2020 Hindsight

 

53164EAB-B40D-4F3D-A230-494CF0420DFE_4_5005_c

The turning of the decade has produced a large number of cultural lists, including plenty of the best TV of the 2010s, so I will take the opportunity to join the fun. The lists have varied in number from ten to a hundred, though it seems that, in most cases, the list-maker has probably settled on the number which best fits what he, she or they wanted to include (or, more likely, didn’t want to exclude). I will go for 25 but will include factual titles as well as the drama and comedy which exclusively make up many of the lists.

 

Enough has been written and spoken about the developments which gave us such a great decade of television – and so much of it – that there is little point repeating it here. For me personally, the defining experience of the decade was being invited onto the Peabody Board of Jurors, which both sharpened my critical faculties and meant I had to engage with American television in much greater depth than I had ever done before. And it was the perfect time to do so (I served on the board from 2011 to 2016), as this was the time of greatest innovation in all genres. I can point to a number of documentaries and series on my list which initially came to my attention through Peabody, including my number 1 pick.

 

Of course, British TV remained my professional focus until my retirement in late 2016, and that is also reflected here. At the same time, the availability of the best things from around the world on British TV platforms also increased as never before, so the choice was wide. I have omitted anything which debuted before 2010, even though its main impact may have been in the decade in question, so no Breaking Bad, Getting On, The Thick of It or Stewart Lee’s Comedy Vehicle.

 

Counting down from 25 to 1, my best TV of the 2010s is as follows:

 

25: Listen to Me, Marlon (Passion Pictures, 2015)

334877C7-8FF5-4A6F-ABAB-201F8592BF9B_4_5005_c

Outstanding documentary by Stevan Riley which uses Brando’s own tape-recorded legacy, together with a wealth of brilliantly sourced archive material, to tell the actor’s story as you’ve never heard or seen it before. Who’s Marion? (sorry: in-joke for my Peabuddies)

 

24: The Legacy (Arvingerne) (DR, 2014-17)

2C445D69-4DE8-4D87-BAC1-9693600C3DE5_4_5005_c

Danish TV drama hit the world with Scandi noir titles in the previous decade, but continued to produce outstanding material in other genres in the 2010s, such as the political drama Borgen, the historical epic 1864 and this melodramatic family saga which featured the best ensemble acting of the decade from Trine Dyrholm, Jesper Christensen and the rest.

 

23: The Secret History of Our Streets (BBC, 2012-14)

9310455F-89CA-46FD-97EF-52999BB74AE3_4_5005_c

Television social history at its finest and most accessible in this documentary series from BBC, Open University and Century films, examining social change over more than a century in the minutest detail, literally street by street.

 

22: How to Die: Simon’s Choice (BBC, 2016)

8CEE68C4-7301-4DAE-83C5-039C824EDDA8_4_5005_c

Voluntary euthanasia has been the subject of a number of documentaries, but never one as moving or involving as this. Simon himself provides a magnetic focus, but the effects of his decisions on his family and friends is equally devastating.

 

21: Fargo (FX, 2014-17)

BDC99FCE-A084-4481-B89B-315984982691_4_5005_c

To make a riveting and highly entertaining original drama series in the spirit of the Coens’ movie was a magnificent achievement by Noah Hawley. To repeat the trick twice more was little short of miraculous.

 

20: All Aboard: The Canal Trip (BBC, 2015)

975B3083-6E51-4840-87BB-307509126D88_4_5005_c

OK, slow TV was invented in Norway, but was never put to better use than in this glorious two-hour real-time journey along a beautiful section of the Kennet and Avon Canal. It shouldn’t work, but it keeps you enthralled for the duration. Just like my canal walks along the Grand Union, though, alas, without the fitness benefits.

 

19: This is England ’86, ’88 and ’90 (Channel 4, 2010-15)

F94D4233-262D-4CE7-AC6E-2990566B8B1E_4_5005_c

Some of the most searingly intense moments of the decade were provided by Shane Meadows and Jack Thorne’s ongoing working-class saga, as well as some of the most memorably comic. A great cast of characters and superb work from Vicky McClure, Stephen Graham and the rest of a brilliant cast.

 

18: Life According to Sam (HBO, 2013)

F5BED170-78E9-437F-9EBF-CCFF404BAD4A_4_5005_c

The most outstanding of a number of great HBO single documentaries I watched as part of my Peabody duties. It tells the inspirational story of a young sufferer from the deadly wasting disease progeria and his parents’ attempts to combat the condition worldwide.

