As 2009 wraps up, and the “best of the noughties” appraisals get under way, what, if anything, from the decade’s final 12 months will be brought into focus? Incredibly it seems, 2009 was the year of Simon Cowell, who having been involved in talent shows for most of the last 10 years, still has something left to keep him at the top of the TV hierarchy. Will his luck run out in 2010, or is Cowell’s renewed dominance merely a sign that 2009 has been a year in which very little has truly emerged on the small screen to create the kind of impact his shows muster?
Creating impact, albeit not on the kind of international tabloid-baiting level as Susan Boyle, Torchwood: Children Of Earth was one of the year’s undoubted big hitters. Losing the show’s previous juvenile snigger, this five-parter, stripped across a week was actually very close to being a remake of Nigel Kneale’s 1979 Quatermass, and was all the better for it. It was taut, philosophical, exciting and somehow managed to ram some of Torchwood’s camper elements into plotting that wouldn’t have looked out of place in Troy Kennedy Martin’s best work. It asked questions about exactly how far over the mark a government might go in order to protect itself, and if nothing else, you have to wonder what other drama could have included the image of a Rachel Whiteread sculpture being dumped into a quarry, with its smashed concrete remains revealing a butt-naked John Barrowman…
All in all it was a pretty good year for telefantasy. BBC3’s Being Human somehow managed to synthesise the best elements of the Buffyverse then dilute it with a British sensibility rooted in Hammer Horror films and Channel 4 contemporary dramas. Boy Meets Girl stretched the hoary old body swap plot idea across four episodes and tried to approach it with a modicum of realism, succeeding admirably, largely due to Rachael Stirling’s affecting performance as Martin Freeman trapped in a woman’s body. This was a brave bit of programming for ITV1.
With Heroes dying a slow, convoluted death, it took Misfits on E4 late in the year, to do something new with the ordinary people who have extraordinary powers idea by giving those abilities to a group of repellent youngsters working community service. Broadcast late, it scored by introducing bad language and sex into a genre usually barren of such things and underscored the post (new) Who shift towards adding comedic fantasy elements into series that might otherwise have become worthy explorations into the dark heart of society.
The second series of Ashes to Ashes continued this dark theme. The fuzzy 1980s nostalgia – although still present – was a less important part of the mix, while Philip Glenister had personally petitioned the show’s writers to make Gene Hunt less of a mythologised hero figure and more a real man. Keen to get to grips with the grittier side of ‘80s policing, it also addressed the first series’ ill-judged response to the Scarman Report (wherein Hunt rubbished the efforts to rout racist and crooked coppers) with a storyline about corruption in the Met.
ITV1 brought back Primeval for a third series, with Jason Flemyng taking over as the main male lead. Although the show enjoyed another successful run, it was subsequently cancelled, much to the annoyance of its fans. Surprisingly a co-production deal was later hammered out with one of the satellite channels for two extra series, with all of the current cast returning. Sadly, a similar fate was not to be on the cards for BBC1’s Robin Hood, which after three years at the heart of the Saturday evening schedule was cancelled. Robin actor Jonas Armstrong had been set to bow out, and a potential successor character named Archer had been introduced in the event of a fourth series… but it proved to be in vain. The BBC’s other would-be Doctor Who, Merlin, reappeared in September and plodded along as it had the first time around – until the final two episodes, when it suddenly burst into life and became the kind of series it should have been a year ago.
Doctor Who enjoyed a slightly wonky run this year, with the consensus being that ‘Planet of the Dead’ was disposable in an annoying way, while ‘The Waters of Mars’ was a brilliant example of pressure cooker drama. ‘The End of Time: Part One’ was quite simply all over the place, unfortunately hampered by the introduction of another group of human scientists working away in a lab – a set up that the series has yet to make look at all convincing. John Simm’s Master was now some kind of Marvel Comics super villain, and his resurrection horribly reminiscent of the terrible 1989 Doctor Who adventure ‘Battlefield’. Still, Bernard Cribbins and Timothy Dalton made up for a lot of the episode’s deficiencies.
Even at its worst, every other piece of telefantasy shown in 2009 was still miles better than Paradox – widely regarded as this year’s Bonekickers. Originally touted for a five-night-a-week stripped run, it was eventually shown across five weeks with audiences declining as it went along. While innovative programming is always welcome and preferable to just another cop show, it has to be done well and Paradox came across as complete nonsense from start to finish.
Away from sci-fi, the trend in TV drama for resurrecting old concepts (that Only Fools prequel finally airs in 2010) continued with the most ill-conceived yet coming from Five. Minder featured Shane Richie and Lex Shrapnel in a low-powered crime comedy caper, with Richie as Archie Daley – hitherto unseen and never mentioned nephew of Arthur – and Shrapnel as his rough diamond associate, Jamie. The series was marketed as sporting the aesthetics of Lock, Stock – as if that franchise hadn’t long since become passé – and seemed woefully under-resourced on screen with long, static, sparsely populated scenes and zero charm or chemistry between the leads. The real beauty of the original Minder was in the casting, not the concept. This was never a show begging to be ‘re-imagined’. Malapropisms alone aren’t enough, and this time the lobster was well and truly off.
Far better was New Year’s Day’s long-awaited return of Jonathan Creek. The one-off special ‘The Grinning Man’ was directed by the notoriously hands-on David Renwick, and was a competent, if not breathtaking, addition to the canon. Hustle also returned, bringing with it original cast member Adrian Lester (who’d taken the previous year off). The show had floundered a little in his absence, but although he was back, Jaimie Murray and Marc Warren were replaced by Matt Di Angelo and Kelly Adams. Like Creek, Hustle is on again in 2010, although filming of the show has shifted to Birmingham (part of the BBC’s policy of relocating drama production away from London).
