TV Top Tens: No.1- British Sitcoms

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I’ve always intended to start blogging lists of my top titles in various genres, which will be a useful thing to return to in quieter periods, and I am inspired to start now by the list of Top 20 British Sitcoms in the current issue of Radio Times.  I enjoy lists and, much as with awards, usually manage to find something to annoy or even enrage me in them. Of course, it’s all opinion (especially when it comes to comedy!) and I would hope my own lists may cause rage in others – that’s part of the fun. The latest Radio Times list is actually pretty good overall and the reason for that is not hard to find: the list of 42 practitioners who voted on it contains many estimable names, including the likes of UnknownClement and La Frenais, Linehan and Matthews, and Barry Cryer. However, there is a glaring omission – even these luminaries have somehow managed to produce a top twenty sitcoms list containing nothing by the generally acknowledged masters of the genre – Galton and Simpson. This is not just an oversight – this is mind-bogglingly wrong.

 

The Radio Times list has some other faults, too – there is nothing earlier than 1968, when Dad’s Army started, so nothing made only in black and white – even Whatever Happened to the Likely Lads? is specifically included without its monochrome predecessor, The Likely Lads. It’s usually the case that things which get regularly repeated stand a better chance of inclusion and the original Likely Lads is not only not in colour – much of it is missing. The biggest problem I find with so many lists is the lack of historical perspective – the most recent material usually predominates and, looking back on the roster of contributors to the Radio Times list, it is clear that those who would remember the earliest material are in a small minority.

 

There is one thing I need to get clear before setting out my own list and that is to define the parameters of the genre under consideration. In his inaugural 2017 Ronnie Barker imagesComedy Lecture, Ben Elton made the case for the traditional sitcom, recorded in a television studio in front of a live audience, and argued that it is a classic genre which is nowadays looked down upon by devotees of newer forms of comedy, made on location without a laughter track. Now, I am probably one of those Elton is thinking about – most of my favourite TV of the past two decades (both British and American) has been half-hour shows which are ostensibly comedy, but which have a serious edge (sometimes a very serious edge). Some of them are made primarily for laughs, but some are not – some are closer to drama than comedy (and never mind the duration). Another thing that sets them apart is narrative development across episodes, whereas a traditional sitcom usually has self-contained episodes which could be shown in any order. There could certainly be a separate list of half-hour comedy-dramas, but it would contain mostly recent material. Perhaps that is one for the future, or perhaps some of the titles may belong on drama lists, but for the present I am going to include both traditional studio and modern single-camera sitcoms on my list, as did the Radio Times, because I can’t think of any better way to do it.

 

One more consideration before I start – I am not including any titles which are currently still being made, though I may mention them, and some of the titles included here may yet return. Lists are always for future revision.

 

So, my top ten is:

 

  1. Steptoe & Son (BBC, 1962-65, 1970-74)

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Galton and Simpson’s masterpiece – a traditionally made studio sitcom which broke with tradition by casting straight actors in the lead roles and included moments of heartbreaking pathos amongst the laughs. These were real characters with real hopes and disappointments and, when it got serious, you could sense the audience’s uncomfortable reaction, which, of course, released itself in an even bigger guffaw when the laugh line eventually arrived. Four seasons were made between 1962 and 1965, then a further four from 1970 to 1974, when it returned in colour. I was proud to have played my part in recovering a dozen or so missing episodes in the nineties – Ray and Alan knew their worth and had kept them on an early and obsolete home video format.

 

  1. Fawlty Towers (BBC, 1975, 1979)

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Often a poll-topper (not only the Radio Times one, but the BFI’s TV100 in 2000) and for good reason: the highest laugh quotient of any sitcom ever; terrific characters, not all of them particularly empathetic, but all very human; brilliantly constructed plots; memorable quotes – “duck’s off”. It was traditionally made but its impact was revolutionary.

 

  1. The Royle Family (BBC, 1998-2012)

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The key title in the transition from the “traditional” to the “modern” sitcom, thanks to the vision of Caroline Aherne: filmed mostly on a single set, but without an audience, it’s stately pace and minimalist narrative contained a wealth of insight, character, warmth and unspoken humour. Laughter track my arse!

 

  1. Getting On (BBC, 2009-12)

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Certainly one which falls into the category of laughs not being the primary concern, nevertheless there were plenty of them and they hit home. With brilliant characters created and written by the three actresses performing them, and sensitive direction (in the first two series) by Peter Capaldi it literally laughed in the face of death. The final episode said more about life and death than almost anything else I can think of in any genre. The idea was so strong that the American version (made by HBO) was also excellent and Jo Brand has gone on to create more memorable work in a similar vein, Damned (Channel 4) being particularly outstanding amongst current sitcoms.

 

  1. Him and Her (BBC, 2010-13)

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Another minimalist piece, this time not just restricted to a single set, but each episode shot in real time, allowing us to take in the acutely observed characteristics of the sympathetic, though lethargic, central pair and their relatives and friends, who range from the inept to the hateful. When the “action” moves outside the bedsit for the climactic wedding specials, it is apocalyptic. Writer Stefan Golaszewski has since repeated the trick with the beautiful Mum, the resolution of which is eagerly anticipated.

 

  1. The Likely Lads/Whatever Happened to the Likely Lads? (BBC, 1964-66, 1973-74)

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Another sixties sitcom which was revived in the early seventies for colour TV, this could not simply replicate the previous format (as Steptoe did) but had to acknowledge that the lead actors had aged, thus introducing a narrative progression which became the series’ key strength. It became about the passage of time, about nostalgia and life progression and about social change in the north of England. It was also brilliantly funny (Clement and La Frenais) and perfectly performed by James Bolam and Rodney Bewes.

 

  1. The Office (BBC, 2001-3)

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Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant not only dispensed with a laughter track, they made a sitcom in the style of an observational documentary, which was a stroke of genius, but an extremely difficult thing to sustain convincingly as the plot became more complex. They pulled it off totally and their inspiration was responsible for so many iconic comedy moments.

 

  1. The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin (BBC, 1976-79)

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A trailblazing narrative sitcom in three distinct seasons, linked by memorable characters, all with their own catchphrases, and with Leonard Rossiter’s towering performance at the centre. The repetitive nature of the dialogue (“17 minutes late…”; ”I didn’t get where I am today,,,”; “cock up on the….front”; “I’m not a…..person” etc), creates an oppressive but secure world which simply cannot be escaped.