 

17: Fleabag (BBC, 2016-19)

Unknown-7

A wonderful first series and an even better second. Funny, honest, innovative, constantly surprising, brilliantly acted by all the cast and, above all, superbly written by Phoebe Waller-Bridge.

 

16: 2012 Olympics Opening Ceremony (BBC, 2012)

5D425A3A-8127-4685-97C9-592B116DCF84_4_5005_c

Simply the most profound statement about British culture and history in the last decade in any medium. Yes, it was a stadium event and there is a “director’s cut” version, but it was broadcast worldwide by the BBC and that is enough to include it here. Even the usually tiresome parade of athletes was a joy.

 

15: Louie (FX, 2010-15)

Unknown-1

Louis CK revolutionised the situation comedy by including unrelated sequences, some of them almost sketches, in single episodes. The fluidity of both style and content comes across as a kind of stream-of-consciousness, or, indeed, the dramatisation of a stand-up routine – and it can be brutally to the point.

 

14: Wolf Hall (BBC, 2015)

25162CD5-15E4-40E8-9181-5500A489A2EA_4_5005_c

Peter Kosminsky’s fractured realisation of Hilary Mantel’s award-winning novels re-invented and resuscitated the historical costume drama, with mesmerising performances from Mark Rylance, Damian Lewis and Claire Foy. Can’t wait for the concluding part.

 

13: The Jinx (HBO, 2015)

0BB8044D-725A-41EC-8E22-BB0C582C487E_4_5005_c

The greatest of the sub-genre of investigative true-crime documentary series, much imitated and parodied (by the brilliant American Vandal), Andrew Jarecki’s dramatic and headline-grabbing pursuit of the truth in the cases associated with Robert Durst entertained and intrigued from start to finish. My own theory is that Durst, a man whose extreme wealth must make his life something of a bore, is seeing how far he can go without being brought to justice.

 

12: Utopia (Channel 4, 2013-14)

1B2A17BB-44FE-4831-A57F-C774524E5FA2_4_5005_c

The only thing stopping Dennis Kelly’s Utopia being higher on my list is Channel 4’s shameful axing of the show after two remarkable and stylish (and very yellow) series, before it could be brought to a satisfactory conclusion. The astonishing first episode of season two remains a stand-out moment in the television decade and a hint of what might have been.

 

11: Horace and Pete (Pig Newton, 2016)

HoraceAndPete

Louis CK’s second appearance on my list is an instant American classic in the tradition of Williams or Miller. An intimate and coruscating 6-part family drama, it was shot on a few sparse sets and released, unheralded, on the author’s own website. Great contributions from Alan Alda, Steve Buscemi, Jessica Lange and Edie Falco.

 

10: Brakeless (BBC/PBS/NHK, 2014)

90A25077-CE29-4982-8200-D6B3E7794B10_4_5005_c

 

Pretty much the perfect documentary – a masterclass from Kyoko Miyake. Examining the causes and implications of a fatal Japanese train crash from all angles, including the historical, social, economic and cultural contexts and the human cost, it uses beautifully drawn animations to convey the horror of the crash. Everything is done full justice, yet the whole thing is completed in under an hour. Outstanding.

 

9: Inside No.9 (BBC, 2014-)

7F15B5C5-CBFE-44BB-BDD4-3DAF24C64BAB_4_5005_c

Steve Pemberton and Reece Shearsmith have given us four tremendous seasons of their wonderful mystery/comedy/horror anthology, with scarcely a dud episode in sight but masses of highlights. The Twelve Days of Christine is probably the greatest half-hour of TV drama imaginable, but I also love The Trial of Elizabeth Gadge, Diddle Diddle Dumpling, Zanzibar, Bernie Clifton’s Dressing Room and, of course, the live Halloween special.

 

8: Black Mirror (Channel 4, 2011-14/Netflix, 2016-)

82C104D0-9069-4025-A4D7-58A80D970BCC_4_5005_c

This is probably the most emblematic series of the decade, not just because it spans the whole decade, or because it deals with the social, political and personal implications of the newest technologies, or because it represents the shift in power from broadcasters to streaming platforms (by moving from Channel 4 to Netflix), or because it is the product of the genius mind of Charlie Brooker, one of the most perceptive commentators of our times, but for all these reasons together. Oh, and it is brilliantly performed, directed and produced, too.

