What is the definition of comedy? Is there more to it than making people laugh? These are questions addressed nearly 40 years ago by Trevor Griffiths in his socialist critique of stand-up comedy, The Comedians and they are questions that kept coming to mind watching the brilliant latest series of Getting On.
I may not be the best judge since most standup comedy leaves me cold (sexist and racist in the past, now, it seems, simply cruel and shocking for the sake of it) while sitcoms are populated in the main by unreal characters in endlessly recycled hackneyed routines. Perhaps I’ve just got no sense of humour.
But I do like Getting On, and its stablemate The Thick of It. Both are comedies, but rarely do either of them trigger belly laughs. A more likely reaction to what you’re seeing on screen is a rictus provoked by the awfulness of what someone has just said or done, or a smile in pained recognition of some truth about the way people communicate (or fail to) or about the monstrosities of routines and procedures in modern organisations. Has the pained rictus, the awkward silence, the lost-for-words embarrassment become the standard response to such cutting-edge contemporary comedy that seems to operate in a borderland between sitcom and serious drama. It’s comedy that wipes the smile off your face, located somewhere between a grin and a wince.
Well, whatever. But, in its third series, Getting On reached new levels of excellence in whatever it is that the three leading members of the cast, who also write the scripts, are doing. Written by Jo Brand, Vicki Pepperdine and Joanna Scanlan and filmed in a style set by Thick of It director Peter Capaldi who produced the first two series, its humour arises naturally from deftly drawn characters and situations rooted in a reality where the daily concerns are bureaucracy, people management and death. Alongside the satire and black humour, there is both compassion and steely-eyed truth.
The first season consisted of only three episodes, the second series had six instalments: all were set in the understaffed NHS geriatric ward B4 of King Edward’s Hospital – the kind of place where you’re afraid you might die, or, worse, that you might never be able to leave. On ward B4, self-interest, red tape, bureaucratic procedures and paperwork all combined to ensure that the last thing on anyone’s mind was patient care. In the third season, just finished, big changes have taken place: King Edward’s has been closed, and the staff transferred to neighbouring St. Jude’s. The characters’ new home is Ward K2, kitted out with computerised equipment which no one knows how to work, and an office that no-one can unlock. Meanwhile, the NHS reforms are taking effect and all the talk is of contracting out and grabbing the opportunity to set up private facilities.
I recall the very first encounter with the characters in Ward B4: the excrement on a chair that nurse Kim Wilde wanted to clear up, but which had to be preserved for Dr Pippa Moore’s collection of stool samples. Her ambition was to expand the ‘Bristol Stool Chart’ from seven examples of patient faeces to a full 37: ‘If you want to be responsible for putting the kibosh on a major rethink for international faeces, on your head be it’. That set the tone, as did the sight of Jo Brand as nurse Wilde scowling through a ‘conflict resolution strategy meeting’. Apart from directing, Peter Capaldi played a wolfish psychiatrist.
The second series opened up even darker seams of black comedy. The first of the six new episodes began with the arrival of a new patient, an elderly female tramp, in such a dreadful state that her clothes had fused to her skin. Nurse Kim Wilde and Sister Den Flixter (Joanna Scanlan) had the unenviable job of removing the foul-smelling layers for hygienic disposal, and throughout the episode, as the staff on the ward tried to pass her on, first to ‘gyno’, then ‘renal’, she shuttled back and fort, residing in the end on a trolley outside the geriatric ward. No one wanted her.
But there was more: when Doctor Pippa Moore arrived trailing medical students, she offered them the chance to inspect and diagnose which of an unpleasant list of conditions might be responsible for the woman’s ‘very sore back bottom’ – thrombosed haemorrhoids, perineal abscess, rectal prolapse, anal cancer: ‘Be a good idea for somebody to have a closer look at this. It’s an ideal opportunity not to be missed’. The laugh came as the camera panned across the faces of the students as they considered the offer.
