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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watched15
We open this week with a letter from May, 2003.

Dear Mr Jones

Sorry I can’t help you, but I’ve severed all links with my TV time, and the
constant requests to become an archive!

Regards,
Frank Bough

This was Frank writing, in his own hand, to my friend Ian Jones, who’d requested an interview for his book on the history of breakfast television, Morning Glory (now available, friends, on Kindle, and it’s highly recommended1). With the mightily named Good Morning Britain currently lurking just below the horizon –  ITV are preparing to relaunch their tea’n’toast show yet again – the cannily timed The Battle for Britain’s Breakfast (BBC2 Tuesday, 9pm) succeeded where Ian had failed. Against all hope… cue Frank2!

I’m glad it happened. Bough’s involvement was like a consecration for a simply terrific documentary. Right from the opening, full of explosive soundbites (“People would come into my office and cry”) and a title sequence that presented the warring factions of the BBC and TV-am on a military sand table, it was clear this was a exceptionally well-crafted effort. A few weeks back I mentioned the story of Spitting Image as one of the greatest in British television. But this one is better, and it’s done an excellent service here. Once Bough had dispensed with his obligatory “last time we had dinner, can we now have lunch, to talk about breakfast?” anecdote, he was there recalling life on the front lines. How  journalists had told the captain of the newly launched Breakfast Time that Frostie and the Famous Five were “gonna bury you”.

But the augurs were ill from the beginning for David Frost, who appeared at his most linguistically limp trailing Good Morning Britain with: “We’ll be live on the ‘ITV-one’ button from February one”. When TV-am did arrive – that first hour unpromisingly titled Daybreak – it began with an hour of three grey-haired men and a 12-minute Norman Tebbit interview. At his first commercial break, David  grabbed Anna Ford and Angela Rippon’s knees in a lumpen show of bonhomie. “The presenters were grossly overpaid,” recalled Jonathan Aitken. “By themselves.” Click to BBC1 and Frank and Selina wondered: “How do you get a pint of milk through a letter box?” Back to the ‘ITV-one’ button: “…It was evidence of what a proletarian society Russia was.” Despite mustering the crew of the Ark Royal to spell out a ginormous ‘Britain’ in the opening titles, TV-am was sunk.

I probably knew every beat of what happened next – the arrival of Greg Dyke, Roland Rat, Bruce Gyngell, the coming of Anne and Nick, – but (Ian’s book aside, and if you’d prefer an actual paper copy, that’s possible too) it’s never been told as marvelously as this. Clips from ‘The World of Melanie Parker’ proved, at last, this hadn’t been a cheese-dream. We had a pained Peter Jay admitting he regretted “bitterly” that Angela Rippon spoke out about his ousting and also ended up on the outside. And there was Breakfast Time Svengali Ron Neill candidly reporting the BBC’s schadenfreude at all of the above: “We were very chirpy and cheerful and – dare I say? – a little bit pleased with ourselves.”

Because it had to end somewhere, this documentary chose to take the decommissioning of Breakfast Time in 1989 as it’s final line. Fair, and far, enough. The sun had set on a certain kind of programme-making, where conviviality and reassurance were at premium. Whatever is about to arise on ITV, it won’t be anything like that.

Ian Jones got a credit on the show, by the way, for additional research. I like to think his overture back in 2003 softened up Bough.

The other morning I walked to work listening to ‘Because of You’ by Dexy’s Midnight Runners (Featuring Kevin Rowland)3. The opportunity didn’t present itself to steal a Golden Wonder from a lady chatting to her pal. Or, indeed, to kiss a policewoman. But it felt like both of these things could be just around the corner.

Brush Strokes (Drama, weekdays, 7pm) never seemed like the obvious next step for Esmonde and Larbey after creating the bottled-up Ever Decreasing Circles. At least in concept: the adventures of chirpy, Cockney painter-and-decorator cum Don Juan (Karl Howman, fantastic as Jacko). However, up close it’s as delicately detailed as the depiction of Martin Bryce’s suburban ennui. Certainly there’s that same underlying desperation, as Jacko’s gentle compliments provide chinks of light in desperate housewives’ lives. And some of the dialogue is positively baroque. “How could I possibly vow to cleave only unto one?” ponders our hero. Here’s another: “There’s a touch of the Cassius in you, Eric.”

Granted, the gender politics play differently today – a letter from one of Jacko’s clients complaining of “sexual overtures” is a laugh riot – but times change and there doesn’t seem much point labouring on that. What’s more killingly 1980s is the cast: Howman, Mike Walling, Howard Lew Lewis (as Elmo, TV’s definitive comedy barman), Jackie Lye, Marsha Fitzalan. They’re like a Vietnam generation of actors, all of whom should have gone on to enjoy long and prolific careers in television. Lest we forget. It was  lovely to see them all again. And it’s lovely how Jacko just manages to finish painting that wall as Sydney Lotterby’s name wafts by.

It’s doubtful any show sets out to be considered as affable, but I felt that’s as good as it got for The Trip to Italy (BBC2 Friday, 10pm). And affable is not bad, is it? “I’m not as affable as perhaps I’ve given people cause to think,” said Rob Brydon. Oh well. For anyone who doubted the previous series, The Trip in 2010, there’d be nothing in this to convert them. All resolutely loose and low-key, built entirely on the presumption of our interest as Brydon and Steve Coogan defaulted into dueling Michael Caines. I liked it enough though. There’s a place in my TV-watching schedule for affability.

Which is probably why I won’t continue with Under Offer: Estate Agents on the Job (BBC2 Wednesday, 8pm). I don’t have any particular aversion to the trade, but I’m not sure I want to spend any more time with the likes of thickly coiffured Gary pounding through W1 and W4 and being horrid to his assistant Ernesto. The plinky plonky incidental music and bits of light comedy (Gary struggling to get into that locked room) worked hard to manufacture a feeling of levity, of us entering a quirky parallel world. A place where Lewis in Exeter is a bit of a monster, like the man in The Call Centre. But actually he isn’t. He seemed okay, really. It was all kind of okay. But a few doors down from affable.

  1. I’m not on a percentage
  2. Eh? Eh?
  3. And that does seem to be the official credit – sorry about all the footnotes this week