watched2014
Back in the olden days, when lots of people wrote this site, we would all collaborate on an end of year TV review. The first went up – can you believe this? – 15 years ago. Ah, 1999. “Of course,” wrote Jack Kibble-White and Ian Jones1,” the phenomenon of the year has been ITV’s Who Wants to be a Millionaire?

From there up until 2009, no matter who was in charge of wrangling the thing together, there would always be a self-conscious mention of the Chris Tarrant quizzer, making it OTT’s marker buoy upon the changing tides of television. In 2014, it sunk beneath the waves forever with a couple of celebrity episodes and a clip show. Few noticed. There wasn’t any brouhaha, despite the bait of an easy ‘Final Answer’ headline.

2014, according to many, has been an exceptional year for British TV. Who Wants to be a Millionaire? doesn’t merit a mention. There’s been so much good stuff, I’ve successfully avoided quite a few of the biggest hitters2. Internet orthodoxy tells me  you no longer want to read an 8,000-word essay on the things I did watch. And luckily that’s not what I want to write. So, here are 10 of my favourite small screen viewing experiences from the the last 12 months3 in no particular order.

THE GREAT INTERIOR DESIGN CHALLENGE (BBC2)

I’m not going to make any claim towards greatness in my selection. And in many respects this show – which squeezed out two series over 2014 – has little that’s truly commendable about it, other than in becoming a final stronghold for that much diminished phrase, ‘the wow-factor’. It’s people doing up other people’s homes. Host Tom Dychkhof asks each contestant exactly the same question in staggered interviews, the music cues are similarly repetitive and judge Daniel Hopwood wears intriguing trousers. But I find all of that reassuring, and I watched episodes at a time.

THE WALKING DEAD (FOX)

It’s true the series is perhaps lurching from one communities-at-war scenario to another, but it’s during the journeys in between it really impresses. The episode, ‘The Grove’, is utterly astonishing and in Carol Peletier, actress Melissa Suzanne McBride has the best female role on TV.

LINE OF DUTY (BBC2)

Looking at it from this end of the year, it appears smaller, somehow. Perhaps it was Jed Mercurio’s decision to yet again close out the series with a slate of captions telling us, in the past tense, what became of everyone. There’s no vitality in that. But think hard, and you’ll remember, Keeley Hawes’ amazing central performance and the brutality both dished out by and upon her character, DI Denton. Grey-faced and in a cheap grey suit, but luminescent. A beacon from last winter.

THE RESTAURANT MAN (BBC2)

Rangy, calm and always carrying a medium slung satchel, I think Russell Norman is a proper TV find, and the type of personality who’ll be leading lifestyle programmes on either BBC2 or C4 (because, they must come calling) into the 2020s. Another series that has no claim on originality (C4’s Risking it All did this 10 years ago), it saw Russell advising new restaurateurs. In one case the proposed businesses never made it to opening day. Another saw a tea shop set up in a tiny village in Rugby. Our man cautioned the owners there wouldn’t be enough trade to make it sustainable – but it was an instant smash. Each episode, nonetheless, was terrific. So much so, I didn’t even feel cross when Russell wore a scarf indoors.

WHAT DO ARTISTS DO ALL DAY? (BBC4)

There’s another art show coming up in this list. I’ve always enjoyed people talking about their creative process, I guess. In this instance, I’m not highlighting the entire series. Despite its merits, I only watched one episode – the instalment in which we spent a night with Frank Quiteley while he illustrated page 13 of issue four of comic book Jupiter’s Legacy. These felt like private minutes with the man, who spoke well about the mechanics of what he does. “You do a lot of thinking in order for the reader not to.”

