Eagle-eyed Casualty fans will recognise Lucy Gaskell as the show’s former forceful and feisty staff nurse Kirsty Clements. A capable and talented nurse, Lucy’s character suffered horrific abuse at the hands of her violent husband, Warren, played by actor Stephen Lord.
Viewers lived each moment as the abusive relationship between Kirsty and her muscular dystrophy-suffering childhood sweetheart developed, and watched her hide her secret home life while trying to hold down a stressful and demanding job at the A&E department of the fictional Holby City Hospital.
Clouded by her hope that her abuser will change and blinded by the love she has for her partner, Kirsty lived her life each day believing there was no alternative to her fear-filled home life. Belittled, controlled and bruised, Lucy’s year-long stint on the show tells the story of far too many women in the UK.
The shocking domestic violence statistics have consistently remained the same but sadly fail to create the headlines they warrant. At least one in four women will suffer domestic violence at some point in their lifetime and an average of two women will die at the hands of a current or ex male partner every week. For some, those words will fail to even raise an eyebrow.
After being called by the executive producer of Casualty for the role of Kirsty, Lucy, already a seasoned actress after appearing on the stage and in TV shows such as Cutting It and Doctor Who, was instantly sold on the part after hearing what was in store for her character.
“I knew the storyline and how responsibly the production team were going to handle it because they fully explained how they were going to approach the matter and promised to deal with it with great care,” she says.
“I was definitely on board from that moment really.”
Such a gritty and emotional role demanded preparation on Lucy’s part. So she quickly got stuck into speaking to a number of call handlers at the national charity Women’s Aid as well as gaining rare and valuable insight from visiting a refuge in London and listening to first-hand experiences from those women who had escaped the clutches of their violent partner.
One particular woman, Helen, affected 32-year-old Lucy greatly and spurred her on to continue her work with the charity to raise awareness of domestic violence long after her time on Casualty was over.
“Helen was so amazing,” she recalls.
“The experiences she suffered at the hands of her partner were so horrendous and yet here she was talking to me to help me tell the story on behalf of women like her. I just think women like Helen are so incredible because they are survivors and not victims.
“Many women have got a new life now but for others are still trapped in an abusive relationship, it is a very different matter.”
Wigan-born Lucy is clearly uncomfortable when talking about the impact playing a role like Kirsty had on her. Shifting in her seat and wringing her hands, she finds it difficult to answer whether the role was emotionally draining at times – as if doing so would elicit sympathy she feels she doesn’t deserve.
While she admitted recreating abusive scenes “hour after hour” between her and her on-screen husband were “emotionally charged”, “tiring” and generally didn’t make for the most pleasant day at work, she is keen to stress that she is “just” an actress and for her it is just another day in the office.
“On the days of the more violent scenes, Stephen and I did get very emotional because it is something we cared so much about getting right,” she says.
“But I get to walk away at the end of the day and come home to my loving husband. It made me realise how lucky I was that I had a job where I get to raise awareness about something I care about but also get to leave it at work and go back to a happy home. A lot of women don’t have that escape.
“I wouldn’t want to say that I felt it was hard for me because I’m just an actress. It is not a reality for me.”
Television is increasingly moving away from the stereotypical domestic violence storyline. Gone is the view that violence in the home only happens to the meek and timid, and indeed Casualty showed that strong, independent and successful women are just as much at risk of domestic violence as any other.
TV soap Coronation Street is currently in the throes of flipping the ‘traditional’ domestic violence plot on its head, with the female being the perpetrator of the violence and the male becoming the victim. Lucy hails this progression as “brilliant” as it encourages people to look beneath a person’s seemingly tough outer exterior.
“Some women living through domestic violence are trying to carry on with their lives as normal as possible, and they develop a very strong way of putting on a front that everything is okay simply because they want everything to be okay,” she says.
“You might be working alongside someone and have no idea that they are a completely different person at home than they are at work, because at work they have the freedom to be the person they want to be.”
It is this ‘front’ that makes domestic violence so difficult to spot. Victims may be manipulated to believe what is happening is their own fault or that it is ‘normal’ behaviour and so live a life bound by secrets. It is this emotional and manipulative abuse that goes hand in hand with physical abuse can so often distance women from those trying to offer their support, including health professionals. But Lucy claims primary care and community nurses are “crucial” to identifying the signs of violence in the home because of their position on the frontline.
The most dangerous point of an abusive relationship is when the victim tries to leave, so nurses have to negotiate this critical time with care. Failing to act in this way could have devastating consequences, with a nurse unwittingly placing their patient’s life in danger while trying to offer help and advice.
Lucy says it is “important” nurses are trained in understanding how to handle this “critical point”, because “they can make such a big difference”.
While Lucy has never really wanted to be anything other than an actress after studying drama and performing arts at school and college, she did flirt with the idea of becoming a nurse as a little girl. She fondly remembers the time she spent during her childhood years visiting her ‘Aunty Margaret’ at the hospital where she worked as a nurse, being “obsessed” with her aunt’s “pointy white hat” and entertaining the elderly patients when they didn’t have any visitors to keep them company.
Skip forward to 2010 and Lucy’s role as Kirsty on Casualty allowed her to step into a nurse’s shoes, both for pretend on set and for real for when shadowing real life A&E nurses in Frenchay Hospital in Bristol for research purposes.
“They even put me in scrubs [at Frenchay Hospital] so people kept coming in thinking I was a real nurse,” the mother of one giggles.
“I had to force myself to step away and not get involved and a couple of times I had to remind myself that the blood was real and I wasn’t on set.”
Lucy clearly enjoyed the time she spent in both fictional and non-fictional hospitals, witnessing “wonderful” working relationships between nurses and doctors, and soaking up the atmosphere when the set came alive after a disaster such as a bomb explosion meant it became almost like a real-life A&E department, thanks to the many people whose job it is to make the show as accurate as possible.
While the busy nature of her job meant she was unable to retain any medical knowledge during her stint on Casualty - in her own words she admits “I could probably tie a bandage on quite well but that is probably about it” – Lucy made sure she left a lasting impression on many viewers during her time on the TV show, receiving letters from those in a similar situation to that of her character Kirsty.
“As long as domestic violence is handled by TV shows in a responsible way, it can do no harm and only good can come of it,” she says.
“I had a lovely response from viewers in playing Kirsty and had quite a few letters from people who either were still in abusive relationships, people frustratingly I was unable to respond to for fear the letter would be found by their attacker, and those who had escaped violent relationships.
“Many women told me they were pleased to see an accurate representation of domestic violence and even just hearing that from one person, was enough for me to feel good and know that I had played the part right.”
Louise Naughton is a writer and journalist specialising in healthcare.
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