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Cathy Shipton

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Cathy Shipton
We launch into this weekend's line-up of interviews with none other than Cathy Shipton, who returns to Casualty for the 20th anniversary Cambodian episodes.

Cathy starred in the BBC medical drama from the first episode and first left in 1993. Five years later her character, Duffy, returned to the wards for another stint and made her second exit five years later in 2003. Now three years on, Duffy makes yet another comeback to our screens for the two special anniversary episodes which air over this weekend.

The actress now has a five-and-a-half-year-old daughter, Tallulah Grace Lily, with husband Christopher Guard.

The Casualty legend took time out of her week to talk to me about returning for a third time.

Here's what she had to say:

Why did you decide to return to Casualty?
"I think this particular couple of episodes was an offer I couldn't refuse. It's not necessarily a return as such to Casualty because I don't go back in a blue frock onto the wards as a full-time member of staff. It's a storyline that holds its own over two episodes and it's really exciting because Duffy's out in Cambodia idealistically setting up a free clinic for people living on the poverty line in a very impoverished country, so that's quite a challenge."

What was it like being back in with the programme?
"I think to a certain extent it's never left me. I remember going back before and being frightened, it was like a ghost walking. You find yourself doing medical procedures virtually in your sleep. You just know how to do them. That felt exactly the same. There were several medical operations that we had to perform and, again, it just all comes back to you. The great thing about this is that it does feel that Duffy's made some very different choices in her life and moved on. She's a lot lighter of spirit – there's something quite vital and buzzy about her that you don't often see or haven't seen much of in the past and that was lovely to play."

Was there any point during filming when you wished Duffy was still walking the wards of Casualty?
"It didn't really cross my mind so much because I was just doing the job at hand, but I must admit the crew and all the people around me were saying 'oh my God, we just watched that scene and it just feels so right. It's like squaring a circle. It's like putting the right piece back in the jigsaw puzzle'. They see you as being part of the show and that's a fantastic compliment. Without a doubt, the character has had a long history with the show so it makes sense when she's back around, that it feels that the world is right in the show. I don't know. If it goes that way in the future, then it does. I've really enjoyed these episodes and it’s best not to take it at face value."

Would you consider a permanent return?
"I never say never. They didn't kill the character off. I know some actors say that they never want to go back to things and ensure they're killed off. Ian Kelsey did that and people do do that. Sometimes people do it because the management side want something dramatic to happen. I'm quite philosophical with my involvement with Casualty; if it surfaces again and it comes around and I have an offer made then I might just see what we're looking at.

"I'm under no illusion - it's a very hard-working show. I mean I've just done a glamorous shoot for a magazine and everyone often thinks that's what acting's all about, but what acting's about on that show is being in makeup at 7, working until 7.30 and working on an industrial trading estate. It can be long, hard days and it does take over your life so I'd have to consider any kind of offers around that really seriously."

If you did return, what storylines would you like to see Duffy in?
"I suppose there was talk, when I was still part of the show, that a producer was doing research into a nursing practitioner which is a type of nurse that is more diagnostic. It's between a nurse and a doctor, so it would be quite interesting to assume more of that kind of role so that you'd probably come into conflict more with doctors and generate quite a lot of drama around that situation. And then there's always the on-off romance with Charlie. Everybody wants to bang their heads together like in When Harry Met Sally and say 'why don't you two see that you're made for each other' and they're the only two that don't see.

"I've always been served very well in the show with the storylines that they've given Duffy. She's had personal dilemmas through a rape story very early on, being promoted to a sister and then being a single mum, that carried on for quite a few years because it touched a lot of nerves in reality. She's had her fair share of heartbreak; she's very good at her job and not very good at picking life partners, so I'm sure should the character hypothetically ever resurface, there'd be quite a lot to throw at her."

Would you like to see Charlie and Duffy get married?
"I think if Charlie and Duffy ever tie the knot it'll be the very last episode of Casualty [laughs]. They'd be running off to the Bahamas or going to set up a nursing home. It would be very interesting. The most interesting thing would be the 'will they, won't they' leading up to it because I'm sure there would be many a slip between the pair. It would be very interesting to see that scene where they finally think 'oh my God, it's you. It's been you all along'. But where would you go after that?"

Would you be able to cope in a real-life emergency?
"Well when I met my husband, Chris, he really loves playing football and when he took me the first time to see him play, it was on Astroturf in the summer. He went up for the ball, came down badly and broke the same metatarsal that Wayne Rooney and David Beckham fractured. And all his friends are saying to him 'oh, showing off to your new girlfriend' and, of course, he can't walk, he's crying his eyes out on the pitch. They run off and get him some ice because his foot was the size of a football and then I had to take him to hospital. When I got there and I'm wheeling him in, nobody would take me seriously. They all said 'what are you doing here Duffy?!'

"I have helped somebody who had a fit behind me in the post office, though. This huge man – who looked like a rugby player – went down like a tree and went into quite a serious fit. You'd think I was on the set, I cleared the area, took off my fleece, put it under his head, made sure there was nothing that was going to harm him, called the ambulance, let the fit subside, talked to him quietly, got his name, reassured him and then the ambulance turned up and the paramedics said 'you see who's here?!'"

What was your favourite storyline while you were in the show?
"One of the storylines that I really like was when the Lara character hit a copper over the head with a brick and got sentenced for manslaughter and Duffy became a bit of a sleuth and investigated his wife. It was quite a recent storyline, it was when Lara was still in the show and that was great because I tracked down the wife and I discovered that he had a violent past with a lot of domestic abuse and she didn't want to blacken his name.

