This cult sitcom has converted most of the people who've watched it. Everyone else, it's torn to shreds
Why binge Nighty Night?
The late 90s and early years of the 21st century ushered in some of the most creative and dynamic comedy shows ever to be broadcast on British television. Between Spaced, The Office, and Black Books, flawed characters in fiercely original settings paved the way for a new understanding of what situational comedy could really be. But nothing is as immediately unique and unnervingly brilliant as Julia Davis’s Nighty Night, a sitcom so black and unapologetically funny that it makes you laugh while simultaneously slicing through everything we understand about a comedy of manners.
As the narcissistic Jill Tyrrell, a manipulator of passable skill who has mastered the concept that by being a bully people are less likely to say no, this is a comedy that is, at its heart, about a woman so evil she ships her cancerous husband off to a hospice while trying to seduce her next-door neighbour away from his wheelchair-bound wife. Jill’s motivations remain murky throughout the series, when it quickly becomes clear that she hates and idolises the object of her affection, with her main drive being to take and take and take anything she can, regardless of the cost.
As cult sitcoms go, Nighty Night has a loyal and championing audience of converts, waiting to lend DVD boxsets to anyone who’ll take the time to the watch the show, revelling in its own particular take on cringe humour. This is mean television, shockingly cruel at times that you feel like you are complicit to something you shouldn’t have seen. All that is intercut with moments of grotesque silliness and oft-repeated lines in West Country accents that aren’t quite catchphrases, but you’ll find yourself repeating “Cappucino’d be nice” and “Hiya Kath” with the kind of abandon only Jill Tyrell can muster.
How long will it take to watch?
Watching the entire thing takes only six hours, with two seasons of six episodes apiece. But although comedy is usually the easiest genre to mainline in a binge, it’s best advised to spread them out over a week, because the blackness of the comedy might make you rather world-weary if you’re doing it in one sitting. Save that for your second time, when you can really take it in.
Where can you binge it?
With effort. Regrettably, the show is not available on most streaming services that can be legally viewed from Ireland, nor is currently being repeated on any of the cable channels on Sky’s digital package. A look at the online catalogue for Ireland’s libraries says there are only three copies of the season one boxset in the entire country, and at the time of writing, two of them were checked out. If you’re willing to take a punt, a new boxset shouldn’t cost more than €10 and second-hand ones on eBay come it at no more than a fiver. Better still, go to your most TV-savvy friend who had some disposable income during the Celtic Tiger. Chances are he or she has one they’ve not watched for a few years.
Any hurdles to overcome?
There are plenty of things that might put the casual viewer off, starting with the subject matter. This is black comedy that is not for the fainthearted, but if you have a seam of coal running through your sense of humour, it’s like nothing you’ve ever seen before. At times, the plot threads are left a little ragged or just dropped entirely, so it’s not the overarching storyline you’re coming from here. The performances, led by a mind-blowingly good Julia Davis and an infuriatingly nice Rebecca Front, can be a little all-over-the-place when it comes to everyone else. The second season, also, sees a dramatic drop in quality, but if you can make it to the end of the first, you’ll already be in Jill’s thrall.
Who steals the show?
Davis dominates the entire series, ably deflecting any limelight grabbing by a host of noted scene stealers, including League of Gentlemen’s Mark Gatiss and Gavin & Stacy’s Ruth Jones. Physically imposing, irresistibly sexy, utterly bizarre, with the kind of line readings that elevate everyone around her, this should have made her a star rather than just a cult icon.
A scene to sample:
Described on one of the BBC’s comedy channels on YouTube as “Kathy decides to cheer Jill up with a present,” it somehow fails to capture the real spirit of the scene. Having abandoned Kathy, who suffers from MS, to make her way uphill alone while Jill parks her car, Kathy’s generosity and good nature meets its comeuppance when she tries to do something nice...
What to follow up with after your binge is over?
The good news for fans of Davis is that she has worked consistently since the late 90s, writing many of her own shows along the way. Highlights include Psychobitches and Camping, and the utterly daft Hunderby – with its even dafter creation of “bubbly milk.” She also added sterling supporting work to the likes of Inside No. 9 and Gavin & Stacy.