PREY (ITV)

Written by TV newcomer Chris Lunt, it’s hard to imagine, in synopsis form, what made ITV commission this police drama. On the surface, it seems to offer nothing new – a cop is framed for the murder of his wife and one of his sons and goes on the run, while also attempting to a) catch the real killer and b) clear his own name. But the characterisation was surprising. Okay, yes, John Simm as Marcus Farrow was driven and intense as we’d expect, but also emotionally vulnerable. His pursuer, Susan Reinhart (Rosie Cavaliero) was arguably more interesting. So often in TV we’re invited to spend time with people who are better than us; gifted. She, though, was unglamorous, only reasonably witted and the type of person who’d spend time on Facebook checking up on her ex. It felt like a genre show being kitted out with non-genre personnel.

THE BATTLE FOR BRITAIN’S BREAKFAST (BBC2)/THE FIGHT FOR SATURDAY NIGHT (BBC4)

I’m cheating by wodging two programmes in together, but the comparative titles and subject matters do make these seem like book-ends. And both exec-produced by Caroline Wright. Obviously, I’m going to be drawn to documentaries rooting through the innards of TV – particularly workaday TV as explored in the first example, which sported a credit for my good friend and breakfast telly author Ian Jones. Cue Frank!: “Last time we had dinner, can we now have lunch, to talk about breakfast?” The second saw Michael Grade, who doesn’t have the easiest on-screen persona, cackle and gossip with old industry rivals about the scraps they got into in the competition for Saturday night viewers. Any programme that acknowledges Game for a Laugh as the seismic influence it was upon television is good with me.

THE SHIELD (Amazon Instant Video)

It’s not good news for LOVEFiLM’s successors that I just had to Google their name. And, okay, The Shield finished in 2008, but I only got around to watching it this summer. There’s a lot to resist in the series. The set design is atrocious, Vic Mackey’s Strike Team seems juvenile (they even have a crappily written ‘STRIKE TEAM ONLY! (That means you, Asshole!)’ on their club house door), the nomenclature is terrible (it’s based in somewhere named Farmington, and their police division is called The Barn) and the opening titles and music are horribly garish. But it’s full of so many surprises. Michael Chiklis’ bruiser Mackey is excessively sentimental, apparent comedic foil ‘Dutch’ Wagenbach is often shown to be a genuinely gifted cop, and the show’s writers prove unafraid of regularly altering and, at times, inverting the series’ status quo. Plotted to within an inch of its life, I’d go so far as to say it has the best final episode of any series ever.

EXPOSED: MAGICIANS, PSYCHICS AND FRAUDS (BBC4)

Originally screened in art cinemas as An Honest Liar, this acquisition by the BBC’s Storyville strand looked at the life and times of magician and mythbuster James Randi. The man himself is hard-wired to entertain, and so made for an excellent, eloquent subject. Told almost in chapterised form, we followed Randi through his years as a performer, then a hoax artist and persistent irritant to Uri Geller (who nonetheless contributes to the film). The section where our hero discusses how he nobbled the spoon-bender’s appearance on The Tonight Show is a particular favourite. But at the heart of the thing there’s one more surprising layer to be peeled back…

SKY ARTS PORTRAIT ARTIST OF THE YEAR (Sky Arts 1)

The genius of this programme is its decision to base an art competition on portraiture. Because we can all have an opinion on a portrait. Now in its second series, the discussion around each artist’s merits feels more useful than ever before, with presenter Joan Bakewell openly stating her lack of enthusiasm in one of the show’s finalists, and Frank Skinner leading a discussion in an earlier heat about why all of the competitors failed to capture sportswoman Non Evans’ likeness. And, much as there’s something intrinsically televisual about The Great British Bake Off‘s hopefuls peering into their ovens, it turns out that following the creation of a piece of art makes for supremely satisfying viewing. Who knew?

There we have it, in no way definitive but 10 shows4 from 2014 that I’ve particularly enjoyed.

Like last January, the plan now is that when 2015 arrives, I’ll once again embark on a series of weekly reviews – until other commitments get in the way. In the meantime, if you feel so moved, please feel free to comment below on which programmes you rate from the last 12 months. Merry Christmas, one and all!

