Herring on Sparrow, or Richard Herring’s paucity of ambition

I’ve recently been listening to a few of Richard Herring’s Leicester Square Theatre podcasts, and one of subjects which seems to crop up regularly is 90s sitcom Goodnight Sweetheart. Herring has something of an obsession with the programme, which he sets out in his Metro article “Gary Sparrow’s Paucity of Ambition”. Herring’s thesis is that Goodnight Sweetheart is a missed opportunity that never lives up to the promise of its intriguing central concept by breaking out of the confines of a traditional light sitcom. His critique can be summarised in the following points:

  • The protagonist Gary Sparrow is a morally dubious and unlikeable man, mainly due to the series revolving around his infidelity towards two women (albeit in different time periods). Of course there is nothing inherently wrong with an unsympathetic main character, and in fact this is a feature of several more recent, edgier comedies, i.e. the sort that don’t have laughter tracks. However in the context of a simple light sitcom it does seem problematic.
  • Sparrow is unambitious to an almost absurd degree. He has stumbled upon the capability to travel 50 years into the past and the only thing he uses this gift for is conducting an affair with the barmaid of the nearest pub to the time portal.
  • Nicholas Lyndhurst is miscast in the role of Sparrow. He never convinces as a lady’s man, and fails to convey the difficulty of Sparrow’s moral choices.
  • Time travel is used illogically and inconsistently throughout the sitcom’s six series.

Herring has joked about (although as far as I am aware, not seriously considered) the idea of a remake where a present-day writer, i.e. Herring himself, travels back to the 90s to the set of Goodnight Sweetheart in order to improve the programme. I spent an afternoon thinking about the various ways this could actually work:

  • This would necessitate four different plot strands, set across three different time periods: 1) The real-life present-day, where the writer/protagonist (who we will henceforth refer to as Herring) endures an unhappy marriage and slightly underwhelming career, and discovers a portal which takes him back to the 1990s. 2) The real-life 1990s, where Herring has travelled back to the set of Goodnight Sweetheart and attempts to stamp his will on the programme-makers. 3) The fictional 1990s, where Gary Sparrow endures an unhappy marriage and underwhelming career as a T.V. repairman, and discovers a portal which takes him back to Blitz-era East London. 4) The fictional 1940s, where Gary Sparrow attempts to make up for the inadequacies of his 1990s existence by conducting an affair with a barmaid.
  • Clearly the difficulty with having four different plot strands would be dedicating enough time to each. This would be compounded by the fact that two of the strands would be fictional, and so Herring and Sparrow would never actually meet and interact, resulting in a potential lack of narrative focus. Therefore I would suggest having the series principally revolve around Herring and his own time travels. The actual Goodnight Sweetheart show within this show would be of secondary importance.
  • The time paradox, whereby Herring’s success in travelling back to the 1990s and changing GS would result in the show itself being to his satisfaction, hence negating the need to travel back to the 1990s in the first place.
  • Herring’s paucity of ambition. This refers to the fact that the writer has discovered the capability to travel back to the 1990s, yet his first priority upon arriving in the past is to alter a forgotten light comedy programme. There is a pleasing symmetry here between the remake and the original, which could be a feature of the show. The difference is that while the original is concerned with Sparrow’s venal, base urges, Herring is driven by a misplaced enthusiasm for mainstream sitcoms. Of course, the only way to pull this off would be if Herring was so obsessed with GS that altering the show would trump any of the more obvious possibilities available due to time travel back to the ’90s, such as winning the newly established National Lottery, keeping O.J. Simpson away from his wife, or preventing the conception of Justin Beiber.
  • How does Herring convince the makers of GS that they should listen to him and put into practice his suggestions? Clearly Herring could utilise his knowledge of future sitcoms to impress them, perhaps going so far as to steal jokes from these future shows. This throws up an interesting moral conundrum for Herring, in that he is depleting the comedy of the future for the sake of improving GS. By this point Herring is so obsessed with GS that he does not care.
  • The Lyndhurst Problem. Clearly Herring’s main priority is recasting the role of Gary Sparrow. This leaves us with several problems: 1) Would Nicholas Lyndhurst himself be involved in the remake, on set of the original show (i.e. strand 2)? This would be problematic because, despite the years being kinder to him than many, he would nevertheless struggle to play a 20 years younger version of himself. There is also the problem that he may not wish to be involved in a show which basically says that he wasn’t very good in the original Goodnight Sweetheart. The only plausible solution is for Lyndhurst to be recast in strand 2 (and by extension strands 3 and 4 as well).
  • Clearly the best way to address this issue would be to have Lyndhurst put out of the way before the first audition, perhaps in a fatal accident precipitated by Herring’s time travel. That way Herring could engineer his own casting as Sparrow. Unfortunately this would then cause further discontinuities in time when Herring in the present day becomes the faded star of a forgotten, but ahead-of-its-time sitcom from the 90s.

