Another 12 months on, and still Who Wants to be a Millionaire is one of ITV’s biggest successes.
Now long since beyond its days as a generator of headlines (save when there is suspicion of cheating) it has now passed beyond the realms of fad television, to join Coronation Street, Peak Practice, Cold Feet (and scant else on ITV) as a bona fide week-in, week-out ratings winner. Alistair McGowan and Steve Penk no longer jocularly ask us “do you want to phone a friend?”, so what in 2001 took the place of such easy comedic fodder? “You are the weakest link – goodbye” or “Pick me Nigel”?
Now deeply entrenched in tradition, OTT’s seasonal trip down the memory lane of the last 12 months of television seeks to gather together the discernible trends that graced our television screen, and bottle up for preservation the most ubiquitous format ideas that took simultaneous hold of the industry’s creative talents during 2001.
Reality still ruled in the game show genre, and when we weren’t getting real, we were getting nasty. Big Brother returned and against expectation was able once again to capture the public’s imagination. This year we had two doses – beginning with Comic Relief’s Celebrity Big Brother. Without doubt one of the standout television productions of the year, the degree of honesty that the production team brought to the portrayal of the collective lives of the entrapped celebrities far exceeded our expectations. With a wonderful ability to juxtapose or underscore the celebrities’ every action; an enthralling psychological game played out in the name of charity. After this, one wondered how we could ever come to care for the life of ordinary folk ensnared into the house in Bow.
Big Brother 2 therefore was something of a disappointment, although the introduction of almost 24 hour live coverage on E4 was a worthwhile, and ultimately rewarding television experiment. Whilst the programme demonstrated some moments of fine and observant TV-making (most notably the shot of Paul sitting alone in the garden, cast alone from the rest of the group having escaped yet another eviction), the overall package was less enthralling than we might have hoped. Nonetheless, eventual series winner – Brian – was genuinely witty and likeable. A far more welcome return came in the second series of The Mole. Diligent, avid viewing instilled dedication, because only dedication yielded clues, obvious motives behind entire games and of course the identify of the Mole herself. Conversely, Touch the Truck was pretty dire though initially compelling in the way a nasty road accident is, and spoiled by an ending that in retrospect was always going to be anticlimactic. Nonetheless, the demographic that made up its contestants proved to be a refreshing change for British television (including as it did, one homeless person).
C4’s Shipwrecked gave good entertainment throughout the year, and once we had forgiven Survivor its over the top pre-publicity and looked beyond the faux treachery elements of the game, here too was a relatively solid piece of entertainment which received astonishingly bad treatment at the hands of ITV schedulers (although the John Leslie fronted “eviction” episodes need to be seriously rethought if this series is to return). Yet one “game show” got the format just right. The gradual evolution of Pop Idol from Popstars mark two, into the quasi- “Stars In Their New Faces” format that will now bring the series to its conclusion ensured that the audience would remain captivated for the programmes long and torturous run. The inclusion of Ant and Dec was a good decision, but the programme’s willingness to address issues that similar shows would have ignored just a few years ago hints truly at the next generation of “reality television”. Giving over air time to the merits of whether or not Rik Waller should have been given a “bye” through the first of the programme’s final heats might have usefully eaten up airtime, but the self-analysis was compelling too, with the programme acting as its own right of reply.
Drama was responsible for two of the real highpoints of 2001, which effectively book ended the year: the home-made In a Land of Plenty, and the US import Band of Brothers. Both were outstanding and quite possibly represented the best use of the TV as a visual medium for innovative and memorable storytelling for at least half a decade. Both also boasted moments of extreme quiet emotional intensity alongside powerful noisy confrontations and neither overshadowed the other. The result was some of the most affecting TV in a very long time, with In A Land of Plenty, in particular demonstrating that the BBC is still able to produce groundbreaking memorable drama when it really wants to.
One of the other stand out series was another American import: The West Wing, which was superb in its total and convincing realization of an alien world – the high politics of a foreign country. But it was unfairly maligned by C4’s malicious scheduling, simply because the now ex-chief executive Michael Jackson didn’t like it. No British series has come close to depicting the business of Government as involving and overwhelming as this. Meanwhile towards the end of the year ITV brought us Bob and Rose, which although rather losing its way towards the end was as fine a demonstration of how to create high quality, populist drama as has been seen on ITV for years. Russell T Davis left behind much of the self-indulgence that riddled Queer as Folk 2 and delivered six tautly written scripts that were magnificently translated on to screen by Alan Davies and Leslie Sharp. Yet in a common theme for the year it was shifted around the schedules at the whim of ITV executives desperate for ratings success.