 

7: The Vietnam War (PBS, 2017)

Burns

Ken Burns’ monumental and meticulous examination of the American involvement in Vietnam was the greatest thing he has given us since The Civil War in 1990 (and he has given us many great things). Stretching over 18 riveting hours, nothing is superfluous (so don’t watch the 9-hour version – its only half as good) and everything is considered, illuminating and moving, perfectly complemented by Burns’ usual outstanding use of archive material.

 

6: Him & Her (BBC, 2010-13)

images-2

Stefan Golaszewski’s minimalist masterpiece, each episode shot in real time in a single location (a bedsit for the first three seasons – a hotel for the concluding wedding special) but containing a universe of character and incident. At the calm centre, lovable layabouts Steve (Russell Tovey) and Becky (Sarah Solemani); revolving around them, a gallery of friends and family ranging from the inept to the hateful. Hilarious, moving and totally engaging.

 

5: Mr Robot (Universal/Esmail Corp/Anonymous, 2015-19)

7E9F7EC6-CFDC-4FC8-B0D7-904FE23F561E_4_5005_c

Ostensibly a thriller set in the contemporary world of global digital control and anarchic hackers, it soon became clear that we couldn’t rely on the veracity of what we were seeing, which placed it even further ahead of our times as it proceeded and allowed creator Sam Esmail to produce some startling dramatic shifts, such as the episode in which the characters found themselves in their own traditional sitcom. By the end we, the audience, were implicated in the uncertainty and simply had to sit back and enjoy the wildly entertaining ride.

 

4: Les Revenants (The Returned) (Haut en Court, 2012-16)

A20049A7-EB58-495E-B300-76CBCBD1D1FA_4_5005_c

The inhabitants of a small French Alpine town face the religious, philosophical and, above all, personal consequences when a group of children, long thought dead, return to resume their lives. This supernatural premise opens the door to a magnificent meditation on life, death, grief, and the clash between logic and emotion, as well as providing the basis for intriguing mystery and community-based drama, all accompanied by a terrific and atmospheric score by Mogwai.

 

3: Twin Peaks: The Return (Showtime, 2017)

twin peaks

In the early 90s, David Lynch and Mark Frost’s Twin Peaks redefined what a TV drama series could be. In 2017, they did the same again with an 18-part epic which Lynch described as a single film cut up into hour-long segments. It was as surreal and mysterious as you would expect and then some – episode 8 will long remain as one of the most remarkable (and beautiful) things ever to grace a TV screen. The whole experience was something to immerse yourself in, without the need to seek explanations.

 

2: The Shadow Line (BBC, 2011)

60E19FFF-FFE7-4F0C-95A3-538F58E6C3FA_4_5005_c

A staggeringly assured drama series debut from writer/director Hugo Blick, previously best known for comedy series. His subsequent series The Honourable Woman and Black Earth Rising confirmed him as the greatest auteur working in British television, but neither of those excellent pieces quite reached the heights of this wonderfully stylish and characterised thriller, which explored themes of good and evil, honour and betrayal amongst both legal and criminal networks. Great cast, stunning set pieces and, in the character of Gatehouse, a memorably malevolent presence.

 

1: The Leftovers (HBO, 2014-17)

leftovers

Like Les Revenants, Damon Lindelof and Tom Perotta’s The Leftovers uses a supernatural premise (the sudden unexplained disappearance of 2% of the world’s population) to explore the big philosophical and personal themes. The brilliantly conceived and performed central characters all undertake their own journeys towards their own reconciliation with the fallout from the event and it is where those journeys intersect that the drama lies. Is there a final explanation? Some think so – I don’t. Is it a religious piece?  Some think so – I don’t. It seems to be loved by both believers and atheists like me. The ending is perfect and moving , however you take it. Great writing, direction and acting (Carrie Coon, Justin Theroux, Christopher Eccleston among many) throughout and a really memorable score from Max Richter.

 

 

Twelve of these titles won Peabody Awards (and others may yet) – five of them in the 2015 roster – what a year that was!

 

It seems to me that my top 5 picks (and several of the others) explore themes related to the search for meaning (or something to believe in) in a meaningless and bewildering world. Whether this reflects a preoccupation of the decade or just my own personal preferences, I don’t know – you tell me!

TV Top Tens: No.1- British Sitcoms

unknown-3

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)

unknown-4

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)

images

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)

hqdefault

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)

images-1

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)

images-2

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)

unknown-5

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)

images-3

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)

images-4

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)

images-5

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)

images-6

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)

Unknown-7

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!