The second series of Green Wing has so far been a disappointment. What is it about British comedies that makes them harder to sustain than American ones?
May 19, 2006

Green Wing is a rare thing: an original and successful British comedy series. Its first series (now out on DVD) was one of the joys of 2004. Together with Black Books it suggested that there might be life left in Channel 4 comedy. Its success tells us a lot about the nature of television comedy, but so do its failings.

Following the relationships of a group of young hospital doctors, Green Wing bravely dispensed with taped laughter and many of the clichéd ingredients of hospital comedy shows: weird patients with funny ailments, matron jokes and randy nurses, and the stern senior doctor, modelled on Sir Lancelot Spratt in the 1950s Doctor in the House comedies and Professor Loftus in the old LWT Doctor at Large series of 1971. Even more boldly, it went for an hour-long slot, cleverly played with slow-motion and a music soundtrack to link the short, sharp scenes, and tried for deadpan rather than bedpan humour.

The cast were first-rate. Everyone will have their favourites, and reviewers divided between those who raved about Mark Heap (as creepy, stammering radiologist Alan Statham) and those who went for two of the main female leads, Pippa Haywood (as Joanna Clore, the Messalina of admin) and Michelle Gomez (as the hospital staff liaison officer, Sue White). And, for once, a British comedy learned from the US and went for a large team of writers (including Victoria Pile, Robert Harley and others from Smack the Pony).

In other ways, Green Wing played safe. It had lots of sex and single, white, young urban professionals, the recipe that works for most successful contemporary comedies. The days when cutting-edge comedies were based on generational conflicts at home (Steptoe, Till Death Us Do Part) seem over. That's now a recipe for middlebrow comedy on BBC1. The hottest comedies or dramas are thirtysomething television: from Green Wing and The Office to the medical dramas House and Grey's Anatomy.

Green Wing was inevitably compared with the American hospital sitcom, Scrubs. But the differences are revealing. Scrubs is in its fifth season and has just notched up its 100th episode. More to the point, it's still going strong. It received four Emmy award nominations last year. Green Wing was on its knees by the end of the first series of nine programmes. This is partly because of its length, twice the usual half-hour of a comedy programme. This is a lot of material to sustain, even with a bigger writing team. Friends, over ten years, had around 50 main writers, including Bill Lawrence, who created Scrubs. Scrubs also uses patients' stories, friends and relatives of the main characters and the occasional special guest star to prevent plot fatigue. Green Wing used none of these and that took its toll. The new second series has so far been a huge disappointment: wearing out what once seemed original and fresh and adding nothing new. It is no coincidence that the great American comedies have gone on for years, while many classic British comedies have stopped after a dozen or so episodes (most famously Fawlty Towers and The Office).

Another difference is tone. The British love grotesques: from Monty Python and Basil Fawlty to The Young Ones and Ab Fab, to the latest batch of hits—The League of Gentlemen, Little Britain and now Alan Statham and Joanna Clore. What we seem to want is excess and disorder battling against inhibition, preferably with a bit of cross-dressing and strange sex thrown in. Borges was right: forget Leavis and realism. Running through British culture, like red letters in a stick of rock, are strangeness and eccentricity, Dickensian grotesques and nonsense poems, gay lumberjacks and camels appearing in hospital corridors.

American comedy has never been at home in the same way with eccentricity. It is an art-form of raisonneurs, from Bill Cosby and Seinfeld, to Frasier and JD in Scrubs. Mild nervousness and idiosyncrasy is as far as they go. They'll spice it up with the minor characters—Kramer in Seinfeld, Jack and Karen in Will and Grace—but the central figures tend to be witty professionals, bi-coastal rather than bisexual. The humour is verbal and increasingly Jewish. There isn't much cross-dressing or weirdness at the Sacred Heart hospital in Scrubs.

The final difference is about darkness. The great British comedies have flirted with the idea of entrapment. They have taken Sartre's "hell is other people" dictum to heart. Young Steptoe will never get away from his father, and Basil won't escape from Sybil. Likely lad Bob (and especially Thelma) will never get away from Terry, and Saffy can't throw off Edina and Patsy. One of the great moments of British television comedy was when Harold Steptoe tried to get away from his father and the world of the rag and bone yard, and ended up trying to pull the cart himself in his bid for freedom, which ends, inevitably, in failure. There is a dark edge to most of these comedies, a dire warning about the impossibility of change or freedom. Even when American comedies flirt with pathos, it is of a different sort: a one-off storyline rather than the very heart of the programme. But Green Wing isn't yet in this league. Sadly, judging by the new series, it may never be.