Red Productions – the makers of Bob and Rose – seemed to have TV drama sown up this year, bringing us also Clocking Off and Linda Green. All three series were very similar in tone, concentrating on Northern England communities, each essentially nothing more (or less) than superior soap operas. C4 tried to unfurl a new flagship drama series that also concentrated less on its characters’ professional careers, and more on their private lives. Teachers, which started off a ragged third rate This Life, actually got better towards the end becoming much more focused. However it never succeeded in transcending its obvious attempt to become fashionable television. Various post-modern flourishes (such as the physical depiction of the day of the week) made the series appear a little dated and somewhat desperately to try and innovate. ITV’s Cold Feet was similarly playful, but somehow that series seemed to be able to get away with its moments of self-indulgence.
2001 was a quiet year for one-off dramas (although Neil Pearson playing journalist John Diamond in the epistolary terminal cancer drama A Lump in my Throat lives in the memory) and so to for soap operas. Home and Away returned to our screens, and brought Channel 5 its first ever truly reliable ratings stream without ever really attracting anyone’s attention. Hollyoaks and Brookside both shuffled awkwardly through the year (although the former energetically sprouted forth with a terrible spin-off series and an even worse DVD). Coronation Street, failed to bring forth any truly memorable stories, with the rape of Toyah Battersby seemingly producing no long-term implications for either the victim or her family. As Christmas came round, the producers looked again to Curly and Raquel for another heartbreaking story (only this time it wasn’t Curly and Raquel at all but Ashley and Maxine) and the latest in a long line of love triangles looks set to inform the chatter at the Rover’s Return come New Year. Emmerdale bothered our consciousness only enough to have us tuning in to watch the screen debut of the Soapstars family, and the return of Crossroads and the arrival of Night and Day only served to prove that here in Britain we don’t like our soap operas to be too slick. So it was left to EastEnders to capture our attention. In a year that saw the programme celebrate the inclusion of a fourth weekly episode, by all accounts the unfolding storyline of the Slaters has made for enthralling television; however OTT’s plea to the scriptwriters for 2002 would be to try and produce a dramatic episode that does not rely on an ironical counterpoint to accentuate the gravity of what is unfolding before us. A word of advice: If you ever move to Albert Square make sure you attend all of the parties, otherwise next time it could be to you we are watching sobbing in the gutter each time we cut away from the revelries.
Techniques of drama were brought to bear on documentaries ever more this year. Leo Regan’s Battle Centre, a documentary about the Jesus Army, broadcast as part of Channel 4’s True Stories had it all – finely honed characters, a number of intriguing sub plots and an element of tragedy that usefully bound together the programme’s disparate themes. Particularly compelling was the on screen transformation of Aberdonian Alec from sceptic to fervent believer. Following him through this change allowed us an unprecedented insight into how a man can find faith. Jazz – the Ken Burns series was an overdue documentary series, but suffered slightly from its concentration on the early development of the music, leaving the last part to cover over 20 years, with the result that it skipped over too much important material. Keeping up with it was not helped by BBC2’s habit of screening it after Newsnight and then continually changing the start times; a fate of course that would never be inflicted upon BBC1’s high profile The Blue Planet and Walking With Beasts (which still boasts unrealistic computer graphics).
The stand out documentary series of the year was Jon Ronson’s The Secret Rulers of the World, which while becoming almost glorified muckraking in places, was still pretty exceptional investigative journalism. In particular the programme on David Icke revealed how unrelated incidents could be woven together to create a conspiracy theory compelling enough for those who wished to believe, but lacking any of the credibility that would be required to persuade a sceptic. When Louis Met Paul and Debbie was fine, if a bit of an anticlimax after Theroux’s previous encounter with Jimmy Saville and his foray with the Hamiltons was compelling for reasons outwith his control. As 2001 draws to a close one suspects that the glory days of Theroux may just be over, and that his programmes will quietly devolve from being “must see” to just another pleasant diversion. Paul Daniels’ claim of having moved Louis into the mainstream are probably deserved.
