Off The Telly » year in review Contemporary and classic British TV Sat, 29 Oct 2011 16:07:07 +0000 en-US hourly 1 2009 Sat, 02 Jan 2010 00:05:27 +0000 Jack Kibble-White As 2009 wraps up, and the “best of the noughties” appraisals get under way, what, if anything, from the decade’s final 12 months will be brought into focus?  Incredibly it seems, 2009 was the year of Simon Cowell, who having been involved in talent shows for most of the last 10 years, still has something left to keep him at the top of the TV hierarchy.  Will his luck run out in 2010, or is Cowell’s renewed dominance merely a sign that 2009 has been a year in which very little has truly emerged on the small screen to create the kind of impact his shows muster?


Creating impact, albeit not on the kind of international tabloid-baiting level as Susan Boyle, Torchwood: Children Of Earth was one of the year’s undoubted big hitters.  Losing the show’s previous juvenile snigger, this five-parter, stripped across a week was actually very close to being a remake of Nigel Kneale’s 1979 Quatermass, and was all the better for it. It was taut, philosophical, exciting and somehow managed to ram some of Torchwood‘s camper elements into plotting that wouldn’t have looked out of place in Troy Kennedy Martin’s best work.  It asked questions about exactly how far over the mark a government might go in order to protect itself, and if nothing else, you have to wonder  what other drama could have included the image of a Rachel Whiteread sculpture being dumped into a quarry, with its smashed concrete remains revealing a butt-naked John Barrowman…

All in all it was a pretty good year for telefantasy. BBC3′s Being Human somehow managed to synthesise the best elements of the Buffyverse then dilute it with a British sensibility rooted in Hammer Horror films and Channel 4 contemporary dramas.  Boy Meets Girl stretched the hoary old body swap plot idea across four episodes and tried to approach it with a modicum of realism, succeeding admirably, largely due to Rachael Stirling’s affecting performance as Martin Freeman trapped in a woman’s body.  This was a brave bit of programming for ITV1.

With Heroes dying a slow, convoluted death, it took Misfits on E4 late in the year, to do something new with the ordinary people who have extraordinary powers idea by giving those abilities to a group of repellent youngsters working community service.  Broadcast late, it scored by introducing bad language and sex into a genre usually barren of such things and underscored the post (new) Who shift towards adding comedic fantasy elements into series that might otherwise have become worthy explorations into the dark heart of society.

The second series of Ashes to Ashes continued this dark theme. The fuzzy 1980s nostalgia – although still present – was a less important part of the mix, while Philip Glenister had personally petitioned the show’s writers to make Gene Hunt less of a mythologised hero figure and more a real man. Keen to get to grips with the grittier side of ‘80s policing, it also addressed the first series’ ill-judged response to the Scarman Report (wherein Hunt rubbished the efforts to rout racist and crooked coppers) with a storyline about corruption in the Met.

ITV1 brought back Primeval for a third series, with Jason Flemyng taking over as the main male lead. Although the show enjoyed another successful run, it was subsequently cancelled, much to the annoyance of its fans. Surprisingly a co-production deal was later hammered out with one of the satellite channels for two extra series, with all of the current cast returning. Sadly, a similar fate was not to be on the cards for BBC1’s Robin Hood, which after three years at the heart of the Saturday evening schedule was cancelled. Robin actor Jonas Armstrong had been set to bow out, and a potential successor character named Archer had been introduced in the event of a fourth series… but it proved to be in vain. The BBC’s other would-be Doctor Who, Merlin, reappeared in September and plodded along as it had the first time around – until the final two episodes, when it suddenly burst into life and became the kind of series it should have been a year ago.

Doctor Who enjoyed a slightly wonky run this year, with the consensus being that ‘Planet of the Dead’ was disposable in an annoying way, while ‘The Waters of Mars’ was a brilliant example of pressure cooker drama. ‘The End of Time: Part One’ was quite simply all over the place, unfortunately hampered by the introduction of another group of human scientists working away in a lab – a set up that the series has yet to make look at all convincing.  John Simm’s Master was now some kind of Marvel Comics super villain, and his resurrection horribly reminiscent of the terrible 1989 Doctor Who adventure ‘Battlefield’.  Still, Bernard Cribbins and Timothy Dalton made up for a lot of the episode’s deficiencies.

Even at its worst, every other piece of telefantasy shown in 2009 was still miles better than Paradox – widely regarded as this year’s Bonekickers. Originally touted for a five-night-a-week stripped run, it was eventually shown across five weeks with audiences declining as it went along.  While innovative programming is always welcome and preferable to just another cop show, it has to be done well and Paradox came across as complete nonsense from start to finish.

Away from sci-fi, the trend in TV drama for resurrecting old concepts (that Only Fools prequel finally airs in 2010) continued with the most ill-conceived yet coming from Five. Minder featured Shane Richie and Lex Shrapnel in a low-powered crime comedy caper, with Richie as Archie Daley – hitherto unseen and never mentioned nephew of Arthur – and Shrapnel as his rough diamond associate, Jamie. The series was marketed as sporting the aesthetics of Lock, Stock – as if that franchise hadn’t long since become passé – and seemed woefully under-resourced on screen with long, static, sparsely populated scenes and zero charm or chemistry between the leads. The real beauty of the original Minder was in the casting, not the concept. This was never a show begging to be ‘re-imagined’. Malapropisms alone aren’t enough, and this time the lobster was well and truly off.

Far better was New Year’s Day’s long-awaited return of Jonathan Creek. The one-off special ‘The Grinning Man’ was directed by the notoriously hands-on David Renwick, and was a competent, if not breathtaking, addition to the canon.  Hustle also returned, bringing with it original cast member Adrian Lester (who’d taken the previous year off). The show had floundered a little in his absence, but although he was back, Jaimie Murray and Marc Warren were replaced by Matt Di Angelo and Kelly Adams. Like Creek, Hustle is on again in 2010, although filming of the show has shifted to Birmingham (part of the BBC’s policy of relocating drama production away from London).

Over the pond, the second series of lauded US drama Damages faltered badly. You couldn’t blame the show for playing all its cards first time around, but reassembling the deck for another hand made it seem horribly contrived. Meanwhile, Sky 1 brought us Jack Bauer’s latest ‘long day’ in the seventh series of 24. Here was some audacious, manic and beautifully plotted television. The return of Tony Almeida, which many feared as a shark-jumping innovation, instead proved a huge success.

However, FX’s Dexter is arguably the best drama currently coming out of America; a skewed serial killer saga which continued to delight and test its audience during its third series as the title character forged an unlikely relationship with an unhinged Assistant District Attorney (Jimmy Smits). The duo’s partnership went through many twists, often stretching credulity, but in each case the series would later revisit the more unlikely moments and present new evidence which wholly justified them. It also began a slow-burning storyline in which Dexter’s sister, Debs, slowly began to piece together the truth about him. It’s a plot strand that’s destined to unravel over the next two seasons (Dexter’s been commissioned up to series five).

For the very few still watching, Lost‘s penultimate series was brimming with confidence and the TV equivalent of watching Rolf Harris paint.  Suddenly, those seemingly random moments made at the very beginning of the process began to take shape, proving the show’s creators really did know what they were doing all along.

Law and Order: UK was an attempt to bring a US drama format over here.  Shown on ITV1 in February, this version transplanted the action to London and had former Torchwood boss Chris Chibnall on-board as show-runner. Bradley Walsh and Battlestar Galactica‘s Jamie Bamber were the two leads, and despite impressive performances from them, the series was chopped in half with the latter batch of episodes being held over for showing at a later date.

Perhaps the standout drama of the year, at least in terms of art direction was the adaptation of David Peace’s Red Riding by Channel 4. Heavily promoted and trumpeted as something rather special, the series came across as dark, bleak and impenetrable, yet there was something about its  grimy atmosphere and aesthetic that made it compelling television. David Morrissey, in particular, turned in a career best performance.

Soap operas gentle slide from a position of absolute ratings dominance continued throughout 2009.  The manner in which ITV1 shunted Coronation Street around the schedules didn’t help and instead annoyed the series’ loyal viewers by forcing them to search it out. It was moved from its traditional Wednesday slot for football, while its shift to Thursday was probably as good a solution as any, but this then meant there were three episodes in just over 24 hours, followed by very little for the rest of the week. Furthermore, the channel then continued to shove extra episodes on football-free Wednesdays anyway. It’s now almost impossible to answer the question, when is Coronation Street on?

For those who don’t tune into the soaps on a regular basis, it’s usually possible to keep up with major storylines through a kind of popular cultural osmosis, but in 2009 if you weren’t tuning into EastEnders there was very little chatter elsewhere in the media to appraise you of what had been going on.  Coronation Street appears to have the best year out of the big three, but the show’s recent predilection for crafting various stories in which Rosie Webster actress Helen Flanagan gets her kit off is a bit distasteful, and will surely only generate press interest from lads’ mags and The Star.

Game Shows

ITV1 opened the batting in the traditional game show stakes on New Year’s Day with a revival of The Krypton Factor – which had been off our screens for 14 years. Thankfully using the show’s traditional format rather than the bodged mid-90s reboot, it was at least faithful to the original, challenging its contestants mentally and physically. Similar mixed-discipline tests were found in the second series of Beat the Star, which ITV1 axed after this year’s run. Still on the channel, the Andrew Castle-fronted series Divided appeared to be two game shows in one: a fairly straightforward question-and-answer session requiring the contestants to work together to succeed, followed by a divisive and deliberately unfair division of spoils that encouraged everyone to bully and hector each other in order to claim the lion’s share of the loot. The fact the first show ended with a contestant in tears marked this out as truly questionable television.  Nonetheless, ITV1 has commissioned more of this, to replace Golden Balls. A far better experiment with the 5pm slot was The Chase, which sees contestants face off against quiz experts; however, this was clearly created as a spoiler to the BBC’s rival Eggheads.

The  BBC launched a couple of new afternoon quizzes in a hunt for successors to the aforementioned Eggheads and The Weakest Link. A Question of Genius was a fairly good show hobbled by a slightly too complex format.  Meanwhile the entertaining Pointless, ably helmed by Alexander Armstrong, inverted the classic ‘ranked lists’ notion by asking players to think of the least popular valid answers.  The series’ genius element was the inclusion of Armstrong’s “pointless friend” Richard Osman, who – as well as adjudging the players’ responses – totted up a running total of obscure possible answers. By the series’ end he was able to declare the Central African Republic as the world’s most “pointless” country, in that those surveyed about various geographical matters never thought to mention it.

Five, not previously having held much weight in the game show genre, taxed a troupe of contestants in the impressive Britain’s Best Brain, though much of the publicity was generated not by the show itself but its presenters – Zoe Ball and Jamie Theakston.  The reunification of the presenting duo perhaps shifted attention from the show’s bizarre end game, watching a giant inflatable get bigger and bigger.  What this had to do with brainpower was anyone’s guess.

Elsewhere, Nick Knowles returned with a new game in the National Lottery cycle, Guesstimation, which was a decent format nobbled by the fact it was designed as a “format to fit the purpose” (the purpose being in this case to plug Dream Number and the 2012 Olympics) rather than developed as a series in its own right.

Guesstimation may have completed its run, which is more than can be said for The Colour of Money. Clearly designed as a successor to the now ageing Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?, it even shares that show’s presenter Chris Tarrant. While Millionaire became a global hit that made its creators into millionaires themselves, ITV actually saw little of the income, as the show was an independent production. It was presumably hoped The Colour of Money, an ITV-made show, would become a hit of similar scale. But it was riddled with flaws.  Here we witnessed contestants attempting to withdraw amounts of cash from different coloured machines, before the device reached its maximum pay-out.  In a pre-Millionaire era, the format would have been a tight, chirpy half-hour; instead, ITV1 loaded the show with unnecessary lard, most of the narrative coming from the players ‘rationalising’ which hued dispenser to go for (“As my husband’s in the forces, I’ll go for khaki”).  Unfortunately, the way the games themselves progressed didn’t provide enough variation, which meant if you saw one episode, you’d seen them all. The show was quickly axed, with the final edition held back until a mid-afternoon slot on December 29.

Still, it seemed in 2009 if you didn’t like a particular game show, another would be along in the minute.  This meant that as terrible as The Colour of Money was, there was always the chance something else would come along later in the year to supplant it as 2009′s game show nadir.  And so it was when Five’s Heads or Tails rolled up on our screens.  A naked attempt to cash in on Deal or No Deal, this was a terribly executed programme with meaningless contortions of the show’s format put in place to string the whole thing out to a desirable running time.  Worst still, the whole business of host Justin Lee Collins flipping the actual coin was poorly realised, and what should have been the programme’s iconic moment  just looked downmarket and naff.

So if Heads or Tails was the year’s worst new game show, what was its best?  Well the aforementioned Pointless was worthy of our esteem, as was ITV1′s The Cube.  This was a brilliantly judged Saturday night show, magnificently presented by Philip Schofield. Here the post production effects and bullet time camera work all coalesced into something that was genuinely gripping, even when the tasks (like walking in straight line while blindfolded) were mundane in the extreme.  If it’s going to return for a second series, our suggestion would be that the risk-to-reward ratio of each game would benefit from another look, but that aside here was the best new ITV1 game show since – probably - Who Wants To Be A Millionaire.

Away from the traditional game shows and into the kitchen, Marco Pierre White’s second stint at the helm of Hell’s Kitchen was pretty unmemorable.  The latest batch of celebrity chefs completed dinner service every night, while their boss seemed more concerned by conjuring up lazy bon mots. The Restaurant’s return  for a third series initially proved every bit as exciting as previous years – and that was despite the fact the show had clearly taken a huge budget cut (less episodes, less eateries opened). The first two episodes proved a complete joy, but come the time the contestants were ensconced in their establishments, it all fell apart. Seemingly in an effort to compensate for the cut in episodes, one challenge and one full service were leavened into every edition, meaning we never saw enough of either. Then, a series of staggeringly poor choices resulted in contestants JJ and James winning the show. That the ‘chef’ in the duo hadn’t cooked once over the series utterly undermined the whole concept. Perhaps the production team felt they were hooking in another charmingly chaotic double-act like last year’s Alistair and James. But no. A culinary clutz  going into business with Raymond Blanc? C’mon! We still like a smidgeon of reality in our reality TV.

Thankfully MasterChef, in all its variants, was superb and has long since felt like an unkillable format… despite the schedulers’ best attempts this year. The scheduling of MasterChef: The Professionals left many viewers perplexed. The series was originally commissioned for an early evening spot, but then moved into prime time at the eleventh hour, even though there wasn’t a regular gap available for it across the week. As a result, Monday and Tuesday editions felt like one-and-a-half episodes each, throwing the whole thing off kilter. Still, the initial rounds were greatly enhanced by the presence of Monica Galetti, who did her best to be completely annoyed just to be there, while Michel Roux Jr developed from his previously taciturn and scary persona into someone rather nice. With a new “regular” series due in January, a celebrity version currently being filmed and a “junior” offshoot in the works, here’s hoping the channel makes enough room in its schedules for all the franchises, perhaps saving some space by getting rid of the endless recaps that litter each show – after all we’re not that stupid, surely?

Stupid, however was at the very core of Total Wipeout, an It’s A Knockout for the 21st century. The cartoonish buffoonery was, on the face of it, inoffensive, but digging deeper behind the trowelled-on irony and lampoonery, the show contributed very little in terms of quality, and seemed to exist purely to provide extra employment for the popular Richard Hammond. The BBC’s baffling devotion to the format saw two full series in 2009, the first of which was needlessly repurposed mere weeks after its end to fill a half-hour Friday night slot. It could be argued this was to the programme’s detriment – it’s certainly highly entertaining for the first few outings (witness Ben Miller crying with laughter when reviewing the show on You Have Been Watching: “It may just be falling in the water but it’s every single kind of fall into the water you can think of!”) but, like Hole In The Wall, the relentless silliness works best in small doses.

Speaking of which, in 2009 there were two new TV quiz shows all about TV itself. As Seen On TV, helmed by Steve Jones (of T4, rather than Pyramid Game or Sex Pistols fame), provided a welcome return for the pre-watershed middleweight puzzler that the BBC had earlier decided to eradicate to save cash.  The concept of a light-hearted panel game is not a bad one at all and it’s something we should have more of, but As Seen On TV was hamstrung by its bizarre refusal to show anything from before the mid-90s, reaching a nadir with a round of questioning about 2008. If Harry Hill couldn’t think of anything funny to say about Wallander, what chance Fern Britton? It almost seemed to go out of its way to be unfunny by choosing ridiculously uninteresting clips. Meanwhile, Charlie Brooker built on his Screenwipe success by launching a new C4 series, the aforementioned You Have Been Watching.  This took the form of a panel game/discussion built around Brooker’s TV predilections. However, the game appeared rather tacked-on, and most Brooker followers would prefer to hear the journalist voice his views without appended frippery.


Celebrity travelogues continued to be a popular way for factual television to go during 2009.  Billy Connolly: Journey to the Edge of the World was the big ITV1 travel series of the winter, and featured the Big Yin in Canada, attempting to trace the north-west passage. Meanwhile, Last Chance to See saw Stephen Fry follow in the footstep of the late Douglas Adams as he and Mark Carwardine went to visit some of the planet’s most endangered animals. The Around the World in 80 Days format was revived in aid of Comic Relief on BBC1 in October, this time featuring a whole host of celebrities each taking on a leg of the journey rather than doing the whole lot themselves a la Michael Palin. While the show had its moments and undoubtedly raised a lot of money for charity, as a travel documentary it was nowhere near as interesting as the journey undertaken 20 years earlier. By Any Means returned for a second series, this time following Charley Boorman as he travelled from Sydney to Tokyo. While the first run seemed to have a clearly-defined aim the second series abandoned clocking up the number of different modes of transport used, and so it all became a little directionless.

James May proved yet again that of the Top Gear trio he is the one most able to go and make interesting spin-off projects. He followed up his Big Wine Adventure by taking to the road with Oz Clarke again, this time looking at a wider range of British booze in Oz and James Drink to Britain. The show provided an engaging snapshot of the UK’s past and present drinking habits, and showcased the people fighting to keep British brewing alive. May then piped up again at the end of the year with Toy Stories. Inspired by his Top Toys specials in past years, this engaging programme saw him corralling the public into assisting him in building giant projects based on playthings from the pre-Playstation era.  It was fun and pointless, rather like Top Gear without the testosterone, and so all the better for it.

The Hairy Bikers Food Tour of Britain commenced at the end of summer, with the pair embarking on a mammoth gastronomic journey around the country, with most – if not all – of the counties of the UK being represented. It was a huge undertaking, with five episodes shown a week at teatime. And while it was very interesting to see such an idea played out, the shows did seem to become very repetitive after a few weeks with the same format being employed in each and every edition (and even the same types of recipe being cooked from time to time). However, the Bikers returned for a Christmas special in December, based on the theme of The 12 Days of Christmas.

The Frankincense Trail covered Kate Humble’s journey across Arabia as she traced the route (or the bits that she could trace) of the Frankincense traders who would have taken the precious gift to Jesus in Bethlehem. Humble presented well and demonstrated she isn’t just somebody who is confined to countryside programming, even if she did come across as slightly over-enthusiastic at times.

But factual telly wasn’t all about travel.  BBC3 concocted a hybrid of Watchdog and The Real Hustle to create Don’t Get Screwed (piloted early in the year as Don’t Get Ripped Off).  The series attempted to use the techniques pioneered by The Real Hustle to illustrate to young adults how to cope with poor customer service.  Another attempt to attract the kids to a traditionally stuffy subject came with BBC1′s Bang Goes The Theory, a fast-moving concoction of scientific fact, stunts and fun; basically a more straight-faced take on Sky 1′s Brainiac.

The sentence “a fly-on-the-wall documentary about a former model named Katie” could be used to describe both one of the worst documentaries of the year and one of the best. ITV2 continued its baffling obsession with publicity-hungry “entrepreneur” Katie Price, with her split from Peter Andre allowing both members of the defunct partnership to feature in their very own series. A massively more worthwhile use of a TV hour, however, came in October when C4′s Cutting Edge strand screened Katie: My Beautiful Face. This excellent one-off followed model and digital TV presenter Katie Piper as she rebuilt her life after suffering a horrendous acid attack. The documentary traced Piper’s recovery in a dignified and heartening way. Viewers were able to cheer on the subject as she built up her confidence and returned to daily life. Katie Piper’s case has been heavily discussed and she has since been in receipt of huge amounts of support.  The film was also to become the most-watched Cutting Edge of 2009.

Newswipe with Charlie Brooker brought the critic’s sensibilities to current affairs and began with uncertain results, but improved immeasurably when focusing on how news was covered, rather than the news itself.  Highlights included an incisive commentary on the coverage of the G20 protests (which concentrated on the tiny pockets of violence rather than the vast majority of peaceful demonstrations) and the shift on television as to what constitutes current affairs (Jade Goody, instead of international matters with global implications).  In the autumn Brooker was back again, this time with the one-off video game focussed Gameswipe, a show that betrayed his obvious love and knowledge for the subject matter.  Affectionate and amusing, this was perhaps his best piece of telly to date.

Gameswipe was part of wider BBC4 season looking at all things digital.  The centrepiece was Electric Dreams. This three-part series took a modern family and had them live in a simulated 1970s home. Each day the calendar would click on a year and the accompanying technological breakthroughs were then introduced to the house. Yes, there was the obviously Proustian rush of Chopper bikes and microwaveable meals, but the show really got under the skin of how ordinary people lived. Seeing a chest freezer being tarted up with a wipe-clean wood veneer was almost poetic. There was also an oblique fascination to be had in the domestic habits of participants, who had designated the lounge as the “adults room”.  At the end of the three-week TV experiment, the family started an experiment of their own after deciding to open up the “adults room” to all of the clan.  Great stuff.

The arts got a reasonable inning this year.  Starting at the more populist end, BBC2′s Apprentice-style search for an artist, School of Saatchi made a reasonable fist out of trying to let the masses into the tightly sealed knot that is modern art grammar.  In this effort, Matthew Collings was surprisingly enlightening, and proved himself – contrary to all previous television evidence – to be a clear-thinking and erudite commentator.  Meanwhile, one of the most captivating televisual events of the year was happening over on Sky Arts.  Antony Gormley’s fourth plinth escapade “One and Other” attracted a couple of thousand volunteers to stand for an hour each, non-stop for three months on the empty plinth in Trafalgar Square and do what they liked.  A surprising number chose to do nothing but sit or stand and take in the atmosphere or a few photos, but the participants who attracted the most attention were inevitably the nudists, the karaoke singers, and those with a cause to promote.  Like Big Brother in its earliest days, viewers watching the live feed on the Sky Arts sponsored website didn’t initially know what to expect, but would then tune in precisely because they enjoyed that very element of the unexpected.

Baroque! From St Peter’s to St Paul’s in which a typically enthusiastic Waldemar Januszczak crystalised the artistic period and its implications, somehow managing to even find something new to say about St Peter’s in Rome, perhaps the most filmed church outside of The Vicar of Dibley.  The best sequence described the rebuilding of London’s churches by Christopher Wren and Nicholas Hawksmoor, which in illuminating the deliberate variety demonstrated the sullen boredom of most modern ecclesiastical construction.

Finally, the story of artist Kit Williams and his monstrously successful 1979 children’s book Masquerade, was sensitively retold in BBC4′s The Man Behind the Masquerade – possibly the best documentary of the year. Slightly daffy, like the book itself, it prompted viewers to examine Williams’ artwork. Granted, some of the dramatised scenes of naked women and lobsters felt a tad too self-conscious, but for 60 minutes viewers were placed fairly and squarely inside the painter’s mind. And it was a great place to be.

As ever, it was food continued to dominate this year. Feast With Heston Blumenthal represented the first fruits of the chef’s new contract with Channel 4, as every week he went to extraordinary lengths to lay on a sumptuous, often stupendous historical or literary-influenced banquet. While the series successfully counteracted Blumenthal’s slightly flat onscreen persona by busying him with a string of bizarre and fun tasks, it did fall down when representing the final results of his efforts. All food shows ultimately disappoint – we can’t taste the fare ourselves – but our representatives on screen (a group of celebrities invited to dine at C4’s expense) proved maddeningly inept at summing up the experience for our benefit. Comments were rarely more eloquent than: “Delicious”.

Less successful was Heston Blumenthal: Big Chef Takes on Little Chef, in which he attempted to turn round the fortunes of the ailing roadside café chain, while the programme makers and voiceover man did everything in their power to try and paint Little Chef boss Ian Pegler as obstructive and idiotic, even when he was very obviously giving Heston carte blanche to do whatever he wanted.  That said, Pegler’s patter seemed to come from the David Brent lexicon of business jargon. A one-off follow-up show was broadcast in October which updated viewers on how Little Chef had fared since Blumenthal’s involvement – and it appeared things have been going extremely well.

Jamie Oliver was at it too, with his worthy series which sought to improve the welfare of pigs in the British farming system. What the programmes ultimately showed was that Britain has some of the most stringent rules and procedures in place already compared to a lot of other places. Similarly, Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall did his best to highlight the plight of chickens in Chickens, Hugh and Tesco Too, a worthwhile cause, but one that we’ve seen on our screens before, and not that long ago either.


CBBC rocketed out of the blocks in 2009 with not one, but three, series that attempted to make facts fun. Ed & Oucho’s Excellent Inventions saw the popular CBBC linkman and his cactus chum mix scientific principles with stunts and songs to bring viewers’ creative ideas to life. Little Howard’s Big Question featured comic Howard Read and his cartoon companion taking on traditional theories in a quirky, interesting way. Top Gear‘s Richard Hammond sparked up a stunt-filled science gameshow, Blast Lab, which ran to two series in 2009 and trod similar ground to XperiMental from some years previously.

While CBBC marched gamely on, CITV was still in the doldrums, largely absent from ITV1 and with a digital channel heavily reliant on reruns and imports; though there were new episodes of the channel’s most popular fixture, Horrid Henry. CITV’s big new launch of 2009 was literature series Bookaboo, a Jackanory-like storytelling programme wherein a rather random assortment of celebrities pitched up to offer tales to the titular dog. This was, at least, quite well executed, with Bookaboo himself taking the role of an inquisitive youngster being read to, excitedly interjecting into the story.

Comedy for kids also continued, with a second run of the excellent Sorry I’ve Got No Head on CBBC proving that pre-watershed sketch comedy is more than possible and thoroughly enjoyable, and a Comic Relief one-off, Class, starring Sam and Mark as multiple characters in a school-based knockabout. Kids’ gameshows also enjoyed a renaissance, with excellent new programmes such as Keep Your Enemies Close and Wait For It... While a seasoned viewer would be able to pick out the bits cribbed from other shows (Wait For It…‘s “drop zone” into a gunge pit is lifted from Scratch & Sniff’s Den of Doom, and Keep Your Enemies Close ‘s pulling-poles-out-of-a-moving-box game is near-identical to one from last year’s Hot Rods), the shows were entertaining enough for the target audience to lap up.

A gold star for effort must go to STV, who, having tired of the ITV network’s intermittent provision of children’s programming, put together it own weekend morning series, wknd@stv, made up of repeats and imports from the library. This did at least offer an opportunity to enjoy a number of series which hadn’t been seen for some years (and thus will be new to many kids) such as Captain Zed and the Zee Zone, Minty, Sherlock Holmes in the 22nd Century and Get Wet.

BBC2′s The Well was a short form horror series produced by BBC Switch, the slightly hazy department brought in when it was decided the BBC Childrens shouldn’t cater for anyone over the age of 12.  This fairly spooky haunted house story would probably have gone unnoticed to everyone outside its target audience had it not appeared to be the last work of new Doctor Who companion Karen Gillan before moving to Cardiff.  Gillan wasn’t given much to do but be a bit posh and offer scorn and exposition.

Predictably the kids’ telly highlight of the year remained The Sarah Jane Adventures, which continued to do some excellent work, it’s just a shame that its greatness is so clearly hewn from the telefantasy shows of the 1970s, rather than constructed from something of its own.  Still, that’s a minor grumble, particularly when it should be applauded for simply existing at all.


In 2009, BBC1 trialled a new series from Sam Bain and Jesse Armstrong, the writers behind Channel 4′s much-garlanded Peep Show (which itself launched its sixth run in 2009). The Old Guys was a passable half-hour starring Clive Swift and Roger Lloyd-Pack, but suffered from the general apathy toward traditional sitcoms both among the audience and within the BBC (which binned both Not Going Out and After You’ve Gone this year despite both shows having a relatively strong following, proven by the fact that the former received a last-minute reprieve).

The misfiring remake Reggie Perrin, starring Martin Clunes, shared little with its Leonard Rossiter-helmed precursor, bar the lead character’s name, and found itself caught between two stools; the show had to be retooled to suit modern times and tastes, but also had to include numerous throwbacks to the original to keep Perrin purists happy. Any attempt to trade off the goodwill of the older show was offset by the baggage of having to live up to the forebear. Though original writer David Nobbs was on board, the programme could quite easily have been made without him and with a different lead character. Whether it would have been, of course, is another story. The Amanda Holden-starring Big Top also proved a dire misfire. Commissioned, its rumoured, as “the new ‘Allo ‘Allo” this ensemble comedy boasted a great cast, but terrible scripts and flat, static action… curious considering the show’s circus setting.

Staying in sitcomland, the return of Red Dwarf was one of the more unlikely TV stories of the year – perhaps the decade. And yet, it proved to be exactly the right commission for Dave, part of UKTV’s portfolio of channels exploiting the BBC’s back catalogue of programming. Here, they took the strategy a step further, breathing new life into a much-loved but long dormant franchise, and were rewarded with stellar ratings as a result (over two million tuned in). The three-part story itself was patchy, although perhaps better than we could have reasonably expected. Co-creator Doug Naylor sensibly junked most of the innovations introduced during the show’s final series (the return of the Red Dwarf crew in particular), but over-reached himself in producing a hugely self-reflexive tale which felt more like a tribute to the show than a continuation of it. Many of the production team worked on the revival purely out of goodwill. Now it’s been recommissioned for a full run (sadly, rumours abound of a return for Duane Dibley) it would be interesting to know how those working relationships develop.

BBC2′s Psychoville was a new show from Steve Pemberton and Reece Shearsmith, two of the creators of The League of Gentlemen. Dark, grisly and very funny it was certainly a worthy successor and was such a hit that it is coming back for both a one-off special and another full series. Krod Mandoon and the Flaming Sword of Fire also appeared on BBC2, but was rather less impressive. An odd hybrid of British and American actors and a lack of real laugh-out-loud moment made for a poor piece of comedy.

As is now becoming familiar, Channel 4′s output in this genre was a complete waste of time. Two of the Comedy Showcase pilots from last time, Plus One and Free Agents, were spun off into series, but both suffered from utterly repellent characters in predicaments that were impossible to care about. Looking at the new run of Comedy Showcase, the idea of likeable leads seems to have gone out with analogue television, reaching a new low when two consecutive episodes – Camous and PhoneShop – featured unpleasant white men speaking in patois.

One of the stars of PhoneShop, Emma Fryer, also wrote and appeared in Home Time on BBC2, playing a virtually identical character – a dull, unpleasant and irritating individual. In 2009 Michael Palin argued that new talent no longer enjoys the kind of freedom bestowed back in the day on the Pythons, but watching the rise of both Fryer and Dan Clark, writer, star and director of the appalling How Not To Live Your Life, you could argue that the more people out there trying to stop them, the better.

Miranda was much better and served up a surprise smash hit for BBC2, pulling in around five million viewers a week over its two showings. This was a thoroughly likeable and endearing series that had nothing to do with real life and only existed to make people laugh – the “You Have Been Watching” sequence at the end summing up its unpretentious, old-fashioned approach. It’s questionable as to how long Miranda’s relentless cheerfulness can last before it grates, but this was perhaps the most impressive debut of the year.

ITV1 continued its more traditional approach to sit-com with Mumbai Calling. An awful comedy, it had apparently been made in 2007, but finally made its debut after being found down the back of a filing cabinet by somebody at ITV towers. Quite frankly they should have left if there.  Office-based sitcom Lunch Monkeys had its moments but suffered from – yes – unlikeable characters and inevitable comparison to similar shows set in a workplace environment, while Off The Hook was a poor BBC Switch-backed attempt to clone E4 hit The Inbetweeners (to the extent that it starred James Buckley, also one of The Inbetweeners‘ regular cast); but with its Saturday lunchtime replay in mind, Off The Hook was never able to capture the edgier end of the teen experience in the way E4′s post-watershed show could.

ITV2 followed 2008′s No Heroics by dusting off long-forgotten 2006 Channel 4 Comedy Lab one-off, FM, and turning it into a series. This radio-station sitcom – starring The IT Crowd‘s Kevin O’Dowd and current C4 golden boy Kevin Bishop – was able to use its setting as a basis to invite real-world pop and rock stars into the storyline. The show suffered, however, from poor visibility as the reality-led ITV2 is not seen by the audience as a key supplier of comedy output.

Moving away from sitcoms and onto sketch shows, The Impressions Show was a lively mainstream affair that featured more hits than misses, with Debra Stephenson proving a revelation. Channel 4′s patchy TNT Show did at least demonstrate the station was still willing to hand slots to largely untried talent.  However, the best sketch show by some distance in 2009 was BBC4′s Cowards.  Based on a Radio 4 series, it featured skits that sat just the right distance between “humorous” and “unusual”, with sketches diverse enough to be distinctive, but recognisable enough to be funny. More would be welcome.

Al Murray’s Multiple Personality Disorder was a spectacular misfire from the creator of the Pub Landlord. Despite trying to branch out with new characters, the series featured little in the way of humour and some dreadful characters, including a terrible camp Nazi.  Mathew Horne and James Corden’s reappearance on BBC3 (which had successfully incubated Gavin and Stacey) in the shape of sketch show Horne and Corden was a disaster on a similar scale. The duo received a hurricane of criticism, although much of it seemed to be because TV critics wanted to put the boot into James Corden for being boisterous at award ceremonies. Mathew Horne later said the criticism was unfair as the show was aimed at a specific youth audience and wasn’t supposed to be the new Gavin and Stacey, which was a fair point. What it didn’t excuse though, was the fact a lot of the material was massively underwritten and relied purely on Horne and Corden’s relentless mugging. The two are fine performers but they need other writers to provide more satisfying material.