 

  1. Blackadder (BBC, 1983-89)

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Following Rowan Atkinson’s Edmund Blackadder and his familiar associates down through the centuries was a joy and the format allowed for constant renewal. Much of the humour came from anachronism, a very special trick which Ben Elton continues to show himself the master of in Upstart Crow (BBC), the best thing he has done since Blackadder.  Difficult to choose a favourite season, but if pushed I would probably go for Blackadder the Third.

 

  1. The League of Gentlemen (BBC, 1999-2017)

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Of all my choices, this is the one I think is most arguably not a sitcom – you could say that, with three performers taking all the parts, it is more a series of sketches linked by a fictional location, though with narrative continuity for each set of characters. But, having included it, a top 10 spot was assured. Its triumphant return at Christmas 2017 was testament to the strength of the format and the characters created for it.

 

I intended my lists to be top tens, but the Radio Times sitcom list is a top 20 and, for purposes of comparison, if I were to continue in the same vein, these would be my next ten choices:

 

  1. I’m Alan Partridge (BBC, 1997-2002)
  2. Father Ted (Channel 4, 1995-98)
  3. Till Death Us Do Part (BBC, 1965-75, ITV, 1981)
  4. House of Fools (BBC, 2014-15)
  5. Hancock’s Half Hour/Hancock (BBC, 1956-61)
  6. Red Dwarf (BBC, 1988-99, Dave 2009-17)
  7. The Thick of It (BBC, 2005-12)
  8. Peep Show (Channel 4, 2003-15)
  9. Detectorists (BBC, 2014-17)
  10. Fleabag (BBC, 2016-19)

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Some of these choices require little further justification, but others demand comment: it is hard to overestimate the importance of Till Death in its sixties heyday – the searing impact of the writing and performances – but unfortunately the inevitable focus on its treatment of race makes it difficult to assess in a modern context; in House of Fools, Vic and Bob were not only conquering yet another genre, having produced their own surreal versions of the variety show, the sketch show and the comedy quiz show, but, by using the traditional sitcom model (70s style), subverting it still further; Detectorists drew you in with its relaxed pace, but the shows just flew by – on so many occasions I was astonished to find it finishing when I thought I had only been watching for ten minutes or so (great direction by Mackenzie Crook) – and I’m really enjoying Toby Jones’ own creation, Don’t Forget the Driver, on BBC2 at the moment; and Fleabag has only just finished, though we are assured it is over, so it qualifies for inclusion and I have put it at 20 simply because it feels too soon to proclaim it an instant classic to rank alongside the others here – ask me again in a year’s time and I expect it to be in my top ten.

 

Last thoughts: having made such a fuss about the difference between “traditional” and “modern” sitcoms, I have (not deliberately) managed to come up with a list of 20 which contains 10 of each, evenly spread through the list. I’ve also included 11 of the 20 titles chosen by the Radio Times panel and regret not finding room for The Young Ones (and I suspect One Foot in the Grave is hovering just outside the 20 in both cases). So, I guess I must be reasonably in line with the consensus, but I’m sure there are plenty of things about my list which will make somebody angry – I do hope so!

 

First Quarter Best Plays (and docs and comedies)

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So far this year, I have rather neglected my running shortlist for best of the year, so it’s time to take stock. In my last blog but one, I identified True Detective season 3 as one for the list and the programme I blogged about last time out, Moon and Me, should be there, too. But what else?

 

Going right back to the beginning of year (indeed, to the very end of last year, as its first part was transmitted on December 30th), Les Miserables (BBC1) surpassed the BBC’s War and Peace in terms of presenting a sprawling 19thcentury classic in 6 gripping episodes, thanks to the even greater brilliance of Andrew Davies’ adaptation this time around. It also concentrated less than its predecessor on sumptuous visuals, which allowed the outstanding acting performances from Dominic West et al to carry it higher. imagesAnd it was great to see an uncharacteristically unsympathetic performance from (surely soon to be Dame) Olivia Colman, though it is not the only thing on my shortlisted programmes from the first quarter to contain such a thing, as you will discover. An aside on Les Miserables: I was, unfortunately, unable to avoid a spoiler broadcast on BBC2’s quiz Only Connect (of which I am a devotee) just a week before the final episode aired. This came in the form of a question in which the teams were asked to find the connection between four names, of which Inspector Javert was one – the answer being that they were all fictional characters who committed suicide. Don’t they check these things?

 

Two other dramas from the first three months of the year are worth mentioning, though neither quite has the special quality required to join Les Miserables and True Detective on the shortlist. Manhunt (ITV) was an unsensational but very involving look at the police work which went into catching the serial killer in the Milly Dowler case, with Martin Clunes highly convincing as the detective involved. Brexit: the Uncivil War (Channel 4) starred Benedict Cumberbatch as the mastermind behind the Vote Leave Unknown-1campaign in the 2016 referendum. It contained eye-catching, though slightly caricatured portrayals of most of the well-known political figures involved in the debate, which is why Cumberbatch could convince so well as the unknown central figure. It was a timely reminder of how we got into the current mess, though the continuing coverage of the most recent political machinations has rendered it somewhat less remarkable.

 

Britain’s relationship with Europe was also the subject of the first of a new three-part documentary series from Norma Percy – Inside Europe: 10 Years of Turmoil (BBC2).  It is Percy and her colleagues at Brook Lapping who have given us a host of wonderful “instant history” series from The Second Russian Revolution (1991) and The Death of Yugoslavia (1995) to the Peabody-winning Putin, Russia and the West (2012). They always seem to get most of the key players involved to give frank interviews about events and this was no exception, though David “it’s all your fault” Cameron was notable by his absence from the first programme (other than in archive footage). But that was far from the best of the series and the other two parts (on the Greek debt crisis and the migrant crisis respectively) surpassed it. Major leaders like Nicolas Sarkozy and Francois Hollande took part, though they are, of course, now off the scene and able to talk, whereas Angela Merkel’s part had to be explained by her former colleagues and advisors. A definite for the shortlist.