Over the pond, the second series of lauded US drama Damages faltered badly. You couldn’t blame the show for playing all its cards first time around, but reassembling the deck for another hand made it seem horribly contrived. Meanwhile, Sky 1 brought us Jack Bauer’s latest ‘long day’ in the seventh series of 24. Here was some audacious, manic and beautifully plotted television. The return of Tony Almeida, which many feared as a shark-jumping innovation, instead proved a huge success.
However, FX’s Dexter is arguably the best drama currently coming out of America; a skewed serial killer saga which continued to delight and test its audience during its third series as the title character forged an unlikely relationship with an unhinged Assistant District Attorney (Jimmy Smits). The duo’s partnership went through many twists, often stretching credulity, but in each case the series would later revisit the more unlikely moments and present new evidence which wholly justified them. It also began a slow-burning storyline in which Dexter’s sister, Debs, slowly began to piece together the truth about him. It’s a plot strand that’s destined to unravel over the next two seasons (Dexter’s been commissioned up to series five).
For the very few still watching, Lost’s penultimate series was brimming with confidence and the TV equivalent of watching Rolf Harris paint. Suddenly, those seemingly random moments made at the very beginning of the process began to take shape, proving the show’s creators really did know what they were doing all along.
Law and Order: UK was an attempt to bring a US drama format over here. Shown on ITV1 in February, this version transplanted the action to London and had former Torchwood boss Chris Chibnall on-board as show-runner. Bradley Walsh and Battlestar Galactica’s Jamie Bamber were the two leads, and despite impressive performances from them, the series was chopped in half with the latter batch of episodes being held over for showing at a later date.
Perhaps the standout drama of the year, at least in terms of art direction was the adaptation of David Peace’s Red Riding by Channel 4. Heavily promoted and trumpeted as something rather special, the series came across as dark, bleak and impenetrable, yet there was something about its grimy atmosphere and aesthetic that made it compelling television. David Morrissey, in particular, turned in a career best performance.
Soap operas gentle slide from a position of absolute ratings dominance continued throughout 2009. The manner in which ITV1 shunted Coronation Street around the schedules didn’t help and instead annoyed the series’ loyal viewers by forcing them to search it out. It was moved from its traditional Wednesday slot for football, while its shift to Thursday was probably as good a solution as any, but this then meant there were three episodes in just over 24 hours, followed by very little for the rest of the week. Furthermore, the channel then continued to shove extra episodes on football-free Wednesdays anyway. It’s now almost impossible to answer the question, when is Coronation Street on?
For those who don’t tune into the soaps on a regular basis, it’s usually possible to keep up with major storylines through a kind of popular cultural osmosis, but in 2009 if you weren’t tuning into EastEnders there was very little chatter elsewhere in the media to appraise you of what had been going on. Coronation Street appears to have the best year out of the big three, but the show’s recent predilection for crafting various stories in which Rosie Webster actress Helen Flanagan gets her kit off is a bit distasteful, and will surely only generate press interest from lads’ mags and The Star.
ITV1 opened the batting in the traditional game show stakes on New Year’s Day with a revival of The Krypton Factor – which had been off our screens for 14 years. Thankfully using the show’s traditional format rather than the bodged mid-90s reboot, it was at least faithful to the original, challenging its contestants mentally and physically. Similar mixed-discipline tests were found in the second series of Beat the Star, which ITV1 axed after this year’s run. Still on the channel, the Andrew Castle-fronted series Divided appeared to be two game shows in one: a fairly straightforward question-and-answer session requiring the contestants to work together to succeed, followed by a divisive and deliberately unfair division of spoils that encouraged everyone to bully and hector each other in order to claim the lion’s share of the loot. The fact the first show ended with a contestant in tears marked this out as truly questionable television. Nonetheless, ITV1 has commissioned more of this, to replace Golden Balls. A far better experiment with the 5pm slot was The Chase, which sees contestants face off against quiz experts; however, this was clearly created as a spoiler to the BBC’s rival Eggheads.
The BBC launched a couple of new afternoon quizzes in a hunt for successors to the aforementioned Eggheads and The Weakest Link. A Question of Genius was a fairly good show hobbled by a slightly too complex format. Meanwhile the entertaining Pointless, ably helmed by Alexander Armstrong, inverted the classic ‘ranked lists’ notion by asking players to think of the least popular valid answers. The series’ genius element was the inclusion of Armstrong’s “pointless friend” Richard Osman, who – as well as adjudging the players’ responses – totted up a running total of obscure possible answers. By the series’ end he was able to declare the Central African Republic as the world’s most “pointless” country, in that those surveyed about various geographical matters never thought to mention it.
Five, not previously having held much weight in the game show genre, taxed a troupe of contestants in the impressive Britain’s Best Brain, though much of the publicity was generated not by the show itself but its presenters – Zoe Ball and Jamie Theakston. The reunification of the presenting duo perhaps shifted attention from the show’s bizarre end game, watching a giant inflatable get bigger and bigger. What this had to do with brainpower was anyone’s guess.
Elsewhere, Nick Knowles returned with a new game in the National Lottery cycle, Guesstimation, which was a decent format nobbled by the fact it was designed as a “format to fit the purpose” (the purpose being in this case to plug Dream Number and the 2012 Olympics) rather than developed as a series in its own right.