But BBC3 wasn’t a complete laugh-free zone.  Two of its best shows of the year appeared solely as one-offs. Silent comedy Ketch! & HIRO-PON Get It On, screened in February, gave rare airtime to mime; while Vidiotic, one of a group of pilots shunted out silently and unpromoted in a middle-of-the-night slot around March (see also Brave Young Men) featured a mix of specially-filmed skits and repurposed archive content, blended together into a strange, surreal but enjoyable alternative view of the world.

2009 was a big year for stand up.  Stewart Lee’s long-awaited return to TV after staging Jerry Springer: The Opera came with a satirical new BBC series. Stewart Lee’s Comedy Vehicle rolled in with some finely-formed barbs at modern life, delivered in a freeform style now rarely seen on TV (“I’m just going up the Zavvi, mum!”). However it was BBC1′s large arena stand up shows Michael MacIntyre’s Comedy Roadshow and Live At The Apollo that garnered the larger audiences, particularly when transmitted on Saturday nights, which was quite a novel move for the channel.

Transferring from Radio 4 to BBC4, I’ve Never Seen Star Wars was an unexpected pleasure as some of the Corporation’s talent establishment (and oddly David Davis) lined up to be taken through their cultural blind spots by Marcus Brigstocke.  Though none of them admitted to not having seen the film in the title, it was certainly entertaining to witness John Humphrey’s cooing over Michael Jackson’s Thriller, Esther Ranzen (returning from a spot on the radio version) discovering Alien, and the joy of watching Hugh Dennis nibble on road kill.  Unflappable through most of the series and on serious form when required, even Brigstocke seemed genuinely moved when he had to reveal that the legendary Nigel Havers had received a potentially career-changing tattoo for his little show; there were plenty of surprising moments on television this year but none of them were quite like Dr Tom Latimer revealing the silhouette of a scorpion permanently printed on his upper arm.

Also coming from radio, Dave Gorman transferred his quirky series Genius to BBC2, shot through with a genuinely entertaining and witty presentation (“…and here’s that address again in red”), the show encouraged creative thinking and good humour, and would therefore be very welcome back on our screens. We Need Answers was a transition from a stage show, but its quirky, witty, deliberately low-budget roustabout concept just about worked. It’s Only A Theory, meanwhile, used humour (from Andy Hamilton and Reginald D Hunter) to analyse a range of scientific and cultural theorems, some more serious than others.

Onto TV comedy’s seemingly most ubiquitous form – the panel show. QI returned, and with a vengeance: the sixth series, originally due for autumn 2008 transmission on BBC2/BBC4 was shunted into early 2009 to run on its new BBC1 home. The channel then began the seventh series at the end of the year, which due to its expanded length will spill into early 2010. Fry, Davies and guests continued to be interesting and entertaining throughout.

Dave continued its successful Argumental, a series which has clearly grown in confidence from the warm reception for the first run.  The show’s prominence was underlined late in 2009 when the BBC bought a clutch of episodes – a rare move for a UKTV commission (though not, as some reports had it, completely unprecedented).

The worst panel show of all though, remains Mock The Week. Sold as satire, it’s simply a bunch of people shouting abuse, with gifted comedians such as Frank Skinner and David Mitchell having their well-crafted gags interrupted by Andy Parsons and Russell Howard shouting out hackneyed old rubbish about Charles Kennedy being drunk and Gordon Brown having one eye. Most of the gags were so lazy and predictable it could have been filmed any week of the year. Sadly too, Frankie Boyle, the only regular participant who can actually craft and deliver a joke, had every gag followed by the rest of the panel expressing mock outrage, killing the humour stone dead, despite everyone else doing equally tasteless material, only with relentless mugging to ensure we like them.


One of the year’s heavily-promoted launches, the Graham Norton-fronted Totally Saturday, flopped massively on BBC1, making it the second such shiny-floor catastrophe in recent years (Johnny & Denise: Passport to Paradise being the other). Although Totally Saturday wasn’t the car crash some suggested – it was at least competently made – the obvious problem was most of the features were interchangable with those that turn up every week on Saturday Night Takeaway, just not as well produced. The item where members of the public had to dress up as giant Scrabble tiles was a case in point: Norton seemed embarrassed asking the contestants to do it, they were embarrassed at having to do it and hence it was embarrassing to watch. Despite attempts to recapture the success of Noel’s House Party, viewers no longer warm to this format. It would be a shame if Saturdays consisted solely of song-and-dance shows designed to fill the Cowell/Lloyd-Webber coffers, but ratings suggest this is what viewers currently want.

Jonathan Ross returned to our screens but, even if he had cut down on the swearing, the fact remained that Friday Night… was a bad show to begin with, and Ross is a poor interviewer. This was never better illustrated than during the interview with David Mitchell, in which our host had clearly only read one thing about him – a newspaper interview which emphasised his rather modest flat. Ross simply asked: “Have you got a telly? Have you got a computer? Have you got a mobile phone? Have you got an iPod?” for five painful minutes.

Justin Lee Collins and Alan Carr departed the Sunday Night Project and launched separate chat shows, C4′s Alan Carr: Chatty Man and ITV2′s Justin Lee Collins Show; however, neither is a Parkinson-level inquisitor, and it appears the serious talk show remains out of favour in preference for those where the host is able to spar with guests in a more sparky, sarky manner.

Piers Morgan did at least attempt to bring back to our screens a more conventional version of the format, but Piers Morgan’s Life Stories clearly suffered from a lack of decent guests – after all does a primetime audience really care about the life and times of Vinnie Jones?  Still, for Morgan it didn’t really matter if a particular series didn’t work as there would be another along in a minute, such was ITV1′s confidence in his pulling power, Morgan was all over the channel in 2009. This was, of course, thanks wholly to his involvement in Britain’s Got Talent, which along with The X Factor continue to pull in enormous ratings.  It was a particular surprise in relation to the latter show which seems to have been going through the motions for the last couple of years.  Certainly, the quality of the participants has, if anything, gone down and you have to assume that this year’s winner, Joe McElderry, is going to seriously struggle to sustain a long term career as a recording artiste.  David Sneddon, anyone?

However, it seems the sheer scale of The X Factor is enough to pull in the audience. Sadly, Strictly Come Dancing suffered from abysmal press this year, despite the fact that this so-called “ailing”, “disastrous” series was still pulling in over nine million viewers, putting it comfortably in the top 10 ratings every single week. The bad publicity generated regarding Strictly‘s scheduling clash with the aforementioned X Factor was absurd when, as the BBC pointed out, the two series had been shown simultaneously on 40 previous occasions.

The low point of the entire year was the Sunday Mirrors front page the day after the first show being devoted to the “news” that Alesha was a flop – based purely on the views of a dozen jealous teenage girls posting on DigitalSpy. The press are now swallowing the ITV1 press office’s stuff completely, hence the complete lack of coverage when the channel cynically scheduled Coronation Street against EastEnders in November. That said, the Strictly line-up this year was rather dull – weren’t we promised Richard and Judy?


Sky Sports has been the provider of Live England Cricket series in the UK for the last couple of years, and it was good to see in 2009 it hadn’t rested on its laurels. Bringing in Shane Warne as a guest commentator for The Ashes was a genius move – funny, astute and articulate, he provided an interesting foil to David “Bumble” Lloyd and company and enjoyed a great rapport with his co-commentators. The coverage was punctuated with some fabulous documentary sections during the intervals, which evocatively traced the history of the Ashes.

ITV1′s most public mistake this year was missing the winning goal in Everton versus Liverpool, which clearly wasn’t ITV Sport’s fault – it was an automation cock-up – but allowed everyone to criticise the company, especially as many still believed the FA should have awarded the FA Cup contract to the BBC anyway. In the event, the FA Cup proved to be a disappointment for the channel with a succession of low ratings. In addition, the station had been forced to give up the rights to covering F1 racing in order to afford the Champions League, only to be saddled with a dreadful contract with far fewer games and an obligation to show matches such as Panathinaikos vs Atletico Madrid on primetime ITV1, (resulting in one of the channel’s lowest ever audiences).

Setanta Sports closed down in 2009, but its demise was regarded a self-inflicted failure after the station’s desperate attempts to ape Sky and splash the cash on contracts of quantity, rather than quality. As they always had second choice in deals, they were never going to be able to compete. The arrival of ESPN has been rather quiet, emphasised by its FA deal, where the station haggled over the price for months, clearly preferring to get value ahead of huge slabs of content. ESPN’s undoubted big triumph though, is getting Sky on side, commissioning them to produce their programming and sell the channel, well aware most football fans have to purchase both anyway.

In conclusion…

So all in all, 2009 has been an unspectacular year for television, thanks in part to the impact of the recession on TV budgets.  Perhaps the worst channel of the year was Channel 4. Julian Bellamy, Head of Programming, complained their rivals were completely lacking in originality, while simultaneously poaching Ruth Watson and Heston Blumenthal to do exactly the same shows they were doing on other channels. It was good to see Wife Swap finally get the chop, about three years too late, but do we really have to see every single episode of Ramsey’s Kitchen Nightmares USA? One or two might be a novelty but an entire 16-part series is a waste of time.

Quite possibly one of the most surprising moves in television this year was the bizarre decision by ITV1 to axe established favourites such as Heartbeart, The Royal and Kingdom. Sunday night gentle family fare they may be, but all three shows pulled in huge numbers and were solid, dependable series. Officially Heartbeat and The Royal were said to be “on hiatus”, but the sets for the shows were destroyed and the cast moved on to other work. Meanwhile a more predictable, but no less disappointing announcement was the cancellation of The South Bank Show.

Craziest channel of the year was undoubtedly STV, which in 2009 jettisoned many of ITV1′s most popular programmes from its schedules (including The Bill), in favour of broadcasting extremely cheap, home grown fare.  Apparently it was all to do with economics.  Still, The Hour, a risible 60-minute daytime magazine show which looked like absolute rubbish was, by the end of the year, triumphantly winning its slot in Scotland, trouncing even the BBC’s powerhouse of daytime quizzes.

This year we lost – amongs others  – Jade Goody, Keith Floyd, Mollie Sugden, Wendy Richard, Maggie Jones and Troy Kennedy Martin.  A bizarre line up consisting of battle-axes, eccentrics, a 21st century celeb and a true TV giant.  If anything their collective obituaries speak to the continuing diversity and quality of television in this country.  Whether it be applauding at the hem of Susan Boyle, or tuning in to experience Waldemar Januszczak’s latest small screen essay, TV in 2009 could at least rightfully claim it featured something for everyone.

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2008 Thu, 01 Jan 2009 00:01:11 +0000 Jack Kibble-White When TV pundits of the future look back at 2008 (a process that is sure to start in earnest in just over 12 months time as we begin the second decade of the 21st century), what will they make of the year just gone?  2008 brought us Rock Rivals, The One and Only, The Invisibles, Harley Street and The Duchess in Hull - five utterly forgettable series destined for curiosity status almost straight away.  Yet wasn’t this too the year of Lark Rise to Candleford and a resurgent The X-Factor?  Viewed in the context of the decade as a whole how will 2008 fare? Will it be seen as a significant year or 12 months that slipped through the cracks of television’s wider historical development?


As ever, but perhaps surprisingly this year given the hand of Michael Grade at the tiller, ITV1 enjoyed a mixed 12 months in drama. Its bold adaptation of He Kills Coppers back in Easter ended up as a fusion of The Long Firm and Our Friends in the North, with Rafe Spall excelling as ambitious police officer Frank Taylor. Meanwhile, The Children, by Lucy Gannon and starring Kevin Whately and Geraldine Somerville, superbly evoked the messiness of extended families – but lost points for bolting a superfluous murder story onto the plot.

Midnight Man was even less successful, an old school conspiracy thriller starring James Nesbitt as down-at-heel investigative journalist Max Raban, who suffered from a phobia of daylight… except when the plot required him not to. In a multi-layered tale, he stumbled upon a seemingly government-sponsored death squad taking out ‘undesirables’ – but, alas, the character archetypes offered up here were so hackneyed (grubby reporter; soulless millionaire – played by Alan Dale; aggrieved ex-wife etc) it was hard to get involved.

Things were even worse in Flood, a bland US co-production of the disaster porn variety, which depicted a deluged London. Of a slumming-it cast – including David Suchet, Robert Carlyle and Joanne Whalley – Sir Tom Courtenay stood out for his appallingly phoned-in performance. Bafflingly bad. On a descending scale, we then come to the aforementioned Rock Rivals, clearly fitted out by Shed Productions as a “guilty pleasure”, this dramatisation of an X-Factor-style competition did little favours for leads Michelle Collins and Sean Gallagher who seemed uncomfortable in their respective Sharon Osbourne and Simon Cowell roles. With neither character displaying an ounce of likeability, viewers voted to watch something else instead – however this same subject would prove more fertile ground for Peter Kay later in the year. 

Britannia High, a modern day reworking of Fame, was commendable in the scale of its ambition (a live finale, a spin-off album masterminded by Gary Barlow, an online radio station), but lamentable in terms of plot and characterisation – both horribly hackneyed and clichéd, and it too ultimately suffered at the hands of a viewer vote to watch anything else instead.

But these relative failures have nothing on Harley Street, another of ITV1′s vehicles for Suranne Jones, which saw the former Coronation Street star playing a dynamic private doctor, struggling with a cut-glass accent. The show, some sort of weird throwback to the ’80s avarice-dramas, seemed woefully out of step with its bland sorties into the world of the over-indulged. Even its efforts to intersperse some working-class grit into the mix were misguided: Dr Robert Fielding (Paul Nicholls) a northern lad who loves his parents, turns in night shifts at the local NHS hospital just so he’s keeping it ‘real’. Laughable. If ever a series was designed to be unloved, this was it. Although BBC execs were doubtlessly grateful it showed up on the tail of Bonekickers to take some of the heat off that stinker.

Of course, the BBC suffered its fair share of failures – with the aforementioned Bonekickers leading the pack. From the creative team who brought us Life on Mars, starting with the show’s name upwards, here was perhaps the most misconceived drama of the year. Presented as some kind of Time Team meets Indiana Jones in Bath, the series was forever battling with a remit to make archaeology sexy and essayed Scooby Doo plots, appallingly clichéd characterisation (Hugh Bonneville’s lascivious, eccentrically attired and textbook-spouting Prof ‘Dolly’ Parton being the worst offender) and some jaw dropping dialogue (“Identify yourself, creepy caller!”).  It’s little wonder the press gleefully bundled in to kick the whole concept to pieces, and unsurprisingly ratings sunk with each passing episode, rising only slightly for the final instalment.  The BBC and Kudos later announced Bonekickers won’t be excavated for a second series.

Thankfully, Matthew Graham and Ashley Pharoah’s Ashes to Ashes performed rather better, even though it had the unenviable – and some might say unwise – task of following on from Life on Mars. While the show’s creators insisted they wouldn’t have gone ahead with this sequel if a strong idea hadn’t presented itself, it’s kind of hard to know what that was, other than setting the drama in 1981 (and, interestingly, we’ll be shunting forwards a year for the second series). In truth, this felt like more of the same. 

Keeley Hawes as the central character of Alex Drake was unpopular with some, but perhaps this had more to do with the character, rather than Hawes’ performance.  A greater problem was the tension existing between the series’ core genres, cop show and fantasy, failed to cohere.  There were too many appearances from the clown and not enough clarity in the detective work.  These different strands rarely overlapped making it – at times – an irritating programme to watch as your attention was cast hither and thither. 

The first series concluded with an attempt to tinker with the show’s central premise by having Drake  recollect meeting Gene Hunt in “real life” when she was a child.  However, given we are being led to believe Alex has created the fictional world in which the drama takes place, isn’t the most likely explanation of her meet up with the Gene Genie simply to assume her imagination is retrofitting Hunt into her memory?  Regardless of this psychological conundrum, it seems clear Ashes to Ashes will never be a premier league proposition, but like stablemates Hustle (set to return in revamped form in January) and Spooks, it’s good, solid entertainment. 

Speaking of which, Spooks now on its seventh series, seemed to benefit from the real-life Litvinenko affair, with the Russians once again (alongside Muslim extremists), the enemies of freedom. The show even spawned a spin-off series that was broadcast on BBC3. Spooks: Code 9 was set in the near future following a nuclear attack that had wiped out the south of England, and was patently aimed at a much younger audience than its progenitor. Unfortunately like much of recent BBC sci-fi, it suffered from a premise that worked at the level of high concept, but fell apart when it hit the ground.

Other drama franchises proved to be in sound health. Doctor Who appeared for its fourth series, and the last one to feature David Tennant as the Doctor. This year’s episodes were a mixed bunch, with ‘Planet of the Ood’ and ‘The Doctor’s Daughter’ both betraying a sense of running low on fresh ideas.  Catherine Tate’s casting as the companion wasn’t particularly well received among fans but she seemed to win around a lot of people with her performance. The series is now well-placed for a major reboot come 2010, and hopefully a slight change of focus away from the Earth-bound stories and the family of the companion.

Who‘s spin-off show, The Sarah Jane Adventures returned for a 10-part series, and featured a change in the main cast with the departure of Maria. Anji Mohindra took the role of new kid Rani and was an immediate improvement on her predecessor. One of the best stories of the run was ‘The Day of the Clown’ which featured an superbly sinister performance by one-time light entertainment star Bradley Walsh. Conversely, one of the poorest stories this year was ‘Secrets of the Stars’ which featured a rotten turn by one-time light entertainment star Russ Abbott. 

Meanwhile Torchwood remained the Doctor Who spin-off that still doesn’t know what it wants to be. It’s clear there is a decent, entertaining series buried somewhere, but it is hidden beneath layers of silliness and crude sexual innuendo. Hopefully, the forthcoming third series (which will be stripped across a week early next year) can resolve some of these now longstanding problems.

Back to the parent show and while the finale to this year’s Doctor Who was over-laden with characters and under-endowed with plot, it achieved a first for the series by securing the number one position in the viewing charts for its week of transmission. Winter Saturday nights, meanwhile, were pepped up no end by Merlin a show that was obviously designed as a seat-warmer for the Time Lord, but was entertaining in a light and fluffy sort of way, even if things did get a bit samey with an evil sorcerer turning up at Camelot most weeks. The show would have benefited from taking the action away from the castle a little more often.

Starting in the winter, Survivors marked yet another sci-fi comeback, and remained entertaining viewing. The opening episode did a fairly good job of updating the premise for a modern audience, and the new characters seemed to fit in quite well. You could see the show owed a debit of inspiration to Spooks with the killing off of an apparently important player in the first episode. Our band of heroes are, in the main, engaging – Max Beesley particularly impressive as the amoral Tom Price. And come the series finale, was Paterson Joseph really being written out so he’d be free to take on the mantle in that other sci-fi comeback?

But there were some flaws. Insights into a secret government lab added little to the drama; wouldn’t it have been more exciting if their presence had only been signified by occasional sightings of the lone helicopter? Worse still, the issue of law and order (a highlight from the original series) was horribly fumbled. The idea of the group struggling to take communal responsibility for justice was simply swept aside when a government representative took the decision to enforce a death sentence upon a criminal. In this post apocalyptic world, we can still rely on the authorities to do our dirty work. And, dramatically, that’s a wasted opportunity

Remaining on a fantastical tip, Apparitions starred Martin Shaw as a zealous exorcist. A ratings failure, chances of the show’s resurrection look poor, and that’s a great shame. A fusion of mad plots (women possessed by the spirits of aborted babies, a sex offender battling the spirit of the patron saint of rape victims) and utmost seriousness, this was an unusually rich – and often times – shocking offering.

Another debuting series was the ambitious Echo Beach / Moving Wallpaper from ITV1. A clever idea in principle, the pair of series were set on opposite sites of a television production: one looking at the making of a soap, the other – the soap itself. Unfortunately for ITV1, and despite having some big names behind the two shows, the public never really took to the idea and the soapy half of the pair – Echo Beach – was axed. The characters from Moving Wallpaper are set to be retained, but this time there will be no companion show, just an ‘in-house’ zombie thriller featuring Kelly Brook.

The Royal Today was a much more successful product from ITV1. Running daily, this half-hour spin-off from The Royal capitalised on the success of the BBC’s Doctors. Other new series in 2008 included The Invisibles on BBC1 in May.  This was a drama starring Anthony Head and Warren Clarke as two burglars. It was as entertaining as you would expect of a show from the pen of William Ivory, but evidently ratings were not good enough, and so it was cancelled after a solitary run. 

Elsewhere, the Corporation attempted a couple of high concept thrillers. Neither proved terribly effective. The Last Enemy starred Benedict Cumberbatch as a researcher who returns to the UK to find a country cowed under the tyranny of excessive government surveillance. Ponderous and pretentious it may have been, but sporting a giant talking computer as a central macguffin, suddenly it all looked a bit silly. Meanwhile, Burn Up boasted Rupert Penry-Jones along with Bradley Whitford and Neve Campbell in a clunky eco-thriller which failed to convince in its tale of an oil magnate who suddenly develops a conscience. It didn’t help the script felt like it was written some time circa 1987.

But 2008 did give us some huge drama hits. As well as regulars such as Silent Witness (which had two series this year), Foyle’s War, Poirot and New Tricks, there were also a number of other popular series returning for second runs following successful launches last year. Kingdom, the Norfolk-set Stephen Fry television equivalent of Horlicks was back on ITV1, nestled snugly in the Sunday evening schedules. Inspector Morse spin-off Lewis was also back, with the promise of a further run for 2009.

Game shows

While the drama genre seemed to be in rude health (judging by the number of series broadcast if nothing else), 2008 was a quieter year for game shows.  Gladiators returned with much hoopla to the (newly rebranded) Sky1. Although this was an impressively confident production, it lacked the ‘ITV hysteria’ of the original run, depicting the Glads as characterless lunks in black. A second series, however, is on its way, so here’s hoping there’s a bit more comic book on offer.

Celebrity MasterChef and MasterChef: The Professionals proved that Shine’s TV cookery show could do just about anything. The former brought us one of the TV moments of the year, as Holby City‘s Mark Moraghan cracked under the oh-so pervasive pressure and told Marcus Wareing to “shove it up your fucking arse” before fleeing the kitchens of Petrus. The latter brought a formidable new presence to the world of the TV chef – Michel Roux Jr. In his first continuous onscreen role, he proved pleasingly taciturn, offering up mealy-mouthed compliments that somehow invigorated that blandest of all platitudes: Good. “I find the fish good” or “The flavours… are good.”

While Masterchef graduated from daytime to primetime, Channel 4′s culinary contest Come Dine With Me did likewise, but to less pleasing effect.  Somehow the format seemed perfect at five 30-minute episodes a week, and the shift to hour-long weekly shows (with the consequent reduction of dinner party hosts from five to four) stripped the programme of much of its indefinable sizzle. 

Far better was Argumental which was that rarest of things – a digital channel commission that actually felt like proper telly. This production for Dave not only had the good fortune to employ John Sergeant as host just as his Strictly storyline was coming to fruition, but in its debating format employed a simple structure that felt as though it had been around for years. Honestly, you could stick this on BBC2 and no-one would know…

Back at Channel 4 again, and if you’d been away from the UK for a decade and returned this summer, you would have been staggered to hear of the bitching and backstabbing behind the scenes on Countdown.  It seems ever since Richard Whiteley passed away, the series has been all at sea – which is amazing given that a large part of Whiteley’s appeal was his obvious inability to gain mastery over the format.  Meanwhile, erstwhile presenter Des Lynam’s performance on Sport Mastermind proved what a terrible quizmaster he is.  Seeing the man who was once the ultimate unflappable TV host stare at the camera like a rabbit in the headlights and stumble through his script was horrifying.

However, 2008 was perhaps the first year in a while in which a game show failed to really grip the public imagination. Deal or No Deal is still trundling along nicely for C4, while BBC1′s National Lottery: Who Dares Wins returned for a second run and consolidated itself as the show with a format so good even Nick Knowles couldn’t ruin it.  BBC4 again attempted a highbrow quiz, but where previous entrants had failed because they were just too smug, Only Connect worked pretty well (although we could without the self-consciously cerebral music stings next series please).


2008 for some reason seemed to be the year of the television travelogue. Louis Theroux appeared in a couple more specials in which he set out to seek out oddballs in Louis Theroux: Behind Bars and Louis Theroux’s African Hunting Holiday. He also reappeared in November and December with a double bill on law and order in Philadelphia and Johannesburg. Joanna Lumley got to fulfil a childhood ambition and went to see the Northern Lights. We also had an intriguing series in which Jonathan Dimbleby travelled across Russia in… Jonathan Dimbleby’s Russia. Until now he has never really come across as being the most personable of chaps, but his sojourn across this vast nation was fascinating and presented him in quite a different light.

Charley Boorman’s made his third big journey in By Any Means for BBC2 in September. In contrast to the previous series, this time it all felt very rushed, with a number of places covered only briefly as Charley, his producer and cameraman attempted to journey from Ireland to Australia using as many different modes of transport as possible.

Over on Five, Paul Merton was off to India, and while this is the sort of programme the channel should make more of, it was difficult to escape the feeling it all felt a little familiar. Merton does make for an affable host, and it is to be hoped he can continue his association with Five. Meanwhile, fellow comic Stephen Fry’s sojourn across America was a worthwhile attempt to cover the whole country in a single series. Unfortunately, while Fry was as good as ever, the problem with this series was that it was just too short. Covering 50 states in six shows was a massive task.

Animal and human welfare was also on the TV menu this year. Jamie Oliver’s latest crusades covered both chickens and people, with Jamie’s Fowl Dinners and Jamie’s Ministry of Food. In the former Oliver attempted to bring to attention the plight of the nation’s battery hens, while, in the latter, he tried to educate people who can’t or won’t cook. Laudable as his attempts were, he attracted considerable flack from the press for seemingly targeting working-class people and portraying them as lazy uneducated slobs. Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall also studied the battery hen problem in Hugh’s Chicken Run (appearing in the same month as Jamie’s Fowl Dinners), and despite seemingly managing to convert some to the joys of free-range, its hard to escape the feeling most have probably already reverted to buying the cheaper supermarket product and TV dinners.

Fearnley-Whittingstall popped up again in River Cottage Spring and River Cottage Autumn. Also cooking on the television this year was Delia Smith with her series Cooking for Cheats, in which we could all learn how to prepare tinned mince.  Meanwhile, Stefan Gates took another tour of the world’s most dangerous spots in Cooking in the Danger Zone, while The Supersizers Go… saw Sue Perkins and Giles Coren experience food from a variety of historical periods. Meanwhile Gordon Ramsay at last found himself a half-decent magazine show format with Gordon Ramsay: Cookalong Live.  Not great, but a million miles better than The F Word.

Away from the hotplate, this was the year Ruth Watson checked out of her Kitchen Nightmares inspired series on Five, The Hotel Inspector, to helm a, er, Kitchen Nightmares inspired series on C4 – Country House Rescue (fact fans might like to note Ramsay’s show bore the working title Restaurant Rescue). Essentially more of the same, Watson continued to prove she was the quintessence of “redoubtable”, gleefully effing and jeffing when property owners failed to take her advice on board. Meanwhile, back on Five, firebrand Alex Polizzi proved a more than adequate successor, as The Hotel Inspector continued journeying around Britain’s most horrible hostelries.

A surprise pleasure this year was BBC2′s variously scheduled Return to… documentaries, which revisited the Corporation’s slew of docu-soaps from the turn of the century. Celebrating the likes of Castaway, Vets in Practise, The Cruise and – surely the most forgotten of the lot – Lakesiders, this was a good humoured exercise, surprisingly candid at times as various proponents admitted to manipulating either the programme-makers, or the subjects to their own ends.

Other standout factual programmes of the year included Life in Cold Blood - David Attenborough’s last natural history series for the BBC; Channel 4′s Can’t Read, Can’t Write  - in which award-winning educator Phil Beadle attempted to teach adults basic literacy; Griff Rhys Jones on Anger, which saw a seemingly mild-mannered comedian-cum-presenter demonstrating he can blow his stack as easily as the rest of us; and Ian Hislop Goes off the Rails – a programme examining the impact of Doctor Beeching’s railway reforms. Hislop also helmed a documentary exploring the role of conscientious objectors during the World War I.

Sticking with the theme of war, Laurence Rees returned with another excellent series covering the events from the 1930s to the 1940s in World War II: Behind Closed Doors. Worth a look too was a show tucked away on Five featuring a celebrity who seemed to be everywhere just a couple of years ago: Dom Joly’s The Complainers. Here, Joly looked at the trials and tribulations of modern life and set out to investigate just why so few people are prepared to complain when they have suffered an injustice. It wasn’t all serious though, as was witnessed by his encounter with an irate man in a café who he had spoken of as a “beardy-weirdy lesbian type”  in a segment showing how annoying mobile phones can be.

As already pointed out by Charlie Brooker, 2008 was the year of the personality documentary and Dawn Goes Lesbian was perhaps the absolute personification of this trend.  Journalist Dawn Porter made a series of programmes for the constantly struggling BBC3 in which she tried out an alternative lifestyle.  This was essentially Bruce Parry’s Tribe for the Hampstead set, with London’s gay scene instead of the Babongo.  Over the course of an hour we watched Porter become the very best of friends with a Fenella Woolgar look-a-like who she ultimately spent the night with, afterwards stressing both parties kept their pyjamas on.  Much of the programme was issue-led (there’s abuse in lesbian relationships too etc), but at times Porter seemed not quite up to the task of taking on the issues.  This became more apparent in her C4 documentary on mail order brides.  Here, instead of trying to get to grips with the subject in hand, she spent more time letting the viewer know which of the men smelt the worst.

Far, far better programming came in the form of BBC4′s Pop, What Is It Good For?  Paul Morley offered up a list of his favourite songs of all time, explaining why and interviewing the people who made them.  Although he can come across as a rather cynical figure, faced with his heroes, you really saw Morley’s passion and the esteem in which he holds their music. 


Things started badly for TV comedy in 2008, with ITV1′s Paul Merton-fronted series Thank God You’re Here. Based on an Australian show, it involved celebrities having to improvise their way around a comedic scenario that would always begin with the eponymous phrase. Merton seemed slightly out of place here and the standard of humour frankly wasn’t that high.

Far better from ITV1 was TV Burp, which enjoyed two series in 2008, one starting in January and a mammoth 25-part run that commenced in October. TV Burp has long been the most entertaining thing on the box, but you have to wonder how they are going to maintain the quality and laughs in the show over a six-month span. Too much burping could well result in viewers feeling sick.

The Kevin Bishop Show appeared on Channel 4 in July and was faster than The Fast Show in its presentation of sketches. Some of Bishop’s impressions were perhaps less than perfect, but he displayed enough promise to probably guarantee a further series, even though he was guilty (as is much of recent television comedy aimed at “the kids”) of taking unchecked juvenilia too far.  It might be amusing to refer to “Wanking The Dead” in a pub chat about telly, but surely in the process of making Bishop up as Trevor Eve and finding a corpse for him to masturbate, the ‘joke’ starts to pall.

Old-timers Harry Enfield and Paul Whitehouse were back on BBC1 this year with another batch of shows. Ruddy Hell, It’s Harry and Paul was distinctly patchy, but the re-titled Harry and Paul showcased some of the best stuff the pair has done for years. Little Britain USA, on the other hand presented a series that looked increasingly tired and past its sell-by date. 

February brought us another run of That Mitchell and Webb Look that followed on more or less from where it had left off. Also returning for the umpteenth time was Mock the Week, a show that looks like it might be good but is always unfailingly disappointing.  Meanwhile, 8 Out Of 10 Cats always feels like it’s going to be terrible – awful set, appalling title sequence, a guest booking policy that seems to be no more sophisticated than get who was funny on Buzzcocks last week, appalling editing that renders half the show inaudible – but it always turns out to be good fun, thanks no doubt to Sean Lock, the best panel game participant in Britain. Nobody, even Paul Merton in his prime, is as good at going off on tangents and gently mocking the sheer pointlessness of news-based satire.

In sitcoms, Sunshine was a three-part BBC series from the pen of Craig Cash and Phil Mealey, starring Steve Coogan. Never quite sure what it wanted to be, the show was diverting enough, but had a tendency at times to be overly mawkish and sickeningly sweet. An unexpected and largely unnoticed sitcom was far better. Tucked away on E4 was The Inbetweeners – a series about a group of sixth formers in a comprehensive school married filthy humour with four excellent leads. Pleasingly, there is going to be a second term.

As good as The Inbetweeners was, perhaps the best sitcom of the year was Gavin and Stacey. As Henry Normal pointed out – there are loads of scenes when everyone’s laughing but nobody’s the butt of the joke – a refreshing approach. The sequence where the entire family got fantastically over-excited over Gavin’s dad’s (three-second) appearance on the news was probably the best portrayal of family life on TV since the early days of The Royle Family. We’ll put aside memories of that horribly disappointing Christmas special, though, and hope for the best when the recently announced third series rolls around.

Conversely, quite possibly the least funny sitcom that has ever been broadcast appeared in March, and it starred Adrian Edmonson. Teenage Kicks – which had been sat on ITV1′s shelves for several months – featured the former Young One as a father who had been forced to move in with his two kids. It was appalling. This was a show that made jokes about ‘comedy’ Chinese accents. Better from the channel was the second series of Benidorm which featured a terrific performance from cast newcomer Geoffrey Hutchings as the perma-tanned tanning salon king Mel. A third run has been commissioned for 2009.

In the main though, there were too many sitcoms in 2008 that dispensed with a laugh track and served up naturalism in place of jokes. Step forward both The Visit and The Cup, the latter being the third sitcom in a year to feature Steve Edge acting gormless. How many more times must people try and remake Phoenix Nights? Northern whimsy is not in itself hilarious – most of these were no more edgy than Last of the Summer Wine.

Of course, were Peter Kay to do anything as good as Phoenix Nights again we’d be happy. Sadly it was almost impossible to judge Britain’s Got the Pop Factor… with an open mind as the man hasn’t done anything for four years except mime to other people’s records and release the same DVD over and over again. The sheer scale of this one-off Channel 4 comedy spectacular was a big problem.  Running for two hours may have been accurate, but it meant jokes were stretched to breaking point. Once you’ve seen one inappropriate musical segue, you’ve seen them all. Plus, surely we have now bled dry that seam of comedy that sees celebrities sending themselves up? Here it was like one prolonged back slap, and while it may make sense of the plot to record a generic song for the winner, singing it three times on the programme and then releasing it is not comedy, it’s advertising.


