THE NIGHT-SHIFT

NightingalesThe senile old man, the young idiot, and the pompous fool – that was the template Jimmy Perry confessed he seized upon when putting together the genesis of ‘Dad’s Army’ in his head over 50 years ago. He’d drawn inspiration from an old Will Hay movie, the kind that was once a staple diet of Saturday afternoon cinematic interludes on BBC2, and the kind that has now sadly been largely forgotten. Will Hay was one of Britain’s most popular comic actors between the wars and his 1937 film, ‘Oh! Mr Porter’, set in a rural railway station, established the three-way dynamic of the archetypes mentioned in the opening sentence that proved so influential on the formulation of the nation’s favourite TV sitcom. Hay had played the pompous fool that could be seen as a prototype for Arthur Lowe’s Captain Mainwaring, and it was the amusing interaction between his character and his old and young subordinates respectively that has continued to echo down the years as comedy alchemy, perhaps reaching its comic peak with ‘Father Ted’ in the 1990s.

However, five years before the priests of Craggy Island debuted on the one-time risk-taking innovator known as Channel 4 in 1995, the same station had aired a sitcom that utilised the same basic formula of the archetypal trio in a completely different (albeit similarly restrictive) setting – and one that remained far more under the radar than Ted, Dougal and Jack. ‘Nightingales’ first appeared at the beginning of 1990, hidden away well after the watershed, which was apt scheduling for a series based around the activities of three nocturnal security guards stationed at a dreary city centre office block. Entirely studio-based, ‘Nightingales’ never saw daylight and was perhaps the last TV sitcom to have the look and feel of a stage-play, eschewing location filming and relying instead upon the inventively funny storylines, the well-drawn characters, and the comic charisma of the small cast to deliver the laughs in the same way ‘Steptoe and Son’ often did in the 60s and 70s. As with Galton & Simpson’s creation, the simple premise of characters trapped in a depressive, claustrophobic environment with no escape is a classic trope of the best British sitcoms, and ‘Nightingales’ is no exception.

The titular head of the ‘Nightingales’ trio was the old man character known only as ‘Sarge’; he was played by ‘Z Cars’ veteran and acclaimed dramatic actor James Ellis. The young idiot character was ‘Ding Dong’ Bell, played by David Threlfall, who later went on to achieve cult status as Frank Gallagher in ‘Shameless’; and the pompous fool was Carter, played by Robert Lindsay, whose sitcom CV stretched back to the 70s with ‘Citizen Smith’. Although there were a handful of minor characters that appeared periodically, the main focus of the series was this three-headed acting powerhouse. Given the soul-destroying boredom of the setting, it was perhaps no surprise that the series routinely ventured into the surreal and the strange, almost as though it was accessing the imaginations of the characters by blurring the lines between the uninspired reality of such a workplace and the fantasy reality its workforce must regularly inhabit simply to endure working there.

James Ellis’s Sarge is a passive, pliable and rather naive avuncular figure, the kind that sees the good in everyone and consciously evokes ‘Dixon of Dock Green’ characteristics when delivering the occasional end-of-show summary, even concluding with an ‘evenin’ all’; it seems too coincidental that the writers didn’t play upon this even further once the former Sgt Bert Lynch from rival cop drama ‘Z Cars’ had been cast in the part. David Threlfall’s Ding Dong is an aggressively childish, thuggish dimwit whose stupidity forms the basis of numerous gags throughout the series, and though he enjoys winding-up and mocking the pretensions of his colleague Carter, Ding Dong simultaneously admires Robert Lindsay’s character in the same way a relentlessly teasing little brother sees in his elder sibling everything he himself secretly wishes he could be. Carter has echoes of Hancock or Harold Steptoe in that he evidently regards himself as far superior to both his surroundings and those surrounding him, forever hankering after a higher aesthetic existence – ‘I wonder what Harold Pinter’s doing tonight?’ is the kind of yearning question he has a habit of posing without receiving a reply. At the same time, his awareness of his actual limitations is exposed whenever promotion within the security business presents itself to him. In fact, Carter’s real dream job is to be a security guard at Heathrow Airport, which he regards as the pinnacle of the profession.