Guesstimation may have completed its run, which is more than can be said for The Colour of Money. Clearly designed as a successor to the now ageing Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?, it even shares that show’s presenter Chris Tarrant. While Millionaire became a global hit that made its creators into millionaires themselves, ITV actually saw little of the income, as the show was an independent production. It was presumably hoped The Colour of Money, an ITV-made show, would become a hit of similar scale. But it was riddled with flaws. Here we witnessed contestants attempting to withdraw amounts of cash from different coloured machines, before the device reached its maximum pay-out. In a pre-Millionaire era, the format would have been a tight, chirpy half-hour; instead, ITV1 loaded the show with unnecessary lard, most of the narrative coming from the players ‘rationalising’ which hued dispenser to go for (“As my husband’s in the forces, I’ll go for khaki”). Unfortunately, the way the games themselves progressed didn’t provide enough variation, which meant if you saw one episode, you’d seen them all. The show was quickly axed, with the final edition held back until a mid-afternoon slot on December 29.
Still, it seemed in 2009 if you didn’t like a particular game show, another would be along in the minute. This meant that as terrible as The Colour of Money was, there was always the chance something else would come along later in the year to supplant it as 2009’s game show nadir. And so it was when Five’s Heads or Tails rolled up on our screens. A naked attempt to cash in on Deal or No Deal, this was a terribly executed programme with meaningless contortions of the show’s format put in place to string the whole thing out to a desirable running time. Worst still, the whole business of host Justin Lee Collins flipping the actual coin was poorly realised, and what should have been the programme’s iconic moment just looked downmarket and naff.
So if Heads or Tails was the year’s worst new game show, what was its best? Well the aforementioned Pointless was worthy of our esteem, as was ITV1’s The Cube. This was a brilliantly judged Saturday night show, magnificently presented by Philip Schofield. Here the post production effects and bullet time camera work all coalesced into something that was genuinely gripping, even when the tasks (like walking in straight line while blindfolded) were mundane in the extreme. If it’s going to return for a second series, our suggestion would be that the risk-to-reward ratio of each game would benefit from another look, but that aside here was the best new ITV1 game show since – probably - Who Wants To Be A Millionaire.
Away from the traditional game shows and into the kitchen, Marco Pierre White’s second stint at the helm of Hell’s Kitchen was pretty unmemorable. The latest batch of celebrity chefs completed dinner service every night, while their boss seemed more concerned by conjuring up lazy bon mots. The Restaurant’s return for a third series initially proved every bit as exciting as previous years – and that was despite the fact the show had clearly taken a huge budget cut (less episodes, less eateries opened). The first two episodes proved a complete joy, but come the time the contestants were ensconced in their establishments, it all fell apart. Seemingly in an effort to compensate for the cut in episodes, one challenge and one full service were leavened into every edition, meaning we never saw enough of either. Then, a series of staggeringly poor choices resulted in contestants JJ and James winning the show. That the ‘chef’ in the duo hadn’t cooked once over the series utterly undermined the whole concept. Perhaps the production team felt they were hooking in another charmingly chaotic double-act like last year’s Alistair and James. But no. A culinary clutz going into business with Raymond Blanc? C’mon! We still like a smidgeon of reality in our reality TV.
Thankfully MasterChef, in all its variants, was superb and has long since felt like an unkillable format… despite the schedulers’ best attempts this year. The scheduling of MasterChef: The Professionals left many viewers perplexed. The series was originally commissioned for an early evening spot, but then moved into prime time at the eleventh hour, even though there wasn’t a regular gap available for it across the week. As a result, Monday and Tuesday editions felt like one-and-a-half episodes each, throwing the whole thing off kilter. Still, the initial rounds were greatly enhanced by the presence of Monica Galetti, who did her best to be completely annoyed just to be there, while Michel Roux Jr developed from his previously taciturn and scary persona into someone rather nice. With a new “regular” series due in January, a celebrity version currently being filmed and a “junior” offshoot in the works, here’s hoping the channel makes enough room in its schedules for all the franchises, perhaps saving some space by getting rid of the endless recaps that litter each show – after all we’re not that stupid, surely?
Stupid, however was at the very core of Total Wipeout, an It’s A Knockout for the 21st century. The cartoonish buffoonery was, on the face of it, inoffensive, but digging deeper behind the trowelled-on irony and lampoonery, the show contributed very little in terms of quality, and seemed to exist purely to provide extra employment for the popular Richard Hammond. The BBC’s baffling devotion to the format saw two full series in 2009, the first of which was needlessly repurposed mere weeks after its end to fill a half-hour Friday night slot. It could be argued this was to the programme’s detriment – it’s certainly highly entertaining for the first few outings (witness Ben Miller crying with laughter when reviewing the show on You Have Been Watching: “It may just be falling in the water but it’s every single kind of fall into the water you can think of!”) but, like Hole In The Wall, the relentless silliness works best in small doses.
Speaking of which, in 2009 there were two new TV quiz shows all about TV itself. As Seen On TV, helmed by Steve Jones (of T4, rather than Pyramid Game or Sex Pistols fame), provided a welcome return for the pre-watershed middleweight puzzler that the BBC had earlier decided to eradicate to save cash. The concept of a light-hearted panel game is not a bad one at all and it’s something we should have more of, but As Seen On TV was hamstrung by its bizarre refusal to show anything from before the mid-90s, reaching a nadir with a round of questioning about 2008. If Harry Hill couldn’t think of anything funny to say about Wallander, what chance Fern Britton? It almost seemed to go out of its way to be unfunny by choosing ridiculously uninteresting clips. Meanwhile, Charlie Brooker built on his Screenwipe success by launching a new C4 series, the aforementioned You Have Been Watching. This took the form of a panel game/discussion built around Brooker’s TV predilections. However, the game appeared rather tacked-on, and most Brooker followers would prefer to hear the journalist voice his views without appended frippery.
