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 #05
My flat is quite small. Nonetheless, I was able to run the vacuum cleaner all around it during the third episode of The Jump (C4 Sunday, onwards) in between two skeleton time trials. And that included me unsheathing the nozzle and getting in at some corner bits. This is a show with a strong premise – celebrities undertake Alpine sports – but, unlike the events themselves, there’s not a huge amount of momentum. That’s because, due to logistics, all the racing bits have to happen in the past tense, robbing them of any immediacy. A hunching-from-the-cold Davina McCall links into the clips, and even Barry Davies’ perfectly compiled commentary has a slight shopworn tinge to it. In the show’s opening episode there was a lot said about the importance of aggression on the slopes, but there was not so much in the production. At the end, Ritchie from 5ive was left facing the jump. Which of the three would he select? “I’m only signed off for the small jump”, he said.

But, to business: Dragons’ Den (BBC2 Sunday, 9pm) and TV’s most preposterous title sequence is back. Five middle-aged superheroes (“Telecoms expert, Peter Jones!”), assembling on green-screened rooftops to survey a composited-in later cityscape. Meanwhile somewhere below street level lurks Evan Davis, ready to lean into the pro forma script he’s been delivering since 2005. “Cash-hungry entrepreneurs,” he says. Actually, I paint the picture as though Evan’s in situ on the same day as Peter, Duncan and the rest. There’s  no evidence of that whatsoever. He now has no interaction with any other person in the programme. For him it must simply be a weird day at the BBC studios in Salford, talking about stuff he wasn’t there for, then jumping into the voiceover booth to deliver a script that presumably doubles-up for whomever is signing for the deaf.

Despite the disconnection in the Den, the programme is fun. The Dragons themselves aren’t especially witty, more frumpishly fussy (“I’m irritated! Yes, I’m blinking irritated!” rails Deborah) and even relative youngster Piers seems like a fogey when he tries to celebrate with his new, twentysomething business partners. “Party on!” But the whole conceit of who will win, and how well they negotiate, will work forever. Plus, and I might be going out on a limb here, there always seems to be fastidious chat about poo. Perhaps I’ve just zeroed in on that since, some series ago, Peter shared the info that when he does one he calls it “big toilet”. Tonight, Deborah drilled down into the details of dog mess. “Often the consistency is not as tidy as you had down there,” says the leisure and marketing expert referring to some shit a cash-hungry entrepreneur had just pooper-scooped up from the Den floor.

The Restaurant Man (BBC2 Wednesday, 8pm) is another winner. Reminiscent of C4’s excellent but generically named Risking It All from about 10 years ago, this sees restaurateur Russell Norman advising folk who are attempting to open their own eateries. This week that was the pleasant duo of Rich and Matt who were launching an upmarket burger restaurant – 7Bone – in Southampton. “If we get the concept right,” reckoned Rich, “I personally think we can open up 10 units within five years”. But before that, there was the concern of whether or not the people of the Solent were ready for a place with stripped back walls.

Part of the strength of the programme was the way it presented a thoroughly unromantic view of the industry. When moustachioed Matt was taken for a stint at the grill in Byron Burger, London, head chef Fred revealed his secret to managing multiple beef patties: “You’ve got to be like a robot”. There was also a fascinatingly detailed discussion about the kind of ‘grind’ Rich and Matt were using on their mincer (10mm, in case you need that detail). In  Norman, the show has a winning focal point. Tanned, wiry, permanently adorned with a satchel, he felt like a TV natural – someone expert and efficient, who just happened to have ended up in front of the camera.

On 7Bone’s opening night, all was fraught. By this point Matt was looking physically frail, his Dali ‘tache even losing its loopiness. To see him and Rich clashing over the inevitable mistakes that come on such an evening was a little harrowing. But it looks like the business is going to do well for them, and further ‘units’ will surely  stalk the south coast.

Here’s a programme title that leaves no room for ambiguity: Hidden Histories: Britain’s Oldest Family Businesses (BBC4 Wednesday, 9pm). Like The Jump, it’s got a great premise, but in practice it’s… well, it’s a bit dull. The final episode in this three-part series traced the lineage of the Durtnell family of builders, who first got into the game in the 16th century.

But it’s full of horrible TV contrivances to try and manufacture some sort of through-line. We meet Alex Durtnell, who’s recently become the company’s chairman and chief executive and now – according to Margaret Mountford’s commentary (in which, slightly irritatingly, she delivers every sentence with a primary school teacher intonation) – “As he tries to come to terms in his new role as head of the business, Alex now wants to find out about its past.” Bet he doesn’t. I bet he’s just been approached by the production company and thought it would be a good thing to do. It gets worse. “Alex wants to find out how his grandfather Geoffrey got the business through the Second World War.” Maybe. “So he’s arranged to talk to Battle of Britain historian Robin Brooks…” He did? “…Who has told Alex to meet him at a wartime aerodrome called Detling.” Seriously?

There are some fascinating details within – the Durtnells failing to get into brick and mortar following the Great Fire of London, or the plight of Richard Durntell (the second) who nearly killed the business in the 18th century – and Alex himself is a likeable chap, albeit one who seems underwhelmed by every revelation. But, oh, still the tacking-together continues. “To get to know his grandfather better, Alex has found an interview Geoffrey made for the BBC 40 years ago. Alex has never listened to it before.”

Actually, I undersold Alex’s enthusiasm. There was a great bit where he found a manhole cover with the Durtnell name on it. He took a snap on his phone. It’s going to become his wallpaper.

Ends