On paper there were two soap highlights this year, Dot’s monologue in EastEnders and the death of Vera Duckworth in Coronation Street.  Yet neither event plucked at the heart strings as quite they should.  In fact, given its rich and long history, the death of a beloved character on the Street should be a major event, however, Vera’s demise joins that of Mike Baldwin in somehow failing to be affecting at all – and all this from the same soap that was able to render us senseless with despair simply through Hilda Odgen fumbling with a pair of Stan Ogden’s specs. 

If they’ve lost the ability to do the quiet emotional moments well, 2008 was also the year in which soap set-pieces failed to feel extraordinary.  The early part of the year was punctuated in Coronation Street by David Platt continuing his reign of evil, at one point going on a violent rampage around the street before redeeming himself in the eyes of his mother and grandmother following a spell in a young offender’s institute. A long lost face from the past returned to the street when ’60s character Jed Stone found himself subject to the machinations of the show’s latest hate-figure Tony Gordon.

EastEnders’ big story was the return of Ricky and Bianca and the latter’s numerous offspring. It was also the year in which Frank Butcher passed away, albeit off-screen. Charlie Brooks returned in the role of Janine for the funeral, with a more permanent homecoming later in the year.  The Branning family were paid a visit by Jim too, following his stroke (and that of John Bardon who plays him). Bardon’s appearance was quite something, really, and considering he didn’t utter a line he still managed to convey every aspect of the script that had been written for him. Further turmoil came for Dot with the long-awaited return of her son Nick at the end of the year. It’ll be interesting to see how long he sticks around this time, and how his relationship with his mother will develop.

Elsewhere, the police force were abolished in Holby. Or rather, Holby/Blue was axed following a disappointing showing. Meanwhile, the BBC announced that as part of its regional strategy, Holby City hospital would in future be filmed in Cardiff rather than Bristol. Quite what the wisdom of this is was difficult to discern, given that Cardiff is only 49 miles down the road from Bristol.  It seems like a whole load of unnecessary fuss and trouble for little reward.

Perhaps the most significant event to happen in soapland, was scheduling, as Emmerdale and Coronation Street were moved off Sundays and into midweek slots. Their departure made Sundays, normally ITV1′s best night of the week, seem weak with mediocre light entertainment formats such as Beat the Star brought in as replacements. In addition, weeknights on ITV1 have become terribly crowded and monotonous. With The Bill and Tonight taking up space, the only primetime weekday slot left to try something new in is 9pm to 10pm.

2008 may be regarded in the future as something of watershed, as soaps could no longer rely on securing the number one slots in the ratings – Doctor Who, Britain’s Got Talent, The X-Factor, The Apprentice and even New Tricks topped the charts this year, while nobody seemed to care that EastEnders and Emmerdale now clash every week, thus halving their audience.  In fact, Emmerdale only pulls in a million more viewers than The One Show.


Family entertainment was the hot ticket for telly in 2008.  The X-Factor enjoyed a particularly strong series, despite its many devices to inject tension having now long passed into self-parody.  Similarly, John Sergeant and a last-minute vote pull ensured Strictly Come Dancing remained prominent in the public eye, which in this type of show is all for the good.  Britain’s Got Talent excelled earlier in the year, in no small part thanks to the excellence of Ant and Dec.  Unlike the aforementioned X-Factor and Strictly, Britain’s Got Talent‘s big problem is the acts featured seldom bare seeing more than once. As such brevity is the key here, and ITV1 wisely refused to turn the whole thing into a protracted series, instead bundling it out in late-spring so that we weren’t too bored of the finalists by the time the finale came around. 

While those established talent formats endured, 2008 demonstrated that any new talent shows are going to struggle.  In particular The One and Only typified everything wrong with current television, simply taking a well-worn format and trying to apply it to a new group of contestants, in this case tribute acts. Not only did this do nothing that Stars in their Eyes hadn’t already done with a great deal more humour, but it was also made by the people behind Fame Academy and followed that show’s (tedious) format to the letter, right down to the contestants voting each other off in the presence of Carrie and David Grant. It was also ridiculous to offer a residency in Las Vegas as a prize and then put a Robbie Williams tribute act in there, given the man is a complete unknown in America.  Last Choir Standing later on in the year at least gave us some nice music to listen to, but similarly failed to ignite widespread public interest. 

That show was co-presented by Nick Knowles and Myleene Klass, but seemingly every other series of this kind shown on the BBC in 2008 was presided over by Graham Norton. There are many things the man can do but unfortunately he remains completely useless at trying to sound sincere or reading from an autocue – the two basic requirements for a Saturday night light entertainment host. After The One and Only, he fronted I’d Do Anything, a slightly more entertaining outfit.  However, when you string all these shows together along with Strictly, it adds up to about nine months of the BBC1 Saturday schedule offering slight variations of the same format.

Amusement of a more traditional kind came in the form of For One Night Only, an ITV1 entertainment extravaganza, and probably the most explicit sign of the return of the aforementioned Michael Grade.   This was followed up at Christmas by one-off specials featuring Take That and Girls Aloud.  Both stuck rigidly to the chat and songs format established way back in the 1960s and ’70s when the likes of Cliff Richards and Lulu essayed similar fare across the screens, and both were far better for it.  Such throwaway extravaganzas are exactly the kind of programming ITV1 should be making.

Contrary to various reports, Big Brother didn’t flirt perilously with failure in 2008, rather it has now settled into a groove, and although its days of massive ratings and column inches may well be over, the latest series demonstrated there is still a sizeable core of viewers willing to tune in.  Of course it didn’t help it all ended with a massive anti-climax this year, with the victory of the deadly dull Rachel. Still the series as a whole was okay and far better than Big Brother: Celebrity Hijack.

I’m a Celebrity… Get Me Out of Here! also felt a little less remarkable, although Ant and Dec’s chat is getting pleasingly ever more ribald.  Not a vintage outing, but plenty to warm the hearts of those who watched it (not least the friendship that developed between Joe Swash and George Takei – perhaps this year’s most heart-warming relationship).

In conclusion…

2008 has been a year of controversy, and no one generated more hot air than Jonathan Ross and Russell Brand for their now infamous radio broadcast.  In the resulting furore, Ross pulled out of presenting the British Comedy Awards and it’ll be interesting to see what form his chat show takes when it returns in the New Year.  Perhaps the most telling thing about this whole business for him is that it illustrated how absolutely desperate he is to hang around with any fashionable comedian going, a la Gervais. If he was still knocking about with Rowland Rivron none of this would have happened.

Of course we all remember the resultant media fallout, the low point of which was Emily Maitlis reading out Mock the Week jokes about the Queen’s pussy on Newsnight.  The papers were therefore bound to be on red alert for any future indiscretions and the ubiquitous John Barrowman provided them with some more fodder when he supposedly exposed himself while giving a BBC radio interview.

Happier times were remembered as Blue Peter celebrated its 50th Anniversary with a number of special programmes. Two new presenters were introduced at the same time, with the relatively new Andy finding himself as the senior face on the show. Hopefully the mooted move to Salford won’t be of detriment to the series, given that it seems to be finding its feet again following the slump it suffered in the wake of the Richard Marson resignation. Meanwhile in children’s telly Grange Hill fizzled out and came to an end after 30 years, the last episode featuring another return appearance from Todd Carty as Tucker.

On digital, the UKTV channels underwent the start of a rebranding process, with each of them getting bizarre new names, despite for the most part showing more or less the same sort of programmes they had transmitted 1000s of times over the years. UKTV Gold, once a mighty force in archive programming, was renamed GOLD (Go On Laugh Daily) and now concentrates on cycling through the same old comedy programmes on a permanent basis. UKTV Drama became Alibi, with a remit to screen crime-based drama, while Watch was the replacement for UKTV Gold+1. This is where the once-mighty Richard and Judy fetched up after leaving Channel 4, although their attempt to crack the evening schedules failed, when they realised they wouldn’t ever topple the soaps.

And it won’t stop there: in 2009, UKTV People becomes Blighty, UK History becomes Yesterday and UKTV Documentary will transform into Eden. Bizarre names all of them, but Dave somehow seems to have caught on in the minds of the public – whether you like it or not it is certainly more memorable than UKTV G2.

BBC4 remained the best channel on TV. The Pop on Trial series in January led to some fascinating roundtable debates chaired by Stuart Maconie, supplemented by wonderful archive programming including complete episodes of Top of the Pops. In fact, BBC4′s archive stuff was always entertaining, with the likes of The Rolf Harris Show getting an airing. But surely the biggest surprise was the rerun of Washes Whiter, the 1990 series on the history of advertising. This was a bizarre repeat run, as most of the theories had been long disproved and the general points it made are now extremely out of date.  Nonetheless, it was a treat to see it again.

Sad news came with the death of comedy legend Geoffrey Perkins in a car accident. He wasn’t a household name by any means, but was involved in some of the most famous television comedy since the 1980s, as well as appearing on screen in a number of series. It would have been easy for this news to have slipped under the radar, but BBC2 duly showed a special edition of Comedy Connections as a tribute. Emmerdale lost its longest-serving cast member this year with the death of Clive ‘Jack Sugden’ Hornby. His passing marks the real end of the Sugden family in the series, with only his daughter Victoria, his ex-wife and adopted son now remaining.  Meanwhile for fans of Saturday night telly, the death of Jeremy Beadle in January was particularly sad news.

Of course, television in 2008 hasn’t just been about what’s flitted across the cathode ray tube in the last 12 months.  Indeed CRT televisions are starting to look a bit quaint, and the sight of one in the background of an aspirational ITV1 drama is a sure sign you’re watching a repeat.  If 2008 on screen has been rather unremarkable, it will perhaps be remembered as the year in which the telly became less a piece of furniture situated in the corner of your living room, and more a concept.  Increasing numbers are viewing television via watch again mediums such as the BBC’s iPlayer.  That’s not to say the TV schedule is to become a thing consigned wholly to the past.  For those weary of proactively deciding what they want to watch, good old fashioned telly will always be there for you to flick on, demanding nothing more of you than your idle attention, and that’s perhaps why the medium is, and will remain, so enthralling and powerful – even when there’s nothing much on.

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2007 Mon, 31 Dec 2007 23:01:25 +0000 Jack Kibble-White So how do you begin looking back on a year in which television went completely evil?

In the last 12 months the public has been cheated, deceived and lied to by TV. Or at least, that’s what the rest of the media would have you believe. ITV suspended premium rate phone-ins in March, Richard and Judy was investigated due to irregularities on the “You Say We Pay” competition, cookery show Saturday Kitchenwent under scrutiny, and amazingly, even good old Blue Peter wasn’t above the law – in a couple of wicked ploys, a cat wasn’t given the name chosen by viewers, and some children stood in for contest winners.

The BBC was shown to be guilty of having production staff pose as prize winners, and as a result the Corporation suspended all competitions. Meanwhile GMTV was investigated by the Serious Fraud Office over a scandal connected with their phone-in quizzes. Callers were being charged for teasers they had no chance of winning. GMTV was subsequently fined £2 million by OFCOM and had to offer refunds to all of the entrants, although quite how many bothered to take the trouble of asking for a 25p refund is debatable. Best of all though, each day the company’s presenters had to read out a groveling apology. Sadly, this was curtailed when GMTV decided to complete their community service by bunging up a caption and have a nameless person prostrate themselves instead.

The avalanche of TV’s year of scandal swept over the entire schedule, with late-night quiz shows also being scrutinised. The regulatory bodies quickly became involved and a new set of rules was put in place to ensure the public were no longer taken for a ride. The BBC too, introduced a new code of conduct with regard to viewer competitions.

Caught in the media glare of scandal, and haemorrhaging internally thanks to looming job cuts, a bedraggled Beeb was dragged into further controversy later in the year after a trailer for a documentary about the Queen was accused of being misleading. ITV then found itself at the centre of a dispute regarding whether or not Alzheimer’s sufferer Malcolm Pointon was actually shown to die on screen. Television executives resigned, the BBC announced staff would participate in compulsory retraining courses and OFCOM became involved in umpteen more cases. BBC1 Controller Peter Fincham stood down as a result of the Queen debacle and was replaced by the former Director of Programmes at five, Jay Hunt.

With the scandals having run their course (at least for the time being), one can now reflect on the fact this furore has actually highlighted a more pertinent issue. 2007 should be remembered as the year in which our news gatherers proved themselves unable to leave a story alone – even when it had become exhausted. There seemed to exist a fear of running out of things to report, meaning journalists would flog an item for all its worth, just in case another one didn’t come along.

In the case of the “TV scandals”, the story perhaps reached its apotheosis when it was revealed in a wave of sensation that, on occasion, reporters recorded scenes of themselves nodding at interviewees after the interview had actually been recorded. This blatant and silly attempt at creating a mountain out of a molehill made everyone concerned look undignified – the journalists for endlessly stringing out the story, and the programme makers for reacting like rabbits caught in the headlights. What was required was for someone to put their head above the parapet and confirm what we all knew – yes this sort of thing happens in television, but – phone scandals aside – it’s not a big deal and reporters really should start sticking their microphones somewhere else.

Back in the world of make believe, Doctor Who gave us “Blink” and “Human Nature” – surely the best three-episode run in the series’ history. Both stories illustrated just how multifarious the franchise has become, with shocking monsters for the kids and weighty themes for adults, while in the midst there were some shattering performances from Jessica Hynes and Carey Mulligan. Meanwhile “Utopia” worked purely because of Sir Derek Jacobi and the fact every element of the episode sacrificed itself for the greater good – namely a fantastic final reveal. Those four installments aside, series three didn’t really deliver in the way its predecessors had – and enough said about the appearance of a wizened John Burton Race as the Doctor in theseason finale.

Related to Who was The Sarah Jane Adventures. Here was good, intelligent and grown-up drama that could be enjoyed by the whole family. As an ever breathless, slightly spiky Sarah Jane, Elisabeth Sladen gave us a children’s character of rare complexity. Alas, as the series developed, it didn’t take long for some of the clichés of kids’ TV to take hold (hidden passages, mum and dad remaining outside the loop, new crazes proving sinister), and with its own (admittedly very watchable) “Father’s Day”/”Random Shoes” episode in the form of “Whatever Happened to Sarah Jane”, the show no longer felt quite so fresh. But it remained Doctor Who‘s likeable, younger sibling.

Staying in the science-fiction genre, in June came Jekyll written by Steven Moffatt. Here was a modern-day, very dark blend of horror. There was a lot of structural cleverness and genuine innovation in terms of how the whole Jekyll and Hyde scenario played out, but unlike his Doctor Who scripts – which seemed scrupulously plotted - Jekyll careered from one big set piece to another. Worse still, it featured a totally unrealistic secret organisation, peopled by the most appalling American accents of the year.

Primeval, ITV1′s bash at Saturday night sci-fi, proved that when the channel can’t get a handle on a genre (business reality shows, cookery or sitcom, for example) it really can’t get a handle. This was dopey, illogical, entirely predictable, and saddled with a leading man clearly radiating embarrassment about the whole endeavour. Still there was something about it that niggled away, suggesting it might just turn things around in the second series.

The second and final run of Life on Mars disappointed after embracing the formula, much of the time treading water until the fate of Sam Tyler was revealed. All the performers did their best with the material, but too often the show would find itself dishing up wilfully confusing scenes with Tyler, before dabbling in a quagmire of issues (this week, institutional racism; next week, immigration; the week after, drugs). The downbeat ending was still exhilarating though, riskily providing closure while suggesting the suicide of its lead character. It’ll be interesting to see how the sequel, Ashes to Ashes, deals with that …

Heroes was perhaps the best new genre series of the year, despite the often meandering narrative and the constant drift into thudding portentousness – typified by the poetic voiceover which topped and tailed many episodes. Although nothing was ever quite as exciting as the opening edition, with time-traveling Hiro’s exuberant scream in Times Square before discovering an upcoming apocalypse, skilfull plot revelations and shocks – plus the introduction of Zachary Quinto’s charismatic Sylar – kept viewers loyal.

It was an interesting year for mainstream drama. Doc Martin, essentially Born and Bred without the period setting and oompah theme tune, continued in its charming fashion until a rubbish final episode left most viewers frustrated. Kingdom, Stephen Fry’s venture into Sunday nights proved a huge disappointment. You can understand why this wet series about a kindly country solicitor is an appealing prospect for the star – it’s filmed just up the road from his home. But with Tony Slattery putting in a cartoon turn as a comedy yokel, while Fry did the Peter’s Friends pity-me singleton act again – absorbing the woes of all around him – this was damp, uninteresting fare. A by-numbers Sunday night production to rival even Wild at Heart.

Following a successful pilot episode, the Inspector Morse spin-off Lewis returned for three episodes, with the promise of more to follow. School drama Waterloo Road enjoyed two series – one in January, and a 20-part run in the autumn. Also returning for the BBC were Waking the DeadHustle (its fourth run); Sea of Souls (for what looks as if it was the last hoorah); andSpooks (its sixth series proved to be the most exciting for years).

Holby Blue, or rather, Holby/Blue - a second spin-off from Casualty, this time featuring the work of the police – provoked the usual comments about the BBC lacking any ideas. But despite being part of the Holby franchise, the series had very little connection to either of the other two shows, apart from a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it appearance from Charlie Fairhead in the first episode. The next series will apparently feature storylines that are more closely intertwined with those of Holby City. Casualty itself underwent something of a revamp for the autumn, with a stack of new characters coming in and the introduction of a new “film” effect look that drew complaints from viewers, much in the same way a similar aborted step had done some 10 or so years earlier.

But top marks to ITV1 for actually broadcasting a raw VT, non-filmic episode of Heartbeat in November. This was apparently down to “somebody putting the wrong tape in”.

2007 brought us two fictionalised takes on life behind the scenes at an American late night comedy show - 30 Rock on five and Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip on More4. The former crackled with life and sunshine; the latter forever laboured under a self-styled shroud of gloom. The production qualities of both were, as you’d expect, superb. It was content, not style, that fostered the difference between carefree, infectious exuberance and relentless clever-clever pomposity.

Talking of which, it seems almost everyone in the world hated This Life +10, but perhaps this was because they wanted it to be just like the show was a decade ago. Instead Amy Jenkins came up with a different approach to suit the portrayal of characters in a different period of their life, capturing the frustrations of thirtysomethings just as she had of twentysomethings.

A few one-off dramas brightened the schedules in 2007. The Antique’s Roadshow interlude in Stephen Poliakoff’s Joe’s Palace was a particular treat, but the drama itself seemed to frustrate many viewers – Poliakoff has never been interested in giving the audience the complete story.Recovery, a one-off about a family man struggling to come to terms with brain damage following a road accident, was a welcome reminder of David Tennant’s range. Unresponsive and sullen throughout most of the film, he made space for co-star Sarah Parish to carry the production. One moment, where this married couple were forced to re-evaluate their relationship and consider a platonic future together, proved particularly moving. Possibly the best drama of the year.

Another offering, Party Animals and the two new episodes of The Thick of It offered somewhat differing interpretations of Westminster politics, the impression being the reality was somewhere in between. The pre-publicity for the former suggested nothing less than a bonkfest between the Houses but instead delivered a West Wing-style romantic yet intelligent drama with real heart. Meanwhile, The Thick of It portrayed everyone as equally cretinous – and was perhaps the best comedy of the year, with a career best performance from Peter Capaldi: “You were like a sweaty octopus trying to unhook a bra”.

Sticking with BBC4, Charlie Brooker’s Screenwipe at last moved beyond dark metaphors and wank jokes, to start fulfilling its long held promise. Brooker’s investigation into television news was a highlight, particularly as Screenwipe‘s various annoying runners and researchers didn’t appear. We hope for more of the same in 2008. Flight of the Conchords entertained many who appreciated the series’ musical parodies and likeable characters, others, however, felt it to be irritating stuff with every comedy song relying on nothing more than weaving naturalistic dialogue into lyrics as if this in itself was funny.

Over on BBC3, The Mighty Boosh unleashed their third series of strangeness in November, the location this time shifting to a shop called Nabootique; but for those who couldn’t buy into it, it just seemed like two blokes kicking the corpse of Vic Reeves (who’s still alive anyway – how surreal!). Ruddy Hell It’s Harry and Paul! may not quite have hit the heights BBC1 expected, but three new sketch shows marked out the winter for the terrestrial BBC. The Peter Serafinowicz Show was not quite as polished as Look Around You, but its star still managed to include enough spot-on parodies of everything from television shopping to E! News to suggest he still may be a big talent for the future. Alas, as the series continued, it became he’d stacked all the good stuff in the early episodes and while beautifully made, the laughs thinned rapidly, as viewers were left to question if the whole thing was actually meant to be a gentle evisceration of the sketch show format, viciously pointing out its weaknesses. If a second series is in the offing, then let’s hope he can straighten things out, and for God’s sake Peter, do your Terry Wogan.

The Armstrong and Miller Show, on the other hand, proved a recurring treat. Surely expectations weren’t particularly heightened about the duo’s return to the form? And yet the show delivered regular, funny skits, surprisingly irreverent for a BBC1 birthing. Finally, The Omid Djalili Show. In pre-publicity, the Iranian-born funnyman set the bar low, making it clear he had no real enthusiasm for sketch comedy. This was apparent in the finished product – lacklustre and perfunctory.

Back for another go were The Green Green GrassLead BalloonSaxondale and Hyperdrive. If you’d enjoyed them first time around, chances were you would have done so again. The Christmas special of Extras was a delight, but only for those who’ve been grinding their teeth in Ricky Gervais’ direction for the last five years. Starting with a pretentiously classy opening title sequence, the tone was set for what followed. Here was comedy used as high-minded bludgeon. The vacuous nature of celebrity surely didn’t merit such a heavy handed treatise. It’s funny that Gervais can’t keep a straight face when doing an appeal for Comic Relief, but get him to talk about fame and he can out-pontificate Michael Parkinson. Surely this is the moment critical opinion swings against him.

For the rest of the BBC’s terrestrial comedy output, it was the old favourite panel shows that provided the laughs. Have I Got News For You and QI trundled on much as before, while Never Mind the Buzzcocks continued to find a new lease of life under the previously insufferable Simon Amstell. Of course he made his name on Channel 4, and it says a lot about that station’s consistently poor comedy output that they didn’t have the interest or inclination to find him a vehicle and let him go to the Beeb to finally become famous.

Russell Brand’s Ponderland led the line for C4, and has to be congratulated for at least not wheeling out the same tired clips. However, it was bafflingly stripped across a whole week so came and went all too quickly. The IT Crowd and Peep Show were much the same as before, while Star Stories had a rude energy that made for mindlessly entertaining viewing. Apart from that, there was next to nothing. It says much about the current state of C4′s comedy that the prime Friday night slot in December – surely a time when ratings are at their highest – was devoted to the never-ending Ugly Betty and the millionth repeat of the awful Max and Paddy’s Road to Nowhere. Is there really nothing else?

ITV1 brought us a new entry into the topical quiz show with News Knight, in which Sir Trevor McDonald unconvincingly delivered quips via auto cue, and Reginald D Hunter joked about little else other than the colour of his skin. Even less successful was the painful Ben Elton vehicleGet a Grip. Elton came across as he normally does, but it was very obvious that his co-star Alexa Chung was reading her jokes from a screen. Predictably then, Harry Hill’s TV Burpremained ITV1′s only decent comedy series

Worst of the year though was a tie between Bonkers - an ITV1 sex comedy featuring Liza Tarbuck as a fruity mum who finds herself sharing her home with a movie idol who only she can see – and Roman’s Empire: quite simply, a stupid over-frantic affair. Mathew Horne was much better served by Gavin and Stacey, which despite its BBC3 placing was at heart a warm-hearted family affair which would happily appeal to anyone aged 18 to 80. Not overdone, not heavy-handed, not cynical – just wry and warm with a great story to tell and a fantastic ear for natural dialogue. Its secret was placing believable people in believable predicaments.

There wasn’t a lot of believability in our soaps this year. Emmerdale‘s “Who Killed Tom King” storyline dominated the show from Christmas until May. A number of the villagers were put in the frame in a huge publicity campaign (including specially-shot internet material), so the revelation it was Tom’s son, Carl, felt like a massive anti-climax. Much of the rest of the year was taken up with affairs and yet another fire. The Sugden family really should be more careful with matches and lighters.

EastEnders found itself in the doldrums – again achieving its lowest ever ratings. After killing off Pauline Fowler at Christmas, few of the long-established cast remained, with only Adam Woodyatt left from those who’d appeared at the very beginning. New boss Diederick Santer came in to try and turn things round later in the year with a raft of fresh characters, however the show’s biggest problem right now is casual viewers don’t have a clue who half the Walford residents are. The promised return of the Butchers is perhaps an indication that something needs to be done.

Nonetheless, the Christmas episodes produced massive ratings, far higher than the Yuletide episode of Coronation Street. Yet, here was everything that seemed wrong about the soap; while Corrie deftly engineered the downfall of a love triangle through a believable mix up of Christmas presents, EastEnders went for that old faithful plot device of playing back secretly recorded evidence of infidelity in front of a crowd of people (“Sharongate”, anyone?). Lots of snot, shouting and tears ensued, but it was difficult to care. The saddest news for the show this year was that Jim Branning actor John Bardon suffered a stroke. Apparently it is planned the illness will be written into the storylines when he is well enough to return.

The BBC announced in November it had bought a new Australian soap for 2008, Out of the Blue, to replace Neighbours. Quite rightly, the Corporation had refused to get involved in a tit-for-tat bidding war with its commercial rival, and now it looks as if five will create an Australian soap hour when it starts showing Neighbours, paired with Home and Away.

Once again Coronation Street was the year’s best soap, although things dipped for quite a while after the Tracy and Charlie storyline. In particular, the sacking of Bruce Jones, who played Les Battersby, was a blot on the show’s copy book. The character disappeared on a whim in the spring, notionally traveling the world as a roadie for a Status Quo tribute band, but Jones never came back – a consequence of revealing too much regarding his co-stars in an apparent drunken stand-up rant. His screen wife Cilla also left, albeit in agreement with the producers leaving her son, Chesney, behind with lodger Kirk.

Demonic David Platt dominated the storylines on the cobbles over the summer and towards the end of the year with his antics becoming increasingly ridiculous, culminating in his attempt to commit suicide by driving his car into the canal. Where the show excelled was in depicting Platt as someone who fell through the cracks in the healthcare system – he wasn’t mad enough to be diagnosed with anything, but his personality was sufficiently twisted that reasoning with him remained impossible. On a lighter note it was good to see the return of Jim McDonald … so it was. A couple of promising new characters appeared in December in the form of bookies Dan and Harry Mason (the latter played by former Bad Girls actor Jack Ellis).

There was a lot of mainstream stuff in documentary this year, so Malcolm and Barbara: Love’s Farewell, Paul Watson’s epic observational film tracking the destructive ravishes of Alzheimer’s, was uncommonly brave television. As Malcolm Pointon succumbed to his condition, he became abusive and violent, and Barbara clearly struggled with her conflicting feelings for the man. Alas, the show was overshadowed days before transmission thanks to that whole fakery scandal, and it will be a grave injustice if the film is only remembered for the fall-out.

Television as a force for change sort of petered out over the course of the year, perhaps in part because Jamie Oliver’s school dinners campaign seems to have run into all manner of problems. However, Can Gerry Robinson Fix the NHS? saw the former Granada Chief Executive struggling to apply his own brand of business know-how to the National Health Service. In many ways a painfully slow-moving show, this aptly reflected the bureaucratic malaise at the heart of the problem. Time after time Robinson encountered management groups, all seemingly set up solely to pass responsibility on to another department. Where targets had been brought in to try and make work practices more efficient, it had instead instituted a culture of shirking. Robinson’s exasperated exhalation became an ersatz soundtrack.

After a three-year break, off-beat reporter Louis Theroux bounced back onto our screens with a slew of new films. His first offering, Gambling in Las Vegas, revealed a Theroux who’d gone back-to-basics. Jettisoned were the grisly celebrity ride-alongs of the When Louis Met … years. Instead, the reporter returned to the role of observer, making low-key forays into fascinating subcultures. With the freak show element also dimmed down a shade, Theroux’s 2007 farepoints towards future fascinating shows to come.

In the main, documentary in 2007 seemed to be about travel, eating and heritage. September’sMichael Palin’s New Europe was a bit of a let-down. Our hero did all of the usual things you expect him to – including drinking the local evil spirit, performing on stage somewhere and seeing an animal being killed – but it felt a bit meandering and without any real focus. Long Way Down saw Ewan McGregor and Charley Boorman travel from John o’ Groats to Cape Town on motorbikes. The show was entertaining enough and made for an interesting alternative to Palin’s excursions. However, perhaps a better documentary double-act came in the form of the second series of Oz and James’ Big Wine Adventure. Continuing where they left off, the duo explored the wines of the USA. May actually works better with Oz than Clarkson and Hammond on Top Gear. Here he is allowed to branch out more and let his personality sparkle.

Staying on a culinary theme, there was a return for Heston Blumenthal, who was In Search of Perfection with a second series of culinary boffinary. Another trip into the great outdoors beckoned with Ray Mears’ Wild Food, in which the survival expert ate some seeds and unpleasant-looking bits of trees. Other similar experts on television this year included Bear Grylls, whose Born Survivor series was shown on Channel 4 in the spring, and Bruce Parry who appeared in the third series of the excellent Tribe.

This was also the year in which Britain celebrated itself in documentary form, with another run of Coast, a Trevor McDonald-fronted copycat called Britain’s Favourite View, a good, solid series in Great British Journeys, Griff Rhys Jones climbing some British mountains in – well -Mountain and Alan Titchmarsh’s The Nature of Britain. Having attempted to rip off the BBC’s heritage shows, ITV1 had another bash with You Don’t Know You’re Born - a genealogy series that wasn’t as good or popular as Who Do You Think You Are?.

One jewel that was hidden away in the BBC crown was Falklands Night, shown in April to commemorate the 25th anniversary of the Falklands conflict. A number of other programmes on the subject were broadcast around this time (including some fascinating ones featuring veterans returning to the Islands), but BBC Parliament devoted a whole evening’s worth of screen time to the subject laying on reams of superb archive footage from 1982.

BBC4, meanwhile, gave us some particularly choice fare. Comics Britannia was fantastic stuff, until it came to the last installment, which offered a strangely slanted history of adult comics, rather contrary to the generally well-researched previous two episodes. Perhaps the best documentary of the year, though, was the similarly paced The Secret Life of the Motorway. This series uncovered a wealth of fascinating archive footage and information. The first episode revealed there were so many Irish immigrants working on the M1 four priests were employed to minister to them and their families. The second offered one of the great documentary interviews of the year as two pensioners sat eating breakfast in a service station. He waxed lyrical about how much he loved going there and all the interesting people he’d met (listing most of them) and then, when asked what she liked about the place, the wife said sharply, “I hate coming here”. The third episode was perhaps most interesting of all, as it outlined the bizarre plan to run motorways directly through Central London and the protest pressure which ensured the idea was swiftly dropped.

Talking of which, Grandstand was cancelled at the start of the year, with little fuss. The elements that comprised the show are still present on Saturday afternoons, just without the overarching brand connecting them, so it feels as if little has changed. The saddest thing on telly, though, was the complete loss of any pop music programming, with Popworld followingTop of the Pops and CD:UK down the dumper. With the only other music shows on telly beingLater With Jools HollandLive from Abbey Road and late night affairs like Transmission, it means the only place mainstream pop can appear is filling the gaps on variety programmes, such as the lottery and Strictly Come Dancing, or kids’ TV. That can’t have been the case since the 1960s.

With so little pop on screen in 2007, the gap had to be filled by something and inevitably the creep of reality TV continued. Hell’s Kitchen allowed us to enjoy Barry McGuigan mashing pan after pan of spuds. Unlike its US counterpart, which really ratchets up the tension, the series was pretty tame, enlivened only by the sacking of Lee Ryan and the exile of Jim Davidson. The latter was an accident waiting to happen – after performing his stupid woman voice and his Zippy voice, a country winced at the probability his Chalkie voice would soon follow. However, fittingly, it was a foodstuff that brought him down – or rather his assertion that gay men “mince”, causing much offence to Brian from Big Brother. Lee departed over a comment made by head chef Marco concerning a “Pikey’s Picnic”, a slur on both the traveling community’s cuisine and etiquette, thus he achieved an almost unique feat of leaving a reality show with an ounce of dignity. Head chef Marco Pierre White, on the other hand, was made to look like a vain, thick-headed idiot.

The Apprentice was as good as ever with a move to BBC1 having done it no harm at all. The culinary derivative, The Restaurant began as a clumsy, over-populated attempt to reheat its big brother’s success, but rapidly turned into good viewing, as the number of contestants diminished, and we viewers adapted to Raymond Blanc’s avuncular persona. Challenges, in the main, were both televisual and relevant, and the show perfectly cast – from the chalk ‘n’ cheese champions Jeremy and Jane, to reluctant restaurateur and his moll Sam and Jacqui, via Oedipal-tinged duo Tom and Nicola, and the hopeless, but thoroughly decent Martin and Emma (“Is that a cocktail?”).

Controversy raged over Celebrity Big Brother when thousands of complaints were made to OFCOM over claims housemates were making racist marks against Bollywood actress Shilpa Shetty. The row went on for a while with, ridiculously, Hertfordshire police being called in to investigate. Despite the furore, Goody’s career wasn’t ruined as many had predicted, while Shetty ultimately did well out of the debacle. The Celebrity brand of the show has been rested, which is a good thing, because what the race row managed to cover up was that 2007′s run had been a load of rubbish.

Big Brother 8 disastrously opened with a houseful of women, most of whom came across as incredibly annoying, shrieking every two seconds with cries of, “Oh my God, oh my God!”. More contestants were subsequently introduced, but viewers quickly dropped by the wayside as the weeks went by, and the show recorded its lowest-ever viewing figures. Every year since its inception BB has been able to engineer some kind of controversy to inflate the viewing figures – failure to do so this time left the series badly weakened. Still, it was actually quite a decent run, although it took far too long for the likeable characters to emerge.

