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.
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.
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.
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.
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.