Nightingales - Complete Series Review
Imagine if Harold Pinter wrote sitcoms and you would go some way to understanding Nightingales, a British comedy that sat in Channel 4's late-night hours, bamboozling anyone who came upon it unexpectedly. Or indeed Samuel Beckett, which is likely to be the better comparison given that it's a comedy that creates much out of very little.
Three men and a corpse - Sarge, Carter, Bell and Smith - who work as nightwatchmen in a tower block and who have the run of the building to themselves but who neither have the will nor the desire to move from their less-than-cosy office. There isn't even the suggestion, it being so late at night, that anything even happens outside of their building. They're up and working when everyone and everything else is asleep and they wait - wait for something to happen, wait for the day when they can leave or just wait, largely because there's nothing else to do. Their waiting could well be described as Faustian - their being employed as nightwatchmen being their side of the pact - except that they never appear to have enjoyed the sweet taste of success, more that this job is one more step on a very long road to anonymity and insignificance. Nightingales is bleak, it's cast often painfully humiliated and without much optimism but it's also very, very funny.
As with so many British sitcoms, the comedy comes from the clash of characters - the self-sufficient Goods living beside the well-to-do Ledbetters, mild-mannered June married to the excitable Terry - and Nightingales is no different. Sarge (James Ellis) is the eternal optimist unable to offer a bad word about anyone, Bell (David Threlfall), nicknamed Ding-Dong, is not only stupid but quick to lose his temper whilst Carter (Robert Lindsay) fancies himself as the intellectual of the team, fond of reading poetry and wondering what Jean Paul Gaultier and Harold Pinter are doing of an evening whilst he wastes his life watching over a deserted building. The fourth member of the team, Smith, died on the job but the other three members kept his body in the building to claim his salary.
Much of each episode was built around the three members of the cast and their dislike for one another. In particular, Bell was a hard nut who often dismissed Carter as a poof, whereas the latter found himself despairing at having to share an office with a man who got stone cladding on the inside of his council house and knocked through several of the rooms to make it look like a cave. But if that provided the basis of each episode, Nightingales drifted off in various directions, including murder, lycanthropy and Harold Pinter and the Pope arriving for a Christmas party on a tandem. There was much light horror, mostly concerning Eric the werewolf, plenty of surreal diversions and a great deal of playground bickering between Carter and Bell. Trying, though usually failing, to hold things together was Sarge, who also provided something approaching a voice of wisdom in the madness around them.
Whether it was Lia Williams giving birth to various electrical appliances, Bell suggesting that he and Carter have sex after his horse rape incident or an insane Peter Vaughan trying to bring order to the staff room, Nightingales was always capable of offering the unexpected and with Ellis, Threlfall and Lindsay in the cast to carry the audience, it was memorable midweek entertainment from a time when Channel 4 still respected its remit to carry challenging television. For a sitcom that owed more to Harold Pinter than it did to Vince Powell, Nightingales was a brave attempt to create comedy out of nothing but it wasn't without success and if you can correctly complete the phrase, "Is there anybody there?", this may well be what you've been waiting on.
Moonlight Becomes You (24m37s): Sarge, Bell and Carter welcome Eric into their team for just the one night but when the full moon rises, they learn that the meek-looking medical student has a wild side, one that his packet of marshmallows won't bring under control. But then the Big White Chief phones to say that he's coming up for an inspection and they have to hide a now-hairy Eric from sight.
Takeaway (24m38s): Piper's out picking up a takeaway but Sarge, despite his best efforts, can't seem to muster up any enthusiasm in Bell and Carter for their jobs until he produces a letter saying that, due to cutbacks, one of them lose their job by the week's end. Suddenly, Carter and Bell can't move fast enough, only slowed by the spirit of Shakepeare creeping through the building, transforming them into wicked villains set on
Kiss And Make Up (24m49s): Carter notices an advert in Bell's magazine where one of the prizes is a date with a former Page 3 girl and he can't help but imagine a night in a restaurant drinking fine champagne and enjoying scintillating conversation. Come the night of the date, though, Carter has to work and his night of pleasure is at risk from Sarge and Bell but Miss Angela Wilson (Diana Weston) isn't quite what he expected either.
Opening Night (24m32s): Sarge isn't well - his age is catching up to him and the pills aren't working as well as they once did. Whilst tempted by the chance of a promotion should Sarge pass on, they try to do their best for him but come up short on the £6,000 needed for Sarge's heart bypass operation in a private hospital. But then Carter remembers that they know a medical student and so, having checked the risen moon, call on Eric, the sometime werewolf.
Scrutiny Of The Bounty (24m39s): Carter's ambitions remain unfulfilled - he applied for a job in the police but a mix-up at the interview session left him dressed in a leotard and sitting with a crowd of male ballet dancers - but things look up when their usual office is commandeered by a police sergeant who's on a stakeout. Sarge, despite his name, doesn't have much idea as to what's happening but Carter's full of beans until he finds out that the names of those under surveillance are Sarge, Dell and Carver. And if they mixed up the names, could they have mixed up the building? And which comes first, the crime or being suspected of planning to commit it?
