Gary Sparrow's Paucity of Ambition
When it first aired in the 1990s I dismissed "Goodnight Sweetheart" as a rather run of the mill, traditional sit-com, albeit with the unusual premise that its protagonist was able to time travel between the Nineties and the Forties. Having recently rewatched pretty much every one of the 58 episodes on its daytime daily repeat on ITV3 (slightly discombobulated by the fact that this BBC series is having a bigamous relationship across the decades with another channel), I have now decided that my initial, casual analysis of the programme was pretty much on the button. Yet there are occasions when it transcends its sitcom bounds to examine the interesting philosophical, ethical and temporal conundrums of the situation and I canât help thinking it was a bit of a missed opportunity.
It could have been the "Life on Mars" of the Nineties, but due to its general lightness of touch, both in the writing and the acting, it is a disappointment. A disappointment however, that I am becoming increasingly obsessed about, partly because I believe it is crying out for a remake. 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).
Ironically I wish that I had some kind of time portal back to the early 1990s so I could wrestle this idea from the hands of creators Marks and Gran, and maybe also have a secret affair with the young Dervla Kirwan - though not her replacement for the last three series, Elizabeth Carling. Both of Sparrow's wives were recast after series 3, at which point I would switch allegiances to the new Yvonne Sparrow, Emma Amos. It's not just the temporal paradoxes that are confusing.
For those of you less au fait with the "Goodnight Sweetheart" canon, the series revolves around TV repairman, Gary Sparrow (Nicholas Lyndhurst) who discovers a time portal that allows him (and usually only him) to travel between Nineties and Forties East London. Interestingly and unusually for time travel adventures, the two timelines run concurrently. So if Sparrow spends a day in war torn London then a day has passed back in the future. He meets the barmaid of the nearest pub to the rift in time and begins to date her, pretending that he works for the secret services. He also impresses the gullible people of the past by passing off popular future hits as his own compositions. He is assisted in the 1990s by his long suffering friend, Ron, who prints up wartime money for him and helps conceal the bigamy and has his loyalty totally abused by the selfish and duplicitous Sparrow.
Sparrow is in many ways a confused, selfish and unlikeable man. Yet Nicholas Lyndhurst is hopelessly miscast in the role and flounders around, limited to expressions of bafflement and slight moral discomfort, but never convincing that he would be capable of such deceit, unable to convey the complexity of the emotional and moral choices the character must make and unbelievable as an irresistible lady's man.
Lyndhurst is not helped by the script: we see few of the psychological effects of such a massive lie. Is he struggling with his mendacity 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 still feel dead inside? The writers preferred to concentrate on farce alas.
Frustratingly there is little consistency to the series. 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 a few episodes later, Gary manages to alter the past so his son will change son from a single, childless alcoholic down and out, to a successful businessman with two kids, with no other effects on history.
The thing that amuses me most though is Gary Sparrow's paucity of 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 a later episode, 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, but he could do so much more: investigate the war time years more thoroughly, really abuse his powers and become the wealthiest and most influential man in history or at least check out the next pub down the road to see if the barmaid there is any better looking (certainly in the last three series). But I kind of love Gary Sparrow because of the limitations of his scope. He is an idiot and he's morally dubious, selfish, takes risks with history given what (sometimes) happens when he changes stuff and yet remains somehow 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.
Perhaps I have ended up thinking too much about something which was never intended to stand up to this kind of analysis, and yet I am convinced there is a brilliant comedy science fiction drama waiting to be written, which properly explores what would happen if a TV repairman found a portal that would take him 44 years into the past. I might just write it myself and then act it out with puppets in my bedroom.