On the back of the continuing success of Dragon’s Den, ITV1 attempted to get in on the act with Fortune: Million Pound Giveaway, and Tycoon. While Fortune was stymied by the inclusion of Jeffrey Archer, everything about Tycoon was just plain wrong, from the lacklustre “Tycoon Tower” itself (a tiny block on London’s South Bank, overshadowed by all around it) to the unstructured game play elements (some episodes Peter Jones would close down a business, some episodes he wouldn’t). True, you could say phone calls and unprepossessing folk scurrying into numerous meetings is a fair reflection of business, but on camera it made for a whole load of nothing. ITV1 quickly lost their nerve, dumping the show into a late night slot and shearing 50 percent of the runtime. The final episode saw Kate Thornton failing to gee up a shivering crowd as “the next tycoon” was revealed in perhaps the most muted finale the one-time X-Factor presenter has ever been involved with.

The Underdog Show was reality television somehow destined to be forgotten by all who watched and even participated. Here was an oddity, a celeb-encrusted series with all the trappings thereof – viewers’ votes, judges, eliminations – but was nonetheless played quite flatly. Instead, the public service remit (and there was one, honest!) came to the fore, turning the venture into a rather effective piece about the plight of rescue dogs. Nonetheless, Jeremy Paxman still took a swipe in his 2007 MacTaggart Memorial Lecture, moaning Newsnight had been “obliged to follow an hour [sic] of celebrity dog walking”.

Far better, was Masterchef Goes Large, which had a profound effect on BBC2 teatimes. With the show shifting into a primetime slot for 2008, the channel hoped to repeat its success withKitchen Criminals. Moderate fun, although hugely repetitive (a good 30 percent of each episode seemed to involve recaps) the programme was handicapped by the fact there’s nothing all that fulfilling about watching recipe after recipe being screwed up. The onscreen talent was also unappetising. In John Burton Race we had a TV chef attempting to appear both avuncular and egotistical. He succeeded only in the latter. Competing against him was Angela Hartnett, clearly a gifted cook, but in no way a natural TV talent. Her performance was edgy and smelt – just faintly – of desperation.

Desperation, of course being the watch word during those early rounds of The X Factor. It was generally agreed this year’s run was the least successful. New host Dermot O’Leary was too busy with Big Brother’s Little Brother to make much of an impression in the first weeks, meaning he only had the live shows on which to create an impact – and in that arena this likeable star appeared thoroughly dwarfed. Far better was Britain’s Got Talent. Far worse was some yet more dreadful copycatting by ITV1, including the ultra-cynical talent show greatest hits Grease is the Word which even Cowell disowned, and Baby Ballroom - what happens when you try to think of the one variation on a hit format nobody’s done before, without thinking why nobody’s done it. Still, even DanceX flopped, which surely means we’ve now bled the dancing cash cow dry … save for Strictly, of course, which still works gloriously.

It’s been a dreadful year for children’s TV, with five now aiming only at pre-school audiences and ITV1 having given up completely, shoving almost all output off to a channel full of repeats which keeps on closing down earlier so ITV4 can show football, darts or even an old film. Meanwhile the BBC aimed all their kids’ shows at under 12s, pointing everyone else in the direction of an hour-long strand on Saturday afternoon BBC2. That said, the programmes that got made were generally still of high quality, with the likes of ChuteTrapped and, of course, The Sarah Jane Adventures proving richly entertaining.

Blue Peter suffered from probably the biggest crisis in its entire history, as well as a rather ill-advised revamp which, in its first few weeks at least, turned out to be an utterly horrifying sight – namely Konnie and Zoe screaming their links at 100 miles an hour while reassuring us what we were watching was “cool”. Thankfully it’s calmed down since then, although jettisoning its traditional Christmas episode did manage to irk many.

What frustrated most about the Blue Peter scandals of 2007 was the production team’s lack of imagination. As Mark Curry explained during a particularly heated discussion on the BBC Breakfast couch the morning after the phone-in subterfuge broke, in days gone by instead of simply wheeling in a child to pretend to be a competition winner, they would have spun it into an item, explaining how and why the phones went down.

Continuing in a similar vein, then, how have the big channels fared this year? Well it has to come down once again to how they dealt with their various contributions to the great TV witch hunt. It was sad to see Peter Fincham get the boot, especially as BBC1 improved greatly under his guidance. Scheduling Strictly on Sunday was a masterstroke, The One Show, although still not a must-watch by any means, has at least finally brought back some consistency and order to early evening BBC1. And while people are moaning about Panorama dumbing down, it’s now there slap bang in the middle of the evening 50 weeks of the year.

Over at ITV1, Michael Grade’s sensible decision to do away with the appalling late-night money-making quiz shows that had bunged up the channel for the past couple of years has been a real cause for celebration. Indeed that man Grade has been quick to make his mark at the network, in the autumn announcing the return of News at Ten, with Trevor McDonald at the helm. The decision to move the nightly broadcast from the time slot a few years back was understandable, but the resultant mess achieved nothing but making ITV1 look incompetent. Grade was right to ask if anybody could remember one memorable show the they’d screened in the 10pm position.

In general though, ITV1 was all over the place in 2007. The failure of Tycoon and Fortune proves that if you rip off BBC2 programmes you get BBC2-sized audiences, if that. Nobody, especially ITV1 viewers, wants to see programmes that are a bit like The Apprentice only worse. In addition, the channel continued to suffer from the appearances of numerous shows that belonged on ITV2 - 24 Hours With (dropped mid-run), Tough Gig (dropped mid-run), Hollywood Lives (dropped mid-run), Holly and Fearne Go Dating (which managed to finish its run). It still baffles why ITV1 are so enthusiastic to axe drama, the one genre that hardly any other channel can do, in favour of pointless reality shows which you can see on any channel. Tiswas Reunited was entertaining, though.

Channel 4 has been hugely ropey for several years now, and come its 25th anniversary, it was sad to see the showpiece celebration was a comedy panel game – exactly the same way fivemarked their birthday six months previously. Celebrity Big Brother was a massive own-goal and the channel’s abysmal PR effort to try and sweep it under the carpet left a nasty stain.

Undoubtedly channel of the year was BBC4. The season on British sci-fi was televisual bliss with well-made retrospectives and excellent archive programming. Children’s TV on Trial1997 WeekDavid Renwick Night and Radio Week were all superb, while the Andrew Marr-fronted debate on the greatest 20th century prime minister was two hours of passionate, amusing comment from a learned group of experts. Simple and wonderful, and a superb lesson for other programme makers on how to make first-rate TV on next to no budget.

2008 will doubtless bring us lots of TV made on next to no budget, and some television made for an absolute fortune. Will any of it be as good as Derek Jacobi malevolently intoning, “I … am … the … Master”, or as terrible as Peter Jones telling a business person she needs to come up with a better name for her product than Frukka? Whatever television brings us in the next 12 months, one hopes it can – at least – move out from under the ridiculous cloud of controversy that has needlessly dogged it during 2007. Plus, here’s praying ITV can finally stop looking at other people’s work and start concentrating on their own answers to that fearsome question – how do you fill up a television schedule for another 52 weeks?

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2006 Sun, 31 Dec 2006 23:01:40 +0000 Ian Jones Advancing years take away from us what we have inherited and give us what we have earned. Our relationship with television is a forever-burning example of this; the longer we feel we’ve hung around pouring our time and energy into watching it, the more we feel not merely blessed but actually owed an increasingly rarefied quality of enjoyment in return.

By all means, we say, bring back The Generation Game, if only to erase the legacy of Jim Davidson; just don’t pretend Graham Norton’s Generation Fame is the best you can do. Yes, we’re willing to give Wogan another go, if only to tarnish the self-upholstered reputation of Parkinson; just don’t pretend Wogan: Now and Then is the real thing. And of course, we’re more than happy to see Esther Rantzen and Lynn Faulds-Wood getting their feet trapped in yet another jewel-encrusted stubble-shyster’s front door; just don’t presume Old Dogs, New Tricksis what either we, or they, deserve.

When Ricky Gervais co-starred and wrote an episode of The Simpsons this year, the accompanying promotion traded off the implication that his mere participation was more than enough reason to tune in. The same went for the casting of Davina McCall as a midweek chat show cuckold. In both cases the results were inversely proportional to the effort on a titanic scale, but the consequences – increasingly objectionable dotage for Gervais, near-universal mockery for McCall – served only to strengthen their respective vocations and apparent interest in doing more and more of the same. Extras and Big Brother generated the most original headlines but least original entertainment of 2006.

Perhaps there comes a point in everyone’s life, somewhere around the age of 30, when nothing seems new anymore, and anything that claims it is simply generates more cynicism than that which presumes to promise more of the same. This poses problems for our relationship with television, of which we expect a return on our formative years of emotional investment, but towards which we can’t help but exercise a somewhat tart maturity.

One consequence is that our appreciation of the magic of the small screen has to be won at a price. This could be on our fortitude; the forward march of celebrity television through 2006 was a potent example of this, the quality of some - Who Do You Think You Are?, Celebrity MasterChef, Strictly Come Dancing - being jeopardised by the sheer quantity of others -Soapstar Superstar, Dancing on Ice, The Games, Soccer Aid, Only Fools on Horses, Love Island, I’m A Celebrity … Get Me Out Of Here! - in a much lower league.

There are a finite number of hours in the day. There are not a finite number of celebrities who want to be on TV. And we’re unused to not having enough time in our lives to judge what is and isn’t decent television. Not yet, anyway; maybe what we shed in stamina as we grow older we gain in forbearing. George Galloway for one appears to swear by such an assumption, having graced Celebrity Big Brother with a lesson in how to discard reason and evidence when constructing an argument in favour of pulling out big words such as “plutocrat” in the hope of baffling the opposition.

But another consequence of advancing time is an instinct to batten down the hatches. There were plenty of exemplary programmes this year which dared to do the opposite, searching over the horizon both literally - Equator, Tribe, Cooking in the Danger Zone, Springwatch - and philosophically - Simon Schama’s Power of Art, How to Start Your Own Country, The State Within - but none carried the demeanour of demanding to be watched.

The latter especially ran aground in spectacular fashion, almost beaten by a Monty Don gardening show upon its thrilling, explosive climax. Was it too complicated? Radio Times thought so, despite recommending it every week. Was it too intelligent? Waiting down that road lurk sore heads and sore losers. You want there to always be television that pitches itself just above the understanding of its audience. Yet The West Wing bowed out on More4 in July with 263,000 viewers. Even Russell Brand does better than that.

By contrast, those shows which poked their nose barely beyond the next street, or above the net curtains of their own front room, wore clothes to be noticed from the off. It meant the ambivalent quality of kitchen sink efforts like Waterloo Road, Sorted, The Family Man and The Street on the BBC, any number of Caroline Quentin runarounds on ITV1, plus warts-and-all Channel 4 business like Shameless and Goldplated, was all the more obvious. If they hadn’t aimed so high they wouldn’t have had so far to fall.

Those used to trading in affairs of the heart and the hearthrug, the soaps, did little better.EastEnders continued to cheat death, unlike some of its leading characters; Coronation Streetrevelled in death even though it didn’t need to, churning out the sort of fare which would merit a “good effort” from a school examiner. At least Emmerdale stretched its legs and showed off the fact it is physically able and willing to look beyond the next lamppost and shuttle ineffably between country house and village slum.

The one instance where both direction and ambition came together perfectly was in the best drama of the year: Life On Mars. A wonderful concept, brilliantly executed, the series had enough humour and action to appeal to everyone, not just readers of TV Zone. Only the pedestrian plotting let things down; with such an elegant premise, you felt inclined to expect rather more than storylines of the kind trotted out on Heartbeat.

In fact, not once in 2006 did a programme with a fantasy-based foundation consistently hit the mark. They either fell desperately short - Eleventh Hour, Afterlife, The Outsiders - or overreached expectation - Doctor Who, Torchwood, A for Andromeda.

A couple of things were happening here. One was the sheer ubiquity of science fiction. A TV trend has surely permeated its way through the schedules right down to the seabed when ITV1 jumps on the bandwagon, and this undoubtedly helped erase much of the novelty in seeing the genre back in primetime.

Second, none of these shows boasted an air of self-justification. Last year’s series of Doctor Who spent every minute of its life not taking its existence for granted. This year’s effort did anything but. There might have been a more substantial Doctor in the TARDIS, old faces to please old fans and new twists (kissing!) to satisfy the less old, but much else veered between the slight and the sleazy. Torchwood was over-hyped and suffered the curse of the one-sentence spin-off (“A supernatural investigation agency!”), yet it could have been so much better if someone had remembered to cast actors, hire writers and build more than one set. It was also responsible for the year’s worst line of screen dialogue: “A million shadows of human emotion; we’ve just got to live with them.”

Unlike the good Doctor, the most welcome old face to show up in 2006 was that belonging to Jane Tennison. The last ever Prime Suspect outclassed other instances of returning detectives - Cracker, Lewis, A Touch of Frost - by steering clear of grandstanding and instead embracing an agreeable element of back to basics. The resulting drama was superior by far not just compared to the endeavours of other old school sleuths but also the new kids on the beat (Mayo, Vincent).

An even older face took on his youngest guise to date in BBC1′s revival of Robin Hood: bold in ambition and intention, lacking in grit, grime and swashbuckling. Old tales given new adaptations performed better: Jane Eyre and The Virgin Queen were fresh and dignified. Neither quality, however, could be universally applied to the endless stream of historical dramatisations which meandered through 2006. Ancient Rome, Hannibal, Blackbeard, Krakatoa, Into the West - they all took twice as long as they needed to say anything half interesting.

Those concerned with more recent events - Death of a President, The Lavender List, Coup!,The Path to 9/11, Nuremburg, The Trial of Hermann Goering, Suez, The Chatterley Affair,Tsunami: The Aftermath - mostly let the story get in the way of some good facts. An exception was Longford, a powerful but unsensational piece posing fascinating questions about faith and forgiveness, yet all the while conscious of having to work hard by way of its subject matter (the Moors murders) to warrant its existence.

Here the window through which the viewer was being asked to gaze was a sympathetic one. By contrast, windows onto more accursed lifestyles recoiled and infected with equal intensity. Exclusive worlds racked with universal emotions prompted some of the most loyally-endorsed shows of 2006: 24, Lost, The Line of Beauty, The Apprentice, Dragon’s Den, Gordon Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmares, even children’s programme Beat the Boss. The latter saw ideas such as profitability, focus groups and marketing taken for granted as part and parcel of a young person’s character. This was enterprise culture of a like even Margaret Thatcher could not have conceived.

Ramsay’s star status, however, could be seen to work against him; many of this year’s subjects appeared primarily interested in boosting their profile simply by appearing on his programme. Cut from the same cloth but less ego-orientated was five’s The Hotel Inspector, where Ruth Watson, decked in voluminous coats and Spitfire-esque make-up, managed to patent a far more agreeable brand of profanity. Equally indomitable but far less likeable was Pete Owen Jones of BBC4′s The Lost Gospels, aimlessly drifting round Europe on a grand tour of religious supposition, poking his nose into salacious details without proving or disproving anything.

Where such shameless rabblerousing collided with rather shameful manifestations of real life – ie. us – there was precious chance of anyone, let alone the viewer, emerging with any distinction. This was as much true of the increasingly hysterical Deal or No Deal? as the relentlessly joyless Brat Camp and Wife Swap. Attempts to depict ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances rarely worked, be it the fly-on-the-wall fancies of The Armstrongs, the unsubtle stylings of Trinny and Susannah Undress or the boring noseyness of Richard Hammond’s 5 o’clock Show and The New Paul O’Grady Show. At least The ONE Showbenefited from the steady face of Adrian Chiles on its prow, though that wasn’t enough to disguise the lack of topical material and much in the way of any point.

Emotional manipulation did give rise to one sure-fire hit: Derren Brown’s The Heist, perhaps the most intriguing of his “stunt” specials yet, as, under the aegis of a motivational seminar, he persuaded a group of business people to seemingly carry out an armed robbery. The complete opposite was The Secret Life of the Manic Depressive with Stephen Fry and a bunch of celebrity pals indulging the notion of the sufferer as the tortured genius and reducing the entire debate to the question of whether or not to take pills.

Where real people were allowed the space and the silence to speak on their own terms, flashes of brilliance emerged. ONE Life, Rain in my Heart, China and Bradford Riots were all documentary strands or one-offs that sparkled with honesty and therefore compassion. Forty Minutes On took this one step further by first replaying then revisiting the lives of various archiveForty Minutes subjects, compounding the original episodes’ luminosity with new shades of opinion.

Where real people were shoehorned into someone else’s grand design, however, you learned almost nothing and liked even less. Surviving Disaster, Lock Them Up or Let Them Out, That’ll Teach ‘Em: Boys Versus Girls and Terry Jones’s Barbarians were variously guilty of this, whileThe Plot Against Harold Wilson, Don’t Mess With Miss Beckles, The Miracles of Jesus andJamie’s Return to School Dinners decided the only way to keep folk watching was to talk at them rather than for them.

Poor scheduling thwarted real people’s chance to properly exploit and engage with that rare commodity, an original game show. Pokerface, apparently devised by its hosts Ant and Dec, was bundled out across one week. If it had aired every seven days there would have been more space for the public to discuss strategy, theorise on potential outcomes and quite possibly work up a word-of-mouth frenzy about the programme. Instead it blew up, blew over and blew out, failing to obey the first law of light entertainment: be as fleeting as you like, but always leave an impression.

In the same vein unfurled a paper chain of variety and fun during 2006, much of it operating on the assumption that, if little had successfully informed or educated the public during the year, there was no point labouring long to fashion fresh and dynamic entertainment. Strictly Dance Fever, How Do You Solve aProblem Like Maria? and The X Factor all plied a similar trade, your reaction to them conditioned by how tolerable you found the experience of seeing precisely the same ingredients (right down to the audience shrieking and endless blubbing) trotted out on cue every week.

Parlour games such as Balderdash and Piffle and Codex lifted the spirits as well as the mind;Never Mind the Full Stops achieved neither. The true significance of the end of Top of the Popsis the fact nobody really seems to miss it. Assuming the reins of Never Mind the Buzzcocks, Simon Amstell did his best to add a bit of life to a programme that had been getting increasingly tired and nasty. Meanwhile entertainment for, in that enduring phrase, both the young and the young at heart, took a battering all round. Da Bungalow was replaced with distinctly bland new series, Blue Peter lost its best presenter of modern times, and ITV spent 2006 trying to get rid of its kid output entirely.

If the sight of a once great fortress of children’s programming shutting up shop wasn’t enough to make you feel your age, then a surfeit of bad comedy almost certainly did the trick, especially the kind which tried to pretend it was new when all it did was wheel out the old. Especially the ultra-old.

Playground humour will always be funny except when it’s the subject of an entire clip show (The Law of the Playground) or dressed up as knowing sophistication (The Charlotte Church Show, Blunder, The Catherine Tate Show, Tittybangbang). Sixth form humour, by contrast, is only funny when you’re in the sixth form, regardless of protagonists the like of Armando Iannucci (Time Trumpet), Graham Linehan (The IT Crowd) and Jack Dee (Lead Balloon).

Steve Coogan’s Saxondale stood out from the rest solely by virtue of what it wasn’t. Eschewing the experimental, it was the most straightforward sitcom BBC2 had mustered for years, though part of the charm derived from seeing Coogan not playing the comic relief in a shit Hollywood film. How you felt about That Mitchell and Webb Look depended on how you felt about other more innovative literate double acts (Fry & Laurie, Lee & Herring, Adam & Joe) having their work so blatantly, if good-naturedly, hijacked. Charlie Brooker’s Screen Wipe merely underscored the continual absence of any kind of programme about television that doesn’t start out from the premise that all television is rubbish.

Once again, it was those shows that didn’t presume to be anything more than the sum of their own parts that triumphed. The Smith and Jones Sketchbook was a joy; The Story of Light Entertainment an inspiring parade of household heroes; Paul Merton’s Silent Clowns effusively reinvigorated old reputations; and The Royle Family scored by letting events run their natural course. The funniest shows were those free from all homegrown resonances old or new: imports, such as the still-superb Curb Your Enthusiasm and the final series of both Malcolm in the Middle and Arrested Development. ITV2 revealed Entourage to resemble the original run ofAuf Wiedersehen, Pet (a group of friends making their way in an alien environment) and The Office to far transcend its British antecedent.

To misquote a phrase, the young TV channel who has not wept is a savage, and the old TV channel who will not laugh is a fool. Our own nation’s deficit of programmes to make you either cry tears of deep sadness or unfettered joy is one thing that hurts more, not less, the older you get. Emotion becomes more personal with advancing years. It’s when you’re grown up that you most want to be moved and manipulated in ways that remind you of childhood, and TV can – should – do this like no other.

Instead, 2006 found a television industry sorely reluctant to return anything by way of emotional investment. Any sign of commitment on the part of the viewer, even a loose affiliation, to engage with programmes on their own terms rather than that of the programme maker was tested to the limit.

ITV was the principle offender here, but then again it did spend virtually the entire year doing the wrong thing. The station began 2006 by adopting new idents, supposedly to state its ambition and purpose, but which instead ended up featuring couples hugging trees and a middle-aged man admiring his gut in the mirror. BBC tried the same trick later in the year, but with the opposite effect: a fleet of sparkling, witty and imaginative idents establishing precisely the correct tone and temperament.

As 2006 unfolded, ITV proceeded to boast no comedy of note, no decent entertainment, no documentaries of significance and no worthwhile children’s shows (and pretty soon no children’s department). Shows were ditched halfway through their run. The same film was shown two Saturdays running. Supposed fixtures of the schedule like Parkinson and The X Factor started at different times every week. Philip Schofield had the humiliation of having a major new Saturday night show pulled after just one edition.

The most pathetic spoiler tactic in history was attempted when old episodes of The Paul O’Grady Show were aired up against the new version on Channel 4. Predictably they flopped, and were dropped after just three days. The second most pathetic spoiler tactic in history, running identikit cookery shows to the BBC on Saturday morning, also bombed. The station even managed to mess up the World Cup: the most lucrative sporting event on the planet, and from which it contrived to emerge financially worse off than before.

Only on a channel as dreadful as ITV1 could a crisis where ratings were plummeting be addressed by spending less money on programmes. Replacing expensive drama with cheaper factual programmes turned out to be a daft idea given none of the factual shows were in any way distinctive. Driving Mum and Dad Mad was typical: a series indistinguishable from any number of parenting programmes on BBC3 or Channel 4, so why bother?

What drama remained was pitifully poor. During August, outside of soaps the channel had three dramas running: Where the Heart Is and Bad Girls, both of which were in terminal decline and then axed, and Jane Hall, which had been on the shelf for two years. The BBC has now totally taken over the mantle from ITV in both popular and quality drama; not something you would have expected to see even five years ago.

But the very fact that ITV had such a poor 2006, and did so in such a public fashion, in turn helped distract attention from how none of the other stations had a particularly great year either. Or so it felt.

Radio Times ran an extraordinary procession of covers in the autumn, beginning with Extrasand continuing, sequentially, with Jamie’s Return to School Dinners, Jane Eyre, Cracker,Robin Hood, Prime Suspect and Torchwood. All were flagship productions, all more than justified their front cover status, and all appeared emblematic of a TV culture in rude health.

On closer inspection, however, they weren’t merely the cream of the crop, they were the entire harvest. Moreover, not all turned out to embody the cream of British television (other than by dint of being rich and thick). Old wine in new bottles only went so far in 2006 by way of quenching your thirst for genuinely rewarding and personable entertainment. Appearance won out over reality all too often this year. Time and again what was promised with one hand was quickly snatched away from under our nose by the other.

Maybe there’s the danger of presuming too much. Just because you’re older and (theoretically) wiser than this point 12 months ago, it doesn’t follow television should be the same. In an ideal world what all of us put in by way of hours spent happily in front of the box should be returned to us from round about the time we started having to pay for our own TV licence.

But should TV owe us a living? In the words of Bart Simpson, “They’re giving you thousands of hours of entertainment for free. What could they possibly owe you? If anything, you owe them.” In other words: sit down, shut up and enjoy yourself.

And even if it doesn’t owe us anything, it can at least give us the benefit of its advanced years. BBC Television clocked up its seventh decade in 2006. To misquote another phrase, being over 70 is like being engaged in a war: all your friends are going or gone and you survive amongst the dead and the dying on the battlefield. The Corporation lost its commander-in-chief in November, when Michael Grade slipped the leash and “went home” to run ITV: proof that, no matter how old you are, or how old the organisation you work for, the shock of surprise is still just as great as the shock of the new.

You hope Grade will do some good at ITV. He can hardly do any worse than those he has inherited as his troops. It’s to the BBC, however, that you can’t help but look with hope and expectation of a more consistent, more sure-footed, more unpredictable 2007. Surprise, after all, is the one element which keeps us all on the edge of our seats, no matter how many minutes it is to midnight. And the thought that TV – like life – could be better is something that, regardless of age, remains woven indelibly into our hearts.

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2005 Sat, 31 Dec 2005 23:01:43 +0000 Ian Jones Too much of anything is bad for you, as Stephen Fry once thundered, because that’s precisely what too much means: a quantity which is excessive. Too much water would be bad for you, because it would be too much. Fact.

Where TV is concerned, though, what’s excessive for one can often seem trifling for another. After years of plastering Who Wants to be a Millionaire? across its schedules, 2005 saw ITV1 casually perform an abrupt volte face and drop the show for months on end. True, its ubiquity had become as much its calling card as its emotional histrionics, but wielding the axe felt somewhat remiss given it was one of the few light entertainment shows the channel could boast of that still did good business and remained inherently watchable.

It was far from the only such instance this year of a network making highly-visible, highly-scrutinized calls over what, in its view, was the best way of judging how much is too much. 2005 witnessed the launch of more new channels than any in recent history, but also the failure of more programmes to retain a permanent place in the schedules than in living memory.

Family Affairs was killed off by five for being too much of a drain on its budget, yet it had performed no better and no worse in 2005 than any other year. A government-sponsored audit of BBC3 led to the channel’s daily news programme being axed for costing too much, yet a previous government-sponsored audit had ordered its very creation. ITV boss Charles Allen fretted over the need to “use the eyeballs we collect on ITV1 and stream them into 2, 3 or 4,” neglecting to first make sure the eyeballs were still watching 1.

Indeed, questions of excess seemed to alternately bedevil and delight programme-makers and audiences throughout the year. “Too much information” was the stated motive behind the BBC’s decision to rebrand the look of its TV weather reports. Too much visual emphasis given to the south of England, chorused the letters of complaint, led to a re-rebranding, tilting the country more in Scotland’s favour and a load of derision the BBC could have easily avoided. More4 was conceived to offset claims too much of Channel 4′s empire was concerned with the frivolous and far-fetched. It has turned out, so far, to be not frivolous enough, its line-up – Curb Your Enthusiasm aside – lumpen and bland, The Daily Show too US-centric to succeed, The Last Word resembling a dull trawl through the papers. Too many niche channels have attempted late night chat shows, while not enough have realized a chat show is the worst thing a late night programme on a tiny digital channel can offer, as nobody will ever appear on it.

Meanwhile ITV found its efforts to bag big audiences with sporting events undermined by the events themselves not boasting enough obvious appeal and immediate entertainment. On the other hand, the BBC used its re-acquisition of Premier League highlights for a sensible proliferation of coverage, epitomised by Match of the Day 2, the best football programme around thanks to presenter Adrian Chiles being the most affable man on telly.

Managing expectations of excess and confounding preconceptions of overkill were the twin motors driving the most successful programmes, and the most robust genre, of 2005. They were also responsible for delivering the year’s greatest and most welcome surprises.

There’s no better place to start than with the estimable figure of Noel Edmonds. The charge that there was too much Noel on the box used to get trotted out with the passing of each TV season. Now, thanks to Deal or no Deal, it’s quite clear there isn’t nearly enough. A killer format boasting a masterful host, it was self-evidently the best new game show since Millionaire, or possibly even Bob’s Full House before that. The reason was because, despite all the naysayers, Noel was back at the peak of his powers. It was as if he’d stored up a slew of presenting tricks and sleights during his five years off screen, so consummate was his control of the environment. The simple premise belied a flexibility in proceedings that also made the show one of the most unpredictable ever seen on afternoon telly.

By contrast, installing Dick and Dom at the helm of a relaunched and considerably revamped Ask the Family was a textbook example of having too much of a good thing. More successfully balanced pairings of personality and format could be found in Eggheads (with Dermot Murnaghan), Countdown (Des Lynam) and Strictly Dance Fever (Graham Norton).

Bestriding the schedules came a preponderance of authored documentary series, usually involving big names themselves exploring a clutch of continents and centuries. But these too defied an excess of subject matter and pre-publicity to deliver thoughtful assessments of landscape (David Dimbleby in A Picture of Britain, Nicholas Crane in Coast), icons (Martin Scorsese’s Bob Dylan – No Direction Home), foreign affairs (Holidays in the Danger Zone with Ben Anderson), wildlife (David Attenborough’s Life in the Undergrowth and Bill Oddie’s Springwatch), architecture (Abroad Again in Britain with Jonathan Meades), gastronomy (Jamie Oliver’s School Dinners and Great Escape) and even hoofing (Bruce Goes Dancing).

All the above carved out a profile for themselves thanks to their respective helmsmen telescoping topics into accessible, digestible chunks. Less palatable by differing degrees yet no less affecting were the worlds laid bare in Kilroy: Behind the Tan, Israel and the Arabs – Elusive Peace, and Auschwitz: The Nazis and the Final Solution. Each in their own way focused on scarcely comparable yet equally alien times and places, yet balanced the excesses of their subjects through low-key, underplayed narration.

Such a strategy didn’t always work. An entire season on BBC4, “The Lost Decade”, purported to challenge how little we knew about 1945 – 55 yet ultimately told us little of consequence. Alternatively the suite of programmes screened to mark the 60th anniversary of the end of World War II made a proper effort to retell events from an original perspective, be it through looking at what happened After the War, what happened before in Hitler’s Children, or by talking to those who are still alive from the World War I in The Last Tommy, courageously shown in primetime on BBC1.

Meanwhile efforts like The Lost World of Mitchell and Kenyon, Animation Nation and Arena: Dylan in the Madhouse garnered credibility for doing precisely the opposite of The Story of ITV: The People’s Channel: treating popular culture for what it is and not trying to retrospectively elevate it into high art or earth shattering revelation. Real life needs to be explored on its own terms if it is to generate beguiling television. Too much hyperbole can turn even the business of cooking a meal or raising a child into an unappetising prospect.

Which is where so many programmes of 2005 slipped up. Given how “lifestyle” shows don’t really exist anymore, the genre having evolved into a concentrated if more superfluous pot pourri preoccupied with aspiration and self-improvement, the year witnessed a haul of formats old and new jettisoning any pretence of creativity and the pursuit of pleasure for the sake of it. Rather than simple emotional well-being and personal fulfillment, an emphasis now lay on associating everything with an accreditation of value. Hence Masterchef returned as Masterchef Goes Large, the art of good cuisine swapped for an obsession with aggressive time-keeping and shouting. Antiques Roadshow spun off into the 20th Century Roadshow, the emphasis on the commercial potential of everyday trinkets rather than obscure heirlooms. And David Dickinson felt the need to jettison his avuncular patter and comradely concerns to preside over squabbling wannabe traders and do a lot of swearing in Dealing With Dickinson.

Penney Poyzer’s No Waste Like Home merely confirmed recycling wasn’t going to be the next big thing, while The Nightmares Next Door proved to be a half-baked exercise in social engineering situating “troublesome” neighbours in a specially constructed village for little overall purpose other than to help That’ll Teach ‘em‘s Simon Warr further his media career. It’s Me or the Dog was at least honest in pitching itself as Supernanny for mutts, and The Bank of Mum and Dad proved just as appealing this year as last.

Make Me a Million forfeited its early promise – following three successful businesspeople each mentoring a company start-up – by delivering a climax that proved to be anything of the sort, the winner triumphing in spite of rather than because of her own efforts. Risking it All was more likeable and seemingly truthful, its host Martin Webb adopting a Sarah Beeny approach to advice, with Property Ladder-style mixed results.

Not even children could escape being quantified in wholly empirical terms. An excess of guidance created a too-many-cooks scenario, as the Little Angels brand seemed to proliferate across all channels. Worse was Honey We’re Killing the Kids wherein computer-simulation was offered as the one-stop shop for how to rear offspring. Bland, spurious and based on fear-mongering, it reduced the tricky task of parenting to a simple menu of dos and don’ts with an unconvincing, all-too convenient valedictory end sequence wherein junior was seen to grow into a slim-hipped, well-dressed adult thanks to mum cutting back on the beef burgers.

Out of all this, however, came something approaching landmark status: The House of Tiny Tearaways, hosted by Tanya Byron. On paper it looked unpromising stuff (a fusion of Big Brother and Supernanny) but in reality it offered perhaps TV’s best look at clinical psychology in practice to date. Seeking to explain and normalise seemingly abhorrent behaviour, it eschewed sensationalism for a somehow gripping banality, prompting the viewer to delight in small victories such as getting a food-phobic child to try a new taste, or a perennially restless toddler to settle on its own at night.

This was high-intensity telly by its scheduling alone (running Sunday to Friday), but in this instance the necessary investment on the part of the viewer into a project prioritising the mundane so far above the fantastical paid dividends. Other similarly prolific ventures were less rewarding, and far more shameless in seeking to turn the camera on real people in order to evaluate and audit rather than simply tell us about ourselves.

Like oil and water, twin brands of reality TV slurped their way through the year, one proving far more in abundance than the other, but both applied to near-saturation point. Drifting lazily to the bottom of the glass were celebrity-based endeavours. Celebrity Big Brother was, for concentrated incident, the year’s ultimate superstar ruckus, an angry, marauding rhinoceros (ditto its most voluble inhabitant John McCririck) devastating reputations and contrived geniality in its path. But it was also a turning point in the franchise thanks to the way it finally showed that famous people should be treated the same as any member of the public foolhardy enough to go on such a programme.

Comic Relief Does Fame Academy raised just as many hackles as it did cash. Scream If You Want to Get Off disappeared half way through its run and nobody noticed, while The Games was a precise retread of its former flat and unprepossessing self. The second series of Hell’s Kitchen, meantime, was plain rubbish, epitomised by the sight of an amiable Gary Rhodes trying to act hard in front of the least likeable bunch of contestants this side of a five romp. It won’t be coming back, unless in the guise of the US version that pitched ordinary people against Gordon Ramsay back at the hot plate and made for one of the best entertainment shows of 2005.