Robert Thirkell-esque “experiments” still ruled documentary on the minority channels. Faking It may have been contrived, repetitive and ultimately quite embarrassing, but the conclusion to the first programme’s attempt to turn a chip butty loving Geordie into a top class chef was truly one of the most joyous television moments of the year. I Love the Eighties wasn’t as overwhelmingly enjoyable as its predecessor, primarily because it was simply too patchy. I Love the Nineties was absolutely awful though, with little to redeem it whatsoever. Rather incredibly the entire production team appeared to forget how to make nostalgia programmes and succeeded only in omitting almost everything that was really important about the decade. The quality of punditry was also atrocious. 2001 was to be the death knell of this kind of popular nostalgia, and one is left to wonder the future – if any – for Channel 4’s Top Ten series (we don’t want a profile of Kim Catrall in a nostalgia programme!).
Standard documentary making receded into the background from 11 September onwards. To bring to bear any critical faculties as to the coverage of this incident is an impossible task, not least because there is no similar TV event with which to make a comparison. ITV justifiably received a slap on the wrists after cutting the most horrific scenes of the destruction of the World Trade Center to music. In general though, there was an equitable balance struck ensuring the focus remained more on the communication of information than on an emotional reaction to the attack. Perhaps sensing the undercurrent of unease that the British public felt towards espousals of the inherent rightness of the American way, much of the contextualization of American footage was stripped away before being made available on our screens. A live edition of Question Time bravely allowed a headlong clash between the US’ perception of itself and how it’s perceived by other countries shortly after the atrocity, making for courageous and useful television. A shame, then, that Greg Dyke would later apologize for the programme.
2001 was a terrible year for comedy. The stand out series was Phoenix Nights, and nothing else came close. This was extremely witty, well-made, immensely satisfying entertainment that worked because it felt like its cast and production team really enjoyed making it; and it prompted – in the character of Keith Lard – a classic life-meets-art moment with real local fire safety officer Keith Laird demanding an apology from Peter Kay for defamation. In comparison, nothing much else was even mildly as funny. The adaptation of Adrian Mole: The Cappucino Years was a real disaster, with no likeable characters, a script without humour, meandering direction and worst of all Keith Allen, as usual playing himself. ‘Orrible was a dreadful omen for Johnny Vaughan’s future with the BBC, but did at least provide fuel for a good joke at the British Comedy Awards. Absolutely Fabulous was wretched from the start, then was slammed by its own creator – Jennifer Saunders – who wished she’d never written the new series; it’s all very well saying that after the event, but why inflict the misery on us in the first place?
Two Pints of Lager and a Packet of Crisps cropped up in BBC2’s much-publicised Comedy Zone and typified much of the lame output therein, a mark of Controller Jane Root’s disinterest in any kind of comedy output or indeed anything based on energy or innovation. Over on ITV you had Sam’s Game, a nadir in new sitcoms, starring a woman who wasn’t an actor and penned by people who weren’t scriptwriters. Baddiel’s Syndrome and The Office were hugely overrated vanity projects, but whereas the latter did at least able to capture something of its subject, the former – like ‘Orrible was one of those programmes that you couldn’t understand anyone ever thinking of as being worthwhile. There were many more weak comedies – The Sketch Show, Noble and Silver and Mr Charity, yet hopes were never high for these anyway. Similarly and strangely Dr Terrible’s House of Horrible never looked like it was going to be any good, even though Coogan still remains one of this country’s finest modern comedians. Even more bizarrely, the really patchy My Family gave BBC1 an unexpected ratings hit by sticking to entirely mainstream and old-fashioned sitcom rules. The Savages, therefore failed for ignoring precisely those self same rules (you can’t have Geoffrey Palmer drinking out of a beer can). On the positive side The Adam & Joe Show was still great (especially their splendid pastiche of jam) and The Dave Gorman Collection was really fun; but while People Like Us remained uniformly amusing, Bob Martin was a bit too inconsistent, sometimes spot on, at other moments hackneyed. Of course one of the most important comedies of the year – the Brass Eye special – justified itself alone thanks to the fuss it provoked. Morris’ point was never made more eloquently than by those people choosing to complain about something they hadn’t even watched.