Celebrity travelogues continued to be a popular way for factual television to go during 2009. Billy Connolly: Journey to the Edge of the World was the big ITV1 travel series of the winter, and featured the Big Yin in Canada, attempting to trace the north-west passage. Meanwhile, Last Chance to See saw Stephen Fry follow in the footstep of the late Douglas Adams as he and Mark Carwardine went to visit some of the planet’s most endangered animals. The Around the World in 80 Days format was revived in aid of Comic Relief on BBC1 in October, this time featuring a whole host of celebrities each taking on a leg of the journey rather than doing the whole lot themselves a la Michael Palin. While the show had its moments and undoubtedly raised a lot of money for charity, as a travel documentary it was nowhere near as interesting as the journey undertaken 20 years earlier. By Any Means returned for a second series, this time following Charley Boorman as he travelled from Sydney to Tokyo. While the first run seemed to have a clearly-defined aim the second series abandoned clocking up the number of different modes of transport used, and so it all became a little directionless.
James May proved yet again that of the Top Gear trio he is the one most able to go and make interesting spin-off projects. He followed up his Big Wine Adventure by taking to the road with Oz Clarke again, this time looking at a wider range of British booze in Oz and James Drink to Britain. The show provided an engaging snapshot of the UK’s past and present drinking habits, and showcased the people fighting to keep British brewing alive. May then piped up again at the end of the year with Toy Stories. Inspired by his Top Toys specials in past years, this engaging programme saw him corralling the public into assisting him in building giant projects based on playthings from the pre-Playstation era. It was fun and pointless, rather like Top Gear without the testosterone, and so all the better for it.
The Hairy Bikers Food Tour of Britain commenced at the end of summer, with the pair embarking on a mammoth gastronomic journey around the country, with most – if not all – of the counties of the UK being represented. It was a huge undertaking, with five episodes shown a week at teatime. And while it was very interesting to see such an idea played out, the shows did seem to become very repetitive after a few weeks with the same format being employed in each and every edition (and even the same types of recipe being cooked from time to time). However, the Bikers returned for a Christmas special in December, based on the theme of The 12 Days of Christmas.
The Frankincense Trail covered Kate Humble’s journey across Arabia as she traced the route (or the bits that she could trace) of the Frankincense traders who would have taken the precious gift to Jesus in Bethlehem. Humble presented well and demonstrated she isn’t just somebody who is confined to countryside programming, even if she did come across as slightly over-enthusiastic at times.
But factual telly wasn’t all about travel. BBC3 concocted a hybrid of Watchdog and The Real Hustle to create Don’t Get Screwed (piloted early in the year as Don’t Get Ripped Off). The series attempted to use the techniques pioneered by The Real Hustle to illustrate to young adults how to cope with poor customer service. Another attempt to attract the kids to a traditionally stuffy subject came with BBC1’s Bang Goes The Theory, a fast-moving concoction of scientific fact, stunts and fun; basically a more straight-faced take on Sky 1’s Brainiac.
The sentence “a fly-on-the-wall documentary about a former model named Katie” could be used to describe both one of the worst documentaries of the year and one of the best. ITV2 continued its baffling obsession with publicity-hungry “entrepreneur” Katie Price, with her split from Peter Andre allowing both members of the defunct partnership to feature in their very own series. A massively more worthwhile use of a TV hour, however, came in October when C4’s Cutting Edge strand screened Katie: My Beautiful Face. This excellent one-off followed model and digital TV presenter Katie Piper as she rebuilt her life after suffering a horrendous acid attack. The documentary traced Piper’s recovery in a dignified and heartening way. Viewers were able to cheer on the subject as she built up her confidence and returned to daily life. Katie Piper’s case has been heavily discussed and she has since been in receipt of huge amounts of support. The film was also to become the most-watched Cutting Edge of 2009.
Newswipe with Charlie Brooker brought the critic’s sensibilities to current affairs and began with uncertain results, but improved immeasurably when focusing on how news was covered, rather than the news itself. Highlights included an incisive commentary on the coverage of the G20 protests (which concentrated on the tiny pockets of violence rather than the vast majority of peaceful demonstrations) and the shift on television as to what constitutes current affairs (Jade Goody, instead of international matters with global implications). In the autumn Brooker was back again, this time with the one-off video game focussed Gameswipe, a show that betrayed his obvious love and knowledge for the subject matter. Affectionate and amusing, this was perhaps his best piece of telly to date.
Gameswipe was part of wider BBC4 season looking at all things digital. The centrepiece was Electric Dreams. This three-part series took a modern family and had them live in a simulated 1970s home. Each day the calendar would click on a year and the accompanying technological breakthroughs were then introduced to the house. Yes, there was the obviously Proustian rush of Chopper bikes and microwaveable meals, but the show really got under the skin of how ordinary people lived. Seeing a chest freezer being tarted up with a wipe-clean wood veneer was almost poetic. There was also an oblique fascination to be had in the domestic habits of participants, who had designated the lounge as the “adults room”. At the end of the three-week TV experiment, the family started an experiment of their own after deciding to open up the “adults room” to all of the clan. Great stuff.
The arts got a reasonable inning this year. Starting at the more populist end, BBC2’s Apprentice-style search for an artist, School of Saatchi made a reasonable fist out of trying to let the masses into the tightly sealed knot that is modern art grammar. In this effort, Matthew Collings was surprisingly enlightening, and proved himself – contrary to all previous television evidence – to be a clear-thinking and erudite commentator. Meanwhile, one of the most captivating televisual events of the year was happening over on Sky Arts. Antony Gormley’s fourth plinth escapade “One and Other” attracted a couple of thousand volunteers to stand for an hour each, non-stop for three months on the empty plinth in Trafalgar Square and do what they liked. A surprising number chose to do nothing but sit or stand and take in the atmosphere or a few photos, but the participants who attracted the most attention were inevitably the nudists, the karaoke singers, and those with a cause to promote. Like Big Brother in its earliest days, viewers watching the live feed on the Sky Arts sponsored website didn’t initially know what to expect, but would then tune in precisely because they enjoyed that very element of the unexpected.
