It’s pitch black dark, but Alison Carr recommends Julia Davis’s masterpiece as a cast-iron laugh factory.
In a consultation room a doctor addresses a concerned looking couple. It’s bad news. Upset, the wife laments, “Why does everything have to happen to ME?” Her husband comforts her before pointing out it’s him who’s got the cancer.
Welcome to the wonderfully disturbed world of Jill Tyrrell. She’s a (self-described) slim, vibrant lady in her mid-20s with a lust for life and a flexible spine. This narcissistic sociopath is the star of BBC Three’s 2004 ‘sickcom’ Nighty Night, my favourite – and arguably the best known – work by writer and star Julia Davis.
Upon receiving the diagnosis of her husband Terry (Kevin Eldon), Jill does what any loving wife would: she immediately joins a dating agency to find his replacement. She ends up matched with Glen Bulb: Mark Gatiss in a fright wig and big teeth with a disturbing twitch and an aversion to bottoms.
Glen is smitten and spends most of the series loitering in the local sex shop desperate to run into Jill; sadly for him though, she has set her sights on her new neighbour Don (Angus Deayton). Don and his MS suffering wife Cathy have moved to the area for a fresh start following Don’s adultery, although he maintains that mutual masturbation doesn’t count.
Jill makes it her mission to lure Don away from Cathy and goes to increasingly unhinged lengths to get her man.
“The series is billed as West Country Fatal Attraction, but Jill doesn’t boil bunnies; she drapes used condoms all over Cathy’s house. It’s the kind of character that Julia Davis excels at and Nighty Night is her masterpiece.”
Nighty Night is dark. Pitch black, in fact. In the opening credits, Davis’s Jill looms silhouetted in a doorway, the monster in this horror show. Her shrill cry of “Hiya Cath” is a terrifying as any “Here’s Johnny”.
It’s Cathy, who is as nice and kind as Jill is despicable, who gets the brunt of Jill’s terror. It’s often painful to watch. Painful but fabulous. And the worse Jill acts, the funnier it is. Because in case I’m not being clear, Nighty Night is hilarious. You’ll cringe, your toes will curl, you’ll gasp at Jill’s cruelty, but you’ll laugh through it all.
Alongside Davis are Rebecca Front as put-upon Cathy and Ruth Jones (pre-Gavin and Stacey fame) as Jill’s asthmatic beauty therapist sidekick, who dishes out dubious treatments in a grubby uniform. Talk about a trifecta of amazingness. A trio of sharp, talented, funny women who aren’t afraid to be extreme or unlikable.
Nothing is out of bounds. Abuse, suicide, illness – it all gets the Tyrrell treatment and the dialogue is barbed and ridiculous. And very quotable. “Cappuccino’d be nice”, “How many of those have you had, Sue?” and if you’re ever feeling awkward about money and who is paying for what, then a “We’ll settle up now otherwise it’ll just get nasty” works every time.
For all of Jill’s awfulness, a part of me kind of admires her. While Cath simpers and apologises, Jill barrels ever forwards and lets nothing get in her way. And who doesn’t want to enter their (not really actually dead) husband’s funeral astride a horse before launching into an interpretative dance? I do. I wanna do that.
Jill is a dangerous manipulator and a murderer. She’s absurd, outrageous, pathetic and cruel. The series is billed as West Country Fatal Attraction, but Jill doesn’t boil bunnies; she drapes used condoms all over Cathy’s house. It’s the kind of character that Davis excels at and Nighty Night is her masterpiece.
There is a second series but Davis herself admits it gets silly and I have to agree. It’s too much, too gross. The first series, though, is an absolute must-see and a very manageable six episodes.
If you’ve already seen it, watch it again – it’s so rich it stands up to multiple viewings. If you haven’t seen it, then seek it out. Everyone needs Jill Tyrrell in their lives. Although Cathy might disagree.
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Alison is a playwright and would-be tap dancer. She lives in Newcastle upon Tyne.