Olivia Colman enters a nondescript office room. She pauses for a moment, then – out of a large cupboard in the foreground of the shot – Mark Heap appears. Naked apart from a pair of painfully tight Y-fronts, he bursts through the cupboard doors playing a recorder, and dances frantically around the desk, his eyes closed with what we must assume is woodwind-inspired ecstasy. When he opens them, he realises that Olivia’s character is not the person he was expecting. The scene ends with him fainting from embarrassment.
This is one of the many surreal moments found in Green Wing, the Channel 4 sitcom set in a fictional London hospital. Running for two series between 2004 and 2007, it follows doctor Caroline Todd (Tamsin Greig at her exasperated finest); Stephen Mangan's sleazy anaesthetist, Guy Secretan; surgeon Mac (Julian Rhind-Tutt); and an ensemble of various hospital staff members as they fall in love, steal ambulances, have weird sex and engage in flagrant betrayals of the Hippocratic Oath.
Unsurprisingly, Green Wing was never really about medicine. None of the characters perform doctoral duties, unless you count Guy playing "puppets" with a body on the operating table. The show is more concerned with all the bizarre ways in which human beings interact with one another, which is to be expected from the writing team behind similarly bizarre sketch-show-meets-soap-opera Smack the Pony. Fifteen years after its initial broadcast, Mangan's "lovable" lothario character hasn’t aged well, and representation is noticeably lacking, but the show’s blend of surreal humour with largely empathetic storytelling remains unmatched by almost any British sitcom since.
As Green Wing takes its place in VICE's 50 Best British TV Shows of the Century So Far, we called up producer and writer Victoria Pile to talk about the making of the show – and hitting squash balls at intensive care patients.
VICE: Hi Victoria. How does it feel knowing that Green Wing is 15 years old this year?
Victoria Pile: Terrifying. In one sense, it feels like yesterday, and in another sense, I can’t actually remember much of it; it's all blurred into one happy memory. I'm delighted that it’s still being talked about and we get constant, constant requests to talk about it. I wish it was yesterday, actually!
Tell me about how the idea for the show came about.
It was very much borne out of an experiment and very much a trust exercise on the part of Channel 4, specifically Caroline Leddy, who was the commissioning editor at the time there and a huge collaborator. We'd finished Smack the Pony and that had been such a freedom of writing non-narrative material. You've got the range and scope of subject matter in a sketch show without having to slavishly follow a plot line, which I didn't feel particularly drawn towards. Then when that finished and had done so well, both Channel 4 and myself wanted to write something with a bit more longevity.
So, we took some of the writers who had done very well on the sketch show [Smack the Pony] and we got a gang together and started trying to marry those two arms: a sitcom world and 3D people, and a proper narrative arc with that comedic range we’d had on the sketch show.
It's interesting what you say about wanting to have characters that are three-dimensional, because although Green Wing does have strange elements, you really are rooting for Caroline, or you’ve met someone like Guy. The characters feel very real.
That was very much the point – to have characters that people could relate to. It was important to have an ensemble cast and not just a two-hander or a single character-driven show. The idea of Caroline was borne out of the "Smack the Pony girl" – a woman who had a good job but had certain flaws about self-confidence. That was the starting point. We brought "soap" up as a word several times because of trying to have a group of people interacting with their own intertwining storylines.
So it's a three way thing. Green Wing was a sitcom, a sketch show and a soap all in one – that was the intent, which was very much a gamble. We had no idea whether we could pull it off cohesively.
What was the reaction from Channel 4 or other people in the comedy world?
Channel 4 were nothing but supportive, they were brilliant. I think the first time it aired it was very split, probably because of our slightly zany camera style. There was a lot of, "What the hell is this seasick thing going on?" But it built a huge, affectionate fan base very quickly, and I think that was probably because those actors inhabited the characters so brilliantly.
We really spent a long time trying to think of genuine intertwining stories that had emotional arcs. Our writers room looked like a bloody war room, it had grids and charts and squiggly lines about each one of those characters and where they might go. It was very important that we got people to engage and want to know what happened to them. That’s really down to the performances being so touching.
And so many icons of British comedy as part of the cast, as well. Olivia Colman, Tamsin Greig, Mark Heap …
Absolutely. They’ve all gone on to do fantastic things. That was certainly our intention, getting the best people for the job at the time. We spent a long time putting that bunch together, longer than we probably budgeted for – we hand-picked those people lovingly.
And there was an improvisational element to the show as well.
Definitely. We wrote much more like a sketch show, so we found the characters and would brainstorm the emotional journeys to start with, but then the writers would go off and write things that may or may not sit happily along that storyline.
We had a very robust workshopping period. We’d plonk a whole stack of scripts down in front of the actors, and we played. We’d start with the written word, but some of them absolutely were like ducks to water and loved it [improvising] – Stephen, obviously, and Mark Heap and Julian [Rhind-Tutt] – and we found how it would fit into their character. We’d hot-seat the actors and say, "You’re a newly qualified doctor and you’ve just had this situation, how do you feel?" Sometimes we’d just improvise around a scenario that we knew we needed to get from A to B, or we’d present them with a finished, funny piece of dialogue. They brought their own person to those pages.
