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Thursday 6th November 2008

I think we're on a good run of form with the podcasts. It was number 37 today and it whizzed along and I think 35 and 36 were pretty hot too. So do have a listen if you haven't already. And spread the news to any non-Collings-and-Herrin-converts. With increasing competition we are slipping down the charts - although at least the elimination of Ross and Brand (just in podcast terms, as far as I know their heads are still attached, but they should maybe take on some security in case I turn out to be a prophet) has meant we're two higher up the ladder than we would have been. The only way to find out why we are holding a picture of some beef is to tune in.
Also in the podcast we returned to my enduring love affair with the slightly rubbish 1990s sitcom "Goodnight Sweetheart" currently been shown daily at about 5.10pm on ITV3. It is interesting that both of us have an obsession with something from World War II - Collings with his Mitford sisters and me with my Gary Sparrow fixation. Also telling that his passion is about something real and mine about something made up (by Marks and his gran).
I am, as I may have mentioned, now on the second sweep of the never ending repeats of this series, so have seen some (but not all) of the episodes I am watching quite recently. But the episode I watched today was one I hadn't seen before, but had been very much looking forward to. Gary met his son in the present day. In war time he is just two or three years old, but in 1997 he is in his fifties and is played by actor Ian, Ian Lavender of Dad's Army fame.
Now before we go much further I have to come clean and reiterate that I think Goodnight Sweetheart is a bit shit. Back in the nineties when it first aired I found it embarrassing and only ever so slightly fascinating. I watched it occasionally as a guilty pleasure, but surmised, almost correctly, that it was just a trad sitcom with a slightly unusual concept. Watching it again though I see it as a almost completely wasted opportunity, although there are occasions when it transcends its sitcom bounds and starts to examine the interesting philosophical, ethical and conundrums that the situation throws up. Had it been handled correctly as an idea it could have been like "Life on Mars", but because of the general lightness of touch, both in the writing and the acting, it can only be a disappointment. A disappointment however, that I am becoming increasingly obsessed about, partly because, I believe I could write it properly. Why not? There have been many many brilliant sitcoms turned, years later, into disappointing films. Why not a disappointing sitcom turned into a brilliant film (or TV comedy drama).
I think Goodnight Sweetheart could have still been a classic if they had not cast Nicholas Lyndhurst in the starring role. It seems wrong to defame a national treasure, but having watched him more closely than was perhaps intended in this, I have also started becoming fixated with his performance in his other sitcoms and I have had to conclude that even in Only Fools and Horses he is adequate at best. That he has managed to enjoy an uninterrupted career in TV, working constantly since the age of about 7 in one of the most competitive fields imaginable is nothing short of a miracle. He isn't bad - don't get me wrong. He is an adequate, though quite limited comedy actor. But it's quite extraordinary how he has kept on going without anyone really noticing this. He is hopelessly miscast in Goodnight Sweetheart, even in this whimsical sitcom version and I can only imagine he got the job because of his OFAH's success and the unrelenting TV tradition of believing that it is important to have an established star on board with a new project, however inappropriate he or she might be for the part. Lyndhurst is not only too skinny and charmless to be convincing as an irresistible fanny magnet, he is too lightweight a performer to convey the complicated emotional and moral choices that Gary Sparrow is making. Sparrow is by no means an intelligent or massively sexually attractive character, but if someone like John Simm was playing the part, then we might get more of an idea of the implications of the double life that Sparrow is leading. Is he struggling with his deceit and his petty thievery between time zones, or is he in fact liberated by the knowledge that his bigamy will never be discovered because his wives can actually never meet (though of course, as you doubtless recall, they do meet on one occasion when the rift in time is damaged by a bomb). Is infidelity only a burden because the cheat is always terrified he might be discovered, or would he feel dead inside whatever? This is one of the issues that the programme could address, but fails to because the script is not deep enough and Lyndhurst is incapable of expressing much beyond basic bafflement and slight moral discomfort.
It's not just Lyndhurst. There is no consistency to the series and at times one wonders whether the writers of one episode are even aware of what has happened in previous ones. For example on one occasion Sparrow influences a tiny event involving Ron's grandad and comes back to find his shop is owned by someone else, his wife had another husband and Ron is, improbably and hilarously, a vicar. Yet in the one I saw today, he manages to change something in the past which changes his son from a single alcoholic with no kids living in a bedsit, to a successful businessman with two kids, with no other effects on history.
The thing that has been amusing me most about the show on this second run through it is the paucity of Sparrow's ambition. He has the opportunity to travel back in time and affect the course of history or at least travel around in the past and what he does instead is just go to the nearest pub to the time portal and get off with the barmaid.
Funnily enough this is slightly addressed in the episode actually aired today, where Gary splits into three people, him and a good and evil version of himself and the good one mocks him for his lack of scope. Gary is immoral, both by cheating on his wives and recklessly stealing songs and inventions from the future and using them in the past, and on one occasion considering using his future knowledge to bet on sporting events that he knows the result of. But he could do so much more. I love Gary Sparrow. He is an idiot and he's morally dubious, selfish, taking massive risks with his powers given what (sometimes) happens when he changes stuff and yet somehow strangely likeable. Maybe Lyndhurst is playing him exactly right after all. As a kind of formless void, unable to really understand the implications of anything he does. Only maybe.
But there would be so much to explore if the crappy sitcom elements were lost and a heavyweight actor was employed to portray the man. One who at least had big enough shoulders not to look like a child dressing up when he's wearing 1940s suits. And with writers who either talked to each other about what had happened in previous episodes (today Gary wondered how he'd explain that there was a double of him running around in wartime London, yet only a few episodes ago he had been employed to act as the double of a French general - why didn't he remember that? He'd nearly been killed). Plus just some laws about how his actions in the past can affect the future would have been nice. After all sometimes he does something which explains how history turned out - like when he warns the Americans about Pearl Harbour - and sometimes he changes the present. And every week he takes a gadget or song from the 90s to the 40s without seeming really to be that bothered if suddenly the song "Yesterday' becomes a hit a quarter of a century before it was written.
There's so much to be sorted out. It could be so brilliant.
Do you think Marks and his gran would let me have a go at reinventing it? Otherwise I am just wasting half an hour every day watching this rubbish and another hour or so a day thinking about how I would make it better.
I think I may be writing about this obsession for a book. Thanks for acting as my rough pad of ideas for the article. "Gary Sparrow's Paucity of Ambition". I won't rest until that is a module in a course in one of the better Universities of our land.

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