Baroque! From St Peter’s to St Paul’s in which a typically enthusiastic Waldemar Januszczak crystalised the artistic period and its implications, somehow managing to even find something new to say about St Peter’s in Rome, perhaps the most filmed church outside of The Vicar of Dibley. The best sequence described the rebuilding of London’s churches by Christopher Wren and Nicholas Hawksmoor, which in illuminating the deliberate variety demonstrated the sullen boredom of most modern ecclesiastical construction.
Finally, the story of artist Kit Williams and his monstrously successful 1979 children’s book Masquerade, was sensitively retold in BBC4’s The Man Behind the Masquerade – possibly the best documentary of the year. Slightly daffy, like the book itself, it prompted viewers to examine Williams’ artwork. Granted, some of the dramatised scenes of naked women and lobsters felt a tad too self-conscious, but for 60 minutes viewers were placed fairly and squarely inside the painter’s mind. And it was a great place to be.
As ever, it was food continued to dominate this year. Feast With Heston Blumenthal represented the first fruits of the chef’s new contract with Channel 4, as every week he went to extraordinary lengths to lay on a sumptuous, often stupendous historical or literary-influenced banquet. While the series successfully counteracted Blumenthal’s slightly flat onscreen persona by busying him with a string of bizarre and fun tasks, it did fall down when representing the final results of his efforts. All food shows ultimately disappoint – we can’t taste the fare ourselves – but our representatives on screen (a group of celebrities invited to dine at C4’s expense) proved maddeningly inept at summing up the experience for our benefit. Comments were rarely more eloquent than: “Delicious”.
Less successful was Heston Blumenthal: Big Chef Takes on Little Chef, in which he attempted to turn round the fortunes of the ailing roadside café chain, while the programme makers and voiceover man did everything in their power to try and paint Little Chef boss Ian Pegler as obstructive and idiotic, even when he was very obviously giving Heston carte blanche to do whatever he wanted. That said, Pegler’s patter seemed to come from the David Brent lexicon of business jargon. A one-off follow-up show was broadcast in October which updated viewers on how Little Chef had fared since Blumenthal’s involvement – and it appeared things have been going extremely well.
Jamie Oliver was at it too, with his worthy series which sought to improve the welfare of pigs in the British farming system. What the programmes ultimately showed was that Britain has some of the most stringent rules and procedures in place already compared to a lot of other places. Similarly, Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall did his best to highlight the plight of chickens in Chickens, Hugh and Tesco Too, a worthwhile cause, but one that we’ve seen on our screens before, and not that long ago either.
CBBC rocketed out of the blocks in 2009 with not one, but three, series that attempted to make facts fun. Ed & Oucho’s Excellent Inventions saw the popular CBBC linkman and his cactus chum mix scientific principles with stunts and songs to bring viewers’ creative ideas to life. Little Howard’s Big Question featured comic Howard Read and his cartoon companion taking on traditional theories in a quirky, interesting way. Top Gear’s Richard Hammond sparked up a stunt-filled science gameshow, Blast Lab, which ran to two series in 2009 and trod similar ground to XperiMental from some years previously.
While CBBC marched gamely on, CITV was still in the doldrums, largely absent from ITV1 and with a digital channel heavily reliant on reruns and imports; though there were new episodes of the channel’s most popular fixture, Horrid Henry. CITV’s big new launch of 2009 was literature series Bookaboo, a Jackanory-like storytelling programme wherein a rather random assortment of celebrities pitched up to offer tales to the titular dog. This was, at least, quite well executed, with Bookaboo himself taking the role of an inquisitive youngster being read to, excitedly interjecting into the story.
Comedy for kids also continued, with a second run of the excellent Sorry I’ve Got No Head on CBBC proving that pre-watershed sketch comedy is more than possible and thoroughly enjoyable, and a Comic Relief one-off, Class, starring Sam and Mark as multiple characters in a school-based knockabout. Kids’ gameshows also enjoyed a renaissance, with excellent new programmes such as Keep Your Enemies Close and Wait For It... While a seasoned viewer would be able to pick out the bits cribbed from other shows (Wait For It…’s “drop zone” into a gunge pit is lifted from Scratch & Sniff’s Den of Doom, and Keep Your Enemies Close ’s pulling-poles-out-of-a-moving-box game is near-identical to one from last year’s Hot Rods), the shows were entertaining enough for the target audience to lap up.
A gold star for effort must go to STV, who, having tired of the ITV network’s intermittent provision of children’s programming, put together it own weekend morning series, wknd@stv, made up of repeats and imports from the library. This did at least offer an opportunity to enjoy a number of series which hadn’t been seen for some years (and thus will be new to many kids) such as Captain Zed and the Zee Zone, Minty, Sherlock Holmes in the 22nd Century and Get Wet.
BBC2’s The Well was a short form horror series produced by BBC Switch, the slightly hazy department brought in when it was decided the BBC Childrens shouldn’t cater for anyone over the age of 12. This fairly spooky haunted house story would probably have gone unnoticed to everyone outside its target audience had it not appeared to be the last work of new Doctor Who companion Karen Gillan before moving to Cardiff. Gillan wasn’t given much to do but be a bit posh and offer scorn and exposition.
Predictably the kids’ telly highlight of the year remained The Sarah Jane Adventures, which continued to do some excellent work, it’s just a shame that its greatness is so clearly hewn from the telefantasy shows of the 1970s, rather than constructed from something of its own. Still, that’s a minor grumble, particularly when it should be applauded for simply existing at all.
