Jo Brand’s current project is a labour of love and frustration. Getting On, which returned to our screens for its third series last week, is set in an NHS ward for the elderly, probably not the most obvious choice for a sitcom. Although that term seems far too limiting to apply to this gritty and darkly comic drama. Getting On joins The Thick of It, Screenwipe and Cricklewood Greats on the growing list of original and sophisticated comedy to come out of BBC4’s commissioning wisdom.
The show is a triumph of difficult balances: a scathing satire on the frustrations and failings of the National Health Service which also underlines its importance; an unidealised vision of nurses and doctors which manages to show them as flawed humans doing their best to get on in increasingly difficult circumstances; and a work by a stand-up comic which entirely avoids the temptation to rely on snappy one liners. Neither the comedy, the pathos nor the political content is overdone here, something Brand sees as the result of a very conscious effort by herself and fellow writers and stars, Vicki Pepperdine and Joanna Scanlan. She wanted this comedy-drama to say something, but she didn’t want to shout it. ‘I think it’s better to err on the side of subtlety, rather than being in your face. So the comedy hopefully comes from the situations and the characters rather than from underlining every political point.’
The show is shot in a very naturalistic style, exploiting the very much in vogue fly-on-the-wall documentary effect which has been perfected by Ianucci in The Thick of It. When you combine this with Scanlan’s presence (she also plays Terri in Ianucci’s show) it may not come as a surprise to learn that Peter Capaldi is the director behind this camera-work. The show’s pacing is notably sedate and the setting suitably dreary, so that we get an idea of the boredom of life in a hospital as well as the drama, again something that Brand felt was important. ‘I still know a lot of people who work in the health service, and they all have said to me that they think it’s very realistic. Because it’s kind of slow, and it’s sort of slightly drudgey and they know that’s what its like.’
It feels like there is a deliberate determination to challenge the depiction of hospital life we more often find on our screens: there are no dashing doctors rushing around emergency wards, saving lives on an hourly basis and managing to fit in several extra-marital affairs in between. Brand laughs when I suggest this impulse: ‘Yeah absolutely, I can’t say I’ve ever seen a hospital that’s anything like that to be honest.’ Well, she would know. Before starting her comedy career in stand-up, Brand spent ten years working as a nurse, and her husband still works in the health service. This knowledge has helped her to create what has been praised as such a realistic picture: ‘I worked as a student nurse on a ward for the elderly so there’s obviously lots I have taken from that.’
Despite the unalluring vision of a nurse’s life we get in the show, Brand seems to have enjoyed the experience. The doctors, for example, were not all as unbearable as Vicki Pepperdine’s hideous Dr Pippa. ‘I mean you do meet some fairly dreadful, up themselves doctors – but they’re pretty few and far between I have to say.’ She laughs, ‘But I don’t think a nice doctor would have had the same impact’. And Getting On would definitely be poorer without Pepperdine’s hilarious and horrifying creation.
Watching Brand’s assured performance in the show, it’s easy to forget that this was pretty much her first real foray into acting. She reveals she was extremely sceptical about the idea to begin with, ‘I had a couple of times when I’d dipped my toe in the water and hadn’t been particularly successful. So I was a little bit worried that I was going to be fairly appalling.’ It was writing the show, rather than starring in it, that Brand was really passionate about. ‘I did say to the director at the time, if I’m awful let me know and we’ll get someone else in.’
But was acting a challenge she had wanted to try her hand at properly? ‘Oh god no – no, I was a very reluctant actor shall we say,’ she exclaims with a sardonic chuckle. And yet, this reluctant actor was presented with the BAFTA for best comedy actress last year. When I remind her of this she sounds genuinely incredulous and amused by it all: ‘God I know! Believe me, no one was more surprised than I was!’
So will she be staying in TV from now on after such success? After years on the stand-up circuit it must be a relief to escape from such a stressful job. This is the career trajectory of a stand-up’s dreams, surely? Going from facing the mob alone on stage to hosting Have I Got News For You and regularly appearing on panel shows like QI. But Brand, it seems, is a glutton for punishment. When asked if she enjoyed making a comedy drama, her lasting loyalty to her first love is clear to see: ‘It’s a very different experience, but I have to say that my favourite experience is stand-up because it’s so self contained and the reaction is immediate, I think with television it’s very different really unless it goes out live and even then you don’t know what people sitting in their homes are thinking. It’s rather more tricky doing television I think.’
Some might feel that it can be rather tricky doing standup. At her first gig for example, she faced what she has described as ‘an audience from hell’ and was so nervous as she waited for her turn that she downed seven pints of lager. Having staggered onto the stage a male heckler started shouting, ‘Fuck off, you fat cow,’ and didn’t stop until she staggered off again. And yet she kept coming back for more.
Although stand-up must have become a lot easier as a well-established name, Brand still prefers smaller clubs and theatres to large stadium shows, because being able to interact with the audience directly is so important to her. ‘I don’t really do stadiums, but when I do do them with lots of other acts, for charity things for example, I find those huge stadiums are too big for me and you can’t really establish a relationship with the audience. I prefer to downsize and do theatres because you feel you get something going in a theatre that you can’t really in a stadium.’
I sense there’s a (slightly sadomasochistic) part of her that misses the challenge of those early gigs – the thrill of managing to put a heckler down, all the more satisfying because hecklers tended to be male. Whilst working at the Comedy Store and similar venues in the 1980s, Brand was one of comparatively few female comics. She argues that this had both its advantages and disadvantages. ‘Well, I think there was an assumption for a long time that female comics weren’t as funny as male comics, but I think that’s gradually going.’
At the time though, once she had shown she could hold her own, the relative scarcity of women might actually have helped her to build a career: ‘The advantage of it was that if you were a female comic that could hack it you tended to get a lot more work because there are so few of you.’ So why does she think she could ‘hack it’ when so many other comics found facing drunken abuse every night hard to handle? Again, it seems her previous career came in handy: ‘I think it kind of helped me maintain my equilibrium and appear not to be that bothered by having you know abuse shouted at me by hecklers, so in that sense it was a great help.’
She is careful to avoid casual stereotyping when discussing her work as a psychiatric nurse: ‘I don’t want to paint a picture of psychiatric patients being difficult or abusive’. But, her nursing job was certainly not an easy one, ‘because of the particular department that I worked in, absolutely it was helpful.’ That department was an emergency psychiatric clinic in South London, where the staff had to witness, ‘people who were in a very disturbed place, who had been brought in by the police so they were kind of on the edge. Managing all that was quite difficult because there was quite a lot of abuse, and occasional violence and threats of violence, so in some ways facing a drunken audience on a Friday night at the Comedy Store was mild in comparison.’