A hefty dose of press coverage levelling the charge that British television had slumped into crisis saw out 2004, with frenzied headlines, thick black borders and doom-laden think pieces a-plenty. But had things really become that bad? Had we been wrong to enjoy most of what we watched on telly the past 12 months?
Sure, Jimmy Carr on Distraction essaying smug comedy riffs while trashing a car may have been irksome, but it wasn’t the equivalent of the balloon going up. Similarly Animal Passions, a recycled profile of people practicing bestiality, may have prompted disquiet along the lines of just what the box was going to push your way next, but it wasn’t the cue to tear up your TV licence and mail the pieces to the Government.
In truth, throughout the year so much went on at the periphery of the screen and behind the camera that actual programmes often took second place to controversies about programmes – about the people who made them, starred in them, and who reacted to them. Consider the fact that somebody won Who Wants to be Millionaire in 2004. Can you recall when it happened? The identity of the winner? It wasn’t that the show had suddenly become a joke or a ratings flop, more that with there being so much fighting for our attention this year, certain things had to take second place. Checking out a Millionaire champion blubbing onto Chris Tarrant’s enormous sleeves could wait. First, there was the business of Bruce Forsyth being back where he so obviously belonged: on primetime BBC1.
Witnessing the erstwhile Mighty Atom become a star all over again was arguably a fine use of anyone’s time in 2004, even if Strictly Come Dancing boasted a rather repetitive format that could make for interminable viewing. It was a huge ratings success, a great family show, and thanks to a hasty recommission a hit twice over. Whether the numerous spin-offs looming on the horizon can keep the momentum going is another matter, though a return outing for Bruce’s other BBC1 vehicle, Didn’t They Do Well?, would only be a good thing. An entertaining quiz of the type British TV used to do as a matter of course, it also contributed to the ongoing rekindling of a genre still doing sterling trade for the Beeb (from Mastermind and University Challenge, to QI) but completely misunderstood by ITV, whose 24 Hour Quiz was one of the most lifeless – and, absurdly given its ultra-static presentation, sweatiest – offerings of the year, while Bognor or Bust didn’t even have a title that made sense (the choice being between Bognor and a glamorous holiday location).
While a twist of reality TV supplied Strictly Come Dancing with, after Bruce, its most potent calling card, it also once again motivated the largest, most abundant and expensive events of 2004. Given that talent shows now fall under the reality umbrella, it was possible to sample such programmes every single week of the year. But it remained the case that given the right idea, application and casting, reality TV was far from a redundant format. Yes, you had an astonishingly woeful parade of misfires from ITV1, who seemed unable to learn from their very public mistakes. Design Wars had been a big old flop in 2003, but then the channel went and commissioned a similar reality-lifestyle hybrid in the shape of Trouble in Paradise, which was another huge flop. Even worse, though, was what came next: The Block, which was almost exactly the same! It’s worth dwelling on just how outrageously this was promoted (trailers going out over a month before it aired) yet how palpable was the sense of it being doomed to fail: a nobody presenter, irritating contestants and a poorly-contrived format, ensuring it was nigh-on impossible to care at all who won. Even Simon Cowell’s brother, one of the major selling points, didn’t appear until the second episode.
In contrast, although five proved equally capable of dealing in reality TV turmoil – Back to Reality, The Farm – it also rustled up the sublime Make it Big, depicting the utterly captivating exploits of a band of young teenagers charged with mounting a charity auction. The Apprentice USA, an American import on BBC2, benefited from dispatching its contestants not via a passionless and sombre result of the game’s mechanic, but from a free-wheeling boardroom discussion in which Donald Trump’s opinion was obviously swayed depending on the effectiveness of each participant’s representation. This, alongside multiple helicopters, casinos and appallingly plush apartments gave the series a pleasing swagger.
Channel 4 fared less well. What the Butler Saw reworked the US series The Family but kicked out all the sub-Dynasty glamour in favour of British working-class grit as self-proclaimed “chavs” the Callaghans tried to cut it as members of the aristocracy. But, there was something mealy-mouthed afoot here as instead of egging the players along, we were instead invited to shake our heads at their behaviour. Meanwhile, both That’ll Teach ‘em and Regency House Party failed to recapture the charm of their forerunners, the latter ending up close to a reality TV version of a Jane Austen novel with a dearth of likeable participants and an exposed Saturday night slot. It was no surprise to see its final episodes bundled out early one afternoon.
