It may not seem a topic ripe for hilarity, but this year, British TV is giving us two comedies about cancer. One is Sky’s upcoming Sick Note, about a man who gets mistakenly told he has the disease, finds out it was a misdiagnosis and carries on pretending he has it anyway. The other is Ill Behaviour, from Peep Show and Fresh Meat writer Sam Bain, which is premiering on BBC iPlayer before being broadcast on BBC Two.
The three-part comedy drama revolves around three friends – Joel (Chris Geere), Charlie (Tom Riley) and Tess (Jessica Regan). At the beginning of the series, Joel is newly divorced, homeless and jobless. Unsure what to do with his life, he tries online dating and meets Nadia (Lizzy Caplan), an alcoholic, drug-addicted, sex-mad doctor, and gets a flat, which, to Charlie’s horror, looks exactly like the student flat they once shared. It’s at this point that Charlie casually drops a bombshell: he has cancer, specifically Hodgkin’s lymphoma, and has decided to reject chemotherapy (which has an over 90 per cent chance of curing him) in favour of alternative remedies. As he explains his plans to “heal naturally” with juices, enemas and acupuncture, Joel’s open-mouthed expression says it all.
Determined to not sit back and watch their friend die, Joel and Tess hatch a plan – to kidnap Charlie and forcefully give him chemotherapy until the cancer is gone. This may sound outlandish, but within the show it is made surprisingly believable. Joel uses his divorce money to rent a secret house in the country, Tess quits her miserable job and says she is going away to write a book, and Nadia supplies them with chemo drugs and medical equipment, in exchange for cash.
Unlike Joel and Tess, however, Charlie can’t just quietly drop off the face of the earth for three months. He has a family who are naturally concerned when he disappears, get the police involved, and release emotional appeals for information. To avoid arousing suspicion, Joel can’t be seen to have disappeared as well, which leads to some very awkward police interviews and encounters with Charlie’s wife.
Once the premise of Ill Behaviour has been set up in the opening episode, several big questions come to the fore. Will the chemo actually work? Will the police find them or will Charlie manage to escape before the treatment can be completed? Can Nadia be trusted? Will Joel and/or Tess back down and decide that what they’re doing is wrong? And as the series progresses, the situation only becomes even knottier, due to tensions and old rivalries emerging within the group. Each of the characters make, or consider making, terrible decisions that will leave you shouting exasperatedly at the screen.
Joel is a particularly complex character, whose motives we are continually invited to question. Despite the honourable intentions he begins with, it isn’t long before he’s describing the circumstances, in which he has found himself essentially living with his two best friends and a woman he fancies, as “the holiday of my dreams”. Tess, much more accurately, refers to it as “an illegally administered enforced chemotherapy incarceration holiday”. Chris Geere (Trollied, You’re the Worst) puts in a memorable performance as the deluded, pitiable Joel – a man who’s driven off course by loneliness, jealousy and paranoia, but remains firm in his belief that everything he does is in aid of saving his friend’s life. Meanwhile, American actress Lizzy Caplan (Mean Girls, Masters of Sex) is hilariously blunt as an unstable doctor, who makes comments about chemo like “just do it, as Nike would say if they sold cancer shoes”.
This series brings to mind last year’s Stag, another three-part BBC comedy drama with a dark, self-contained story unlikely to spawn further episodes. Similar to that particular show, Ill Behaviour is more drama than comedy, yet its dialogue is consistently witty and a few big laughs do occur along the way. With a gripping plot, well-written characters and plenty of ethical dilemmas to ponder, the three-hour series is well worth your time.
Where can I watch Ill Behaviour online on pay-per-view VOD?