Nighty Night box set review – a viciously funny, downright cruel comedy

Would-be husband stealer Jill Tyrrell is a frankly terrible human being – and a brilliant comic creation by Julia Davis

The first time we meet Jill Tyrrell, she’s in the waiting room of a doctor’s surgery. “Why me?” she sobs inconsolably. “Jill,” says Terry, her put-upon husband, “let’s keep this in perspective. It’s me that’s got the cancer.” It’s the perfect introduction to a character so self-obsessed and sociopathic the only possible reaction to her can be laughter.

More sickcom than sitcom, Nighty Night was written by Julia Davis, who also plays Jill, a woman whose first action after discovering her husband has a terminal illness is to go online-dating for a replacement. When that doesn’t pan out (her only date is a man who describes his personality as “Scottish”), she turns to new neighbour Don Cole, played by Angus Deayton. He’s already married and his wife, Cathy (Rebecca Front), is ill, but Jill has identified her target and won’t take no for an answer.

First aired on BBC3 in 2004, Nighty Night took the awkward and often cruel comedy landscape of the era – as perfected by Ricky Gervais and Larry David – and ran with it. The results are frequently painful to watch, as Jill puts down friends with such vicious barbs as: “God, you look old, Sue. If you weren’t talkin’ I might try and bury you.” Some of the humour is so close to the bone you can taste the marrow, but it’s in precisely this area – way, way beyond the pale – that Nighty Nighty excels.

Davis went on to create the more demure Hunderby, as well as the cruelly dismissed Lizzie and Sarah, but Nighty Night is her masterpiece. While the cast also includes such comedy stars as Mark Gatiss and Gavin and Stacey creator Ruth Jones as Jill’s asthmatic emotional punchbag, it’s really all about Jill, a bad beauty therapist (“Divorce has brought your eyebrows down,” she tells one client) and a frankly terrible human. A friendly coffee morning can end up with her pole-dancing to Kylie Minogue, horrifying those who came along for biscuits and a chat. And when it comes to money, she’s always offering to “settle up now” before “things get nasty”.

The first series sees Jill coming to terms with her husband’s cancer and the idea that she may soon be a widow. This takes the form of trying to seduce Don by dressing as his former lover, and forcing herself into the position of carer for his wife, who has MS. The awfulness doesn’t end there, naturally. When Terry recovers and prepares to return home, Jill refuses to give up her new-found single life and puts him in a hospice. This may well be for the best, given that she has already told people he’s died – and has even held a funeral for him. “I will not hear a word against Terry,” she says from behind a black veil in front of an empty coffin. “Having said that, he was a very bad husband and quite an evil man.”

In series two, Jill verges on the murderous. Still obsessed with Don, she chases him and Cathy to an idyllic coastal retreat to win him over, laying waste to whatever’s in her path. While it was criticised by some for being too ridiculous, in particular Jill’s attempts to seduce Don and Cathy’s 12-year-old son, there is still plenty to enjoy.

Davis has hinted that a third series might happen one day, which poses the question: could Jill possibly get any worse? The mind boggles. Better settle up. Things might get nasty.

• Nighty Night series one and two box set


David Renshaw

The GuardianTramp

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