Have you been watching … Getting On?

BBC4's perfectly pitched medical comedy continues to impress with finely observed, natural performances from Jo Brand and a talented cast

Catch up with series three on iPlayer

A comedy set on the geriatric ward of an NHS hospital should not have been an easy sell. But Getting On, now in its third series on BBC4, has captured something about the humdrum wage-slave existence that speaks to us all, not just those in the medical profession. Joanna Scanlan, Vicki Pepperdine and Jo Brand write and star in what has become another superlative slow-burn hit for the digital channel, following the success of The Thick of It.

It's the detail and the incredibly natural performances of the cast that make it so special. All that handheld camerawork and washed-out lighting lend a documentary air but Getting On is more intimate than that. The characters remain firmly on the right side of realistic and the touching moments are naturally occurring, rather than plonked in for tonal variety.

We watch Pippa, Den and Kim trying to hold mundane yet complicated lives together while dealing with the several tonnes of privately contracted healthcare managementese bullcrap that assails them from every side. This series has seen all three writers/actresses grow satisfyingly into their roles, with the well-observed details really filling out their characters.

Pepperdine's highly strung Dr Pippa Moore is conducting her divorce over the phone when she is meant to be on ward rounds. "I'm sorry, I've got to take this," she barks every time her mobile buzzes. From the minute the divorce news broke she has been practically glued to the cafetiere she brings in from home, and on which she has written her name. It is like she has one thing she can control and by god she will.

Her bedside manner continues to resemble a sledgehammer in a Viyella two-piece. My favourite line so far this series came in episode two, when the doctor was addressing a group of a executives at a board meeting about bringing together the different strands of her research. "You've got vagina, urethra, anus. I mean these guys don't normally talk to each other." Pippa is the most cartoonish of the three but her current storyline really allows for some lapses in that appalling public persona. Her wonderfully awkward interaction with Hansley the cleaner, who has been helping to resolve the legal problems surrounding her divorce, is particularly nice for its clumsy subtlety.

Den (Scanlan), who has now bailed on her fling with overly anxious hospital executive Hilary (Ricky Grover), began the series pregnant with a baby she is pretty sure – but not 100% sure – is not his, and Grover's brilliantly earnest tool Hilary following her around like a lost child. Getting On does a lot of showing, not telling, which I'm all for. Without it being mentioned in the script, it was clear that at one point Den was considering an abortion – before her ears pricked up when Damaris mentioned the generous maternity benefits on offer. Mercenary, yes. But absolutely in character for Den.

But having just got used to the idea of being a first-time mother, Den is now having to deal with a potential miscarriage. Just as Getting On has dealt with other difficult subjects such as dementia, death and loneliness, it is being approached with gallows humour and a pinch of sentiment, just to remind you they are all human: Den rushing out of her scan to avoid facing possible bad news; stealing a picture of someone else's baby.

Perhaps the biggest surprise of the series this time round, however, has been Jo Brand's growing stature as an actress. After her wonky turn in Absolutely Fabulous, I wasn't holding out huge hope for Getting On, but as nurse Kim Wilde she is just incredible. She plays, on the surface, a good-natured drudge who does everyone else's dirty work for them. She could be uninspiring, but Brand draws the eye with her restrained performance and the writing gives Kim depth and ambition, albeit well-hidden. She's in her fifties, spends her days "wiping old ladies' bottoms" and wants to retrain to be a doctor.

The whole ensemble work together like neatly meshing cogs in a slick mechanism. The shaky handheld exterior belies the incredible structure working hard underneath it all.

In tonight's episode, the sub-plot of the series is brought into play when a misunderstanding occurs with the hospital Christmas card competition and one of Pippa's medical students. One scene in particular, in which the staff must explain to a patient's relative, how the terrible thing occurred, is the funniest thing I've seen in a long, long time. How they got through a take without erupting I don't know.

So what do you make of the third series? Are you still keeping your weekly appointment with Getting On?


Julia Raeside

The GuardianTramp

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