"Most of the storylines that I've had - even my leaving story - were great. I quite like it when Duffy doesn’t get things right. In her professional career, she's good at that, but in her private life she's rubbish."

Do you ever manage to catch Casualty in your spare time?
"On and off really. I haven't watched it week in, week out. I dip in and out. I think Sue Cookson is just fantastic as Maggie."

What about Holby?
"When I occasionally catch a Holby I'm always so impressed. It's a fantastic show, very different from Casualty and it's a really good spin-off with it being so different. Very good storylines and really well acted."

Sticking with the spin-offs, what do you think to the idea of new police drama Holby Blue?
"The police and medical have a lot to do with each other and a lot of nurses marry coppers etc, I think it could actually be a really, really good show and obviously what they're looking to vie with is The Bill, so to already have something set up - and it be as successful as Holby has been as a spin-off, and I see no reason why it shouldn't be because it's not in the same territory - I think if it's really well researched and they manage to grab some core characters in the way both Casualty and Holby both have, then I think it should be really, really successful."

Do you still keep in touch with many of the cast?
"I keep in touch with Derek Thompson, and Brenda Fricker slightly more tenuously, because she has a slightly more far-flung life and I've been in touch on and off with Claire Goose because she lives locally and we bump into each other and Barbara Martin who used to play a sister on the show a few years back. And also Rebecca Wheatley; she's just moved from this part of the world to Brighton, so I don't see her as much as I would like to.

"Oh, and Sandra Huggett who played Holly Miles, the doctor years ago who was kidnapped. There was also a nurse around at that time, a young guy called Ronnie McCann [Barney Woolfe] and he's very good friends with Sandra, so whenever I see Sandra at something I tend to bump into Ronnie, too."

Obviously there was a whole hoard of new faces when you returned, but how had things changed on set?
"Well, that's a tricky one for me to answer because I did all of my shooting out on location in Cambodia. For us, it was like shooting a film because we were always on location and I didn't have anything to do with the 'home' side of it all. When I left in 1993 and returned in 1998, there was a huge change that time, but I feel the changes are less obvious now. I think if anything it's done a really good job of maintaining its consistency and maintaining its audience and interest and standard. It did go through a time when the casting was quite pretty for boys and girls and everybody looked a bit glamorous and I feel there's a better mix now and people look real, which I think is always a good way to go for the show."

What was a typical day's filming like in Cambodia? I can imagine it was intense?
"Most definitely. We would lose the light so we couldn't go much beyond 7pm sometimes, so we would be in make-up at 4.30am and finish by 5.30am. Breakfast was served at 6am and on the travel coach, by 7am and we'd be turning over by 7.30am/8am, depending on what you were shooting. That was the day and you worked through until 6.30pm. It was all right for the cast because we had an air-conditioned minibus, whereas the crew, they're at it the whole day. I take my hat off to them. At least between scenes we could go and relax. There was one particular day where I thought we'd all melt. It was well over 100 degrees, and when I watch it on camera we just look like we're strolling about, completely acclimatised. But you did feel like you were going to explode, you really did."

Did you get much spare time in Cambodia for sightseeing?
"My first week wasn't so heavily scheduled, so I did manage to get around and I did the classic tourist sightseeing stuff. I did go to the killing fields and some of the more provocative areas in the country's recent history and that was quite a difficult day to visit a place like that."

Had you ever been to Cambodia before?
"No, it was my first visit. I did quite a bit of research online before I went out there and for all its difficulties, the people are absolutely wonderful. Just the welcome we all received and the care that was taken over us. You smiled from morning to night. People had quite a downer when we got back we just missed the cultural sweetness and generosity. We all beaver away over here ambitiously and it just seems that people laugh a lot out there and they have nothing, yet they're happy with a lot less. It does open your eyes a lot, makes you think how we think and question your values."

Do you think there's still life left in Casualty to go for another 20 years?
"I'd have to say yes, inasmuch as the show was actually axed after two years. We were all given a letter saying 'sorry but we don't feel there's enough material to justify recommissioning another series' and 18 years later it's still going very strong. I see absolutely no reason for it to not run for the same length again or as far as Charlie's legs will carry him [laughs]."

Aside from Casualty, do you have any other favourite soaps? Any other programmes?
"I don't really watch a lot of soaps, but I do everything backwards. I've just started watching West Wing, but I know it's finished, and I started to watch Desperate Housewives when that season came to a close. If anything, I'll watch comedy programmes or naturalistic ones. I like Have I Got News For You, but I'm not a great soap watcher because once you get hooked it's like a drug and you've got to keep plugging in, which I'm glad people do, especially when I was in Casualty [laughs]."

What have you been doing for the past three years?
"I've been being a mum which was very much a chosen direction of what I wanted to be and do and I've done some studying for my own personal pleasure in psychology. I've done a couple of plays and a couple of television programmes, but really my thing was taking that job of being a mum at home seriously because it is an important piece of work. Now my little one is five-and-a-half now, I'm thinking of putting my toe back in the water, so we'll see if there's still life out there."

What are your future ambitions?
"Mainly to raise my daughter well. And I feel lucky to have been in Casualty and I feel lucky to do things which have a social impact, so I would hope to continue to be part of something in my working life that has that kind of impact. I don't necessarily have personal ambitions to walk up on stage and pick up Oscars or any of those kind of things, but just to make a bit of a difference in how people think."

Thanks for taking time to talk to us, Cathy!

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