Green Wing: Will the second series repeat the success of the first?

The scurrilous and surreal hospital comedy 'Green Wing' was a surprise hit for Channel 4. Liz Hoggard joins the cast on set

There's an awful, shaming moment on my set visit to Green Wing, when I realise I've eaten the comedy biscuits. "Oh, my God, we only have one packet," says the unit manager. "And we've only got one banana left for Mac's big scene with Guy. Make sure you take small bites," he tells Julian Rhind-Tutt, who plays Dr "Mac" Macartney, the show's ginger-haired heart-throb.

It comes as a surprise that Green Wing is so low-budget. On screen, it looks extremely flash (Channel 4 has just spent a small fortune on adverts for the new series), but in fact it's shot like a small guerrilla war. "We're not as glossy as people think," admits the series' creator and executive producer Victoria Pile. "The money goes on the large number of people involved."

Today, we're filming in an actual NHS hospital, Northwick Park in north London. The Green Wing crew have rigged up a makeshift set in a corridor next to the Diet and Nutrition department. It's not very glamorous. There is a strong smell of antiseptic and burnt cabbage. Every so often, a member of staff comes out and glares at the actors for making too much noise. "It's a bit like a camping holiday on a budget," says the actor Tamsin Greig cheerfully.'

When Green Wing first screened in 2004, few of us had great expectations. But it turned into the most deliciously surreal show on television. A sitcom/sketch hybrid, it practically invented a new genre with its trip-hop soundtrack, jump-cut editing and absurdist physical-comedy sequences. Best of all, it offered real plots and relationships. Many of us were on the floor over the slow-burn romance between Mac and Dr Caroline Todd (played by Greig).

Green Wing is a "hoscom" that exposes the sheer silliness people use to cope in serious, frontline jobs. The cast spent time shadowing real-life surgeons, and much of that material has ended up in the writing, from consultants answering their mobile phones during operations to doing their ski exercises against the wall.

Of course, in the best workplace comedies, no one actually works. We almost never meet the patients in Green Wing, but here at Northwick Park you glimpse them being wheeled past on trolleys. Pile is desperate to keep them out of shot: "My job is to stop them pointing the camera at a bed or a person in a dressing gown." She says the show could be set anywhere: "Hopefully, it's just a heightened version of the human condition."

Green Wing's team of writers play to the strengths of the actors, from Greig's deadpan delivery to the demented physical comedy of Michelle Gomez as the hospital's staff liaison officer Sue White - "Take this book on dealing with difficult people and fuck off!" Often, whole episodes are lifted from the actors' private lives.

Behind it all is the presiding genius of Pile (best known for creating the award-winning sketch show Smack the Pony) who describes Green Wing as "shallow drama, deep comedy". On set, Pile is fantastically hands-on (just occasionally, you wonder if the director Dominic Brigstocke feels emasculated), but then this is her baby. Before the first series went out, the actors and writers spent three months workshopping the characters - almost unheard of in TV. Filming the new series, they break every fortnight for a week of rehearsals.

When the first series went out, it was very much an ensemble show. This time, everyone wants to interview Greig and Rhind-Tutt. But on set it is Stephen Mangan, as the comic-grotesque Dr Guy Secretan, who emerges as the true star. With film roles in Festival and the forthcoming Confetti, it can't be long before he's up there with Coogan and Gervais.

The rest of the cast are all straight actors, but Mangan is a brilliant improv performer who pushes the script to the very limit with his constant ad-libbing. Guy may think he's a ladies man, but he's a total sexual naïf. We watch them film one toe-curling kitchen scene that culminates in Mangan ad-libbing: "Where is my blancmange in the shape of a tit?" He turns to Pile: "Sorry, was that too much?"

Later she tells me: "Stephen is a magician of words. I'd happily have every bit of invention that he comes up with. He can go one step too far, but I probably encourage that." Mangan, in turn, admits that he often phones Pile from the car after filming - and asks her why she made him do such undignified, childish things. "Because it's funny," Pile replies.

Slapstick is a serious business, of course. Pile compares it to choreographing modern dance. One of her early innovations in Green Wing was to use time-lapse photography to slow or speed up the action - dragging out an awkward moment to a mortifying degree, then rushing us on to the next. Some scenes are so fleeting they feel like hallucinations.

Pile says this isn't just a wacky device. Tired of flat sitcom sets, she wanted to bring the look of film into TV. "In the edit, we played around with starting and stopping time, so you feel like someone walking around in the corridor. We wanted to perpetuate the feeling that you're an observer drifting through time and catching it all. It's mostly shot at eye level: we try to avoid overheads or low angles or traditionally dramatic shots."

Another joy of Green Wing is that, unlike American sitcoms, which are full of ludicrously pretty people, the cast are rather, well, interesting-looking. According to Mangan: "Half the show is about taking the mickey out of people's appearances." There's a running joke in the show that Mangan looks like Donkey from Shrek. Greig says she just acts with her eyebrows, while Rhind-Tutt (who has emerged as the show's totty, slightly to everyone's surprise) is cruelly compared to the Duchess of Cornwall in a future episode - Mangan says he made damn sure that went in.