However, over on ITV1 I’m a Celebrity … Get Me Out of Here!, was, like Strictly Come Dancing, honoured with a double outing and remains clearly well-prized by its makers. OTT’s opinion was divided over its merits as TV to watch as opposed to TV to moan and/or read about in the next day’s papers. Hell’s Kitchen shared a similar passion for the pursuit of cruelty, albeit delivering enough moments of high drama (Amanda Barrie physically assaulting Gordon Ramsay; the chef labeling Edwina Currie “a despicable bitch”) and personal triumph to draw some viewers deep into proceedings. The violence witnessed on Big Brother 5, meanwhile, was more downright spiteful than specifically offensive or politically incorrect. In terms of maliciousness it outflanked even the dizzying amount of bullying and bitching that went on inside the Back to Reality maisonette, a venture ultimately even disowned by its sponsor, Heat magazine.
Meanwhile, The X Factor’s appearance meant there had been reality-based pop shows on Saturday night ITV1 every year now since 2000, but though the range of acts was impressively wide, dramatic impetus and tension was too often undermined by Kate Thornton whose ruthless determination to stick to the script forced everyone else to stand on their marks and stifled any spontaneous reaction. In a year that saw the most recent victor of Pop Idol vanish almost overnight, The X Factor proved there’s still some life in the talent show format. 2005 will prove whether that’s also the case for its winner, Steve Brookstein.
One area where reality TV undoubtedly provided sustenance was to digital channels. Both E4 and ITV2 would’ve been acutely threadbare without the numerous behind-the-scenes features and additional coverage generated by the above. E4 co-owned still more reality efforts with its parent, including King of Comedy, The Games, The Salon (at one point looking as if it was going to run forever) and Shattered (essentially a new version of Touch the Truck, and about as successful).
Meanwhile BBC3 launched The Other Boat Race, Sky One kicked off The Match, and BBC4 shared Crisis Command with BBC2. This was a superb series, emblematic of how important a role technology has become to reality-based game shows, while also offering up the sorts of participants you rarely get to see in these kinds of programmes: managerial executives and high-flyers. Against the clock, and able to call on various experts and the wise counsel of host Gavin Hewitt, Britain’s top business folk got together to wear expensive spectacles and elegant scarves while vouching their “gut feeling” suggested opening the Thames Barrier or allowing a rogue aircraft to approach London. Tremendously tense and properly – ie. sensibly – interactive, Crisis Command sought to demonstrate just how challenging managing a perilous situation can be. The bit at the end of each edition when Gavin announced, “You are now free to leave the Crisis Command centre” was the icing on the cake.
Even more technological chicanery was marshalled for BBC3’s Spy. For fans of adventure game shows it felt like all your Christmases had come at once. Cherry-picking the best aspects of both reality and entertainment formats, it created a perfect balance between fictional artifice and gaming mechanics. Quite simply it was a masterwork of its genre. Spy played on terrestrial TV in the slot vacated by The Simpsons, which BBC2 also tried hard to fill in 2004 which varying success. Claudia Winkleman’s fun dating show Three’s a Crowd easily outperformed Vernon Kay’s trying-too-hard pop trivia quiz HeadJam, but both were outflanked by Traitor, another show trading on duplicity and cunning, expertly hosted by Tony Livesey. Cruelly, neither this nor Spy received anywhere near the exposure and promotion they deserved.
The “reality” hook deployed by both Crisis Command and Spy – that of the country being forever on the edge of major catastrophe from terrorist attack, malicious subversion or toxic warfare – could be seen haunting the schedules throughout the year. It was there in numerous drama-documentary efforts such as the If … strand and The Grid on BBC2, England Expects and Dirty War on BBC1, and The Hamburg Cell on Channel 4. It percolated the third, underwhelming series of Spooks, inspired major set-piece investigations such as Invading Iraq: How Britain and America Got it Wrong and The Third World War: Al-Qaeda, and fuelled one of the bleakest-sounding documentaries ever, This World: One Day of War. All traded in the sort of fare not common to British TV since the re-heated Cold War of the 1980s: the doomsday scenario, of the world being essentially a bad place, where the important thing to know is how to deal with inevitable catastrophe rather than what to do to avoid it.
