Nurse, BBC2 - TV review: No punchlines, no catchphrases, just Paul Whitehouse tugging at our heartstrings

Whitehouse gave the virtuoso performance in Nurse but Esther Coles as Liz is the heart of the show.

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The Independent Culture

Paul Whitehouse is best known for the silly catchphrase comedy of The Fast Show and collaborations with Harry Enfield (most recently, Harry and Paul's Story of the Twos), but there's also another, more subtle strand to his work.

Happiness in 2001 was about a voiceover artist grieving his wife's death, and in 2005's Help he played several different patients visiting the same therapist. Now Nurse continues the loose mental health theme. It's a four-part series about community psychiatric nurse Liz (Esther Coles) and her "service users", played mostly by Whitehouse.

Agoraphobic ex-con Billy seemed to cheer up when his mate (Simon Day) arrived with a Game of Thrones box set; obese and jocular Graham tried to deflect attention from his unhealthily co-dependent relationship with his mother; and Herbert, a Yeats-quoting ex-lothario, had replaced the company of women with the company of voices in his head.

Sat in his armchair, recounting stories from his youth, Herbert reminded us of another Whitehouse creation, The Fast Show's rambling raconteur Rowley Birkin QC who was always "very… very drunk". The difference is that here there were no punchlines, never mind catchphrases. Instead, a bittersweet sort of humour was allowed to emerge organically, however bleak the situation.

That's one defence Nurse has against the inevitable accusations that it makes light of a serious issue. Another is that it may just help bring to light how dangerously over-stretched care professionals such as Liz are, leading to frustration for both her and the patients – sorry, "service users". Whitehouse, with the aid of some impressive prosthetics, gave the virtuoso performance in Nurse but Coles as Liz is the heart of the show. The scenes in which she grabbed a moment in her car between patients were particularly telling.