Thoughts on BBC’s Comedy Playhouse – Hospital People

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So, where do I start with Hospital People? I have a lot of conflicting views about this episode of the latest Comedy Playhouse series. Not least because it’s the type of show I’ve spent most of my comedy career trying to create.

And now, having seen it, I’m glad I never did.

That’s not to say that Hospital People is bad, far from it. It has a lot of potential with some great lines and performances from character comedian, Tom Binns. However, for me, the biggest selling points of this show are also the reasons it doesn’t quite hold together.

Firstly, multiple characters. When I said this was the type of show I’ve always wanted to create, I say that as a former character comedian who spent far too much time trying to create personas that could work both on stage, and in a narrative show. In fact, I’m still writing scripts for these characters now, even though the chances of me playing them are slipping away faster than a greased up turd on a glacier.

But as for Hospital People, the collection of characters – while strong in their own right – feel like they struggle when in competition with each other. Some feel crowbarred in for the sake of it, especially the hypochondriac patient, while other larger than life ones, particularly live-favourite Ian D Montford, feel chronically undersold.

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Taking the psychic character away from all the trappings of that world – cold readings, healings, messages from beyond – strip him of a rich source of comic material. While these elements do feature, they seem more of like lip service instead of being the foundations of a character that’s either exploiting vulnerable people or who genuinely believes he has a connection to the other side. Both of which feel like fascinating, untapped subject matter.

And that’s my issue with the use of multiple characters, while I’ve always loved that as a concept, I feel these characters would be better served at the centre of several strong sitcoms, as opposed to juggling them in a documentary/sketch format.

This is especially clear when you get to Ivan Brackenbury. I’m a huge fan of Binns’ live work, and it’s great to finally see Brackenbury on TV. However, what worked for him live – his radio broadcasts – hold him back in this show.

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To have Ivan sitting behind a desk interacting with jingles and little else gives his segments an inert feeling that’s very tangible. While there are traces of story coming through, especially with his ambitious assistant Shaz played by Mandeep Dhillon, it’s not enough to really let us gain insight into who he is. Any pieces to camera feel like another opportunity to drop in a bit of stand-up, as opposed to revealing more about his goals and aims. In addition to this, his passion for Hospital Radio means that he has nothing to aim for, as he’s already achieved everything he wants to aspire to. The writers (Binns and Matt Morgan) are clearly setting up conflict with the arrival of the new ward TVs, but it comes so late in the episode that it’s not enough to feel like a mission for him.

Now, an Ivan Brackenbury sitcom in which he loses his position at the hospital within the first few minutes, then spends the rest of the episodes trying to claw it back – or better still, aim for a job on national radio – would help us invest in the character and his struggle. Especially for such a sad character, seeing him try and fail would make the comedy even stronger and add weight to his inherent tragedy. He feels bound by the restrictive nature of a workplace documentary.

And this comes to my second major issue with this show – the documentary format.

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As someone who’s recently re-binged the entirety of The Office: An American Workplace, I still feel like there’s a lot of life left in the format, however that usually goes hand-in-hand with having something to say about it.

The documentary, as set up by Hospital People, doesn’t feel real. I’m not convinced we really have documentaries like this nowadays, the real format has moved on, so the parody versions should do the same.

The difficulty is, when you look at The Hotel, First Dates or Educating Yorkshire, they’re pitched and structured like a narrative comedy so they leave very little space for parodies to occupy. But even then, reshaping Hospital People as a show like The Hotel would let you hit the ground running with a voice over that could easily drive the plot forward while connecting the dots between each character.

Ultimately, a documentary doesn’t feel right for these characters. The format seems to have been chosen as a way of bringing disparate characters together in one location, and giving them the opportunity to deliver jokes direct to camera. And it’s this reluctance to let go of that live format that hinders the show – and in particular Ivan Brackenbury.

Comedy Playhouse: Hospital People
Programme Name: Comedy Playhouse: Hospital People – TX: 26/02/2016 – Episode: Comedy Playhouse: Hospital People (No. n/a) – Picture Shows: Susan Mitchell (TOM BINNS) – (C) Roughcut Televison Limited – Photographer: Andy Hollingworth

Going back to my character comedy past, no matter how I detailed I was when creating characters, the difficulty would always be the jump from joke delivery to funny dialogue with other characters. It’s a tough act to juggle and, inevitably, you end up clinging to the material you know will work. But unless your character is Alan Partridge, you really can’t get away with reciting reams of hilarious monologues.