In 2009, BBC1 trialled a new series from Sam Bain and Jesse Armstrong, the writers behind Channel 4’s much-garlanded Peep Show (which itself launched its sixth run in 2009). The Old Guys was a passable half-hour starring Clive Swift and Roger Lloyd-Pack, but suffered from the general apathy toward traditional sitcoms both among the audience and within the BBC (which binned both Not Going Out and After You’ve Gone this year despite both shows having a relatively strong following, proven by the fact that the former received a last-minute reprieve).
The misfiring remake Reggie Perrin, starring Martin Clunes, shared little with its Leonard Rossiter-helmed precursor, bar the lead character’s name, and found itself caught between two stools; the show had to be retooled to suit modern times and tastes, but also had to include numerous throwbacks to the original to keep Perrin purists happy. Any attempt to trade off the goodwill of the older show was offset by the baggage of having to live up to the forebear. Though original writer David Nobbs was on board, the programme could quite easily have been made without him and with a different lead character. Whether it would have been, of course, is another story. The Amanda Holden-starring Big Top also proved a dire misfire. Commissioned, its rumoured, as “the new ‘Allo ‘Allo” this ensemble comedy boasted a great cast, but terrible scripts and flat, static action… curious considering the show’s circus setting.
Staying in sitcomland, the return of Red Dwarf was one of the more unlikely TV stories of the year – perhaps the decade. And yet, it proved to be exactly the right commission for Dave, part of UKTV’s portfolio of channels exploiting the BBC’s back catalogue of programming. Here, they took the strategy a step further, breathing new life into a much-loved but long dormant franchise, and were rewarded with stellar ratings as a result (over two million tuned in). The three-part story itself was patchy, although perhaps better than we could have reasonably expected. Co-creator Doug Naylor sensibly junked most of the innovations introduced during the show’s final series (the return of the Red Dwarf crew in particular), but over-reached himself in producing a hugely self-reflexive tale which felt more like a tribute to the show than a continuation of it. Many of the production team worked on the revival purely out of goodwill. Now it’s been recommissioned for a full run (sadly, rumours abound of a return for Duane Dibley) it would be interesting to know how those working relationships develop.
BBC2’s Psychoville was a new show from Steve Pemberton and Reece Shearsmith, two of the creators of The League of Gentlemen. Dark, grisly and very funny it was certainly a worthy successor and was such a hit that it is coming back for both a one-off special and another full series. Krod Mandoon and the Flaming Sword of Fire also appeared on BBC2, but was rather less impressive. An odd hybrid of British and American actors and a lack of real laugh-out-loud moment made for a poor piece of comedy.
As is now becoming familiar, Channel 4’s output in this genre was a complete waste of time. Two of the Comedy Showcase pilots from last time, Plus One and Free Agents, were spun off into series, but both suffered from utterly repellent characters in predicaments that were impossible to care about. Looking at the new run of Comedy Showcase, the idea of likeable leads seems to have gone out with analogue television, reaching a new low when two consecutive episodes – Camous and PhoneShop – featured unpleasant white men speaking in patois.
One of the stars of PhoneShop, Emma Fryer, also wrote and appeared in Home Time on BBC2, playing a virtually identical character – a dull, unpleasant and irritating individual. In 2009 Michael Palin argued that new talent no longer enjoys the kind of freedom bestowed back in the day on the Pythons, but watching the rise of both Fryer and Dan Clark, writer, star and director of the appalling How Not To Live Your Life, you could argue that the more people out there trying to stop them, the better.
Miranda was much better and served up a surprise smash hit for BBC2, pulling in around five million viewers a week over its two showings. This was a thoroughly likeable and endearing series that had nothing to do with real life and only existed to make people laugh – the “You Have Been Watching” sequence at the end summing up its unpretentious, old-fashioned approach. It’s questionable as to how long Miranda’s relentless cheerfulness can last before it grates, but this was perhaps the most impressive debut of the year.
ITV1 continued its more traditional approach to sit-com with Mumbai Calling. An awful comedy, it had apparently been made in 2007, but finally made its debut after being found down the back of a filing cabinet by somebody at ITV towers. Quite frankly they should have left if there. Office-based sitcom Lunch Monkeys had its moments but suffered from – yes – unlikeable characters and inevitable comparison to similar shows set in a workplace environment, while Off The Hook was a poor BBC Switch-backed attempt to clone E4 hit The Inbetweeners (to the extent that it starred James Buckley, also one of The Inbetweeners‘ regular cast); but with its Saturday lunchtime replay in mind, Off The Hook was never able to capture the edgier end of the teen experience in the way E4’s post-watershed show could.
ITV2 followed 2008’s No Heroics by dusting off long-forgotten 2006 Channel 4 Comedy Lab one-off, FM, and turning it into a series. This radio-station sitcom – starring The IT Crowd’s Kevin O’Dowd and current C4 golden boy Kevin Bishop – was able to use its setting as a basis to invite real-world pop and rock stars into the storyline. The show suffered, however, from poor visibility as the reality-led ITV2 is not seen by the audience as a key supplier of comedy output.
Moving away from sitcoms and onto sketch shows, The Impressions Show was a lively mainstream affair that featured more hits than misses, with Debra Stephenson proving a revelation. Channel 4’s patchy TNT Show did at least demonstrate the station was still willing to hand slots to largely untried talent. However, the best sketch show by some distance in 2009 was BBC4’s Cowards. Based on a Radio 4 series, it featured skits that sat just the right distance between “humorous” and “unusual”, with sketches diverse enough to be distinctive, but recognisable enough to be funny. More would be welcome.