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Also for the shortlist is Channel 4’s Three Identical Strangers, which I include by virtue of its recent transmission on that channel and its production by Raw TV, even though it was first seen on the festival circuit last year. The story of the American triplets separated at birth and re-united in the 1980s in a blaze of media attention is fascinating images-1in its own right and well told using a classic mix of interviews and archive, but the subsequent revelations that they were part of a cruel and secretive psychological experiment leave you simultaneously shocked and intrigued by the contribution of the results to the nature vs nurture debate.

 

Two lengthy documentaries on musical icons are also worth mentioning. Leaving Neverland (Channel 4) certainly contained harrowing testimony concerning allegations of child sex abuse against Michael Jackson, but for me it was its excessive length rather than any doubts about the allegations that made it problematic. It was almost as though the producers (and commissioners) thought they had something so important on their hands that it demanded it be treated at great length, whereas there was nowhere near Unknown-4enough material for four hours of air time. Much better was David Bowie: Finding Fame (BBC2), the third part of Francis Whately’s outstanding trilogy about Bowie, this time looking at his rise to prominence and featuring excellent archival materials. It was a great watch and I am reluctant to leave it off the shortlist, but it is the trilogy that is the really impressive achievement, rather than this particular part.

 

Which leaves comedy and four highly anticipated arrivals/revivals. The much trumpeted “return to television” of Alan Partridge (Steve Coogan) in This Time (BBC1) has contained some glorious moments, but overall has not lived up to my high expectations. I think this is a question of credibility, which is important in this context – while it was perfectly possible to believe Partridge would still have been a TV presence in the early Unknown-590s, that is not the case today. His decline and fall has been brilliantly chronicled in I’m Alan Partridge (BBC, 1997-2002) and Mid-Morning Matters (Sky Atlantic, 2012-16), plus a few occasional specials, but this latest development has stretched things too far in striving for familiar comic effects – he truly belongs on North Norfolk Digital, where the humour comes from subtle exchanges. By contrast, the final series of Sharon Horgan and Rob Delaney’s Catastrophe (Channel 4) was well judged and the ending was perfect, but the season as a whole was no advance on the previous ones, which still makes it pretty damn good, but, without the impact it made on its first appearance, not quite shortlist material any more.

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I would say that Ricky Gervais’ After Life (Netflix) certainly did live up to my high expectations and I enjoyed it very much (and will certainly be back for more when it returns). However, it also had a bit too much of a ring of familiarity about it – all of Gervais’ prime concerns were aired and the cast contained a number of previous collaborators (Kerry Godliman, Ashley Jensen, David Earl) as well as some excellent performers in minor roles, some of whom (Penelope Wilton, Roisin Conaty) made the most of their cameos, while others (Diane Morgan, Joe Wilkinson, Paul Kaye) were largely wasted in underwritten parts. I had the good fortune recently to see Ricky Gervais at a local theatre, trying out material for his upcoming stand-up tour and Netflix special and it was a great evening, but even a devoted fan like me has to admit that his facility for saying what I agree with and making it funny has become a little too easy to him. He needs to be extended and After Life does not do that, even though it is him at his best, so I reluctantly leave it off the shortlist. Another aside, though: at the end of the end credits is a line giving “special thanks to the British Film Institute and the people of the United Kingdom” – I’ve no idea what this means, but I guess it’s a sentiment I can relate to.

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So, with none of these eagerly awaited comedies making the shortlist, it is a relief to say that the final one of the four most emphatically does make it, and, indeed, is the best thing of the year so far for me. Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s Fleabag (BBC1) reached the end of its second (and final, we understand) season last night. After an engaging first season which was fairly whimsical until a late revelation which upended all our assumptions, the second season has been consistently brilliant at alternating great comedy with psychological insight and even religious and philosophical musing. The third episode was a corker – a hilarious business reception, a brilliant cameo from Kristin Scott-Unknown-7Thomas and a marvellous scene in which Andrew Scott’s priest challenged Fleabag’s fourth-wall-breaking asides to the audience, which indicated that she had at last found somebody who understood her, but maybe even put us, the audience, in the same position for her as his God is for the priest. All that and even a variant on the classic fart-in-a-lift joke – wonderful writing. The supporting cast is magnificent, with Sian Clifford outstanding as Fleabag’s sister Claire and, of course, Olivia Colman as the villain of the piece.

 

All of which makes me wonder why I find Fleabag so vastly superior to Killing Eve, which everybody else seems to think is the best thing since whatever. You may think making such a comparison is pointless, but I think their similarities go further than just Unknownthe Phoebe Waller-Bridge connection. Both are series in half hour episodes which mix a comedic approach with startling developments to exhilarating effect and both feature women in all the leading roles. So, here are my reasons why Fleabag is better than Killing Eve:

 

  • Obviously, Phoebe Waller-Bridge is actually in Fleabag, giving a wonderful dramatic and comedic performance, and:
  • She wrote all of Fleabag, so it is more consistently brilliant than Killing Eve, as well as having a more defined narrative arc (indeed, she will not be writing any of Killing Eve season two, which is another reason I won’t be watching it). Furthermore:
  • Fleabag knows where it is going. Killing Eve just wants to keep going
  • Fleabag is a personal project – Killing Eve is an adaptation of a series of novels
  • The main leads all being female feels totally natural in Fleabag – in Killing Eve it feels like a gimmick
  • The startling developments are more startling (and thus more impactful) in something which is primarily a comedy than primarily a thriller
  • Fleabag knows when to end (and last night’s ending was so affecting, the BBC even gave it the rare honour of not allowing the continuity announcer to speak over the end credits). Killing Eve should have ended at the end of the first season and its failure to do so was the main reason I gave up on it

 

Actually, all that says much more about Fleabag and why it is so good than it does about Killing Eve.

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Just one more comedy to mention, but not one in line for shortlisting, alas. I have been waiting years to catch up with Pamela Adlon’s Better Things, which won a 2016 Peabody, but hasn’t been available anywhere here until the outstanding first season arrived on BBC2 over the past couple of months. I hope they can catch up with the rest of it soon. In the meantime the latest Peabody list is imminent, so I’m looking forward to some more reliable recommendations.

Again!, Again!, Again!

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No programme-maker is more in touch with the wonder and the rhythms of infancy, nor is better able to express that wonder and those rhythms in audio-visual terms than Andrew Davenport. As a constant viewer of CBeebies with my daughter Hanna (as I have explained previously), I have been fortunate to have been immersed in his world and to have appreciated just what a brilliant and innovative contribution to the genre of images-2preschool television he has given us with the three shows he has created over the past two decades, the latest of which arrived in February. But he is not only the creator – he produces, writes and composes the music for each episode.