As you'd expect from the creator of Smack the Pony, Green Wing constantly challenges gender stereotypes. In one scene, Joanna (Pippa Haywood), the fortysomething human-resources manager, flips through an album of Polaroids of herself, chanting: "Younger, older... older, younger, older... siren, hag" (it's the seven ages of women, according to TV).

But the women can be clowns as much as the men - such as the moment in the staff changing-room when we see Gomez and Haywood sizing up each other's breasts with vicious intensity. Greig admits she is faintly terrified of the scenes filmed in Gomez's office. "As an actor, you're in with the dragon and you play by the dragon's rules."

The first series ended with the cast hanging over the cliff in an ambulance, a spoof of The Italian Job. The new one opens with Mac in a coma; when he finally awakes he's completely forgotten his affair with Caroline, re-opening all the romantic possibilities.

Mangan and Rhind-Tutt are still love rivals. "My job is to make him look adorable to women," Mangan groans. "Steve does what he wants, and we do what we can," Rhind-Tutt says dryly. Pile reveals that when they were casting the show, Rhind-Tutt was the only actor able to stand up to Mangan's aggressive, free-form style.

On set, the mock rivalry is played out between takes. "I'd just like to point out that Julian did the whole scene on tiptoe to look taller than me," Mangan sulks. Everyone laughs, but when they play back the scene on the monitor, it's true.

Later, during a kissing scene between Greig and Rhind-Tutt, he hoots: "Look, it's the battle of the noses." Rhind-Tutt wipes his mouth elegantly. "Sorry, that was a bit banana-y," he apologises to Greig. "Concentrate please, everyone," Pile urges. "Remember, we're laughing, crying and getting sexually aroused, all in the same scene. Stephen, I want you to be harder rather than funnier."

Channel 4 is tight-lipped about the plot twists in series two. On set, I spot a blackboard with a list of scenes already in the can: "Dwarf's Wife", "Threesome" and the rather worrying "Coffee Enema". But there's a visible air of tension today, because there's a death on the cards. I can't say who, but it's going to be big.

It's a measure of Green Wing's daring that serious issues are mixed with the slapstick. (Pile's models include Reginald Perrin and Fawlty Towers). It is also curiously innocent. "Caroline is involved with all these men, but you've no idea if she's slept with them. We don't see any sex," Greig says.

Pile should be on top of the world, yet she admits that the critical success of the first series - three Bafta nominations - has been a bit of a millstone. "We weren't set up to write very much more. It's incredibly difficult to expose eight characters in an interesting way each week; plus the actors are enjoying themselves more this time, so there's often a lovely scene on the end or a bit of extra dialogue to incorporate. It can be hard to treat everyone fairly. The second series was quite a nightmare... well, labour of love, I should say."

Rhind-Tutt adds: "This time round, you know the role you're playing, which makes it a bit easier. But at the same time you start to lose your innocence as a performer. I have to watch out because I'm always in the especially cheesy bits." He says that in every scene the camera is trained on all the characters at once to avoid clichéd "reaction" shots. "It ratchets up the comic tension because each scene has to be self-contained. It's a bit like watching 80 tiny pieces of theatre, one after the other."

Pile is nervous about how much is riding on the new series, and thinks the new C4 adverts look a bit smug. Fans may wonder about episode one; it feels like Green Wing: The Greatest Hits, with rather too many dream sequences and cameos with the cast dressed up as sci-fi characters or 1980s rock stars. As for the coma plot-twist - after Life on Mars, it feels a bit dated.

"The problem with the first episode of a new series is that you have to kick off in a way that brings you up to date," Pile says. "We didn't want to spend the whole time recapping. We wanted to get on with the funny stuff and give the characters space to carry on with their emotional journey. We knew we had to start again with the Mac and Caroline story. And the only way we could do that was for him to be unconscious."

Of course, Green Wing is bonkers, but we love the deft characterisation, the sweetness mixed in with the black comedy. Stick with it; the later episodes I saw being filmed looked great. "One of our comedy pursuits is to not look like we're not trying to be funny," Pile says. "We don't do catchphrases; we don't do overt, jokey dialogue. It has to be taken as it was conceived: slightly tongue in cheek. I just hope we're not going to disappoint everyone."

