Lights, camera… emergency! Angela Griffin had medical drama aplenty on Holby City – but that didn't stop the real thing overwhelming her
21:31 GMT, 29 June 2012
There’s no time to run through your lines when a baby’s life is hanging by a thread. No chance of doing a retake when someone is flatlining on the street. And no make-up girl to powder away the sweat from your brow as an ambulance screams through rush-hour traffic.
As Angela Griffin discovered, working with paramedics is about as far as you can get from planet celebrity.
The chance to host the first series of Sky’s Emergency With Angela Griffin in 2011 hurled the former star of Coronation Street, Holby City and Waterloo Road into a world where desperation and death become a daily reality.
Angela said she found working with paramedics a challenging experience
Angela, 35, says, ‘I thought I might occasionally be pushed to the edge of my comfort zone but within hours I realised there was no comfort zone. This is about as far as you can get from planet celebrity.
‘I turned up for my first shift with the West Midlands ambulance service, and all hell broke loose. There were people haemorrhaging, people attempting suicide, and the paramedics didn’t even have time for a cup of tea on a 12-hour shift. Then we had a call to a 12-week-old baby, Archie, who was grey and almost lifeless. His poor mother was sitting there in shock. I just burst into tears. All my training as an actress is to emote, to imagine myself in a situation. It’s great for getting real emotion in scenes, but it’s not a good quality to have in an ambulance.
‘When I got home that night to my own little girls, Tallulah [eight] and Melissa [five], I was in bits. I remember crying in my husband Jason’s arms, and saying, “I don’t think I can do this any more”.’ Thankfully, Archie survived what turned out to be a mystery virus, and Angela found the strength to return and tell the story of the heroic men and women of the ambulance service.
Emotional roller coaster: Angela on her show Emergency
Angela, who played nurse Jasmine Hopkins in Holby City, says nothing prepared her for the reality of the job. But she says, ‘I managed to compose myself, and realised that my job is to show the ambulance service for the incredible job they do. It isn’t always easy. I’ve always been squeamish before, and now I’ve seen people with arms broken and bones sticking out, people who are pumping out blood, people brought back from the dead and people who have died in front of my eyes.
‘I’ve heard the cry of someone who’s just lost a loved one, and it’s a sound that changes you forever. I don’t think I was ever in danger of having my head turned by fame, but this experience kept my feet firmly planted on the ground.’
For the second series, which starts on Sky1 this week, Angela joined crews in Scotland and Wales, and the air ambulance in Devon. She says, ‘It coincided with me filming the Sky comedy drama Mount Pleasant, which was surreal. I’d spend three days working with the ambulance crews, hoping I might get time to eat and praying nobody died, then a car would arrive and whisk me up to the Mount Pleasant set, where someone would put my make-up on and someone else would fetch me lunch. I went from being at the very edge of existence to a life of such pampering and privilege. It made me realise more than ever before how lucky I am.
If I had my time again, I’d train as a paramedic because it’s the most extraordinary rollercoaster job.
‘On Holby City my character worked on the cardiothoracic ward, so it was nothing like the reality of A&E. It takes time to realise that this is real life. The person lying on the ground in front of you has had a heroin overdose and could very well die. They aren’t a character in a soap who’s going to jump up and walk away once the cameras stop rolling.’
Angela has now done 76 shifts with the emergency services, a tally she’s very proud of. She says, ‘Afterwards, I think, “I can’t cope with any more of this”. Then I hear sirens and I find myself looking at ambulances racing down the street.
‘The other day, I was travelling on the Tube with my husband and daughters, and an old lady collapsed. Other first aiders leapt into action, but I stood there saying to Jason, “She could have had a mini stroke”. I needed to know if she remembered fainting or if she was confused, because these are all clues to help the paramedics. Jason had to stop me from going over. I was never meant to train as a paramedic, but I’ve learned so much along the way.’
A routine shift with the Devon Air Ambulance service turned into a nightmare. Angela says, ‘We were flying an injured teenager from a sports field when the radio picked up an emergency call from the pilot of a small aircraft whose landing gear had failed. We had to drop off our teenager at the hospital and then follow the plane in for its landing. All I could think was, “I might be about to watch a man die in front of me”.
‘As he made his final descent, I watched in terror as the plane hit the runway and sparks flew out. Luckily, the fuel didn’t ignite and when the plane came to a halt the pilot got out and sat by the runway. I felt giddy and sick with relief. I don’t know any other job that can leave you so gripped with terror.’
The show may have toughened Angela up, but she still has some distressing moments. When a paramedic tries to persuade Minnie, 92, to return to hospital, where she was being treated for pneumonia, and she begs to be allowed to die, the camera catches Angela in tears. ‘Minnie’s wedding photographs were on the mantelpiece and she told me she’d lost her husband three years earlier. It was absolutely heartbreaking.
‘If I had my time again, I’d train as a paramedic because it’s the most extraordinary rollercoaster job. You set off to work and you save lives – and it can’t get better than that.’
Emergency With Angela Griffin, Wednesday, 8pm, Sky1.