Terence In The Midst (24m40s): There's a new member of the team, Terence Oblong, but he's not expected until eight, an hour later than Sarge, Bell and Carter have to clock in. That gives plenty of time for bickering, mostly over what is and what isn't a non-sequitur as well as the trivia of their day - does Bell have a cat and, if he does, is it prone to falling over - but then Terence appears...and he's a gorilla. As Carter sees it, "They've sent a monkey to do our job!"
Silent Night (24m34s): It's Christmas Eve and as Sarge, Bell and Carter prepare for Christmas, including their swapping of presents - 600 Benson & Hedges each - they're feeling down. Having sent out invitations to their annual singing of carols, including one each to Harold Pinter and the Pope, they've not had a single reply but just as they begin singing, there's a knock at the door and Mary (Lia Williams), who's heavily pregnant, begs of them to help. They are, of course, happy to help but warn Mary that she ought not to do anything of an allegorical nature!
Trouble in Mind (26m41s): It's early in the shift and Carter asks of everyone what they got up to during the day. Sarge baked a cake but Bell didn't do anything...nothing! Nothing at all. But thanks to his mugshot appearing on the cover of the Catwell Gazette, Carter and Sarge know exactly what he was up to - being convicted of the rape of a horse in a public park and as one of the conditions of his not being imprisoned, he must submit himself to being analysed by a psychiatrist, Benson (Philip McGough), with Carter and Sarge as an audience.
Crime And Punishment (24m44s): There's a burglar in the building and when Sarge contacts head office for supplies for dealing with him, he finds that the crate only contains an oil painting, a Viking helmet and a small dog. But that doesn't prevent them from catching him and as they tie him up in the office, Carter and Bell get down to questioning him but there's a surprise for one of them, something to do with half a photograph and a feeling that there many be a young boy somewhere out there who's been missing a father.
All At Sea (24m32s): There's a new inspector (Peter Vaughan) and he's calling by to introduce himself. Carter, who still has something of the rebel in him, asks Bell and Sarge to stand by him and to not welcome the new inspector but is disgusted when they offer him gifts. Carter's stand earns him the inspector's favour and he even gets his own radio, something that he's waited a long time for but does his promotion come at a price? And what will happen when a grain of rice goes missing from the packet of Uncle Ben's that the new inspector brings in?
Reach For The Sky (24m25s): Carter still has his mind on the job at Heathrow Airport - double-breasted jacket, a polyester-cotton mix and trousers that are flared at the knee - but when a letter arrives at the office announcing a Security Guard of the Year contest, Carter wonders if he should enter. So too does Bell but when the examiner arrives, he suffers a stroke...which doesn't necessarily mean the contest shouldn't go ahead, does it? At least not until he dies.
King Lear II (24m41s): It's Sarge's birthday but he's not yet ready for retirement, despite his stiffening joints. But when he announces that it's now company policy to promote from within - meaning that, should be prove incapable of the job, either Carter or Bell would get it - the spirit of Shakespeare last seen in Takeaway re-emerges and Carter and Bell plot the Sarge's demise, only disagreeing on who should ascend to the throne, should it become absent.
Someone To Watch Over Me (24m50s): For once, Carter and Bell arrive on time and it's all to do with the arrival of a new CCTV system, which they celebrate by singing Space Oddity into before bemoaning about the lack of women to spy on. Then they notice that there's also a cake and a card, in which is the rather ominous message, "Thank you and good night!" Could this be the end?
Nightingales is typical of a Network release in that it comes to DVD looking better than a VHS release but not as though there's been any remastering of the image. Nightingales comes looking soft, fuzzy and with an interlaced image that means it's difficult to get a decent picture out of it. A good television may help but after trying this on a range of screens, the lack of quality is obvious. However, any fan of the series will be held ransom by knowing this isn't going to get a better release anytime soon and that it may well be necessary to simply live with it rather than wait for a re-release. Again, the audio track is functional but the dialogue stands out and it's a clean-sounding mix.
There are no extras on this DVD.
Thanks to Network releasing Nightingales on DVD, I only need Absolutely to complete a collection of the best of surreal British sketch shows and sitcoms and their varied and often uncomfortable laughs will indeed be mine, reminiscent of a time when Channel 4 still had the 'exploding 4' logo.
Nightingales is an odd sitcom but not without charm. It's odd sense of time and place works to its advantage, leaving it a comedy that's barely aged in the sixteen years since Season One was broadcast. My only caveat with the set is the lovely acapella version of A Nightingale Sang In Berkley Square, sung by Robert Lindsay. That my memories of watching this come with it ending near to midnight and, hence, to bedtime, this was always something of a lullaby and even having watched an episode mid-afternoon, found my eyes getting heavy. Put up with the urge to go to bed and Nightingales is a treat. An odd one, mind, but a treat nonetheless.