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Acting with courage

30 November 2012

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BECAUSE I had been so effusive in my compliments on the previous series, I had thought not to write again about Getting On (Thursdays) - incomprehensibly still shown on minority-interest BBC4 - but its excellence demands further mention.

It is a sitcom about a doctor, nursing sister, and nurse who work in the female geriatric ward of a hospital. It is devised and written by the superlative (women) actors who take the roles. As befits the setting, there is no squeamishness about its subject: incontinence, madness, and death run through the plots.

I am struck anew by the courage of the acting. The heroes are anti-heroes indeed, their motivation and actions largely self-serving, greedy, insensitive, careless of others; yet not in that exaggerated comic mode that makes it easy for the audience to separate the actor from the role, in order to make us realise that they are just playing a part. The level of exaggeration is so finely tuned that we can assume that this is, indeed, what they are like as people.

This is particularly the case with the doctor, who is portrayed as insecure, vain, almost entirely without empathy for her patients, and hectoring to her juniors. Yet, somehow, this monster does not overbalance the comedy, and is judged so precisely that, despite being an ogre, she is one in whom we recognise our own failings.

The show's excellence is clearly acknowledged in the acting profession: last week's episode had a guest appearance by Tilda Swinton, and yet it had the confidence to refuse to allow her to speak a single line. She merely appeared as the put-upon partner of a teacher whose pupils disrupt the ward with an art project.

This is a good example of the brilliance of the conception: the comic hopelessness of the enforced intergenerational transaction between young people and elderly patients was given full rein, yet its results were movingly portrayed as, despite everything, worthwhile.

This range of emotional response, constantly surprising the audience by revealing something human and fallible about characters set up to be objects of fun and dislike, seems to me quite extraordinary in a sitcom.

The show's other delight is its debunking of institutional failure, and its portrayal of the time-wasting obfuscation that undercuts all attempts to get on with the work of healing, while providing an effective shield behind which the second- and third-rate can hide their fear of actually engaging with the needs of patients. Thank heaven that such a scenario has no relevance to the workings of the Church of England.

Our beloved Church last week received a breadth of TV coverage that we would normally long for, except that it was universally bemused with irritated incomprehension. Most of the coverage wheeled out the usual suspects; so hats off to Sky News for trawling a little bit deeper, and coming up with, for example, a West London vicar. I thought that I made some excellent points.

4thought.tv (Channel 4, every evening) last week considered "What can religions learn from atheists?" These pocket-sized statements are nearly always thought-provoking. The question they raise is: why does TV think that the longest an audience will consider the large questions of life is for one minute 40 seconds?

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