Harriet Walker on Television: Getting On, BBC4

Getting On gives me the spine-shivering feeling that I might be viewing terrifying reality

Anyone who has been in hospital will recognize the woozy rollercoaster of emotions that comes with it: one minute you're crying because you're worried you might wet yourself and no one will notice for three days; the next, you're crying because of the simple beauty of the human condition and our ability to cope with almost anything, even lumpy mash and grey cabbage. In hospitals, you may see the very worst of life, but there's a chance you'll catch the briefest glimpse of the best of it, too.

So – during my stay – with the nurse who insisted on calling her patients “losers” and counting every second until she could leave and go to the pub (she's joined the army now – I wish her all the worst with that career choice) came also the mild-mannered Polish cleaner who took the time out to pat my wild hair and tell me how strong I was, as I lay wimpering in a pool of my own urine.

It strikes me that hospital humour and bedside manners are two very British things – mainly because they shouldn't really be funny, and everywhere else medical care is too expensive to poke fun at. In any other country, the bleak business of being laid up is no laughing matter. In Britain though – perhaps because we invented the NHS and chloroform – we snigger at the sick and needle the needy like children picking up a dead pigeon with a stick and waving in their teacher's face. We're not scared of death or illness! Give us the bad news, Doc, we can take it!

Except we can't really. That's the central message behind the BBC4 series Getting On, starring Jo Brand and The Thick of It's Joanna Scanlon. A series in which there is so much mundane but metaphysical malaise it's a wonder anyone can stand up straight. A series so obsessed with minutiae that Brand's character, Kim, a care assistant, is constantly battling with locked doors that refuse to open and high-tech machines markedly less efficient than her own two hands.

Ward K2 is a purgatory of sorts – a place where patients are either full-blown hypochrondriacs (like the unfortunately named Mrs Deathick) or seemingly fine, like Enid who eventually proves perfectly capable of eating her own yoghurt despite having been spoon-fed for much of the episode. Meanwhile, a “stage 13” – that is to say, dead to the world to all intents and purposes – patient's private room becomes a useful office while the door to the real thing remains stubbornly locked.

Getting On gives one the spine-shivering feeling that you might be viewing terrifying reality, as if you too were lying prone in a bed more mechanised and more unruly than a bucking bronco as it all unfolded around your supine presence.

Part of this lies in the sheer genius and faux geniality of the dramatis personae – master-sketches from the awkwardly real school of characterisation, executed perfectly by director Peter Capaldi and a cast that brings together some of the finest deadpanners of the British sitcom circuit.

From the flunky who arrives with a basket of ethnic cupcakes to celebrate diversity (“the black, I mean, brown ones are particularly good,” splutters Scanlan's Sister Den Flixter through a mouthful of her third) to the consultant obsessed with a research programme focusing on vulvas of the post-65-year-old woman, everything is perfectly observed and accurately – if depressingly – strutted. No one uses the verb “do” if “task” will work better; no one has been on the right training scheme; everyone is knackered.

The hero of it all, of course, is Brand, whose put-upon assistant seems to be the lynchpin holding it all together, despite wanting to leave early and having run out of ketchup for her teenage sons. Every slightly dreary fag we see her light round the back of the building further cements her necessity, like a slightly bedraggled guardian angel for all the other crocks in the building.

The fact that she is the only character to exert some slight revenge, handing over her egregious consultant's Egyptian-cotton sheets to the neighbouring ward when they run out of linen, is testament to her role as a cheeky Ariel-esque sprite.

There are flashes, too, of Brand's signature comic hallmarks – the protracted reasoning which turns and tumbles over something utterly banal; brilliantly observed litotes; and heartbreaking human kindness – which mark Getting On as a sort of leitmotif for her career: from alternative, irreverent feminazi to national treasure.

So, by the time in the final scene when she throws her cagoule over the whizzy but broken piece of new technology – now boasting a sticker, as Brand's own professional tabard does, which reads “I need mending” – the action is so loaded with meaning and with humanity that the whole bleak affair seems infused with a rose tint.

That's what happens in hospitals: you have to make the best of things, and Getting On does just that.