The one exception was the remarkable BBC2 series The Power of Nightmares: a three-part re-telling of post-war history from the point of view of Western politicians and Eastern terrorists, who both, it was argued, had repeatedly manipulated aspects of public fear to retain power. Just as arresting as some of its claims was its format: no presenter, the director doubling as narrator, archive footage from every terrorist outrage of the last 40 years, plus an array of sound effects jumbled up with black and white film clips. It all felt like a programme dating from several generations ago, but one that picked up increasing relevance – and public controversy – as it went on.
Echoes of former decades could be found elsewhere in single subject documentaries such as The Miners’ Strike (BBC2), Strike: When Britain Went To War (C4) and the BBC’s in-depth investigations into the IRA’s Brighton bombing and the Hungerford massacre: all meticulously-researched, dignified and definitive statements on their respective subjects.
The 1980s surfaced in a completely different fashion, however, in the most unlikely commission of 2004: ITV1’s Saturday night summer light entertainment juggernaut Simply the Best. Little more than It’s a Knockout with pop bands, it was ITV1 at its most unappealing: noisy and witless viewing, with annoying rounds that went on forever (the show was even extended to two hours DURING its run). The episode where it was pissing it down with rain right the way through could well be the most depressing piece of television ever made.
Scheduling was the one thing that safely distinguished Simply the Best from any number of ’80s forerunners. The grand final was relegated to half past three in the afternoon, a fate never bestowed upon Summertime Special. Indeed, the whims and wisdom of network schedulers impacted on light entertainment more than most this year. Robot Wars moved to five whereupon it was shuttled around three times to increasingly dire viewing figures. There will always be many things wrong with The Vault: its lack of atmosphere, its inept hosts, the questions being too hard, the contestants being too ill-prepared to answer them, rules that nobody can understand and which means the whole affair moves at a snail’s pace, the fact hardly anybody ever wins, and the fact when they do it’s always an anonymous nobody on a phone line – but that’s no excuse for running it for months on end!
The show easily swung the nomination for worst light entertainment programme of 2004. But then it didn’t face much competition. Discounting talent and reality-based shows, there was little else that hung around long enough to make an impression. Come and Have a Go if You Think You’re Smart Enough was scarce fun if you didn’t have the interactive capabilities to join in. Ant and Dec’s Saturday Night Takeaway lined up enough decent items for amiable viewing, though we’re wondering how long its hosts can withstand endless shuttling between this, I’m A Celebrity … and nothing else. It was notable, however, that … Takeaway remained a hit while Johnny and Denise’s Passport to Paradise wasn’t, particularly as many of the concepts were interchangeable. A strictly six-week stint did the latter no favours, though its presenters seemed to have something of a lack of ambition, and as a consequence the whole thing felt that bit cheaper and less sure-footed. Johnny Vaughan will perhaps always be something of an acquired taste, and to package him as anything otherwise tends to spell disaster.
At least he steered clear of comedy during 2004. Frank Skinner’s foray into sitcom, Shane, recalled his fellow chat show host’s lamentable ‘Orrible: precious few funny moments, and a final five minutes where its star desperately tried to write his way out of numerous dead ends. Shane wasn’t helped, again, by ITV1’s schedulers, who bundled out the last three episodes on consecutive nights – nor its star proclaiming unwisely “one is placing one’s genitals on the block if you make a sitcom.” Another attempt at crossover found Jamie Theakston turning his hand to sitcom in Mad About Alice, which despite the man’s affability only narrowly lost out to All About Me in terms of sugary moralising, poor performances and no-budget production values.
Still, there was plenty of other comedy across all channels. Little Britain ended up becoming the year’s must-see show thanks to a promotional blizzard and a transfer (with edits) to BBC1. Another rapid promotion to the mainstream was Harry Hill’s TV Burp, which graduated from a late-night slot to 5.30pm on a Saturday evening. A programme you either loved or hated, for some TV Burp was thoroughly likeable and fantastically funny, but for others it was a witless parade of lazy pops reeled off in front of a raucous audience by a man who said every sentence as if it had an exclamation mark at the end. Nevertheless, there was no doubting TV Burp’s lightness of touch which made it safe family viewing.
Another hit that also divided opinion was Channel 4’s Green Wing. Featuring as it did all of the current pre-occupations of “alternative” comic series: footage running at different speeds, super-realistic mumbled acting, overpowering trip-hop-esque incidental music and the odd surreal element chucked in for good measure, it served to delight or frustrate the viewer depending on their predisposition.