Then there was ITV’s grand triple-decker of trash, Celebrity Wrestling, Celebrity Love Island and Celebrity Shark Bait. Celebrity Wrestling was by far the worst, notable for the way everyone seemed to know before it began how it would be a complete flop. The ludicrous hype merely illuminated the appalling standard of the famous faces taking part and witless execution, helpfully persuading anyone who was to consider tuning in that they should promptly switch off. The programme’s swift demise led to the most depressing sight on television this year: ITV1 flinging out Beverly Hills Cop on peaktime Saturday night after all their other shows had died on their arse.

In contrast, rising effortlessly to the top of the glass were those reality efforts free from celebrities. Any programme that framed ordinary folk within the scenario of a life changing contest scored well whether in ratings (Big Brother), profile (Dragon’s Den) or as a national talking point (The Apprentice). But where the plight of everyday people took seed on the hallowed turf of light entertainment, this year delivered a less healthy crop than of late. The fact that all the headlines about The X Factor revolved around the judges and off-camera exploits summed up the show’s big problem: how the whole point of it seemed to have gone out of the window in favour of laboured stunts and set-pieces. It was forever a joy to see it beaten in the ratings by Strictly Come Dancing which, despite drifting into repetitiveness, boasted a sense of fun and pleasantness that made ideal family viewing, and spawned a spin-off that gave BBC2 early evening audiences not seen since The Simpsons.

The “new Millionaire“, The Big Call, turned out to be the new Vault, with its complete lack of atmosphere and hideously boring presentation. We must put on record the set, which with its five-storey desk rendered it quite the most ridiculous construction in television history. Worst of all ITV1′s terrible summer shows, however, had to be Rock Around the Block. With absolutely no point whatsoever – neighbours attempt to learn a pop song for no reason – and filled with the sort of “crazy” families you would leave a restaurant to avoid, it amply demonstrated the complete dearth of new ideas in contemporary light entertainment TV. Only Saturday Night Takeaway retained an essence of fun. Even if most of the stunts were hugely contrived – notably the show that went head to head with the first episode of Doctor Who, stuffed with every celebrity they could think of but still beaten in the ratings – it always boasted plenty of energy and thought put into its construction.

Not that the Beeb were any better at this kind of thing. He’s Having a Baby suffered the humiliation of ending two weeks earlier than planned as “it had achieved all it intended to”. Simply watching a bunch of uninteresting men cooing over their newborn children seemed a pointless exercise on a Saturday night, while host Davina McCall proved once again how she seems to have completely lost the power of speaking spontaneously. For more inspired light entertainment the BBC was equally brave in transmitting Jerry Springer – The Opera as it was The Two Ronnies Sketchbook: both unlikely propositions, but both surprisingly if contentiously well-received. Far less inspired was the treatment meted out to Top of the Pops, now playing out on BBC2 to an audience expected to stomach segues from Nirvana to Barbra Streisand. In its desperate attempts to cover all bases, TOTP has ended up pissing off everyone in equal measure: a sorry end to a once-towering institution.

One category where the BBC exceeded all possible criteria in terms of sheer relentless overkill was comedy – a genre where previously it had offered precious little, but where, in 2005, it delivered much. Too much.

It seemed somewhat disingenuous of Alison Graham to announce “the sitcom is dead” in Radio Times shortly after the same magazine had splashed Extras all over its pages. A massively hyped affair that was difficult to watch with an open mind, some moaned at Gervais for dwelling on the comedy of embarrassment, but that was a bit like criticising Tommy Cooper for doing another act based around a rubbish magic trick. Where the criticism became more valid was in Gervais’s use of obvious targets to fuel embarrassment.

But Extras merely led the charge for what turned into a mile-wide wind tunnel of wasted opportunity. Blessed managed to achieve the impossible by hiring likeable actors and making them thoroughly disagreeable by saddling them with scripts full of shouting and arguments. According to Bex saw Fred Barron, whose team-writing methods are supposed to be revolutionising the British sitcom, come up with something more old-fashioned and contrived than anything else on telly. While John Challis was dependable as ever in The Green Green Grass, its supporting cast were reduced to playing stereotypical yokel roles with “countryzoide” accents, despite the series being set in Shropshire. Like The League of Gentlemen before them, the Little Britain team seemed to fall into the trap of believing that the portion of audience which only wants catchphrases is the only one worth bothering about. Broken News amused for about the first five minutes of the first episode, while Dom Joly had nothing new to say in World Shut Your Mouth.

An unforeseen profusion of topical comedy was no better. Mock the Week was an unprepossessing run-through of dull gags, while the delivery of the eponymous host of What’s The Problem? with Anne Robinson meant the jokes came out as spiteful rather than witty, in turn jarring with her incessant flirting and giggling. Sidekick Marcus Brigstocke just looked depressed, and his own BBC4 series The Late Edition was equally unimpressive when it came to sending up the week’s events. A joke about Brian May’s hair was hardly going to bring down the government. Completing the set was The Bigger Picture with Graham Norton, which merely proved you can’t do topical reviews on a Monday night when the week has barely begun.

Then there was Nighty Night. If its first outing had been over-hyped but still pretty decent, not so the second series, which frankly looked as if actual episodes had been binned in favour of broadcasting the rehearsal footage. The multitude of supposedly over the top “talking points” failed to provoke any kind of strong reaction simply because they came out of nowhere. Structurally the series was to pot, while the cast were uniformly awful, Rebecca Front giving perhaps the most one-note performance in the history of comedy. You sensed there had to be a reason why it was so bad. Perhaps Julia Davis was forced into writing a second series when her heart wasn’t in it. Perhaps something catastrophic befell the production team during filming. Whatever it was, Nighty Night should never have been allowed to return to our screens.

Coming a close second behind the Beeb in terms of unfunny funny business was Channel 4. Nathan Barley was a self-indulgent joke-free mess that was simply too boring and alienating to be genuinely loathsome, while the channel’s much-vaunted purchase of The Simpsons amounted to no new episodes since February and repeats being beaten in the ratings by Eggheads.

It was once said that the reason sketch shows relied so much on running jokes is because low budgets meant they could only afford a few sets. Spoons, however, had loads of different locations and did the same jokes in all of them, which betokens lazy writing more than anything else. The fact the punchline to the final sketch in the final show was simply the word “cunt” was just depressing.

Some found 8 Out of 10 Cats surprisingly likeable (and certainly way ahead of Jimmy Carr’s other big gig, The Friday Night Project). Less unequivocal was the response to Balls of Steel, one of the most mean-spirited ideas for a television show ever witnessed. Ditto Meet the Magoons, which had the makings of an old school sitcom, but was informed by a frankly puerile scatological sense-of-humour and a Tarantino-esque penchant for just – well – talking shite. In order for something like this to work, viewers have to love the characters, but in this case the four friends at the core seemed sneery, facile and thoughtlessly homophobic.

Was it all really that bad? The least hyped efforts were usually better, and better for being under-hyped. Arrested Development remained a barrage of laughs, Help benefited from two old hands Chris Langham and Paul Whitehouse who needed neither the money nor the exposure but simply had a show they wanted to make, and Ideal‘s unlikely combination of Johnny Vegas and storylines about drug dealers seemed to work to strong effect.

Vegas’s solo endeavour, 18 Stone of Idiot, scored well at least as a kind of modern day freak show, the highlight undoubtedly being the pre-filmed inserts from some godforsaken lock-in during which Vegas and his celebrity drinking companions got absolutely mortal. Still, if it was a difficult series to watch, at least you got a sense that Vegas was at least trying hard to produce something of interest. Conversely OFI Sunday showed just how bad such a programme can be when the presenter is convinced the most ill-thought out or incidental bit of business is guaranteed to raise a laugh simply due to its inconsequentiality. OFI was the 2005 equivalent of those comic montages in which a piece of film is continually played backwards and forwards – once upon a time they might have been hilarious, but everyone’s got the joke now and so we never need to see it again.

A world away in imagination and wit was the comedy of the year, The Thick of It. While all the press seemed to concentrate on the camera work and the swearing, the important fact was it was incredibly funny. It managed to make a series about politics seem relevant and amusing to everyone, rather than trading in media in-jokes or being reduced to Rory Bremner-style smugness. Yet it still made serious points about what goes on in government, the performances were uniformly exceptional, and the improvised structure and team writing seemed to give it real energy and sparkle. It appears that Armando Iannucci has his own seat on the BBC’s “comedy board”, and that he has his own self-contained unit at TV Centre, which is the one of best ideas the Beeb have ever had.

Soap opera, that most intemperate of TV genre both in terms of quantity and substance, rustled up something of equal stature in the shape of Ray Langton’s return to Coronation Street. The soap highlight of 2005, it seemed designed to show EastEnders exactly how to bring back an old character. There was admittedly little of the baggage to contend with that came alongside the excavation of Dirty Den, but nonetheless Langton was allowed to reappear as a fully fleshed out character and not an exaggerated caricature of his previous self. His story, that of his gradual decline towards death, was well chronicled, allowing the soap to dig deep into its emotional past, but in a quiet way that didn’t require the addition of family feuds or gangsters.

That aside, it wasn’t a particularly vintage year for Corrie. The Charlie-Shelley storyline demonstrated subtlety but in the end went on for too long, while Fred Elliot, for a long time the best character, lost some of his complexity in favour of exuding moral outrage whenever anything threatened his beloved family. Still, the Sally Webster affair storyline was quite a well-plotted exercise, and uniquely for a soap, she sort of got away with it.

Elsewhere Emmerdale continued a potent showing in the ratings thanks to strong storylines and probably the best all-round cast in British soap, while EastEnders lolled around in the doldrums. After celebrating its 20th birthday with one of the worst written, poorly executed episodes ever, the producers embarked on a quest to woo back yet more old characters and appearances from famous faces. If all this was meant to portend to a promising future, it still couldn’t hide the lamentable present state of Albert Square, which felt truly disposable as a TV proposition for the first time in its history.

Conversely, as a mark of its indispensability, The Bill mounted another live episode for the centrepiece of ITV’s 50th birthday celebrations. Aside from a couple of missed cues it went very well, despite the actor playing DC Terry Perkins having a problem with his false teeth which meant he was reduced to covering his mouth to try to keep them from falling out.

For all their finely-honed swagger, however, neither The Bill or its soap stablemates could deliver the greatest amount of new, exciting and entertaining television of 2005. That honour goes to the oldest genre of them all: drama. Such an achievement would have been laughable, if not frankly impossible, a mere five years ago before Greg Dyke and his team restoked the BBC’s fortunes with bags of cash and optimism. That investment is still paying dividends even though Dyke and most of his gang have moved on. In fact, it delivered the goods in 2005 like never before.

There was The Quatermass Experiment, proof that remakes can be done for the right reasons and an exhilarating glimpse of how electrifying live drama can be. There was Space Race, combining dramatic recreations of real-life events and factual narration to a powerful degree. To the Ends of the Earth was an astonishingly visceral swashbuckling romp. Hiroshima delivered a numbingly lucid recreation of the sprawling tragedy of the first atomic bomb, while Derailed was an equally affecting dramatisation of the 1999 Paddington train crash. Twenty Thousand Streets Under the Sky was a masterpiece of slow-burning atmosphere and moving revelation. Matthew Kelly turned in a brilliant turn for the Sunday night epic Egypt. Funland was amusing and disturbing in equal measure, peeling back layers as the weeks went on to uncover more and more disturbing concoctions of comedy and revelations of child abuse and incest. And Casanova was simply a triumph on all counts.

Compelling without ever being innovative or even especially original, all the dramatic devices employed by Conviction were well worn, but it didn’t really seem to matter. It was almost as if the series could withstand any attempts to kill it by encumbering it with creaking plotlines and clichéd set pieces. In fact such elements only added a sense of archetypal grandeur. Bodies played out with equal verve and aplomb. Although obviously pigeon-holed into the role of archetypal middle manager, Patrick Baladi turned in a measured and intelligent performance as Roger Hurley that lent the series a welcome degree of complexity, rendering it an exploration into how occasional short-term sacrifices for the supposed long-term greater good can simply be a tool used by those less scrupulous to get you to do their bidding.

Meanwhile a host of reworked Shakespeare plays, coupled with a multi-part, multi-cast adaptation of Bleak House, turned BBC1′s autumn into a rich brew of worthy dramatisation. Even though the Beeb threw everything into the Dickens adaptation, its melange of rust colours and barely lit sets were a hugely soporific concoction. Still, it was good to know it was out there. Indeed, even though the Corporation notched up a few proper misses – The Rotters Club, Life Isn’t All Ha Ha Hee Hee, The Girl in the Café, Rome – when placed against such triumphs listed above these hardly matter. Even returning series performed well, demonstrating how formats like Hustle, 55 Degrees North and Spooks could be retuned to stay robust. It all smacked of sparkling self-confidence, and helped BBC1 garner OTT’s nomination for channel of the year.

Against such a massive accomplishment, ITV’s drama could only look tatty and tiresome. The usuals returned – Footballers’ Wives, Bad Girls, Doc Martin – as did a string of singularly one-note dark and dreary chillers: Vincent, Jericho, Secret Smile, Cold Blood, Class of ’76 and Afterlife. Vincent epitomised this movement, with its down-at-heel private eye making ends meet in a nastily-depicted Manchester whiffing of the channel’s most credible attempt yet at revisiting the success of Cracker, which is returning to our screens in 2006 anyway. Unique for being new yet upbeat was Distant Shores, with Peter Davison as Dr Bill Shore (do you see?) who moved to the distant (ditto) fictional island of Hildesay off the Northumbrian coast. Needless to say, the locals were presented as “weird” as is the norm for isolated communities on mainstream ITV1.

Channel 4 vaunted itself as a place to rediscover new drama, but The Government Inspector aside, all its flagships were either one-joke knockabouts (Shameless, A Very Social Secretary, Sugar Rush) or hugely conventional period epics (Elizabeth I, The Queen’s Sister). The Ghost Squad, for all its smoke and mirrors, seemed 10 years old. Those oh-so-’90s bluffs and double-bluffs failed as Le Carre-esque excursions into the more unsavoury fringes of public life, instead appearing as just expedient devices to pad out the plot. Elaine Cassidy leant the show verve, but when each episode ends up with three characters sat around a tiny table explaining the previous 60 minutes, a radical overhaul must precede any second series.

As for imported drama, Nip/Tuck was cautiously championed in last year’s review, but come 2005 its extended metaphors and predilection for violence and group sex began to feel just plain seedy. A storyline preposterously placing its lead characters in direct conflict with a serial killer was a clichéd and transparent attempt to inject more overt jeopardy into the show, undermining any remaining sense of reality and cutting characters adrift to become ciphers, reacting whimsically to the week’s over-arching theme. Now they were punctuation-points rather than people. At least 24 remained consistently entertaining, even if the cliffhangers often came a beat too late.

Six Feet Under turned in a brilliant finale after spending years abandoning off-the-wall humour in favour of dull explorations of characters’ relationships. But it was ruthlessly sidelined by C4 and dumped onto E4, while newcomers Desperate Housewives and Lost received far more publicity and a far higher profile. Both played heavily on the instigation of a central mystery as a way of hooking an audience, yet there was a trap here, into which forerunners The X Files and Twin Peaks both fell: namely, making such ongoing ambiguity sustain itself in the long term. For Lost this meant storylines slowing down to ensure information wasn’t revealed too quickly, causing plot to be sidelined in a manner that not only seemed unconvincing but undermined the importance of the revelation in the first place. Still, with enough intriguing narrative options still open to it, the show could withstand a second series, but surely no more.

Almost buckling under the weight of its million pound promo, it neatly embodied the dilemma that faced so many programmes in 2005: alighting upon the correct formula to match expectation yet defying over-estimation. Those that solved the equation ended up the year’s greatest, yet also most unexpected, successes.

So even though The Apprentice carried huge promotional baggage and the lazy stigma of being “another reality TV show”, adroit casting served up contestants with more about them than simply naked ambition. Admittedly some were a trifle dull (Sebastian), not quite plucky enough (Raj), or just cringe inducing (Lindsay with her semaphore, and Rachel’s appallingly misguided belief that a crap collage and some awful skirt swaying constituted a marketing campaign). But that was all part of the fun, as were the cleverly conceived challenges which worked both as tests of the candidates’ calibre and excellent TV-friendly trials, plus of course the bizarre blinking and outrageous sales patter (“You buy one and I’ll buy you one”) of the greatest reality television contestant ever, Paul Torrisi.

And even though Dragons’ Den was saddled with a daft name (surely it should’ve been either “Dragons’ Lair” or “Lions’ Den”?), completely overshadowed by The Apprentice and looked as though it could be one business/reality contest too far, its vitality helped it triumph. 49 Up shrugged off a half-century’s worth of back-story and the pressure of providing the ballast for ITV’s wayward 50th birthday festivities to end up the most perfectly-poised, personally-affecting documentary of the year. Make it Big, meanwhile, repeated the trick of last year by defying convention and showing its youthful participants as occasionally foul-mouthed, argumentative, work-shy and sporadically creative – just like all kids, really.

There were those, of course, that tried to solve the equation and forgot to balance both sides. First Gordon Ramsay proved himself unable to match last year’s Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmares by failing to uncover an archetype of filth to match the ill-fated (and now out of business) Bonapartes from series one. But then he failed again, and even more spectacularly, with The F Word – a show that was neither one thing nor the other, with changes made to its format every week, contrived linking devices (“So Gordon, tell me how your campaign to get women back in the kitchen is going”), an irritating macho voice-over to accompany the recipes (“Done”) and just too many disparate and inconsistent elements.

The finest coup of them all, and the biggest surprise to boot all lay within that most unlikely and uncompromising genre, the revival. Captain Scarlet had pace and pizzazz, but was thrown away on Saturday mornings. Roobarb and Custard Too was similarly well-crafted, but buried at breakfast time.

The show that ultimately triumphed was the one that played for the highest stakes, and the one that had most to lose from too much expectation.

In terms of a TV resurrection, Doctor Who‘s popularity was simply unprecedented. The true measure of its success was how it managed to go beyond the assured headlines of merely being brought back, to maintaining the interest of both the viewers and press. It took canny stage-managing from Russell T Davies, sure, but with Doctor Who he proved he really knew what it took to make popular television in this country, fusing soap, sci-fi and surprise to create a show that was variously funny, thought-provoking and – at times – awe inspiring.

And yet the one element he couldn’t quite get a handle one was the Doctor himself. While primary-coloured cinema hits seem to suggest the public have an appetite for heroes, Davies has so far kept the Time Lord a step removed from the action, never initiating nor even driving his adventures. It’s almost as though Davies feared the Doctor would actually sink the series if ever he regained the command he had over it in the old days. Nonetheless, Davies managed to write in a snog between the Gallifreyian and his companion and nobody complained. Miraculous.

From what we’ve seen of David Tennant’s first forays in the TARDIS, it looks like the best is yet to come. And for anyone who cares about television anywhere in the world, that is quite the finest thing of all.

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2004 Fri, 31 Dec 2004 23:01:05 +0000 Ian Jones A hefty dose of press coverage levelling the charge that British television had slumped into crisis saw out 2004, with frenzied headlines, thick black borders and doom-laden think pieces a-plenty. But had things really become that bad? Had we been wrong to enjoy most of what we watched on telly the past 12 months?

Sure, Jimmy Carr on Distraction essaying smug comedy riffs while trashing a car may have been irksome, but it wasn’t the equivalent of the balloon going up. Similarly Animal Passions, a recycled profile of people practicing bestiality, may have prompted disquiet along the lines of just what the box was going to push your way next, but it wasn’t the cue to tear up your TV licence and mail the pieces to the Government.

In truth, throughout the year so much went on at the periphery of the screen and behind the camera that actual programmes often took second place to controversies about programmes – about the people who made them, starred in them, and who reacted to them. Consider the fact that somebody won Who Wants to be Millionaire in 2004. Can you recall when it happened? The identity of the winner? It wasn’t that the show had suddenly become a joke or a ratings flop, more that with there being so much fighting for our attention this year, certain things had to take second place. Checking out a Millionaire champion blubbing onto Chris Tarrant’s enormous sleeves could wait. First, there was the business of Bruce Forsyth being back where he so obviously belonged: on primetime BBC1.

Witnessing the erstwhile Mighty Atom become a star all over again was arguably a fine use of anyone’s time in 2004, even if Strictly Come Dancing boasted a rather repetitive format that could make for interminable viewing. It was a huge ratings success, a great family show, and thanks to a hasty recommission a hit twice over. Whether the numerous spin-offs looming on the horizon can keep the momentum going is another matter, though a return outing for Bruce’s other BBC1 vehicle, Didn’t They Do Well?, would only be a good thing. An entertaining quiz of the type British TV used to do as a matter of course, it also contributed to the ongoing rekindling of a genre still doing sterling trade for the Beeb (from Mastermind and University Challenge, to QI) but completely misunderstood by ITV, whose 24 Hour Quiz was one of the most lifeless – and, absurdly given its ultra-static presentation, sweatiest – offerings of the year, while Bognor or Bust didn’t even have a title that made sense (the choice being between Bognor and a glamorous holiday location).

While a twist of reality TV supplied Strictly Come Dancing with, after Bruce, its most potent calling card, it also once again motivated the largest, most abundant and expensive events of 2004. Given that talent shows now fall under the reality umbrella, it was possible to sample such programmes every single week of the year. But it remained the case that given the right idea, application and casting, reality TV was far from a redundant format. Yes, you had an astonishingly woeful parade of misfires from ITV1, who seemed unable to learn from their very public mistakes. Design Wars had been a big old flop in 2003, but then the channel went and commissioned a similar reality-lifestyle hybrid in the shape of Trouble in Paradise, which was another huge flop. Even worse, though, was what came next: The Block, which was almost exactly the same! It’s worth dwelling on just how outrageously this was promoted (trailers going out over a month before it aired) yet how palpable was the sense of it being doomed to fail: a nobody presenter, irritating contestants and a poorly-contrived format, ensuring it was nigh-on impossible to care at all who won. Even Simon Cowell’s brother, one of the major selling points, didn’t appear until the second episode.

In contrast, although five proved equally capable of dealing in reality TV turmoil – Back to Reality, The Farm – it also rustled up the sublime Make it Big, depicting the utterly captivating exploits of a band of young teenagers charged with mounting a charity auction. The Apprentice USA, an American import on BBC2, benefited from dispatching its contestants not via a passionless and sombre result of the game’s mechanic, but from a free-wheeling boardroom discussion in which Donald Trump’s opinion was obviously swayed depending on the effectiveness of each participant’s representation. This, alongside multiple helicopters, casinos and appallingly plush apartments gave the series a pleasing swagger.

Channel 4 fared less well. What the Butler Saw reworked the US series The Family but kicked out all the sub-Dynasty glamour in favour of British working-class grit as self-proclaimed “chavs” the Callaghans tried to cut it as members of the aristocracy. But, there was something mealy-mouthed afoot here as instead of egging the players along, we were instead invited to shake our heads at their behaviour. Meanwhile, both That’ll Teach ‘em and Regency House Party failed to recapture the charm of their forerunners, the latter ending up close to a reality TV version of a Jane Austen novel with a dearth of likeable participants and an exposed Saturday night slot. It was no surprise to see its final episodes bundled out early one afternoon.

However, over on ITV1 I’m a Celebrity … Get Me Out of Here!, was, like Strictly Come Dancing, honoured with a double outing and remains clearly well-prized by its makers. OTT’s opinion was divided over its merits as TV to watch as opposed to TV to moan and/or read about in the next day’s papers. Hell’s Kitchen shared a similar passion for the pursuit of cruelty, albeit delivering enough moments of high drama (Amanda Barrie physically assaulting Gordon Ramsay; the chef labeling Edwina Currie “a despicable bitch”) and personal triumph to draw some viewers deep into proceedings. The violence witnessed on Big Brother 5, meanwhile, was more downright spiteful than specifically offensive or politically incorrect. In terms of maliciousness it outflanked even the dizzying amount of bullying and bitching that went on inside the Back to Reality maisonette, a venture ultimately even disowned by its sponsor, Heat magazine.

Meanwhile, The X Factor‘s appearance meant there had been reality-based pop shows on Saturday night ITV1 every year now since 2000, but though the range of acts was impressively wide, dramatic impetus and tension was too often undermined by Kate Thornton whose ruthless determination to stick to the script forced everyone else to stand on their marks and stifled any spontaneous reaction. In a year that saw the most recent victor of Pop Idol vanish almost overnight, The X Factor proved there’s still some life in the talent show format. 2005 will prove whether that’s also the case for its winner, Steve Brookstein.

One area where reality TV undoubtedly provided sustenance was to digital channels. Both E4 and ITV2 would’ve been acutely threadbare without the numerous behind-the-scenes features and additional coverage generated by the above. E4 co-owned still more reality efforts with its parent, including King of Comedy, The Games, The Salon (at one point looking as if it was going to run forever) and Shattered (essentially a new version of Touch the Truck, and about as successful).

Meanwhile BBC3 launched The Other Boat Race, Sky One kicked off The Match, and BBC4 shared Crisis Command with BBC2. This was a superb series, emblematic of how important a role technology has become to reality-based game shows, while also offering up the sorts of participants you rarely get to see in these kinds of programmes: managerial executives and high-flyers. Against the clock, and able to call on various experts and the wise counsel of host Gavin Hewitt, Britain’s top business folk got together to wear expensive spectacles and elegant scarves while vouching their “gut feeling” suggested opening the Thames Barrier or allowing a rogue aircraft to approach London. Tremendously tense and properly – ie. sensibly – interactive, Crisis Command sought to demonstrate just how challenging managing a perilous situation can be. The bit at the end of each edition when Gavin announced, “You are now free to leave the Crisis Command centre” was the icing on the cake.

Even more technological chicanery was marshalled for BBC3′s Spy. For fans of adventure game shows it felt like all your Christmases had come at once. Cherry-picking the best aspects of both reality and entertainment formats, it created a perfect balance between fictional artifice and gaming mechanics. Quite simply it was a masterwork of its genre. Spy played on terrestrial TV in the slot vacated by The Simpsons, which BBC2 also tried hard to fill in 2004 which varying success. Claudia Winkleman’s fun dating show Three’s a Crowd easily outperformed Vernon Kay’s trying-too-hard pop trivia quiz HeadJam, but both were outflanked by Traitor, another show trading on duplicity and cunning, expertly hosted by Tony Livesey. Cruelly, neither this nor Spy received anywhere near the exposure and promotion they deserved.

The “reality” hook deployed by both Crisis Command and Spy – that of the country being forever on the edge of major catastrophe from terrorist attack, malicious subversion or toxic warfare – could be seen haunting the schedules throughout the year. It was there in numerous drama-documentary efforts such as the If … strand and The Grid on BBC2, England Expects and Dirty War on BBC1, and The Hamburg Cell on Channel 4. It percolated the third, underwhelming series of Spooks, inspired major set-piece investigations such as Invading Iraq: How Britain and America Got it Wrong and The Third World War: Al-Qaeda, and fuelled one of the bleakest-sounding documentaries ever, This World: One Day of War. All traded in the sort of fare not common to British TV since the re-heated Cold War of the 1980s: the doomsday scenario, of the world being essentially a bad place, where the important thing to know is how to deal with inevitable catastrophe rather than what to do to avoid it.

The one exception was the remarkable BBC2 series The Power of Nightmares: a three-part re-telling of post-war history from the point of view of Western politicians and Eastern terrorists, who both, it was argued, had repeatedly manipulated aspects of public fear to retain power. Just as arresting as some of its claims was its format: no presenter, the director doubling as narrator, archive footage from every terrorist outrage of the last 40 years, plus an array of sound effects jumbled up with black and white film clips. It all felt like a programme dating from several generations ago, but one that picked up increasing relevance – and public controversy – as it went on.

Echoes of former decades could be found elsewhere in single subject documentaries such as The Miners’ Strike (BBC2), Strike: When Britain Went To War (C4) and the BBC’s in-depth investigations into the IRA’s Brighton bombing and the Hungerford massacre: all meticulously-researched, dignified and definitive statements on their respective subjects.

The 1980s surfaced in a completely different fashion, however, in the most unlikely commission of 2004: ITV1′s Saturday night summer light entertainment juggernaut Simply the Best. Little more than It’s a Knockout with pop bands, it was ITV1 at its most unappealing: noisy and witless viewing, with annoying rounds that went on forever (the show was even extended to two hours DURING its run). The episode where it was pissing it down with rain right the way through could well be the most depressing piece of television ever made.

Scheduling was the one thing that safely distinguished Simply the Best from any number of ’80s forerunners. The grand final was relegated to half past three in the afternoon, a fate never bestowed upon Summertime Special. Indeed, the whims and wisdom of network schedulers impacted on light entertainment more than most this year. Robot Wars moved to five whereupon it was shuttled around three times to increasingly dire viewing figures. There will always be many things wrong with The Vault: its lack of atmosphere, its inept hosts, the questions being too hard, the contestants being too ill-prepared to answer them, rules that nobody can understand and which means the whole affair moves at a snail’s pace, the fact hardly anybody ever wins, and the fact when they do it’s always an anonymous nobody on a phone line – but that’s no excuse for running it for months on end!

The show easily swung the nomination for worst light entertainment programme of 2004. But then it didn’t face much competition. Discounting talent and reality-based shows, there was little else that hung around long enough to make an impression. Come and Have a Go if You Think You’re Smart Enough was scarce fun if you didn’t have the interactive capabilities to join in. Ant and Dec’s Saturday Night Takeaway lined up enough decent items for amiable viewing, though we’re wondering how long its hosts can withstand endless shuttling between this, I’m A Celebrity … and nothing else. It was notable, however, that … Takeaway remained a hit while Johnny and Denise’s Passport to Paradise wasn’t, particularly as many of the concepts were interchangeable. A strictly six-week stint did the latter no favours, though its presenters seemed to have something of a lack of ambition, and as a consequence the whole thing felt that bit cheaper and less sure-footed. Johnny Vaughan will perhaps always be something of an acquired taste, and to package him as anything otherwise tends to spell disaster.

At least he steered clear of comedy during 2004. Frank Skinner’s foray into sitcom, Shane, recalled his fellow chat show host’s lamentable ‘Orrible: precious few funny moments, and a final five minutes where its star desperately tried to write his way out of numerous dead ends. Shane wasn’t helped, again, by ITV1′s schedulers, who bundled out the last three episodes on consecutive nights – nor its star proclaiming unwisely “one is placing one’s genitals on the block if you make a sitcom.” Another attempt at crossover found Jamie Theakston turning his hand to sitcom in Mad About Alice, which despite the man’s affability only narrowly lost out to All About Me in terms of sugary moralising, poor performances and no-budget production values.

Still, there was plenty of other comedy across all channels. Little Britain ended up becoming the year’s must-see show thanks to a promotional blizzard and a transfer (with edits) to BBC1. Another rapid promotion to the mainstream was Harry Hill’s TV Burp, which graduated from a late-night slot to 5.30pm on a Saturday evening. A programme you either loved or hated, for some TV Burp was thoroughly likeable and fantastically funny, but for others it was a witless parade of lazy pops reeled off in front of a raucous audience by a man who said every sentence as if it had an exclamation mark at the end. Nevertheless, there was no doubting TV Burp‘s lightness of touch which made it safe family viewing.

Another hit that also divided opinion was Channel 4′s Green Wing. Featuring as it did all of the current pre-occupations of “alternative” comic series: footage running at different speeds, super-realistic mumbled acting, overpowering trip-hop-esque incidental music and the odd surreal element chucked in for good measure, it served to delight or frustrate the viewer depending on their predisposition.

A welcome contrast to this and its similarly “dark” offspring – Peep Show, Revolver, Garth Marenghi’s Dark Place, Nighty Night, Monkey Dust – were ITV1′s attempts at unequivocally blatant efforts like Hardware and The All-Star Comedy Show, plus two BBC1 creations, The Worst Week of my Life and Carrie and Barry, neither of which got much in the way of critical acclaim but still benefited from funny scripts and, notably, some likeable performances which made them easy to watch. Rob Brydon’s Director’s Commentary and The Keith Barret Show suffered from endless repetition, while French and Saunders and The Lenny Henry Show were self-obsessed big budget follies.

As with 2003, though, it was America which supplied the unassailable first class comedy of the year: Curb Your Enthusiasm, the third series of which aired to negligible fanfare on E4 during the autumn. It’s the cleverest, most raw, most compulsive, most laugh-out-loud funny sitcom ever made. In a year which saw the end of both Friends and Frasier, it also raised the bar as regards expectations of contemporary US comedy. In response Malcolm in the Middle did well to spend another year on form, while by chance or design The Simpsons staged a revival, though ironically the “new” terrestrial episodes aired to great hullabaloo on Channel 4 dated from the show’s all-time nadir of four years ago. They didn’t prove to be that channel’s worst comic offering of 2004, however; that honour went to Max and Paddy’s Road to Nowhere: a self-indulgent, hugely disjointed vanity project with no jokes, topped off with appalling direction and pitifully amateurish acting.

It brought to a close a year that had begun with a celebration of Britain’s Best Sitcom, a tribute to everything that Max and Paddy wasn’t. Another of the BBC’s recent efforts to produce programming that represented the nation speaking unto itself, it actually felt a long way from being a definitive statement. That Only Fools and Horses came out on top told us nothing, while The Vicar of Dibley‘s high placing served only to discredit the whole process, no matter how charitably we tried to take the news. Its highlights – Armando Iannucci’s defence of Yes Minister and Johnny Vaughan’s championing of Porridge – were also completely undermined by Rowland Rivron speaking for One Foot in the Grave despite having clearly no interest in, or even knowledge of, the programme in question.

Sharing Rivron’s penchant for making representations on behalf of subjects about which they knew little was Melvyn Bragg, who trotted out a raft of dire South Bank Show specials on Parkinson-esque crooners, TV drama and rock dinosaurs, none of which were that convincing or – thanks to demented scheduling – asked to be watched. Alan Yentob’s more open-minded high-profile efforts in Imagine … served up fine profiles of Arthur Miller, Marlon Brando and others, besides behaving like a proper flagship arts programme. In fact, the arts and music did well in 2004, thanks to traditional efforts like The Genius of Mozart and Venice, new magazine series The Culture Show, the UK Music Hall of Fame and the talent/reality show Musicality. The exception was Top of the Pops, whose demotion to BBC2 was announced at the end of the year. This was no surprise, really; it had never shown the inclination to sort out its many flaws, from dreary presentation and the unexciting music policy (some acts appearing seemingly every week, others never at all) to endless voice-overs and promotions.

