Last Night's Television: Getting On, BBC4
Taking the Flak, BBC2
Right in the sick of it
Thursday 09 July 2009
One of the clues to successfully turning an in-joke into an out-joke is to trust people to get it without too much signalling. Getting On, a comedy set in an under-resourced geriatric ward, clearly understands this, beginning in a way so indifferent to the arrival of newcomers (us, watching) that you almost feel you should cough to let them know you're there.
Sister Flixter is sitting by an old lady's bedside, one hand checking her texts, the other clasping the patient's limp hand. The camera pans slowly to show a cake – "Happy Birthday Lily 87" – and then, without any fuss, it becomes apparent that Lily isn't going to be eating any of it. It's the kind of detail that might be played for cheap pathos in a different kind of series, but here – without a line of script – it very effectively delivers a key signature. This is a comedy about a place where the bleakly mortal and the banal are continually rubbing up against each other.
Sister Flixter didn't have much time to worry about Lily because a something distracted her, a coil of excrement discovered on a ward chair by Nurse Wilde (Jo Brand). To Nurse Brand, this is "shit". To Sister Flixter, it's a "critical incident", which will require the requisite NHS paperwork and to Dr Moore (Vicki Pepperdine), it is a "faecal deposit" and valuable raw material for her current research. For want of a stool pot the stained chair was pushed into an alcove behind hazard tape, where it is still odorously contributing to the ward's atmosphere of mismanagement when the new matron turned up later to add yet another chief to a tribe already short on Indians. That's the central joke of Getting On – of priorities and interests competing so effectively that virtually nothing gets done – though "joke" is too crude a word for the stealthy way in which the humour bubbles up through the cracks.
Written by its three leads and directed by Peter Capaldi, Getting On is in the tradition of The Office and The Thick of It, rather than Only When I Laugh or Green Wing. You can feel the grit of real events inside the comedy, such as the ludicrous attempt to translate the genial babblings of a patient speaking some unidentified Indian language (they discover she's been saying "I want to die. Please kill me") or the closing moment when Sister Flixter and Nurse Wilde found themselves having to mumble their condolences to Lily's sister, through mouths still filled with the dead woman's cake. And the most surreal gags turn out to be true. Dr Moore's strange obsession with the patient's bowel movements turns out to be the result of an ambition to "expand the Bristol Stool Chart from the current seven to an exhaustive 37 types of patient faeces". Wonderfully, the Bristol Stool Chart really does exist, a turd-spotter's identification chart that runs the fecal gamut from "hard lumps, like nuts" to "entirely liquid". Getting On doesn't feature on it anywhere.
Taking the Flak is dependent on collegiate war stories too, rather more literally in this case since BBC2's new comedy is about foreign correspondents covering a small African war that has just got big. For Harry Chambers, the local stringer, this is a good news/bad news deal. On the one hand, his long service in this grim station may finally be rewarded with a few seconds' airtime on the main bulletins. On the other, he is almost certain to be "bigfooted" – edged out by the arrival of a more famous colleague, whose in-depth research consists in pumping the hotel waiter for basic facts 40 seconds before a live two-way with Sophie Raworth (who appears as herself). The fact that BBC News felt comfortable about allowing its anchors and studio to add verisimilitude to the comedy tells you something about its lack of real bite. And although this comedy, too, is built on the black humour of a closed cadre of professionals ("Would you like your rooms on the shooting side or the mortar side?" a hotel receptionist asked the arriving hacks), there's never a sense that you're just eavesdropping. Everything's effortfully designed to get an audience reaction, most effortfully with a running gag about a World Service reporter's irritable bowel problem. And whereas the crap in Getting On smells like the real thing, the crap in Taking the Flak is more like a plastic joke-shop turd.
It is a great subject for a comedy and it does have its moments, whether it's the interplay between a producer struggling in the field and a desk producer who has enough time on his hands to make Daleks out of coffee cups, or the skewed cultural grasp of the local fixer ("Goodfellas... my favourite comedy movie! That Joe Pesci!"). But while Getting On cares about being true first and hardly seems to care whether you laugh or not, Taking the Flak cares so much that you feel almost embarrassed when you don't laugh as often as you'd like to.
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