Is this meant to be a sick joke? - Tune in, switch off

24th July 2009 at 01:00

Can you laugh at death? Are jokes about the sick just sick jokes? Shakespeare used comedy in his bloodiest of plays. But are we ready for a drama set on a geriatric ward, a comedy Casualty?

BBC Four's Getting On was a brave exploration of the final taboos and last rites. Directed by Peter Capaldi - Malcolm Tucker of In the Loop - it used a documentary format. So I really thought the patients, piss and poo were real. Even a corpse looked genuine. Nurse Kim (played by Jo Brand) attempted to take out the corpse's teeth but couldn't, even with Vaseline. Clearly the old dear still had her own teeth - even at 87 years old.

Much of the humour was at the expense of NHS bureaucracy, the kind of silliness we laughed at in Yes Minister. So the faecal deposit found on a chair had to stay there until a nurse had done the paperwork on it. And then it had to go in a stool pot because the doctor was engaged in a "faecal research programme" to expand the British Stool Chart.

A terminally ill patient was off to Zurich, ostensibly on holiday. "Good disabled access there," commented the doctor, who we later heard privately telephoning the Dignitas clinic in broken German to check her patient had arrived. It was brutally painful, reminding us that tears and laughter are very close.

Extremes of bodily functions were also the subject of Born Survivor (Channel 4). Bear Grylls in Siberia reminded me of my old PE teachers trying to warm us up on cold days. Temperatures were so low here (-30C), that metal stuck to skin.

Bear showed us how to remove a knife blade "super glued" by the freezing temperature to his hand with a hot liquid burst from his bladder. He told of a colleague who tried to pull an ice screw from his mouth, losing skin and part of his tongue in the process. He should have phoned a friend.

Grylls gave us constant warnings about the dangerous terrain, as if we were planning a school camping trip in the world's biggest ice box: if you stand still you die. We'd never get this past the health and safety police. Even a trip to the nearest village requires a week of form filling now.

You burn twice the calories in Siberia so soya beetle bark scrapings, followed by deep-frozen roast venison with cave-cooled, crispy mosquitoes for pudding filled a gap or two. Raw squirrel brain tasted like "frozen pate". I'd have brought some Kendal mint cake myself.

And other than scaring me half to death, Bear's immersion in the deep water under the ice had me lighting the log fire. With a "serious risk of cardiac arrest" (mine as well as his), I was shouting: "Please don't go there!"

Survival depends on a person's "ingenuity and determination" and not just "skills and knowledge", and Grylls demonstrated this brilliantly by making a toboggan from willow and deer skin, noosing a rodent for tea and taking a deer leg as a walking stick.

They teach them well in the Scouts these days. I've since cancelled my Northern Wastes package holiday. And I've decided TV is a dangerous place to be.

Ray Tarleton is principal at South Dartmoor Community College in Ashburton, Devon.

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