Looking Back At GETTING ON - Warped Factor - Words in the Key of Geek.

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Looking Back At GETTING ON

Tony gets on the ward. It was only a matter of time.
If you like your comedy black to the point of frequently graveyard, you’re going to love Getting On. Written by the three core members of its cast – Jo Brand, Vicki Pepperdine, and Joanna Scanlan – and with its first two series directed by another cast member, Peter Capaldi (Yes, that Peter Capaldi), it’s a comedy set in a true-to-life NHS dementia ward.

Oh yeah – strap in for this one.

Obviously, given that setting, the potential for staggering humour-failure in Getting On is huge. Which is why it probably helps to remember that it won its writers the Royal Television Society’s award for Best Writing in Comedy twice, the BAFTA for Best Writing in Comedy once, the Writer’s Guild Award for Best Comedy, and in 2010, both Jo Brand and Joanna Scanlon were nominated for the BAFTA for Best Female Performance in a Comedy Role – with Brand taking home the gong.

Breathe easy. Yes, Getting On took an enormous risk on the very frontiers of black comedy and it could easily have gone very, very wrong. Instead, it went very, very right, and resulted in one of the most compassionate sitcoms in British history – while also being one of the most biting.

There are at least three separate strains of comedy running intertwined through the three series of Getting On.

On the one hand, there’s a sharp-as-vinegar social satire, because it delivers a level of realism that is practically documentary, in the same style as The Thick Of It, in which both Scanlan and Capaldi starred. So when Getting On shows us an NHS full of reasonably good people wrapped up in hierarchies, form-filling getting in the way of immediate patient care, competing priorities, and the frankly unnerving demands of any day or minute on a dementia ward, it does two jobs in one.

First, it delivers a strong social message that while there are good reasons why everything in a cultural bureaucracy is done, the structures of that bureaucracy can get in the way when there are vulnerable people concerned, and good nurses prepared to help them, but stifled by form-filling.

And secondly, it delivers that message leavened with the hardwired Brit-humour of hierarchies, trained as we have been since at least PG Wodehouse’s Jeeves and Wooster books in the notion that the higher up a hierarchy you go, the less sense you’ll find.

Then of course, there’s character comedy. In Getting On, Jo Brand (who herself once worked as a psychiatric nurse) plays the fabulously-named Kim Wilde, who used to work on the ward before its bureaucratic transformation, and has been drafted in as a return-to-work nurse to help the ward cope. She now finds every opportunity to point out that things used to be different in the old days, and while you’d think that might be the makings of a tedious character, both the writing and Brand’s performance show her not only to be right – especially inasmuch as the changes are less about delivering genuine care to the patients than they are about fitting a model in a theoretical, paper hospital – but also to have the best instincts on the ward, and arguably the most unclouded humanity.

It’s also possibly worth mentioning that, as far as Getting On shows us, Kim has the best and most stable home life of anyone on the staff. While a stable home life might be thought of as a ‘norm’ in most sitcoms, here, it makes Kim stand out, acting as an indicator that these days, front line nursing care is a job that has a tendency to exhaust the emotional potential of its practitioners, while at least in older days than this, a work/life balance was attainable in the role.

Joanna Scanlon is Ward Sister Denise Flixter, and she too brings a sense of genuine care to the role, but in her case, her position in the hierarchy means she has other things to deal with as well as front line patient care, so she’s very much torn between the demands of procedure and the various other staff who need things to be done their way, and the immediate needs of her patients. If anyone, it’s Denise who most shows the fundamental crisis in an overstretched, bureaucratic NHS. Forms need to be filled in, and incidents dealt with in a very specific manner, but that can often lead to less immediacy of care for Denise’s patients – something Kim is eager to put right in any subtle way she can without overstepping the lines of the hierarchy.

Denise also has a significant character journey throughout the course of Getting On. When we meet her, she’s a woman under incredible external stress as well as work stress, having been legally separated from a husband, who, after a relatively whirlwind romance, got her to sign a loan agreement, bought a car and naffed comprehensively off, leaving her saddled with both a mountain of debt and a broken heart.

Vicki Pepperdine, perhaps unfairly the least generally known of the three main stars, also takes what is probably the least sympathetic of the central roles as Dr Pippa Moore, the Care of the Elderly consultant on the ward. Brusque, efficient and frequently rude in her dealings with staff and patients alike, she’s archetypal of the higher levels in the care structure, running her own research projects and rarely understanding why things haven’t been done by somebody else.