  1. More of us would jump in for subsequent instalments
  2. Only now am I doing the second series of The Fall, I might try Happy Valley over Christmas, but I’m still awaiting counseling for my James Nesbitt aversion, meaning The Missing will remain so in my house
  3. MasterChef and Pointless accepted, my devotion to both will never waiver. And as for Doctor Who, you can read what I think about that – in nigh-on-8,000-word-essay form – here
  4. Okay, 11
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Watched #12W1A (BBC2 Wednesday, 10pm) wouldn’t have worked if the BBC was still in Television Centre. The visual would have been all wrong. But the gift for creator John Morton is the geography of New Broadcasting House. Although fluidly open-planned and hot-desked inside, outside it’s in the shape of a cul-de-sac. Into this marvelous metaphor peddles Ian Fletcher formerly of Twenty Twelve.

Like that series (which worked on the hypothesis we were going to mess up the Olympics), this arrives under the carapace of a shared joke; that made-up job titles, gafflebag and bureaucracy are all  abundant in the corporation. I grimace at that kind of presumptive thinking,  so I don’t feel W1A toils hard enough for its laughs. While it’s absolutely an easy and entertaining watch – Hugh Bonneville’s Ian is good company, and the cast in general are excellent – it often feels like the kind of light repartee people exchange when there’s no expectation of real humour.

A lot of the dialogue comes in loops: “Say again?”, “Cool”, “Yes no”, “That’s all good.” They circle around and around. It underlines the banality of corporate-speak, but it comes to feel like the kind of real-life catchphrases that have long since had the wit pummeled out of them (“Interweb” or “That London”, maybe). But I’m not calling W1A lazy. Some of the elements are superbly honed. Syncopatico, “Your virtual PA” is a brilliantly observed unnovation 1, with Ian’s later remark that he’s put a “path-finding document” in the “shared priorities folder on Syncopatico” perfectly weighted to sound just like the kind of guff many of us have to say in meetings.

That’s the thing about W1A.  It floats along on this kind of nonsense, a base level of white noise. Sometimes it tunes in on a really cogent, really strong line. At others, the satire gets lost. Say again? We’re not quite syncopated.

Arena: Whatever Happened to Spitting Image? (BBC4 Thursday, 9pm) is a good documentary that arrives coached inside a not-so-good one. Before watching, please remove both layers of packaging – the one that sets up the hour as a train journey, and then the one that presents it as a sort of TV novel, complete with Plater-esque chapter titles.

Once they’re discarded we’re left with one of the great stories of British television, because the making of Spitting Image is full of terrific characters – Sir Clive ‘ZX’ Sinclair, BBC2 font-meister Martin Lambie-Nairn, comedy producer John Lloyd and caricaturists Fluck and Law all coming together in an unlikely union. Those who appear in this programme talk well and scabrously about their experiences, from the stricken Lloyd recalling  nights spent weeping in his bath, to Law wryly pointing out “there wasn’t a shortage of Thatcherite entrepreneurs” queuing up to back the show.

And there are plenty of hilarious details too, such as Tony Hendra (“The Bubonic Plagiarist”) taking Willie Whitelaw’s head off to America to have a mouth animated onto it. It’s the last time either he or the Deputy Prime Minister’s noggin are seen again. Then there’s the establishment of the world’s first puppet-making sweatshop at Shoulder of Mutton Alley, Lime House. Plus the final destination for Maggie Thatcher’s puppet: it’s now part of a permanent exhibition at the Imperial War Museum.

That’s it from Line of Duty (BBC2 Wednesday, 9pm) which exited, as it did first time around, in captions. It’s a strange way to go, as if we’ve come along at just the wrong time to catch the finish. Now it’s all in the past tense. Dryden “resigned from the police force”, apparently. Denton is “currently serving a life sentence”. No more drama, just written reports.

A third series will follow, and where once Keeley Hawes had to counter questions about how daunting it is to succeed Lennie James’ DCI Tony Gates, I’m guessing someone else will next be tasked with talking about measuring up to DI Denton. A tougher job, in truth.

