Winging It | Interviews with the Green Wing cast and creator

Winging It

Interviews with the Green Wing cast and creator

Channel 4's acclaimed sitcom Green Wing returns for a second series on March 31. Here creator Victoria Pile and stars Tamsin Grieg and Stephen Mangan talk about their involvement in the show... Victoria Pile

Green Wing isn’t exactly a conventional sitcom. How would you describe it?

It’s a bit of a hybrid, isn’t it? It’s a sketch-meets-comedy-drama-meets-soap. It’s kind of unique, it hasn’t got a forerunner, really.

Initially it was as a progression from Smack the Pony, so it was meant to be a continuation of the sketch show format, but with stronger narrative structure. We wanted to do something with characters who had a bit more depth and longevity, and a bit more narrative, but we weren’t going to throw out the ability to be randomly funny, which was the sketch appeal.

Why did you decide to set it in a hospital? It’s not as if we ever see any patients, and it’s not remotely medical.

That’s where all life is, is it not? It was originally the plan to cover porters and car park attendants and kitchen staff as well as medics. In fact we found our hands were full with the eight or nine main characters we have got without going below stairs too much. It was a very convenient home where all sorts of life and work situations met.

There are eight writers on the show. That must be hugely complicated. How does it work?

It is complicated. It’s because we set out to write a sketch show, which featured individual writers contributing random material. This sort of evolved into a round-the-table, team-writing story arc.

But nonetheless, it’s still quite a complicated system of people writing in their own way, and me and the script editor trying to harness them all into a total story. So it’s a bit ad hoc, it’s a bit complicated, and sometimes very difficult.

Why did you introduce the speeding up and slowing down edits?

It was very much our intention, before we started on the pilot, to be experimental with our style and our content. Needless to say, we ran out of time on our pilot, so when we got into the edit, we hadn’t done anything particularly experimental or innovative. But in the edit we played around with the speed for a couple of reasons.

First, it felt aesthetically pleasing to try and compose sequences of shots to music, in a way that we’d done slightly in Smack the Pony. It feels very natural to me to try and construct rhythm into the whole piece. You do that by the use of music, and therefore the use of varying speeds of shot.

Second, it was very useful to be able to show action prior or post a scene in a way which didn’t gobble up screen time, but informs the viewer what had gone on before and after. So it had a very practical purpose as well. And occasionally it’s literally a time thing, to get the programme the right length.

When you were making series one, did you have any idea how it would be received?

Of course not. You hand your tapes in and run away and think “I’ll never work in television again”. That’s what happened. We were genuinely deeply worried when we handed in the pilot. We didn’t think we’d ever hear back from Channel 4. So we were very surprised.

You have a talented cast, you know you have some fantastic material, but you have no idea whether you’re going to be able to mould it into something worthwhile. You’re never quite sure how people are going to respond.

How much of the show is improvised?

It’s a tricky one to answer: I don’t want to take away anything from the hugely talented writers or the amazingly inventive actors we have on the show. We write the show absolutely slavishly, the words are agonised over and changed all the way through. The actors are presented with full scripts from day one.

But we also encourage improvisation, and bringing actors and writers together and changing and approving and throwing things out. And a lot of actors will contribute hugely to the initial ideas, and drafts will go to-and-fro and be changed.

But on set there are a few actors who will always enjoy going with the flow sometimes, and we’ll pick up a few ad libs at the end of the scene. But these are fully scripted shows that are written, rewritten and fretted over. It sometimes belittles the writers’ effort to say that much of it is ad-libbed.

Tamsin Greig

How did your Green Wing role come about?

I thought Victoria Pile’s vision for Smack The Pony was just beautiful, and seeing that playfulness of characters, particularly women, was brilliant. They weren’t stereotypes, and they weren’t getting their breasts out all of the time, and it just showed you can get female clowns. So when Green Wing came along, nobody could say what it was, because there was nothing on paper, so it was just going on trust that Victoria Pile was a visionary.

Julian Rhind-Tutt says you’re quite bad about corpsing.

