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Comedy Rewind

On the watch with Nightingales

Nightingales. Image shows from L to R: Sarge (James Ellis), Bell (David Threlfall), Carter (Robert Lindsay)

Nightingales can lay claim to being one of the most esoteric, surreal pieces of writing ever broadcast on British television. The blurb on the DVD release promises that it is perfect viewing for "fans of The League Of Gentlemen and Little Britain", and even though it is much closer in tone to the former, there is a grain of truth in the comparison.

Created and written by Paul Makin, he based it on his experiences working as a night security guard at Birmingham's NEC. Makin learnt his craft working under Laurence Marks and Maurice Gran at Alomo, their production company, and scripted episodes of The Other 'Arf and Roll Over Beethoven. His first original idea to make it to the screen was A Kind Of Living, a Richard Griffiths and Frances De La Tour sitcom about a couple who are uprooted and move from Bolton to London, which ran for three series from 1988.

Marks has said of Makin that "his scripts always attracted the cream of stage actors" and Nightingales was no exception. Being an ensemble piece there is no lead character as such, although Robert Lindsay is undoubtedly the best-known of its stars today. He played pseudo-intellectual Carter, who enjoys spouting semi-coherent cod-psychology and questionable philosophy in an effort to impress his colleagues. Lindsay also took on singing duties, performing the theme A Nightingale Sang In Berkeley Square over the end credits. David Threlfall is the thuggish 'Ding Dong' Bell, Carter's absolute antithesis who nevertheless worships him and hangs onto his every word. James Ellis completes the trio as affable elder statesman Sarge, whose 'seen it all, done it all' anecdotes belie his impossibly naïve optimism even in the face of the most bizarre occurrences.

Because, when talking about Nightingales (Channel 4, 1990 - 1993), bizarre is the watchword. How many other sitcoms credit a dead body as a main character? Smith is featured throughout Series 1, slumped over the table. The others decided not to report his death so that they could continue drawing his salary, though as Carter puts it "minus a small donation to the British Heart Foundation. Well, thought it only right under the circumstances". All this, incidentally, is within the first five minutes of Episode 1.

Nightingales. Carter (Robert Lindsay). Copyright: Alomo Productions

Much of the humour highlights the minutiae of the mundanity these characters have to face night after night. A running gag sees any character who enters the room shout "Anybody there?" to which the others invariably reply "There's nobody here but us chickens", complete with the requisite arm movements. It is akin to Fletcher's assertion in Porridge that only "little victories" got him through his stretch: given that the job portrayed in Nightingales is prison in all but name, the characters must find increasingly outlandish ways to placate their boredom. Porridge is a good reference point for Nightingales in more ways than one, as Peter Vaughan guest stars in the episode All At Sea playing a character not dissimilar to his iconic lag Grouty, a new security guard who dominates proceedings with an iron fist.

What Nightingales is best remembered for, though, is the countless surreal scenarios in which the three find themselves. Fittingly, it is never explained whether these occurrences are genuine or the result of a sleep deprived haze, which given its late-night timeslot likely also applies to many audience members' memory of the series. In Episode 1 they attempt to induct a student as a new guard, which goes fine right up until the full moon is mentioned and he begins acting very strangely indeed...

Other episodes feature open heart surgery, conversations conducted entirely in iambic pentameter and a gorilla who becomes their main rival for a better job working security at Heathrow Airport. In many other programmes surrealism taken to this extreme would have been played entirely for laughs, but while it is funny, such events are woven into the narrative with such care by Makin that it becomes merely another thread in the futile fabric of the characters' lives. That the actors were all veterans of the stage as well as the screen helped enormously, with the tone of the scripts akin to a Pinter play being taken over by The Goodies. The drab décor became its own character, a constant contrast to the craziness occurring within its walls. Director Tony Dow deserves a huge amount of credit, creating the confines in which the actors can completely embrace the surrealism whilst making sure the performances remain truthful and are played completely straight.

Dow also manages to evoke an atmosphere of eerie uncertainty. Merely watching the show feels almost illicit, set during the hours of darkness in the nightmarish haze between night and day. But for all its wonderful weirdness, the show could pivot to pantomime in a flash - quite literally in the case of 1992's Christmas episode Silent Night, in which a pregnant woman named Mary turns up and proceeds to go into labour.

