There’s still life in the hospital drama

By putting nurses and sordid bodies at its centre, Getting On offers a dark and funny twist on an often-clichéd TV genre.

David Bowden

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Just as TS Eliot’s poetic creation J Alfred Prufrock measured out his life with coffee spoons, so television connoisseurs can measure theirs out in time spent in hospital wards, even if they’ve barely set foot in a real one. That’s because the medical show is one of the great enduring staples of TV.

From Dr Kildare and M*A*S*H to ER and Casualty, medical wards provide a ready source of human drama and a handy setting in which to explore contemporary society. Whether you’re seeking weighty drama, comedy, romance or the latest governmental health advice, the hospital is TV’s Agora.

Getting On is the latest admission taking up valuable bed-space. Now in its second season, it taps the increasingly dark vein of recent hospital shows, such as Jed Mercurio’s malpractice dramas Cardiac Arrest and Bodies. However, unlike those two, Getting On is a very dark comedy and it focuses on the nurses rather than on the more glamorous doctors and surgeons.

Despite the ubiquity of hospital dramas, nurses are largely under-represented on screen, presumably because their work is grim and mundane, and the more highbrow programmes find it difficult to escape their sexpot image. There have been a few decent attempts to counteract this state of affairs in recent years, such as Channel 4’s jolly No Angels and the charming US import Nurse Jackie. Yet it is difficult to escape nurses’ image as saintly and stoic dispensers of worldly wisdoms to arrogant doctors and terrified patients.

Getting On doesn’t exactly throw off this image, but it certainly does its best to embrace the drab elements of nurses’ work. The debut episode featured, as its centrepiece, a great big turd, and the first episode of the second series involved the treatment of a homeless patient whose underwear was made out of newspapers dating back to 2004. Her actual clothes had fused to her skin.

In Getting On, there’s an almost Jacobean revelry in the sordidness of the human body. The show toys with a bathetic contrast between the sublime language of the modern medical diagnostic (thrombosed, haemorrhoid, perineal abscess, etc) and the more earthy reality (here, a surprising number of medical maladies require a very highly trained specialist to take ‘a closer look…at a very sore back bottom’).

Given that the stars of the show are Jo Brand and Jo Scanlan (The Thick of It’s officious civil servant Terri Coverley), it would take an extremely specific sexual fetish to get a viewer’s blood pumping at the sight of a nurse’s uniform in Getting On. This is television drained of glamour and colour. Set entirely within the confines of an artificially-lit ward, it’s shot with hand-held cameras and the dominant colour is a grey-blue tone, which implies a clinical sterility but doesn’t quite hide the brown underneath.

The show is, fortunately, extremely funny. Co-scripted by the aforementioned Scanlan and directed by Peter Capaldi (perhaps better known as Malcolm Tucker in The Thick of It), Getting On follows very much in the verbal absurdism vein of The Thick of It. In both shows, the characters strain against nonsensical and unknowable constraints imposed on their professional lives. In The Thick of It there were the demands of spin-doctored and ideologically incoherent politicians; in Getting On, it’s the bureaucracy imposed by meddling politicians.

Its language is rich in jargon (that turd moved from being ‘a shit’ to ‘a critical incident’ to ‘a vital faecal deposit’ in the space of about five minutes) and there are awkward, stumbling attempts at managing officially approved, therapeutic utterances before finally settling on whichever combination of words suits the situation. The show is also in keeping with the strongest of contemporary comedy, including Curb Your Enthusiasm and family sitcom Outnumbered. Both these shows rely on large amounts of improvisation from its cast.

While improv has a deserved reputation as belonging to the darker recesses of am-dram and student comedy – and is often coupled with a ‘death of the author’-style rebellion against the authority and intention of a writer – this trend seems to suit and reflect a time where our speech, thoughts and actions are arbitrarily decided around informal notions such as offence like never before. Comedy thrives on exploiting this internal confusion between reason and tongue, and improv seems to offer a freedom to comedians and audiences alike in these sensitive times. It is worth noting, before relativist students of theory get too hot under the collar, that behind all of the comedies just mentioned generally lie gifted writers with a strong sense of control over the project (Larry David, Armando Iannucci, Andy Hamilton). They also feature experienced comedians and, of course, the audience gets to see only the edited highlights of the shoot. All of this implies a very strong authorial intent.

Also worth mentioning is that, despite the show’s title and the overwhelming number of elderly patients featured, it is set on a general medical ward, not a geriatric one. Getting On feeds into the fears of an ageing society, where a struggling and decrepit health service desperately muddles through indifferently in coping with the infirm, the incontinent and the demented – with the nurses offering the only shred of humanity. For a programme which generates much value from having older stars (40 is ‘old’ in TV-land), it is a shame that the elderly are once again depicted as waiting to be put out of their misery. But then, even the aged might find more to laugh at here than in the BBC’s execrable OAP sitcom The Old Guys.

Although this depressing view could be said to reflect reality on wards, it is also notable that there are few of the foreign nurses and doctors who staff actual hospitals. So there are some realities the show creators thought twice about showing. But, then again, it is also refreshing to see a hospital show which doesn’t try to offer lifestyle advice or lectures on unhealthy living on the side (or, in the case of Doctors, delivers the sermons upfront). Even if Getting On does little to challenge the fears over ageing and rages only a little against the dying of the light, it does at least aim to give us a bit of laughter in the dark.

David Bowden is spiked’s TV columnist. He is speaking at the Battle of Ideas festival in London on Sunday 31 October.

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