Looking back at Green Wing

TV shows set in hospitals are ten a penny, but here, Rachel takes a look back at one that may not get the recognition it deserves...

Back in 2004, Channel 4 found themselves without many of their Friday night audience magnets. Friends and Frasier both finished that year and Graham Norton had recently jumped ship to the States, taking his show format with him. Thankfully two years prior Channel 4 had commissioned a sitcom about the lives of hospital staff, and by 2004 a full series was ready to be unleashed on Friday night prime time. Green Wing ran for two seasons between September 2004 and January 2007 and came off the back of Victoria Pile’s success with the wonderful Smack The Pony. Green Wing was a collaborative project between several writers and also directed by multiple people, namely Dominic Brigstocke, Tristram Shapeero and Victoria Pile. Pile was given the brief to produce something with more of a running narrative than her previous work but other than that, she had free rein on the project. The show followed the employees of the fictitious East Hampton Hospital. The main story was the emergence of a love triangle between Dr Caroline Todd (Tamsin Greig), charismatic commitment-phobe Dr ‘Mac’ McCartney (Julian Rhind-Tutt) and the occasionally charming but mainly irritating Guy Secretan (Stephen Mangan).

Alongside that there was the on/off relationship between Consultant Radiologist Alan Statham (Mark Heap) and HR Manager Joanna Clore (Pippa Hayward) as well as Alan’s rounds of verbal sparring with Junior Doctor Boyce (Oliver Chris).  Throw in some dysfunctional Admin girls (Katie Lyons, Lucinda Raikes, Olivia Colman and Sally Bretton), a lunatic Staff Liaison Officer (Michelle Gomez), the irritatingly perfect Dr Angela Hunter (Sarah Alexander), hopeless Junior Doctor Martin Dear (Karl Theobald) and you’ve pretty much got the pieces in place.

If you’ve never seen the show you may well roll your eyes at the idea of another TV show set in a hospital, but the location is incidental. The real joy comes from the character driven story aided by a cast who are, without exception, fantastic.

The interplay between the cast is what really brings Green Wing to life. The core trio of Greig, Mangan and Rhind-Tutt have such great chemistry that, even though their story is based around something as hackneyed as a love triangle, you can’t help but like them.

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What is most admirable about the show is that it divides its time up perfectly between its key players and supporting cast. Caroline and Mac’s will they/won’t they repartee, Boyce and Alan’s constant one-upmanship, the playground teasing of Karen by the rest of the admin staff, the eccentric delusions of Sue White; it all gets its time to shine.

Where Green Wing is elevated above other sitcom fare is in the editing (an underrated art form if ever there was one). The show is known for its use of slow motion and sped up footage which not only cuts down the travel time within the hospital but also acts as a happy medium between Pile’s sketch style and channel 4’s preference for a sitcom. Whilst all the scenes are linked and everything involves the same characters, those sped up sections act as buffers between scenes making Green Wing feel simultaneously sketch and sitcom, so the weirder and more traditional elements of the show never feel at odds.

In terms of quality you can point to any episode of series 1 and find something brilliant in it. If you had to pick though, the stand outs have to be The Housewarming Party and Slave Auction (episodes 5 and 8 respectively). The Housewarming Party gives a partial pay off to the ever-present love triangle, and Slave Auction shows us the extent to which Sue White will try and get a date with Mac plus Alan Statham in a Roman Centurion costume. What’s not to love?!

Whilst it’s true that the second series never quite reaches the comedic heights of its predecessor there’s still a great deal of good in it. A few of the beats from the first series are repeated, but the show regains its stride in episode 3 when Sue White decides to blackmail Joanna and a film crew invades the hospital. From then on we have Martin’s foray into life modelling, Alan’s attempt to win a local election, someone being beaten to death with a stuffed Heron and someone giving birth to a lion (those last two aren’t euphemisms).

In the Green Wing Special most of the laughs come from Alan and Joanna but the one-off mainly serves to tie up the loose ends left by series 2. That said, the Special doesn’t completely abandon its offbeat roots, as demonstrated by the Admin girls descent into Lord of the Flies style anarchy. An alternative ending was filmed for the Special and features on the DVD. It was more open ended and the cast preferred it to the one that was used, although none of them have expressed a desire to make another series.

Most of the stars of Green Wing have gone on to bigger things. Michelle Gomez made a show stealing appearance as Missy in series 8 of Doctor Who and is confirmed to return in series 9, Oliver Chris and Katie Lyons are currently starring in the third series of Bluestone 42, Tamsin Greig and Stephen Mangan continue to work together in Episodes (airing it’s fourth series in the US at the time of writing) and Olivia Colman has gone from strength to strength in films like Tyrannosaur, Locke, and TV shows like the critically acclaimed Broadchurch. As for the creative team, Dominic Brigstocke had already enjoyed success with Knowing Me Knowing You with Alan Partridge and I’m Alan Partridge. He later worked on The Armstrong and Miller Show and one of the best comedy shows in recent years, Horrible Histories. Meanwhile Tristram Shapeero seems to have made it his mission to have a hand in everything I love; Brass Eye, Peep Show, New Girl, Parks and Recreation and the sublime Community. Pile followed Green Wing with the ill-fated and harshly judged (even though we liked it) Campus. She has since written and directed a number of ad campaigns and is currently producing and directing ITV’s The Delivery Man, written by fellow Green Wing alums Robert Harley and James Henry, and starring Darren Boyd, Fay Ripley and Paddy McGuinness.

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It’s a crying shame that Green Wing isn’t consistently mentioned in the same breath as recent British comedy giants like The IT Crowd, The Thick of It and The Office. The cast and crew clearly loved this project, it radiates from the screen and as a viewer you can’t help but pick up on that. Green Wing is a little more surreal than its peers, but for my money it boasts some of the best characters and funniest moments of any sitcom this side of the year 2000. The clear affection from those involved and the willingness to embrace the show’s idiosyncrasies make it an absolute joy.  If you’re looking for a new show to binge watch, all episodes of Green Wing are available on 4OD. If you haven’t seen it or if you just want to watch it all again, I urge you to give it a look.