Paul Makin: Writer of the cult hit 'Nightingales'

Saturday 22 October 2011 22:59

When he wrote Nightingales, which drew on his experiences as a nightwatchman at the Birmingham NEC, Paul Makin displayed an inventive mind that made his best work stand out from other, run-of-the-mill sitcoms.

The surreal series, about three unorthodox security guards working the night shift in an office block, was a cult hit on Channel Four when it was first screened in 1990.

Nightingales benefited from the presence of respected actors, attracted by Makin's writing. A bearded and bespectacled Robert Lindsay played Carter, a pseudo-intellectual whose aspirations were constantly frustrated; David Threlfall played the animalistic, unintelligent Bell; and James Ellis played the boss, Sarge, a flawed father figure. The series' dark humour was apparent from the existence of a fourth character, Smith, who sat with the trio but was dead, enabling them to draw his salary.

Into this claustrophobic setting came all manner of characters, from a gorilla hired as a fellow worker to a werewolf conducting a heart-bypass operation. A 1992 festive special, in which the Virgin Mary arrived on Christmas Eve and gave birth to a goldfish, was followed by a second series in 1993.

Born in Wolverhampton in 1953, Makin attended St Peter's School, which he left at 15 to work at Alexander Metals, in Bilston, with the aim of becoming a metallurgist. Deciding that factory life was not for him, Makin left in 1972 to further his childhood ambition to act. He trained at Coventry's Centre for the Performing Arts – where his peers included the film director Terence Davies – before discovering that work was scarce. He took the job as a security guard and also worked at Combe Abbey, where he was employed to walk around dressed as a monk during medieval banquets.

Makin became an assistant stage manager at Coventry's Belgrade Theatre, where he had the chance to act in occasional productions. He was drawn to writing, though, penning unperformed fantasy pantomimes featuring the company's actors.

He left the theatre – and relinquished any idea of acting – after submitting to the BBC a comedy script, "The Plan", an episode from a proposed series to be called Cooper's Ducks, and getting an encouraging response. "That's where it started, really," he said. "If they'd said it was rubbish, I probably wouldn't have written anything else, but they commissioned it. It never got made, but I was just amazed to have been taken seriously."

Makin then submitted his work to the agent of the comedy-writing duo Laurence Marks and Maurice Gran. He was taken on, and his first commission, in 1984, was to write two episodes of The Other 'Arf, which starred Lorraine Chase as a cockney model having an affair with a Tory MP, who was played by John Standing. In 1985 he contributed scripts to Roll Over Beethoven – created by Marks and Gran and starring Nigel Planer as a rock 'n' roll legend taking lessons from Liza Goddard's piano teacher – and Mog, which was based on Peter Tinniswood's novel about a petty thief taking refuge in a psychiatric hospital.

Makin got his own idea on screen with three series of A Kind of Living (1988-90). Richard Griffiths and Frances de la Tour starred as a teacher and his wife who uprooted from Bolton to London with their new baby.

Marks and Gran's production company, Alomo, then made Nightingales, as it did Makin's subsequent sitcoms, 1991's Taking the Floor – starring Matthew Cottle and Barbara Durkin as ballroom dancing partners – and 1997's Grown Ups, about a group of thirtysomethings trying to recapture their youth. Makin also contributed scripts to the final series of Chef! (1996), starring Lenny Henry, and wrote seven episodes (1995-97) of Goodnight Sweetheart, the popular time-travel sitcom created by Marks and Gran.

Anthony Hayward

Paul Alan Makin, writer: born Wolverhampton 9 August 1953; (two daughters with Liz Bayton); died Coventry 4 July 2008.

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