November 2, 2005

Winging It

The overlooked British hospital comedy Green Wing has shredded the traditional-sitcom blueprint and eschewed the medical-show clichés.

Keith Huang

Earlier this summer, a clever British comedy called Green Wing made its US debut on BBC America. But after running its course for two months, the show about British doctors behaving badly had mostly failed to capture an American audience, or much buzz for that matter, as it was lost amid the jumble of other hospital-themed shows like Scrubs, Grey's Anatomy and House.

Green Wing photo
All Photos Courtesy Channel 4 International
Stephen Mangan, Karl Theobald, and Julian Rhind-Tutt
That Green Wing didn't garner more attention in the US is notable for two reasons: First, it's one of the most distinctive U.K.-comedy imports since The Office; and, second, it's one of the few TV comedies in recent years bold enough to take significant risks and truly experiment with the situation-comedy genre (fellow travelers include Fox's Arrested Development and Comedy Central's Stella). Starting with its first airing in the UK last September, Green Wing shredded the traditional-sitcom blueprint in just nine hour-long episodes and came up with something entirely its own. And despite its initial commercial foundering, the show has been given new life. Green Wing currently is filming a second season, and the first season DVD is slated to be released early next year.

Green Wing is the brainchild of TV veteran Victoria Pile, the comedic mastermind behind the award-winning, all-female sketch-comedy show Smack the Pony. At its core, the show is about doctors, interns, and hospital administration-workers who are all, in some way, screwed in the head. That it's set in a hospital is almost incidental—Green Wing isn't concerned with getting medical jargon right, nor does it cull conflict from a mixture of human drama and medicine; most of the doctors on Green Wing rarely, if ever, interact with sick people at all.

"Patients were never in the equation," says Oriane Messina, a Green Wing writer and member of the all-female comedy troupe, The Bearded Ladies. "Victoria, the creator, never intended it to be a hospital comedy about treating patients. She was looking at it differently." Fellow Green Wing writer James Henry quips, "Otherwise, we'd all have to look up long words for diseases, and none of us are that bright."

Green Wing photo
Karl Theobald, Michelle Gomez, Sarah Alexander, Tamsin Greig, Julian Rhind-Tutt, Stephen Mangan, Pippa Haywood, and Mark Heap
Including commercials, Green Wing runs approximately an hour, a prominent departure from the standard half-hour sitcom format. What's remarkable about this is that despite such length, episodes manage to proceed without an intricate plot, similar to Seinfeld, the "show about nothing" and indisputable pioneer of the quirky sitcom. And because episodes are seldom bookended by conflict and resolution, the plotlines that are featured are relatively simple.

"That confused the British audience for a while," says Stuart Kenworthy, another Green Wing writer. "But if you relax and stop screaming at the TV, it soon starts to make sense." He adds, "The lack of a dramatic plotline was one of the things I found most interesting about the show. I've always hated heavy narrative because life is rarely like that. Real life involves lots of sitting still with an occasional bit of standing up and then some lying down. If you get more than that, it's a bonus."

Writer Henry says the show is "closer to sketch writing than traditional sitcommery. We craft little comedy tiles, and Vic, the directors, the editor and the actors assemble them into a beautiful mosaic of buffoonery, chaos-in-action, and heartbreaking moments of emotional truth." In one scene, Joanna Clore (Pippa Haywood), the age-obsessed human-resources manager, sits alone at her dressing table, her face free of cosmetics. She snaps a self-portrait with a Polaroid, dates the photo and pastes it in a spiral notebook. Then, exhaling dejectedly, she thumbs through the photo collection and mumbles to herself, "Younger, older ... older, younger ... siren, hag."

Henry, Kenworthy, and Messina, along with Pile, are part of the eight-person writing team that creates the scripts. Jokes Kenworthy, "It is the most wasteful way of working I've ever come across. Huge amounts of writing are produced and discarded seemingly on a whim (although I'm certain it isn't really a whim). However, this same process also gives you more freedom than you'd get on any other show—we are simply told to go away and be funny. Sometimes we are just told to go away."

