“There’s Nobody Here But Us Chickens!”

TJ Worthington on Nightingales

First published July 2007

For all of their success with unashamedy mainstream sitcoms such as Birds of a Feather, veteran comedy writers and producers Laurence Marks and Maurice Gran have also frequently enjoyed experimenting with the format in increasingly bizarre ways. One of their biggest successes, Goodnight Sweetheart, was built around a decidedly unconventional time travel premise, while Shine On Harvey Moon and the popular Rik Mayall vehicle The New Statesman were often seen to break the “rules” of sitcom and blur the boundaries between fantasy and reality.

When they founded their own production company, Alomo, in the late 1980s, their motivation seems to have been as much artistic as financial, and their list of productions is littered with such short-lived and offbeat efforts as Unfinished Business, Dirty Work and So You Think You’ve Got Troubles?.

Nightingales was the first Alomo production not to be created by Marks and Gran. It was also deeply, deeply odd. Creator and writer Paul Makin certainly had a proven track record in combining sitcom and surrealism, having previously scripted the offbeat ITV hit A Kind of Living (with Marks and Gran acting as script consultants – Makin had also worked with them on Relative Strangers and Roll Over Beethoven, and would go on to become a key writer on Goodnight Sweetheart) and contributed to Peter Tinniswood’s ambitious late-night effort Mog. Nightingales, however, would surpass all of these and pretty much the overwhelming majority of other television sitcoms, not so much introducing a gentle twist of surrealism into the genre as detaching itself almost entirely from reality – yet played out in a manner that suggested this was a perfectly ordinary and indeed mundane thing to do.

Built on a deceptively simple premise, Nightingales followed an overnight shift of security guards in a large office block as they whiled away the long hours until clocking off time. Carter – ‘first names were forbidden – was a thoughtful, literate and artistic man with an eye for sensitive females, trapped in a career that frustrated pretty much all of his ambition. Bell, in contrast, was an aggressive hard-of-thinking yob who saw the job as a means of providing his apparently numerous children with slightly less pathetic birthday presents, not to mention paying for stone-cladding to the inside of his house. Sarge, the oldest and most senior of the three, had the air and appearance of a befuddled old fisherman yet still somehow routinely managed to maintain order and generally outsmart his co-workers. Wasting their lives traversing the same torchlit corridors and shouting the same call-and-response greeting to each other (“Anybody here?” – “There’s nobody here but us chickens!”), they appeared to be resigned to their fate, yet all three clung to the faint hope one day, they might just somehow be able to land that cushy job in off-peak security at Heathrow Airport.

The three main roles were taken by an unusually strong cast for a relatively small-scale sitcom – television comedy star turned heavyweight actor Robert Lindsay as Carter, David Threlfall – a noted stage actor who had played in Shakespeare alongside Sir Laurence Olivier – as Bell, and James Ellis – a familiar face from countless television family dramas – as Sarge. It’s not unreasonable to assume their decisions to become involved were influenced more by the quality of the scripts than the money or career opportunities offered by Nightingales, and this is reflected by their powerful onscreen group dynamic, clearly having enormous fun in making the series.

Also occasionally present in the never-identified office complex was Eric Swan (Ian Sear), a shy medical student whose shifts had to be carefully arranged around his tendency to transform into a werewolf, while the body of their late colleague Smith was kept propped up in a chair so that others could collect his wage packet for themselves.

The interplay between these cleverly-defined characters alone would have been a strong basis for a sitcom. Nightingales distinguished itself further through Makin’s imaginative concepts for their small-hours antics, inspired in no small part by absurdist theatre and the plays of Harold Pinter. Having progressed far beyond the stage of finding new ways of passing the time, the trio found their nights increasingly invaded by strange and barely explicable happenings that they simply took in their stride. During the course of the first series they would transform into Shakespearean villains speaking in imabic pentameter in a battle to save their jobs, arrange an office-bound date between Carter and a Page Three girl, perform open-heart surgery on Sarge, and find themselves working alongside a gorilla named Terence Oblong, who promptly walked off with the Heathrow Airport job.

It is never entirely clear whether the events depicted in Nightingales are genuinely happening, or are coloured by sleep deprivation-induced mass hallucinations, or are simply rooted in tall tales told out of boredom. As such, the series chimed perfectly with the fairly late night timeslot it was given, and this was further reflected by the hazy ambience of the opening and closing titles, showing the office block at sundown and sunrise respectively, with the name of the series picked out in the building’s electric lights. Adding to this was the inspired musical accompaniment – a lazy, breathy saxophone rendition of the old standard A Nightingale Sang in Berkley Square for the former, with an arresting acapella version performed by Robert Lindsay for the latter.

It has often been claimed that Nightingales was in some way a forerunner of the likes of The Royle Family and The Office, yet this is a strange and almost meaningless observation, as it has little if anything in common with the naturalistic style, subdued characterisation and lack of audience interaction favoured by the latter shows and their ilk. In truth, Nightingales has more in common with the earlier series of Red Dwarf and the more claustrophobic and monologue-heavy episodes of One Foot in the Grave, dealing with outlandish concepts and the effects of boredom in a vast yet also somehow detached and isolated setting.

