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15 July 2021

BBC Three’s Please Help shows the funny side of care work

The humour inherent to much day-to-day care work often gets lost on screen. But Lucy Pearman’s comedy pilot revels in its absurd side.

By Rhiannon Cosslett

Please Help, a new BBC comedy pilot written by and starring Lucy Pearman, opens with an old woman (Anna Calder-Marshall) sitting on the toilet. Beside her is her granddaughter Milly in a dressing gown, yawning, waiting for her to finish so that she can lift her from the seat. Carers do a lot of yawning – it is tiring work – and Milly is approaching the limits of her energy reserves when she suddenly starts developing magical powers (invisibility, super-strength, flight) that lead her to believe she is going mad. Perhaps, her doctor says, she just needs a night off – she is, after all, her grandmother’s sole carer. Despite not wanting a boyfriend because she’s “always tired”, she agrees to go on a date, but stipulates: “I have to be back by nine in case my nan rolls out of bed.”

Having been a young carer myself – my brother is severely autistic – I was happy to see caring portrayed in comedy, and not only because representation is important. I have often felt that the humour inherent to much day-to-day care work and the singular relationship of the person being looked after and the person doing the work gets lost somewhere in the gulf between lived experience and the screen, and for a long time it was rare to see it depicted at all.

It felt as though caring, particularly for a loved one, must necessarily be tragic and abject, that to laugh about it is inappropriate or unkind, or that this very common role in which many of us find ourselves, particularly later in life, somehow wouldn’t translate to large audiences. Yet anyone who loves a person who is disabled or unwell knows that humour, both on the part of the cared for and the carer, is crucial to survival. It’s a type of comedy that is often called gallows humour, but I think that description ignores the tenderness that comes with the darkness of some of it. Yes, you are laughing about a grim situation, but there is love or affection in that laughter.

What I like about Please Help is that the love Milly feels for her grandmother shines through, even when she’s exhausted, and even though her life is, objectively, pretty miserable. “She’s a bit of a handful, but I do really love her,” she says, crouching under the table to try and stop herself from suddenly flying away. The caring parts of the comedy come from a place of experience, as Pearman herself lived on a farm in Oxfordshire while looking after her grandmother.

[see also: Who Cares: BBC Radio Four’s moving verbatim drama about young carers]

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In the past few years, a growing number of care narratives have come to the screen, much to my enjoyment. Jo Brand has been something of a pioneer in this kind of humour, with Getting On (set in an NHS geriatric ward), Going Forward (in which Brand plays a care worker) and Damned (about social services) all paying tribute to front line staff in the social care system. Meanwhile, in cinema, the French film Les Intouchables set a high benchmark a decade ago for representations of caring in comedy with its hilarious portrayal – based on real life – of the relationship between a quadriplegic aristocrat Philippe (François Cluzet) and Driss (Omar Sy), the man he hires to be his carer. “These street guys have no pity,” Philippe is told. “That’s exactly what I want,” he replies. “No pity.”

Netflix’s The Fundamentals of Caring, starring Paul Rudd as a carer for 18-year-old Trevor, who has Duchenne muscular dystrophy and is also a bit of an arsehole, broke new ground in its interest in portraying a person who receives care not as some long suffering, pitiable angel, but as a person as fallible and difficult as anyone else. As portrayals of disabled people improve and more and more disabled artists and comics are given the space to create work, I’m hoping that we’ll see better and better (and funnier and funnier) portrayals of care-based relationships on screen.

However, it is worth noting that, so far, many of the care narratives in film and TV focus on the relationship between a care professional and a person needing care, as opposed to familial caring relationships, which are very different. This is one of the reasons I thought last year’s In My Skin, Kayleigh Llewellyn’s comedy drama about a teenage girl, Bethan, whose mother is bipolar, so groundbreaking. It shows the tightrope that Bethan walks between her home life and her school life as she shoulders the challenges of her mother’s illness alone, and doesn’t skirt around the more hurtful things her mother says to her, some of which made me gasp. “I hope that anyone who has either mental health issues or has been a carer for a mentally ill person just feels seen,” Llewellyn told me when I interviewed her last year.

Please Help is a less realist contribution to the genre, but this is no bad thing. The juxtaposition between the drudgery of care work – the bottom wiping, the cooking, the lifting – and the absurdity of the appearance of a little talking horse (played by Tim Key) or a date disrupted by Milly flying off into the air, Mary Poppins-style, gives it a rich vein of surreal comedy (it’s been called comic magical realism). Sadly, at the moment, it is only a pilot. I’d love to see it commissioned for a full series.

[see also: Filippo Meneghetti’s Two of Us is an intimate portrait of late-in-life love]