Intensive Care: Getting On

July 5, 2009

In the first seconds of the opening episode of Getting On, an old woman dies. And then, for a sitcom, something remarkable immediately happens: nothing. Well, not nothing. But there’s no instant gag, no scene of anyone talking to the corpse without realising she’s dead, no rushing around trying to hide the body in the way Basil Fawlty and Manuel once had to.

Instead, what happens is the woman who has been sitting by her bedside, holding her hand, suddenly becomes aware that she has gone, double checks to be certain, then pats her hand and quietly leaves, to make a phone call to her next of kin. The nearest we’ve got to any jokes so far lie in two details the camera silently takes in, at the same time as it records the liver spots on the old woman’s skin, the black-blue bruises on the back of her hand where blood has been taken and cannula inserted. First, that a melancholy birthday cake bearing two candles spelling out the age “87” sits uneaten on top of the bedside cabinet; and second that, before she realised the old woman had passed away, the woman sitting with her – her dark blue uniform tells us she is a Sister, and the surroundings instantly alert us to the fact that this curtained bed sits in a hospital ward – had been wrapped up in her mobile phone, silently giggling over a text.

That sounds a malicious, coldly cruel detail, but the way it’s played onscreen, that’s not quite how it comes across. The bleakness is undeniable and all-pervading, but this Sister (Joanna Scanlan), you sense, does care: enough to make sure that at least someone is with her isolated old patient, just being there, holding her hand as she very slowly slips away. But you also pick up straight away how this became very routine for her a long time ago, that she’s careful not to care too much, and that she gets as bored and distracted at work as everyone else.

The scene serves as a kind of warning. Getting On begins with a silent, lonely, realistic death and, while the laughs start coming soon after, it won’t really get any lighter than that. It’s heavy going and, depending on your experience of the kind of twilight NHS geriatric ward it all takes place in, it will be heavier for some than others – perhaps even unwatchable. Only When I Laugh, it is not. And yet, it is not to be missed. There are only three episodes, but this is the most unique and extraordinary new comedy we’ve had since The Thick Of It.

This is all the more extraordinary because Getting On at first seems modelled so very closely after The Thick Of It. The director here is Peter Capaldi, who found such a savage new lease of life playing the government spinmeister Malcolm Tucker in Armando Iannucci’s series, and he has clearly been taking notes: employing the same restless, documentary-style camerawork; the same drained, naturalistic lighting; the same semi-improvised, overlapping, sometimes stumbling and unfinished, always entirely believable dialogue; and the same eye and ear for the Wonderland nonsense of the bureaucracy in which the characters find themselves trapped. (And, in episode two, when a fearsome, nicotine-stained new patient called Ivy arrives on the ward with a head wound, the same ear for paint-stripping profanity.)

But Getting On breaks out of the template in two key ways. The pace of the thing for a start. Where The Thick Of It clatters like a runaway train going over a cliff, this hospital sitcom barely moves at all, caught in a slow, spacey dwam under the bare fish-tank light. In The Thick Of It, people rush around gripped by the urgent sense that something-needs-to-be-done-right-now to stop everything going tits up. Here, the underlying sense is that the disaster already happened sometime long ago, and there’s nothing much to be done about it.

The other, more important difference lies in the nature of the subject matter. The Thick Of It is an astonishing piece of work, but it had audiences primed to be on its side before it had even started, because we’ve always been ready to laugh at, and put the boot into, the machinations of our politicians. But the jokes here are about the state of the Health Service, about what happens toward the end of our lives, and about the kind of ordinary strangers who wind up caring for us. This hits a lot closer to home.

When you’re in these experiences in life, a kind of bleak, black, angry gallows humour often kicks in, but it’s rare, and brave, for a programme to joke about it all in the same way that you might with your friends, family, or co-workers. Jo Brand, who plays a nurse clinging on to her common sense despite everything, co-wrote the script, along with her co-stars Scanlan and Vicki Pepperdine, who plays a flittery-jittery doctor. Before she became known as a comic, Brand spent several years working as a psychiatric nurse in a London hospital, and her intimate knowledge of the territory comes through in every detail, from the correct way to dispose of a faecal deposit, to the way that the doctors float in and out in a curious kind of busy la-la-land bubble.

(All three women are superb together, but Pepperdine is quite wonderful, especially in a moment when she locks herself away in a toilet, her bubble bursts, and she stares at her own slowly aging face in the mirror, asking the reflection: “What happened?”)

If the show has an overriding mood, it’s a kind of numbness, at which other feelings – warmth, tenderness, frustration, fear and lots of pain, but always, always that crucial flicker of warmth – batter dimly away. Jokes about old age, death, doctors and nurses are very easy, and very easy to get wrong. There’s not much that’s easy about Getting On, but it gets everything right.