 

There is no doubt that his greatest impact was with Teletubbies (BBC2, CBeebies, 1997-), which changed the landscape of what was possible in a programme for very young children. There was plenty of controversy about it: the limited language which mimicked that of very young children perfectly, but was criticised for normalising it at a time when the main function of such programmes was meant to be education and progression; the generally surreal setting and atmosphere which led some to wonder whether the makers were on drugs and attracted a cult images-2student audience; even Tinky Winky’s sexuality! But its main and greatest innovation was repetition. This applied not only to the filmed stories of different children’s lives which appeared on the Teletubbies’ stomach monitors and which they immediately demanded to be repeated in full, but to segments of the show itself – dances, adventures, domestic life in the Teletubby house, which could be shuffled around to comprise parts of different editions.

 

Teletubbies starts with a sunrise and ends with a sunset, so each episode takes place over the course of a day, but Davenport’s next creation, In the Night Garden (CBeebies, 2007-) begins with a small child (a different one for each episode) in bed and being coaxed to sleep with a story, so it can best be interpreted as a dream (as the title suggests). It is a very beautiful and comforting beginning, which is probably more emotionally resonant for any watching adults than children. Once the dream world of the night garden has been reached, the stars in the sleepy night sky having bust into the flowers of the bright garden, familiar characters arrive and have various adventures, all of them once again interchangeable from episode to episode.

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Where Teletubbies was hallucinatory and surreal, In the Night Garden seems to be exploring the world of the early subconscious, and Davenport has taken this further with his new series, Moon and Me (CBeebies, 2019-). Again it starts with a child preparing for bed, this time by closing down the dolls’ house she has been playing with and putting her toys to bed, but now it is the same little girl every time and the similarity of their hairstyles indicates that her favourite toy, Pepi Nana, is her surrogate once she has gone to sleep and the toys have come to life. So, it can again be interpreted as her dream, though the Storyland sections indicate that it may also be a bedtime story. CBeebies’ scheduling of the series at 5.45 backs this up, though In the Night Garden retains its 6.30 bedtime slot.

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The similarities between the characters In Moon and Me and In the Night Garden are also obvious – Pepi Nana is like Upsy Daisy, Collywobble resembles Makka Pakka. My favourite has to be Mr Onion, who constantly says “onions” with a chuckle in his voice. Indeed, all the characters have their own catchphrases, which they repeat ad nauseam, though with variations of tone and stress to indicate attitude; Pepi Nana has a multitude of different ways of saying “tiddle toddle”. Mind you, having spent the last weeks (months!) listening to the same politicians saying precisely the same things about Brexit over and over again, day after day, this is clearly not confined to the world of pre-school television.

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One striking difference between Moon and Me and Davenport’s two previous series is the use of colour; muted pastel shades replacing bright primary colours, even in the pastoral Storyland, which has echoes of both Teletubbyland and the Night Garden. Davenport’s music is again a major factor, in fact even more so this time as it is integrated by having the characters play their own instruments: Moon Baby’s hand harp is key. The narration is consequently less important than in the Night Garden, where Sir Derek Jacobi’s actorly tones are so perfect for the nonsense rhymes he is asked to recite:

 

Ombliboo, Tombiboo, knock on the door.

Ombiiboo Tombliboo, sit on the floor.

Ombliboo, Tombliboo, here is my nose.

Ombliboo, Tombliboo, that’s how it goes.

The characters in Moon and Me are animated to move the way they would if a child was playing with them; just watch the way Little Nana moves up and down as though being picked up and placed down. There is no tea in the teapot or cups, but they are moved just as if a playing child were moving them. Davenport did a lot of research on play patterns imagesto get this right. When Pepi Nana comes downstairs, or crosses a bridge, you see her do it in real time, or, through clever editing including the beginning and end of the journey, the complete process of the action is conveyed so that it seems it has been shown in full. This is a style associated with the great French director Robert Bresson, and Davenport also uses close ups of characters’ hands or feet in a similar way to Bresson. (Is that comparison worthy of Pseud’s Corner or what?) The overall effect is a feeling of immersion – the sort you get from listening to minimalist music or watching a piece of “slow TV” like The Canal Journey. It is very relaxing and reassuring.

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I hope this may inspire you to watch the odd episode or two of Moon and Me, even if you don’t have a pre-schooler to watch it with. It would be twenty minutes of your time well spent on the BBC i-Player. Both Moon and Me and In the Night Garden work for adults who may like occasionally to regress to the world of infancy, not as any sort of perversion, but as a relaxing break from the ugliness of so much everyday public discourse.

 

Tiddle toddle! Poop poop!

 

Onions.

 

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TV Catch-up no.2: Rectify

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Rectify (Sundance TV, 2013-16) is one of those series I encountered through my service on the Peabody Board of Jurors and I supported its 2014 award on the basis of a handful of impactful episodes, while at the same time making a mental note that I should try to catch up with the entire thing at some stage, just as I did with Breaking Bad, The Leftovers and others. So, now that retirement is affording me the time, I have done just that. Unlike those others, it is not a series which is particularly well known in Britain, though it certainly deserves to be. This was brought home to me when I ordered blu-ray sets of the four seasons from Amazon and they turned out to be versions for the Dutch market.

 

Rectify tells the story of Daniel Holden, jailed as an 18-year-old for rape and murder, but released after almost 20 years on death row, when new DNA evidence casts doubt on his conviction. It concentrates mostly on the effects of his time in prison on him, and on theimages effects of his release on his family (including his new step-family) and on the small Georgia community he returns to. The question of his guilt or otherwise, and who else may have committed the crime, is a secondary concern – indeed, the suicide of another suspect at the very start of the first season sets up the possibility of a new investigation, but his body is not discovered until the very end of the second season, at which point that angle of the plot can be advanced. In the meantime, Daniel’s presence is a cause of great discomfort and divisiveness to many. The fourth season is about coming to terms with misfortune and injustice, not just for Daniel, but for many of the characters, as well as being about solving the case – and in the end it is more important for it to be established that Daniel didn’t commit the crime than to find out who did.