Al Murray’s Multiple Personality Disorder was a spectacular misfire from the creator of the Pub Landlord. Despite trying to branch out with new characters, the series featured little in the way of humour and some dreadful characters, including a terrible camp Nazi. Mathew Horne and James Corden’s reappearance on BBC3 (which had successfully incubated Gavin and Stacey) in the shape of sketch show Horne and Corden was a disaster on a similar scale. The duo received a hurricane of criticism, although much of it seemed to be because TV critics wanted to put the boot into James Corden for being boisterous at award ceremonies. Mathew Horne later said the criticism was unfair as the show was aimed at a specific youth audience and wasn’t supposed to be the new Gavin and Stacey, which was a fair point. What it didn’t excuse though, was the fact a lot of the material was massively underwritten and relied purely on Horne and Corden’s relentless mugging. The two are fine performers but they need other writers to provide more satisfying material.
But BBC3 wasn’t a complete laugh-free zone. Two of its best shows of the year appeared solely as one-offs. Silent comedy Ketch! & HIRO-PON Get It On, screened in February, gave rare airtime to mime; while Vidiotic, one of a group of pilots shunted out silently and unpromoted in a middle-of-the-night slot around March (see also Brave Young Men) featured a mix of specially-filmed skits and repurposed archive content, blended together into a strange, surreal but enjoyable alternative view of the world.
2009 was a big year for stand up. Stewart Lee’s long-awaited return to TV after staging Jerry Springer: The Opera came with a satirical new BBC series. Stewart Lee’s Comedy Vehicle rolled in with some finely-formed barbs at modern life, delivered in a freeform style now rarely seen on TV (“I’m just going up the Zavvi, mum!”). However it was BBC1’s large arena stand up shows Michael MacIntyre’s Comedy Roadshow and Live At The Apollo that garnered the larger audiences, particularly when transmitted on Saturday nights, which was quite a novel move for the channel.
Transferring from Radio 4 to BBC4, I’ve Never Seen Star Wars was an unexpected pleasure as some of the Corporation’s talent establishment (and oddly David Davis) lined up to be taken through their cultural blind spots by Marcus Brigstocke. Though none of them admitted to not having seen the film in the title, it was certainly entertaining to witness John Humphrey’s cooing over Michael Jackson’s Thriller, Esther Ranzen (returning from a spot on the radio version) discovering Alien, and the joy of watching Hugh Dennis nibble on road kill. Unflappable through most of the series and on serious form when required, even Brigstocke seemed genuinely moved when he had to reveal that the legendary Nigel Havers had received a potentially career-changing tattoo for his little show; there were plenty of surprising moments on television this year but none of them were quite like Dr Tom Latimer revealing the silhouette of a scorpion permanently printed on his upper arm.
Also coming from radio, Dave Gorman transferred his quirky series Genius to BBC2, shot through with a genuinely entertaining and witty presentation (“…and here’s that address again in red”), the show encouraged creative thinking and good humour, and would therefore be very welcome back on our screens. We Need Answers was a transition from a stage show, but its quirky, witty, deliberately low-budget roustabout concept just about worked. It’s Only A Theory, meanwhile, used humour (from Andy Hamilton and Reginald D Hunter) to analyse a range of scientific and cultural theorems, some more serious than others.
Onto TV comedy’s seemingly most ubiquitous form – the panel show. QI returned, and with a vengeance: the sixth series, originally due for autumn 2008 transmission on BBC2/BBC4 was shunted into early 2009 to run on its new BBC1 home. The channel then began the seventh series at the end of the year, which due to its expanded length will spill into early 2010. Fry, Davies and guests continued to be interesting and entertaining throughout.
Dave continued its successful Argumental, a series which has clearly grown in confidence from the warm reception for the first run. The show’s prominence was underlined late in 2009 when the BBC bought a clutch of episodes – a rare move for a UKTV commission (though not, as some reports had it, completely unprecedented).
The worst panel show of all though, remains Mock The Week. Sold as satire, it’s simply a bunch of people shouting abuse, with gifted comedians such as Frank Skinner and David Mitchell having their well-crafted gags interrupted by Andy Parsons and Russell Howard shouting out hackneyed old rubbish about Charles Kennedy being drunk and Gordon Brown having one eye. Most of the gags were so lazy and predictable it could have been filmed any week of the year. Sadly too, Frankie Boyle, the only regular participant who can actually craft and deliver a joke, had every gag followed by the rest of the panel expressing mock outrage, killing the humour stone dead, despite everyone else doing equally tasteless material, only with relentless mugging to ensure we like them.
One of the year’s heavily-promoted launches, the Graham Norton-fronted Totally Saturday, flopped massively on BBC1, making it the second such shiny-floor catastrophe in recent years (Johnny & Denise: Passport to Paradise being the other). Although Totally Saturday wasn’t the car crash some suggested – it was at least competently made – the obvious problem was most of the features were interchangable with those that turn up every week on Saturday Night Takeaway, just not as well produced. The item where members of the public had to dress up as giant Scrabble tiles was a case in point: Norton seemed embarrassed asking the contestants to do it, they were embarrassed at having to do it and hence it was embarrassing to watch. Despite attempts to recapture the success of Noel’s House Party, viewers no longer warm to this format. It would be a shame if Saturdays consisted solely of song-and-dance shows designed to fill the Cowell/Lloyd-Webber coffers, but ratings suggest this is what viewers currently want.
Jonathan Ross returned to our screens but, even if he had cut down on the swearing, the fact remained that Friday Night… was a bad show to begin with, and Ross is a poor interviewer. This was never better illustrated than during the interview with David Mitchell, in which our host had clearly only read one thing about him – a newspaper interview which emphasised his rather modest flat. Ross simply asked: “Have you got a telly? Have you got a computer? Have you got a mobile phone? Have you got an iPod?” for five painful minutes.