Channel 4 was well used to cultivating cult comedy hits, and Nightingales was no exception. Placed in its slightly-out-of-reach timeslot out of sympathy for the tone of the humour rather than fears it might alienate viewers, the series attracted healthy viewing figures, and went on to win several small-scale yet prestigious industry awards. Much of this success can be attributed to the fine ensemble playing and to Makin’s highly accessible scripts, which crucially treated the outlandish plot devices as part and parcel of the main characters’ professional tedium, rather than glorifying in weirdness for weirdness’ sake.

Mention must also be made of the oft-overlooked contribution of director Tony Dow, especially the way in which he could give the same handful of sparse sets the vague illusion and appearance of whatever was called for that week, be it an operating theatre or a seabound vessel.

Surprisingly, in light of all this attention, it would take almost three years for a second series of Nightingales to appear. While at the time it was reported by Broadcast magazine that Channel 4 were simply unable to find a suitable slot for 1991, it has since emerged the station – and in particular Head of Entertainment Seamus Cassidy – were in some way unhappy with the scripts. Quite what displeased them has never been disclosed, nor what if anything had to be changed before the go-ahead could be given, although it is known that one script which never made it to screen involved Mister X, a legendary security guard who was idolised by the trio and so good at his job nobody had ever seen him.

Alomo busied themselves during this unexpected (and potentially financially disastrous) break in production by attempting to sell the format to America. This was a laudably ambitious move, given Nightingales was almost totally unlike virtually any US sitcom ever, and amazingly was one that very nearly paid off. Finding favour with director James Burrows – whose previous credits included such suitably offbeat hits as The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Taxi and Cheers – a pilot for an American version (suitably reworked by Alomo staff writer Allan McKeown in conjunction with American producer Tony Sheehan, both of whom had been involved with Tracey Ullman’s transition to Stateside stardom) went into production in 1992, wittily retitled In Security and featuring British actor Trevor Eve in the lead role. Despite some initial positive reaction the pilot was ultimately turned down by the networks, but it was arguably achievement enough for a production company to get such a difficult concept even to this stage in the notoriously conservative American broadcast industry.

The idea of audiences more used to Mad About You and The Cosby Show becoming hooked on the surreal escapades of Carter, Sarge and Bell might seem like an outlandish and far-flung concept to some, but compared to the diversions from reality on display when Nightingales finally returned with a Christmas Special at the tail-end of 1992, it really wasn’t that unlikely an idea after all. Inevitably forced to work over Christmas, the trio were busily preparing for their Christmas party (invited guests: Harold Pinter and the Pope) when they were rudely interrupted by a heavily pregnant woman calling herself Mary, who promptly ignored their indignant refusal to become involved in any sort of festive allegory by insisting on giving birth to live goldfish and a series of increasingly unuseful household objects (“She’s a tryer, that girl”, noted Sarge with a hint of resigned admiration).

In fact the second series, which followed early in the New Year, suggested whatever problem Channel 4 may have had with the proposed scripts it certainly wasn’t the sheer strangeness of the storylines. If anything, the second batch of episodes were even more unhinged than the first. It began with a pyschiatrist who delved deep into their extremely Freudian issues the trio had with each other, and left them involuntarily singing fragments of Danny Boy, Strangers in the Night and I’ve Got a Lovely Bunch of Coconuts. From there, the series would see the luckless trio celebrate Sarge’s 60th birthday with the dubious assistance of Eric, become embroiled in a futile competition to win a meaningless and possibly non-existent award for Security Guard of the Year, and encounter a teenage burglar who turned out to be the long-lost son of all three.

One episode appropriately entitled “King Lear II” saw the self-conscious return of the previous run’s diversion into cod-Shakespearean comedy, and in arguably the finest moment of the entire series, thoughts of mutiny against an inspector temporarily assigned to oversee the trio caused the office block to take on the appearance of a storm-lashed galleon, with Carter and Bell wandering the “decks” plotting clandestine buccaneering vengeance.

Suitably, the final episode was the weirdest of the lot, as Carter, Sarge and Bell found that they were to be made redundant and replaced by themselves, leading to a genuinely quite tense battle of wits with their doppelgangers. It would be a crime to give away the magnificent final twist of the ending; suffice it to say that it is simultaneously shocking and upsetting and wildly hilarious.

While it would have been entirely in keeping with the spirit of the series for this bizarre existential showdown never to have been mentioned again and for everything to have carried on as normal, sadly this was to prove to be the last that was seen of Nightingales. Yet where so many other similarly offbeat sitcoms of the time seem to have since been virtually forgotten, despite its obscurity and late-night timeslot, Nightingales had attracted a surprisingly large and devoted following who continued to speak of the show in fond and almost reverential tones. Off-air recordings were eagerly sought-after online, and the series and was a common sight on internet-compiled lists of television programmes that deserved to be released on DVD.

In 2006, both series and the Christmas Special were released as a two-disc set (unfortunately without any extras, and it would have been fascinating to hear what the cast and crew had to say about a show that they clearly dearly loved to make and had considerable emotional investment in), meeting with renewed if slightly muted critical acclaim, and an enthusiastic response from viewers. While it’s certainly fair to say the show is best experienced in its original hazy late-night context, Nightingales revealed itself to be a show that has stood the test of time well, confusing, fascinating and gently amusing audiences just as much as it did in the early 1990s.

If Carter. Sarge and Bell really had run out of ways to entertain themselves when the rest of the world had gone home for the night, they could have done a lot worse than have a look at what was on Channel 4.