Grace Dent is away

Harriet's Marmalade dropper

Nigella's frisson of disgust at the word “garnish”, so vulgar that she practically has to cross herself after she says it, making up for the slip by using “anoint” as a synonym for “rub”.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Carrie Mathison returns to the field in the fourth season of Showtime's Homeland

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Crowds soak up the atmosphere at Latitude Festival

music
Arts and Entertainment
Meyne Wyatt and Caren Pistorus arrive for the AACTA Aawrds in Sydney, Australia

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Rick Astley's original music video for 'Never Gonna Give You Up' has been removed from YouTube

music
Arts and Entertainment
Quentin Blake's 'Artists on the beach'

Artists unveils new exhibition inspired by Hastings beach

art
Arts and Entertainment
MusicFans were left disappointed after technical issues
Arts and Entertainment
'Girl with a Pearl Earring' by Johannes Vermeer, c. 1665
artWhat is it about the period that so enthrals novelists?
Arts and Entertainment
Into the woods: The Merry Wives of Windsor at Petersfield
theatreOpen-air productions are the cue for better box-office receipts, new audiences, more interesting artistic challenges – and a picnic
Arts and Entertainment
James singer Tim Booth
latitude 2014
Arts and Entertainment
Lee says: 'I never, ever set out to offend, but it can be an accidental by-product'
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
tvThe judges were wowed by the actress' individual cooking style
Arts and Entertainment
Nicholas says that he still feels lucky to be able to do what he loves, but that there is much about being in a band he hates
musicThere is much about being in a band that he hates, but his debut album is suffused with regret
Arts and Entertainment
The singer, who herself is openly bisexual, praised the 19-year-old sportsman before launching into a tirade about the upcoming Winter Olympics

books
Arts and Entertainment
music
Arts and Entertainment
Jon Cryer and Ashton Kutcher in the eleventh season of Two and a Half Men

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Ben Whishaw is replacing Colin Firth as the voice of Paddington Bear

film
Arts and Entertainment
Peter Capaldi and Jenna Coleman as Doctor Who and Clara behind the scenes

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Cheery but half-baked canine caper: 'Pudsey the dog: The movie'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Beyonce leads the MTV VMA Awards 2014 nominations with eight

music
Arts and Entertainment
Live from your living room: Go People perform at a private home in Covent Garden

theatre
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Some are reformed drug addicts. Some are single mums. All are on benefits. But now these so-called 'scroungers’ are fighting back

    The 'scroungers’ fight back

    The welfare claimants battling to alter stereotypes
    Amazing video shows Nasa 'flame extinguishment experiment' in action

    Fireballs in space

    Amazing video shows Nasa's 'flame extinguishment experiment' in action
    A Bible for billionaires

    A Bible for billionaires

    Find out why America's richest men are reading John Brookes
    Paranoid parenting is on the rise - and our children are suffering because of it

    Paranoid parenting is on the rise

    And our children are suffering because of it
    For sale: Island where the Magna Carta was sealed

    Magna Carta Island goes on sale

    Yours for a cool £4m
    Phone hacking scandal special report: The slide into crime at the 'News of the World'

    The hacker's tale: the slide into crime at the 'News of the World'

    Glenn Mulcaire was jailed for six months for intercepting phone messages. James Hanning tells his story in a new book. This is an extract
    We flinch, but there are degrees of paedophilia

    We flinch, but there are degrees of paedophilia

    Child abusers are not all the same, yet the idea of treating them differently in relation to the severity of their crimes has somehow become controversial
    The truth about conspiracy theories is that some require considering

    The truth about conspiracy theories is that some require considering

    For instance, did Isis kill the Israeli teenagers to trigger a war, asks Patrick Cockburn
    Alistair Carmichael: 'The UK as a whole is greater than the sum of its parts'

    Alistair Carmichael: 'The UK as a whole is greater than the sum of its parts'

    Meet the man who doesn't want to go down in history as the country's last Scottish Secretary
    Legoland Windsor's master model-makers reveal the tricks of their trade (including how to stop the kids wrecking your Eiffel Tower)

    Meet the people who play with Lego for a living

    They are the master builders: Lego's crack team of model-makers, who have just glued down the last of 650,000 bricks as they recreate Paris in Windsor. Susie Mesure goes behind the scenes
    The 20 best days out for the summer holidays: From Spitfires to summer ferry sailings

    20 best days out for the summer holidays

    From summer ferry sailings in Tyne and Wear and adventure days at Bear Grylls Survival Academy to Spitfires at the Imperial War Museum Duxford and bog-snorkelling at the World Alternative Games...
    Open-air theatres: If all the world is a stage, then everyone gets in on the act

    All the wood’s a stage

    Open-air productions are the cue for better box-office receipts, new audiences, more interesting artistic challenges – and a picnic
    Rand Paul is a Republican with an eye on the world

    Rupert Cornwell: A Republican with an eye on the world

    Rand Paul is laying out his presidential stall by taking on his party's disastrous record on foreign policy
    Self-preservation society: Pickles are moving from the side of your plate to become the star dish

    Self-preservation society

    Pickles are moving from the side of your plate to become the star dish
    Generation gap opens a career sinkhole

    Britons live ever longer, but still society persists in glorifying youth

    We are living longer but considered 'past it' younger, the reshuffle suggests. There may be trouble ahead, says DJ Taylor