Anyone who has seen 24 Hours in A&E knows the sound of that red telephone.
The loud ring, preceding a patient’s arrival. I remember exactly where I was when I first heard it, and I knew it was the start of something brilliant.
Indeed, late on a summer’s night in 2010 I found myself in an emergency department in South London.
My business partner Nick Curwin and I were at King’s College Hospital, Camberwell, to observe what it was like in Resus, the resuscitation area of the Accident & Emergency department where they treat those with the most life-threatening conditions.
I wasn’t really sure what to expect and had imagined making a brief visit to get the lie of the land. But then the red phone rang. Booming, insistent.
It was hastily picked up by one of the emergency staff who then announced over the tannoy that a motorcyclist was being rushed in by ambulance from a nearby road traffic accident.
The minutes that followed were calm but intense. Preparation. The anticipation was palpable.
When the double doors flew open and a young man was wheeled in, he didn’t look in a good way.
Would he make it? And if he did, would he walk again?
We sat for hours in rapt silence as the extraordinary medical team worked to save him. He was going to be OK.
It was that drama, that touch and go moment – and we knew an audience would be hooked too.
We were right.
Ten years, two hospitals (filming has been at St George’s, South London, since 2014) and over 250 episodes later, the series is as fascinating as ever.
We have witnessed incredible life and death situations with some miraculous recoveries.
Who could forget Sam, the 19-year-old motorcyclist flown from the south coast by air ambulance.
Found bent double under a bus, he took his first steps at the end of the episode.
Then there was Corey, the 24-year-old ice hockey player who suffered a cardiac arrest in front of his wife of seven days.
It took 25 minutes of CPR before paramedics were able to restart his heart. In hospital it was touch and go before he was diagnosed with a rare syndrome and had a device fitted that would keep him alive.
Among all this, it’s the people who make the programme.
Yes, while there had been plenty of A&E-based documentaries before, none had given the audience the same sense of unfolding drama.
When we pitched the idea, we knew it sounded ludicrous – to install close to 100 remotely operated cameras on the walls of an emergency department in order to tell the stories of those patients treated in a 24-hour period. So it was a surprise to us that King’s College Hospital was so receptive.
At the time headlines were dominated by NHS scandals and waiting lists, and it was having quite an impact on morale.
Those we spoke to at King’s were rightly proud of their staff – the expertise, care and kindness – and they wanted the public to see that too.
It was a logistical challenge.
How would we install and cable dozens of cameras into a department that never closes?
Where could we put the huge broadcast truck? And, most importantly, how would we gain the permission of patients and relatives to film their treatment and ensure that their safety and best interests were never compromised by our presence?
We worked each one out carefully with the hospital.
It was an early October morning when the cameras began to roll. Six weeks of filming round the clock lay ahead of us.
Standing in the gallery watching the patients start coming through the doors was an extraordinary and humbling experience.
The extensive coverage allowed us to capture not only the heart-in-the-mouth moments of intense drama, but also some joyful and even comic interactions that could never have been scripted in the waiting room.
Perhaps most affecting was the incredible emotional tenderness in some of the encounters we witnessed.
For a place often associated with suffering, it was striking how much love there was.
I remember Charlie, a London cabbie who had crashed after a suspected stroke. His close-knit family quickly rallied round with overwhelming love for this husband and father who was facing the possible end of his livelihood. There was barely a dry eye in the gallery.
Indeed, some of the most memorable and engaging moments have not centred on the medical drama at all, but rather the human relationships.
If there’s anything I’ve learnt from A&E, it’s that we all have a life story worth hearing.
Who can forget the touching and tender goodbye from Jonathan to his 89-year-old father Sir John, or hearing about the 60-year marriage between Doreen and Andrew – an early inter-racial relationship between a white girl from Surrey and one of the Windrush generation of immigrants.
The clip of them on Facebook has received an incredible 130 million views.
The interviews are as crucial to the show as the medicine.
Each episode sees staff, patients and their relatives talk to camera. They tell stories that go way beyond the walls of A&E.
When a serious accident or illness strikes you or a loved one, it’s natural to reflect and take stock of life as a whole.
Over the years this has allowed us to cover so much of life’s rich tapestry, but also some serious issues not always directly related to A&E, such as alcoholism, racial prejudice, knife crime, battlefield PTSD and homophobia. Looking back, it seems funny that when the first episode aired, we were braced for disappointment.
But the audience came, and stayed.
24 Hours in A&E won the Royal Television Society Award for best documentary series, with many other awards and BAFTA-nominations since.
Even in its portrayal of loss, there is something ultimately reassuring about the show – a reminder of the enduring power of love and of a life well lived.
Despite all the bad stuff that can happen, the resounding feeling you’re left with after watching an episode is of the essential goodness in humanity.
Nowhere is this more evident than in the kindness and care of the NHS staff who, as we know, are the real heroes of the series.
After the year we’ve had, no one should need reminding of what an incredible job they do – and it feels appropriate that the latest series was filmed in the midst of the pandemic.
I hope it can serve as a tribute to all those on the medical frontline who have risked and sacrificed so much to keep us safe and well.
I'm too focused to notice cameras
Dr Rhys Beynon is a consultant in adult and paediatric emergency medicine at St George’s Hospital, London.
I’m always so focused on the work I’m doing that I forget I’m being filmed.
It’s a good thing really because I think I’d freak out if I actually thought about all of the people who might be watching my every move on TV.
Being a part of 24 Hours in A&E has been such an amazing experience and I’ve loved every minute of it. I feel blessed to be a part of such an amazing TV show. So many people come up to me in the street to tell me how much they love – and cry – watching the show.
It was also really special to let my family see what I actually get up to at work. I don’t think they realised what a day in the life of an emergency department doctor really entails.
Now they understand why I’m so tired when I come home from work!
24 Hours in A&E shows us how precious life is. It reminds us that we don’t know what’s around the corner – and that we should tell our loved ones that we love them.
*Magnus Temple is co-founder and former chief executive of The Garden Productions. All new 24 Hours in A&E is on Mondays at 9pm on Channel 4