewise, as Executive Producer, Keith Richardson, explains, the realisation that a familiar facet of today's NHS had actually started in the 1960s:
"We came up with an idea called Immediate Care which was about the early paramedics. In the 1960's there was no such thing, ambulances picked up injured people and treatment would not be given until they arrived at the hospital. We decided quite early on to expand on this idea so that the programme revolved around the whole of the hospital. There is quite a lot of impending change in the series. What we have tried to do is show the point at which the NHS started to change our health service."
Setting the series in a cottage hospital allowed this story to be developed among a group of characters, some younger, some older, some keen to innovate and some valuing the traditional strengths of the health service, but all of them individuals with their own lives and stories. As Keith puts it:
"One of the things that has made Heartbeat successful is that it has never really had a star as such, you have lots of interesting characters and there is something for everybody. I think we have the same element in The Royal. We have a wide range of characters, played by some wonderful actors and I'm sure that will appeal to the viewing public."
From Julian Ovenden in the rôle of new broom Dr David Cheriton and Zoie Kennedy to ambitious young staff nurse Meryl Taylor to the well-known (and loved) Wendy Craig as Matron and Ian Carmichael as Hospital Secretary T.J. Middleditch, the cast formed an ensemble which did much to ensure the continuation of The Royal beyond its first series. And of course, there were also some familiar characters putting in an appearance. Heartbeat characters featured in the first series included Bernie Scripps, PC Phil Bellamy, Gina Ward and PC Alf Ventress; not to mention the irrepressible Claude Jeremiah Greengrass, back from the Tropics with a mysterious disease! The Royal gave Bill Maynard (who plays Greengrass in Heartbeat) the chance to lie in bed and order everyone around.
Nicholas Rhea comments:
"...I am delighted at the way The Royal has effortlessly developed from Heartbeat. It's wonderful to see so many favourite Heartbeat characters making an appearance in The Royal and, just as I recall my time as a policeman in the 1960's, so I also recollect the strong links between the work of hospitals and police. I think The Royal admirably captures that spirit of co-operation in a period fondly remembered by so many of us..."
Although The Royal functions as a spin-off from Heartbeat, Keith Richardson and the team were keen to preserve a balance between this connection and the independence of the new show:
"From the beginning we wanted The Royal to be able stand up as a programme in its own right. But it seemed to make sense that if there had been a road accident, the policeman who attended the scene would be one of the characters from Heartbeat. As the programme developed, we extended this idea so that these familiar faces would be seen within the hospital. I think the audience will get a sort of comfort from the odd appearance of people they know. The Heartbeat characters don't dominate the programme, they link stories together. The real interest can be found in the hospital and the lives of its staff."
The seaside town of Elsinby has much in common with Whitby: but the building which stands in for the Royal itself in exterior shots is not in Whitby at all, but in Scarborough: Sykes Silly Site has the details!