Then we’d scurry away and rewrite the best bits of those things into the script. I would have endless nights stitching them all together to make some sort of patchwork storyline, so it was a to-ing and fro-ing between actors and writers, always relying on the skills of the writer to put it into a shape.
And on set, I would allow the camera to run long enough to get anything additional. You’d finish the scene and I’d say, "What about that?" and we’d get a little bit extra.
Can you remember specific bits that came from leaving the cameras rolling?
There are an awful lot of them. They’re not long, they’re usually a moment – most Mac and Guy scenes, a couple of interchanges will often be something that was just thrown in at the last minute.
What was the atmosphere like on set? You famously filmed in a real hospital.
It was brilliant on set, absolutely brilliant. We had a lot of fun, partly because there was a lot of skill going on – they’d all bring so much to the table. Michelle Gomez [who played staff liaison officer Sue White], you couldn’t quite predict whether she was going to stick entirely to the script. She was just effervescent. There would be moments where she would go off on one – some of which never made it. We laughed an awful lot.
There were some hairy moments. It was quite irresponsible of us – we were in Northwick Park and Mac and Guy were in squash gear, chucking squash balls behind them for Martin to squirrel around and retrieve like a puppy. One of them landed on an urgent intensive care bed – it came shooting up the corridor behind them and we were on a very long lens so we couldn’t warn them. They just kept chucking these balls, which kept landing on this poor patient, until they came up to the camera and we had to pull them aside and apologise profusely for the damage we’d done. The patient was unconscious, luckily.
And many occasions in Basingstoke, they let us film in recovery. We were allowed to be in there after the operations had finished, but sometimes the patients hadn’t woken up, so we’d do a scene with three unconscious patients behind us.
They were such a brilliantly nice cast; I've never had a show where there isn’t one arsehole, and there wasn’t a single arsehole.
Going back to the hospital, none of the main characters on Green Wing really do anything medical, aside from some operations, despite being doctors. I wonder why you decided to set it in a hospital?
Because it was that quest for variety and ensemble, and a place where every bit of life was seen. It was looking for an arena. I reckoned you had office life, you had professional life, you had canteens and car parks. I thought that would give us the biggest range and types of people – we could do a joke about chips or car park barriers. There aren’t many institutions like that.
Even though Green Wing is so surreal, I think it manages to stay mundane and relatable because of the actors, and also that hospital setting.
Yes, although I have a problem when people say Green Wing is so surreal. This is my personal problem, because I’m not sure I can identify exactly what is surreal. I think I probably have quite a surreal life, therefore I’m drawn to things that are a little bit exaggerated. I know people consider it surreal, but for me, it's mostly real. It’s pushing the contours of behaviour, so it is exaggerated.
I think there are probably two flavours of surreal in the show. The overall tone, which is mostly hyper-reality and exaggerated behaviours. Doctor Statham playing the recorder in his pants – some people might say that’s surreal, and I say that’s exaggerated. Bringing a camel into the hospital, that’s sort of feasible.
So, the other flavour is those more purely fantastic moments, like when Sue White throws a ping pong ball in the air and it doesn’t land; or her very long arms; or the Jesus face. Those I could identify as surreal, but I like to think that I attached them to the fabric of the show in such a way that they don’t disrupt the narrative. There is always a possible justification for them. Jesus in the window – it’s possibly Boyce winding up Statham, we don’t quite know. In my mind, it’s explainable, and if it’s explainable, it’s not surreal. Sue White could just be a great magician.
When you look back at Green Wing, what do you think about its impact on British comedy?
That’s very difficult for me to say. I don’t think makers should have to say what the legacy is. We were in it, doing it. I can look back with enormous affection and pride, and remember the joyous times making it, but in terms of where it sits, I don’t want to be responsible for that answer.
People often ask, "Could you have made that show today?" Green Wing was of its time in the sense that we had some quite dodgy characters. Guy’s character, the largely sympathetic leading male character who had a terrible attitude to women, probably wouldn’t sit very well today in the #MeToo era. Yes, he gets called out and we explain his bad behaviour, and by the end of his journey he is self-aware, but we are laughing at him nonetheless along the way. Also with Statham and Boyce, there are a lot of homoerotic references. We use "homo" in quite an offensive way, but I think you have to realise, we were being a bit postmodern. We weren’t allowed to say "homo" then, because people weren’t talking about homosexuality at all, so we were claiming the word comically. It sounds like a bit of an excuse, but I think we were going beyond postmodern.
We didn't have an awful lot of diversity in there either, so there is a difference today about how we might make that show. But at the time, we felt we were doing something quite important in terms of bringing subject matter to the forefront of comedy. I don’t know how people will look back, but it’s interesting how things have changed.
Thank you for talking with me, Victoria.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.