Despite well over two decades in the business, Tom Binns might not be one of the most well-known names in British comedy, but in a strange twist of fate, the character comedian has been instantly catapulted from the regular live circuit onto BBC One prime-time.
It’s certainly been a long journey for Binns. His characters Ivan Brackenbury (naively inappropriate Hospital Radio DJ) and Ian D Montfort (surprisingly accurate phoney psychic) have received rave Edinburgh Fringe reviews, but his own media career has fared terribly, including being fired by two separate radio stations and, more infamously, from Channel 4’s ill-fated late night sports show Under The Moon. Then, after years as TV warm-up act, his big break finally came to follow in Bob Monkhouse’s footsteps as the new host of Celebrity Squares, only for it to be pulled after the pilot.
Luckily for Binns, Ivan Brackenbury’s TV career has followed a better trajectory of late. A ‘fly-on-the-wall documentary’ soon became fleshed out into a non-broadcast pilot, by now named ‘Hospital People’ and featuring Ian D Monfort as well as new characters hypochondriac Terry Lovecraft, local MP Susan Mitchell, chaplin Father Kenny Mercer and nurse Becky Walker – all played by Binns.
A place amongst BBC’s relaunched Comedy Playhouse soon beckoned, with a full pilot being produced to fairly decent reviews for a one-off piece largely rehashing much of Binns’ stand-up material. The general consensus was that a low-key BBC Three series could’ve been on the cards, but it probably didn’t have the legs. Imagine the surprise then when the a full series was commissioned in the coveted BBC One Friday night 9.30pm slot.
It’s easy to see how it happened. You can picture the BBC comedy meeting – Peter Kay and Mrs Brown easily sit as the Beeb’s two most popular current BBC comedy assets, and executives are desperate to replicate that success with the same mass demographic. Comedian in drag, plays multiple parts? Done. Format? Mockumentary, of course, it’s worked so well since The Office. Done. Drop a couple of characters and have celebrity cameos instead? Why not?
And so lies the main problem with Hospital People – it has felt unnecessarily forced together and clumsy, made by a committee fighting in different directions. While you hesitate to blame Binns – and we’ll never know if this is the show he intended to make – with him taking up the majority of screen time it’s hard to start elsewhere.
You can’t help but look to the work of Chris Lilley – most notably Summer Heights High – where he already near perfected the a format decade ago, playing all the lead characters and so successfully blurring the line between emotive, offensive, narrative and slapstick.
Only occasionally does Hospital People get this right. The touching moments are few and far between, although Mandeep Dhillon (Shaz) has been stealing the show weekly with her subtly observed looks-to-camera of which a young Martin Freeman would be proud. Unfortunately these are too often contrasted with cheap crude gags straight from the Mrs Brown textbook, as you imagine the writers have been instructed.
Who could fault Tom Binns for taking on such a huge opportunity though? There’s no doubting Ivan Brackenbury is a wonderful character with real depth, well-honed through years of on-stage experience. Many of the best gags this series have been from that original material, which even in this final episode rarely wears thin. At times even Father Kenny’s borrowed stand-up routines bring more decent laughs than the scripted humour.
Completely contrasting is Binns’ portrayal of Hospital Manager Susan Mitchell, which, even on a basic acting level, leaves much be desired. It’s a wooden performance at best, with innuendo falling so flat you can almost see the tumbleweed coming. This final outing sees her take on James Fleet playing a choir master with previous anger issues. The setup is all there, but never quite lands with too much reliance on obvious farce and crudeness, as she has been written all series. It’s a shame as her original character as an MP was much more subtly played, replaced by endless puns of her “big opening” or people “coming in her Bat Cave”.
Indeed the reliance on innuendo throughout the show has become tiresome over the six episodes, with many of the jokes based around the characters deadpanning double-entendres. The writing has been patchy throughout at best, with Trollied co-creator Paul Doolan and (long-term Russell Brand cohort) Matt Morgan offering additions to Binns’ original character material, but seemingly not in a harmonious trio.
Luckily the peripheral characters, notably the underused supporting duo of Dhillon and Amit Shah (Sunny), offer enough sophisticated comic relief to rescue the whole thing from the weight of Binns’ characters. The celebrities too bring juxtaposition, with stalwarts Mark Williams and Sally Phillips putting in good turns in earlier weeks. Sian Gibson – appearing specifically at the BBC’s request following the success of Car Share – also brought a much needed softer touch as a love interest for Brackenbury.
Humility is something the show has been desperately missing though, and what separates it from some of its peers. Whereas earlier incarnations of Hospital People gave Binns’ characters backstory and context, this full series has preferred quicker gags and stupidity at its own cost.
This final episode however does manage to pull on a few heartstrings as Brimlington Hospital prepares to launch its charity single with the inevitably disastrous consequences, which for once, all redeem themselves in the denouement. Fleet’s performance is superb and by the end even Mitchell’s character emotes somewhat.
It’s also the first proper attempt at crossover between Binns’ characters on screen, something that you feel might have added charm to the series if used earlier. It’s nice to go out on a high, and much like the original pilot narrative centred around the hospital’s potential closure, feels less brash than other episodes.
That said, there’s much more work to do if a second series is commissioned. While the BBC may be looking for the next Peter Kay, the Phoenix Nights’ man has delivered far better versions of these characters before – most notably in his excellent debut The Services.
It’s proof that in order to replicate the greats you need more than just a handful of the right ingredients. While producer Ash Atalla has done his best here, simply having him on board doesn’t guarantee the next The Office. Similarly, copying format and personas from existing hits isn’t always enough, whatever the executives may think.
If the writing team can learn to combine both farce and smarter gags with the need for underlying unsaid subtle narrative nuances then perhaps Hospital People can work. Until then, Gervais, Kay, Lilley and co needn’t worry. But, at least while Tom Binns himself may yet be a famous face, he returns to Edinburgh with handful of characters, both old and new, who are.