However there is a further and more substantial issue with not only Richard Herring’s proposed sitcom based on the remaking of Goodnight Sweetheart and of our critique of Herring’s critique: it creates a ‘bad infinity’ where another layer of reference can be added without end. For example Wu Ming could (but almost certainly will not) criticise Yao Ming’s paucity of ambition in its proposal for Richard Herring. Various writing collectives have proposed time travel in the past: the point is to do it. 

Why the interest in Goodnight Sweetheart? The scheduled second novel by the Yao Ming collective (once Gornal Sunset gets finished) will involve time travel back to World War 2, where our hero Iain Batham will attempt to solve a 70 year old murder mystery from the Black Country.




Killer bees – send in the swat team

Hated in the nation’, the last in the current round of Charlie Brooker’s speculative fiction/ sci fi series Black Mirror deals with a very near future in which Twitter storms and synthetic bees combine to murderous effect.

A hateful celebrity, let’s call her Katie Hopkins for ease of explanation, is killed by a hacked robo-bee which burrows in through her nose. In this world (as in ours) bees are on the verge of extinction due to hive collapse syndrome. A corporation has developed simple, self-replicating replacement artificial insects to fill the vacated ecological niche and prevent environmental catastrophe.

Shortly after Hopkins a rude rapper bites the dust and our protagonists, a divorced, cynical old-school copper who eats ice-cream from a tub and a pouty whizz kid do-gooder ex-cyber-crime copper join the dots. Turns out that a Twitter hash tag #deathto[insertnamehere] precipitated the killings. Someone is running an online contest where the name with the highest number of mentions with the hashtag becomes the next victim. The mastermind behind the scheme calls it the ‘game of consequences’.

The chancellor has the highest number of votes leading to all arms of the UK state mobilising. It appears that GCHQ has taken advantage of the bees to use for monitoring subjects (surprise-surprise) which meant including a back-door in the software. As anyone who’s installed a back-door will be aware… other people can use it. Hence the mysterious hacker seizing the bees.

Due to a ‘slip up’ by the nemesis his hide-out is discovered and with it a partially destroyed hard-drive with some source code. The team rushes to the corporation HQ and looks at a big map of bees, which all turn red. This is bad news. It’s time to make use of the source code. Unfortunately this was all part of the bad hacker’s plan which now enters its final stage. The bees’ real target is everyone who’s used the #deathto… hash tag (including a police flatfoot). At this point, and despite the fact that the bees only have a primitive sensor and facial recognition software which means that putting on a balaclava would make you undetectable by the ersatz insects, the rogue bees take out all of the SJWs and trolls IRL leading to a “tremendous loss of life”. Turns out the hacker had a crush on a woman who got cyber-bullied and attempted suicide and this is his revenge. It’s now year zero in the online culture wars.

The relationship between the bees and the Twitter community is obvious. Seeing a handful of bees gathering on a window pane, then escalating into an unstoppable, murderous swarm is analogous with the Twitter storm which has become a predictable feature of the online climate. When Hopkins gets her fatal nose-job she’s looking through a rapidly proliferating list of angry hateful interactions and chuckling. Only when “#deathto…” online results in actual “death to…” an attitude of detachment, whether ironic in its deployment or callous in receipt becomes impossible. This is the core of the episode – the question of what the consequences for our society would be if the relations we have online attained material reality. If we faced each other directly – as ourselves and not indirectly. However, because this premise is constrained by (bourgeois) tropes of the genre in which the show is made we are not able to draw fundamentally useful conclusions. These limitations are both artistic, which manifest as aesthetic defects, and material/philosophical, which manifest as internal inconsistencies and a feeling of a lack of satisfaction. Obviously the two categories are related.

The first problem is that whilst the Twitterati (or to be specific certain of their ways of interaction) is set out as a sort of collective antagonist, because of the reliance on the procedural format of the show the bad guy has to be just that – a bad guy. A rogue hacker rather than (what would have been much more satisfactory) a collective enemy, say a hive consciousness of bees which had learned behaviour from Twitter and were not subject to direction and control. Creating a separate and opposite nemesis rather than one which emerges from and is self-permeated by the online phenomena give a deus ex machina quality to the plot.

