In many ways, we’re only just seeing the true wonder of the DVD age. Yes, massively improved picture quality is great, stacks of extras are very welcome (although I have to be very interested in the subject matter to plough through hours of Making Of stuff), having a format that doesn’t deteriorate horribly after repeated viewings is brilliant, and subtitle options have made ordinary high street commercial releases accessible to the deaf and those whose first language isn’t English. It’s all good.
But now, a few years down the line, the lower overheads of producing DVDs as compared to VHS tapes are creating a world of joy for cineastes and TVastes (there should be a proper word for this, can someone invent one that sounds good?). It’s becoming more viable for obscure material to get a commercial release, and a lot of stuff that I thought would never see the light of day is now freely available.
The only problem with this is that it creates a crowded market with lots of items jostling for attention. Accordingly, even though this DVD containing all thirteen episodes of ‘Nightingales’ came out a month ago, I feel it isn’t too late to review it because it didn’t exactly come out in a blaze of publicity – or, as far as I could see, any publicity at all. This excellent series deserves all the attention I can possibly draw to it, and much more besides.
It’s rare to find anybody who ever remembers ‘Nightingales’. In the past decade I think I have encountered roughly four (one of them being Shiny Shelf’s Jim Smith). However, it’s one of those shows where everyone who remembers it, loved it – to the extent that it was an early runner in the BBC’s Great British Sitcom thing, and the website even made some wallpaper available. It was on Channel 4 in the early 1990s, and is therefore is at its precise moment of being grossly unfashionable, even if anybody remembered it, which they don’t.
But it’s still wonderful. Whilst watching the first episode I did briefly think that it wasn’t as good as I remembered it being, but over subsequent episodes I realised that they just hadn’t found their feet straight away. Although the first episode introduces the basic set-up of three night-shift security guards, the humour isn’t completely defined and it’s got too many characters in it. It’s got ‘pilot’ written all over it and should probably have been re-written and remade, as it’s easily the weakest episode on here.
At its best, ‘Nightingales’ is a demonstration of how simple great comedy can be: all you need is three great actors (in this case, Robert Lindsay, David Threlfall and James Ellis) and a great script (by Paul Makin) and the rest follows. The majority of the action takes place on three sets – an office, the toilets and the corridor in between – and there’s usually only one other character for the main three to interact with.
It’s easy to see the show as a precursor to ‘Father Ted’, with clashing personalities forced to occupy a small space, a distinctly surreal tone and an awareness of its own absurdity. To give you an idea of just how absurd, a recurring character is a werewolf and there’s an episode where they all morph into pirates because that’s the way the narrative happens to be going. And, years before ‘Father Ted’ had the gall to make an episode called ‘Speed 3’, ‘Nightingales’ did an episode called ‘King Lear 2’ (although in truth it’s more of a remake than a sequel).
It’s hard to say why ‘Nightingales’ didn’t find an audience: I hesitate to say it was ahead of its time, as it was individual rather than startlingly original. Perhaps any sitcom that continually references Pinter, both in name and in style, was destined to baffle a mainstream audience: certainly the mix of high-culture references and hilariously stupid jokes narrows the range of people likely to ‘get’ it, and when Makin makes a joke out of one of the characters indulging in bestiality (not on-screen, of course), the potential audience shrinks further. I am, however, deeply grateful that ‘Nightingales’ has sustained enough interest to be worthy of release. Its cult can only grow from here.