Is that what he said? He can talk! No, it’s true. I’m terrible. Do you know what? I’ve got quite an easy job. I’ve just got to look at people, say lines and not laugh. And two of those I do okay-ish. But basically I’m just shit at quite an ordinary job, namely not laughing. It’s not that hard not to laugh. The guy who sold me my travel card, he didn’t wet himself laughing. You just don’t do it!

In the past, you’ve said that you’ve been recognised for your voice an awful lot. With your increasing TV profile, that must have changed.

It’s a little intriguing, in a way. It’s normally a sort of non-exchange. People go ‘Oh that’s you off the telly, isn’t it?’ and you go ‘Yes’ and then they walk away. So sometimes it’s a little like being in the Coney Island Freak Show, so it’s quite peculiar. But then again, I’m on the Tube every day now, and I’m completely anonymous. So when it does happen again, I’ll get startled by it again.

Is it true you’ve been mistaken for both Sharleen Spiteri and Ronnie Ancona?

Yes. And also Sue Perkins off Mel and Sue, right. Someone rushed up to me and said ‘It’s you, it’s you, it’s you!’ And I said ‘Um, sorry?’ And she said ‘It’s you. You’re in the Kingsmill ad!’ So a lot of people think I’m really famous because I’m someone else.

I also read that Bono kissed your belly. Is that true?

I had to give an award at the Q awards. And I was nine months pregnant, so when I was giving the award, I said ‘If I give birth here, can I call it Bono?’ Backstage he came through. I went to get out of his way, and he got down on his knees in front of me and kissed my huge belly.

It was particularly exciting for my husband, who thinks U2 are God’s gift to the entire universe. But then last week I hear he does it to some Radio 1 DJ who’s also pregnant. Was it Jo Whiley? He kissed her belly as well! So I used to feel special. Now I just feel cheap.

He does it to any bird. It’s like the Pope kissing babies, only he gets to them before they’re out.

Stephen Mangan

‘Working on Green Wing has been fantastic. It’s one of those jobs where in the middle of it, you are already starting to miss it and don’t want it to end. We are given so much scope for input into the programme. There are eight writers, there’s Victoria Pile plus the directors, and you never really know what’s going to happen every day when you turn up on set.

When we auditioned for the pilot, they got us in in twos and threes to see how we worked together. It makes more sense than getting people in one by one and hoping they’ll get on. We have to get on because half the show is taking the mickey out of people’s appearance and you could take that personally if you didn’t get on. You’ve got to be very careful because any stories that you have in your private life get used.

I once told Victoria about a girl telling me I reminded her of somebody famous. I always get mistaken for Jerry Seinfeld, Elliott Gould and Pete Sampras so I listed about ten people and she said, “No, it’s none of them, it’s the donkey from Shrek!” Now every episode has me being compared to the donkey from Shrek.

I’m much more guarded now but I looked at a picture the other day of Camilla Parker Bowles, and her hairstyle and look are exactly like Julian Rhind-Tutt. So that went in.’

Julian Rhind-Tutt

‘The fact it’s set in a hospital is really just incidental. Victoria Pile is insistent that it’s not really a hospital show – the hospital’s really just a crucible for all these people to come together and all this stuff to happen in. That’s why you never see the patients and nothing medical ever happens.

Before filming,I was trying to be a serious dramatic actor, thinking we ought to learn how they do the operations. Without wanting to sound ludicrously pretentious, you know that to play the piano badly you have to play it well first?

Also, quite a number of the eccentric and strange behaviour you see in Green Wing in the operating theatre actually happened when we went to see real operations.

We’ve been in operations where they had Stairway to Heaven playing, we’ve been in operations where people have answered mobile phones, we’ve been in operations where people were doing their skiing exercises up against the wall halfway through the operation.

The most interesting thing about Green Wing, for me, is that I bump into people in the street who are doctors and surgeons, and they say that Green Wing is possibly the most realistic medical programme on TV.‘

First published: March 16, 2006

Published: 22 Mar 2009

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