Although it has the conventional look of all the old sitcoms played before a live audience that would be rendered antiquated overnight once the likes of ‘The Royle Family’ and ‘The Office’ changed the game, the magic-realism elements of ‘Nightingales’ don’t take long to show themselves. In the very first episode, a medical student joins the team for one night only, failing to last the course on account of it being a full moon and him being a werewolf. He returns a few episodes later to perform a heart bypass operation on Sarge in the workplace, with Carter and Ding Dong vying for the honour of being able to pass instruments to the amateur surgeon during the procedure. The surreal boat is pushed out even further in an episode in which another addition to the workforce turns out to be a gorilla who wins over the initially hostile team to the point whereby they christen him Terence and are crestfallen when he leaves to accept a position as a security guard at Heathrow.

The Heathrow factor resurfaces again in an episode that sees Carter and Ding Dong competing against each other in the hope of winning a prestigious post at the airport; in order to scoop the prize, they first have to undergo a written examination of the kind we all endured at school (which Carter smugly sails through), followed by the building of a dry stone wall, which the far more hands-on Ding Dong has no problem with. The writing and staging of a one-act play completes the test – and all three sections of the exam are completed in one evening. My own personal favourite episode is one in which Sarge and Carter discover Ding Dong has been up in court for having sex with a horse; a shrink visits the premises as part of his psychiatric assessment and proceeds to hypnotise all three members of the workforce, uncovering several buried secrets along the way. Another classic is an episode in which Peter Vaughan guest stars as a sadistic inspector whose persona is so Captain Bligh-like that the story mutates into a pastiche of ‘Mutiny on the Bounty’. If that sounds weird, by the time the episode comes around such flights of fancy are well-established.

In the best sitcom tradition, there’s even a Christmas-themed episode. A pregnant woman by the name of Mary turns up and begs to have her baby on the premises; despite signing a contract drawn up by the suspicious team to swear she’s not an allegory, she then proceeds to give birth to a succession of consumer goods. It’s quite unlike any other Christmas episode of any other sitcom you’ve ever seen. I did actually catch a small handful of ‘Nightingales’ episodes in the early 90s (it only ran for two series), and though I found it funny I’d all-but forgotten about it until a friend bought me it on DVD three or four years back. Not having any idea of my past acquaintance with the series, she figured it might be something I’d like. Revisiting it 30 years after the event, I was pleasantly surprised at how much funnier and innovative it seemed than first time round. I now place it high in my own personal list of favourite sitcoms, even though so few are aware of it. If you’ve never seen it, check it out and join a very small albeit passionate fan-club for an overlooked and underrated gem capable of brightening-up the kind of nights that can make anyone feel as trapped as a nocturnal security guard in a dreary city centre office block.

© The Editor

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A BRIDGE TOO FAR

Viewed now almost as an appendage to Parliament, Westminster Bridge was once a tourist attraction for all the right reasons. During the construction of the original in the 1740s, the fact it was only the second major bridge erected in central London since Roman times provoked both excitement and opposition. The latter came from the Thames watermen, whose taxi service ferrying people from one side of the river to the other was perceived to be under threat; for centuries, old London Bridge, that marvellous medieval bottleneck crammed with houses and shops and permanently congested with traffic, had been the sole man-made edifice enabling the Thames to be crossed without the need for hailing a boat.

The sudden appearance of a new bridge was so novel a sight that during one of the periodical winters when the Thames froze over and a frost-fair was held on the river, the incomplete piers of Westminster Bridge served as part of the entertainment as visitors paid to stand atop them for a unique view of the city. This version of Westminster Bridge survived for just over a century before the current model replaced it, but it remains the oldest working bridge still in use in the capital.

Moving on, say the words Westminster Bridge to TV viewers of a certain age and chances are they’ll think of that iconic shot of the Daleks from the 1964 ‘Doctor Who’ story, ‘The Dalek Invasion of Earth’; the Time Lord’s arch-enemies gliding along the bridge with Big Ben behind them seemed to enhance their menace. A Surrey quarry masquerading as an alien landscape was one thing, but the natives of Skaro intruding on home territory convinced children they could turn a corner and run into a Dalek on their own high-street.