Justin Lee Collins and Alan Carr departed the Sunday Night Project and launched separate chat shows, C4’s Alan Carr: Chatty Man and ITV2’s Justin Lee Collins Show; however, neither is a Parkinson-level inquisitor, and it appears the serious talk show remains out of favour in preference for those where the host is able to spar with guests in a more sparky, sarky manner.
Piers Morgan did at least attempt to bring back to our screens a more conventional version of the format, but Piers Morgan’s Life Stories clearly suffered from a lack of decent guests – after all does a primetime audience really care about the life and times of Vinnie Jones? Still, for Morgan it didn’t really matter if a particular series didn’t work as there would be another along in a minute, such was ITV1’s confidence in his pulling power, Morgan was all over the channel in 2009. This was, of course, thanks wholly to his involvement in Britain’s Got Talent, which along with The X Factor continue to pull in enormous ratings. It was a particular surprise in relation to the latter show which seems to have been going through the motions for the last couple of years. Certainly, the quality of the participants has, if anything, gone down and you have to assume that this year’s winner, Joe McElderry, is going to seriously struggle to sustain a long term career as a recording artiste. David Sneddon, anyone?
However, it seems the sheer scale of The X Factor is enough to pull in the audience. Sadly, Strictly Come Dancing suffered from abysmal press this year, despite the fact that this so-called “ailing”, “disastrous” series was still pulling in over nine million viewers, putting it comfortably in the top 10 ratings every single week. The bad publicity generated regarding Strictly’s scheduling clash with the aforementioned X Factor was absurd when, as the BBC pointed out, the two series had been shown simultaneously on 40 previous occasions.
The low point of the entire year was the Sunday Mirror‘s front page the day after the first show being devoted to the “news” that Alesha was a flop – based purely on the views of a dozen jealous teenage girls posting on DigitalSpy. The press are now swallowing the ITV1 press office’s stuff completely, hence the complete lack of coverage when the channel cynically scheduled Coronation Street against EastEnders in November. That said, the Strictly line-up this year was rather dull – weren’t we promised Richard and Judy?
Sky Sports has been the provider of Live England Cricket series in the UK for the last couple of years, and it was good to see in 2009 it hadn’t rested on its laurels. Bringing in Shane Warne as a guest commentator for The Ashes was a genius move – funny, astute and articulate, he provided an interesting foil to David “Bumble” Lloyd and company and enjoyed a great rapport with his co-commentators. The coverage was punctuated with some fabulous documentary sections during the intervals, which evocatively traced the history of the Ashes.
ITV1’s most public mistake this year was missing the winning goal in Everton versus Liverpool, which clearly wasn’t ITV Sport’s fault – it was an automation cock-up – but allowed everyone to criticise the company, especially as many still believed the FA should have awarded the FA Cup contract to the BBC anyway. In the event, the FA Cup proved to be a disappointment for the channel with a succession of low ratings. In addition, the station had been forced to give up the rights to covering F1 racing in order to afford the Champions League, only to be saddled with a dreadful contract with far fewer games and an obligation to show matches such as Panathinaikos vs Atletico Madrid on primetime ITV1, (resulting in one of the channel’s lowest ever audiences).
Setanta Sports closed down in 2009, but its demise was regarded a self-inflicted failure after the station’s desperate attempts to ape Sky and splash the cash on contracts of quantity, rather than quality. As they always had second choice in deals, they were never going to be able to compete. The arrival of ESPN has been rather quiet, emphasised by its FA deal, where the station haggled over the price for months, clearly preferring to get value ahead of huge slabs of content. ESPN’s undoubted big triumph though, is getting Sky on side, commissioning them to produce their programming and sell the channel, well aware most football fans have to purchase both anyway.
So all in all, 2009 has been an unspectacular year for television, thanks in part to the impact of the recession on TV budgets. Perhaps the worst channel of the year was Channel 4. Julian Bellamy, Head of Programming, complained their rivals were completely lacking in originality, while simultaneously poaching Ruth Watson and Heston Blumenthal to do exactly the same shows they were doing on other channels. It was good to see Wife Swap finally get the chop, about three years too late, but do we really have to see every single episode of Ramsey’s Kitchen Nightmares USA? One or two might be a novelty but an entire 16-part series is a waste of time.
Quite possibly one of the most surprising moves in television this year was the bizarre decision by ITV1 to axe established favourites such as Heartbeart, The Royal and Kingdom. Sunday night gentle family fare they may be, but all three shows pulled in huge numbers and were solid, dependable series. Officially Heartbeat and The Royal were said to be “on hiatus”, but the sets for the shows were destroyed and the cast moved on to other work. Meanwhile a more predictable, but no less disappointing announcement was the cancellation of The South Bank Show.
Craziest channel of the year was undoubtedly STV, which in 2009 jettisoned many of ITV1’s most popular programmes from its schedules (including The Bill), in favour of broadcasting extremely cheap, home grown fare. Apparently it was all to do with economics. Still, The Hour, a risible 60-minute daytime magazine show which looked like absolute rubbish was, by the end of the year, triumphantly winning its slot in Scotland, trouncing even the BBC’s powerhouse of daytime quizzes.
This year we lost – amongs others – Jade Goody, Keith Floyd, Mollie Sugden, Wendy Richard, Maggie Jones and Troy Kennedy Martin. A bizarre line up consisting of battle-axes, eccentrics, a 21st century celeb and a true TV giant. If anything their collective obituaries speak to the continuing diversity and quality of television in this country. Whether it be applauding at the hem of Susan Boyle, or tuning in to experience Waldemar Januszczak’s latest small screen essay, TV in 2009 could at least rightfully claim it featured something for everyone.