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!

Old Favourites (Parts 1, 2 and 3)

Long time, no blog – and an even longer time without a TV blog; in fact I haven’t produced one in 2022 before now. Apologies for that, but it has been a strange year. In addition to my continuing responsibilities towards my (very) elderly mother and learning-disabled daughter, my dear wife has been diagnosed with lung cancer and has undergone a lengthy course of chemotherapy. I have therefore spent a considerable amount of time driving and caring for three generations of those dearest to me, and, while I have managed to watch a reasonable amount of TV at the same time, getting my thoughts down about what I have seen has been less successful.

Actually, that’s not entirely true. I did start writing in the early summer and called the blog “Old Favourites”, for reasons which will become clear, but, having started, I didn’t finish, time went on without publishing anything and the TV landscape changed somewhat. I will therefore present this blog in three parts – the first of which should have emerged several months back.

Part one: Old Favourites

The only TV I have mentioned from 2022 so far was John Bridcut’s film of Schubert’s Winter Journey (BBC4, February) which fitted neatly into my previous blog about the music I was listening to on my drives. It was as wonderful as I had anticipated, given my love of the music and admiration for Bridcut’s work. Pretty much a shoo-in for my shortlist.

However, although I was finding plenty to watch and enjoy, it struck me around the middle of the year that virtually all of it was returning series of things I already know I like. Is this because that was the only good stuff on offer, or is it an indication that I am beginning to get too old to recognise and appreciate (and yes, to enjoy) innovative work, or maybe to relate to the behaviour patterns of the younger generations being portrayed? I have always been reluctant to shortlist things I have already included in previous years’ top 10s unless they have shown significant improvement on earlier seasons, but how could Star Trek: Picard (Amazon), Stranger Things (Netflix) or Top Boy (Netflix) manage to go one better on what they have already delivered? The answer was that they couldn’t, but they did provide me with my favourite viewing of the year to that point. Picard is, I think, the best Star Trek since the original series and promises much for the third and final season. Many thought that the considerably darker tone of this year’s Stranger Things made it the best so far, but I prefer to see it as a progression, as the characters (and the wonderful cast playing them) grow from kids to young adults. Top Boy continued its magnificent and riveting return and, of the three, is the one I would be most inclined to shortlist, but for the time being I won’t. They will be there, in abeyance, if not enough great new stuff shows up.

Old favourites were also in evidence on terrestrial TV, particularly the BBC. Inside No.9 (BBC2), an all-time favourite of mine, was back for a seventh season. Unfortunately, the amazing level of quality this series has maintained for so many years now seems unsustainable and this was the series where it failed to live up to the reputation which preceded it. Only A Random Act of Kindness was up to previous standards. It was too much to expect it to continue to surprise, which is its very essence, and too many episodes here were self-referential or covered already trodden ground. Mr King, for example, was a re-imagining of The Wicker Man, where the “religion” pitted against the forces of rural paganism was environmentalism. Nevertheless, that episode did contain some of the best laughs of the series.

The Outlaws (BBC1), which made my top 10 last year, returned swiftly for its second season and continued exactly as it left off, which was highly welcome though, again, not shortlist-worthy. Better Things (BBC2), in the meantime, came to a very satisfying conclusion.

Part two: Old favourites in new settings

At about the time I should have been publishing this blog, new things started to arrive, many of which were the work of my favourite programme makers, or which demonstrated older-style merits, or which simply had great casts of favourite actors. I thought that would provide a neat thematic way of ending the blog, so I put it into temporary abeyance, but have not been able to pick it up again until now.

The pivotal series was Sherwood (BBC1) – quite simply the best British drama series for a decade: up there with the likes of Edge of Darkness, Our Friends in the North, Holding On, Happy Valley and even The Shadow Line, all of which it had things in common with. It had the old-style merit of making you desperate to know what happened next but made you wait for the next transmission and was very cleverly scheduled – two episodes (of the six) every Sunday and Monday for three weeks, with tremendous cliffhangers at the end of the second and fourth episodes to increase the sense of anticipation (and with no recourse to i-Player). But it was not just a thriller – it was a social and political meditation on the state of the nation to boot. And the cast! Leslie Manville and David Morrisey leading a seemingly endless gallery of wonderful and reliable character actors who have populated the best British TV drama of the past 40 years, which is the time-span of the series. There is talk of a second series, but I really hope it doesn’t happen. This one ended conclusively and satisfactorily and deserves to stand alone as the masterpiece it is, rather than risk being downgraded by a sequel which would have no hope of replicating its impact. 

