Paul Whitehouse comedy Nurse is touching, funny and important

The new comedy from The Fast Show star tackles mental illness sensitively and authentically - but with plenty of laughs, says Ben Dowell

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Paul Whitehouse, David Cummings and Esther Coles’ comedy Nurse is one of those rare beasts – a genuinely funny comedy that actually makes you think.

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A hit on Radio 4, it has now been rescaled for TV, but still retains its essence – examining the life of a put-upon community psychiatric Nurse (played by Coles) as she meets an array of characters (mainly played by Whitehouse).

They include Rockabilly Billy the agoraphobic ex-con, Herbert the ageing rake and – probably most memorably – the morbidly obese Graham. A man familiar to fans of Radio 4 comedy Down the Line as the chirpy regular caller to the fictional radio talk show hosted by Rhys Thomas‘ Gary Bellamy, we discover more about Graham’s home life in Nurse as he is engaged in a terrible, co-dependent relationship with his obsessive mother and her revoltingly unhealthy cooking. 

What is special about this comedy is its intelligent and moving engagement with an ever more important area of modern life – mental illness in all its many, complicated, often tragic manifestations.

Still, don’t despair. There are nose-snortingly outrageous laughs aplenty as we’d expect from anything from the Whitehouse stable. But thanks to the judiciousness and ebullience of the writing and the tenderness and skill of the performances, they never detract from the narrative’s essential humanity and warmth.

It is meticulously researched where it needs to be. We meet a soldier in later episodes who suffers from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and these scenes are incredibly affecting – but also eerily plausible. The techniques Coles’ nurse uses are based on actual remedies and approaches that are being used right now.

And there’s also Rockabilly Billy (below), another Whitehouse character whose friend Tony (Simon Day) keeps turning up and sabotaging the session. Day’s boneheaded cruelty and Billy’s acceptance of him is as hilarious as it is cripplingly frustrating.

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As any mental health professionals will tell you, family members are often envious of the attention that the carer or therapist gives their nearest and dearest so they try and hijack the situation, often without being aware of what they are doing.

And I struggle to think of such a problematic area of life so exquisitely and hilariously rendered.

Universal. Gentle. Funny. Moving.

Recommended.

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Nurse in on BBC2 at 10pm on Tuesdays