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Getting On

An edgy new sitcom casts an unflinching eye on how society treats the elderly

I was brought up not to copy; the idea was that you did your own work. So I have always disapproved, in a stoutly northern and Protestant way, of stuff – culture, if we’re going to be snooty about this – which seems to pinch directly from someone else, especially if that someone had a smash hit. It’s so embarrassing.

It drives me barmy the way that publishers now try to make the jackets of all their historical novels look vaguely reminiscent of, say, Irène Némirovsky’s Suite Française, and all their memoirs sound as if they might have been written by Alice Sebold. Ever since Marina Lewycka’s A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian became a bestseller, wacky titles have been the thing. When I’m stuck in an airport and too tired to read, I play a game in which I make up my own wacky titles. Like, who needs an actual plot?

All of which is a long-winded way of saying that I expected to hate Getting On, BBC4’s new edgy sitcom. Replace smarmy, out-of-their-depth, bullshitting politicians with smarmy, out-of-their-depth, bullshitting doctors, and cynical, lying, lazy spin doctors with cynical, lying, lazy nurses, throw in a lot of rude words and some jerky camera movements, and what have you got? Yes, it’s The Thick of It goes geriatric ward! Look closely, and you’ll even observe that the weary and occasionally overemotional Sister Den Flixter is played by none other than Joanna Scanlan, who starred as the weary and occasionally overemotional civil service press secretary, Terri Coverley, in The Thick of It. The producers have resisted the temptation to cast Chris Addison as a junior doctor, though, with three shows to go, it could still happen. I can just see Addison reluctantly snapping on the rubber gloves prior to shoving his hands where – as Malcolm Tucker would say – the sun don’t shine.

But the funny thing is: I didn’t hate it. In fact, it made me laugh out loud twice, which is more than can be said for virtually all the new comedy I’ve seen in two years. Scanlan, who is also one of the show’s three writers (the others are Jo Brand, who plays the nurse Kim Wilde, and Vicki Pepperdine, who plays Dr Pippa Moore), is a hilarious comic actress – a true mistress at delivering a ludicrous line in an utterly sombre tone – and there were moments when her performance was close to perfect.

I should add, however, that you do need a taste for turd jokes to enjoy Getting On in the fullest sense. As my family will tell you, I have such a taste, so a running gag about faecal samples and whose job it was to pick them up from the ward was, sad to say, right up my street.

More seriously, it is wonderful to see a grown-up comedy that is written by, and stars, only women (the token man, played by Ricky Grover, is the lumpen but wimpish Matron Hilary Loftus). This is much rarer than you think: females, even at the timorous and politically correct BBC, are still not considered to be as funny as males. Fact. Even more remarkably, these women have delivered a comedy that doesn’t quail at the thought of a certain black bedside humour, even when the beds in question are inhabited by senile – and, sometimes, dead – old ladies.

Of course, the two things are intimately connected. Women are still the carers in our society – the bottom-wipers and the spoon-feeders – so we shouldn’t be surprised that it is left to them to stroll coolly on to such taboo territory. And what a relief this is. We treat our old people disgracefully badly, yet we continue to allow ourselves the comforting hypocrisy of being careful when it comes to making jokes about incontinence, at least in public.

In the hands of lesser writers, Getting On could be childishly provocative: just one big turd gag. As it is, it feels provocative in a good way; it chips away at this national cover-up. Brand needs to find her feet as an actor but, however much of a copycat Getting On is, I don’t really have it in me to make any more serious complaints about it than that.

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.