 

What makes Rectify so remarkable, though, is its pace and reflectivity. It unfolds very slowly, as Daniel’s faltering rehabilitation proceeds. He is only really starting to learn to images-1live and is more at ease in the flashbacks to his time on death row, to which he retreats as an escape from the stresses of freedom. Aden Young’s performance is very low key and understated – he speaks quietly and chooses his words carefully, but you can sense the inner turmoil at all times. At the same time, his brooding presence forces the other characters to reassess their own lives and problems. This extends eventually also to the legal and political authorities, gradually coming to terms with the nature of their mistakes, and to the family of the victim in terms of their misapprehensions.

 

As always with my TV catch-ups, I spot connections with other shows, past, contemporary and current. The blu-ray covers proclaim Rectify as “from the producers of Breaking Bad” (Gran Via Productions), but the only thematic thing it really has in common with that series is its small-town setting in a part of US which is rarely represented on TV (and my fellow Peabody jurors were full of praise for how well it captured the essence of life in Georgia). However, the series I was constantly reminded of while watching Rectify is not even a drama. It has a number of striking connections with Making a Murderer (Netflix, 2015, 2018): the small town setting and a community Unknowndivided over a shocking crime; a miscarriage of justice involving an imprisonment of almost 20 years; the release of a convicted man on new DNA evidence, but continuing doubts about his guilt; unreliable confessions; the iniquity of the plea bargaining process; machinations between police, legal and political authorities; the slowness of the legal system to provide redress; above all, the focus on who didn’t commit the crime rather than who did. It is not surprising that the overturning of convictions through new DNA evidence should give rise to both dramatic and documentary treatment. However, the two pieces have many stylistic as well as thematic connections – just look at the similarities, both visual and musical, in the opening title sequences. Drama and documentary now feed off each other in the era of cinematic television.

 

And, just as Making a Murderer fed off Rectifyso it has in turn provided one of the starting points for the most impressive new US drama of the year so far: HBO’s third season of True Detective (Sky Atlantic). After a very disappointing second season, True Detective is not only back to form, but provides its best season yet. As in the first season, a crime investigation is being reconsidered after a lengthy period of time, but in this case images-2there are references back to two time periods, 15 and 25 years previously, when a case of child murder and abduction seemed to have been solved and then re-solved by the same two detectives, though it turns out they were taking the easy option to close the case on each occasion. The new investigation is prompted by a present-day documentary team making a series on the case (in the style of Making a Murderer, of course), which was both a local trauma and the subject of a sensational book by the wife of the lead detective. The narrative is further complicated by the fact that the detective in question (played by Mahershala Ali) is suffering from the early stages of dementia, so that his memories may not all be reliable. Time is frequently folded in clever scene changes.

 

As with both Rectify and Making a Murderer, the resolution of the case is of much less importance than the process and the effects. Indeed, the final explanation, when it arrives (and if it can be believed) is very unsensational. As the ending makes clear, the real drama has been what’s been going on in the head of Ali’s character, much as Rectify is mostly about the psychological state of Daniel Holden.

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True Detective season 3 goes onto my shortlist for the best of 2019 so far but, as I have not posted any blogs about that yet (and apologies for the long gap between this effort and my previous one), I will follow this up with more of my thoughts on some recent highlights very soon.

Stan & Ollie: the Genesis of Sitcom

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The recent release of the film Stan and Ollie and the associated revival of interest in the films of Laurel and Hardy, always great favourites of mine since childhood and a constant joy to revisit (especially in the company of my daughter, Hanna), has got me thinking once again about a pet theory of mine: which is, basically, that Stan Laurel, whom I regard as the greatest comic genius of the 20thcentury, laid the foundations of television sitcom in the sound film shorts he made with Oliver Hardy between 1929 and 1935.

 

The first TV sitcom was on the BBC; Pinwright’s Progress (1946/7), though it is during the fifties that the major pioneering titles appeared: I Love Lucy and The Phil Silvers unknown-3Show in the USA; Hancock’s Half Hour in Britain. When the origins of the form are traced back beyond the start of the television era, the usual medium cited is radio, quite naturally as it is also a broadcasting medium. Numerous titles which became significant television sitcoms originated in radio and, in the US, the form can be traced back to the 1920s. For example, the notorious Amos ‘n’ Andy originated on radio in 1928, before being produced for television (interestingly enough, at the Hal Roach Studios) in the fifties. As the earliest sitcoms were performed for a studio audience, theatre, especially music hall, can also be regarded as an influence, but film is rarely considered, other than for the impact of one comedian’s work on another’s (and Stan and Ollie are regularly cited in this regard). However, I can see many things which became essential elements of television sitcom in the Laurel and Hardy shorts of the early thirties.

 

So, what exactly is it that makes a sitcom? Well, for a start, I don’t think it is the “situation” as much as it is the characters and the relationship(s) between them. You should get to know those characters well and what to expect from them. What’s more, the characters’ “situation” can change, but the characters can’t, although they can develop. It is the strength of the characters (both in the writing and the performances) that matters, not the situation they are in: in fact, I’d go so far as to say that the characters are the situation. For example, the “situation” in Steptoe and Son (BBC, 1962-unknown-465, 1970-74) is an interdependent father/son relationship in which the son feels trapped. It is not the rag and bone business – there are plenty of episodes in which that business plays no part whatsoever in the narrative. Throughout their short films, Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy played highly recognisable and consistent characters and they developed depth to those characters as they continued to play them, much as happens in a successful long-running sitcom.

 

Duration is also an important element of sitcom, with 25-30 minutes seen as the optimum length for fitting in as many laughs as possible without wearing out the audience. The Laurel and Hardy two-reel comedies mirror that optimum length precisely. What’s more, they are often structured to end the first reel on a scene change (in case the venue only has one projector), which also reflects the structure of those sitcoms designed to incorporate advertising breaks. It is no surprise that the short films were so frequently on television in the sixties and seventies.

 

Other standard sitcom tropes can be traced back to Stan and Ollie, not least the familiar and regularly repeated catchphrases (“Well, here’s another nice mess…/well, it wasn’t my fault”; “Why don’t you do something to help me?”) or routines (Stan comes up with a good idea – Ollie asks him to repeat it – Stan fails miserably to replicate what he had said). Although not shot in front of an audience, the presence of a movie theatre images-6audience is also acknowledged in Ollie’s looks into the camera. And two male leads is very common in sitcom, particularly on British TV, which prefers its comedy characters to be losers & failures, rather than the wisecracking types more prevalent in the US – echoes of Laurel and Hardy can be found in the partnerships of Tony Hancock and Sid James, Steptoe and Son, The Likely Lads and more.

