Season’s Ratings

Despite the sparsity of my blogging this year, I could not let it end without offering my usual top ten TV titles of the year. I certainly did not manage to watch anywhere near everything I would have liked to, so the list comes with that caveat, but I did manage over the last few weeks both to catch up with some of the things I had not yet managed to view in full and to pay attention to some of the more interesting offerings over the Christmas period – the things which already-published lists from the usual suspects tend to miss, but I have often found that something creeps in under the wire in the year’s dying days. Christmas “specials” are often disregarded but have occasionally thrown up something exceptional (exhibit A – The Office). Let’s see if that happens this year.

I mentioned in a previous blog, that one of the things I had not yet caught up with was Peter Kosminsky’s The Undeclared War (Channel 4). I have now done so and have to say that I found it a little disappointing. The idea was great and, initially, the conceit of presenting imaginative visualisations of the intricacies of computer coding made it very striking. However, the more the plot developed, the more tiresome these interruptions became, holding up a plot which was getting a bit stretched anyway and giving you the space to contemplate that fact. 

Last year’s BBC i-Player offering from Adam Curtis, Can’t Get You Out of my Head was prominent in my best-of-year list. This year he gave us TraumaZone, a 7-part study of Russia between 1985 and 1999, covering the collapse of both communism and democracy. Unusually for a Curtis series, we did not hear his voice, so were left with a collage of fascinating archive material, cleverly juxtaposed and accompanied by captions which, while still in the distinctive Curtis style (“at the same time” even made a few welcome appearances) contained more explanatory information and less of the usual Curtis theorising. Indeed, the lack of his own voice, combined with the fact that he pursued an uncharacteristic chronological narrative, put even greater emphasis than usual on his archival choices and the points he conveys by their juxtaposition; and these were remarkable. Most of the material was shot by BBC News crews and most of what Curtis used was raw footage, without commentary, which could be allowed to run at length for maximum impact. It covered multiple facets of life in Russia (and, indeed, Ukraine), giving a fascinating in-depth look at the political, economic and social history of those times. In a year in which Russia has been a dominant feature of the international news agenda, the series also provided invaluable context for greater understanding of what is happening now. I make no apology for, yet again, including a Curtis series in my shortlist, though Can’t Yet You Out of My Head still remains, for me, the best thing he’s done since Pandora’s Box. TraumaZone is the next best.

So, onto those Christmas specials and there were four which particularly interested me this year. Mortimer and Whitehouse Gone Fishing (BBC2) followed the lead of many previous specials and took our heroes abroad for the first time. It was lovely and a very pleasant hour’s diversion, without being a great deal more, given that the three series so far have pretty fully explored the duo’s friendship. Detectorists (BBC2), another tale of male friendship, was exactly the same: it covered ground (no joke intended) familiar from the earlier series and ended in much the same way, with a lost opportunity but no regret. Still very enjoyable, though. I won’t say that the Inside No9 special The Bones of St Nicholas (BBC2) was disappointing because I have already noted in a blog earlier this year that the show has (unsurprisingly) run out of steam. Again, still watchable, but now a long way from the glories of its prime.

None of the above crack my top ten but the fourth of the specials I watched certainly does. Motherland has so firmly established its gallery of characters that it seems all it has to do is let them loose and that it did to wonderful effect in Last Christmas (BBC2). There were enough gags, moments of shock and subtle looks and asides to fill a season and here they all were crammed into what we are told will be the show’s final half hour. It trod a dark path with the lightest of steps and was sublime. 

So, that makes 10. Once again, my shortlist is my top ten list: completed just in time and no narrowing down to do. For the first time, scripted drama and comedy fill only half of the ten slots. My top ten is: 

Winter Journey (BBC4)

John Bridcut’s imaginative setting of Schubert’s greatest song-cycle in a winter landscape. A favourite director interpreting a favourite composer, it was always going to make my list.

Sherwood (BBC1)

A state-of-the-nation thriller to compare with the greatest, with a 40-year timespan and instant classic status. A great script served well by an outstanding cast. No second season, please – this was perfect.

