Saturday, 14 May 2011

Ode to Nightingales (Paul Makin)

 I mentioned the sitcom Nightingales in a recent post about BBC 4's new series The Night Shift. Originally broadcast on Channel 4 in the early 90s, it is now available on DVD and deserves the very highest praise.

Other than using the word "surreal" it's difficult to convey the tone of this show but the situation is simple enough: three men are employed to guard an office block and, despite the fact the action takes place at night, every shift brings another visitor or intruder who has to be dealt with before they can subside once more into their comforting tedium. Of the two junior guards, Carter (Robert Lindsay) appears to be a failed or thwarted writer, or at least with aspirations in that general area, while Bell (David Threlfall) is a gentle and rather dopey man-mountain with whom Carter shares a love-hate relationship. And the benign Sarge (James Ellis) presides over their squabbles.

Which still doesn't get us very far into the heart of Nightingales, any more than the bare synopses which can be found in wikipedia, such as:
Carter and Bell compete for a job at Heathrow Airport by sitting a three-part exam
So just what is it that sets Nightingales apart? Perhaps it's the sense of a rock-solid dramatic foundation underneath all the playful shifts in tone. Unlike some other would-be wacky sitcoms the writer, Paul Makin, has laid the groundwork expertly: at any given moment you are always absolutely clear about what characters want, so that when Carter and Bell suddenly go into revenge tragedy mode (or whatever), spouting cod Jacobean,  it's a heightening, a logical extension of what they're feeling, like someone bursting into song in a (good) musical, rather than something bolted on at random for a cheap laugh. For all the surreal elements Nightingales, like the best sitcoms, is resolutely character-led.

It may even hark back to the past, with elements of Hancock and Sid James (above) or the Steptoes in the partnership of Carter and Bell (in a possible echo of Hancock's A Sunday Afternoon at Home, there's a pleasingly cruel moment where Bell works out that Carter, for all his show of superiority, wastes his time off just as much as he does) and one of the best episodes revolves around a pointless but absorbing competition between the two (Carter composes a playlet for the express purpose of humiliating Ding-Dong; David Threlfall's pain in delivering Bell's Carter-composed lines is a delight to watch).

And with this duo augmented by the father figure of Jame Ellis's Sarge you have, in effect, the quintessential sitcom family, trapped by their need for each other - not to mention a singular lack of demonstrable skills which might allow them to gain meaningful employment elsewhere.

In short, all the elements work. The pattern of each episode is often broadly similar - the arrival of a stranger who leaves by the end - but within those twenty four (or whatever) minutes are comic moments you will not find anywhere else.

Which is as much, really, as I can say. There is a more detailed piece about Nightingales on the offthetelly website here.  Among the points the writer, TJ Worthington, makes is the match between series and time slot:
It is never entirely clear whether the events depicted in Nightingales are genuinely happening, or are coloured by sleep deprivation-induced mass hallucinations, or are simply rooted in tall tales told out of boredom. As such, the series chimed perfectly with the fairly late night timeslot it was given, and this was further reflected by the hazy ambience of the opening and closing titles, showing the office block at sundown and sunrise respectively, with the name of the series picked out in the building’s electric lights.

He also also singles out
the oft-overlooked contribution of director Tony Dow, especially the way in which he could give the same handful of sparse sets the vague illusion and appearance of whatever was called for that week, be it an operating theatre or a seabound vessel.
Various articles on Nightingales, including the one above, refer to the long gap between the first and second series which has been blamed on Channel 4's dissatisfaction with the scripts. What hasn't been discussed, however, is what eventually triggered the making of that second series (which is, incidentally, even better than the first).

Here I can be of some small assistance. I once had cause to converse with someone who had been a Major Force at Channel 4. According to him, that second series was made essentially as an act of spite: one colleague wanted to have a go at another and this was the most effective means of doing so.

Which has no bearing on the quality of the writing, acting or directing, but if true - and the person involved had no reason to lie to me - it is a pleasingly Nightingales-ish detail.

Since writing the above, I came across an article by Dave Robinson on the BFI's screenonline site, here, which includes this summary of the characters' interactions:
They disagree on class, art, sex, existence and defining non-sequiturs, but are mutually dependent in complex ways, heightened by the performances of a strong cast. Their co-dependency (id, ego and super-ego?) is explored in 'Trouble in Mind', when Bell is psychoanalysed and uncovers hidden tensions (which echoes Steptoe's 'Loathe Story'), after raping a horse (which doesn't). Throughout, potential pretentiousness is deflated by silliness or broad physical comedy.
He sees Nightingales as the missing link between Hancock, Steptoe and later sitcoms such as The League of Gentlemen and also makes this claim:
Guest characters are sometimes killed by the regulars: given that sitcom as a genre depends on restoring the status quo at the end of each episode, the murders of potentially disruptive characters make Nightingales feel, bizarrely, like the ultimate sitcom.
Not a bad epitaph.

Paul Makin died on 4 July 2008. 

Guardian obituary written by Laurence Marks  here
 Independent obituary with more biographical detail here.  

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