Comedian Rhod Gilbert has tried his hand at all manner of jobs during the eight-series long run of his ‘Work Experience’ – from florist to fighter pilot, from bin man to wedding planner – but seldom has one of the experiences been more timely.
The current, ninth series kicks off with Gilbert bringing his gruff, no-nonsense style to the world of the carer, and even for a man who’s handled a lot of hecklers in his day, handling and cleaning bums is to be a real test of character. As his machine-gun delivery, staccato script puts it, it’s a job where ‘75% of the the work involves someone else’s bum.’
Such intimate involvement is something he clearly dreads but when the moment comes, and he faces his first posterior it’s much easier than he thinks simply because it’s an act of care. This is a programme in which simple humanity consistently shines through.
The programme starts with a job interview at Cardiff City Hall where our Rhod faces such stumbling blocks as being asked if he’s good at getting up in the mornings, to which the answer is a crisp “No” and when they ask what he already knows about being a carer the answer is not inspiring: “You could put everything I know about caring on Wesley Snipes’ Wet Wipes,” he replies.
Soon it’s time to prepare himself for lifting people from chairs and around in their beds on the Manual Handling Course, which is part psychology and part heavy lifting and a good opportunity for Gilbert to show off his paronomasia, being the posh term for word play. As he puts it “If I was going to get a handle on handling anyone normally” his tutors “had a manual on how to handle it.”
But as Gilbert starts work at a care home in Barry and visits people in their homes he finds that some of them have a humour that fair matches his own and, indeed, in some cases is material he couldn’t himself use. Neil, a sufferer of Parkinson’s Disease for 17 years says that he “tried to shake it off.” Pete meanwhile, who has lost a leg and fought cancer, confides in Rhod that he has been stuck in the house for three years but even now manages to bring levity into the situation – “I thought I’d give it a chance, see what it was like.”
Preparing food for these housebound clients is also a speed trial as there’s always a next one waiting and soon Gilbert is “flailing around like a new born giraffe on a trampoline,” wanting to jump into the car like Starsky and Hutch to get to the next house faster. All of this is filmed unobtrusively well by Jonny Campbell and series director Nathan Macintosh who manage to capture both the intimacy and the interplay between Gilbert and his erstwhile charges without getting in the way, as befits this dizzy mix of observational documentary and light ent.
Meanwhile, in the care home Rhod spoon feeds Anna who fell down the stairs and was paralysed from the neck down and plays board games with 90 year old Betty who turns out to be his bette noir, a feisty Cockney who corrects his bingo caller’s delivery and proves herself to be an “octagenarian oligarch” and sometimes “jester in polyester.”
I remember filming Rhod Gilbert on one of his formative gigs in London’s ‘Comedy Store’ when he was just starting off on the circuit and it’s rewarding to see how far he’s come since then, as both a radio and a TV presence. He admitted that training to be a carer was one of his toughest gigs but concluded that despite being tough the experience was leavened by happiness and joy. It’s quite natural that his usual abrasive manner softens as the programme proceeds and as he makes new relationships in rapid fire time.
The programme ends with a talent show at ‘College Fields’ care home organised by Rhod, who can clearly play to his own strengths in this setting. But words utterly fail him as emotion overwhelms him at the end of a riotous mix of Neil’s bawdy poetry, Anna’s spirited singalong and Betty doing her best impression of Michael Caine.
One of the contestants in the talent show is a carer called Emma who delivers some self-penned verse both exploding myths about and extolling the praises of the caring profession. It opens thus: ‘Just a carer, that’s what they say/Just washing and making tea all day/That’s not a job, just to wipe bums/Easy work, nothing hard to get done…’
This programme manages to completely explode such misconceptions and Rhod Gilbert amply demonstrates that this is a job that is far, far from being low-skilled. As the news shows us the dangers of being a carer in the age of a pandemic Gilbert’s show underlines the compassion and deep humanity involved.
It’s all quietly heroic stuff, about proving how society cares for those who most need it, and about being selfless when it comes to the needs of others. The fact that he finds such joy in it all makes this a very uplifting half hour.
Rhod Gilbert’s Work Experience: Carer can be watched here.