Laughing in the Face of Death

A Geriatric ward in a run-down NHS hospital isn’t exactly the first place you might go looking for comedy, but this is exactly where the actors of hit BBC politico-comedy The Thick of It have gone with Getting On, and with great success. Tried out as a three part mini-series on BBC4 last year, the corporation commissioned a full second series which is coming to an end this week.

Created, directed and starred in by Joanna Scanlan (Terri from The Thick of It) and Peter Capaldi (the ferocious spin doctor, Malcolm Tucker), Getting On bears all the same hallmarks: a largely ad-libbed script, shaky camerawork and dark, washed-out colours that give it an appropriately grim and immediate feel.

Nurses Den Flixter (Scanlan) and Kim Wild (Jo Brand) battle with every day struggles on the grim front line of the health service; cleaning up after ungrateful patients, dealing with red tape and informing relatives, watched over by abrupt busybody consultant Dr. Pippa Moore (BBC Radio 4’s Vicky Pepperdine) and thoroughly modern male Matron Hiliary Loftus (comedian and former boxer Ricky Grover). Like The Thick of It, the show doesn’t hold back (coffins are wheeled up and down the ward in plain view, and the staff have to cut a homeless woman out of her clothes, which after years of continuous wear without washing have fused to her skin), but gone are the spectacularly crude insults and bravado of Malcolm Tucker and in comes a much more understated, almost hidden-just-beneath-the-surface-humour that is all the more effective for it.

Jo Brand’s character, just returned to the NHS after years as a mum, struggles to get used to the new managerialism of our public services; as she is preparing to clean some “shit off a chair”, she is told that it should be referred to as “faecal matter” instead and before it can be cleaned up, it needs to be declared as a “critical incident” and cordoned off with biohazard warning tape. Of course, the whole ward smells of shit for the rest of the day but Kim and Den, bound by health and safety, can do nothing else.

This is one among several moments that Getting On uses to ask whether the NHS – now so obsessed with targets and regulations – has lost sight of its first duty-to care for patients. There is another heartrending moment in the current series in which a woman who has travelled hundreds of miles to see her dying mother is turned away because it wasn’t officially visiting time. Brand is by far and away the star of the show. A real-life former psychiatric nurse, she has spent two decades honing her grumpy, jaded comedic style and as such is perfectly suited to her character; someone who wants to do a good job of providing care to people who need it, but is prevented from doing so by a system that defeats her at every turn.  Most remarkable about Getting On is that it manages to mix moments of often slapstick humour (asked for help by another staff member, Kim, having just emptied a catheter says she is busy “taking the piss”) with slap-in-the-face moments of grim realism. Moments after a particularly funny exchange, the mood is interrupted when one of the patients starts bleeding out of her anus.

This is a common trick for black comedies, particularly hospital-based ones, but while Scrubs often ends up coming across overly saccharine, twee and moralising, Getting On gets the dose just right.

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