TELEVISION / Screens please

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The Independent Culture
NURSES (C 4) is a new American comedy series from the people who gave us The Golden Girls. Last night's pilot episode indicated a nicely tuned disregard for sensitivity. The opening lines mentioned a patient who had gone four days without a bowel movement, which set up the sublime exchange later, when the patient's digestive system was reported to be back in business. 'He didn't flush, did he? We have to have a look.' 'No, he didn't flush. He's still sleeping in it.'

Luckily we didn't actually see any of this. Most scenes are set at the nurses' station, outside the wards, which is obviously a useful device in as much as it allows for a free flow of characters across the screen, on their way to and from other places. More importantly, it means you hear about all the principle action, rather than actually witness it. In comedy programmes, action frequently tends towards slapstick, or at least caricature, and reported action is frequently much funnier than either. One of the most promising characters in Nurses is the aggressive male nurse who is a Vietnam vet and who just occasionally frightens a doctor by pinning him up against the wall and threatening to tear his limbs off and club him about the head with them. Better by far that we hear him being mildly reprimanded for that, than that we watch it happening.

As with much American television comedy, the chief effect is to make British equivalents look sullen and tawdry. The real test, though, will come if and when the series goes serious on us. As with M*A*S*H, all sorts of possibilities for sentimentality threaten Nurses' cheerful veneer. Can it survive a major illness?

Edinburgh Nights, BBC 2's bulletin from the Festival, showed us Louise Rennison's comic monologue, 'Stevie Wonder Felt My Face'. Ahead of the title music, Rennison (shrink-wrapped in black plastic and wearing what appeared to be two compact discs as earrings) poked her face into the camera and said, 'I want to make one thing clear this evening: I did not shag Jimmy Savile.' This is what you call brisk audience targeting. That one line would have been enough to have a sizeable portion of the population switching elsewhere. Meanwhile, those who like their comedy to mess with a few risky words and arbitrarily mention unfashionable celebrities, could hunker down for the next hour. If all programmes incorporated a miniature starting device like this, it could save hours in the life of the browsing viewer.

Apparently shot as a continuous performance, the programme afforded you an unwelcome opportunity, as television rarely does, to watch someone settle into their role, rather than hit it at full speed. At first you could detect in Rennison that strain in the voice and the facial muscles which afflicts best men at weddings, who have learnt their lines by heart but are trying to make them sound fresh off the cuff.

She told us about her Sixties childhood in Leeds and about various unsatisfying brushes with the famous. Stevie Wonder felt her face, but it was just his way of saying hello. When she pulled coy faces, the act creaked audibly. When she was drily impersonating her mother, she was altogether funnier. 'Listen love, this being the most interesting time in centuries to be in England and the Four Tops coming to Leeds next Saturday and everything . . . we've decided to emigrate to New Zealand as a family.'

(Photograph omitted)