In recent years, there has been a definite societal shift in the way we discuss mental health. In fact, the main change has perhaps been the frequency with which we discuss it at all. Charities such as Mind and Calm (the Campaign against Living Miserably) have hugely increased profiles nationally, whilst here in Oxford, OUSU’s ‘Mind Your Head’ campaign has worked to challenge the stigma of mental health amongst students. With the general election approaching, political parties have been tripping over themselves to describe mental health as a priority. Yet funding has been cut by 8% since 2010 whilst referrals have increased by almost a fifth, and the Minister of State for Care has himself described children’s mental health services as “not fit for purpose”.
It’s in this context that BBC2’s Nurse has been broadcast, adapted from the successful Radio 4 show of the same name with the original team of writers. The show stars Esther Coles as Liz, a community mental health nurse visiting her wide array of ‘service users’, the majority of whom are played by Paul Whitehouse in astonishingly good make-up and prosthetics. Among the most memorable characters he plays are the softly-spoken, utterly charming Herbert, mourning his erectile dysfunction while gently acquiescing to the onset of dementia, and Billy, a tattooed, muscular ex-prisoner with crippling agoraphobia, who is simultaneously helped out and held back by his moustachioed friend Tony (Simon Day), who consistently interrupts his appointments with Liz.
It is in these harmful relationships between patients and those around them that Nurse makes its clearest points. Both Billy’s friend Tony and Graham’s overbearing, morbidly obese mother actively maintain cycles of dependency, while Lorrie’s next-door neighbour and would-be sweetheart Maurice quite simply cannot take a hint. Coles is utterly believable in these scenes, and indeed throughout the series, balancing warmth, humour and understanding with her patients and a bluntness and even outright anger at those who threaten her patients’ recovery. She has her own issues in her personal life, and the snatched moments between appointments in which she makes a phone call, sings along to the car radio, or grabs a bite to eat, add to her total credibility in the role.
Somewhat counter-intuitively, the sketches which work best are the often the ones which make the least attempt to be funny. In the first episode, Rosie Cavaliero’s ‘crazy cat lady’ is actively anti-comedic, deconstructing the familiar trope by stripping it back to its achingly sad reality. Whitehouse’s finest performance, and the program’s biggest emotional punch, comes as the son of an Alzheimer’s suffering mother who is convinced that her son never visits her – he lives with her as her full-time carer. Forget The Fast Show, forget Harry and Paul, try to forget those godawful insurance adverts, and watch Whitehouse as a straight dramatic actor in these scenes – he is extraordinary.
Blending Getting On’s brusque gallows humour (unsurprisingly, both Coles and Whitehouse have family who are mental health workers) with Rev’s deft emotional poignancy, Nurse is a beautifully written, exquisitely acted piece of television comedy. It’s in its willingness to restrain itself from seeking out laughs at every opportunity, that it finds a far more emotionally satisfying humanity.