Julia Davis and fellow creators discuss the dark but humorous TV show “Nighty Night,” where one character is forced to wear a diaper while being held captive.
In 2011, George Michael slipped into a coma while battling pneumonia. Upon awakening, the singer from London began speaking with an unfamiliar accent, causing concern among doctors who suspected possible brain injury.
After a brief period of time, Michael regained his health and the cause behind his actions was discovered. He had become fixated on the 2004 comedy Nighty Night by Julia Davis. “It’s the most hilarious thing I’ve ever watched,” he exclaimed upon his recovery. “We would often imitate the main character and even after waking up from my coma, I found myself speaking in her West Country accent.”
Davis reflects on the incident and our conversation about her sitcom, which was originally marketed as “sick-com,” now celebrating its 20th anniversary. It is a true testament to Davis’s talent as a writer (known for Camping, Human Remains, Sally4Ever, and Hunderby) that she was able to create a character like Jill Tyrell, who is so toxic yet manages to deeply influence someone’s psyche to the point of waking from a coma wanting to be like her.
Jill, a woman in her mid-20s who is described as attractive and lively, possesses narcissistic, murderous, and psychopathic tendencies. She deceitfully hides the fact that her husband Terry, who is battling cancer, is still alive in order to pursue a new love interest, Don, in their neighborhood. She also manipulates Cath, Don’s wife who has multiple sclerosis and uses a wheelchair, in an attempt to remove her from the picture. Additionally, Jill takes advantage of an infatuated Glen, tricking him out of his home and money. Even the customers who visit her beauty salon, as well as her assistant Linda, are treated poorly by Jill.
“When individuals express their love for Nighty Night, it brings me joy,” states Jones. “I have a deep admiration for them since it’s not a widely popular show. It’s almost like a secret indulgence that they confess to you.” The show’s comedic elements, such as death by Angel Delight and the use of illegally obtained semen, were so extreme that some cast members, including Felicity Montagu and Deayton, kept their involvement a secret from their parents.
Gatiss is quick to bat away the categorisation of it as just being “dark”. “I find that label tiresome and reductive,” he says. Davis echoes this: “People always go on about how it’s so dark, terrible, offensive … it’s just ludicrous.”
After two decades, Jill has become a comedic character that is on par with the likes of Alan Partridge and David Brent when it comes to cringe-worthy moments. “I’d like to say she’s based on one person, but that’s not the case,” explains Davis. “She embodies a certain spirit of impoliteness, a combination of individuals or attitudes that I’ve encountered and find both rude and amusing.”
Davis’s childhood, described as “rigid, religious, church-attending, and oppressive”, evidently influenced her art. She explains that she was raised in a “tense and formal” suburban environment, which served as the exact setting for Jill to cause chaos in.
However, there is a significant distinction between developing malicious characters and producing malicious humor. Nighty Night does not explicitly intend to be cruel, but it certainly embraces the discomfort that arises from allowing unapologetic rudeness to thrive in a proper and repressed society. According to Davis, “Many British individuals are very reserved, which is why extremes tend to surface – because everyone is constantly holding back.”
The show’s humor has caused some misunderstandings. According to Davis, those who disliked it did so strongly, as evidenced by a harsh letter she received for a joke about asthma. Davis accurately recalls the joke, spoken in character as Jill, and then shares the disturbing response she received. Both Davis and Jones have asthma, which adds a layer of irony to the situation. Davis stands by the joke and finds it funny, while Jones adds that he was able to accurately portray wheezing on camera because he has experienced it in real life. The cameraman on set was also overcome with laughter during the scene.
It was a frequent occurrence on set, with constant corpsing causing disruptions in filming. Gatiss explains that attempting scenes with Davis was both brilliant and excruciating (as seen in the outtakes from the first season). “I resorted to digging my fingernails into my palms, desperately trying to keep it together.” The chemistry between the two was so strong – or as Gatiss puts it, “dangerous” – that they had to be separated during later scenes.
Jill’s harmful impact has deeply affected Davis’s life. She expresses, “Others perceive me as intimidating or unpleasant.” She dislikes this because it means she must work even harder to prove herself in a positive light. Although she strives to be well-liked in her personal life, she doesn’t concern herself with others’ opinions in her art.
Did you not feel excited to portray someone with such a twisted personality? Davis states that it was not her fantasy, but she did discover that playing Jill, who is much louder than her, helped her feel more relaxed after a scene. She admits to feeling internally tense, so the role served as a form of therapy for her.
Eldon also highlights the contrast between Davis and her monstrous character. He finds it amusing that such a kind and lovely individual has such non-Disney ideas brewing in her mind. Eldon’s character bore the brunt of this, as Jill organized a fake funeral for Terry and used his gravestone as advertisement for her salon. In the end, he was held hostage and restrained to a bed while wearing a diaper. Eldon recalls the uncomfortable filming of this scene on a hot summer day in a small, crowded house with closed and blacked-out windows to simulate night-time. He considers himself lucky to have been in a cool diaper while the rest of the crew sweated it out in regular clothing.
The show tapped into a quintessential British sensibility of repressed passive aggression so successfully that Davis even upset local residents when filming. “I was jogging around in my bra and knickers [trying to seduce Don] in a suburban cul-de-sac,” she says. “This woman came out and started saying, ‘Oh, we don’t like her.’ But to her dog, with me standing right there!”
According to Gatiss, the show is a classic cult comedy that has gained a dedicated following. He often encounters fans who quote lines from the show and it has particularly resonated with the LGBTQ+ community. At the Vauxhall Tavern, there are drag competitions where contestants compete to become Miss Jill Tyrell. Gatiss and Davis have even discussed surprising audiences by showing up as their characters, Jill and Glen.
Although Nighty Night is still adored as a comedy, there is a lingering sense of unfinished business for Davis. She was dissatisfied with the second season, which shifted from the confined suburbs to Cornwall. “I definitely felt the pressure of the second season,” she explains. “There are some hilarious moments and I adore everyone involved, but it became too cartoonish. However, that’s the risk you take when you try new things … I suppose we’ll just have to create a third season.”
Is it a possibility? Davis expresses, “It’s enjoyable to imagine Jill with children. I am aware of how she would handle any circumstance, which is quite uncommon. I have not experienced that with any other character. However, I tend to put too much pressure on myself. The story would have to be exceptionally strong for it to be worth revisiting.”
Currently, Davis is content that Nighty Night is still able to bring joy and unease twenty years later. “I am satisfied with it,” she expresses. “I appreciate that it brings happiness to people, even though it’s a bit unusual.”