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Proper Gander: Branded Comedy

Proper Gander

Labelling a show as a ‘sitcom’ can make us assume that it’ll be throwaway or shallow, however watchable. But some of the most well-known situation comedies have said something interesting about society and how we cope with it. Perhaps the sitcom with the most ambitious ideas was The Fall And Rise Of Reginald Perrin (1976 – 1979, 1996). In each of its series it explored the alienation of being a middle-aged middle-manager, the hollowness of consumerism, communal living and a government takeover by senior citizens. Butterflies (1978 – 1983) followed a housewife feeling trapped in the role she’s been pushed into. Its author, Carla Lane, also penned the once-huge, now-forgotten Bread (1986 – 1991) about a family’s dodgy deals to find enough money. The same theme was the basis of the even more popular Only Fools And Horses (1981 – 2003). Yes Minister (1980 – 1984), Yes Prime Minister (1986 – 1988, 2013) and The Thick Of It (2005 – 2012) sent up the games played by politicians, civil servants and government advisers. Twenty Twelve (2011 – 2012) and W1A (2014 – 2015) satirised the corporate culture behind the London Olympics and BBC. Their mockumentary style was influenced by The Office (2001 – 2003), which had something to say about workplace hierarchies and dynamics, as did Getting On (reviewed in the December 2012 Socialist Standard). In this series, Jo Brand’s character, Kim, worked in a geriatric ward of a NHS hospital. She and the other nurses had to wade through the swamp of market forces and stifling procedures to care for their patients.

Getting On’s sequel, Going Forward (BBC4) revisits Kim when she’s working as a domiciliary carer visiting elderly people in their own homes. The fictional company she works for, Buccaneer 2000 (‘We care about your healthcare’), is on the shoddier end of the market, its clients often left waiting for carers that don’t turn up. When Buccaneer 2000 stops caring about your healthcare and abruptly closes its domiciliary division, Kim loses her job and already-unstable income because she’s on a ‘zero hours’ contract. The show doesn’t dwell on how this type of employment is even more vulnerable and unfulfilling than other kinds. Nor does it explore the other problems commonly facing carers, such as the impossible pressures to adequately change someone’s dressings, wash them, make food for them and perhaps even chat with them within a 15 minute appointment.

Instead, the programme’s emphasis is more on how money and the lack of it shapes the lives of its characters. Kim’s ageing mother has to move to a care home after suffering a stroke. Her bungalow is sold and its proceeds are split between Kim and her neurotic sister, Jackie, played by Helen Griffin. Several months later, Jackie has spent her share, and the sisters realise that they won’t be able to afford their mother’s care home charges. When her health deteriorates further, she crosses the threshold of qualifying for those charges to be funded through the state. The series ends with Kim accusing Jackie of being happy about their mother being more unwell because of its financial upside.

This is one example among many in the show of how money wraps itself around our lives. As well as distracting the sisters from their mother’s wellbeing and pushing a wedge between them, money weighs heavily on the mind of Kim’s husband. Portrayed by Omid Djalili, Dave works as a chauffeur with an income considerably less than those he drives around. His wide-boy colleague Terry tries to steer him into taking a driving job in Iraq, arguing that the high wages justify any risks. They also talk about another driver who received a £100 tip and now runs his own business. Throughout, getting money is associated with getting kudos, security and comfort, even though it is the money system which puts these at risk. The same point was also made in Bread and Only Fools And Horses, but with a brashness completely different from Going Forward’s bittersweet, naturalistic style.

Despite Going Forward being billed as a sitcom and ‘dark comedy’, it’s more of a drama which uses wit to lighten up its otherwise grim themes. At times, it feels like a Mike Leigh play in the way they both find humour in otherwise sad or prosaic experiences, and with more emphasis on characterisation than plot. The characters in Going Forward are brought to life by a talented cast making the most of its intelligent, perceptive script. While its sister-series Getting On blatantly criticised the circumstances the NHS finds itself in, Going Forward’s focus is more subtle and personal – how capitalism’s rationing of resources affects how we care for and relate to other people. Unfortunately, the series only ran to three episodes, presumably due to a lack of budget rather than ideas.

MIKE FOSTER