It’s a strange set-up, this show, the spotlight forever nudged onto the guest role. Notional lead Steve Arnott is not the most demonstrative of characters. Similarly, Kate Fleming. Did we ever really concern ourselves with her marital problems? So, she’s sleeping in the car nowadays. That’s a shame, but she’s not the story. When Denton asked, “Who are you two to judge me?” she did have a point. They’re like satellites orbiting something with a much stronger gravitational pull. Who they fix to next time will be the thing. I’m confident. Those final moments aside, Line of Duty has been superb and I’m certain Jed Mercurio and company can do it again.

Sudoku in the UK. The Crystal Maze. This website. And Only Connect. The common denominator here is David Bodycombe. All have benefited from his beneficence – for many years he’s web-hosted OTT. The Sport Relief edition of Only Connect (BBC4 Monday, 8.30pm) marked the last time he is to appear as Question Editor in the closing credits. Which made me sad. I like to wait for his name and wave at it. But an instalment in which misplaced apostrophes are the answer to one of the puzzles seems a fitting point to leave.

Sic transit gloria mundi, David.

  1. © Zeppotron

Watched #11
It happens sometimes in police dramas. At that bit where the detectives are really making breakthroughs and the information is flowing thick and fast, the whole artifice becomes strikingly apparent. These are characters who’ve been strung-along up to this point by the writer who is now – because it’s time – allowing the plot to start settling itself. Ah, so A actually did B, because of C. And we now know that thanks to X precipitating Y, which in turn has led to Z.

Getting the illusion of real weight behind such revelations – albeit revelations that were always set to resolve – is the thing. Line of Duty (BBC2 Wednesday, 9pm) faced that challenge this week. I’m not sure the programme was in the very greatest form as it bore up to that. The previous couple of episodes, while still hugely entertaining, had started to feel a bit ragged – particularly the continual exposés of Steve’s love life, which positioned him as the central ring in a Venn diagram linking all the guest female cast. And then there was the video footage of Dryden and Prasad nattering at a cocktail party while being served by 15-year-old “misper” Carly Kirk. As though Jed Mercurio’s hand had entered the picture, making a fist around the primary and secondary storylines and scrunching them up together.

This week? Line of Duty took a deep breath, and then brought the plot crunching down on top of everyone. It was brilliant.

Most of our attention, of course, will be spent on the final sequences, but before we get there, some more words about Keeley Hawes as Lindsay Denton. This is a character who, despite being the focus of the show’s most dramatic peaks, remains insular bordering on the anti-social. Finally back home, albeit on bail, she sighs to discover the fridge is empty and moans that no one’s popped the heating on. Her horizons continue to be unexpanded. Similarly the loss of her mother is a humdrum kind of death, in TV terms at least, where the passing of an elderly parent offers the least in terms of pathos. And we don’t even get that. Just Denton and an empty bed. When Steve leaves her, there’s nothing brave about the sounds of sobbing – almost babyish – emanating from the room.

But, watch out, here comes the plot. The arrest of Dryden and his interrogation by Steve and Kate was impeccably played out. The formality of police procedure chippily and efficiently eroded. “I need a definition of ‘sexual relations’,” says the Deputy Chief Constable in intimidating fashion. And gets chapter and verse from Kate, who refuses to be pushed off course. “The politicians and PCC don’t like me telling the truth about service cutbacks,” he ventures. Steve asks him what that’s got to do with anything. It’s relentless. It’s that weight, I mentioned before. The revelations brutishly pushing their way through, as if they can’t be denied, rather than everything has been written to end up like this. When Dryden finally breaks down – or at least appears to, Mark Bonnar, like everyone else, plays it slippery – it’s a story victory that’s been well earned. This has been proper, satisfying policing.

