“There’s nobody here but us chickens...”
A sitcom that ran for just two series, was created by the writer of ‘Goodnight Sweetheart’ and featured the star of ‘My Family’. Sounds great, doesn’t it?
No, wait, come back.
Nightingales first appeared in 1990 to very little acclaim, with a second series appearing three years later to roughly the same level of attention, before slipping quietly into obscurity. It shared its fate with dozens of unsuccessful sitcoms but what differentiated it from the other shows on the scrapheap is that Nightingales was a dark, surreal masterpiece.
The show is set in a nondescript office block staffed by security guard misfits whose mutual antipathy and inability to escape is the bedrock of sitcom. The outside world is only occasionally referenced (“I dug a hole in the garden. Dead big it was”) and the dingy dark of the night shift adds to the feeling of claustrophobia.
The three main characters roughly equate to the heart (Sarge), brains (Carter) and brawn (Bell) of the show.
Sarge is a bumbling, ineffectual boss, played with gentle warmth by James Ellis. Robert Lindsay is Carter, the frustrated intellectual, with a performance more GBH/Citizen Smith than the aforementioned M* F*m*ly. Finally there’s the excellent David Threlfall as the mullet-haired, lumbering, oafish Bell.
Writer Paul Makin takes the basic workplace sitcom format and takes it to bizarre new levels. Examples? How about a woman called Mary giving birth to a snooker table on Christmas Eve? Building a dry stone wall as part of a job interview? A werewolf performing heart surgery?
This isn’t the tinsel whimsy of The Mighty Boosh or the stylised oddness of The Green Wing, though. No matter how weird things get, and by the final episode where CCTV cameras produce evil clones of everyone they get very weird indeed, it’s always grounded in a basic reality.
These are small, ordinary men leading small, ordinary lives, even when they’re spouting Shakespearean dialogue or pondering whether Harold Pinter is currently attending a hog-roast. They worry about losing their job with the arrival of a new sergeant (who whips Bell until his back is a lacerated, bloody mess) and discuss their boredom at home (“I bought a Bible and I’ve been going through it replacing ‘the’ with ‘and’”).
Most of all, it is relentlessly funny. The constant bickering between Carter and Bell and the frequent flights of fancy (Carter’s one-act play that parodies the homoeroticism of Evelyn Waugh is a particular favourite) have a gag rate to match the best of British sitcoms.
The main characters are archetypes, but archetypes viewed through a cracked mirror that shows the Hancock-esque Carter accuse a woman of trying to perpetrate an allegory and the Uncle Albert-alike Sarge cooking an indoor barbecue to impress a page 3 model.
So, why was it a flop? It’s difficult to pinpoint but I think its strengths – the breadth of cultural references, the oddness, the sinister undertones – might have been the very things that held it back.
In the year of its debut, the biggest (audience and influence-wise) sitcoms were the office-based satire of Drop The Dead Donkey, the perfectly-executed classically-structured One Foot In The Grave and Keeping Up Appearances which was, well, shit.
All of those shows, even Dead Donkey with its topical gags filmed the day before broadcast, had their roots in traditional comedy, in terms of plot and character. They existed in worlds the audience could easily recognise as their own, free as they were of dead security guards and werewolf medical students.
Being buried in the late night schedules certainly didn’t help, nor the three-year hiatus between series one and two, apparently due to script difficulties. But it’s easy to imagine Nightingales gaining a following if it were released now, with audiences more used to a sitcom with quirks than they were 23 years ago.
Set as it was in a strange twilight limbo, it’s barely dated at all. They’re all on Youtube, so head for ‘Silent Night’ or ‘Reach For The Sky’ for the best examples of the best sitcom you’ve never heard of.