If BBC1 without TOTP was once never thought possible, how about a BBC1 without EastEnders? 2004 was the first time such a notion moved from being downright unfeasible to only partly implausible. Off-set cast problems, changes in production personnel, boring characters and mediocre plots came together in one of the soap’s rockiest years, readily reflected in its worst ever ratings. The obsession with gangsters, hoodlums and vengeance choked off almost all credibility. The Ferriera family, supposedly the show’s big hopes, were dealt storylines covering kidneys, snakes, taxis and not much else. Leslie Grantham, meanwhile, resorted to playing most of his scenes gazing up at the ceiling looking like he wished he were somewhere else. His was a wasted resurrection, and now it seems he’s to be killed off – again. If things don’t pick up in Albert Square, by this time next year expect talk of cancellation to be rife.

In contrast both Coronation Street and Emmerdale enjoyed a bumper year, effortlessly turning out as many episodes as ITV1 required, and mixing broad comedy and outrageous tragedy with aplomb. The Bill merrily took on still more of a soap-esque hue through the pursuit of emotion-led storylines and sensationalist dénouements, with the sometime lackadaisical force of old increasingly substituted for ethically and sexually corrupt coppers dispensing their own particular brand of nasty justice.

A similar kind of morally ambiguous agenda could be seen influencing other high profile drama, such as C4′s No Angels and Teachers, Sky One’s US acquisition Nip/Tuck and ITV1′s double-pack of Bad Girls and Footballers’ Wives. All were obsessed with the consequence of characters ignoring established practices of behaviour and acting purely on self-interest. The cumulative effect of all this could be very relentless. Narcissism was at the very heart of Nip/Tuck, but while some found the portrayal of its concerns explosive without becoming overly showy, and cynical without being wearisome, others found its cyclic subject matter unyielding and remote.

Generally more appealing were the conventionally-modelled dramas, including historical fables (Gunpowder, Treason and Plot, He Knew he was Right, North and South), crime thrillers (Jonathan Creek, Murder City, The Long Firm, The Brief, Sex Traffic) and romantic fantasies (NY-LON, Blackpool). All of these stuck safely within their remit, but that was partly the point. They could deliver the goods because they had something tangible to offer, as opposed to dramas peopled by cardboard individuals forever seeking the most profitable way to get one over on each other. Which brings us to Shameless. Considered by many to be the stand-out work of the year, it’s OTT’s opinion that in fact this was a very one-note piece of television, essentially depicting the same type of scene (people shouting) over and over again. As a caricature of working class life, it was no better than Bread.

Of course, caricature doesn’t necessarily have to sit uncomfortably in drama, as proven by Hustle. Unashamedly derivative and peopled by archetypes, it balanced its blatant stealing from movies such as Ocean’s Eleven and The Sting with its own sense of the post-modern, regularly breaking the fourth wall to directly address the viewer. The story was all, here, rather than characterisation.

Similarly concentrating hard on the plot was Sea of Souls, which promised a fresh, sceptical spin on X Files-style paranormal dramas, but ultimately turned in something pretty pedestrian, mostly memorable for featuring actors of some distinction spouting poorly researched para-sceptical balderdash. Auf Wiedersehen, Pet lacked the sense of camaraderie and basic arsing about that had previously made it such a joy. Tony Marchant’s Passer By was even worse, bludgeoning its dramatic conceit to death with a swathe of incidental plotlines that rather too obviously echoed the main theme.

24 served up its usual ill-disciplined love for creating a spectacle, but despite the histrionics wisely balanced the antics of Jack Bauer with the gradual and believable corruption of the show’s moral heart, President Palmer. With no eleventh hour reprieve, he bowed out of the series’ finale thoroughly tainted, eschewing viewer anticipation for a final cliffhanger or twist in the tale. Charting a character’s motivation was less well handled by Without a Trace, which suffered from a propensity for navel gazing at the expense of fast-paced, slightly convoluted tales of missing people. At least this time Channel 4 showed a full series rather than simply cherry-picking random episodes.

Where sharply-drawn characters were placed in a significant historical or political context – Dunkirk, D-Day, Omagh, London – the results were breathtaking. But where the setting was hopelessly irrelevant the reverse was true, such as in ITV1′s Mine All Mine, which consisted of too many scenes of people running from location A to location B and well-known actors working too hard to appear loveable.

The regular appearance of just such big name “faces” at least leant some consistency to this veritable pot pourri. Quite a few turned up in a second run for BBC1′s The Afternoon Play, while elsewhere the usual ITV1 brand leaders such as Martin Clunes, Ross Kemp and Sarah Lancashire continued to put in the hours, Clunes delivering a rare immediate hit for the channel in the shape of Doc Martin. Lacking star attractions but blessed with the nostalgic feel of 1970s period drama was ITV’s Island at War, an unflinching study of life in the Nazi-occupied Channel Islands, but which seemed to move slower and slower with each episode, despite ending on a cliffhanger. Even less obviously successful were variations on a theme like Steel River Blues, an attempt to recreate London’s Burning only this time on Teesside. It prompted the question why not simply bring back the original, and also irked locals by giving its characters geographically-suspect Geordie accents. At least it managed to make it to the end of its allotted run. Making Waves, an attempt to recreate Soldier, Soldier only this time in the Navy, was axed after just three episodes. The remaining instalments have still to see the light of day.

A great deal more stability was evident within the scheduling of lifestyle shows, which despite being almost phased out on BBC1 and 2 (bar a few exceptions – Fat Nation, The Bank of Mum and Dad) were second only to drama in terms of airtime on the commercial channels. Five led the charge, engineering a property programme boom with newly-poached Justin Ryan and Colin McAllister. The pair made for reliably entertaining television as long as they were disagreeing with each other or those around them, and the channel also scored a hit with a programme that – whilst not featuring the duo – was clearly based upon their final effort for the Corporation as How to be a Property Developer re-worked the format of The Million Pound Property Experiment.

Elsewhere Faking It persevered with exactly the same format, but as a result often felt like it was operating in a vacuum. Even charges of misrepresentation from one participant failed to garner much publicity. At least it attracted viewers, unlike Risking it All, which seemed to have been watched by no one, but successfully usurped Trouble at the Top in delivering taut homilies from the world of business. Return to Jamie’s Kitchen and Beyond River Cottage brought little in the way of innovation, but both were welcome re-acquaintances with old friends. Less impressive was Honey, I Ruined the House, wherein Naomi Cleaver threw aside the caustic persona she established in Other People’s Houses and ended up far too middle-brow and prissy.

Programmes focusing on failures within the family unit comprised a sub-genre of their own. Little Angels and Who Rules the Roost seemed to touch a nerve, but the cheerleader here had to be Channel 4′s Supernanny. The no-nonsense programme, featuring nanny Jo Frost giving hapless parents advice on taming wayward children, put all the other channels to shame, peaking at an incredible 6.6 million viewers. However, Made for Each Other was possibly more compulsive TV with its raw analyses of couples’ relationships. Equally uncomfortable, but for entirely the wrong reasons, was The Sex Inspectors, illustrating how there are some areas in life TV “experts” can’t address without some real, serious thought beforehand. Wayward youths and ex-cons were also handed a degree of exposure thanks to Make Me Honest, Going Straight, Bricking It and The Heist. The latter was the most successful: a perfect one-line format (“former criminal geniuses team-up to see if they can pull off a series of heists at the behest of the programme-makers”) mixed with arresting images (footage of a crook actually stealing a painting from an art exhibition), though you couldn’t quite escape the feeling that even the programme-makers weren’t sure of the morally muddy waters they were getting into.

Such an ongoing proliferation in lifestyle-related output was no surprise, really, when long-running series Property Ladder and Grand Designs showed they could still pull in big audiences. But their continuing presence in the schedules also allowed Channel 4, for instance, the money and resources to plough back into less-watched ventures, most typically documentaries. It’s a trade-off that bore much impressive fruit in 2004: stand-alone efforts like Death in Gaza, which had as its climax the shocking murder of its own director, and Whicker’s War, with the titular raconteur re-tracing his adventures as a journalist in Italy in World War II; plus series like 30 Minutes, Monarchy by David Starkey, The Boy Whose Skin Fell Off (perhaps one of the best treatments of death ever seen on television) and fine offerings from Dispatches on the Royal Mail and anti-immigrant campaigners. C4 also came up with a trio of decent nostalgia-based documentaries, Who Killed Saturday Night TV?, Inside the Comedy Closet and When Soaps Ruled the World, each of which focused on an intriguing subject and had the time and knowledge to do something with it.

There were exceptions, naturally. Worst was Little Lady Fauntelroy in which Keith Allen tried to “expose” Lauren Harries and her family. The scenes of neighbours shouting abusive remarks were chilling enough to watch, but Allen’s rather contrived hissy fit at the end removed all credibility from the project. Who Stole Bob Monkhouse’s Jokes was appalling, the worst kind of tribute imaginable, while Jon Ronson’s Crazy Rulers of the World suffered from its host not having quite as rich material with which to make merry. Edge of the City inevitably lost impact thanks to being postponed, its allegations that an Asian gang were dragooning youngsters into the sex trade considered too inflammatory for transmission during local elections.

The BBC, on the other hand, had a near faultless record of documentaries in 2004. This clearly remains one of the Corporation’s real strengths, an area it has worked hard to develop, and the evidence was impressive. Both One Life and This World on BBC1 and 2 have become solid, reliable strands, while Storyville now serves BBC4 in a similar capacity. Michael Cockerill continued his run of colourful political films with The Downing Street Patient and Do You Still Believe in Tony?, Magic illuminated a much-belittled trade, while both Michael Palin (Himalaya) and Rolf Harris (Star Portraits; Rolf on Art) showed no sign of failing form. After literature and architecture, BBC2 turned to popularising genealogy, with the result – Who Do You Think You Are? – an overnight hit, something you didn’t expect to enjoy but which often proved mesmerizing. Special mention must go to BBC2′s Property People, which charted the progress of estate agents Greene & Co over a period of six months, and which succeeded because it let the action speak for itself rather than try and create memorable “characters” out of any of the participants.

Some of the BBC’s most entertaining documentaries were celebrations of itself. Goodbye Pebble Mill, Happy Birthday BBC2 and 25 Years of Question Time were all thoughtful and enjoyable tributes, perhaps surprisingly so in the case of Pebble Mill, though 50 Years of BBC TV News was more a rundown of the past half-century than anything much to do with television. BBC4′s month-long 1960s season, however, was a real mixed bag. The multitude of archive programming was to be praised, of course, but the accompanying investigations, in particular The Truth About Sixties TV, were lazy pot shots and posturing for the sake of it. Even the normally unimpeachable Time Shift was sometimes guilty of generalisation on this score.

That, plus the defection of Curb Your Enthusiasm to E4, helped BBC4 lose its status as OTT’s channel of the year. But its replacement didn’t just win by default. Across 2004 it demonstrated increasing confidence, flair and a preference for exciting, unexpected television. Much of its outstanding armoury – Spy, Catterick, Little Britain, Bodies, Conviction, The Smoking Room – was quickly exported onto terrestrial, but that shouldn’t deny BBC3 the honour it deserves. It’s a channel that’s now consistently innovating and attempting something for young audiences which amounts to far more than simply slapping on episodes of Friends back to back. It’s also demonstrably doing things no other channel would come close to, like Guerilla Homes, where Charlie Luxton looked at examples of new architecture and tried to come up with fresh ideas on housing: a thought-provoking, well-filmed and interesting prime time series you wouldn’t have seen anywhere else. BBC3′s main evening news now boasts Eddie Mair doing a sterling job as host, and though it’s questionable how many are tuning in, it always does a sturdy job of presenting current affairs in a lively way. It’s not a perfect channel yet, but it’s certainly improved and seems sure of finding its voice and niche.

Our nomination for show of the year, however, is a three-way tie: Derren Brown’s Séance; last year’s choice Dick and Dom in Da Bungalow; and Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmares. The faultless Bungalow now stands on the verge of becoming the best children’s show ever, while Kitchen Nightmares surprised many by revealing how profoundly the eponymous star felt for his craft. Behind the swearing and attitude appeared to be a man who went into paroxysms of grief when he came across substandard establishments, and who could encourage merit and motivation when neither seemed possible.

OTT’s 2003 review concluded that although the BBC had endured a “torrid” 12 months, it had been “a period spent scoring innumerable triumphs in the face of potential disasters.” We reckoned the Corporation seemed well placed to deal with whatever the Hutton Inquiry, then nearing completion, unearthed; after all, “its reputation had been enhanced rather than diminished by 2003′s most incendiary, contentious and ultimately fatal news story.”

Within a few weeks its Chairman had quit and its Director-General was ousted: a devastating turn of events, leading to a palpable sense of the entire Corporation reeling in disbelief and shock. Everything about what happened felt desperately wrong. For a terrible time even the future of the Beeb itself seemed up for grabs. Inevitably Michael Grade’s ensuing return to the BBC was greeted with near-rapture, though he wasn’t taking up the post of Director-General as would’ve been ideal, but Chairman. The new DG ended up being Mark Thompson. Initially this “dream team” basked in universal acceptance, but by the end of 2004 the mood was different, and, as noted at the start of this review, the talk was only of confusion and disquiet. Greg Dyke’s subsequent film for Channel 4, Betrayed by New Labour, was perhaps the most heartfelt piece of television all year. But by that point it was too late: things had moved on, and his justifiable gripes and angry testimony almost belonged to another time, his arguments forgotten just as quickly as that winner on Who Wants to be a Millionaire.

Maybe all the gloomy copy about the state of TV is right. Perhaps it’s a bit like interest rates and global warming: we won’t see the actual effects, or suffer the consequences, until several years down the line. What happens in the TV industry now won’t bother us for a good while. In the meantime why worry over something you can’t do anything about? The irony is, of course, that only time will tell. It’s a safe bet, though, that even if we don’t notice it, Millionaire will still be here.

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2003 Wed, 31 Dec 2003 23:01:16 +0000 Ian Jones On 21 April 2003, 16.7 million people tuned in to watch the makers of Who Wants To Be A Millionaire spend a couple of hours of primetime television outlining their role in one of the most notorious instances of rigging a quiz show in recent memory.

Tonight: Millionaire – A Major Fraud was a truly bizarre affair, leaving Millionaire‘s producers Celador looking hugely smug besides chiding the viewer for wanting to sit through what was little more than a massive plug for one of ITV’s programmes. Still, it was yet another chapter in the remarkable history of the most successful game shows of the last 10 years, and one that – despite falling ratings and endless, half-desperate format tinkering – remains a bedrock of ITV’s schedules. Millionaire survived 2003 in one piece. Many others were not so lucky.

It’d been a while since BBC1 was able to boast of not one but a family of flagship, high-profile drama series whose scope and ambition was matched by commendable production values. Leading the pack was the near-flawless State of Play. Paul Abbott’s political thriller may have tended towards the over-arch in having wise-cracking characters forever sitting around postulating, but more than made up for such deficiencies with genuinely edge-of-the-seat atmospherics, some devastating cliffhangers, and an unusually disciplined display of plotting.

Slightly less satisfying, but still great entertainment, was Jonathan Creek. With just a miserly three-episode run to play with, David Renwick didn’t quite hit the standard of previous series, (and let’s hope the BBC refrains from rationing out future installments in the manner that so crippled Only Fools and Horses). An occasional Jonathan Creek, however, was far better than a full series of the ill thought-out Strange, which deservedly only attracted 3.9 million viewers. The Canterbury Tales, meanwhile, was just the sort of thing the Beeb could and should do, and was by and large a success worth applauding. Charles II easily outflanked ITV1′s Henry VIII by dint of being coherent and consistently well-acted. Completing the pack was Spooks, blessed with huge publicity and an expanded run, but which lost focus the longer it went on. Taut tales of subterfuge turned into rambling character pieces reaching out for piquancy and failing thanks to inadequacies in the script. Having two different episodes based around child computer geniuses was even more unfortunate.

Yet for all their respective quirks and drawbacks, this was a suite of programmes that benefited from faithful scheduling and an air of permanence. In utter contrast barely a week passed without a new mini-series airing on ITV1, and as the months ticked by the impression became one of a lumbering production line churning out one personality-led extravaganza after another: William and Mary, Lucky Jim, Rosemary and Thyme, Margery and Gladys … At least these escaped the indignity of being turfed out of their slot and consigned to an ignominious backwater late on a weeknight; Fortysomething, Sweet Medicine (supposedly a permanent replacement for Peak Practice) Single and others all ended up adrift in the post-News at Ten wilderness. The actions of a no-nonsense business-minded network, maybe, but the cumulative effect was to belittle ITV1′s whole drama strategy.

There were, as there always are, exceptions: The Last Detective, despite its Touch of Frost overtones, actually managed to pretty much do its own thing, and more importantly be a proper “whodunnit” – rarer than you’d think given the number of other small screen detective shows. The Second Coming, however, was just too fantastical for its own good, and was cursed with, as is evermore the case with writer Russell T Davies, a hopelessly half-arsed conclusion. Attempts to spin off Heartbeat (The Royal) and The Bill (MIT) received more of a mixed response than perhaps ITV1 bosses were hoping; and now that Cold Feet has concluded, the channel urgently needs fresh, vibrant mainstream series around which it can build its schedules. One-off stunts (The Bill – Live) and revivals (a decent enough Prime Suspect) could not offset the feeling of 2003 being one of the most inconsistent, uneasy years for ITV1 drama in a long time.

The second series of 24 divided opinion here at OTT. Some considered it every bit as good as it should have been, albeit with a weird propensity towards scenes of torture and people locked up in rooms. Others grew tired of its repeated demands for the viewer to suspend their disbelief and terribly clunky dialogue (“This better not be another of your manipulations!”). At least it featured a strong plot that enjoyed a proper beginning, middle and end – and it was easily the most substantial drama series on either BBC2 or Channel 4. Cambridge Spies, Teachers, 40, Second Generation – none really capitalised on their interesting subject matter or star names to offer up plausible, involving storylines. Were it not for a couple of outstanding, one-off productions – George Orwell – A Life in Pictures and The Deal respectively – neither channel would have delivered any notable homegrown drama this year.

BBC2 reaped substantially greater rewards from resurrecting old favourites. Joining University Challenge and Treasure Hunt was a new series of Mastermind, amiably hosted by John Humphrys and somehow far more interesting than we remembered it in its previous incarnation. When BBC1 chipped in with Superstars we suddenly had an unusually large number of old programmes in circulation – all of which, perhaps remarkably, were faithful and good fun. Superstars was a textbook example of how to revive a series, paying deserved tribute to the original run while still managing to come across as fresh and exciting. Only Treasure Hunt‘s lamentable scheduling spoiled things.

Original quiz shows didn’t fare quite so well. Meet My Folks could have been a decent format, but was executed incredibly badly thanks to the absence of a presenter, thereby requiring the contestants to continually explain what they were doing and ensuring proceedings came across as thoroughly contrived. It was really no surprise to see the show dropped from Saturday nights and remaining episodes flung out late at night. BBC2 tried to combine ancient history, advanced graphics and Eddie Mair in Time Commanders with mixed success; while Nobody Likes a Smartarse spoiled a fairly intriguing concept by becoming over-reliant on the supposition that a studio audience would hold people who actually knew something in contempt.

ITV1 trundled out a chain gang of game shows and quizzes all lacking in wit, spark or tension. Its obsession with placing celebrities in humiliating situations gave rise to Russian Roulette: Celebrity Special and Drop the Celebrity, both doomed by the fact that the personalities in question were uninteresting attention seekers for whom you neither cared or liked. June was the nadir: the return of The Vault, coupled with Brian Conley’s Judgement Day, delivered ITV1 its lowest Saturday night audience ever recorded. The former was simply a mess, which took an age to explain and still didn’t make sense; the latter was desperate and demeaning.

The situation was no better on Channel 4, who appeared to have become preoccupied with mounting repeatedly unsatisfactory attempts to find a successful “subversive” quiz show. Without Prejudice, Your Face or Mine and Distraction all relied on tired “shock” concepts aimed at imagined masses of hip young audiences. In terms of genuine excitement and elucidation, Grand Slam, a devoutly conventional tournament between winners of other quiz shows, was far more substantial. BBC2′s QI likewise made no attempt to present itself as anything other than it actually was – teams of verbose individuals trying and failing to show off about their knowledge of obscure subjects, and tackling them with a sense of wit and irreverence.

The line between game show and reality TV became even more blurred during the year, as the fortunes of reality programming veered between increasingly wild extremes. BBC1′s ratings flop The Murder Game was almost the best of the bunch: a classy, very “BBC” take on the genre, revelling in appearing as cerebral as possible and never failing to impress with the scale of its stunts. Perhaps the whole thing was just a little too cold and cynical for your Saturday night audience.

Just as good was an outing for the US version of The Mole on Challenge TV. With the first two series (the second deliciously subtitled The Next Betrayal) hosted by the charismatic ABC news correspondent Anderson Cooper, this was something of a consolation prize for those of us who were still pining for five’s UK version. Although the show arguably dwelt too much on awarding players free passes to the next round, there was still plenty of double-dealing and espionage to maintain interest. Celebrity Mole: Hawaii saw Cooper out and sportscaster Ahmad Rashad in, but despite fears the format was about to plunge into banality, if anything this turned out to be an even more entertaining experience as micro-celebs Stephen Baldwin and Corbin Bernsen ratcheted up the paranoia and whole-heartedly threw themselves into the game.

Pop Idol surpassed its first series in terms of unforeseen twists and surprises. Watching odds-on favourite Sam crash out in the semi-final was jaw-dropping stuff, although it did have the net result of leaving two also-rans battling it out for the big prize. It was an instructive contrast to the dire Reborn in the USA. Down at heel and seemingly piped into our TV sets direct from Mars (so awful was the picture quality), a series set around a bus trip taken by a dozen sweating has-beens was never going to be an appealing prospect. For host Davina McCall the whole thing seemed to prove a bridge too far, finally forcing her to embrace that shouting, hunched-up caricature she’d been toying with since the start of Big Brother.

Then there was the return of I’m a Celebrity … Get Me Out of Here! It would’ve been nice if even one of ITV1′s entertainment shows of 2003 could have gone more than 10 seconds without making any sort of reference to this programme, especially as this year’s version did nothing to surpass the impact of the original. While some at OTT appreciated the appointment-to-view nature of proceedings, others found it increasingly hard to care about the subjects or find much time for Ant and Dec’s smug observations within a warm, cosy studio. In fact, Pop Idol aside, ITV1 really did seem to lose the plot with reality TV; consider The Club, which featured Dean Gaffney running a nightclub, perhaps the most depressing commission ever; or Design Wars, based on the idea that the public would give a toss which country produced the best interior designer.

BBC1′s Fame Academy was simply bloody awful, losing everything that made it individual and unique first time round and instead turning into Son of Pop Idol without any of the wit or appeal – an even more ridiculous idea when you remember it was actually screened opposite Pop Idol itself. The programme mistook “must-see” television for having people be really nasty to each other, and the ensuing bitterness and rancour of the judges’ comments and their unceasing desire to shout each other down and make one another look foolish resulted in ghastly viewing. The whole unsavoury palaver was also blessed with the presence of Patrick Kielty, revealing himself to be one of the worst presenters currently working in television thanks both to his hopeless attempts at fronting a live show and a demeaning spat with judge Richard Park that got in the way of, and undermined, the whole contest.

Channel 4, however, held the record for the most number of reality TV misses. Because they were all high-profile, hugely-publicised affairs, the scale of the failure was all the more potent. The Salon soon felt like it’d been running on every day for years; but we still can’t see what the point of it is other than ensuring there’s no space for any new episodes of Futurama. The Games, meanwhile, resembled an attempt to fill gaps between runs of Big Brother given the fanzine-style spin-offs at teatime, the late night streaming and the endless discussion on the wretched RI:SE. C4 boss Mark Thompson had the gall to claim that The Games was groundbreaking scheduling no-one else would dare try – forgetting that ITV1 had stripped I’m A Celebrity … every night twice in the previous 12 months.

Big Brother went for non-character characters, and suffered as a result. Teen Big Brother: The Experiment was pre-recorded and the better for it, yet all the laboured efforts to play up the sociology foundered on the fact that, yet again, the contestants were hard to like. Trust Me, I’m a Teenager achieved nothing except give viewers a headache from the constant shouting. And so it went on, adding up to a litany of shows that collectively pointed to a mindset at C4 which dictated the actual format of the series was immaterial; all that mattered was having at least one reality show running at any one time.

This perception has proved fatal. For all of C4′s individual successes, its relationship with reality TV has conspired to rob the channel of most of its cutting edge and imaginative credentials. 2003 has turned out to be one of the most disappointing years for C4 in quite a while, simply because of this smothering association with one genre. Mark Thompson and his team continue to talk about returning C4 to its roots, of paring things back, of being radical. So far there’s little sign of this on screen.

Perversely, however, two of the channel’s stand-out one-off commissions had their roots in reality TV: Derren Brown Plays Russian Roulette and That’ll Teach ‘em. Having long admired Brown, OTT was a little worried this year when he seemed to throw his lot in with the David Blaine school of overblown stunts. However his attempt to “not get killed” thankfully turned out to be a smart and subversive show that dissected the hype built up around the event. Even though the whole thing was simply a trick, Brown made no pretence of the fact. That’ll Teach ‘em exploited a cunning selection of “characters” and everyone’s memories of the classroom to deliver uplifting, enthralling, genuinely insightful television. You really felt and cared for its subjects, which is always TV’s greatest achievement. Whether C4 dares to roll out the kind of bravado, fun and unconventionality of both this and Brown across the rest of its schedules in the future remains to be seen.

The last 12 months have seen various attempts to revive light entertainment. The problem was nobody could agree on what exactly made the glorious, golden days of big-budget, much-watched variety spectaculars so glorious or golden. For Channel 4 it meant sending out for the man who re-invented Saturday night entertainment nine years ago. The result was quite possibly the worst programme of the year on any channel: Boys and Girls. It was written by Chris Evans himself, and it showed, as only someone who’d been out of the country for a long period of time would think there was anything vaguely exciting or shocking about contestants seeing their parents appear naked. The Evans production it most resembled is probably Red Alert – with 200 contestants, none of whom you could care about, and disorganised, noisy presentation.

Ant & Dec’s Saturday Night Takeaway became, unbelievably, even more like Noel’s House Party – in some ways a good thing, but as the bearded one knows only too well such a format is a tremendous eater of ideas. As for the rest of ITV1′s entertainment output, it was almost entirely populated by more of those contestants from I’m a Celebrity …; the likes of Rhona Cameron, Tony Blackburn and especially Tara Palmer-Tomkinson washed up almost every single week, presenting or guesting on a dizzying array of forgettable formats. Additional mention must be made of Mark Durden-Smith who, after being one of the worst aspects to the critically-panned, unpopular RI:SE, somehow managed to appear on ITV1 non-stop despite having little in the way of charisma or warmth.

Andi Peters returned to the BBC to try and overhaul Top of the Pops, but as All New Top of the Pops the show seemed even less concerned with reflecting the state of contemporary music and the charts. The National Lottery continued to suffer from unfocused presentation, and from being bolted onto mostly unrelated game show formats that were difficult to follow. Over on C4 Graham Norton demonstrated that even the biggest talents can suffer from over-exposure, with his show losing a lot of its appeal thanks to running every night for months on end. This was a situation that also meant C4′s 10pm slot was booked up for most of the year, severely limiting what other kinds of programmes could be shown post-watershed.

Neither light entertainment nor reality TV delivered 2003′s chief “watercooler” moments. EastEnders and Coronation Street jousted for predominance in both the ratings and headline-grabbing stunts. But while both played host to an audaciously higher number of unsubtle arrivals and departures than usual, they often forsook low-key menace for over-the-top frenzy and crude, bumbling dénouements. Nothing could match the must-see appeal of Richard Hillman’s demise at the start of the year and Den Watts’ resurrection at its close, but these set-piece forays into epic tragicomedy had limited appeal. Leslie Grantham is still a decent enough actor, we’ll give him that, but somehow EastEnders failed to capitalise on his return. Perhaps casting him as the ultimate “Daddy” of the Square wasn’t the best idea in the world; we don’t recall the likes of Nick Cotton being particularly scared of Dirty Den during his original tenure. As the year went by the EastEnders production team became more and more fixated on gangsters and “top dogs”, in the process frittering away their critical lead over Coronation Street. In turn the residents of Weatherfield, despite never matching the cringingly described “Norman Bates with a briefcase“, have at least been able to set up base camp for possibly more success in 2004.

Experiments with daytime television left all the main channels with a profoundly patchy record. The BBC gambled on a limited revival of The Afternoon Play that garnered a positive reception from critics and audiences; but its attempt to nail the magazine format in the shape of The Morning Show was derisory. In both presentation and content the show was utterly unconvincing; nobody was interested in Nicki Chapman’s thoughts on repatriating asylum seekers. ITV1 chose to soldier on with brands and personalities that had been around for decades and which were showing their age. The sole exception was Today With Des and Mel, an unapologetically brash knees-up with usually at least one guest worth catching every day.

Channel 4′s decision to stand by Richard and Judy paid off as the series finally hit its stride and piled on the ratings, but moving Countdown, already floundering at an unnecessary 45-minute length, to a mid-afternoon graveyard was utterly perverse. Here was yet another case of the channel offering up no adequate explanation for its actions. If they wanted to kill Countdown off then why proscribe it the conditions for an undignified, slow demise; and if they did not, why treat it with such disdain? As for five’s The Terry and Gaby Show, once the fantastic title sequence was out the way all that was left was a ramshackle affair, its two hosts constantly talking over each other or, in Gaby’s case, dementedly shouting for attention. The whole roustabout was topped off with an irritating will-this-do attitude that could be traced right back to its creator and executive producer – that man again – Chris Evans.

With the BBC preparing for its Charter Review, ITV stumbling towards merger and the ITC legislating itself out of existence, newspapers were often thick with talk of reconciling television’s need to sustain audiences with public service obligations. Particular ire was reserved for the BBC, which had to weather a torrent of criticism almost without respite, all the way from bitter outbursts of ex-employees like Jimmy Young in January through to the Daily Telegraph’s “Beebwatch” column in the autumn. At the same time, however, the Corporation demonstrated a more inspired and practical approach to finding a suitable balance between unapologetic mainstream and accessible niche programming than it had done for decades.

Take its arts output, for example. In the face of Melvyn Bragg’s ongoing boasts about how much culture he managed to get onto ITV1 (failing to mention The South Bank Show‘s transmission time of close to midnight) both BBC1 and BBC2 were able to roll out a number of projects demonstrating their commitment to lively, accessible arts programming. Instead of the often ghettoised, abstract and tokenistic output of the past, we got big budget, heavily-promoted strands in the middle of primetime. Alongside the fantastic Rolf on Art came major series on Byron and Michaelangelo; Arena remained a recurring staple on BBC2; The Big Read and Restoration had demonstrable impact in raising awareness of and participation in the study of literature and architecture; and perhaps most significantly of all Alan Yentob hit a bulls-eye with BBC1′s Imagine …, the long-trailed replacement for Omnibus and home to a number of thoughtful, entertaining profiles and investigations. The Corporation are now doing far more in the way of arts programming – however you define it – than their rivals. That goes for both ITV1 and, indeed, Channel 4, whose arts output dwindled to the sum total of a couple of modern operas and the erratic The Art Show bundled out at 7.30pm on Friday nights.

Then there was the business of reporting a major intentional conflict. When the long-expected war against Iraq arrived in March, both the BBC and ITV could call upon a resource neither had to hand during the last Gulf conflict: 24-hour digital TV news services. In contrast to Sky’s self-conscious bombast and graphics-heavy presentation, BBC News 24 seemed subdued and uneasy, picking its way – often live on-air – between truth and fantasy, rumour and hard facts. With some of the most accomplished reporters in TV journalism out in the field, however, the Corporation ran the most comprehensive and vivid coverage of the hostilities; and it was BBC1 who delivered the last word on the war in the shape of the astonishing Panorama Special in November, an extended edition built around the moment when John Simpson and his reporting team kept their camera rolling while caught in the middle of friendly fire.

BBC News 24 won a bad press all year round, some of it based on constructive criticism, some of it merely negative and lazy. A makeover in December seemed a somewhat token gesture of appeasement; the station really wasn’t that bad at all, and at least it did actually show proper news – unlike the ITV News Channel, a candidate for the worst digital station currently in existence. Here, precious little reportage made it to air in between repeats (such as the Rugby World Cup Final about half a dozen times) and ITV content that couldn’t be fitted anywhere else (like live football). Under-resourced and over-hyped, the channel even resorted to hiring faces from yesteryear to boost their war coverage, a tactic which ended up looking embarrassing and undignified.

Anti-BBC rhetoric took on a whole new colour during the second half of 2003. It had been a very long time since the BBC had found itself the lead story on news bulletins week in week out. The ferocity of the attacks mounted against the organisation by politicians and press alike were nothing new; the tenacity and vigour with which the BBC fought back were a revelation. Not for a generation had the Corporation demonstrated such bluster. The Hutton Inquiry then proceeded to lay bare the workings of Auntie Beeb right up to the highest level – e-mails sent to and from Greg Dyke and Gavin Davies by colleagues suddenly became public property. The year ended with the BBC seeking to pre-empt the Inquiry’s findings by visibly toning down its bullishness and improving its complaint procedures; yet it’s fair to say the Corporation’s reputation, overall, had been enhanced rather than diminished by 2003′s most incendiary and contentious story.

A raft of impressive current affairs programmes – from Jeremy Vine’s avuncular turn on The Politics Show to the unflinching Holidays in the Axis of Evil – found the BBC mixing the accessible and the accomplished with considerable ease. Less convincing, indeed downright irritating, was the continual promotion of Andrew Neil as the face of BBC political broadcasting. Over-bearing and predictable, he robbed the business of televising politics of all its fun and dynamism.

Last year OTT welcomed the growing preponderance of one-off documentaries within the schedules, and 2003 has seen that trend continue. In Comedy Connections BBC1 showed there were new and imaginative ways of re-telling now-familiar anecdotal stories and repackaging archive clips; but an even more perceptive, thought-provoking and genuinely eye-opening insight into the UK’s comedy heritage came courtesy of the late Bob Monkhouse. Behind the Laughter was a landmark programme, harnessing all of Monkhouse’s enduring attributes – erudition, self-deprecation, timing, and that epic capacity for humour and mining the past – in an enticing, profound new format. This was oral history at its most mesmerising and achingly honest, and a fitting memorial to the great comic.