Marriage (BBC1)

Stefan Golaszewski in minimalist mode. Initially perplexing, it stayed in the mind for weeks, thanks to the subtle direction and intense performances. Another season, please – this has much more to say yet.

How To with John Wilson (HBO/BBC2)

Documentary? Comedy? Social commentary? Philosophy? A bit of each and much more than the sum of these parts. And all done on the lowest of low budgets. A real cult classic.

The Sandman (Netflix)

Every time you felt this wildly imaginative fantasy was going really well, it changed direction and got even better. It was also unafraid to tackle complex psychological and philosophical issues. Innovative casting choices, too.

The English (BBC2)

Hugo Blick’s ravishing western, full of his trademark stunning visuals, dramatic set-pieces and reflective dialogue. If I had to choose a “best of the year”, this would be it.

Arena: Into the Waste Land (BBC2)

The BBC’s flagship arts programme at its best, with a thoroughly erudite examination of T.S.Eliot’s The Waste Land on the centenary of its publication.

The Queen’s Funeral (BBC1)

They had plenty of practice for this, but practice makes perfect and it was – just the right tone and a fitting sense of the end-of-an-era moment which it represented. Moving without being downbeat; spectacular without that being a distraction from the point. A true national moment

TraumaZone: Russia 1985-1999 (BBC i-Player)

See above for why I chose this.

Motherland: Last Christmas (BBC2)

….and this.

I have to re-state that this is very much my list, by which I mean that it reflects my own viewing during the year, incomplete as it was, as well as reflecting my tastes and what I regard as significant.  When I look at other lists (The Guardian, BFI, Time Out, Radio Times etc) I find a number of things from streaming platforms to which I don’t subscribe, such as Disney+ and Paramount (Netflix, Amazon and Apple are enough for me), so I can’t comment on something like The Bear, which seems to have made a big impact and is something I am going to have to catch up with somehow. In addition, those lists are the combined efforts of a number of contributors, so they can obviously consider more. Nevertheless, I still find some anomalies between my approach and the other list makers – most notably, I like to give new work preference over returning series. For me, a returning series needs to show a significant improvement over earlier ones to be considered. I noted this in a blog earlier this year and it is basically a Peabody approach, rather than the Emmy habit of re-rewarding previous successes. Of course, a list like The Guardian’s, which has 50 titles, nearly all of them scripted fiction, is bound to contain a number of returning series and the inclusion of some of the excellent titles I mentioned in my earlier blog – Top Boy, Stranger Things, The Outlaws etc. – is no real surprise. What does surprise me, though, is that they could not find space in their 50 for outstanding original work like Marriage or The Sandman.

The last thing to note is the (very) high percentage of BBC titles in my list. I don’t think this is evidence of bias or lack of adventure on my part, but reflects that fact that the Corporation has had a storming year which, given that it has been its centenary, is highly appropriate.

Happy New Year!

The Art of Documentary

At a time when the restrictions of consecutive lockdowns were really starting to be felt in the television schedules, it was wonderful to be presented with the most outstanding offering in some time from a programme-maker whose signature modus operandi is entirely unaffected by (and may even have been enhanced by) the circumstances of the past year. Adam Curtis’ series utilise only archival footage and music, the vast majority of it from the BBC’s collections, and his own voice-over. It is not difficult to imagine him assembling them in total isolation, though the end credits indicate a certain amount of collaboration.

Can’t Get You Out of My Head: An Emotional History of the Modern World (BBC iPlayer) is, for me, the best thing he has done since his astonishing breakthrough series Pandora’s Box in 1992, although in the intervening years he has regularly delivered excellent and fascinating pieces, most notably The Century of the Self (2002) and The Power of Nightmares (2004), all for the BBC. It can sometimes be frustrating that his narrative seems to go off at unusual tangents, but this is only the case if you look at his series and single works as traditional documentaries, with set “rules” to follow, not if you look at them, as I like to, as works of art. It may seem strange to take this approach, especially as Curtis himself is pretty unambiguous that his intention is to present a documentary narrative supported by illustrative materials, but it is the way that those materials are assembled and presented that is unique to his approach and the choices he makes in the process of selection, assembly and the addition of music seem to me to be artistic and instinctive ones rather than logical and factually explicable.