A welcome contrast to this and its similarly “dark” offspring – Peep Show, Revolver, Garth Marenghi’s Dark Place, Nighty Night, Monkey Dust – were ITV1’s attempts at unequivocally blatant efforts like Hardware and The All-Star Comedy Show, plus two BBC1 creations, The Worst Week of my Life and Carrie and Barry, neither of which got much in the way of critical acclaim but still benefited from funny scripts and, notably, some likeable performances which made them easy to watch. Rob Brydon’s Director’s Commentary and The Keith Barret Show suffered from endless repetition, while French and Saunders and The Lenny Henry Show were self-obsessed big budget follies.
As with 2003, though, it was America which supplied the unassailable first class comedy of the year: Curb Your Enthusiasm, the third series of which aired to negligible fanfare on E4 during the autumn. It’s the cleverest, most raw, most compulsive, most laugh-out-loud funny sitcom ever made. In a year which saw the end of both Friends and Frasier, it also raised the bar as regards expectations of contemporary US comedy. In response Malcolm in the Middle did well to spend another year on form, while by chance or design The Simpsons staged a revival, though ironically the “new” terrestrial episodes aired to great hullabaloo on Channel 4 dated from the show’s all-time nadir of four years ago. They didn’t prove to be that channel’s worst comic offering of 2004, however; that honour went to Max and Paddy’s Road to Nowhere: a self-indulgent, hugely disjointed vanity project with no jokes, topped off with appalling direction and pitifully amateurish acting.
It brought to a close a year that had begun with a celebration of Britain’s Best Sitcom, a tribute to everything that Max and Paddy wasn’t. Another of the BBC’s recent efforts to produce programming that represented the nation speaking unto itself, it actually felt a long way from being a definitive statement. That Only Fools and Horses came out on top told us nothing, while The Vicar of Dibley’s high placing served only to discredit the whole process, no matter how charitably we tried to take the news. Its highlights – Armando Iannucci’s defence of Yes Minister and Johnny Vaughan’s championing of Porridge – were also completely undermined by Rowland Rivron speaking for One Foot in the Grave despite having clearly no interest in, or even knowledge of, the programme in question.
Sharing Rivron’s penchant for making representations on behalf of subjects about which they knew little was Melvyn Bragg, who trotted out a raft of dire South Bank Show specials on Parkinson-esque crooners, TV drama and rock dinosaurs, none of which were that convincing or – thanks to demented scheduling – asked to be watched. Alan Yentob’s more open-minded high-profile efforts in Imagine … served up fine profiles of Arthur Miller, Marlon Brando and others, besides behaving like a proper flagship arts programme. In fact, the arts and music did well in 2004, thanks to traditional efforts like The Genius of Mozart and Venice, new magazine series The Culture Show, the UK Music Hall of Fame and the talent/reality show Musicality. The exception was Top of the Pops, whose demotion to BBC2 was announced at the end of the year. This was no surprise, really; it had never shown the inclination to sort out its many flaws, from dreary presentation and the unexciting music policy (some acts appearing seemingly every week, others never at all) to endless voice-overs and promotions.
If BBC1 without TOTP was once never thought possible, how about a BBC1 without EastEnders? 2004 was the first time such a notion moved from being downright unfeasible to only partly implausible. Off-set cast problems, changes in production personnel, boring characters and mediocre plots came together in one of the soap’s rockiest years, readily reflected in its worst ever ratings. The obsession with gangsters, hoodlums and vengeance choked off almost all credibility. The Ferriera family, supposedly the show’s big hopes, were dealt storylines covering kidneys, snakes, taxis and not much else. Leslie Grantham, meanwhile, resorted to playing most of his scenes gazing up at the ceiling looking like he wished he were somewhere else. His was a wasted resurrection, and now it seems he’s to be killed off – again. If things don’t pick up in Albert Square, by this time next year expect talk of cancellation to be rife.
In contrast both Coronation Street and Emmerdale enjoyed a bumper year, effortlessly turning out as many episodes as ITV1 required, and mixing broad comedy and outrageous tragedy with aplomb. The Bill merrily took on still more of a soap-esque hue through the pursuit of emotion-led storylines and sensationalist dénouements, with the sometime lackadaisical force of old increasingly substituted for ethically and sexually corrupt coppers dispensing their own particular brand of nasty justice.