 

So far, so good, but, of course, there are flaws to this theory. The most obvious are that the Laurel and Hardy films are each made to stand alone, not to be seen as part of a series, not made in any sort of “order” and feature the characters in a variety of “situations”. However, it is only relatively recently that TV sitcoms have developed narrative continuity – most of the episodes of traditional sitcoms can stand alone. What’s more, it is possible to carry out an exercise of “ordering” on the Laurel and Hardy shorts, which I do purely for fun, but it does strengthen my claim that the shorts can be seen as an early form of sitcom. With one exception, the 38 full-sound shorts can be divided into 4 basic “situations” and it is not difficult to see how a progression could be made from one to the next, forming different “seasons” of the developing Stan & Ollie characters.

 

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In the first “situation”, Stan and Ollie are drifters, trying to survive the depression and often on the wrong side of the law. The films which fit into this scenario are: They Go Boom (1929); The Hoose-Gow (1929); Night Owls (1930); Below Zero (1930); The Laurel-Hardy Murder Case (1930); Another Fine Mess (1930); Laughing Gravy (1931); One Good Turn (1931); Any Old Port (1932); The Chimp (1932); Scram (1932). It is interesting that this section does not include any films after 1932, coinciding with the optimism of Roosevelt’s New Deal. The duo’s first feature length film, Pardon Us (1931) also fits this scenario (and could thus be seen as the equivalent of a “special”).

 

 

In the second “situation”, our heroes are more settled – they have somewhere to live and are often seen in a variety of different jobs, though they invariably end up making a images-2mess of them, much as Charlie Drake did every week in the 1960s sitcom The Worker (ATV, 1965-70). The films which fit this scenario are: Men O’War (1929); The Music Box (1932); County Hospital (1932); Towed in a Hole (1932); The Midnight Patrol (1933); Busy Bodies (1933); Dirty Work (1933): Going Bye-Bye (1934); Them Thar Hills (1934); The Live Ghost (1934); Tit for Tat (1935); The Fixer Uppers (1935). Them Thar Hills and Tit for Tat are especially interesting in that the latter sees the return of a couple, played by Mae Busch and Charlie Hall, whom Stan and Ollie first encounter in the former, and the script makes specific reference to the connection, as regularly happens in serial sitcoms.

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Domesticity takes over in the third “situation” – Ollie is either married or engaged to be married – Stan is the best friend who is a bad influence and disrupts the harmony of the relationship. This is the same basic plot as Whatever Happened to the Likely Lads unknown-5(BBC, 1973-74), which was a continuation of The Likely Lads (1964-66) itself comparable to the earlier Laurel and Hardy “situations”. The films are: Unaccustomed as We Are (1929); Hog Wild (1930); Our Wife (1931); Helpmates (1932); Their First Mistake (1932); Me and My Pal (1933); Oliver the Eighth (1934); Thicker Than Water (1935).

 

In the final “situation”, both Stan and Ollie are married, and the comedy usually comes from their feeble attempts to deceive their wives. The films that fit here are: Perfect Day (1929); Brats (1930); Be Big (1931); Chickens Come Home (1931); Come Clean (1931); Twice Two (1933). The feature-length Sons of the Desert (1933), a re-working of the plot images-5of Be Big and regarded as probably the best of their longer films, also fits here (another “special”?). In Brats, Laurel and Hardy play their own children (the final development?) and in Twice Two, their own sisters (and each other’s wives). A further flaw to my theory is that, in both the final two situations, the actresses playing the wives differ from film to film, but similar cast changes are not unknown in sitcom and don’t forget that in real life Oliver Hardy was married three times, while Stan Laurel was married at various times to four different women, one of them twice!

 

The only sound short which doesn’t fit into any of the four “situations” is Blotto (1930), in which Stan is married and Ollie is the disruptive friend. This was an early effort, though, and doesn’t really work – they obviously concluded that it worked better if Stan played the disruptive one. Blotto is the exception which proves the rule. Having established their characters’ rules in any of the “situations” for the contemporary movie audience, Stan and Ollie could exploit their familiarity as a shortcut to the laughs.

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Make no mistake, the sound shorts are Laurel and Hardy’s masterpieces. Like most television sitcoms and sketch shows, they are just the right length for comedy. While there are some great scenes in the features, the films themselves are often padded out with musical numbers or romantic sub-plots which detract from the purity and the structure of the comedy. The main reason Laurel and Hardy made the best, the most successful and the most influential sound shorts is that they were the only ones of the silent comedians to exploit the change to sound with brilliant dialogue and characterisation, while retaining the structure of their comedy form, something neither Chaplin nor Keaton were able or willing to do, while those who came to prominence later – Abbott and Costello, the Marx Brothers – concentrated on feature-length films. So, the short films of Laurel and Hardy remain the original gold standard of the form and a clear inspiration for those who later came to make comedy at the same length.

 

Anyway, that’s my story and I’m stuck with it.

Choices and Choices

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So, the last day of the year and here, just in time, is my top ten of 2018 – but first I am able to raise my shortlist of 17, as detailed in my last blog, to a top 20 for the year, thanks to three worthy additions I have watched in the last two weeks (one of them only available for the past three days, but that one not only completes my top 20, but also makes it into the top ten, so it was well worth waiting!).

 

Chuck Lorre’s The Kominsky Method (Netflix) is a highly enjoyable, old-fashioned comedy starring Michael Douglas and Alan Arkin, both on top form, as ageing friends. It deals with some issues I am sadly familiar with, such as the effects of an enlarged prostate and the side-effects of the drugs used to treat it. It also reminded me in several Unknownaspects of my all-time favourite American comedy series, Curb Your Enthusiasm: the central relationship of a performer and his agent; their bemusement at the ways of the modern world; the showbiz milieu, with guest stars playing either characters (Danny de Vito, Ann-Margret) or themselves (Jay Leno, Elliot Gould); the strong Jewish humour. It’s not earth-shattering, but it has its moments of reflection and is extremely watchable.

