Advancing years take away from us what we have inherited and give us what we have earned. Our relationship with television is a forever-burning example of this; the longer we feel we’ve hung around pouring our time and energy into watching it, the more we feel not merely blessed but actually owed an increasingly rarefied quality of enjoyment in return.
By all means, we say, bring back The Generation Game, if only to erase the legacy of Jim Davidson; just don’t pretend Graham Norton’s Generation Fame is the best you can do. Yes, we’re willing to give Wogan another go, if only to tarnish the self-upholstered reputation of Parkinson; just don’t pretend Wogan: Now and Then is the real thing. And of course, we’re more than happy to see Esther Rantzen and Lynn Faulds-Wood getting their feet trapped in yet another jewel-encrusted stubble-shyster’s front door; just don’t presume Old Dogs, New Tricksis what either we, or they, deserve.
When Ricky Gervais co-starred and wrote an episode of The Simpsons this year, the accompanying promotion traded off the implication that his mere participation was more than enough reason to tune in. The same went for the casting of Davina McCall as a midweek chat show cuckold. In both cases the results were inversely proportional to the effort on a titanic scale, but the consequences – increasingly objectionable dotage for Gervais, near-universal mockery for McCall – served only to strengthen their respective vocations and apparent interest in doing more and more of the same. Extras and Big Brother generated the most original headlines but least original entertainment of 2006.
Perhaps there comes a point in everyone’s life, somewhere around the age of 30, when nothing seems new anymore, and anything that claims it is simply generates more cynicism than that which presumes to promise more of the same. This poses problems for our relationship with television, of which we expect a return on our formative years of emotional investment, but towards which we can’t help but exercise a somewhat tart maturity.
One consequence is that our appreciation of the magic of the small screen has to be won at a price. This could be on our fortitude; the forward march of celebrity television through 2006 was a potent example of this, the quality of some - Who Do You Think You Are?, Celebrity MasterChef, Strictly Come Dancing - being jeopardised by the sheer quantity of others -Soapstar Superstar, Dancing on Ice, The Games, Soccer Aid, Only Fools on Horses, Love Island, I’m A Celebrity … Get Me Out Of Here! - in a much lower league.
There are a finite number of hours in the day. There are not a finite number of celebrities who want to be on TV. And we’re unused to not having enough time in our lives to judge what is and isn’t decent television. Not yet, anyway; maybe what we shed in stamina as we grow older we gain in forbearing. George Galloway for one appears to swear by such an assumption, having graced Celebrity Big Brother with a lesson in how to discard reason and evidence when constructing an argument in favour of pulling out big words such as “plutocrat” in the hope of baffling the opposition.
But another consequence of advancing time is an instinct to batten down the hatches. There were plenty of exemplary programmes this year which dared to do the opposite, searching over the horizon both literally - Equator, Tribe, Cooking in the Danger Zone, Springwatch - and philosophically - Simon Schama’s Power of Art, How to Start Your Own Country, The State Within - but none carried the demeanour of demanding to be watched.
The latter especially ran aground in spectacular fashion, almost beaten by a Monty Don gardening show upon its thrilling, explosive climax. Was it too complicated? Radio Times thought so, despite recommending it every week. Was it too intelligent? Waiting down that road lurk sore heads and sore losers. You want there to always be television that pitches itself just above the understanding of its audience. Yet The West Wing bowed out on More4 in July with 263,000 viewers. Even Russell Brand does better than that.
By contrast, those shows which poked their nose barely beyond the next street, or above the net curtains of their own front room, wore clothes to be noticed from the off. It meant the ambivalent quality of kitchen sink efforts like Waterloo Road, Sorted, The Family Man and The Street on the BBC, any number of Caroline Quentin runarounds on ITV1, plus warts-and-all Channel 4 business like Shameless and Goldplated, was all the more obvious. If they hadn’t aimed so high they wouldn’t have had so far to fall.
Those used to trading in affairs of the heart and the hearthrug, the soaps, did little better.EastEnders continued to cheat death, unlike some of its leading characters; Coronation Streetrevelled in death even though it didn’t need to, churning out the sort of fare which would merit a “good effort” from a school examiner. At least Emmerdale stretched its legs and showed off the fact it is physically able and willing to look beyond the next lamppost and shuttle ineffably between country house and village slum.
The one instance where both direction and ambition came together perfectly was in the best drama of the year: Life On Mars. A wonderful concept, brilliantly executed, the series had enough humour and action to appeal to everyone, not just readers of TV Zone. Only the pedestrian plotting let things down; with such an elegant premise, you felt inclined to expect rather more than storylines of the kind trotted out on Heartbeat.