Of course, Westminster Bridge has now been added to the annals of infamous London locations on account of events that took place there yesterday, effectively erasing all past associations from the popular imagination. The Daleks are the kind of fantasy embodiment of evil we can understand and be excited by, just as we can Dracula or Darth Vader; but the greatest evil, as always, is harboured within man himself, not the creatures he creates. Patrick McGoohan got that when he revealed Number One in the controversial climax of ‘The Prisoner’ as being Number Six all along.

Any individual who can deliberately drive a car into a random selection of pedestrians and then stab a man to death either because he was wearing a particular uniform or simply because he got in the way inhabits a different league altogether, one that provokes repulsion and bewilderment because it bears so little relation to the evil of fiction that we’ve been familiar with ever since being told the story of the Big Bad Wolf’s encounter with Little Red Riding Hood as children. The real bogeyman isn’t a comfortable caricature, but too close to the realities of the dark side in all of us. Just make sure you get his name right.

Yes, it seems apt, considering the topic of the previous post, that the rush to be first with the facts following yesterday’s incident resulted in a catastrophic faux-pas on the part of ‘cool’ Channel 4 News, which tries so hard to be the ‘Magpie’ to Newsnight’s ‘Blue Peter’. With veteran host Jon Snow at the helm, a man who seeks to combine the broadcasting gravitas of David Dimbleby with the wacky tie wardrobe of Richard Whiteley, ably assisted by both Cathy Newman (a woman whose serious news presenter credentials have often been undermined by the occasional glimpse of stocking-top – check YouTube for evidence) and Krishnan Guru-Murthy (a man whose fat neck seems in constant danger of absorbing his entire head), the programme was caught out as it jumped the gun far too early in the aftermath of the afternoon’s confusion by naming the assailant.

Unfortunately, the man they named – Trevor Brooks AKA Abu Izadeen, a disciple of fellow jail-bird Anjem Choudary – happens to be serving a prison sentence at the moment and therefore couldn’t have been behind the wheel on Westminster Bridge. But he’s a fat ‘coloured’ bloke with a big beard, so the cock-up is understandable, eh? Sacrificing fact-checking and journalistic integrity in order to be first off the blocks in the perennial battle with Sky and the Beeb, Channel 4 News blew it big time and became a Twitter laughing-stock last night, even removing the offending section from the sixty-minute delay of the Channel 4 +1 service so their glaring error couldn’t be watched again. But the damage was already done.

As expected, the trickle of misinformation that occupied the hours following yesterday’s events was eventually superseded by a clearer picture of what happened and who was actually involved. The dead have been named, as has the perpetrator of the incident, and his name isn’t either Trevor Brooks or Abu Izadeen, surprisingly. It should serve as a warning to rolling news channels and all media outlets that deal with the news to make sure they get their facts right before broadcasting them, though I doubt they’ll take heed of the warning; the competition is too intense and the self-inflicted pressure to get a scoop to the public before the competitors do so precludes any old-school attention to detail.

© The Editor

NATIONAL DISGRACE

coltraneWell, it was only a matter of time in a British TV landscape devoted to revivals, retreads and rehashes; and if it had to be any television channel dramatising the facts of a project so stooped in fiction as Operation It Could Be Youtree, then one would naturally imagine it had to be ITV. After all, ITV essentially sponsored the whole witch-hunt from day one, what with Essex’s answer to Matthew Hopkins, Mark Williams-Thomas, and the tabloid sensationalism of his Jimmy Savile exposé in 2012 kick-starting a free-for-all that has ruined endless lives, careers and individuals unfortunate enough to have made a mark in public life prior to the revisionist’s paradise of the twenty-first century. However, the baton of shame has been passed on to Channel 4, that one-time home of radical and innovative television and now the channel that brings us property porn, poverty porn and naked dating shows.

Robbie Coltrane, the beached Caledonian whale whose serious acting career stalled after the end of ‘Cracker’ in the 1990s (and who has subsequently been reduced to those tedious travelogue showcases for 80s has-beens that ITV specialises in), is to play a beloved celebrity targeted by a Yewtree-style Historical Sex Crimes squad in a new C4 ‘drama’ titled ‘National Treasure’ this coming week. In order to hedge their bets, C4 have even recruited genuine National Treasure Julie Walters to play ‘the wife’; Judi Dench must have been otherwise engaged when the time for casting came around.