 

Kidding (Showtime/Sky Atlantic), written by Dave Holstein, starring Jim Carrey and (mostly) directed by Michel Gondry, arrived here too late to make many “best of year” imageslists, as it probably should have. It is visually striking (full of bold colours), with an occasionally unnerving narrative, which veers from comedy to tragedy in the blink of an eye and centres on a group of people involved in the production of a Sesame Street-like children’s TV show, while at the same time dealing with personal loss and life challenges. Carrey is perfectly cast as the insecure star, Mr Pickles, constantly wanting to introduce themes of death into his character’s show. It was a slow starter and took some getting used to, but the later episodes were very memorable and I will certainly be returning to it.

 

Black Mirror arrives too late every year (since it went to Netflix) to make it onto any lists, even though every season has been consistently outstanding. This year, only one episode has arrived so far, but it is something of such significance and brilliance that it is an automatic must for my top ten. I have always thought that interactivity in drama, though much touted by broadcasters for many years as a likely future development, was a non-starter simply because the whole point of drama is to be told a story, whether you like how it develops or not. But Bandersnatch succeeds because it is actually about the possibilities and implications of interactivity (and therefore a perfect fit for the Black Mirror ethos), as well as because the delivery technology has become so sophisticated that a genius like Charlie Brooker can put it to positive creative use. I think it is a big moment for television.

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And it is about much more than interactivity, with themes of personal choice versus control, of the mysteries of creativity and of the impact of chance on our lives. On this last point, there are echoes of Krzysztof Kieslowski’s 1981 film Blind Chance and I imagine the fact that part of the plot hinges on a missed train was a nod in its direction. There are also references to “wrong” choices throughout – Betamax tapes, the newsagent chain John Menzies (though our hero wisely shops at W.H.Smith). I should, however, add that any description of sequences from Bandersnatch I may give you applies only to the version I watched, and, the way the interactivity works, with regular choices of alternatives, that version was one of over a trillion possibilities, which I guess probably makes it my very own version. The “ending” (at least the one I saw, or think I saw) is excellent but after it you get even more choices and the chance to go back on the ones you made until you have had enough and press the “escape to credits” option. By that time, Netflix itself has become part of the story and its familiar interface, suggesting the BlackMirror episode Be Right Back as your next choice (again, maybe only in the version I saw) is implicated too. After all that, I’m not sure there is any need to watch it again, though something tells me I will, maybe in the company of somebody else making the choices. I’ve already told my wife she needs to see it and I can imagine it may have caused battles for the remote in many households.

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Anyway, to get back to my top ten of 2018, Black Mirror:Bandersnatch (Netflix) has crashed unstoppably into it at the very last minute, which caused me a bit of painful reassessment. The other nine, in rough order of appearance only, are as follows:

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Inside No.9(BBC2): a brilliant fourth season, in which every episode was a corker, plus the wonderful live Halloween special.

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Save Me(Sky Atlantic): the first truly outstanding drama series Sky has made, courtesy of a wonderful script and characters created by Lennie James.

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Damned(Channel 4): a stunning second season which confirms Jo Brand as the best female writer/performer we have just now.

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A Very English Scandal(BBC1): Russell T.Davies’ brilliantly witty, yet totally appropriate take on the Jeremy Thorpe affair, with Hugh Grant a revelation.

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American Vandal 2(Netflix): yes, shit is funny, but it has never been quite this funny, while, at the same time containing moral lessons for our times.

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22 July(Netflix): Paul Greengrass at his best in conveying the full horror, impact and implications of the Norwegian massacres carried out by Anders Behring Breivik.

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There She Goes(BBC4): a devastatingly accurate “comedy” about the travails of the parents of a learning-disabled daughter.

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Black Earth Rising(BBC2): a complex, intelligent and highly resonant series from Hugo Blick, centred on the Rwandan genocide.

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Homecoming(Amazon): a brilliant mystery, based on a podcast but transformed into a superb piece of TV by the direction of Sam Esmail.

 

A last few thoughts on my list: if Bandersnatch had not arrived so decisively (and so late), I would have included Doctor Who: Rosa in my top ten and am disappointed that I had to leave it out. I’m also disappointed not to have included any factual pieces in my list, but nothing could compete, in my mind, with the strength of these ten titles.  I had a couple of doubts which I dispelled to my own satisfaction: firstly, is 22 July really a piece of TV or is it a film? – I decided to include it because of the TV pedigree of the director and because it “felt” like a single television drama, and, by the same criteria, I excluded The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (also Netflix), which I loved, because of the cinematic pedigree of the Coens and because it “felt” like a film, despite its episodic nature; secondly, I have already admitted in an earlier blog that my reaction to There She Goes is completely informed by personal experience, but I still feel it is a very important piece and one which I am in a position to judge in terms of authenticity as well as its intrinsic qualities as comedy/drama.

 

So, all that remains is to wish everybody a Happy New Year and good viewing in it. The building of the 2019 shortlist starts tomorrow, with some potential candidates already on the radar for the coming days, though last night’s impressive opening episode of Les Miserables means it may already be underway.

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Loose Ends

 

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OK, the tree is up, presents are starting to accumulate underneath it and Hanna is getting excited. In other news, the rush of publication of advance editions of Radio Times that characterises early December means that we now know what will be on for the rest of this year. So, now is a good time to take stock of where I am with my shortlist for the best of 2018, to revisit the titles I mentioned in my blog of 17thSeptember and to add a couple of things that have grabbed my attention in recent weeks. I can then enjoy reading all the other “best of year” lists and pay attention to the most promising upcoming highlights before settling on my own final top ten just before the year ends.

 

Back in September, I had six promising drama series on the go at the same time and expected a couple of them to make my shortlist. That happened, but it didn’t entirely turn out as I expected. To deal with them in reverse order, as it were, I gave up on Trust Unknown-2after four episodes – after a very promising start, it seemed to be drawing the story out to intolerable lengths: maybe I’ll give the Ridley Scott movie a go instead.  Bodyguard gripped to the end but was ultimately just too improbable and manipulative for my taste (and how was the dead man’s button ever a problem when his hand was taped to the device?). No Offence was its usual wonderful self, but I don’t think the third season represented any kind of advance on the previous two, so it doesn’t make it to the shortlist for that reason.

