Nightingales is an archetypal cult programme. It ran for two series, in 1990 and 1992, which were broadcast on Channel 4 late at night and therefore attracted a very small audience. Apart from a re-run a few years after their first transmission, I don’t think it’s been seen anywhere on British television for the last twenty years or so. This is a little surprising, since it stars three very familiar faces – Robert Lindsey, David Threlfall and James Ellis. But it’s available on DVD, so anybody who’s curious can investigate further.
What I love about the series is how it plays with typical sitcom conventions. The premise seems quite straightforward – Carter (Lindsey), Bell (Threlfall) and Sarge (Ellis) are three night-watchmen in a big office block. As you’d expect, they’re very different characters – Carter is a would-be intellectual, Bell seems to have a limited level of intelligence whilst the Sarge is a constantly cheery fellow who tries (and fails) to keep the other two in order. The clash of their three personas would be enough to fuel many sitcoms and the opening minutes of each episode seem normal enough (meaning that if you’d ever tuned in for the first time, you’d be lulled into a false sense of security).
But after the initial scenes, writer Paul Makin spins each episode off into unexpected directions. In Silent Night (broadcast on the 30th of December 1992) it’s Christmas Eve and the Sarge asks the others to join him in their annual carol service. Carter moans that nobody ever comes – he’s invited the Pope and Harold Pinter for several years but they never show up. When there’s a knock at the door, the Sarge wonders if it’s Harold. Carter is dismissive. “Harold wouldn’t knock like that. That wasn’t a playwright’s knock. That had the Vatican written all over it.”
It’s not the Pope or Harold though – it’s a young woman called Mary (Lia Williams) who’s going to have a baby. Carter’s not happy. “It’s Christmas Eve, right? We have a pregnant woman, right? Called Mary, right? Ring a bell? What we have here is an allegory.” Mary insists it isn’t an allegory and offers them fifty gold sovereigns (!)
She gives birth – but not to a child. She starts by giving birth to a goldfish, then produces an ever-growing collection of consumer products, including a toaster, a toy dog, a set of golf clubs, a collection of VHS tapes, a pool table and a washing machine to name just a few. The Sarge is appalled by what Mary is going through and decides to pray. Shortly after, the cry of a baby is heard.
But when they ask her what she’s going to call it, they’re taken aback when she names him Jesus. So it was an allegory after all! She explains that her allegory was “all about how we’ve lost sight of the real meaning of Christmas, how every year we drown under an ever-increasing pile of consumer goods.” This leaves the three of them disheartened, but Harold Pinter and the Pope turn up for the carol service, so not all is lost.
Not your run-of-the-mill sitcom fare then, which may explain why it received something of a nonplussed reception when it was initially broadcast (although as I’ve said, the late-night slot didn’t help). But it’s something that’s only improved with age and whilst I like to dig out Silent Night each December, the rest of the series is equally as good and something I enjoy revisiting on a regular basis. If you’ve never seen it then I’d certainly recommend it.