Saturday, 13 October 2012

Scotsman TV preview: Getting On, BBC4 Big Science, Hebburn

This article was originally published in The Scotsman on Saturday 13th October 2012.

Wednesday, BBC4, 10pm

BBC4, days and times vary

Thursday, BBC2, 10pm

Paul Whitelaw

Dismantled by a government possessed of all the selflessness and empathy of a Cyberman attending an annual “Let's Kill the Humans” convention, the NHS currently finds itself in the most parlous position of its lifetime. And while no conceivable trace of good could ever arise from this dismal situation, it does add an extra layer of depth to careworn sitcom GETTING ON. So that's something. I suppose.

Now in its third series, this unvarnished gem – written by and starring Vicki Pepperdine, Joanna Scanlan, and former psychiatric nurse Jo Brand – has always presented a humane and despairing portrait of the beleaguered NHS. But now more than ever it feels like a helpless eulogy for an institution trudging towards its final days.

If that all sounds like unreasonably depressing fodder for a comedy, it should be explained – for those who haven't already succumbed to its charms – that Getting On never goes in search of broad, easy laughs. Instead its subtle humour arises naturally from realistic situations and well-rounded characters. It's funny in a desperate, often painful way.

Set in an understaffed geriatric ward, it lives up to its double-edged title by showing ordinary, flawed human beings muddling through under trying circumstances (i.e. life). Overshadowed by the ever-present spectre of death – laugh it up, folks! - it pays heartfelt yet crucially unsentimental tribute to the thankless lot of NHS nurses.

Jo Brand as knackered nurse Kim is the heart of Getting On. Although shrouded in lingering traces of Brand's cynical comic persona, Kim is kinder and more cognisant of the needs of her elderly patients than any other character in the show. She's that rare thing: someone from a modern British sitcom that you'd actually like to know in real life.

The same can't be said for Pepperdine as effortlessly condescending consultant Dr Moore, who's more concerned with ticking boxes and boosting her profile. Permanently teetering on a frayed tightrope of passive-aggression and stunning obliviousness, she's a weirdly vulnerable monster, and Pepperdine plays her impeccably.

Scanlan, who's already asserted her deft comic touch as Terri in The Thick Of It, also impresses as capable but lazy ward sister Den, who tends to form a shaky united front with Kim. In the latest episode she receives unwelcome news from her ex-partner and male matron, Hilary – a beautifully understated performance from hulking comic Ricky Grover – while struggling with a hypochondriac patient.

I'd describe Getting On as bittersweet, if that word hadn't been hijacked to describe bland ITV comedy-dramas starring Martin Clunes as a lonely divorcee. Instead I'll describe it as a raw, honest study of institutional and mortal decay, but funny.

Directed by, among others, Scanlan's The Thick Of It co-star Peter Capaldi, it's deliberately grey and unflatteringly lit, all the better to underscore its harsh, satirical message. In the unlikely event of Jeremy Hunt sitting down to watch it, I doubt that he'd care about that message at all. This, ultimately, is all you need to know.

Swapping its nurses uniform for a lab coat, BBC4 launches its BIG SCIENCE season this week, featuring a host of classy documentaries devoted to, well, you can probably guess.

It begins with Order and Disorder (Tuesday, 9pm), in which Professor Jim Al-Khalili explains how the human race came to harness and manipulate energy. In The Final Frontier? A Horizon Guide to the Universe (Wednesday, 9pm), Dallas Campbell raids the Horizon archive to chart the scientific breakthroughs that have transformed our understanding of the universe. Meanwhile, in Tails You Win – The Science of Chance (Thursday, 9pm), David Spiegelhalter, the – implausible yet impressive job title alert – Professor for the Public Understanding of Risk at Cambridge University, examines factors of risk and probability to argue that, instead of avoiding chance, we should embrace it.

Finally, HEBBURN is a fairly warm-hearted new sitcom written by stand-up comic Jason Cook. Set in the unremarkable town of Hebburn, South Tyneside, where Cook grew up, it revolves around a close-knit working-class family headed by Vic Reeves (here billed under his real name, Jim Moir) and Gina McKee. He's affable and blokey, she's overbearingly well-meaning in the way that sitcom mums almost always are.

Rounding out the brood are comedian Chris Ramsey – who looks like Stan Laurel moonlighting as a member of One Direction – as the prodigal son awkwardly introducing his girlfriend (Fresh Meat's Kimberley Nixon) to the family for the first time. But unbeknownst to them, the pair secretly got married in Vegas. Oh no! Apparently.

There's also a daffy gran prone to inappropriate outbursts, and a tart-with-a-heart sister. So no, it won't win any awards for originality (if indeed such awards existed). And that's Hebburn's problem: although it's packed with gags, they're mostly rather obvious and unremarkable. Cook – who also appears in a supporting role – can't resist all the usual cheap tracksuits and fake-tan jibes, and even throws a cheesy pub singer in for good measure. Tinged with pathos and black comedy, it's amiable enough, and nicely performed – especially by McKee, reminding us that she's capable of delivering much more than the frosty types she's usually cast as. But it isn't remotely distinctive or original.

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