Secondly, we must sympathise with the police characters, which means amongst other things that they engage in furious and implausible criticisms of state surveillance and corporate power. As if the police themselves were not engaged in more than collusion on both counts. This is a minor point and comes with the territory in cop shows.

From the exasperation of our divorcee sleuth and her worldly-wise approach to suspects we know she craves the authentic and rational, establishing leads are dead-ends, applying accumulated knowledge to situations. She is certainly ill-equipped to deal with the computer age, remote control blinds or no. The jaded, yet tech-savvy whiz kid has had herself reassigned to physical crimes because she wants to make a difference “in the real world”. Thus we have set up a distinction between real and unreal hinging on the platform through which interaction takes place, whether this is digital or not. The real world is rational and direct, the virtual world is irrational and indirect.

The metal bees form the ideal bridge between these worlds, and our embittered hacker is able to drag the virtual into the real by fixing persons and consequences to personae and consequenceless statements respectively. The show resolves naturally, according to this pattern, by the whizz kid tracking the hacker down to his South/Central American hideaway, showing that the process of justice must grind on once set into gear.

Although we are not shown the capture of the bees’ master the remaining tension at the end of the show is our humbled, sanguine old-school copper leaving an official enquiry and being hounded by protestors brandishing signs demanding the #truth. Would these demands would be fulfilled by a confession from the imprisoned super-hacker? The suggestion, from the cop’s wry smile is that they will.

What would the end of impersonal relations really be like though. For a liberal, or a luddite, and for this show it would mean everything virtual and insubstantial solidifying and taking real-world form. Taking their place with the tangible violence of the police as phenomena, online death threats would be subject to control by a judiciary system with a monopoly of violence behind it. Covert surveillance by the state apparatus would also be dragged out into the light and forced to justify itself to the real-world cops on the beat and the public enquiries that hold them accountable.

Unfortunately for the viewing audience as well as for those seeking resolution to the alienation of modern life, online or otherwise, everyone knows that we do not live in a society where citizen oversight is a realistic solution to pretty much anything.

The critique remains on the level of discourse and technology and does not examine the real sources of ironic detachment and impotent rage on Twitter: that we face each other not through direct social relations, but via material objects. The hard reality of the cop-civilian interaction and the unambiguity of the worker-boss relation do not form an ultimate realm of materiality into which we need to draw all other human-human inter-relations. Rather we should act to expose the contingent and therefore not-necessarily real nature of these current facts which structure our world. Rather than solidifying what is not real and restructuring or rejecting it based on rationality (the Enlightenment approach) we should dissolve those elements of the real which underpin the rationality which maintains mediated relations. This means building a world where the power of our productive forces is subject to unmediated control. The current categories and the thinking which upholds them would “melt into thin air” (Marx). At last we would not have a collective consciousness which appeared to us as a angry an irrational swarm, in our fictions or our lives.

Gornal Sunset

The Yao Ming writing collective are currently working on a novel of Black Country noir. It’s the book which will introduce the world to Iain Batham, a hard boiled, chronically unemployed P.I. from Gornal, near Dudley.

Iain takes on a case to track down the origins of a gris(t)ly pork scratching and in the process gets some glimpses into the seamy underworld of big money and local business in the Greater Birmingham area. There will be fast-talking women, fights on defunct mono-rails, darts hustling and plenty of pints of mixed.

Expect to see results in soon.

Iain reached into his pocket, pulled out a small grip-seal plastic bag and placed it on the desk. Polly cautiously picked it up, closely examining the scratching from every angle without wanting to remove it from the bag.
‘It… it looks like a human tattoo,’ she stammered, whilst considering the implications of that particular deduction.
‘That’s what I thought,’ Iain replied. ‘Now you can see why I’m so keen to speak with Mr Stanton.’
Polly opened up a desk drawer and pulled out a small notebook. She quickly leafed through the pages and copied some text onto a spare page. ‘I don’t know how much use this will be. He’s never answered his door or his phone to me. I do know that he sometimes drinks in a pub called The Fountain. Maybe you could find him in there. It’s in Gornal, near the top of…’
‘Yes I know it,’ Iain interrupted. He knew all of Gornal’s pubs only too well.