In the third series, it was hard to decide which of the three screenwriters/leading players gave the best performance as their characters were rounded out. Vicki Pepperdine as Dr Pippa Moore, the ward consultant was even more grossly self-important, now seeing her patients simply as fodder for the Vag At (vaginal atrophy) research that she hopes will make her reputation and attract custom to the lucrative private clinic she plans to launch. She still speaks in impenetrable jargon, has no feeling for the sensitivities of others, and leaves irritation and incomprehension in her wake. But she is consumed with loneliness: her husband has left her, and, what’s worse, for an older woman.
The personal life of Den, the ward sister (played by Joanna Scanlan, another leading light from The Thick of It), is even more confused. She’s disentangled herself from the clutches of the creepy Hilary Loftus, played by Ricky Grover (or has she?), only to discover that she is pregnant. She continues to pretend that she is pregnant after she miscarries in the ward toilet (nb: this is a comedy), a storyline that wove its way to a moving resolution in the final episode.
Meanwhile Jo Brand’s Nurse Kim Wilde – overweight, grey-haired, cynical smoker – remains the apotheosis of the common sensical, fairly hard-working, constantly put-upon ordinary jo. She’s got a husband and kids and money worries; in the first episode she googles ‘How do I become a doctor when I’m over fifty?’ on the ward computer after being reprimanded yet again by Dr Moore.
But it’s the chaos and madness lurking below the surface of the shiny new bureaucratic systems that have been even more marked this time: you can’t discharge a patient without sending an email to Luton, or raise a bed without having a diploma in computer studies, while the creepy Hilary is now a jargon-spouting iPad-wielding consultant carrying out a skills mix review and going round switching off all electrical appliances to conform with a new green initiative.
There was a scene in the third episode that exemplifies how the writers balance the comedy with serious and often moving observation. The black cleaner who is nearly always in the background mopping or wiping, overhears Pippa’s despair when, on the phone to her solicitor, she learns that her husband has performed a legal manoeuvre in the divorce proceedings which will wipe out her pension.
‘You need to deploy Norris versus Norris’, he advises. If your husband has depleted the marital fund through his profligate spending, then your legal team can argue to have the sum added back in as if he still had it’.
‘How do you know all this?’ asks the astonished consultant. ‘I have two law degrees from my own country and an LLB in the UK’. In later episodes we learned how Pippa’s lawyer exploited this intervention to the full.The strength of the writing is that it makes you believe in and care about the characters, despite their failings and in the teeth of the laughs and grimaces that their behaviour provokes in the viewer. The writers of Getting On– most of all, presumably the former nurse Jo Brand – know that behind the incompetence and bureaucracy, the petty point-scoring and battles with officialdom, most NHS staff are committed to caring for their patients, and looking out for each other, however exasperating the circumstances might be. One small example of this was when Den sat stunned in her impromptu office (scrabbled together in a dying patient’s private room), trying to absorb the implications of her discovery that she is pregnant. Kim spots that something is wrong, abandons her dash for the shuttlebus home, takes off her coat and says, ‘I’ll put the kettle on and do the handover notes’. A small detail, but perfectly observed.
Perhaps the most unusual thing about Getting Onis that it gives comedian Jo Brand so few laugh lines: Kim has few traditional comic traits apart from a world-weary bluntness and refusal to avoid calling a spade a spade. The funny, absurd stuff happens to Pepperdine and Scanlan, while Brand represents a resilient compassion that is continually being thwarted by bureaucratic idiocy: often she will disobey orders to do little favours for a patient or avoid another dirty, pointless task.The three leading characters have each gained greater depth in the third series: Kim’s short-lived attempt to become a doctor dribbled away simply because she didn’t have the time or ability to knock together a decent first essay. The last episode was especially striking in the way in which careful plotting in earlier episodes involving Dr Moore and Den was resolved in a manner that gave both characters new depth. Meanwhile, in the final long shot along a deserted hospital corridor, Kim shuffled off to the shuttlebus, on the phone to her husband promising to pick up fish fingers and ketchup on the way home.
Getting On has something to say about institutions, bureaucracy and the hard slog of caring for the infirm and elderly. It has proper characters, and it dares not to make jokes most of the time. At the close of the third series, it just gets better. It’s comedy, but of the kind that Trevor Griffiths argued for decades ago: it doesn’t feed prejudice or lean on stereotypes for its laughs, and it genuinely has something to say about humanity.