In fact, not once in 2006 did a programme with a fantasy-based foundation consistently hit the mark. They either fell desperately short - Eleventh Hour, Afterlife, The Outsiders - or overreached expectation - Doctor Who, Torchwood, A for Andromeda.
A couple of things were happening here. One was the sheer ubiquity of science fiction. A TV trend has surely permeated its way through the schedules right down to the seabed when ITV1 jumps on the bandwagon, and this undoubtedly helped erase much of the novelty in seeing the genre back in primetime.
Second, none of these shows boasted an air of self-justification. Last year’s series of Doctor Who spent every minute of its life not taking its existence for granted. This year’s effort did anything but. There might have been a more substantial Doctor in the TARDIS, old faces to please old fans and new twists (kissing!) to satisfy the less old, but much else veered between the slight and the sleazy. Torchwood was over-hyped and suffered the curse of the one-sentence spin-off (“A supernatural investigation agency!”), yet it could have been so much better if someone had remembered to cast actors, hire writers and build more than one set. It was also responsible for the year’s worst line of screen dialogue: “A million shadows of human emotion; we’ve just got to live with them.”
Unlike the good Doctor, the most welcome old face to show up in 2006 was that belonging to Jane Tennison. The last ever Prime Suspect outclassed other instances of returning detectives - Cracker, Lewis, A Touch of Frost - by steering clear of grandstanding and instead embracing an agreeable element of back to basics. The resulting drama was superior by far not just compared to the endeavours of other old school sleuths but also the new kids on the beat (Mayo, Vincent).
An even older face took on his youngest guise to date in BBC1’s revival of Robin Hood: bold in ambition and intention, lacking in grit, grime and swashbuckling. Old tales given new adaptations performed better: Jane Eyre and The Virgin Queen were fresh and dignified. Neither quality, however, could be universally applied to the endless stream of historical dramatisations which meandered through 2006. Ancient Rome, Hannibal, Blackbeard, Krakatoa, Into the West - they all took twice as long as they needed to say anything half interesting.
Those concerned with more recent events - Death of a President, The Lavender List, Coup!,The Path to 9/11, Nuremburg, The Trial of Hermann Goering, Suez, The Chatterley Affair,Tsunami: The Aftermath - mostly let the story get in the way of some good facts. An exception was Longford, a powerful but unsensational piece posing fascinating questions about faith and forgiveness, yet all the while conscious of having to work hard by way of its subject matter (the Moors murders) to warrant its existence.
Here the window through which the viewer was being asked to gaze was a sympathetic one. By contrast, windows onto more accursed lifestyles recoiled and infected with equal intensity. Exclusive worlds racked with universal emotions prompted some of the most loyally-endorsed shows of 2006: 24, Lost, The Line of Beauty, The Apprentice, Dragon’s Den, Gordon Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmares, even children’s programme Beat the Boss. The latter saw ideas such as profitability, focus groups and marketing taken for granted as part and parcel of a young person’s character. This was enterprise culture of a like even Margaret Thatcher could not have conceived.
Ramsay’s star status, however, could be seen to work against him; many of this year’s subjects appeared primarily interested in boosting their profile simply by appearing on his programme. Cut from the same cloth but less ego-orientated was five’s The Hotel Inspector, where Ruth Watson, decked in voluminous coats and Spitfire-esque make-up, managed to patent a far more agreeable brand of profanity. Equally indomitable but far less likeable was Pete Owen Jones of BBC4’s The Lost Gospels, aimlessly drifting round Europe on a grand tour of religious supposition, poking his nose into salacious details without proving or disproving anything.
Where such shameless rabblerousing collided with rather shameful manifestations of real life – ie. us – there was precious chance of anyone, let alone the viewer, emerging with any distinction. This was as much true of the increasingly hysterical Deal or No Deal? as the relentlessly joyless Brat Camp and Wife Swap. Attempts to depict ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances rarely worked, be it the fly-on-the-wall fancies of The Armstrongs, the unsubtle stylings of Trinny and Susannah Undress or the boring noseyness of Richard Hammond’s 5 o’clock Show and The New Paul O’Grady Show. At least The ONE Showbenefited from the steady face of Adrian Chiles on its prow, though that wasn’t enough to disguise the lack of topical material and much in the way of any point.
Emotional manipulation did give rise to one sure-fire hit: Derren Brown’s The Heist, perhaps the most intriguing of his “stunt” specials yet, as, under the aegis of a motivational seminar, he persuaded a group of business people to seemingly carry out an armed robbery. The complete opposite was The Secret Life of the Manic Depressive with Stephen Fry and a bunch of celebrity pals indulging the notion of the sufferer as the tortured genius and reducing the entire debate to the question of whether or not to take pills.
