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.




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