A similar kind of morally ambiguous agenda could be seen influencing other high profile drama, such as C4’s No Angels and Teachers, Sky One’s US acquisition Nip/Tuck and ITV1’s double-pack of Bad Girls and Footballers’ Wives. All were obsessed with the consequence of characters ignoring established practices of behaviour and acting purely on self-interest. The cumulative effect of all this could be very relentless. Narcissism was at the very heart of Nip/Tuck, but while some found the portrayal of its concerns explosive without becoming overly showy, and cynical without being wearisome, others found its cyclic subject matter unyielding and remote.
Generally more appealing were the conventionally-modelled dramas, including historical fables (Gunpowder, Treason and Plot, He Knew he was Right, North and South), crime thrillers (Jonathan Creek, Murder City, The Long Firm, The Brief, Sex Traffic) and romantic fantasies (NY-LON, Blackpool). All of these stuck safely within their remit, but that was partly the point. They could deliver the goods because they had something tangible to offer, as opposed to dramas peopled by cardboard individuals forever seeking the most profitable way to get one over on each other. Which brings us to Shameless. Considered by many to be the stand-out work of the year, it’s OTT’s opinion that in fact this was a very one-note piece of television, essentially depicting the same type of scene (people shouting) over and over again. As a caricature of working class life, it was no better than Bread.
Of course, caricature doesn’t necessarily have to sit uncomfortably in drama, as proven by Hustle. Unashamedly derivative and peopled by archetypes, it balanced its blatant stealing from movies such as Ocean’s Eleven and The Sting with its own sense of the post-modern, regularly breaking the fourth wall to directly address the viewer. The story was all, here, rather than characterisation.
Similarly concentrating hard on the plot was Sea of Souls, which promised a fresh, sceptical spin on X Files-style paranormal dramas, but ultimately turned in something pretty pedestrian, mostly memorable for featuring actors of some distinction spouting poorly researched para-sceptical balderdash. Auf Wiedersehen, Pet lacked the sense of camaraderie and basic arsing about that had previously made it such a joy. Tony Marchant’s Passer By was even worse, bludgeoning its dramatic conceit to death with a swathe of incidental plotlines that rather too obviously echoed the main theme.
24 served up its usual ill-disciplined love for creating a spectacle, but despite the histrionics wisely balanced the antics of Jack Bauer with the gradual and believable corruption of the show’s moral heart, President Palmer. With no eleventh hour reprieve, he bowed out of the series’ finale thoroughly tainted, eschewing viewer anticipation for a final cliffhanger or twist in the tale. Charting a character’s motivation was less well handled by Without a Trace, which suffered from a propensity for navel gazing at the expense of fast-paced, slightly convoluted tales of missing people. At least this time Channel 4 showed a full series rather than simply cherry-picking random episodes.
Where sharply-drawn characters were placed in a significant historical or political context – Dunkirk, D-Day, Omagh, London – the results were breathtaking. But where the setting was hopelessly irrelevant the reverse was true, such as in ITV1’s Mine All Mine, which consisted of too many scenes of people running from location A to location B and well-known actors working too hard to appear loveable.
The regular appearance of just such big name “faces” at least leant some consistency to this veritable pot pourri. Quite a few turned up in a second run for BBC1’s The Afternoon Play, while elsewhere the usual ITV1 brand leaders such as Martin Clunes, Ross Kemp and Sarah Lancashire continued to put in the hours, Clunes delivering a rare immediate hit for the channel in the shape of Doc Martin. Lacking star attractions but blessed with the nostalgic feel of 1970s period drama was ITV’s Island at War, an unflinching study of life in the Nazi-occupied Channel Islands, but which seemed to move slower and slower with each episode, despite ending on a cliffhanger. Even less obviously successful were variations on a theme like Steel River Blues, an attempt to recreate London’s Burning only this time on Teesside. It prompted the question why not simply bring back the original, and also irked locals by giving its characters geographically-suspect Geordie accents. At least it managed to make it to the end of its allotted run. Making Waves, an attempt to recreate Soldier, Soldier only this time in the Navy, was axed after just three episodes. The remaining instalments have still to see the light of day.