'Green Wing' starts on Channel 4 on 31 March. The DVD of the first series is released on 3 April

Sport
Alexis Sanchez has completed a £35m move to Arsenal, the club have confirmed
sportGunners complete £35m signing of Barcelona forward
Voices
Poor teachers should be fearful of not getting pay rises or losing their job if they fail to perform, Steve Fairclough, headteacher of Abbotsholme School, suggested
voicesChris Sloggett explains why it has become an impossible career path
Sport
world cup 2014
Sport
Ray Whelan was arrested earlier this week
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
Arts and Entertainment
In a minor key: Keira Knightley in the lightweight 'Begin Again'
film
Arts and Entertainment
Celebrated children’s author Allan Ahlberg, best known for Each Peach Pear Plum
books
News
peopleIndian actress known as the 'Grand Old Lady of Bollywood' was 102
News
Wayne’s estate faces a claim for alleged copyright breaches
newsJohn Wayne's heirs duke it out with university over use of the late film star's nickname
Life and Style
It beggars belief: the homeless and hungry are weary, tortured, ghosts of people – with bodies contorted by imperceptible pain
lifeRough sleepers exist in every city. Hear the stories of those whose luck has run out
News
Mick Jagger performing at Glastonbury
people
Life and Style
fashionJ Crew introduces triple zero size to meet the Asia market demand
Sport
Santi Cazorla, Mikel Arteta and Mathieu Flamini of Arsenal launch the new Puma Arsenal kits at the Puma Store on Carnaby Street
sportMassive deal worth £150m over the next five years
Arts and Entertainment
Welsh opera singer Katherine Jenkins
musicHolyrood MPs 'staggered' at lack of Scottish artists performing
Life and Style
beautyBelgian fan lands L'Oreal campaign after being spotted at World Cup
Arts and Entertainment
Currently there is nothing to prevent all-male or all-female couples from competing against mixed sex partners at any of the country’s ballroom dancing events
Potential ban on same-sex partners in ballroom dancing competitions amounts to 'illegal discrimination'
News
business
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?
Independent Dating
and  

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

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Media

Web / Digital Analyst - Google Analytics, Omniture

competitive: Progressive Recruitment: My client who are a leading publisher in...

Sales Perfomance Manager. Marylebone, London

£45-£57k OTE £75k : Charter Selection: Major London International Fashion and ...

Social Media Director (Global) - London Bridge/Southwark

£45000 - £50000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: Social Media Director (Gl...

Personal and Legal Assistant – Media and Entertainment

£28,000 - £31,000: Sauce Recruitment: A Global media business based in West Lo...

Day In a Page

A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting

A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting
Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

In the final part of our series, Chris Green arrives in Glasgow - a host city struggling to keep the politics out of its celebration of sport
Out in the cold: A writer spends a night on the streets and hears the stories of the homeless

A writer spends a night on the streets

Rough sleepers - the homeless, the destitute and the drunk - exist in every city. Will Nicoll meets those whose luck has run out
Striking new stations, high-speed links and (whisper it) better services - the UK's railways are entering a new golden age

UK's railways are entering a new golden age

New stations are opening across the country and our railways appear to be entering an era not seen in Britain since the early 1950s
Conchita Wurst becomes a 'bride' on the Paris catwalk - and proves there is life after Eurovision

Conchita becomes a 'bride' on Paris catwalk

Alexander Fury salutes the Eurovision Song Contest winner's latest triumph
Pétanque World Championship in Marseilles hit by

Pétanque 'world cup' hit by death threats

This year's most acrimonious sporting event took place in France, not Brazil. How did pétanque get so passionate?
Whelks are healthy, versatile and sustainable - so why did we stop eating them in the UK?

Why did we stop eating whelks?

Whelks were the Victorian equivalent of the donor kebab and our stocks are abundant. So why do we now export them all to the Far East?
10 best women's sunglasses

In the shade: 10 best women's sunglasses

From luxury bespoke eyewear to fun festival sunnies, we round up the shades to be seen in this summer
Germany vs Argentina World Cup 2014: Lionel Messi? Javier Mascherano is key for Argentina...

World Cup final: Messi? Mascherano is key for Argentina...

No 10 is always centre of attention but Barça team-mate is just as crucial to finalists’ hopes
Siobhan-Marie O’Connor: Swimmer knows she needs Glasgow joy on road to Rio

Siobhan-Marie O’Connor: Swimmer needs Glasgow joy on road to Rio

18-year-old says this month’s Commonwealth Games are a key staging post in her career before time slips away
The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

A future Palestine state will have no borders and be an enclave within Israel, surrounded on all sides by Israeli-held territory, says Robert Fisk
A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: The German people demand an end to the fighting

A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

The German people demand an end to the fighting
New play by Oscar Wilde's grandson reveals what the Irish wit said at his trials

New play reveals what Oscar Wilde said at trials

For a century, what Wilde actually said at his trials was a mystery. But the recent discovery of shorthand notes changed that. Now his grandson Merlin Holland has turned them into a play
Can scientists save the world's sea life from

Can scientists save our sea life?

By the end of the century, the only living things left in our oceans could be plankton and jellyfish. Alex Renton meets the scientists who are trying to turn the tide
Richard III, Trafalgar Studios, review: Martin Freeman gives highly intelligent performance

Richard III review

Martin Freeman’s psychotic monarch is big on mockery but wanting in malice