There will be no Baftas for You Saw Them Here First (ITV Wednesday, 8pm), it’s not that kind of show. There isn’t an ounce of originality in the ‘before they were famous’ format, or even in Robert Webb’s hopefully-droll commentary. But, it has to be said, the research is seriously impressive. When Alison Steadman is invited in to sit in front of the green screen and look at old footage of herself, there’s a commendable flippancy, a real knowingness, in the way the show dispenses with the obligatory Abigail’s Party clips. Yes, she was in that, but, look, here she is in a tuppence ha’penny sketch on Frost’s Weekly! And now here she is stealing a 20-year march on Anna Friel by portraying a lesbian kiss in a 1974 Second City Firsts. When Lesley Joseph later takes up the seat, she – of course – screeches in delight at everything. But how wonderful to see her buried in murky footage among the extended cast just visible in a 1969 TV documentary about a production of The Bastard King. That’s not on her IMDb page. A spotting of Brian Blessed in Space: 1999 perhaps feels less instructive, save for his appraisal of his character: “You see, he wants to be a god! It always happens like that.”

This isn’t a boast, but I was at the press launch for The IT Crowd whenever that was, and I remember it barely prompted a laugh. I don’t know why. Poor acoustics? Things can go wrong viewing good comedies for the first time, so perhaps something similar happened to me again when I tried The Walshes (BBC4 Thursday, 10pm). Written by comic group Diet of Worms and Graham Linehan, I could almost feel the shape of something funny here… just couldn’t quite find it. Even when there were good lines like, “It’s like a rubbery M&M behind my scrotum”.

Perhaps I couldn’t get past the uncomfortable merge of (yes, I’m going to say it) Father Ted-type characters filmed in the style of something desperately ordinary like Heir Hunters. Hmm. I’m fudging. I didn’t get it.

There’s no such confusion with Collectaholics (BBC2 Wednesday, 8pm), which, from the moment it arrives, gets busy explaining itself. “We’re a nation of collectors!” says bottled-perkiness Mel Giedroyc, peddling a slightly spurious raison d’être. But it’s reason enough for she and man in a look-at-me-hat Mark Hill to visit three people all of whom have “collections in crisis!” (good old alliteration). Despite all that, despite the oompah incidental music, this isn’t an aggravating hour at all. The fact the on-screen location captions have been artfully made to blend into the landscapes – following the parabola of a road, being subtly reflected in a river – speaks of a certain pride in the production. When antiques expert Mark appraises someone’s hoard of 1940s paraphernalia, words float around him (“Major brands – £5-£20 each?”) like he’s Sherlock Holmes.

Yes, there’s the inevitable patter, the “full steam ahead” when talking about someone’s passion for railway signage, but there’s never an attempt to labour on the eccentricity or the weirdness of someone like Nick, who has 7,185 beer cans. Instead, Mark marvels at the fact he owns a Somerfield Better Value Lager tin. Probably the only one left in existence.

Watched #07
Lindsay Denton is a blank slate. One of those people you might work with who, if she ever is in conversation, and you ever do listen in, it’ll be about something disappointingly routine like her commute or Argos. She’s the perfect focal point for the second series of Jed Mercurio’s Line of Duty (BBC2 Wednesday, 8pm) which returns minus its leading man, Lennie James. Whereas his DCI Tony Gates was luminous like a firework, DI Denton is a troubling kind of calm. A bleakness. It’s an excellent contrast.

That nonsense I extrapolated about the kind of things she might talk about comes because I believe in the character. From the off Mercurio’s script presents concise details; Denton responding to a crisis, zeroing in on protocol, a colleague sighing: “There she goes.” And in extremis she’s on an unheroic autopilot. Following the opening hijacking sequence, we see her in hospital (that neck brace a perfect metaphor for her constrained personality) sat impassively while out-of-focus chaos continues around her. When her boss asks who the protected witness is, she replies: “I’m not clear that’s something I should be divulging yet sir,” blandly quoting the rule book.

This is a career best performance from Keeley Hawes, who’s measured out the role meticulously. She rarely makes eye contact, continues to talk as if by rote (“Akers, or the individual identifying herself as Akers…”) and even assaults her noise-pollutant neighbour with a calm precision. There’s absolutely no release of tension here – when she does finally go up, it’ll be a far bigger bang than Tony Gates.