A great deal more stability was evident within the scheduling of lifestyle shows, which despite being almost phased out on BBC1 and 2 (bar a few exceptions – Fat Nation, The Bank of Mum and Dad) were second only to drama in terms of airtime on the commercial channels. Five led the charge, engineering a property programme boom with newly-poached Justin Ryan and Colin McAllister. The pair made for reliably entertaining television as long as they were disagreeing with each other or those around them, and the channel also scored a hit with a programme that – whilst not featuring the duo – was clearly based upon their final effort for the Corporation as How to be a Property Developer re-worked the format of The Million Pound Property Experiment.
Elsewhere Faking It persevered with exactly the same format, but as a result often felt like it was operating in a vacuum. Even charges of misrepresentation from one participant failed to garner much publicity. At least it attracted viewers, unlike Risking it All, which seemed to have been watched by no one, but successfully usurped Trouble at the Top in delivering taut homilies from the world of business. Return to Jamie’s Kitchen and Beyond River Cottage brought little in the way of innovation, but both were welcome re-acquaintances with old friends. Less impressive was Honey, I Ruined the House, wherein Naomi Cleaver threw aside the caustic persona she established in Other People’s Houses and ended up far too middle-brow and prissy.
Programmes focusing on failures within the family unit comprised a sub-genre of their own. Little Angels and Who Rules the Roost seemed to touch a nerve, but the cheerleader here had to be Channel 4’s Supernanny. The no-nonsense programme, featuring nanny Jo Frost giving hapless parents advice on taming wayward children, put all the other channels to shame, peaking at an incredible 6.6 million viewers. However, Made for Each Other was possibly more compulsive TV with its raw analyses of couples’ relationships. Equally uncomfortable, but for entirely the wrong reasons, was The Sex Inspectors, illustrating how there are some areas in life TV “experts” can’t address without some real, serious thought beforehand. Wayward youths and ex-cons were also handed a degree of exposure thanks to Make Me Honest, Going Straight, Bricking It and The Heist. The latter was the most successful: a perfect one-line format (“former criminal geniuses team-up to see if they can pull off a series of heists at the behest of the programme-makers”) mixed with arresting images (footage of a crook actually stealing a painting from an art exhibition), though you couldn’t quite escape the feeling that even the programme-makers weren’t sure of the morally muddy waters they were getting into.
Such an ongoing proliferation in lifestyle-related output was no surprise, really, when long-running series Property Ladder and Grand Designs showed they could still pull in big audiences. But their continuing presence in the schedules also allowed Channel 4, for instance, the money and resources to plough back into less-watched ventures, most typically documentaries. It’s a trade-off that bore much impressive fruit in 2004: stand-alone efforts like Death in Gaza, which had as its climax the shocking murder of its own director, and Whicker’s War, with the titular raconteur re-tracing his adventures as a journalist in Italy in World War II; plus series like 30 Minutes, Monarchy by David Starkey, The Boy Whose Skin Fell Off (perhaps one of the best treatments of death ever seen on television) and fine offerings from Dispatches on the Royal Mail and anti-immigrant campaigners. C4 also came up with a trio of decent nostalgia-based documentaries, Who Killed Saturday Night TV?, Inside the Comedy Closet and When Soaps Ruled the World, each of which focused on an intriguing subject and had the time and knowledge to do something with it.
There were exceptions, naturally. Worst was Little Lady Fauntelroy in which Keith Allen tried to “expose” Lauren Harries and her family. The scenes of neighbours shouting abusive remarks were chilling enough to watch, but Allen’s rather contrived hissy fit at the end removed all credibility from the project. Who Stole Bob Monkhouse’s Jokes was appalling, the worst kind of tribute imaginable, while Jon Ronson’s Crazy Rulers of the World suffered from its host not having quite as rich material with which to make merry. Edge of the City inevitably lost impact thanks to being postponed, its allegations that an Asian gang were dragooning youngsters into the sex trade considered too inflammatory for transmission during local elections.
The BBC, on the other hand, had a near faultless record of documentaries in 2004. This clearly remains one of the Corporation’s real strengths, an area it has worked hard to develop, and the evidence was impressive. Both One Life and This World on BBC1 and 2 have become solid, reliable strands, while Storyville now serves BBC4 in a similar capacity. Michael Cockerill continued his run of colourful political films with The Downing Street Patient and Do You Still Believe in Tony?, Magic illuminated a much-belittled trade, while both Michael Palin (Himalaya) and Rolf Harris (Star Portraits; Rolf on Art) showed no sign of failing form. After literature and architecture, BBC2 turned to popularising genealogy, with the result – Who Do You Think You Are? – an overnight hit, something you didn’t expect to enjoy but which often proved mesmerizing. Special mention must go to BBC2’s Property People, which charted the progress of estate agents Greene & Co over a period of six months, and which succeeded because it let the action speak for itself rather than try and create memorable “characters” out of any of the participants.