Plugging the programme he naturally hopes will salvage his dormant thespian ambitions, Coltrane has inserted the Savile caveat into the interview promoting the series in the current issue of the Radio Times, stressing the character he plays is in no way based upon Sir Jim. It’s merely the latest missive from the publicity circuit Coltrane has been on for the past couple of weeks, and photos released to the press that unnervingly recreate the images we’ve become sadly familiar with since 2012 must bring back such happy memories for the families of Dave Lee Travis and all those other ‘perverts hiding in plain sight’.

Echoing convenient sentiments previously uttered by another face from the past struggling to re-establish his ‘rebel’ credentials – John Lydon – Coltrane declares ‘Everyone knew Jimmy Savile was a creep. Everyone. I never met him but you’d watch him and you’d feel your skin crawl.’ Indeed – the millions who tuned into ‘Top of the Pops’ and ‘Jim’ll Fix It’ every week in the 70s, 80s and 90s felt exactly the same back in the day whenever they set eyes upon that ‘wrong ‘un’, didn’t they, Robbie, which would explain why they kept tuning in. How it pays to be wise after the event.

In many respects, Robbie Coltrane is the perfect choice to play a fictitious figure whose past comes under present scrutiny in the drama; after all, he was a prominent member of the Alternative Comedy generation, those post-punk radicals whose slide into middle-aged respectability (and the establishment honours that come with it) has been utterly seamless. These early 80s undergraduates had a particular grudge against the working-class showbiz heroes of the 60s and 70s, easy targets for mock-satire as their envy of their targets’ achievements eventually led them all the way to writing appalling jukebox musicals based on the music of notable fellow radicals, Queen, on one hand, and relishing the opportunity to condemn them anew via Yewtree on the other.

It pays to remember that, whilst newspaper columnists from Hitchens to Littlejohn can today question the veracity of accusations levelled against personalities they themselves admire and revere, such voices were thin on the ground three or four years back. In the frenzied Yewtree cauldron of 2012/13/14, only thick-skinned brave bloggers dared to question the consensus during the height of the bonfire of the seventies, and they were written-off as crackpot obsessives for their troubles.

Even when the first few household names tentatively raised their heads above the parapet a couple of years ago – when, tellingly, it took the arrest of respectable broadcasters such as Paul Gambaccini to provoke them into action – it remained an unwritten rule that they had to distance themselves from Savile sympathies as they sprung to the defence of their showbiz buddies. Having been so successfully re-educated as to the ‘truth’ of the deceased eccentric charity fundraiser, the public would clearly have to be reminded that any accusation would not necessarily place the accused in the same sewer of filth as Savile. ‘Of course Jimmy Savile was an appalling human being, but…’ went the script recited ad infinitum by the fearless defenders of those caught in the net that the Met had widened.

‘National Treasure’ doesn’t come with the ‘Based on a true story’ attachment, though it’s not hard to foresee that those who still believe Fleet Street brings the Gospel to the masses will switch on and believe they’re essentially watching a documentary. Indeed, it will probably be difficult to distinguish between drama and documentary if one is a regular viewer of what passes for both on the mainstream channels, considering the recent efforts of our man from Billericay to portray himself as a cross between Roger Cook and James Bond over on ITV. I tried my best to ruin his career, but I clearly failed.

In a climate wherein Cliff Richard remains out on permanent ‘moral bail’ and questions over insecure convictions for the likes of Rolf Harris are successfully suppressed within the mainstream media, dramatising such a miserable episode in contemporary police procedure seems the apex of bad taste, though ratings are guaranteed with this kind of cynical exercise; and that’s what matters when the fate of ‘The Great British Bake-Off’ is so pivotal to the wellbeing of the nation.

There’s no doubt there is future scope for fictionalising the experience of the famous and non-famous alike where it comes to the imaginary crimes of the past impacting upon the present; but I have distinct doubts that viewers of ‘National Treasure’ will be exposed to anything other than a PR job for the Professional Victims’ lobby and the crusading integrity of both the Met and the CPS.

© The Editor