 

Which leaves two titles I was expecting to make the shortlist and one I wasn’t. I certainly did expect to be shortlisting Killing Eve on the evidence of its opening episodes – it was sharp, witty and innovative. Unfortunately, Phoebe Waller-Bridge did not write it all andUnknown the standard of some of the later episodes did not reach her level. Also, it settled into a regular, episodic and repetitive game of cat-and-mouse, which would have been fine if it had come up with a satisfactory ending but leaving things open for a second season was precisely not what I wanted (in that respect it reminded me of The Fall). I won’t be following it further.

 

I was also expecting Hugo Blick’s Black Earth Rising to make my shortlist and it does so, though not without a few reservations. In comparison to his previous series which I loved, it seemed short on the explosive set-pieces and visual elan I was expecting, though Unknownmaybe that is just because his style is established and no longer such a revelation. Nevertheless, it still resonates with me and definitely needs to be revisited. It was also remarkable for treating a period of recent African history at length and with little concession to western ignorance, while at the same time providing a lot of great roles to black acting talent.

 

On the other hand, I had not expected Wanderlust to end up on my list, but the fifth episode, an extended therapy session for the main character, played by Toni Collette, Unknown-3shifted it from an interesting and engaging comedy-drama about sex and relationships to something with considerably more depth, so it is there. Once Bodyguard was over, I carried on watching whatever drama tuned up in the BBC1 Sunday night 21.00 slot – The Cry was highly involving and well-constructed over 4 episodes, but The Little Drummer Girl fell between two stools of Le Carre adaptations, with neither the Bond-ish glamour of The Night Manager or the claustrophobic intensity of the Smiley series, and I gave up after two episodes (I like to think I’m getting good at spotting the duds early and subsequent feedback seems to confirm a wise choice in this case).

 

Also, in my September blog, I noted the imminent arrival of the exciting new phase in the Doctor Who saga. I have certainly enjoyed the beginning of the Chibnall/Whittaker era – the “team” of assistants works very well and the introduction of a female doctor has been successful simply by not appearing particularly revolutionary. Actually, the change of gender of the doctor is an even more modern development than it would have been five years ago. Basically, the Doctor is now transgender (Whittaker’s Doctor is constantly saying “when I was a man”) and it has been the more recent advances in transgender rights, rather than feminism, which has paved the way for this change and Unknown-2made it so seamless.  Even the move to Sunday night has worked better than I predicted, but I still prefer stories which take more than one episode and miss both the cliff-hangers and the pre-credit sequences, which seem to have been dispensed with. The most significant thing about Chibnall’s approach for me, though, is how it looks back to Sydney Newman’s original 1963 conception of the series as a vehicle for historical education (before Verity Lambert introduced the Daleks in the second story and set it firmly on the sci-fi path). In particular, the episode about Rosa Parks has to be the purest manifestation of Newman’s original vision the series has achieved in its 55-year history. The episode did have sci-fi elements, including an agent sent from the future to alter history, but programmed not to kill (nods to both Terminator 1 and 2 there!), but it did not flinch from a fine examination of the historical context of the civil rights movement, which was a great lesson for the character of Ryan as well as the young Doctor Who audience of today. I am thus including that particular episode in my shortlist for the best of the year.

 

Another single episode which very much caught my imagination was the brilliant Inside No 9 Halloween live special. I wasn’t taken in, as many were, by the “loss of sound”, but wrongly assumed it was a way of deliberately withholding information vital for the story. Of course, the story itself turned out to be a red herring, but there is no second-guessing Pemberton and Shearsmith. The 4thseason, shown in January, is already on my shortlist, so the special only serves to cement its place.

 

Meanwhile, on Amazon, I have just finished watching Homecoming, which is superb. It is based on a podcast and boasts an excellent cast, well-led by Julia Roberts, but it is the direction by Sam Esmail (creator of Mr Robot) which makes it stand out. It is a mystery thriller with a Hitchcockian edge, set in a sinister present-day rehabilitation facility and a future timeline in which the Julia Roberts’ character, Heidi Bergman, cannot recall Unknownwhat had happened and the crisis point is approached gradually from both directions. The future scenes are shot in a restrictive, claustrophobic frame, while the full-frame scenes include split screen sequences and, together, the shooting styles represent a very clever way of advancing the narrative. The series contains what has to be my “TV moment of the year” (big spoiler alert here, if you haven’t seen it!): at the moment when the future Heidi realises the truth of what happened the restricted screen expands into full widescreen – which sounds trite when I write about it but is a stunning effect when you watch it. The ending of Homecoming is also very satisfying but is not the ending – you have to sit through the entire and lengthy end credits (which I always do) to get to an extra scene which sets up a second season. Very neat! (makers of Killing Eve etc. take note!). It’s the best thing on Amazon since…well, since Mr Robot, and a must for the shortlist.

 

I have rarely blogged about news – mainly because I take my time composing these pieces, whereas news blogging needs to be immediate, for obvious reasons. However, I would like to add some news to my shortlist. Channel 4 News has had a particularly good year and the standout story was the full week of headline grabbing and headline making investigative reports into the Cambridge Analytica sandal, back in March. Great undercover reporting and excellent follow-up pieces leading each night’s bulletin.

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So, to recap, I now have a shortlist of 17 for the best of 2018: Inside No 9, Kiri, Save Me, Mum, Damned, Homeland, The Funeral Murders, Channel 4 News coverage of the Cambridge Analytica scandal, A Very English Scandal, Mother’s Day, American Vandal 2, 22 July, There She Goes, Black Earth Rising, Wanderlust, Doctor Who: Rosa and Homecoming. It would be neat to get the shortlist up to 20, from which to choose my top 10 before the end of the year, but looking through all those copies of Radio Times, I’m not sure that will happen. There is a new Jimmy McGovern on tonight, though, and you never can tell with Christmas schedules. I also have a few things “on the go” at the moment, including Kidding (Sky Atlantic), The Sinner and Vic & Bob’s Big Night Out (both BBC4 – and, yes, I know The Sinner is on Netflix, but I’m watching it on BBC4). I also realise that the last mentioned is a throwback to the show which introduced Reeves and Mortimer to TV almost 30 years ago, so I feel I can’t in all good conscience include it on my shortlist for 2018, but its simple stupidity makes me cry uncontrollably with laughter, so I may just have to.

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Anyway, have a Happy Christmas everybody, enjoy loads of great viewing and I’ll be back before the year is through.