This is most certainly true of Can’t Get You Out of My Head, and the use of the word “emotional” in the second part of the title is key here, implying as it does that what we are being offered is highly personal rather than objectively justifiable. This is his artistic style taken to its extreme, though, ironically, I also thought that the arguments presented in his narrative were more coherently developed over the course of the series (which almost followed a chronological progression as well) than in many of his previous works.   Sections of it came across like a favourite archive series of mine, The Rock ’n Roll Years (BBC, 1985– 94) with exhilarating and thought-provoking combinations of music and images. Curtis’ voice-over and writing style is also very distinctive – he loves chronological links and the phrase “at the same time” recurs like a leitmotif.

The most obvious comparison here is to Curtis’ 2009 contribution to an immersive artwork called It Felt like a Kiss, made in collaboration with Punchdrunk Theatre Company and Damon Albarn for the Manchester International Festival. Clearly this was intended as a work of art, but the film which came from it contains Curtis’ trademark archival film and music combinations, and a series of captions replacing the usual voiceover, which is still very recognisably Curtis (even at one point including “at the same time”). The film can be seen on Curtis’ BBC website page here:

It Felt Like a Kiss also showcases Curtis’ ongoing obsession with Lee Harvey Oswald, who is one of the characters focussed on in Can’t Get You Out of My Head, though he is mainly approached in the latter through a more in-depth exploration of the life and thoughts of his associate Kerry Thornley, both before and after the Kennedy assassination. Thornley is one of several characters whose lives are used as case studies to illustrate Curtis’ various theses and the occasional intersection of whose trajectories allow for so many “at the same time” moments.  Others featured include Jiang Qing (Madame Mao), Michael de Freitas (Michael X), black panther Afeni Shakur and her rapper son Tupac, transexual pioneer Julia Grant and Soviet dissident Edward Limonov. Curtis describes his aim in the series as to explore how we got to where we are now and, indeed, it covers a long historic span, mostly from the fifties to the present, though also, in one striking episode, delving back into the murky world of British imperialism in China. But this is history seen manly from the psychological perspective, particularly exploring the tension between individualism and the demands of society and so much is communicated wordlessly through the combination of archive and music, which, of course makes it almost as much a matter of the viewer’s interpretation as Curtis’ intention.

Curtis uses a wide range of archive material from around the world and never fails to find some amazing stuff, but nearly all of it is sourced from the BBC’s own collection (which, of course, contains material used in BBC programmes but not originally made by the corporation). The end credits include a list of “other archive sources” which is pretty brief and there are no other archive listings, so knowing where the material comes from is not possible, which is frustrating. In a recent piece for Sight and Sound, Curtis identifies and discusses a handful of the most striking extracts, but it would be really interesting (especially to an ex-archivist like myself) to be able to get information on it all. This could easily be digitally embedded or could be included in a commentary track, but I get the impression this may somehow undermine the mystique – do we need to know exactly what Curtis intended at every moment or should we be expected to accept the artist’s vision? I think this question goes to the heart of the issue of whether Curtis’ work is primarily documentary or artistic in nature and I find parallels here with the work of Hans-Jurgen Syberberg, especially his 4-part epic Hitler: a Film from Germany (1977), which is similarly densely crammed with visual and audio references, some, but by no means all of which I get, but would still like a directorial explanation of, though I do worry that such a thing may spoil the effect.

Also in the Sight and Sound piece, Curtis explains how much the digitisation of the BBC’s archives has helped his work and made both finding and sourcing his extracts easier and quicker. This is a tremendous justification of the long and hard work done by my archival colleagues at the BBC over so many years and the Corporation’s commitment of resources to it. Their commitment to providing Curtis with an i-player platform for his work is also highly commendable (worth the price of the licence fee etc!) and Can’t Get You Out of my Head can be found here: