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 #04

The sets for The Musketeers (BBC1 Sunday, 9pm) have been built in a former monastery 30 miles north-west of Prague, and the hope is they’ll stand for at least three years. They probably will. There’s a feeling of prudence behind this 10-part drama series, a kind of show that’s been built – maybe even focus-grouped – specifically to prosper. This means, as ever, a ‘bromance’ underpins the narrative, there are bad baddies, sexy heroes and those women who aren’t lucky enough to be a fusion of both – a sexy baddy – are just ballast; things to be conquered or fought over. Poor Constance first has to submit to D’Artagnan’s overtures, then the boys have her dress up as a prostitute to distract some other boys. I liked the theme music a lot.

Mr Selfridge  (ITV, Sunday 9pm) is quite different in its take on gender politics. Although Jeremy Piven’s orthodontically impressive shopkeeper is the marquee name, characters such as Aisling Loftus’ Agnes and Polly Walker’s Delphine are allowed to be far more interesting. The arrival of Aidan McArdle, all but reprising that nasty piece of work he played in Garrow’s Law as the formerly errant Lord Loxley, curbs the autonomy of Lady Mae, but that feels like a temporary dramatic barrier, something that will prompt her to exercise her considerable powers.

I hadn’t watched the show before – it’s one of the ways  this weekly review affects my habits. I have to notch up things to write about. Maybe, then, it was all nuance for the knowing, but there seemed to be little or no incident. Lots of portentous lines: “These are uncertain times…” and: “Trouble’s brewing, all this talk of war”. A very wise-after-the-affair remark too: “The power has shifted to the captains of commerce.” And then a newspaper headline: “Archduke Franz Ferdinand Assassinated”. What could this all be leading to?

My rule about sitcoms is no character should ever be considered funny within the fiction of the comedy. It’s why I could never take to Paul in Ever Decreasing Circles or Chandler in Friends. Andy Samberg as Detective Jake Peralta in Brooklyn Nine Nine (E4 Thursday, 9pm) considers himself a laugh riot. Every zinger dispatched with a wide grin. It’s not as annoying as I make it sound, though. Only on its second episode, the series has a loose confidence that makes it feel like it’s been around forever and now everyone’s up for messing about. In addition, Joe Lo Truglio, as Detective Charles Boyle, has been precision-built as a flat-faced comedy foil. True, there is a predilection for the current stand-by of characters setting up their own punchline by queuing a comic ‘flashback’ clip, but it’s an easy watch, which, mostly is enough for me. A handy show to fill in a gap.

It’s always fascinating when a TV show comes along that’s molded in the inverse shape to another programme. The Taste is an example of that, its UK producers having to continually ask the question, “What wouldn’t MasterChef do?” Now there’s The Great Interior Design Challenge (BBC2 Monday-Friday, 7pm) which continually looks over its shoulder – a long way back – to Changing Rooms. One way it steps out of the shadow is in employing Tom Dychkhoff as host. A former lieutenant to Kevin McCloud on whatever that More4 Grand Designs fanzine show was called (I know, the thought of that now seems incredible), he provides an essence of credibility, even though in the actual process of amateurs redecorating other folks’ homes, he’s a ghost who pops up only when no one else is around. Monday’s episode, set a couple of streets up from Dennis Nilsen’s old home in Muswell Hill, saw Tom materialise on stairwells and in doorways using fun words like “mullions” and “pargeting”. But when the action got busy, judges Daniel Hopwood and Sophie Robinson rather let the side down, using the language of Graham Wynne and Linda Barker before them, talking “on trend”, “pelmets” and “up-cycling”.

While would-be designer Helen offered up a hand-painted MDF headboard as “a little bit of me”, she did that standard generic designer-y thing of framing a piece of sheet music. Plus she unveiled her mood board for a new bedroom as “this is your ‘ta da’ moment”. James, though, proved more persuasive. The 38-year-old asset manager was interviewed in his own home, in front of a fireplace, adorned with logs wrapped in a bow-tie. Unlike his rivals, his ‘scheme’ (that’s what you call them) was presented on a paper board with the smallprint ‘James Gostelow Design’ and when he arrived to do the business, he was wearing a gilet with the collar turned up. Despite giving “edge” to a chandelier power cable by wrapping fabric around it, he – and Helen – lost out to Sarah, despite the fact she didn’t manage to get the seat cushions completed for her window seat. That, the judges said, was “tragic”.

Ends