In writing scripts for my characters, the one thing I’ve come to understand is that in order to let your show flourish, you have to be willing to sacrifice certain elements you initially loved. And for all of Hospital People’s merits, it doesn’t seem willing to euthanise it’s flaws.

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Thoughts on BBC’s Comedy Playhouse – Stop/Start

The other night I finally caught up with the recent series of Comedy Playhouse. I say ‘finally’ but truth be told, I didn’t even realise I’d missed it.

I don’t want to go full rant, but I love BBC comedy and feel like I’m pretty good at keeping on top of current developments, so it concerns me that the Beeb can launch a new series of pilots, and yet, it can completely pass me by. I’m not saying I’m the demographic they should be chasing, I just worry that if I can miss these shows on their first run, then the majority of casual viewers will miss out too. That’s a worry, seeing as this new series of Comedy Playhouse has a bit of something for everyone.

Firstly, Stop/Start, a new multi-camera sitcom from Jack Docherty. It follows the lives of three couples as they share their intimate moments with the audience, while dealing with the complications of being part of a committed relationship. A lot of people have compared it to Peep Show, and I can see why, but I actually think it’s closer in approach to How Not to Live Your Life. And even Craig David’s Seven Days video.

The show plays out like a standard sitcom, only at various times the characters ‘stop’ the action to explain their feelings to the audience. While the show has already enjoyed some success of radio, I personally struggled with its television format. I haven’t heard the radio show but I can image how the ‘stop-starting’ sounds, and that it feels natural within the context of the show, hearing internal monologues like Peep Show, yet when you’re watching it acted out in front of you, the constant pausing has a jarring effect, halting the action and character repartee in favour of jokes that don’t really add anything.

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Miranda was another show which routinely paused the action for direct to camera sections, and yet managed to pull it off with ease. I think the reason for that has to do, not only with Miranda’s character – which felt big enough to have an understanding of life outside the show – but also because it featured one clear P.O.V.

At any one time, Stop/Start offers up six opinions while trying to seamlessly tie them into a unifying narrative. It’s a tough job and while I did enjoy lots of elements within the show, I actually felt this hook was its undoing. There was something odd about characters competitively sharing their inner thoughts that actually made the show feel less ‘real’, stripping these relationships of warmth and honesty. A couple of moments really stuck out as being somewhat bluntly horrible; revelations I couldn’t accept as believable (even though they were) because I hadn’t warmed to the characters and format.

With Peep Show you’re privy to Mark and Jeremy’s thoughts, but they are informed by, and in turn inform, their actions. Large chunks of this show seemed to use these ‘asides’ to simply play out longer stand-up routines on a variety of topics, or to show that characters had conflicting views, which should be the least we’d expect from a sitcom anyway.

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All this sounds very negative, but actually, there was a warmth and playfulness that kept me onside for the episode. While it seemed to rely too heavily on the well-worn idiotic husband and nagging wife trope, often to the detriment of having anything interesting to say about relationships, the cast were uniformly great (although Laura Aikman seems miscast and struggled to generate the laughs she’s capable of).

For me, the stand out was Nigel Havers who really seems to have embraced self-mockery. That could be because he had a little more definition to his character than just ‘a bloke’. While there was nothing particularly remarkable about Docherty’s character, I’ll admit as a performer he’s endlessly watchable, and with stronger material he’d be an incredibly safe pair of hands to lead any ensemble.

I did feel the performances were pitched slightly too high for the show. I get that it’s a studio sitcom, but it does feel like we’ve lost the ability to combine subtle acting with broad humour. Despite bigger moments, Only Fools and Horses always managed to deftly balance ‘real’ performances. With a hook that’s designed to draw you out of the action, softer performances may have helped ease those transitions.

In addition to that, I did feel the show lacked any real diversity. What could easily have been written as a similar set up to Modern Family; pitting different character lifestyles against each other, Stop/Start chose to focus on three middle class, middle aged, white relationships. I’ve nothing against that, but especially with these broadly drawn characters, it seemingly offers less to play with in the grand scheme of things.

I do hope they make more of Stop/Start as I feel it has the potential to become a strong studio sitcom contender for BBC1, I just hope they can soften the characters a little and find some genuinely revelatory things to say about relationships.

Because, that’s the thing with opinions, they’re only worth hearing if they’re interesting.

I’ll be back later to discuss the other two episodes from the series, Hospital People and Broken Biscuits.