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.
All Photos Courtesy Channel 4 International
Stephen Mangan, Karl Theobald, and Julian Rhind-Tutt
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 incidentalGreen 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."
Karl Theobald, Michelle Gomez, Sarah Alexander, Tamsin Greig, Julian Rhind-Tutt, Stephen Mangan, Pippa Haywood, and Mark Heap
"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 showwe are simply told to go away and be funny. Sometimes we are just told to go away."
Tamsin Greig, Michelle Gomez, and Sarah Alexander
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 Scrubsthey 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' motionsthe 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.
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 improvisedbut gallingly, that 10% can get 90% of the laughs."
Related on the Web
•Green Wing co-writer James Henry's blog, blue cat.