In many ways, Denton personifies what’s best about Line of Duty, that the explosions are ameliorated by bickering and politicking. Mutterings about chains of command, someone dropping someone else in it and “non-priority missing persons [who] are being down-processed”. It’s that stuff, plus the lived-in detail – Vicky McClure’s Kate arriving at her lover’s house and wordlessly hanging her bag up behind the door, like she always does – that buys our indulgence of this episode’s preposterously exciting final scene. I mean, that wig…

Suspects (Channel 5 Wednesday, 10pm) followed straight after. A police procedural of the most procedural fashion, its real point of difference is something the programme mostly attempts to obscure – that it’s shot at great pace (an episode every two days),with wholly improvised dialogue and camerawork. The effect on screen is a strong degree of verisimilitude, particularly in the op-doc direction. The effect off-screen is a huge saving in cash, making the project feasible in the first place.

Masterminded by Brookside and The Bill producer Paul Marquess, he’s said he thinks there’s a future in this approach, indeed, an ongoing soap could be made in exactly this fashion. It’s not the first time he’s implemented it. In 2012 his ITV daytime drama Crime Stories starred Ben Hull, real-life former detective Jane Antrobus and a lot of guesting ex Brookside and The Bill cast members all making it up as they went along. The end result felt a bit slack, sometimes a bit directionless. Suspects is far more purposeful, everyone minded they need to be serving the story. It means all the dialogue is functional – no-one daring to weave in a character quirk or some small eccentricity – but that keeps it focused. The three leads (Fay Ripley, Damien Moloney and Clare-Hope Ashitey) are clearly match-fit. Some of the guests less so, often paraphrasing back a feed line as they find their way in, but never so much to be distracting.

The only time the MO really gets in the way is when we have scenes of the police mobilising as a group, with fellow officers having to mouth silently lest they become a speaking, rather than non-speaking, background artiste and bump up their fee.

Woolworth’s! It still exists. In South Africa, anyway. My brother Jack has some weird remit to prove to me the other international versions of MasterChef are superior to the UK original. But he’s wrong. At his request I tried MasterChef South Africa (Watch Monday, 7pm). Perhaps it wasn’t the best way to start – this iteration goes with the ‘open audition’-style season debut which the British version sensibly scraped into the offal bin after one year. So it’s probably not indicative of future instalments, and certainly I didn’t get the feel for judges Andrew Atkinson, Benny Masekwameng and Pete Goffe-Wood, each of whom did that thing of making smouldering eye contact with the contestants while silently popping their wares into their mouth. I found those moments to be uncomfortably intimate. Afterwards, returned to their seats in “Shine Studios at the fashionable food distract of Braamfontein” (where there’s a Woolworth’s) they would then give judgement. “Beans: crunch. Mash: smooth. Chicken: moist. Sauce: tasty”. There were a lot of croquettes. 

It just didn’t feel like MasterChef to me, one successful chap running to report back to his family, “I’m going to boot camp baby!”, another providing her own commentary: “Here’s my big cheffy move.” Although, granted, in next week’s episode, someone will vow, “I’m here to change my life,” and there is indeed a lot of that too in the UK series. Enough, in fact, for me.

Airing, now, one day after its US debut, The Walking Dead (Fox Monday, 9pm) continues to be its own thing, and brilliantly so despite the fact its zombie scenario is one of the most played-out in recent fiction. You never know what shape an episode will take, this one focusing on Rick and Carl, and, in a separate strand, Michonne. It’s weird, but true, that for we regular viewers, undead beheadings are now just a punctuation point in the narrative, with fettered blood flying in between the moments of real import. Something the show continues to do well is the feeling of life having just departed, so when Carl goes hunting for food in an empty house we see boxes stacked on the stairs, as if a family were intending to pack up before fleeing. Another, a sign scrawled in an abandoned shop, is half a story on its own: “Please do what I couldn’t”.

Will Rick (Andrew Lincoln so absorbed into this role I finally no longer see him as ‘Egg’) and Carl find baby Judith? In this series – based on Robert Kirkman’s comic book which regularly and bravely hobbles its main characters – perhaps not. Things really could go anywhere.