Her own home life is less than happy, too, and her self-confidence is frequently a necessary front to get the job done, while she worries about where her life is going.

Between the three, what Getting On delivers in terms of character comedy is a highly realistic portrait of women in a hierarchy – they may never especially be the best of friends, but they work together as they have to, especially given the any-minute drama of a dementia ward setting.

And that’s the third kind of comedy Getting On delivers – the risky kind. The “Should I laugh at this?”, in-the-trenches comedy of people who see and deal with dreadful things on a daily basis, and who need black humour to get through it.


“When the doctor comes, I’m going to tell her that Ivy has begun to display sexual disinhibition.”

“Yeah, but at least it kept her quiet for four minutes.”

The situation is serious and even heartbreaking, but there’s no denying that the line is funny, and it’s the sort of thing that keeps both the three central women of Getting On, and the people they represent in the real-world NHS, going on a daily basis.

Combining all three strands of humour in a single show, while absolutely downplaying the nature of it AS a show, and focusing more on the omnipotent camera that allows us to see people’s truths as well as the fronts they put up in order to get through each day of a difficult job, makes Getting On a very special sitcom – so much so that, like The Office and The Thick Of It, it’s much more of a sit-everything – comedy, drama, conflict, heartbreak, everything that makes up the daily back and forth of people providing front line care.

That’s essentially what lifts it above those other shows. While you can pick a favourite and a least favourite among the central characters, it’s pretty much impossible to find one you’d pick as the villain, because in their own ways, they’re all trying to do their best for their patients, as they see it at any given moment – often while dealing with stress from several directions.

Perhaps oddly, given how readily we would let it, Getting On never strives to portray its characters as angels. Apart from the main three women, there are a host of other people who stud the show with different approaches, or problems, or ways to complicate the business of getting through to the end of the day.

We’ve mentioned Peter Capaldi, who flits in and out as Dr Healy, the psychiatrist with an eye for women. More essentially present is Ricky Groves, who gives an achingly elegant performance as Hilary Loftus, the male Matron of the ward. As time goes on, he gets embroiled in a relationship with Denise, which is complicated by a whole number of factors, and ends less than well.

Damaris Clarke (Cush Jumbo), a preppy, know-it-all student nurse who goes on to become a Matron, is – depending on which character you ask, either a right pain in the bum or a dynamic and helpful resource in the caring environment. You can probably guess which side Jo Brand’s Kim Wilde comes down on.

So there are certainly clashes and conflicts enough to go around in Getting On, a fact that mitigates against Angel Syndrome when watching it, and keeps both the drama and the comedy believable and real through three series.

The slightly odd thing is that after the first two series, both the location and the director of Getting On change. The original hospital is closed, and our core team are transferred to an entirely different location – with new challenges and new elements of an evolving NHS care system to satirize.

Susan Tully (Yes, that Susan Tully, from Grange Hill and Eastenders) takes over directing duties for the third series, and the accolades keep coming. Certainly though, you can feel things moving to a climax in series 3 – relationships and friendships are more regularly and more seriously strained, and the sense of a culmination mounts throughout the course of the series.

It’s probably true that you have to be in the right mood to get the most out of Getting On – which is to say, open to the trenches-comedy of the situation, and open too to the realism that makes the funny things funnier, but also gives the dramatic moments real punch-in-the-stomach power.

But if you approach it in that spirit, Getting On is one of the most truthful, powerful and genuinely funny sitcoms Britain has seen in the last 50 years. A sitcom with genuine humanity, sharp social satire, an accurate study of real working relationships and how they develop – and jokes that never sound like they were carefully written down, but spoken by real people in the moment.

That’s got to be worth trying if you’ve never seen it before. And if you have, you know it’s been too long since you saw it last.

Watch Getting On today with a seven day free trial of BritBox.

Tony Fyler lives in a concrete cave, somewhere on the edge of the sea, with his wife, who exists, and the Fictional People In His Head, who don't as yet. A journalist and editor by day, he has written Some Books, and is more or less always writing another. One day, he may even get around to showing them to people. In the meantime, he's Script Editor and occasional Executive Producer at Third Time Lucky Productions, and a proud watcher of things no-one remembers they remember until they remember.

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