Green Wing photo
Tamsin Greig, Michelle Gomez, and Sarah Alexander
Some of the jokes are sophomoric, gross-out in nature, and these don't always work, like when a hospital worker absentmindedly picks coconut flakes off her colleague's desk and licks her fingertips. "Macaroons?" she asks. The coworker replies, "Eczema." But overall, the show's sense of humor is sardonic, subversive, and patently British, and often the simplest questions ("When you think of Switzerland, what do you see?") evoke the most absurd answers ("I see a chocolate Phil Collins popping out of a cuckoo clock every hour to tidy up his Nazi gold.").

Green Wing owes much of its inspiration to M*A*S*H, the equally irreverent, late-'70s sitcom about American doctors stationed in a mobile hospital during the Korean War. Like M*A*S*H, Green Wing employs the eye-of-the-storm perspective of a male physician. More than 20 years after M*A*S*H introduced Capt. Benjamin "Hawkeye" Pierce (Alan Alda), Green Wing counters with Dr. "Mac" Macartney (Julian Rhind-Tutt; The River King). Mac's operating-room scenes are reminiscent of the great Hawkeye Pierce. For example, M*A*S*H's Pierce cracks, "In this particular mobile army hospital ... we try to play par surgery on this course. Par is a live patient," while Green Wing's Mac says, "What can I tell you? A few ground rules. No bombing, no running, no petting, no diving, no inflatables. In fact, probably best to leave all swimming-related activities until later because this is an operating theatre, after all."

Says Kenworthy, "Lots of critics thought Green Wing was influenced by Scrubs—they were wrong. We'd already started writing Green Wing when Scrubs came out and we decided not to pay it any attention whatsoever. [Green Wing] has far more in common with M*A*S*H."

Visually, the show is an editor's paradise, with nearly every minute of footage tweaked in some way. Editors Billy Sneddon (who worked with Pile on Smack the Pony), Lucien Clayton, and Peter Oliver use time-elapse photography to slow or speed up the characters' motions—the latter a post-production, TV-comedy technique that dates as far back as The Munsters and Benny Hill. The high-speed walking sequences are also used as segues between scenes, though judging from online-message boards about the show, this stylistic approach hasn't caught on with all viewers right away.

Green Wing photo
Mark Heap
The show has a ubiquitous trip-hop-cum-trance (and sometimes calypso-sounding) soundtrack, and sound effects such as a turntable scratch are used to underscore a character's sudden befuddlement. Green Wing also lacks the antiseptic aesthetic of a soundstage set, since the bulk of the show was filmed at Northwick Park Hospital, a busy, working hospital about 10 miles northwest of London. The walls are a bit grimy, hospital doorjambs have been authentically scuffed by gurneys, and stacks of patient files and other hospital detritus appear in the background.

But filming didn't always come easy, says location manager Thomas Howard. On weekends, the Green Wing crew filmed in the hospital's X-ray department, day-surgery wards, and some specialist areas, but on weekdays, shooting was confined to corridors, exteriors, and the hospital's social club. "Our major problem was that wherever we were, we were in the way," Howard says. "For the first week or so, we were an interesting distraction, but as we moved further into more sensitive areas, problems started to appear regularly"—namely, real-life hospital patrons popping up in the background.

Howard adds that after four weeks of filming at Northwick Park Hospital, which would inevitably bar the crew from filming in the operating rooms, "Victoria decided that she wasn't getting the right look and style of filming she had established in the pilot." The crew eventually moved to a much quieter hospital in Basingstoke, Hampshire, about an hour outside of London, to film most of the operating-room scenes.