Where real people were allowed the space and the silence to speak on their own terms, flashes of brilliance emerged. ONE Life, Rain in my Heart, China and Bradford Riots were all documentary strands or one-offs that sparkled with honesty and therefore compassion. Forty Minutes On took this one step further by first replaying then revisiting the lives of various archiveForty Minutes subjects, compounding the original episodes’ luminosity with new shades of opinion.
Where real people were shoehorned into someone else’s grand design, however, you learned almost nothing and liked even less. Surviving Disaster, Lock Them Up or Let Them Out, That’ll Teach ‘Em: Boys Versus Girls and Terry Jones’s Barbarians were variously guilty of this, whileThe Plot Against Harold Wilson, Don’t Mess With Miss Beckles, The Miracles of Jesus andJamie’s Return to School Dinners decided the only way to keep folk watching was to talk at them rather than for them.
Poor scheduling thwarted real people’s chance to properly exploit and engage with that rare commodity, an original game show. Pokerface, apparently devised by its hosts Ant and Dec, was bundled out across one week. If it had aired every seven days there would have been more space for the public to discuss strategy, theorise on potential outcomes and quite possibly work up a word-of-mouth frenzy about the programme. Instead it blew up, blew over and blew out, failing to obey the first law of light entertainment: be as fleeting as you like, but always leave an impression.
In the same vein unfurled a paper chain of variety and fun during 2006, much of it operating on the assumption that, if little had successfully informed or educated the public during the year, there was no point labouring long to fashion fresh and dynamic entertainment. Strictly Dance Fever, How Do You Solve aProblem Like Maria? and The X Factor all plied a similar trade, your reaction to them conditioned by how tolerable you found the experience of seeing precisely the same ingredients (right down to the audience shrieking and endless blubbing) trotted out on cue every week.
Parlour games such as Balderdash and Piffle and Codex lifted the spirits as well as the mind;Never Mind the Full Stops achieved neither. The true significance of the end of Top of the Popsis the fact nobody really seems to miss it. Assuming the reins of Never Mind the Buzzcocks, Simon Amstell did his best to add a bit of life to a programme that had been getting increasingly tired and nasty. Meanwhile entertainment for, in that enduring phrase, both the young and the young at heart, took a battering all round. Da Bungalow was replaced with distinctly bland new series, Blue Peter lost its best presenter of modern times, and ITV spent 2006 trying to get rid of its kid output entirely.
If the sight of a once great fortress of children’s programming shutting up shop wasn’t enough to make you feel your age, then a surfeit of bad comedy almost certainly did the trick, especially the kind which tried to pretend it was new when all it did was wheel out the old. Especially the ultra-old.
Playground humour will always be funny except when it’s the subject of an entire clip show (The Law of the Playground) or dressed up as knowing sophistication (The Charlotte Church Show, Blunder, The Catherine Tate Show, Tittybangbang). Sixth form humour, by contrast, is only funny when you’re in the sixth form, regardless of protagonists the like of Armando Iannucci (Time Trumpet), Graham Linehan (The IT Crowd) and Jack Dee (Lead Balloon).
Steve Coogan’s Saxondale stood out from the rest solely by virtue of what it wasn’t. Eschewing the experimental, it was the most straightforward sitcom BBC2 had mustered for years, though part of the charm derived from seeing Coogan not playing the comic relief in a shit Hollywood film. How you felt about That Mitchell and Webb Look depended on how you felt about other more innovative literate double acts (Fry & Laurie, Lee & Herring, Adam & Joe) having their work so blatantly, if good-naturedly, hijacked. Charlie Brooker’s Screen Wipe merely underscored the continual absence of any kind of programme about television that doesn’t start out from the premise that all television is rubbish.
Once again, it was those shows that didn’t presume to be anything more than the sum of their own parts that triumphed. The Smith and Jones Sketchbook was a joy; The Story of Light Entertainment an inspiring parade of household heroes; Paul Merton’s Silent Clowns effusively reinvigorated old reputations; and The Royle Family scored by letting events run their natural course. The funniest shows were those free from all homegrown resonances old or new: imports, such as the still-superb Curb Your Enthusiasm and the final series of both Malcolm in the Middle and Arrested Development. ITV2 revealed Entourage to resemble the original run ofAuf Wiedersehen, Pet (a group of friends making their way in an alien environment) and The Office to far transcend its British antecedent.
