BBC comedy Ill Behaviour has homeopathy, not cancer, in its crosshairs

The three-part series from Peep Show co-creator Sam Bain pits science against holistic medicine

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There’s a two-sided cautionary tale at the heart of new BBC comedy Ill Behaviour, the first solo outing from Peep Show and Fresh Meat co-creator Sam Bain.

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If you get cancer and decide to blow vegetables up your arse instead of undergoing chemotherapy, Bain seems to suggest, you will die. And, if you’re that person’s friend, and you sit idly by while they allow the disease to eat through their vital organs, you may have to shoulder some of the blame.

Of course, the issues are much more complex than that, but you wouldn’t know it by watching this three-parter(a BBC3 commission which airs on BBC2 from Sunday). The joy of Ill Behaviour lies in minor tweaks to reality, and the removal of all inhibition. Writing in the Guardian, Bain referred to it as a “wish-fulfilment fantasy”, referencing those moments when you refrain from airing your true thoughts on a friend’s decisions, bowing instead to social etiquette.

Thankfully, Ill Behaviour’s Joel (Chris Geere) – a recently divorced screw-up with a cocaine problem – has much less restraint than the average Brit.

When his best mate Charlie (Tom Riley) decides to treat his Hodgkin’s Lymphoma – an aggressive, but very treatable form of cancer – with “coffee enemas” and homeopathic medicines rather than chemotherapy, he takes matter into his own hands.

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Jessica Regan and Chris Geere in Ill Behaviour

With the help of their friend Tess (Jessica Regan), an IT clerk and aspiring author of robotic erotic fiction, and Nadia, a sex and alcohol addicted doctor (Lizzy Caplan), he kidnaps Charlie and locks him up in a Downton Abbey-esque estate in the countryside to administer chemotherapy against his will.

It’s a brilliant premise, and while it is slightly let down by some run-of-the-mill, unearned plot twists and soapy, superfluous drama about addiction, there are enough flashes of wit and intrigue to make three hour-long episodes fly by.

Rather than Charlie’s battle with cancer, the unravelling of Joel, who begins the series sitting trouser-less on a building’s edge, tossing wads of £20 notes to the pavement below, is the focal point of the series.

His character is hard to pin down, shifting erratically – though that may be the cocaine – from a passionately dedicated friend to a man struggling with searing jealousy, paranoia and an overtly selfish desire to imbue meaning into his life through his relationships. 

While we root for him to cure his friend, he is absolutely impossible to like. His cause may be noble, but he doesn’t deserve to win.

In the latter stages of the story, his behaviour becomes so unpredictable that it’s quite hard to discern what he is actually capable of, which makes for a few genuinely tense moments amidst borderline absurdist humour.

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Lizzy Caplan and Jessica Regan in Ill Behaviour

Jessica Regan is a fantastic straight man to Geere’s loose protagonist, regularly delivering dry, cutting lines. Of her supporting players, Lizzy Caplan is let down by an overdone characterisation of a “cool” female addict, and Tom Riley has little to do other than sit there, have cancer and be nice.

Amidst a series of chaotic plot twists, the show manages to put forward its argument against homeopathy without navel-gazing, though the odd hilarious characterisation will tell you exactly what Bain and his colleagues think about them. At one point, a “psychic” tells Charlie’s wife that she has received a message from him from beyond the grave, despite the fact that he is alive and well, an hour outside of Bristol.

Elsewhere, when Joel questions whether Hodgkin’s Lymphoma is a form of cancer, Charlie responds: “We don’t like to use that word,” Charlie says, “so negative”. 

Quite right.

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Ill Behaviour starts on BBC2 on Sunday 20th August at 10pm. The three-part series is available now on iPlayer