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”.

Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Fearne Cotton is leaving Radio 1 after a decade

Arts and Entertainment
The light stuff: Britt Robertson and George Clooney in ‘Tomorrowland: a World Beyond’
film review
Arts and Entertainment
Reawakening: can Jon Hamm’s Don Draper find enlightenment in the final ‘Mad Men’?
tv reviewNot quite, but it's an enlightening finale for Don Draper spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Breakfast Show’s Nick Grimshaw

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
I am flute: Azeem Ward and his now-famous instrument
Arts and Entertainment
A glass act: Dr Chris van Tulleken (left) and twin Xand get set for their drinking challenge
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
MIA perform at Lovebox 2014 in London Fields, Hackney

Arts and Entertainment
Finnish punk band PKN hope to enter Eurovision 2015 and raise awareness for Down's Syndrome

Arts and Entertainment
William Shakespeare on the cover of John Gerard's The Herball or Generall Historie of Plantes

Arts and Entertainment

Game of Thrones review
Arts and Entertainment
Grayson Perry dedicates his Essex home to Julie

Potter's attempt to create an Essex Taj Mahal was a lovely treat

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the original Swedish version of the sci-fi TV drama ‘Real Humans’
Arts and Entertainment
Hugh Keays-Byrne plays Immortan Joe, the terrifying gang leader, in the new film
filmActor who played Toecutter returns - but as a different villain in reboot
Arts and Entertainment
Charlize Theron as Imperator Furiosa in Mad Max: Fury Road
Arts and Entertainment
Jessica Hynes in W1A
tvReview: Perhaps the creators of W1A should lay off the copy and paste function spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Power play: Mitsuko Uchida in concert

Arts and Entertainment
Dangerous liaisons: Dominic West, Jake Richard Siciliano, Maura Tierney and Leya Catlett in ‘The Affair’ – a contradictory drama but one which is sure to reel the viewers in
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Herring, pictured performing at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival two years ago
Arts and Entertainment
Music freak: Max Runham in the funfair band
Arts and Entertainment
film 'I felt under-used by Hollywood'
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

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

    Sun, sex and an anthropological study: One British academic's summer of hell in Magaluf

    Sun, sex and an anthropological study

    One academic’s summer of hell in Magaluf
    From Shakespeare to Rising Damp... to Vicious

    Frances de la Tour's 50-year triumph

    'Rising Damp' brought De la Tour such recognition that she could be forgiven if she'd never been able to move on. But at 70, she continues to flourish - and to beguile
    'That Whitsun, I was late getting away...'

    Ian McMillan on the Whitsun Weddings

    This weekend is Whitsun, and while the festival may no longer resonate, Larkin's best-loved poem, lives on - along with the train journey at the heart of it
    Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath in a new light

    Songs from the bell jar

    Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath
    How one man's day in high heels showed him that Cannes must change its 'no flats' policy

    One man's day in high heels

    ...showed him that Cannes must change its 'flats' policy
    Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

    Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

    Dominic Rossi of Fidelity says his pressure on business to control rewards is working. But why aren’t other fund managers helping?
    The King David Hotel gives precious work to Palestinians - unless peace talks are on

    King David Hotel: Palestinians not included

    The King David is special to Jerusalem. Nick Kochan checked in and discovered it has some special arrangements, too
    More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years

    End of the Aussie brain drain

    More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years
    Meditation is touted as a cure for mental instability but can it actually be bad for you?

    Can meditation be bad for you?

    Researching a mass murder, Dr Miguel Farias discovered that, far from bringing inner peace, meditation can leave devotees in pieces
    Eurovision 2015: Australians will be cheering on their first-ever entrant this Saturday

    Australia's first-ever Eurovision entrant

    Australia, a nation of kitsch-worshippers, has always loved the Eurovision Song Contest. Maggie Alderson says it'll fit in fine
    Letterman's final Late Show: Laughter, but no tears, as David takes his bow after 33 years

    Laughter, but no tears, as Letterman takes his bow after 33 years

    Veteran talkshow host steps down to plaudits from four presidents
    Ivor Novello Awards 2015: Hozier wins with anti-Catholic song 'Take Me To Church' as John Whittingdale leads praise for Black Sabbath

    Hozier's 'blasphemous' song takes Novello award

    Singer joins Ed Sheeran and Clean Bandit in celebration of the best in British and Irish music
    Tequila gold rush: The spirit has gone from a cheap shot to a multi-billion pound product

    Join the tequila gold rush

    The spirit has gone from a cheap shot to a multi-billion pound product
    12 best statement wallpapers

    12 best statement wallpapers

    Make an impact and transform a room with a conversation-starting pattern
    Paul Scholes column: Does David De Gea really want to leave Manchester United to fight it out for the No 1 spot at Real Madrid?

    Paul Scholes column

    Does David De Gea really want to leave Manchester United to fight it out for the No 1 spot at Real Madrid?