BBC1 also demonstrated it could match time-honoured investigative techniques with up-to-the-minute technology in order to produce historical recreations – Pompeii – The Last Day – and undercover reporting – The Secret Policeman – that were classic examples of their kind yet also utterly contemporary. A Life of Grime continued to be one of the few docusoaps to have survived that genre’s great flowering, retaining the knack of finding likeable subjects to follow, all of whom talked about their lives with wit and honesty, while John Peel’s wry narration added to the appeal. And then there was the return of the mainstream documentary strand in the guise of One Life, a collection of thoughtful, diverse films, sometimes objectionable, sometimes harrowing, always interesting.

Judging by this year, documentaries remain the most eclectic strand on British television. A host of films, one-offs and mini-series fought for attention on both BBC2 and C4, appearing so frequently that they sometimes ended up of blatantly similar stock and scope. As BBC2 ran Gerry Robinson’s business trouble-shooting series I’ll Show Them Who’s Boss, C4 followed scant weeks later with a more psychological look at workplace ructions in Reality Check. Both were interesting shows, albeit limited as returnable commodities. This was particularly noticeable when week after week Robinson ordered the same palliative for a wide variety of problems (in short: get rid of the current manager and promote someone from within the ranks) with the result that I’ll Show Them … became progressively less gripping as time went by. Reality Check escaped this fate thanks to Kate Marlow’s persistent emotional interrogation of workmates under the microscope, reliably uncovering a different kind of repressed trauma every week. How much of this amounted to “good therapy”, though, was uncertain given how many of the businesses post-Marlow went on experiencing the same problems she was there to fix.

C4′s suitably deferential treatment of its “landmark” series of the autumn, The First World War, contrasted pointedly with BBC2′s ludicrous scheduling of the 1964 classic The Great War: a different transmission time for every edition, sometimes up to a month between episodes, and an attempt at complimentary repeats on BBC4 which had to be abandoned after the same episode had to be aired four weeks running. This was behaviour that sapped all the excitement of this being a proper TV event. BBC2 did much better with a number of signature commissions: the ever-reliable Trouble at the Top, docu-drama The Day Britain Stopped, affectionate trawl through the archives The Way We Travelled, headline grabber When Michael Portillo Became a Single Mum, and the eye-opening The Kennedy Assassination: Beyond Conspiracy. Fighting the War provided a near-definitive account of the conflict in Iraq a mere few months after principal operations had ended, while The Fall of Milosevic marshalled some of the most powerful people in international politics before the camera.

In May, five presented a one-off documentary on the controversial all-female ensemble Rock Bitch, and against expectations turned out a fascinating insight into the group’s shared sensibilities, instead of the expected nude-fest. It was the network’s only documentary of note. For its part, C4 at last came good with 25 Years of Smash Hits, The Story of the Novel and, inevitably, Return to Jamie’s Kitchen. Trained French athletes leaping across the rooftops of the capital should’ve been compelling viewing, but Jump London almost couldn’t contain their ambition and visual brilliance. Hats off to the religious travelogue Hajj – The Greatest Trip on Earth and the definitive DNA: The Story of Life; no thanks to the risible Snorting Coke With The BBC and the unnecessary Bernard’s Bombay Dream which simply confirmed a load of stereotypes and proved nothing.

Across the space of OTT’s five consecutive reviews of the year it’s probably fair to say we’ve yet to see a TV genre rise and then fall off our screens for good. Nostalgia shows came close, however, pushing their way up to the surface in 2000 with I Love the Seventies and rather neatly appearing to submerge again around about 2001′s I Love the Nineties. Yet with 2002′s excellent The Showbiz Set it seemed as though the nostalgia industry was about to stage a second coming, this time in the form of rather more considered analysis of far less generic subject matter. This year’s Designing the Decades on BBC2 followed in that trend, presenting us with a hard-faced factual look at the growth and development of design trends. There was no room for fuzzy feel-good punditry here; the programme simply got on and did its job – and did it well. As such, our tip for next year is an escalation of this style of nostalgia telly, which as far as we’re concerned is good news.

Another kind of factual output, lifestyle programming, remained all-pervasive. While OTT feels more and more uncomfortable at C4 throwing its lot in with aspirational “how to” fare, it can’t be denied that, going by 2003′s efforts, the channel has a whole fleet of well-made and engaging shows in this genre. This year the triumvirate of Other People’s Houses, Property Ladder and Grand Designs all delivered the goods, each boasting that Holy Grail in presenting terms – a nicely turned out, knowledgeable trade person who not only knows their stuff but can communicate it for the cameras with enthusiasm. Who’d have thought that Victorian pump houses or protecting a property against dry rot could make for an absorbing primetime hour? Put in terms like that, it’s clear these were programmes bringing in audiences but also ticking public service boxes in C4′s charter.

That said, when preparing for this review we did have to go back and consult C4′s website to remind ourselves exactly what Selling Houses was (an unprepossessing House Doctor variant). A series we’d followed all the way through, it nevertheless fell foul to this housing hegemony, perhaps highlighting the fact that there is actually only so much property programming the viewer can sensibly follow before the whole thing becomes diluted. Indeed, alongside Selling Houses the Justice League-style team-up of Sarah Beeny, Naomi Cleaver, Daniel Hopwood and Jon Weir in Britain’s Best Home was another offering that sank due to its lack of distinctiveness. Witnessing Sarah and Naomi battling it out for face-time demeaned both of them; never again!

For all of C4′s efforts, a few at OTT are pushing hard for BBC2′s The Million Pound Property Experiment to be named programme of the year. On the face of it the series had nothing going for it: a derivative take on Property Ladder fronted by two of the most unappealing faces from BBC daytime. Yet against all odds the show proved utterly entertaining, treating its presenters – Justin Ryan and Colin McAllister – more as documentary subjects. The pair bickered wonderfully with each other, and in Justin’s case with pretty much everyone else too, while remaining highly likeable. Both pitched all their emotions into the project, scurrying with excitement every time the phone rang and traversing every hiccup with maximum drama. Then there was the additional pleasure of watching the duo continually surfing the fashion zeitgeist: one minute sporting goatee beards, the next wearing tracksuits, then shirts and chinos.

Unfortunately, all of the above lifestyle efforts were overshadowed in terms of hype by Wife Swap. OTT can really find little good to say about this series, which pitted caricatured and repugnant people into a bearpit simply in the hope of provoking a brawl for the amusement of the chattering classes. As a people show that majored on the very worst the public has to offer, it was really no more worthy of praise than Trisha or Kilroy. Masters and Servants was slightly more appealing in that it notionally rewarded pleasant behaviour and teamwork. Ultimately, though, we couldn’t quite escape the feeling that here were programme-makers trying to tease out any traces of bad behaviour they could find, in the belief that that was where the entertainment lay.

Elsewhere No Going Back continued to impress as proper aspirational television tied to a solid narrative that – week-in, week-out – involved you in the latest disasters befalling some or other ex-pat. The Dinner Party Inspectors, now something of an acknowledged flop, did have its charm with batty hosts Victoria Mather and Meredith Etherington Smith serving up some pearls by way of constructive criticism. The fact that they didn’t actually interact with the parties, however, seemed a baffling conceit that rendered the whole affair rather pointless. The Nation’s Favourite Food failed to ever rise above a sense of existing purely because it was the sort of thing BBC2 should be doing; while The Life Laundry successfully overcame its awful name to deliver up memorable vignettes of rather fragile people gaining the strength to re-order their detritus-filled existence.

Opinions are once again divided here at OTT over just how much of a comedy resurgence there was in 2003, and whether it marked the beginning of long-term revival or merely a short-lived burst of activity. Hardware, an ITV1 sitcom scripted by Simon Nye, is evidence enough for some, who cite its unpretentious wit as redolent of brightly lit videotaped successes scarcely seen since the late 1980s. Add in Harry Hill’s TV Burp, the argument continues, with its cunningly crafted structure that allowed viewers to appreciate jokes about other television programmes even if they hadn’t actually seen them, and the reliable Baddiel and Skinner Unplanned, then you’ve got cause for hope about the future of mainstream comedy programming.

Others disagree, finding Harry Hill’s ultra-knowing delivery and tendency towards self-satisfied smirking singularly unappealing, while Hardware was simply tiresome and unfunny. BBC1 certainly failed to come up with a new hit comedy, happy to run My Family, My Hero and All About Me all year round. The Crouches was simply appalling, and Trevor’s World of Sport should never have been on BBC1 in the first place – it was too similar to Bob Martin but without any jokes. Even Absolutely Fabulous was dragged back to life, despite Jennifer Saunders publicly disowning the show’s previous revival, and with the same ill-edifying results. At least mainstream impersonation thrives in the shape of The Big Impression – still leagues ahead of the clever-clever, ultra-smug Dead Ringers.

Aside from the new run of Shooting Stars, which seemed to have much more energy and invention than in previous runs, BBC2 had little else to offer either. Absolute Power spoilt its decent premise and script by swamping them in flashy presentational techniques and employing far too many references and jokes that only really had relevance to media insiders (who surely made up only a minute proportion of the viewing audiences). Early Doors was sporadically amusing, but 10 times more funny than Double Take and Monkey Dust – shows that were both sold as being groundbreaking, but on viewing proved to be tedious attempts to shock in lieu of actually having any humorous content.

C4 was no better. With virtually no scripted comedy shows of any kind, the channel rather desperately fell back on hidden camera or “format” shows like The Richard Taylor Interviews, My New Best Friend (a three-minute feature on Noel’s House Party at best), Distraction and The Pilot Show – all using members of the public to be funny for them, and the latter three all scheduled around the same time. Gash, Armando Iannucci’s somewhat misguided return to topical satire, traded in-jokes that were well below the man’s usual standard, while The People’s Book of Records was simply a retread of Banzai without any of the wit or energy.

With such a gloomy state of affairs on terrestrial TV, OTT was grateful for – and unanimous in its welcoming of – digital and satellite channels Sky One, BBC3 and BBC4 for its laughs this year, in the shape of Malcolm in the Middle, Little Britain and Curb Your Enthusiasm respectively. The new series of Malcolm was easily an improvement on last year’s, with the balance between playground and sophisticated humour as poised and delightful as ever. Little Britain, while undoubtedly hit and miss, carried with it an air of the next-big-thing. A truly excellent show, it was blessed with brilliant performances and a keen eye for throwaway jokes between the sketches (“Kelsey Grammer School”) that meant not one minute of airtime was wasted.

Then there was the wonderful Curb Your Enthusiasm. Rightly handled with obvious reverence by BBC4, it was this year’s standout comedy. Meticulously and sublimely plotted, witty and beautifully played, it was a real jewel that, for all digital TV converts, was kept all the shinier by being hidden away from the terrestrial services. The manner in which convoluted storylines resolved into masterful demonstrations of comic timing, slapstick and misunderstanding recalled Fawlty Towers at its peak.

Curb Your Enthusiasm also provides us with a neat link into OTT’s choice of channel of the year. 12 months ago BBC4 had an aura of austere, unappealing remoteness about it. At the close of 2003 the complete opposite is true, and such a reversal is almost entirely down to the impact of Curb Your Enthusiasm and the documentary strand Time Shift. Both series have contributed to an about turn in public perceptions of the BBC’s “place to think”; no longer an irrelevant intellectual ghetto, it’s sparky and enthralling and addictive. OTT was lucky to get a first hand insight into Time Shift from its executive producer Tom Ware, and it’s been a superb series that has taken unlikely but fascinating subjects – Cold War paranoia, Nigel Kneale, The Magic Roundabout, hidden cameras, political thrillers – and explored them in a detailed and deeply researched yet stimulating and highly watchable manner. Better still, each edition has been aired alongside appropriate “supporting” features such as Kneale’s adaptation of 1984, Threads, archive editions of Tonight and many more.

BBC4 is still not without its faults – Clive Anderson’s botched presentation of the historical series What If? for instance – but it now hits the mark more than any other channel, and smacks of self-confidence and assurance. Indeed, the spirit of Time Shift seems to have infected its entire schedules, giving rise to a host of other superb one-off documentaries on topics like the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, Gerald Scarfe and the works of JG Ballard (itself supplemented by a welcome repeat of the sublime Out of the Unknown episode “Thirteen to Centaurus”). Then there was Art Safari, in which Ben Lewis investigated the outreaches of the art world by tackling luminaries such as the joker Maurizo Cattelan whom Lewis had to interview via family, friends and at one point a lookalike. In Search of a Lost Novelist: The Stone Reader saw Mark Moskowitz embark on a Field of Dreams-like quest for Dow Mossman, author of acclaimed forgotten masterpiece The Stones of Summer. Then there was the fantastic The National Trust, with one of the quotes of the year: “We’ve bought three houses and now we’ve got to buy another one so that Ringo doesn’t feel left out.”

It all made for a marked contrast with BBC3, which launched on Sunday 9 February to a suspicious, sceptical reception and against a background of more of that anti-BBC spite and smear. While in some respects still redolent of its predecessor BBC Choice, the channel has stayed true to its remit. A number of its programmes, such as Grass and Dreamspaces, were incredibly different to anything you’d get on E4 and Sky One, and totally unlike the output of most digital channels. There have been notable one-offs such as The Announcement, written by and starring Morwenna Banks: a Coward-esque drama revolving around a Hampstead party unravelling over the course of 12 hours. There have indeed been bad shows – the most obvious being This Is Dom Joly – but BBC3 has had the widest range of programmes and the highest production values of any of its competitors. It has to succeed; too many of the BBC’s enemies want it to fail.

Before leaving digital TV, a special mention must go out to Living TV, which spent 2003 successfully re-branding itself in the most cynical manner as the station of liars and charlatans (i.e. mediums and mystics). Their series of live specials from haunted houses were genuinely entertaining, thanks to Yvette Fielding’s ability to freak out at the slightest thing. Then there was BBC Parliament, which once again rustled up one of the TV highlights of the year in the shape of its near-complete, “as it happened” re-runs of the BBC’s General Election results coverage from June 1970 and February 1974. Thanks to their unexpurgated nature, these broadcasts, replete with presenters smoking on air, chunky telephones on desks, sound problems and a sense of history really in the making, were extremely evocative glimpses into the TV of yesteryear.

One clear area in which the BBC continued to massively outflank and outperform all its rivals was children’s programmes. No doubt the chronic underfunding of CITV plus Channel 4′s obsession with US imports and shows about modelling have played a part, but there hasn’t been as much energy, enthusiasm and infectious good humour in kids TV for decades.

CBBC’s centrepiece remained, as ever, Blue Peter, which has been on a roll for almost five years now thanks to one of the best presenting teams ever (a feat justly recognised by Matt Baker winning a BAFTA two years running) and a production team clearly out to ensure the show’s as much fun to watch as it is to make. Newsround continued to thrive, and rightly so, while returning series such as Rule the School and Serious Desert demonstrated how much potential there still is within reality TV formats once you add a bit of imagination and fun. Rule the School in particular produced some of the year’s most inspiring entertainment thanks to the judicious selection of pupils and teachers willing to take their job swap to logical, exuberant extremes. The decision to contract out Grange Hill to Phil Redmond’s Mersey Television gave its creator full control over the drama for the first time, and found the show’s recent preoccupation with the private lives of staff sidelined for a back-to-basics style format with the confusion of starting “big school” well to the fore. There was even room for a cameo from Tucker.

The absolute highlight, however, and the unanimous nomination for OTT’s best programme of 2003, was an in-house Beeb production initially confined to the CBBC channel but then, from the autumn, unfurled on BBC1 as well: Dick And Dom In Da Bungalow. Flawless, imperial, utterly unmissable, its hell-for-leather charge through a cavalcade of noise, colour, toilet gags, slapstick and general silliness has completely reinvigorated a part of the schedules that had previously grown stale and predictable. It’s totally reinvented the careers of its two ace presenters and long-time CBBC faces Richard McCourt and Dominic Wood. It also means that, after years of neglect, Saturday mornings mean the BBC once more, which for many is just how things should be.

Finally, while sifting through all the programmes of the past year, it’s been impossible to ignore the ever-increasing chorus of goodbyes. The number of shows axed, cancelled or simply at the end of their lifespan in 2003 was staggering: three soap operas (Crossroads, Night and Day and Brookside), a Saturday night staple for almost two decades (Blind Date), an entire breakfast television service (RI:SE), a once all-conquering children’s programme (SM:TV), a much-loved regular of C4′s daytime output (Fifteen-to-One), and two genuine television institutions (This Is Your Life and Tomorrow’s World).

Many of these were written off as commercial failures; the culling of the last two, however, was never properly explained and still feels unseemly. The BBC’s decision to ditch them was courageous, but in a defiantly Yes Minister sense of the word. Yet in a way it was wholly emblematic of the Beeb’s torrid 2003, a period spent scoring innumerable triumphs in the face of potential disasters, taking risks that haven’t always paid off, and doing it all while a legion of detractors and enemies sound the most virulent anti-Corporation rhetoric for a generation. All in all, this was the BBC’s year, no question, with its advances in children’s programmes, drama, digital output, documentaries and current affairs leaving its rivals floundering. Just how and where it is able to maintain such a predominance will be the key factor in shaping the TV of 2004.

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2002 Tue, 31 Dec 2002 23:01:01 +0000 Stuart Ian Burns It’s the fourth time out for OTT’s annual review of the year’s television, and the fourth time we’ve started proceedings by considering Who Wants to be a Millionaire.

Described by us as “the phenomenon of the year” in 1999, “a strong, strategic element of ITV’s evening schedules” in 2000, and as still “one of ITV’s biggest successes” in 2001, we have been anticipating reporting the series’ eventual fall from grace for some time now. But with two editions of Millionaire on Christmas day this year, we’re once again putting off that task for another 12 months.

But aside from Tarrant’s series – which has remained a model of consistency (save for the introduction of the audience voting) – our impression is that 2003 has been a very uneven year on television. There have been times when there’s been an unusually high concentration of must-see programming, but then at other points, nothing at all. Predictably, then, none of the channels have obviously “won” this year, as far as OTT is concerned. That said, one of them has rather more obviously “lost” …

In the year of its fifth birthday, it’s been staggering the way Channel 5 (renamed this year simply as “five”) has suddenly come in for a torrent of praise and veneration – culminating in it being voted Station of the Year at the Edinburgh Festival. Its much-lauded “arts” output largely consists of one man standing in front of a painting lecturing at the camera and the schedules are changed on a whim, sequenced erratically and promoted with a mania that is as off-putting as it is relentless. Big budget films and over-hyped one-off documentaries secure five brief bursts of ratings and headlines but that’s all. Amongst all this, the worst programme it has broadcast this year, Live With Chris Moyles, remains a hugely sycophantic and self-obsessed effort with no charm or rapport with viewers. Unsurprisingly, then, it’s been recommissioned.

So what of our other terrestrial channels?

ITV1 now trades under a curious onscreen image that, while featuring a load of well-known high profile faces, still leaves a residual impression of anonymity and confusion. No group of personalities should be more than their channel. And since when has Geri Halliwell been an ITV1 face? Nonetheless, after last year’s awful performance, ITV1 seems to have clawed a bit back this year – perhaps as it stopped experimenting (remember last year when Monday nights were supposed to be aimed at a younger audience, a concept that lasted five weeks until Bob and Rose was replaced by Denis Norden’s Laughter File) and concentrated on what it’s good at, family-orientated viewing.

Lest we forget, 2002 was also the year that ITV1 dropped its regional identities in favour of a more uniform brand (LWT’s reaction to this change was for many the best television moment of the year), and ITV Digital called in the receivers (both of the financial kind, and the set-top-box variety).

Over at Channel 4 incoming Chief Executive Mark Thompson found that he’s inherited a Chinese puzzle of a problem. His predecessor has bound up the station’s fortunes with that of Big Brother for another three years: a disheartening legacy for anyone to inherit. C4 have also lumbered themselves with a turkey of truly gastronomic proportions: RI:SE. It’s as if the last 20 years of breakfast TV haven’t happened. In reaction to all of this Thompson’s streamlined the channel, axing 300 jobs and the FilmFour arm and it looks like C4 might be back in profit again. Tellingly his promise has been to rediscover the channel’s old nose for risk, plans that will hopefully bear fruition in 2003.

As for BBC television, collectively it has offered up some of the most impressive, enjoyable and illuminating programmes of 2002, but its individual channels don’t feel like they possess an identity you can relate to. BBC1 in particular can, in any one week, look like the best channel in the world one evening and then a clueless, under-funded, derivative network the next. It’s indicative of something (although we’re not sure what) that the best shows on BBC1 in 2002 all featured people aged 60 or over: Michael Palin (Sahara), Rolf Harris (Rolf on Art) and David Attenborough (The Life of Mammals). Meanwhile, since BBC2 ditched the under 35 market it’s become very bleak up to 9pm, when suddenly things start kicking off and there’s a bit more energy and attitude to its schedules.

What has remained consistent since 1999 has been the lack of signature dramas on any of the channels; and that remains the case in 2002. The most significant drama this year was an import: the American series 24 on BBC2. Superlatives were heaped on the show from everywhere, but most remarkable from a writing perspective was the integration of exposition. More than most shows there were characters standing around telling each other information they already knew, but somehow it didn’t matter because of the fantastical plot. Beyond the eye-catching real-time format, the series breezed effortlessly through its first 12 episodes, before becoming tangled up in its own web of intrigue for the second (still enjoyable) dozen.

Channel 4 had it’s own US success to boast about, however, with Six Feet Under making its debut. The macabre sense of humour that dominates each episode has been a refreshing change from both the cosiness and predictability of most current shows, and from the increasingly tiresome point-missing “dark”-ness of The League of Gentlemen and latter day Chris Morris. The show is only strengthened by the fact that none of the regular characters are entirely sympathetic, creating a world that the viewer can observe and believe in without feeling a need to empathize with. Channel 4′s decision to endlessly trail the first showing of the new series on E4 in the slot that it used to occupy on terrestrial television, alas, just personifies everything that is wrong with the television industry in 2002.

Arguably the year’s most successful home-grown drama was all on BBC1. Auf Wiedersehen, Pet‘s return proved to be better than almost anyone expected, but in the final analysis everything was perhaps a little too pat, too nice, too safe and sanitized. As OTT reflected at the time, it was as if we were watching a movie version of the old series, with the generalization and shortcuts that movies tend to employ. And then there was Spooks.

A long trailed programme (The Guardian was referring to the series being in production shortly after 9/11) Spooks arrived with a trumpeted website (designed to provide a “seventh” episode to the series, we quickly lost interest in it) and a superb, shattering plot twist that cleverly subverted the grammar of popular drama. Shoving an ex-soap actress (Lisa Faulkner) into the cast and then killing her off without warning at the end of episode two was arguably enough to buy the viewers’ loyalty over the rest of the run. Whilst obviously being informed by US television (needless inclusion of split-screen, for one) Spooks was brave enough to keep its characters resolutely British. As straightforward, middle-of-the-road drama it proved that the BBC could still pull it off, with élan … sometimes.

Unfortunately, not all drama was as commendable. Attachments became ludicrously stagy and navel gazing and was thankfully chopped, whilst Bob Mills’ latest offering – Stan the Man – found its last two episodes quietly dropped to be rescheduled/buried sometime over Christmas. OTT’s nomination for the most unpleasant offering of the year, however, was the abysmal and insulting Footballers’ Wives. This wasn’t faux-crap TV – it was simply crap. Similarly OTT’s submission for the weirdest drama of 2002 would have to be Andrew Davies’ Tipping the Velvet. It looked and felt like a Sunday night ITV1 Catherine Cookson adaptation, only with lesbians. Both Johnny Vegas and Alexi Sayle appeared in minor roles and the rehearsal scenes looked like a montage from Pop Idol. It’s our feeling, however, that there wasn’t actually anything controversial about the sex scenes at all, especially for anyone who had seen This Life.

By contrast 2002 fared pretty well in the category of one-off dramas. The year started with the deeply affecting Smallpox 2002: Silent Weapon a carefully crafted and intensely moving docudrama. It was one of those rare occasions when fantasy mixed seamlessly with fact to the extent of making everything you saw on screen seem hideously possible. Conspiracy was a fascinating and stylized depiction of the meeting held during World War II to thrash out the details of The Final Solution, a subject where an element of self-conscious melodrama and imagery was very much called for; some topics are just too important to be left to allusion and understatement. On the other hand, thanks to the nascent BBC4, The Falklands Play finally got made – and turned out to be a lot of talking heads, whilst The Project was a portentous and ponderous retelling of how New Labour got into power – scrupulously acting out what was imagined to go on behind the scenes, there seemed to be no actual character development, with people just drifting along from one point to another inexorably. A kind of insight into why decisions were made would have been nice, but as it was, The Project could have done with having “Reconstruction” tagged onto the screen, so sparse was the attention to character and motivation.

In terms of the soaps, Coronation Street is on the way back up with a storyline (Mr Hopwood from Grange Hill killing people) that seems to have genuinely caught the public imagination. Both Brookside and Emmerdale went “filmic” this year, although Emmerdale dropped the look shortly afterwards and Channel 4 moved Brookside into a Saturday afternoon slot where the programme will now tell more self-contained 90 minute stories each week. EastEnders maintained its current popularity, and like it or loathe it you can’t deny that it seems to be getting everything right at the moment. Meanwhile Hollyoaks continued as always, doing its own thing. The programme-makers seem to be aware of the fact that it has its own niche, and play to that with great success. A recent one-hour special neatly built up the possibility of two major characters getting killed off, before resolving events with everyone unscathed – only to kill them in the next day’s “regular” edition. Clever misdirection, and a subversion of the format that none of the “big” soaps would ever dare try to emulate. And then somewhere off from the main highways and byways of the TV day, no one quite knows what has happened to Crossroads and Night and Day, suffice to say both experiments seem to have been deemed failures.

If you were to believe all that you read in the Radio Times, then you would have to concede that 2002 has been a vintage year for comedy. However, considering that all of the most highly regarded programmes were sequels to earlier series, our overriding impression is that 2002 was actually a year of comic stagnation. For some, The Office continued to bore (mainly thanks to the disproportionately positive press it received) but on the whole series two – whilst perhaps not as consistent as series one – was still able to attain a high standard when compared with other programmes shown in the same strand (i.e. Coupling or tlc)

Entirely overshadowed by the Gervais series, though, the return of I’m Alan Partridge was surprisingly low-key. Unfortunately it appeared to have moved on so little, and seemed like a blunt instrument in comparison to – yep – The Office. The formulaic “Alan-says-something-inappropriate-then-says-something-else-inappropriate-then-says-something-else-inappropriate” approach and the feeling that we’ve seen it all before meant that whilst still able to raise a laugh, I’m Alan Partridge failed to hang together.

The League of Gentlemen, now moved to a rather ignominious Thursday evening slot, appeared to have been written with the express intent of not including any actual humour, and was characterized by an increasing and disturbing preoccupation with visiting violence on the disabled and mentally subnormal. The young “street magician” character indicated that the series was still able to throw up a decent comedic creation when inclined, but the overall effect this year was of a beautifully produced series of gruesome and unfocussed tales of tragedy, sexual deviance and woe. The return (again) of Papa Lazarou in the final episode seemed a curious touch of self-indulgence.

Phoenix Nights similarly disappointed, however it is impossible not to feel a huge level of affection for the series even when it is not being funny. The decision taken by Peter Kay to direct seems to be at the centre of its decline. The commentary on the Phoenix Nights series one DVD hints at tensions between Kay and the original director, which may explain the decision, but certainly does not justify it. A genuine pity, because with less autonomy and an outside perspective at the helm of series two may have worked much better.

Of the new comedies, Look Around You succeeded in splitting opinions. Although the production team may have created a rod for their own backs by insisting that the show was a direct pastiche of a school’s TV programme “from 1980″ (would a 1980 schools’ TV programme really have been made on film, or have featured footage of a singer-songwriter?), for some the whole exercise was a lot of fun, yet the majority rule was that the series was poorly written. It would seem that being stupid with a straight face just isn’t comedy.

Our two other noteworthy “new entries”, The Book Group and tlc, summed up virtually everything wrong with comedy with pretensions. At least I’m Alan Partridge, with its laugh track and cardboard sets sought to be nothing more than amusing. Created by Weakest Link devisor Dr Finton Coyle as a fast-paced farce, tlc was sadly reminiscent of Chalk with lots of shouting, caricatures, and an over-reliance on the grotesque and gruesome. The Book Group on the other hand, was unlike any other sitcom, featuring as it did a paraplegic, three footballer’s wives and the death of a major character after a drugs overdose. Lacking in actual laughs it was at best something of a cult hit.

2002, however, fared rather better with imported comedy. Surprisingly Malcolm in the Middle wins the OTT vote as the best comedy of the year. The series isn’t the most consistent, but its representation of boyhood is spot on. With a great ensemble cast it’s what The Simpsons should be now, but isn’t. That BBC2 should continue to kick it around the schedules is to the channel’s detriment, but not untypical of British television’s treatment of such programmes. Similarly Futurama continues to languish in the Channel 4 schedules at the worst times imaginable and 3rd Rock From the Sun has suffered a similar fate.

Despite that, this year’s bitterest comedy pill is surely the cowardice, hypocrisy, and contempt for the intelligence of the viewing audience that the BBC displayed in firing Angus Deayton as the host of Have I Got News For You. Such insulting behaviour was only compensated for by the fact that the editions following his departure were amongst the most relevant and entertaining in years. The Boris Johnson helmed episode in particular should be marked out for special attention, bringing back that sense of successfully winging it that has been missing from the programme for too long.

The ever-increasing proliferation of documentaries and reality television continued unchecked throughout 2002. Thankfully, here there were several highlights and scooting around the channels almost everyone had something good on offer.

The Secret Life of the Office on BBC2 was a wonderful investigation into the world of the call centre, managing to take a look at a real environment without creating any “stars” or “characters”. The insights into the working practices were well-observed and the programme-makers seemed to have the confidence to let people do what they do, and speak for themselves, thus showing more and making a stronger point than any artifice. The same channel also brought us The Experiment a dazzling example of how best to marry the mechanics of television to the science of ideas. Often coming across as rather “earnest” programming, the true purpose of The Experiment seemed lost on many (the point of the series was not to attempt to replicate a prison environment, but to conduct an experimental study into the psychology of group inequality) but was good and thought provoking television nonetheless. Other than that, the remainder of BBC2′s documentary output this year seemed to consist of either programmes featuring Louis Theroux, or programmes produced by him. The When Louis Met … series rapidly ran out of steam, concluding with a tepid account of how Louis himself became the victim of his own methods via a run in with Max Clifford. As predicted in these pages last year, Theroux is no longer essential viewing. The Entertainers, meanwhile, presented a different spin on a similar subject and whilst still failing to be completely enthralling it did a good job of stripping through artifice in a manner not always achieved when Theroux is in front of the camera.

BBC1′s treatment of narcolepsy, Nap Attack, and their revisitation of Tourettes sufferer “Fuck Off” John in The Boy Can’t Help It both felt like Desmond Morris style programmes and were all the better for it. Rather more modern in outlook, and depressingly so, was the much-trumpeted 11/9 made by two French filmmakers inside the World Trade Centre as it collapsed. The programme was an astonishing achievement and mercifully free of chest beating.

As proved by our prior end-of-year reviews most of the best documentaries could be found on Channel 4.

The Edwardian Country House infused the by now familiar C4 “House” series with an upstairs/downstairs dynamic that made for brilliant and tense television. Similarly the ups and downs of buying, building and renovating a country home in France (and the humiliation of having your young beautiful mortgage broker’s boyfriend turn up in the middle of a romantic dinner) were captured in the superlative A House in France. In truth the programme was probably utterly contrived (in that unusually for a documentary a camera seemed to be present at all the important moments) but it remained winningly so.

Continuing on a lifestyle trip (and it’s been a useful sub-genre for C4 this year), Jamie’s Kitchen proved that Jamie Oliver (or his agent) is a very astute individual. The mockney mannerisms of The Naked Chef, and references to Oliver’s risible band were successfully discarded as Jamie found himself reinvented as subject matter for an edgy, beautifully constructed documentary series. However, portraying Jamie’s prodigies as – in the main – unreliable and ungrateful encouraged us to view with disparagement these “working class” individuals who continually bit the hand of their benefactor. Dubious morals aside this was a series with a stack of great moments, none better then Jamie finally losing the plot in the penultimate episode. That it’s to return in 2003 is great news. Jamie’s Kitchen has all the makings of a Channel 4 stalwart. Conversely while Faking It continued to entertain, the series’ longevity looks in question. With even five beating it in the ratings we’re perplexed as to why the format has fallen from grace so quickly. And just to conclude our look at Channel 4′s mass of lifestyle programmes, mention must also be made of both Grand Designs and Property Ladder. Both feature charismatic experts on their topic, occasionally at loggerheads with the featured house renovators/resellers. But best of all, both have a strong narrative – either following a house from plan to construction, or from makeover to sale.

Away from self-improvement, Jon Ronson’s postponed examination of Jonathan King was certainly one of the television highlights of 2002. Ronson is to be congratulated on producing a programme that managed to convey some of the thoughts and behaviours of paedophiles in a very clear unsensational manner. Certainly listening to the thoughts of King and his cohorts was much more powerful than ill-informed, hysterical reporting. We should also make mention here of BBC2′s massively powerful three part series, The Hunt for Britain’s Paedophiles which explored the issue with startling and highly disturbing honesty. Unsurprisingly, the series recorded the second highest ever number of complaints for a television programme (after last year’s Brass Eye special), but to judge the series on its furore alone would be to dismiss what was probably the most affecting and disturbing documentary broadcast this – or indeed – any year.

A brief mention too for Channel 4′s The Showbiz Set, a lovingly compiled, wittily packaged and thoroughly researched tribute to TV’s past that treated its subject matter with none of the tiresome irony of BBC2′s appallingly titled Fame, Set and Match (one of this year’s more forgettable offerings, and a reminder that not everything broadcast as documentary this year was so laudable).

