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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.”


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.


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.


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…


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

Watched #10
A long, long time ago I wrote what turned out to be a middling book on British comics. If that endorsement of my own work has excited you, you can purchase it here. Comics are something I’m interested in (that, and I do this TV blog, plus also write about Doctor Whomy wife’s one lucky woman) so my spider sense tingled when I caught sight of this instalment of What Do Artists Do All Day? (BBC2 Scotland Tuesday, 10pm) which will be screening on BBC4 – assuming it’s still around 1 – in a couple of weeks. It spent a day with Vincent Deighan, a highly-gifted comics illustrator who works under the name of Frank Quitely. An intimate, nighttimey kind of programme, we saw him drawing page 13 of issue four of Jupiter’s Legacy. Quitely (we’ll call him that), as his fans will know, is in the premier league of his industry, so it was instructive to see him working out of an almost hovel like studio on Glasgow’s Hope Street. “No puke today,” he observed as he stepped through the door. The place is situated opposite the city’s profoundly depressing Central Station, wherein the artist sometimes showers after pulling an all-nighter.

He made for a terrific companion, happily absorbed in what he does. He talked of the various characters he’s drawn – all your DC Comics big-hitters for one – as sharing an inevitable likeness, like a group shot at a family wedding. His Superman, he says, “has a hint of Desperate Dan to him”. Seeing Quitely toiling nocturnally over a detailed cityscape, well, it was satisfying. The  sheer work that goes into that. “You do a lot of thinking in order for the reader not to,” he explained. And then later, he cleared some space on the studio floor and stretched out for a nap with three volumes of Akira under his head.

There’s been a lot of internet hate for Jonathan Creek (BBC1 Friday, 9pm). Which surprised me. I didn’t realise the series was genre, fit for ‘non-spoiler’ (p)reviews and then the one-minute-past-end-credits ‘spoilery’ review. But in these relatively quiet TV times – because The Musketeers isn’t quite there – it’s hauled in and roughly interrogated, addressed as if it considers itself the be-all, rather than the quirky, ramshackle, unassuming TV survivor it actually is.

That it’s now perpetually also under an ‘it’s back!’ cloud doesn’t help. Jonathan Creek is a lot of things – funny and clever and diverting – but it’s not event TV. Which is all the more reason to cherish it. It’s also obstinate and counter-intuitive, David Renwick dismantling all that once made it feel heightened. Thus as this three-part series begins, Jonathan is married, doesn’t live in a Windmill, doesn’t wear the coat and there’s no nefarious murder plot to be unpicked, instead it’s just a confluence of circumstances. The character of Creek, as he ages, is being normalised. When we last saw him, he was besuited and working in marketing. It felt like a tease, as if this was going to be exposed as some kind of ploy. But, that reveal never came. In this story – ‘The Letters of Septimus Noone’ – Jonathan’s wife, Polly, talks about “creative input for the rebranding exercise”. And it’s not the set-up for an under-cutting punchline. This is the new world of the show.

Perhaps Renwick himself is performing an impossible crime, continuing this still successful series while also vanishing it. Creek, himself, is a background character for most of the story, pointedly remarking, “What’s that about the torch being passed to the new generation? I think I may be getting very old.” We’re privy to what could have been the central mystery, the ‘delayed’ stabbing of a musical star, from the moment its perpetrated, and another – Hazel’s mum’s disappearing ashes – is thrown away in the most disdainful but brilliantly funny fashion. Even the much remarked upon jibes at Sherlock feel part of the plan; Renwick grumpily acknowledging you can get these kicks elsewhere. So what is the business of Jonathan Creek now? I think, at its core, the writer is still whittling out a wonderfully crafted creation. It’s all in the small strokes, the different ways the phrase “under the third bedroom floorboard” can be interpreted, the fantastic sight gag of Jonathan in a massively oversized riding helmet, the foreshadowing of ‘RIP’ Ripley’s penchant for carving phrases in wood. For me, it remains a puzzle box of a show. It’s just that there’s something different inside now.

The following evening brought us another ‘it’s back’ programme: Stewart Lee’s Comedy Vehicle (BBC2 Saturday, 10pm). It’s beholden upon me to draw some link between this and Jonathan Creek. If I can do it, it’ll make my thoughts look connected, as though we’re heading purposefully towards the formation of some kind of impressive theorem. And I can. Because both programmes, in addition to featuring a greying and now more soberly dressed protagonist, hang heavily upon structure.

I’ve talked a bit about how Renwick has rejigged the one underpinning his series. I don’t need to talk at all about what Stewart Lee is doing – he does entirely that in this opening episode. But he does it really well, stepping outside his stand-up to provide study notes. Lee has a genuinely good gag that ends “…try explaining that to the your mother-in-law on Christmas Day,” to which he then appends: “It’s like a Lee Mack joke.” Later, he keeps flitting between an old-school socialist dogma (“How are my kids supposed to grow up to be campaigners for social justice…”) and the reality of his, and his audience’s, current-day comfy middle-class obsessions (“…without the benefit of educational privilege?”). He even has the audacity to labour on a deconstruction of his own already laboured delivery style (“By the seventh ‘Shitbottle’ sign I started to find it funny again”) and gets away with that too. It’s only while taking an imaginary phone call in the final section he becomes a little too self-serving, telling his fictional caller he hasn’t really worked out an ending. As a faux shambles, it just feels too crafted. Much like the bits in between, Lee in a mist talking to Chris Morris while the camera roves and cross-pans reverentially.

There’s nothing wrong with Brian Conley’s new game show Timeline (Challenge Thursday, 9pm), other than early rounds infuriate me in their wilful ignorance of maths. The premise is to put items in chronological order using draggable tiles on a screen. In the first scenario, you have five variables (such as ordering the release date of Mr Kipling’s Cakes, Birdseye Arctic Roll, Sara Lee’s Cheesecake, Ambrosia Rice Pudding and Wall’s Viennetta), which means you can only ever score zero, one, three or five 2. If a tile is in the wrong place, then so is another. QED. So, please, Brian, stop trying to tease out the possibility of a further right answer when someone has scored just one and there’s a final tile to reveal.

That’s a tiny criticism, right? A really banal, nerdy one too. But I had to say it. Otherwise, the show works. Conley chats gamely with the contestants, it’s a shout-alongable format, and the Pointless-like banality of some of the questions (ordering desserts, I ask you) appeals. It nearly didn’t happen, though. Conley initially trialled something else for the channel called Brian’s Big Van, set in a shopping centre. From the name alone, I wish that had gone to series too.

  2. Or possibly not, see Simon Fox’s remarks in the comments field