And let’s not forget children’s TV. Blue Peter remains the best it has been for a very long time, a regularly entertaining and exciting show, with the highlight being the superb Matt Baker including his surreal impersonation of Ali G during the BP Roadshows. Also great was the little-publicised DIY TV which allowed a group of school kids the opportunity to create their own television programme. The series was particularly interesting for its unflinching and non-patronizing insight into the very adult world of television production. Conversely, the health of CBBC stalwarts such as Byker Grove (which horribly had kids getting married this year) and Grange Hill seemed less certain. CITV tried stranding the same shows at the same time every single day but lost viewers and money as a result. Of course the big news all year in children’s television was Saturday mornings. The BBC replaced Live & Kicking with The Saturday Show and achieved at least some level of success (in that the strength of criticism directed at its predecessor was not brought to bear upon it). However the BBC remain resolutely unhip in comparison to ITV and SM:TV Live. The post Ant and Dec episodes hint perhaps at a level of self-indulgence that if sustained will do the series no favours (particularly the continuation of “Chums”) but one waits to see just exactly what the likeable James Redmond will bring to the mix.
This was a year of change too for daytime TV. Countdown seems only to work well at 45 minutes when there’s a real competition between two intriguing contestants; if it’s a walkover then it does become dreary and almost boring, despite all of Richard’s bonhomie. BBC1 are walking all over ITV, what with the relative failure of Crossroads and the collapse of This Morning following Richard and Judy’s departure. One of the most tasteless sights of the year was the way ITV dragged an over-tired, worn Fern Britton back to present the show just weeks after having a baby all in the name of ratings. However it was notable that Mrs Madeley herself was unable to get through the first edition of her new Channel 4 show without the aid of a little comfort blanket. The jury remains out on Richard and Judy, but the new show’s brevity and abundance of populist ideas augurs well for the couple’s long-term success.
In general 2001 reinforced the feeling of the BBC in ultra-confident mood, buoyed up by its ratings success. However, going off the evidence on the screen – it could still be argued that the wrong people are in the wrong jobs, especially the two channel controllers, and that the “recovery” is more as a result of ITV’s misfortune than anything else. David Liddiment and co will leave 2001 brawling with press, public and each other, much as they began the year. ITV’s most prominent characteristic still remains its inability to run its schedules to time with programmes routinely going out almost 10 minutes late, with no explanation. This year has cast a multitude of humiliations upon what was once Britain’s most popular channel, with Crossroads, Slap Bang, Survivor, This Morning, Bob and Rose and The Premiership all suffering the ignominy of rescheduling due to poor ratings. Never more than now has ITV had to rely on the big name signings that can be parachuted into one-off dramas, and the ratings triumvirate of Coronation Street, Emmerdale and Who Wants to be a Millionaire. David Liddiment may have professed not to care about ratings, but dropping Shafted after just a couple of programmes suggests the contrary. Add to this the perilous situation that ITV Digital finds itself in and one is looking at a future for ITV that is becoming dangerously ill defined.
Conversely Mark Thompson has got an opportunity to really sort out C4, and hopefully he’ll realize how many of the programmes require refreshing or axing, starting with The Big Breakfast (which with its “relaunch” in January totally failing on all counts, has suffered a dreadful year). Like the challenge that awaits BBC2, Channel 4 needs to find its role in a multi-channel environment. E4 looked initially as if it were going to scout the territory ahead, but after it became apparent that the channel’s costly first run acquisitions were not going to draw viewers, it has become creatively dormant, waiting perhaps for the return of Big Brother, or – hopefully – the infusion of original and funny comedy (and if TV Go Home is anything to go by, the wait continues). Whatever happens it’s hard now to recall the optimism that surrounded the station’s launch back in January; back when its impending existence seemed to actually matter.
So all in all it’s been a bit of a rum old year. But of course the sheer volume of television broadcast ensures there are always a few notable moments. In the future we shall remember TV in 2001 (if we remember it all) for the dreadful staging of the BAFTAs (replete with Angus Deayton’s lamentable performance as host); the return of News at Ten (becoming a pale shadow of what it once was); the demise of Right to Reply; ITV becoming ITV1; the return of Darius Danesh and Only Fools and Horses (the former revitalized, the latter an equivalent of the walking dead) ; the most moribund television election campaign in living memory; the long overdue axing of The Big Breakfast; the terribly disappointing translation of Jonathan Ross’ radio show onto television and of course the Edinburgh Festival Perrier Awards on C4 which wins OTT’s vote for the worst piece of live television all year.