Alas, in contrast Channel 4′s decision to broadcast Gunther Von Hagen’s live Autopsy was thoroughly depressing, as much for their cowardice in “covering” the show by listing an Oasis documentary in its slot and only announcing it at the last minute, as it was for attempting to dress shock-value post-pub television up as something “daring”, “innovative” and “informative”. The whole stunt smacked of a cheap attempt to position Channel 4 as a truly daring broadcaster once again. However the decision to focus on the reaction of the studio audience to the autopsy rather than the event itself (the section in which Von Hagen removed the corpse’s face was represented entirely by looks of horror on various audience members’ faces), revealed the programme to be about as daring and credible as an edition of Born Sloppy.

Worst of the entire year, though, had to be Channel 4′s insultingly bad When … Met … A series of reprehensible documentaries concentrating on the salacious aspects of celebrity life at the expense of anything else. The gist of the one on Freddie Mercury and Kenny Everett appeared to be that people should forget about all of their considerable artistic achievements, as all that really mattered was that they were gay and died of AIDS. Television at its most pathetic.

In the press, and to some extent on OTT itself, that bastard offspring of documentary, “reality television” came under sustained attack this year. In many cases it was well deserved, but not always. ITV1′s I’m a Celebrity … Get Me Out of Here was a genuinely surprising, intensely watchable experience. On face value, the programme had little to recommend it – following in the identikit production line tradition of the hardly weighty genres of reality TV, “docusoap” and pointless celebrity self-promotion, and looking like little more than cheap derivative filler. However, once the show got underway, it was clear that a great deal more thought had gone into it than usual, and some facets of production were little short of masterstrokes. Ant McPartlin and Declan Donnelly were inspired choices as presenters, and the image of them slapping a world champion boxer on the back and saying “go on, son” as he approached his challenge in a state of high nervousness was one of the great television moments of the year. The relative lack of publicity and promotion was another key factor in the success and appeal of the series – allowing it to hook in the viewers without alienating those who dislike having the arrival of a “new series” rammed down their throat at every given opportunity. The fact that none of the chosen participants could exactly be described as “likeable” was of considerable benefit to the dynamic of the series too.

However, the most significant achievement was that the production team realized what seems to elude the producers of most other reality shows – it isn’t good enough to simply set up the cameras and wait for something to happen. In I’m a Celebrity … the celebrities were never given a moment’s respite. A word too then, for Celebrity Fit Club – a hugely enjoyable Friday night appointment throughout much of the autumn, it proved in the end to be all pretty inconsequential but entertaining enough in its own way.

Also on ITV1 the much-maligned Survivor returned for perhaps the last time. Big Brother needs to take a leaf out of Survivor‘s handbook, and let the plotting begin, as the various allegiances, bluffs and double bluffs create a more complex and enriching television experience. This year, in contrast to last, the initial bond stood throughout the whole programme, creating a very different outcome to series one and providing Survivor with a peculiarly appealing moral core not usually found in such programmes.

Cannily packaged to make us forget this was just Opportunity Knocks all over again, Pop Idol was a judicious reworking of an age-old formula that, obviously, was a deserved hit. Popstars – The Rivals on the other hand was a meandering, endless ordeal hamstrung by its week-about girls and boys programmes. The basic format was nicked wholesale from Pop Idol without anyone considering whether or not this was the most suitable vehicle for the concept and all in all the programme tried hard to engineer water cooler events, reaching a peak with the ludicrous two hours devoted to telling the hopefuls they were in the final 10 – basically, reducing 30 people to 20, a process that should have taken two minutes.

Altogether better, but no less maligned or derivative was BBC1′s Fame Academy. The first few shows were admittedly poor, but as it carried on, the contestants became more interesting and the evictions began to actually mean something. With Fame Academy, we saw the students improve throughout the run, thus ensuring that each Friday’s eviction show was imbued with a number of subplots that happily gravitated around the main business of reducing the academy’s number.

The granddaddy of all reality television shows – Big Brother 3 – was such a soulless affair this year that watching it was actually a form of physical labour. In the final definition it was to all intents and purposes a three-month booze marathon, and the supposed surprise innovation of the series – the dividing wall carving the house in two – merely rendered it a three month booze marathon with some iron railings in the background. Celebrity Big Brother threatened to go the same way, but ultimately succeeded due to the depth of its participants. Ironic that people from normal walks of life were shown as having less substance than those from rarefied lofty heights of fame.

Away from the genre of reality television and onto more conventional light entertainment, and there’s still nothing on any channel that has become a House Party or Blind Date-style schedule staple. The Chair was good only because John McEnroe was presenting, whereas The Vault was just awful. Ant and Dec’s Saturday Night Takeaway is still simply Toothbrush II, and while it’s more fun than Slap Bang, it’s not enough to get the public staying in on Saturday nights. Tellingly, Ant and Dec still haven’t found a successful format where it’s all about them – Pop Idol could have been presented by anyone.

Children’s telly bore witness to one of the biggest mistakes of the year when CBBC was overhauled in February to coincide with the new CBBC channels. It meant that the children’s output on BBC1 and BBC2 was completely revamped, with hundreds of new people showing up and constant references to the channels, when in reality they should have been reassuring analogue-only households that there was still going to be plenty for them. Most children must have felt as if there was a party going on that they weren’t invited to. Thankfully, however, there was a quick change of heart and the old format was (more or less) resurrected.

Whereas Blue Peter‘s again been brilliant all year, SMTV Live is nowhere near the show it was 12 months ago. It boils down to the thoroughly nasty and completely undeserved sacking of James Redmond and the subsequent hiring of Claire and H, followed by their abrupt departure, of which no reference was made (the week after their “last” show, they showed up to sing and it was as if they’d never been on before). This programme has no manners anymore!

All in all it has been a typically turbulent year in British television. Hats off to both ITV1 and five, who both somehow managed to escape the problems they had set for themselves at the beginning of 2002. 2003 should bring us both BBC3 and a renewed terrestrial opposition to the still buoyant BBC. OTT expects to be seeing a lot more of Trinny and Susannah, TPT, Chris Moyles, Avid Merrion and Dermot Mernaghan, and a good deal less of John Leslie, Michael Barrymore and Survivor. Before we embark upon another dizzying 12 months of television though, there is just time enough to reflect on one more highlights from 2002. This one came way back in January when, out of the blue, BBC1 started repeating the sublime Shoestring. Unhappily, and with no good explanation the series was curtailed with still over half the episodes in the vaults waiting to be aired.

Honestly, there were even letters to Radio Times about it.

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2001 Mon, 31 Dec 2001 23:01:57 +0000 Jack Kibble-White Another 12 months on, and still Who Wants to be a Millionaire is one of ITV’s biggest successes.

Now long since beyond its days as a generator of headlines (save when there is suspicion of cheating) it has now passed beyond the realms of fad television, to join Coronation Street, Peak Practice, Cold Feet (and scant else on ITV) as a bona fide week-in, week-out ratings winner. Alistair McGowan and Steve Penk no longer jocularly ask us “do you want to phone a friend?”, so what in 2001 took the place of such easy comedic fodder? “You are the weakest link – goodbye” or “Pick me Nigel”?

Now deeply entrenched in tradition, OTT’s seasonal trip down the memory lane of the last 12 months of television seeks to gather together the discernible trends that graced our television screen, and bottle up for preservation the most ubiquitous format ideas that took simultaneous hold of the industry’s creative talents during 2001.

Reality still ruled in the game show genre, and when we weren’t getting real, we were getting nasty. Big Brother returned and against expectation was able once again to capture the public’s imagination. This year we had two doses – beginning with Comic Relief‘s Celebrity Big Brother. Without doubt one of the standout television productions of the year, the degree of honesty that the production team brought to the portrayal of the collective lives of the entrapped celebrities far exceeded our expectations. With a wonderful ability to juxtapose or underscore the celebrities’ every action; an enthralling psychological game played out in the name of charity. After this, one wondered how we could ever come to care for the life of ordinary folk ensnared into the house in Bow.

Big Brother 2 therefore was something of a disappointment, although the introduction of almost 24 hour live coverage on E4 was a worthwhile, and ultimately rewarding television experiment. Whilst the programme demonstrated some moments of fine and observant TV-making (most notably the shot of Paul sitting alone in the garden, cast alone from the rest of the group having escaped yet another eviction), the overall package was less enthralling than we might have hoped. Nonetheless, eventual series winner – Brian – was genuinely witty and likeable. A far more welcome return came in the second series of The Mole. Diligent, avid viewing instilled dedication, because only dedication yielded clues, obvious motives behind entire games and of course the identify of the Mole herself. Conversely, Touch the Truck was pretty dire though initially compelling in the way a nasty road accident is, and spoiled by an ending that in retrospect was always going to be anticlimactic. Nonetheless, the demographic that made up its contestants proved to be a refreshing change for British television (including as it did, one homeless person).

C4′s Shipwrecked gave good entertainment throughout the year, and once we had forgiven Survivor its over the top pre-publicity and looked beyond the faux treachery elements of the game, here too was a relatively solid piece of entertainment which received astonishingly bad treatment at the hands of ITV schedulers (although the John Leslie fronted “eviction” episodes need to be seriously rethought if this series is to return). Yet one “game show” got the format just right. The gradual evolution of Pop Idol from Popstars mark two, into the quasi- “Stars In Their New Faces” format that will now bring the series to its conclusion ensured that the audience would remain captivated for the programmes long and torturous run. The inclusion of Ant and Dec was a good decision, but the programme’s willingness to address issues that similar shows would have ignored just a few years ago hints truly at the next generation of “reality television”. Giving over air time to the merits of whether or not Rik Waller should have been given a “bye” through the first of the programme’s final heats might have usefully eaten up airtime, but the self-analysis was compelling too, with the programme acting as its own right of reply.

Drama was responsible for two of the real highpoints of 2001, which effectively book ended the year: the home-made In a Land of Plenty, and the US import Band of Brothers. Both were outstanding and quite possibly represented the best use of the TV as a visual medium for innovative and memorable storytelling for at least half a decade. Both also boasted moments of extreme quiet emotional intensity alongside powerful noisy confrontations and neither overshadowed the other. The result was some of the most affecting TV in a very long time, with In A Land of Plenty, in particular demonstrating that the BBC is still able to produce groundbreaking memorable drama when it really wants to.

One of the other stand out series was another American import: The West Wing, which was superb in its total and convincing realization of an alien world – the high politics of a foreign country. But it was unfairly maligned by C4′s malicious scheduling, simply because the now ex-chief executive Michael Jackson didn’t like it. No British series has come close to depicting the business of Government as involving and overwhelming as this. Meanwhile towards the end of the year ITV brought us Bob and Rose, which although rather losing its way towards the end was as fine a demonstration of how to create high quality, populist drama as has been seen on ITV for years. Russell T Davis left behind much of the self-indulgence that riddled Queer as Folk 2 and delivered six tautly written scripts that were magnificently translated on to screen by Alan Davies and Leslie Sharp. Yet in a common theme for the year it was shifted around the schedules at the whim of ITV executives desperate for ratings success.

Red Productions – the makers of Bob and Rose – seemed to have TV drama sown up this year, bringing us also Clocking Off and Linda Green. All three series were very similar in tone, concentrating on Northern England communities, each essentially nothing more (or less) than superior soap operas. C4 tried to unfurl a new flagship drama series that also concentrated less on its characters’ professional careers, and more on their private lives. Teachers, which started off a ragged third rate This Life, actually got better towards the end becoming much more focused. However it never succeeded in transcending its obvious attempt to become fashionable television. Various post-modern flourishes (such as the physical depiction of the day of the week) made the series appear a little dated and somewhat desperately to try and innovate. ITV’s Cold Feet was similarly playful, but somehow that series seemed to be able to get away with its moments of self-indulgence.

2001 was a quiet year for one-off dramas (although Neil Pearson playing journalist John Diamond in the epistolary terminal cancer drama A Lump in my Throat lives in the memory) and so to for soap operas. Home and Away returned to our screens, and brought Channel 5 its first ever truly reliable ratings stream without ever really attracting anyone’s attention. Hollyoaks and Brookside both shuffled awkwardly through the year (although the former energetically sprouted forth with a terrible spin-off series and an even worse DVD). Coronation Street, failed to bring forth any truly memorable stories, with the rape of Toyah Battersby seemingly producing no long-term implications for either the victim or her family. As Christmas came round, the producers looked again to Curly and Raquel for another heartbreaking story (only this time it wasn’t Curly and Raquel at all but Ashley and Maxine) and the latest in a long line of love triangles looks set to inform the chatter at the Rover’s Return come New Year. Emmerdale bothered our consciousness only enough to have us tuning in to watch the screen debut of the Soapstars family, and the return of Crossroads and the arrival of Night and Day only served to prove that here in Britain we don’t like our soap operas to be too slick. So it was left to EastEnders to capture our attention. In a year that saw the programme celebrate the inclusion of a fourth weekly episode, by all accounts the unfolding storyline of the Slaters has made for enthralling television; however OTT’s plea to the scriptwriters for 2002 would be to try and produce a dramatic episode that does not rely on an ironical counterpoint to accentuate the gravity of what is unfolding before us. A word of advice: If you ever move to Albert Square make sure you attend all of the parties, otherwise next time it could be to you we are watching sobbing in the gutter each time we cut away from the revelries.

Techniques of drama were brought to bear on documentaries ever more this year. Leo Regan’s Battle Centre, a documentary about the Jesus Army, broadcast as part of Channel 4′s True Stories had it all – finely honed characters, a number of intriguing sub plots and an element of tragedy that usefully bound together the programme’s disparate themes. Particularly compelling was the on screen transformation of Aberdonian Alec from sceptic to fervent believer. Following him through this change allowed us an unprecedented insight into how a man can find faith. Jazz – the Ken Burns series was an overdue documentary series, but suffered slightly from its concentration on the early development of the music, leaving the last part to cover over 20 years, with the result that it skipped over too much important material. Keeping up with it was not helped by BBC2′s habit of screening it after Newsnight and then continually changing the start times; a fate of course that would never be inflicted upon BBC1′s high profile The Blue Planet and Walking With Beasts (which still boasts unrealistic computer graphics).

The stand out documentary series of the year was Jon Ronson’s The Secret Rulers of the World, which while becoming almost glorified muckraking in places, was still pretty exceptional investigative journalism. In particular the programme on David Icke revealed how unrelated incidents could be woven together to create a conspiracy theory compelling enough for those who wished to believe, but lacking any of the credibility that would be required to persuade a sceptic. When Louis Met Paul and Debbie was fine, if a bit of an anticlimax after Theroux’s previous encounter with Jimmy Saville and his foray with the Hamiltons was compelling for reasons outwith his control. As 2001 draws to a close one suspects that the glory days of Theroux may just be over, and that his programmes will quietly devolve from being “must see” to just another pleasant diversion. Paul Daniels’ claim of having moved Louis into the mainstream are probably deserved.

Robert Thirkell-esque “experiments” still ruled documentary on the minority channels. Faking It may have been contrived, repetitive and ultimately quite embarrassing, but the conclusion to the first programme’s attempt to turn a chip butty loving Geordie into a top class chef was truly one of the most joyous television moments of the year. I Love the Eighties wasn’t as overwhelmingly enjoyable as its predecessor, primarily because it was simply too patchy. I Love the Nineties was absolutely awful though, with little to redeem it whatsoever. Rather incredibly the entire production team appeared to forget how to make nostalgia programmes and succeeded only in omitting almost everything that was really important about the decade. The quality of punditry was also atrocious. 2001 was to be the death knell of this kind of popular nostalgia, and one is left to wonder the future – if any – for Channel 4′s Top Ten series (we don’t want a profile of Kim Catrall in a nostalgia programme!).

Standard documentary making receded into the background from 11 September onwards. To bring to bear any critical faculties as to the coverage of this incident is an impossible task, not least because there is no similar TV event with which to make a comparison. ITV justifiably received a slap on the wrists after cutting the most horrific scenes of the destruction of the World Trade Center to music. In general though, there was an equitable balance struck ensuring the focus remained more on the communication of information than on an emotional reaction to the attack. Perhaps sensing the undercurrent of unease that the British public felt towards espousals of the inherent rightness of the American way, much of the contextualization of American footage was stripped away before being made available on our screens. A live edition of Question Time bravely allowed a headlong clash between the US’ perception of itself and how it’s perceived by other countries shortly after the atrocity, making for courageous and useful television. A shame, then, that Greg Dyke would later apologize for the programme.

2001 was a terrible year for comedy. The stand out series was Phoenix Nights, and nothing else came close. This was extremely witty, well-made, immensely satisfying entertainment that worked because it felt like its cast and production team really enjoyed making it; and it prompted – in the character of Keith Lard – a classic life-meets-art moment with real local fire safety officer Keith Laird demanding an apology from Peter Kay for defamation. In comparison, nothing much else was even mildly as funny. The adaptation of Adrian Mole: The Cappucino Years was a real disaster, with no likeable characters, a script without humour, meandering direction and worst of all Keith Allen, as usual playing himself. ‘Orrible was a dreadful omen for Johnny Vaughan’s future with the BBC, but did at least provide fuel for a good joke at the British Comedy Awards. Absolutely Fabulous was wretched from the start, then was slammed by its own creator – Jennifer Saunders – who wished she’d never written the new series; it’s all very well saying that after the event, but why inflict the misery on us in the first place?

Two Pints of Lager and a Packet of Crisps cropped up in BBC2′s much-publicised Comedy Zone and typified much of the lame output therein, a mark of Controller Jane Root’s disinterest in any kind of comedy output or indeed anything based on energy or innovation. Over on ITV you had Sam’s Game, a nadir in new sitcoms, starring a woman who wasn’t an actor and penned by people who weren’t scriptwriters. Baddiel’s Syndrome and The Office were hugely overrated vanity projects, but whereas the latter did at least able to capture something of its subject, the former – like ‘Orrible was one of those programmes that you couldn’t understand anyone ever thinking of as being worthwhile. There were many more weak comedies – The Sketch Show, Noble and Silver and Mr Charity, yet hopes were never high for these anyway. Similarly and strangely Dr Terrible’s House of Horrible never looked like it was going to be any good, even though Coogan still remains one of this country’s finest modern comedians. Even more bizarrely, the really patchy My Family gave BBC1 an unexpected ratings hit by sticking to entirely mainstream and old-fashioned sitcom rules. The Savages, therefore failed for ignoring precisely those self same rules (you can’t have Geoffrey Palmer drinking out of a beer can). On the positive side The Adam & Joe Show was still great (especially their splendid pastiche of jam) and The Dave Gorman Collection was really fun; but while People Like Us remained uniformly amusing, Bob Martin was a bit too inconsistent, sometimes spot on, at other moments hackneyed. Of course one of the most important comedies of the year – the Brass Eye special – justified itself alone thanks to the fuss it provoked. Morris’ point was never made more eloquently than by those people choosing to complain about something they hadn’t even watched.

And let’s not forget children’s TV. Blue Peter remains the best it has been for a very long time, a regularly entertaining and exciting show, with the highlight being the superb Matt Baker including his surreal impersonation of Ali G during the BP Roadshows. Also great was the little-publicised DIY TV which allowed a group of school kids the opportunity to create their own television programme. The series was particularly interesting for its unflinching and non-patronizing insight into the very adult world of television production. Conversely, the health of CBBC stalwarts such as Byker Grove (which horribly had kids getting married this year) and Grange Hill seemed less certain. CITV tried stranding the same shows at the same time every single day but lost viewers and money as a result. Of course the big news all year in children’s television was Saturday mornings. The BBC replaced Live & Kicking with The Saturday Show and achieved at least some level of success (in that the strength of criticism directed at its predecessor was not brought to bear upon it). However the BBC remain resolutely unhip in comparison to ITV and SM:TV Live. The post Ant and Dec episodes hint perhaps at a level of self-indulgence that if sustained will do the series no favours (particularly the continuation of “Chums”) but one waits to see just exactly what the likeable James Redmond will bring to the mix.

This was a year of change too for daytime TV. Countdown seems only to work well at 45 minutes when there’s a real competition between two intriguing contestants; if it’s a walkover then it does become dreary and almost boring, despite all of Richard’s bonhomie. BBC1 are walking all over ITV, what with the relative failure of Crossroads and the collapse of This Morning following Richard and Judy’s departure. One of the most tasteless sights of the year was the way ITV dragged an over-tired, worn Fern Britton back to present the show just weeks after having a baby all in the name of ratings. However it was notable that Mrs Madeley herself was unable to get through the first edition of her new Channel 4 show without the aid of a little comfort blanket. The jury remains out on Richard and Judy, but the new show’s brevity and abundance of populist ideas augurs well for the couple’s long-term success.

In general 2001 reinforced the feeling of the BBC in ultra-confident mood, buoyed up by its ratings success. However, going off the evidence on the screen – it could still be argued that the wrong people are in the wrong jobs, especially the two channel controllers, and that the “recovery” is more as a result of ITV’s misfortune than anything else. David Liddiment and co will leave 2001 brawling with press, public and each other, much as they began the year. ITV’s most prominent characteristic still remains its inability to run its schedules to time with programmes routinely going out almost 10 minutes late, with no explanation. This year has cast a multitude of humiliations upon what was once Britain’s most popular channel, with Crossroads, Slap Bang, Survivor, This Morning, Bob and Rose and The Premiership all suffering the ignominy of rescheduling due to poor ratings. Never more than now has ITV had to rely on the big name signings that can be parachuted into one-off dramas, and the ratings triumvirate of Coronation Street, Emmerdale and Who Wants to be a Millionaire. David Liddiment may have professed not to care about ratings, but dropping Shafted after just a couple of programmes suggests the contrary. Add to this the perilous situation that ITV Digital finds itself in and one is looking at a future for ITV that is becoming dangerously ill defined.

Conversely Mark Thompson has got an opportunity to really sort out C4, and hopefully he’ll realize how many of the programmes require refreshing or axing, starting with The Big Breakfast (which with its “relaunch” in January totally failing on all counts, has suffered a dreadful year). Like the challenge that awaits BBC2, Channel 4 needs to find its role in a multi-channel environment. E4 looked initially as if it were going to scout the territory ahead, but after it became apparent that the channel’s costly first run acquisitions were not going to draw viewers, it has become creatively dormant, waiting perhaps for the return of Big Brother, or – hopefully – the infusion of original and funny comedy (and if TV Go Home is anything to go by, the wait continues). Whatever happens it’s hard now to recall the optimism that surrounded the station’s launch back in January; back when its impending existence seemed to actually matter.

So all in all it’s been a bit of a rum old year. But of course the sheer volume of television broadcast ensures there are always a few notable moments. In the future we shall remember TV in 2001 (if we remember it all) for the dreadful staging of the BAFTAs (replete with Angus Deayton’s lamentable performance as host); the return of News at Ten (becoming a pale shadow of what it once was); the demise of Right to Reply; ITV becoming ITV1; the return of Darius Danesh and Only Fools and Horses (the former revitalized, the latter an equivalent of the walking dead) ; the most moribund television election campaign in living memory; the long overdue axing of The Big Breakfast; the terribly disappointing translation of Jonathan Ross’ radio show onto television and of course the Edinburgh Festival Perrier Awards on C4 which wins OTT’s vote for the worst piece of live television all year.

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2000 Sun, 31 Dec 2000 23:01:08 +0000 Jack Kibble-White Not quite yet a Christmas tradition up there with The Snowman or The Great Escape (was this ever actually shown on Christmas Day?), the Review of the Year is our excuse to reflect upon 12 months of telly, attempting to identify the trends, assess the programmes and distil that which was “in fact the strongest link” from that which was merely “My Arse!” (yes – that was still a popular catchphrase in 2000).

In 1999, Who Wants to be a Millionaire annihilated all comers (anyone remember 2000 to 1?) and indeed in 2000 it remained a strong, strategic element of ITV’s evening schedules. Predictably though, it was unable to captivate audiences or – for that matter – the press in quite the way it once had. This year, the BBC finally got its huge promotional machine in gear as it stumbled upon game shows worth shouting about and went at them with gusto. Happily for the Beeb, a big push in self-promotion was coupled with a big brain within their light entertainment department.

David Young, the BBC’s thirty-something head of the genre, came up with not one, but two hit series – both of which managed to outscore more “prestigious” opposition (that said, he also produced Stars Sing The Beatles). Friends Like These first went out immediately before the “revamped” Red Alert, and whilst the latter managed to be even worse than the first series (arm wrestling and observation rounds on peak time Saturday night!), Friends Like These was a vibrant, youthful and modern alternative. It made ITV’s Saturday opposition look terribly outdated – consisting, as it did, of yet more Blind Date, twice as much Stars in Their Eyes as before, and a Moment of Truth “revised” to such an extent nobody had a clue what it was about. The Weakest Link at times threatened to reach Who Wants to be a Millionaire levels, with a strong format executed perfectly. The interest can’t lie simply with Anne Robinson’s “unique” presentational style, perhaps more to do with the fact that a simple quiz will always have a fascination. It was certainly better value than ITV’s The People Versus, a hugely expensive flop, which tried too hard to be WWTBAM Mk II to the detriment of actually being any fun to watch. Of course, the Beeb did have its own flops in this genre too, with Nick Ross’ The Syndicate (which echoed the woeful Masterteam) something of a crime against game shows. And indeed Nick wins the prize for the worst attempt at establishing a catchphrase in 2000. Understand?

Those who cared to track the progress of the game show genre across BBC and ITV were to witness a microcosm of the increasingly high profile ratings battle that lasted throughout 2000. Funnily enough, each channel seemed at last to address deficiencies that had plagued them for the last decade or so. Whilst the BBC were intent on putting their LightEnt house in order, the other side almost managed to break in and steal BBC1′s sitcom crown straight from the head of The Royle Family.

The Royle Family - another heavily promoted BBC1 programme – degenerated into self-parody this year (introducing that baby was the worst thing ever to happen) as Aherne and company alarmingly took the programme into Carla Lane Bread territory. Elsewhere pre-watershed comedy was, as ever, a no-man’s land. The BBC’s two big mainstream comedy hopes, My Hero and My Family, simply weren’t funny enough (remember those “Look at all the great comedians who work here!” trails at the beginning of year: Ardal O’Hanlon in his My Hero guise, despite the series not having started yet). ITV’s Pay and Display was equally forgettable. Post-watershed was little better, with The Peter Principle and Kiss Me Kate moving to a later slot and suddenly sniggering over homosexuality. The one bright spot – the last series of One Foot in the Grave – was the perfect end to the long-running show, just as memorable and affecting as any of the previous episodes. Over on BBC2, Bruiser and Operation Good Guys, and indeed most attempts at “innovation” were unspeakable. The League of Gentlemen, although arguably not as good as before, was still one of the best things on telly this year – period. Something completely different from the team might be nice, though. The Christmas Special appropriately offered us an insight into a potential future for the League, suggesting that the boys could be entering “difficult third album territory”. Focusing further on the grotesque and horrific they run the risk of alienating much of their fan base. For some this special was a truly shocking and brilliant piece of telly, for others another example of a comedy submitting to that newest of sub-genres: the “Evocom” (we just made that up, by the way).

Surprisingly then, the great new comedy shows of 2000 all sprang from the commercial channels. Bob Martin was a funny, “grown up” sitcom, albeit one that appeared to alienate almost the entire ITV audience, Baddiel and Skinner Unplanned was the most daring commission, and despite a pointless smear campaign by most of the press, presented some hilarious TV moments and exciting television. Channel 4′s main contributions were Black Books: a great sitcom – seemingly alone in not attempting to establish a “mood” or “feel” but just be a funny series, and – of course – Trigger Happy TV. First broadcast on 14 January, its buzz sustained throughout the year (doubtless assisted by the release of the “soundtrack” of the series in December), but we left 2000 wondering how much longer Dom Joly could sustain the concept. Series one worked on the basis that no one knew who the hell he was. The resultant fame has changed all that. Such dilemmas also faced Sacha Baron Cohen who returned to our screens with Da Ali G Show and Chris Morris (who wanted us to taste his jam). Still able to generate column inches and laughs (particularly with the introduction of Borat – a Kazakhstani television reporter) there was an overriding sense though, that Da Ali G Show was pretty ephemeral stuff, as Cohen eschewed much of his phenomenal quick wit in favour of quick and easy thrills. Conversely, jam seemed to be a conscious attempt to create a timeless series – uninfluenced by present popular culture and able to bear repeat viewing. Who would have guessed then, that Ali G would have made the better fist of 2000? jam seemed to be either one massive in-joke on the part of Morris or the spectacle of some supposed genius crashing to Earth. Either way, bereft of humour, this was the year’s most extreme example of all “Evoc” and no “Com”.

A lot of our fun then came out with traditional comedy. Without a doubt the biggest trend in 2000 was that of good old-fashioned nostalgia. The schedules positively groaned under the weight of reminiscence programmes, each of varying quality. I Love the Seventies spread its presence across the summer like a behemoth, each programme eagerly anticipated (much like TOTP used to be), bringing together a motley collection of stars of yesteryear, contemporary pundits and lashings of irony, all glued together with archive clips and pin sharp production. Top Ten meanwhile, wallowed in the luxury of a 90 minute slot, enabling expert dissection on, err, each top 10 single in a given chart, which included love songs, stadium rock and one-hit wonders. ITV’s Smash!, by contrast, was very much an also ran. Shoehorned into an inadequate 30 minute slot, it was hopelessly too short to imbue any depth or breadth into the categories covered. In addition, its “usual suspects” pundit line up of Mike Read and Jamie Theakston lacked the time to go into any detail. In retrospect it really was the level of punditry that determined which nostalgia programme would be a hit and which a miss in the year 2000. Special mention then for Stuart Maconie who completed his metamorphosis from sometime journalist and broadcaster to guardian of the nation’s collective memories with his spot-on “talking head” armchair reminiscences and rapid fire irony. By contrast many other pundits were left gasping for breath as they struggled to keep up. By Christmas time, of course, we were all getting a little sick of all this nostalgia. Did you know that Noddy Holder’s favourite line from his evergreen Yuletide hit is the one about Granny dancing? This particular reminiscence appeared on three different programmes in rapid succession over Christmas. Holder, seemed to be turning up all over the place in 2000. In fact, at times it seemed he might even turn up on your own street. Still, for those who enjoyed the chance to talk about Spangles and Space Hoppers, their time had truly come in 2000 as nostalgia received a positively 21st century makeover.

It was a year of upheaval too for news and documentaries, as both became caught up in the ever-intensifying ratings battle The News at Ten debate droned on for most of the year, reaching farcical proportions with ITV not wanting a 10pm news bulletin but being forced to produce one, whilst the BBC desperately wanted a 10pm news bulletin and – initially – being prevented from doing so. Panorama staggered on in a new graveyard slot, but it only had itself to blame – too many commentators were waiting to see any hints of “dumbing down” and the BBC lacked the nerve to do anything radical with it. The new slot on Sunday nights proved to be a wholly unsatisfactory compromise. A decent current affairs programme in prime time is badly needed – new thinking is required, and fast. Panorama itself may need to go for this to have any effect. It was not a year to be despondent though, as the Beeb produced a number of excellent documentaries – two recent examples being A History of Britain and Changing Stages. ITV too were able to contribute admirably to the medium with the one-off John Pilger documentary earlier this year (Paying the Price: Killing the Children of Iraq). This was an amazing piece of television, if only for the fact that it was made by Carlton, whose other major contribution was to threaten us with the return of Crossroads.

So in 2000, Home and Away departed from our screens – albeit temporarily. It will prove an interesting test of channel versus programme loyalty to track how many people follow it across to Channel 5 when it returns. Elsewhere, this was something of a run of the mill year for soaps. EastEnders loudly celebrated its 15th Birthday, but really it was business as usual. The death of Ethel Skinner provided a brief respite from the cloddish drama that now populates the Square, and there seemed to be the happy realization part way through 2000 that some of the more outrageous EastEnders activities would have to be curtailed in order for the soap to retain some connection with credibility. Over at Coronation Street they didn’t give a toss. Their 40th birthday celebrations were even more raucous and self-indulgent. “Sir” Ken Barlow found himself caught up in some of the soap’s most hackneyed plots ever: one week he was trussed up with bitter enemy Mike Barlow – both innocent victims of the most ludicrous hostage situation ever shown on British television; and the next he was defending the honour of the Street’s cobblestones like a modern day Churchill. The surreal inclusion of Noddy Holder, followed by Barlow’s speechmaking and the subsequent cheering of the cast directly into camera, brought back memories of that great Slade song “Mama Weer All Crazee Now”. Elsewhere, the Redmond soaps ambled inconsistently on – Hollyoaks varied from great to merely watchable on a regular basis, and Brookside showing occasional flickers of promise (the early aftermath of Susannah Morrisey’s death was particularly good) but never amounted to much. All in all (and despite the anniversaries) this was a quiet year for soaps. Something else must have been filling the tabloid column inches.

Although providing some of the best television moments of 2000 (particularly Gwyneth’s unfolding confrontation with Peter), the BBC’s Castaway 2000 was washed away by Channel 4′s Big Brother – not only the most talked about, but also surely the most repeated programme of 2000. Almost four months on from the series’ conclusion, and it still feels like Craig, Nick, Mel and the gang are part of our lives. Whilst inhabitants of the house in Bow and the pods on Taransay might have regularly commented that within their societies little problems became big dramas, they were not a patch on us. Their every move provoked sensational coverage. We have not yet been able to fully understand the Big Brother phenomenon, and our confusion in dealing with it can be seen in the ever changing manner in which the BBC has attempted to turn Castaway into a comparable hit (reaching a low point at the fag-end of the year with the imposition of presenter Julia Bradbury on the island).

Last year’s reflection concluded with the assertion that 1999 had been a year of inactivity. The same could not be said for 2000. A re-energised BBC (under the guidance of Greg Dyke) ended the year looking slightly uncertain about its identity, but producing strong programmes nonetheless. ITV stuck with its tried and tested winners, and really changed little in terms of programming, concentrating instead on tactical scheduling. BBC2 stands now at a crossroad, forced to abandon much of its youth programming (to the obvious delight of Channel 4), but overall, TV was slightly more courageous this year than last. What of 2001? Soaps have fallen out of the ratings stratosphere and can no longer be solely relied upon. Further excursions into “reality television” and nostalgia will doubtless occur over the next 12 months. The continuing proliferation of digital television, plus new ways in which to record and review your favourite programmes will undermine our current duopoly still further and destabilize the terrestrial television environment. Watch as the BBC – ITV battle intensifies, both grateful for the fact that – at least with each other, and for the time being – this is an enemy they know and understand.

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