Andrew Billen - Sick joke

Television - A surreal hospital sitcom will not save Friday nights, writes Andrew Billen

Green

All over the English-speaking world, people are toiling to find a cure for the comedy malaise. America is down to its last 22-carat sitcom, Will and Grace, and even that is a little gay for some tastes. While Thursday nights threaten to be pretty mirthless in the US this autumn, in Britain it is Friday that needs to be saved. Friends are disunited and Frasier Crane has said his last "Goodnight, Seattle". It is not only imports that are in short supply. We've seen the last of The Office and probably, given Steve Coogan's Hollywood career, of Alan Partridge, too. Even Graham Norton is gone. If we're not careful, Two Pints of Lager and a Packet of Crisps will represent our supreme comic achievement - that and the oafish Bo' Selecta! (for which, I confess, I have a soft spot: to echo Bernard Levin on Stockhausen's music, it's better than it sounds).

No wonder the director general of the BBC, Mark Thompson, is redirecting budgets towards finding the cure. And no wonder Channel 4 has spent thousands on hoardings on which to advertise its great hope Green Wing (Fridays, 9.30pm). The posters feature, among the good-looking young cast pulling faces in an operating room, a camel - an arresting image designed, presumably, to make people ask: "What on earth is a camel doing in a sitcom set in a hospital?" But the camel tells them all they need to know about this show. It is wacky, offbeat - what the Monty Python gang called "surreal". The humour is visual and it is broad. Some people say it is a poor thing when a comedian has to go to the lavatory to get a laugh, and Green Wing certainly has no compunction about taking us there. Me, I draw the line at camels.

In the third and best episode (17 September), the camel gets its cameo. If I were it, I'd sue my agent. Its half a minute of fame is the lamest and most contrived gag imaginable. Fortunately, the camel, like all of Green Wing's jokes, does not linger. The screen is packed with comedy business. If you are into it at all, you won't want to look away for a second or turn over be-fore the very end. If you think it's funny to watch an operating theatre team go bonkers because there is a wasp in the room, or find a naked man riding a motorbike down a hospital corridor amusing, stay tuned till the final moment.

Unlicensed comedy doctors such as myself can only be flattered that Vic- toria Pile, who "created, produced and devised" Green Wing and previously worked on the sketch show Smack the Pony, has taken our prescriptions for success seriously. We say the following. Use not a pair of writers but, as in America, a whole room of them: there are eight credited here. Lose the laughter track: done. Raise production values: Green Wing's photography is as flash as The West Wing's and genuinely creative in its use of speeded-up and slowed-down filming. Do not be bound by sitcom convention: rather than half a dozen half-hours, Green Wing will be with us for nine weeks, an hour a time.

Bravo. The operation has been a success. Alas, the patient has died during it. Green Wing is not relentlessly funny, just relentless, as irritating as its various female stars who, like St Vitus's dance victims, are endlessly dancing or singing or wiggling their tits when, in happier times, they could just be acting. I admit that sight gags are not really my thing. A man falls off a ladder and I feel his pain, not my funny bone. If you can call a secretary weighing her breasts on post-room scales a sight gag, that's not my thing, either.

It is true that some of the dialogue is smart enough to make up for it. "What does 'long-term' mean to you?" a woman asks the Lothario radiologist. "It's an airport car park," he replies. And to give another example: "Can I have a quick word?" "Zoom and whoosh?" But there is a crucial lack of pace in the plotting, a curious refusal to explore the black humour you'd have thought to be the essence of a hospital comedy, and a misjudged confidence that sitcoms work best through banter rather than having people say unintentionally funny things in character.

Here lies the central flaw: Pile's characters are not very interesting. It would be fine if the Romeo (well done, incidentally, by Stephen Mangan) were the only cliche human Pile had created, produced and devised, but she also gives us the young doctor who can't get laid, the uptight new- comer trying to protect her sexual reputation, the head-case shrink and the ageing sexpot so bored by her lover that she gives her stiletto heel a blow job. Her so-called lover, Alan Statham, a humourless middle-aged prat with a moustache, produces from Mark Heap one of the most embarrassingly unfunny performances I can recall at the heart of a sitcom.

In the first episode, Statham psychotically berates a junior doctor for not laughing at one of his terrible jokes. "You can't make me laugh by poking me," Boyce (Oliver Chris) protests as he is prod- ded with his pointing stick. After three frenetic hours of Green Wing, I felt much the same way.

Andrew Billen is a staff writer on the Times