To catapult its jokes, Green Wing relies on shockingly bizarre, if not literal, sight gags that occasionally traipse into South Park territory. In an early vignette, the writers set their bar pretty high: It's morning and Dr. Angela Hunter (Sarah Alexander; Coupling) eats a half-grapefruit in her kitchen. Roommate Kim (Sally Bretton; The Office), draped in a comforter and wearing a black eyepatch, enters. "Don't say anything," Kim says. "I got sperm in my eye." In lieu of a laugh track, a synthesized keyboard accompanied by a trip-hop beat swells in the background and the two return to eating their grapefruit-halves, both wincing at the tartness of the fruit.

How does Green Wing compare to its highly acclaimed BBC America predecessor, The Office? Kenworthy says, "The Office is a superb comedy, but it takes a while to understand exactly why it's so good. Green Wing is more immediate; there's lots of slapstick and lots of gags and it's nowhere near as subtle."

Though all the silliness might sometimes mask it, Green Wing features some truly standout performances. Mark Heap (About a Boy) plays Dr. Alan Statham, the tightly wound, mustachioed consultant-radiologist who speaks in a sputtering-word salad and tries to mask his eccentric, and often inappropriate, behavior by inexplicably announcing the very act that has occurred: "You may be thinking that I am comparing my penis to that of a corpse" or "You're probably thinking that in some bizarre way that my playing the [musical] recorder has caused an expansion down below."

A huge chunk of comedy is drawn from Dr. Statham and the aforementioned Joanna Clore as they try desperately to hide their furtive love affair, despite the fact that their co-workers seem like they couldn't care less. In one memorable scene marking the demise of their relationship, Statham listens to a voicemail from Clore, "It's over, Alan. Don't contact me. You will never feel my super vagina again." After a beat, Statham, as he so often does on the show, stammers aloud to himself, "I wish people would leave a name!"

Elsewhere, Sue White (Michelle Gomez) plays the aloof staff-liaison officer whose idea of counseling includes, "Well, it seems to me you're under a lot of stress. If you stopped being stressed, things really would be a lot easier for you," or "Take this book on dealing with difficult people and fuck off!" In this hospital, it's fitting that the staff counselor, whose Scottish accent is the object of much humor, not only behaves in a surreal fashion, but is also fatalistic. While escorting high-school students on a hospital tour, she says, "As you can see from your actual indepth-bowel tour of an actual working hospital, it's basically full of sick people who desperately want to get better, but a lot of them don't and they die in pain. Any questions?"

Like Heap's Statham, Gomez's Sue White was borne of good writing and sharp improvisation. "We stopped writing action descriptions for Sue and just let Michelle get on with it, as that way it wasn't too forced," Henry says. According to Messina, "Sometimes the actors will do a scene as it is written and record it, then do it again messing around trying new things out. It would be impossible for the actors to improvise nine hours of television, so the writers do create the majority of what you see. But the actors' performances and commitment to the show make what we do 100 times better." Henry adds, "Often only about 10% of a scene is improvised—but gallingly, that 10% can get 90% of the laughs."

Related on the Web

Green Wing co-writer James Henry's blog, blue cat.

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- Comedy
- posted on Apr 10, 09

Well, three and a half years later and I still can't point to a comedy, British or otherwise, that comes close to the sheer genius of 'Green Wing.' It's very sad that BBC America chose to run only the first season. With the proper promotion, this show could have been the phenomenon it deserved to be.

- Comedy
- posted on Jan 17, 10

I would like to post this information in to all those rappers out there who are looking for a free lance hip hop ghostwriter.I WOULD WRITE FOR A LITTLE OF NOTHING OR JUST HAVING THE OPPRITUNITY TO HAVE MY MUSIC HEARD.IF YOU ARE INTRESTED POST ME A EMAIL TO

- Comedy
- posted on Jun 09, 12
Mark Cella

BS. It's no such thing. There are clear inspirations from Scrubs -- in the video styling, the sudden loud bursts of music ending with fastforward squeaks, even overlaps in characters. As they went on, they made the characters more foul-mouthed because, right, Brits are so open minded. No cigar. Next..

- Comedy
- posted on Apr 15, 14

Still fondly remembered as the best programme of the last 10 years. Makes "Scrubs" look like the teletubbies.

Article by Keith Huang

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