To misquote a phrase, the young TV channel who has not wept is a savage, and the old TV channel who will not laugh is a fool. Our own nation’s deficit of programmes to make you either cry tears of deep sadness or unfettered joy is one thing that hurts more, not less, the older you get. Emotion becomes more personal with advancing years. It’s when you’re grown up that you most want to be moved and manipulated in ways that remind you of childhood, and TV can – should – do this like no other.
Instead, 2006 found a television industry sorely reluctant to return anything by way of emotional investment. Any sign of commitment on the part of the viewer, even a loose affiliation, to engage with programmes on their own terms rather than that of the programme maker was tested to the limit.
ITV was the principle offender here, but then again it did spend virtually the entire year doing the wrong thing. The station began 2006 by adopting new idents, supposedly to state its ambition and purpose, but which instead ended up featuring couples hugging trees and a middle-aged man admiring his gut in the mirror. BBC tried the same trick later in the year, but with the opposite effect: a fleet of sparkling, witty and imaginative idents establishing precisely the correct tone and temperament.
As 2006 unfolded, ITV proceeded to boast no comedy of note, no decent entertainment, no documentaries of significance and no worthwhile children’s shows (and pretty soon no children’s department). Shows were ditched halfway through their run. The same film was shown two Saturdays running. Supposed fixtures of the schedule like Parkinson and The X Factor started at different times every week. Philip Schofield had the humiliation of having a major new Saturday night show pulled after just one edition.
The most pathetic spoiler tactic in history was attempted when old episodes of The Paul O’Grady Show were aired up against the new version on Channel 4. Predictably they flopped, and were dropped after just three days. The second most pathetic spoiler tactic in history, running identikit cookery shows to the BBC on Saturday morning, also bombed. The station even managed to mess up the World Cup: the most lucrative sporting event on the planet, and from which it contrived to emerge financially worse off than before.
Only on a channel as dreadful as ITV1 could a crisis where ratings were plummeting be addressed by spending less money on programmes. Replacing expensive drama with cheaper factual programmes turned out to be a daft idea given none of the factual shows were in any way distinctive. Driving Mum and Dad Mad was typical: a series indistinguishable from any number of parenting programmes on BBC3 or Channel 4, so why bother?
What drama remained was pitifully poor. During August, outside of soaps the channel had three dramas running: Where the Heart Is and Bad Girls, both of which were in terminal decline and then axed, and Jane Hall, which had been on the shelf for two years. The BBC has now totally taken over the mantle from ITV in both popular and quality drama; not something you would have expected to see even five years ago.
But the very fact that ITV had such a poor 2006, and did so in such a public fashion, in turn helped distract attention from how none of the other stations had a particularly great year either. Or so it felt.
Radio Times ran an extraordinary procession of covers in the autumn, beginning with Extrasand continuing, sequentially, with Jamie’s Return to School Dinners, Jane Eyre, Cracker,Robin Hood, Prime Suspect and Torchwood. All were flagship productions, all more than justified their front cover status, and all appeared emblematic of a TV culture in rude health.
On closer inspection, however, they weren’t merely the cream of the crop, they were the entire harvest. Moreover, not all turned out to embody the cream of British television (other than by dint of being rich and thick). Old wine in new bottles only went so far in 2006 by way of quenching your thirst for genuinely rewarding and personable entertainment. Appearance won out over reality all too often this year. Time and again what was promised with one hand was quickly snatched away from under our nose by the other.
Maybe there’s the danger of presuming too much. Just because you’re older and (theoretically) wiser than this point 12 months ago, it doesn’t follow television should be the same. In an ideal world what all of us put in by way of hours spent happily in front of the box should be returned to us from round about the time we started having to pay for our own TV licence.
But should TV owe us a living? In the words of Bart Simpson, “They’re giving you thousands of hours of entertainment for free. What could they possibly owe you? If anything, you owe them.” In other words: sit down, shut up and enjoy yourself.
And even if it doesn’t owe us anything, it can at least give us the benefit of its advanced years. BBC Television clocked up its seventh decade in 2006. To misquote another phrase, being over 70 is like being engaged in a war: all your friends are going or gone and you survive amongst the dead and the dying on the battlefield. The Corporation lost its commander-in-chief in November, when Michael Grade slipped the leash and “went home” to run ITV: proof that, no matter how old you are, or how old the organisation you work for, the shock of surprise is still just as great as the shock of the new.
You hope Grade will do some good at ITV. He can hardly do any worse than those he has inherited as his troops. It’s to the BBC, however, that you can’t help but look with hope and expectation of a more consistent, more sure-footed, more unpredictable 2007. Surprise, after all, is the one element which keeps us all on the edge of our seats, no matter how many minutes it is to midnight. And the thought that TV – like life – could be better is something that, regardless of age, remains woven indelibly into our hearts.