Television can be great escapism, but that isn’t the case when you’re watching the News. For many of us, it’s a nightly mix of duty, concern and the vague hope for a third-act plot twist in which victory prevails and a grinning Chris Whitty is carried on the shoulders of Matt Hancock and Dominic Raab. It’s no wonder I switched channels, though in doing so I found a man who really could escape the modern world.
Gary Sparrow, as played by Nicholas Lyndhurst in the popular 1990s sitcom Goodnight Sweetheart, is a regular guy working as a TV repairman when he strolls down a narrow passageway in London’s East End and finds himself in World War II. Naturally, he doesn’t believe he’s time-travelled, nor does he want to leave his wife and life in 1993.
The frightening truth becomes clear as an air raid forces him to take shelter and he hears the city above crashing into chaos. There, in the Royal Oak pub, he meets the bewitchingly beautiful barmaid Phoebe and is instantly smitten. Discovering he can move freely between past and present, Gary begins a double life and a romance – quite literally – for the ages.
I’ve always wanted someone to invent time travel. In fact, I’m continually disappointed to see the government make so little progress on the issue. Surely, it can’t be that hard, can it?
Doc Brown managed it with a DeLorean, after all. Hopefully, it exists in the future, and such visitors aren’t revealing themselves to us now because they believe we won’t try so hard to build a time machine if we already know our labours will be successful. Which would mean, of course, that we won’t be successful, and they won’t be able to come back and not tell us.
Really, though, I just wish we knew who wasn’t telling us so we could tell them that not telling us is something we need them not to do. Or something. Anyway, until then, we can watch Back to the Future and, a television programme which also has an innovative idea and a neat twist on nostalgia, Goodnight Sweetheart, the box set of which is available to buy in all good time periods.
So, in the spirit of such escapism, let’s have a look at the show.
Goodnight Sweetheart ran for six series and fifty-eight episodes, hit a ratings peak of thirteen million viewers, and became one of the decade’s most successful comedy series. Nicholas Lyndhurst, riding high at a time when Only Fools and Horses had exceeded mere popularity to become the most iconic and revered television sitcom of all time, starred in his first lead role for the BBC.
The show was created by Laurence Marks and Maurice Gran, who had already given us the irreverent Rik Mayall satire The New Statesman before flocking together the Birds of a Feather. Add the always excellent Victor McGuire, from Liverpudlian juggernaut Bread (presently playing a child-voiced policeman in a Haribo advert – don’t knock it, it’s a living) and you had the makings of a hit.
Interestingly, we were presented with something which you don’t often see in prime-time BBC1 studio audience sitcoms aimed at families. This was a series centred on an adulterer – and later bigamist – who was selfish, petulant and an unnervingly effortless liar. The fact he was clearly emasculated by his career-minded, power-suited progressive wife Yvonne, who expects a modern marriage based on balance, while he seems to like living in the actual past, was just the cherry on the cake.
And nobody seems to have made a fuss about any of this at the time. Critics and channel commissioners thought it was quaint and mainly for old people, like a comedy version of Heartbeat with some modern scenes thrown in for the younger crowd, while we were asked to sympathise with a man who was betraying two women he professed to love.
But maybe that was the key to the whole thing. Gary cared a great deal for Phoebe and Yvonne. Maybe, too, we gave him a break because he seemed so disenchanted with life, a nondescript man among millions, who was able to become someone exciting, like a Walter Mitty whose romantic fantasies, of which he barely even bothered to dream, had shimmered into sharp relief. Or it could be just that Lyndhurst’s typically languid, naturalistic performance made him somehow likeable.
Of course, it’s not all moral ambiguity. It’s fun seeing Gary impress Phoebe with otherwise-elusive chocolate, an uncanny habit of anticipating future events, insider knowledge of government goings-on (handily acquired from history books), and claiming to have written what we know to be classic hits from later in the century (over twenty-five years before Richard Curtis cribbed the idea for last year’s summer sleeper hit Yesterday).
Even more craftily, he confides in best friend Ron, a printer who begins producing counterfeit wartime money for him. Gary even opens a 1940s memorabilia shop so he can buy things in the past and then sell them in the present. Genius.
As the two eras run alongside each other in parallel (when Gary spends a night in 1940, a night has also passed in 1993), juggling both lives is complicated and means that at least one of his lovers will be missing him at any given moment. Yvonne, therefore, is often mad at him for being late or unavailable.
Miraculously, the character doesn’t emerge as the villain of the piece, even if it is Gary’s other woman who is given more screen time and character development. Though Phoebe starts out as an innocent, the world of rationing, raids and seemingly imminent Armageddon makes her more hard-nosed and a live-for-the-day attitude allows her relationship with Gary to become physical, despite the social stigmas of the era.
Such issues arose occasionally, like the episode in which a racist American demands that black, Southern soldiers be barred from the Royal Oak. Another involves Phoebe’s soldier husband Donald and his return from war. This one blows my mind every time.
It’s the last scene, ten minutes long, like a stage play set above the pub. Donald explains how he wanted to live on a farm in Australia with his best friend Steve. Though he obviously isn’t aware of it, Donald is gay and in love with Steve.
He explains, however, that Steve has died – according to a letter he received from the man’s mother – but that he thought he saw him for a brief moment at the train station getting demobbed. We don’t know if Steve’s mother suspected her son’s homosexuality and lied in her letter to Donald in order to separate them, or whether it’s true and Donald’s heartbreak means he is seeing his former love wherever he looks. It’s Hemingway’s Iceberg Theory of hinting but not revealing, and beautiful in its ambiguity.
Being a comedy, of course, there are plenty of funny episodes too. There’s the one when Noel Coward becomes Gary’s neighbour in the past, while Yvonne, in the present, is reading a biography of the legendary playwright which includes a photograph of Gary taken in 1944. Gary, of course, must stop the picture being taken before Yvonne gets to the page and sees it.
In others, Gary visits the Victorian era and is mistaken for Jack the Ripper; he meets a time portal engineer tasked with closing his passage to the past; he is arrested as a spy for knowing so much; meets his adult son in the present; gets sent on a secret service mission to France, and, most dramatically of all, locks wits with a ruthless doppelgänger intent on killing him (played by Lyndhurst, of course).
The show is also notable for making the unprecedented move of recasting both female leads. Halfway through the series, Dervla Kirwan (Phoebe) left to continue appearing as another barmaid, the cynical and assertive Assumpta Fitzgerald, in the smash hit Irish drama Ballykissangel and was replaced by a cockney Elizabeth Carling, while Yvonne went from Michelle Holmes to a softer portrayal by Emma Amos.
Perhaps because it didn’t have the basic relatability of its peers, like Men Behaving Badly, One Foot in the Grave or even Absolutely Fabulous, Goodnight Sweetheart has been a little neglected over the years and repeats have even shuffled into the shadows of Forces TV. The comeback episode, however, in 2016 for the Landmark Sitcom Season, celebrating sixty years of situation comedy, was greeted enthusiastically by both fans and casual viewers and became Twitter’s most trending topic on the night of broadcast (it’s on YouTube).
With everything going on at the moment – and, having just Googled it, time travel still having not been invented since I started writing this article, or at least not publicly reported – it might be an idea to watch someone else make the trip back in time instead. Safer too, probably. And, certainly, much funnier.
Written by David Friend