Nightingales. Image shows from L to R: Bell (David Threlfall), Carter (Robert Lindsay), Sarge (James Ellis). Copyright: Alomo Productions

This is not to say that Nightingales doesn't function as a conventional sitcom. After all, it adheres rigidly to the classic structure of characters being trapped together. Makin was adept at writing in pithy gags as much as surrealist satire:

Ding Dong: I miss watching my kids opening their presents in the morning, I wanted to see their faces!
Sarge: Why, what have you bought them?
Ding Dong: Easter eggs.

Debuting in February 1990, there was a significant gap between the first and second series. Channel 4 Head of Comedy Seamus Cassidy was reportedly unhappy with the direction of Series 2's scripts, ordering substantial rewrites. What resulted delves even deeper into their surreal shared subconscious, from hypnotism to a battle with their own doppelgangers.

Though a third series was never made, an American adaptation was proposed. Starring Trevor Eve, it sadly never progressed beyond the pilot stage and has never been broadcast. Given the paucity of information available it is unclear if the remake deviated significantly if at all from the British original.

All three lead actors continued onto significant success after Nightingales. Lindsay found a huge mainstream audience as patriarch Ben Harper in the long running My Family, while Threlfall continued to act in an eclectic range of projects until he took on the most iconic role of his career, the drunk and disorderly Frank Gallagher in Paul Abbott's comedy drama Shameless. Ellis, already a veteran of countless dramas, continued to act until his death in 2014.

Makin never wrote anything quite as original again, however he continued to collaborate with Marks & Gran by contributing seven episodes to their time-travel fantasy rom-com Goodnight Sweetheart. His last idea to make it to the screen was 1997's grown ups, a sitcom about five friends struggling to fit in; another show lost to time not least due to a subsequent BBC Three sitcom using the same name.

Nightingales. Sarge (James Ellis). Copyright: Alomo Productions

Makin died in 2008. In his obituary, Laurence Marks wrote that "Nightingales, broadcast on Channel 4, remains the most absurd and surreal of any British situation comedy. Those who knew Makin found it difficult to comprehend how such humour could come from a man so shy and diffident."

More than thirty years later, no other sitcom has managed to deliver quite the same mix of kitchen sink drama mixed with high absurdism that Makin did in Nightingales, but its influence runs through The League Of Gentlemen, Snuff Box and The IT Crowd, to name but a few. The surrealism in the scripts gives it a far higher rewatch value than many other sitcoms, and due to its setting and lack of contemporary references the show remains in its own timeless bubble.

The rise in darker-edged comedies such as Inside No. 9 or the bleak Getting On in recent years shows that Nightingales is a trailblazer; a sitcom ahead of its time that sadly never found the wide audience it deserved, but thanks to its DVD release can now be seen in all its unerringly unnerving glory.

Where to start?

Nightingales. Image shows from L to R: Bell (David Threlfall), Sarge (James Ellis), Carter (Robert Lindsay)

Series 2, Episode 2 - Trouble In Mind

No other episode is the series matches tone with content as well as this instalment, which sees the guards visit a hypnotist in an attempt to discover the truth about an incident involving Ding Dong and a horse. However, nothing can quite prepare them for what they will discover.

Nightingales - The Complete Series

Nightingales - The Complete Series

First transmitted on Channel 4 in 1990, Nightingales focuses on three security guards who have the unenviable task of working the graveyard shift in a tower block, a situation which regularly turns to the surreal. A werewolf that performs open-heart surgery, bouts of Shakespearian verse and an undercover police operation are just some of the bizarre situations - and confrontations - the trio find themselves in.

Starring the acclaimed Robert Lindsay as Carter, David Threlfall and James Ellis, Nightingales was a critical success when first transmitted and is still fondly remembered to this day. As well as featuring an all-star cast, Nightingales was written by Paul Makin (Goodnight Sweetheart) and directed by the acclaimed Tony Dow (Only Fools And Horses, The Keith Barret Show).

This two-disc set contains all of the episodes from both series of the unhinged sitcom.

First released: Thursday 27th March 2008

  • Released: Monday 22nd July 2024
  • Distributor: Old Gold Media
  • Region: 2
  • Discs: 2
  • Minutes: 325
  • Catalogue: OGM0069

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  • Distributor: Network
  • Region: 2
  • Discs: 2
  • Catalogue: 7952411

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