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Nightingales (1990-93)

Courtesy of Channel Four Television

Main image of Nightingales (1990-93)
Alomo Productions for Channel Four, tx. 27/2/1990 - 10/2/1993
13 x 30 min episodes in two series, colour
DirectorTony Dow
ProducerEsta Charkham
ScriptPaul Makin

Cast: Robert Lindsay (Carter); David Threlfall (Bell); James Ellis (Sarge)

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Three security guards patrol a rather out-of-the-ordinary office block.

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Paul Makin's impressively original sitcom, combines dark humour, sheer daftness, theatrical allusions, claustrophobia, violence and intelligent self-awareness, as if the missing link between Hancock's Half Hour (BBC, 1956-60), Father Ted (Channel 4, 1995-98), Only Fools and Horses (BBC, 1981-96; sharing director Tony Dow), Bottom (BBC, 1991-95), the Theatre of the Absurd, Steptoe and Son (BBC, 1962-74) and The League of Gentlemen (BBC, 1999-2002).

The setting is, typically for British sitcom, claustrophobic: three security guards patrol a building we never leave. Carter, the frustrated would-be intellectual, clashes over aspirations with Bell, his unintelligent, animalistic colleague, overseen by their boss, flawed father figure Sarge. Throughout, their dead co-worker Smith sits with them, his wages drawn by the others. 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' (tx. 6/1/1993), when Bell is psychoanalysed and uncovers hidden tensions (which echoes Steptoe's 'Loathe Story', tx. 20/3/1972), after raping a horse (which doesn't). Throughout, potential pretentiousness is deflated by silliness or broad physical comedy.

In this world, a gorilla is hired as co-worker; a werewolf conducts a heart bypass; and a woman gives birth to consumer goods and insists at gunpoint that she is an allegory. Nightingales' achievement is in integrating those plots and character psychology into a non-naturalistic world. Plotting characters become 'Shakespearean villains' complete with lightning, dry ice and dialogue in iambic pentameter; allusions to Mutiny on the Bounty cause the building to list like a ship and a corpse can be 'buried at sea' from the window. 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.

Nightingales' self-awareness playfully explores ideas of theatre and genre, and its surreal logic pre-empts the gentler Father Ted, but also expresses the desperation of a neglected social class's inner life. These tensions are darkest in the sinister final episode, which is closer to the devastating finale of David Lynch's Twin Peaks (US, 1990-91) than a sitcom. Here we see the series' catchphrase ("There's nobody here but us chickens"), just as we see sitcom throughout: in a new light.

Dave Rolinson

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Video Clips
1. A sore point (2:13)
2. A plan forms (2:53)
3. Cunning disguises (2:52)
Complete episode: 'Scrutiny on the Bounty' (23:21)
Lindsay, Robert (1949-)
Marks, Laurence (1948-) and Gran, Maurice (1949-)
Channel 4 Comedy