Some of the BBC’s most entertaining documentaries were celebrations of itself. Goodbye Pebble Mill, Happy Birthday BBC2 and 25 Years of Question Time were all thoughtful and enjoyable tributes, perhaps surprisingly so in the case of Pebble Mill, though 50 Years of BBC TV News was more a rundown of the past half-century than anything much to do with television. BBC4’s month-long 1960s season, however, was a real mixed bag. The multitude of archive programming was to be praised, of course, but the accompanying investigations, in particular The Truth About Sixties TV, were lazy pot shots and posturing for the sake of it. Even the normally unimpeachable Time Shift was sometimes guilty of generalisation on this score.
That, plus the defection of Curb Your Enthusiasm to E4, helped BBC4 lose its status as OTT’s channel of the year. But its replacement didn’t just win by default. Across 2004 it demonstrated increasing confidence, flair and a preference for exciting, unexpected television. Much of its outstanding armoury – Spy, Catterick, Little Britain, Bodies, Conviction, The Smoking Room – was quickly exported onto terrestrial, but that shouldn’t deny BBC3 the honour it deserves. It’s a channel that’s now consistently innovating and attempting something for young audiences which amounts to far more than simply slapping on episodes of Friends back to back. It’s also demonstrably doing things no other channel would come close to, like Guerilla Homes, where Charlie Luxton looked at examples of new architecture and tried to come up with fresh ideas on housing: a thought-provoking, well-filmed and interesting prime time series you wouldn’t have seen anywhere else. BBC3’s main evening news now boasts Eddie Mair doing a sterling job as host, and though it’s questionable how many are tuning in, it always does a sturdy job of presenting current affairs in a lively way. It’s not a perfect channel yet, but it’s certainly improved and seems sure of finding its voice and niche.
Our nomination for show of the year, however, is a three-way tie: Derren Brown’s Séance; last year’s choice Dick and Dom in Da Bungalow; and Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmares. The faultless Bungalow now stands on the verge of becoming the best children’s show ever, while Kitchen Nightmares surprised many by revealing how profoundly the eponymous star felt for his craft. Behind the swearing and attitude appeared to be a man who went into paroxysms of grief when he came across substandard establishments, and who could encourage merit and motivation when neither seemed possible.
OTT’s 2003 review concluded that although the BBC had endured a “torrid” 12 months, it had been “a period spent scoring innumerable triumphs in the face of potential disasters.” We reckoned the Corporation seemed well placed to deal with whatever the Hutton Inquiry, then nearing completion, unearthed; after all, “its reputation had been enhanced rather than diminished by 2003’s most incendiary, contentious and ultimately fatal news story.”
Within a few weeks its Chairman had quit and its Director-General was ousted: a devastating turn of events, leading to a palpable sense of the entire Corporation reeling in disbelief and shock. Everything about what happened felt desperately wrong. For a terrible time even the future of the Beeb itself seemed up for grabs. Inevitably Michael Grade’s ensuing return to the BBC was greeted with near-rapture, though he wasn’t taking up the post of Director-General as would’ve been ideal, but Chairman. The new DG ended up being Mark Thompson. Initially this “dream team” basked in universal acceptance, but by the end of 2004 the mood was different, and, as noted at the start of this review, the talk was only of confusion and disquiet. Greg Dyke’s subsequent film for Channel 4, Betrayed by New Labour, was perhaps the most heartfelt piece of television all year. But by that point it was too late: things had moved on, and his justifiable gripes and angry testimony almost belonged to another time, his arguments forgotten just as quickly as that winner on Who Wants to be a Millionaire.
Maybe all the gloomy copy about the state of TV is right. Perhaps it’s a bit like interest rates and global warming: we won’t see the actual effects, or suffer the consequences, until several years down the line. What happens in the TV industry now won’t bother us for a good while. In the meantime why worry over something you can’t do anything about? The irony is, of course, that only time will tell. It’s a safe bet, though, that even if we don’t notice it, Millionaire will still be here.