I do, however, hope there are further series of Marriage (BBC1). The work of Stefan Golaszewki ranks very high in my canon and I was eagerly anticipating his latest, especially as it features Sean Bean, Nicola Walker and James Bolam. I wasn’t expecting what we got, though, and it was initially perplexing. His previous series, Him & Her and Mum, had been dramatic comedies presented in half-hour episodes with a real-time narrative and a single location. Here we had hour long episodes and a more traditional editing pattern. It was drama rather than comedy and the absence of Golaszewski’s usual wicked sense of humour also confounded expectation. It was slow and minimal but had real depth and stayed with me more than even Sherwood had done. There are so many unspoken background details which were hinted at and which I hope will emerge in future series. Unlike Sherwood, however, it was badly scheduled; its experimental nature made it unsuitable for the Sunday 9pm slot on BBC1, which carries very specific expectations, and the negative response it got from some quarters was, I think, a direct result of this. I hope that does not impact on any decision to commission more. Both Sherwood and Marriage go on to my shortlist and will be in my top 10 without a doubt.

There were two other new works from favourite programme makers I wanted to include in the blog: Peter Kosminsky’s The Undeclared War (Channel 4) and David Simon’s We Own This City (HBO/Sky Atlantic). However, at the time of writing, I have still not managed to complete my viewing of either, so will need to come back to them. And, in the meantime…

Part three: New Favourites

Clio Barnard’s The Essex Serpent (Apple TV) was handsomely mounted and excellently acted and directed, but took some time to get going. Indeed, it was only when it decided that the monster was a McGuffin and the real story was the love triangle that it actually took flight in the final three of its six episodes. Enjoyable, but not enough so to gain “favourite” status.

The Sandman (Netflix), on the other hand, is an instant favourite. It started well, with brilliant effects and an imaginative narrative and then went up a level, not once but four times!  The fourth and fifth episodes brought the story of how the Sandman recovered his powers to a terrific conclusion and featured yet another stunning performance from David Thewlis. There was then the pivotal stand-alone episode 6, much remarked upon in the critical response and featuring two riveting strands, in the first of which the figure of Death, presented as a kindly young woman, wandered around Richmond carrying out her sad duties (shame she didn’t bump into Ted Lasso!), while the second was a cautionary tale on the perils of immortality as well as a clever history lesson – so much in a single 45-minute episode. The second main story of the series was a more densely plotted affair (and darker, including a conference for serial killers!) which was exemplary in its use of fantasy to address big philosophical themes. The section ended with the forces of hell about to launch an invasion of the dream world, but then the final episode went off in a completely different direction, with another two-part presentation: firstly a section presented in animation and echoing the graphic source material, followed by another cautionary tale about a writer’s Faustian pact to achieve fame, which came across like a Tale of Unexpected Mystery and Imagination. I expect the hellish invasion will have to wait for another season, which will be much anticipated. Another remarkably successful aspect of the series was the diversity of its casting, especially as regards gender, with the startling presentation of the character of Death matched by the brilliant performance of Gwendoline Christie as Lucifer.

The Sandman was a lavish production, with terrific sets, costumes and special effects and expensive actors. But you don’t have to have a big budget to make something striking and effective, just a genius for what will work. At the very opposite end of the budgetary spectrum we find How To with John Wilson (HBO/BBC2) which has a deliberately amateurish and “home-made” feel to it and it has become a big new favourite of mine. The two series we got this year were both made and aired in the US in the last two years, but it is new to a British audience so it is fair game for my 2022 top 10. 

Wilson’s show is a hybrid of comedy and documentary, in which his approach to interviews and the “real” events he attends is similar to that of Louis Theroux, but all the surrounding material is a collage of randomly shot material presented in a humorous way to illustrate (or maybe inspire) his hilarious commentary and, very subtly, making serious points at the same time. He will start off investigating a fairly mundane topic, often in the style of a self-help YouTube video, but will then stray into the more profound implications of the subject, which you had probably not considered. A great example is the one called How to Cover Your Furniture, which turned into a meditation about what constitutes genuine experience. The voice over adds to the effect, Wilson’s halting and confused delivery covering the fact that he knows precisely what he is saying and trying to get across. You laugh, learn and think all at once – it’s pure genius!

So, that’s another two definites for my end-of-year list.

My recent viewing has also encompassed some very old favourites. This being the BBC’s centenary year, BBC4 has been showing a number of great archival dramas, inspired by a list of “game-changers” compiled by my former colleagues at the BFI. I was particularly pleased to get the opportunity to see in full for the first time, The Roads to Freedom from 1970. This was classic BBC studio and videotape drama of the highest order, still clearly a ground-breaking milestone all these years later. Another BBC milestone are the 1960s series of Johnny Speight’s Till Death Us Do Part, which still retains the power to shock and astonish. Too hot for the BBC to handle in today’s climate, they cleverly allowed all the surviving episodes to be aired on That’s TV.

The main centenary celebration is yet to come, though, so my next blog will be focussed on the BBC and what it means to me. I will also consider some recent documentaries and the monumental broadcasting event which the death of the Queen and the accession of the new King entailed.