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 BBC Blog

The BBC has been a massive part of my life. I worked for it for ten years and then closely with it for a further twenty-nine, but it already held a strong place in my affections before I joined it and has continued to do so in my retirement. Its output has dominated my lifetime’s TV viewing, both for professional reasons and through personal choice (65% of my list of favourite British TV dramas are BBC productions and 90% of my list of British sitcoms). Former BBC employees have often been highly critical of the Corporation, not ever through any sort of animosity, but because they know that it is capable of reaching (and setting) the highest standards and are disappointed if it ever falls short. As it celebrates its centenary (which is actually the centenary of the radio service as well as the organisation as a whole, but TV is my main concern here) I was certainly looking forward to seeing how it would mark the occasion, especially through the use of archival materials, but felt that the very best way of doing so would be to produce some great new landmarks to add to the list of 100 which my former BFI colleagues have compiled here

And, happily, that is what it has done. In my last blog I expressed the opinion that Sherwood was the best British drama series for a decade. Well, that accolade only lasted about 6 months! I did not use the term “a decade” lightly but was specifically thinking back to the last series which I would place higher, which is Hugo Blick’s The Shadow Line (BBC, 2011), number 6 in my Top Ten British drama series (see blog, February 2021). And whose work has now taken over the title of “best drama series for a decade”? Why, none other than the same Hugo Blick, back with his best series since, er, The Shadow Line.

It seemed very odd that the BBC should produce a western – not exactly a genre for which it is well known – but it seems perfectly natural that Blick himself should essay the form. You could argue that many of the essential themes and elements of his previous series – the blurred line between good and evil, the nature of trust, the stunning vistas, the dramatic stand-offs and shoot-outs, the search for revenge and uncovering a truth – make them surrogate westerns. And in The English (BBC2 currently and i-Player) they are all there in their natural setting. 

All the other Blick hallmarks are there, too:  a convoluted plot with a number of mysteries at its heart; characters coming to terms with their past and their destiny; the reflective dialogue scenes, interspersed with dramatic set-pieces; a female lead character; memorable supporting characters performed by outstanding actors (with a couple of juicy parts here for Blick stalwarts Stephen Rea and Rafe Spall); an ambiguous narrative which makes you both think and feel at once. It is also a great homage to the western genre, with numerous visual references to the classics, and the ending was perfect in showing how, as Stephen Rea’s sheriff predicts, the myth of the west (which those classics represent) replaced whatever may have been “the truth”. I was particularly delighted with the use of footage from the BFI’s Mitchell and Kenyon collection to make that point. Of course, it goes straight onto my shortlist and will be in my end-of-year top ten (well, I have already said Sherwood will be there, so how could it not be?).

One BBC drama which was certainly produced with the centenary in mind was the Doctor Who special The Power of the Doctor (BBC1), which marked the end of the Chibnall/Whittaker era and featured a number of previous incarnations of the Doctor, as well as his favourite adversaries. It was enjoyable, if a bit of a mish-mash, but was, of course, most memorable for the surprise regeneration of the Doctor as David Tennant. This re-unites him (for a few specials at least) with Russell T.Davies and one can’t help but feel that Davies thought a direct transition from the first female Doctor to the first black one would be too much for the more “traditional” fanbase and is thus keeping their loyalty by bringing back a favourite first. The revelation that we are getting an old doctor back came at just before 9pm on Sunday 23rd October. At almost precisely the same time, the BBC News app notification sounded on my i-phone to inform me that we wouldn’t be getting an old Prime Minister back, Boris Johnson having just pulled out of the contest for Tory leader, which I guess is what you call a win-win situation.

Turning to documentaries about the centenary and going back to my own time at the BBC, when I was the TV Archive Selector in the 1980s, I well remember getting regular visits from the legendary war correspondent Frank Gillard, who had been charged, in his retirement, by the Corporation with conducting confidential interviews with key BBC personnel and others, for use at an unspecified future date, but certainly with the centenary firmly in mind. He would pull up outside the South Block of the BBC Film and Videotape Library in Windmill Road, Brentford and together we would unload cans of 16mm film from the back of his Vauxhall estate and take them to “the cage”, a lockable and highly restricted cell in the safety film vault where the naughty programmes which nobody was allowed to see, like Yesterday’s Men, Dance of the Seven Veils or Brimstone and Treacle, were kept. The interviewees had been told that their contributions would not be allowed to be seen or used  until after their deaths, in order that they should feel free to speak candidly. Several of them had already been used for documentaries about aspects of broadcasting history and I was, of course, keen to see how they would feature in the centenary programmes.

A number of the interviews turned up in John Bridcut’s How the BBC Began (BBC2), a two-part, three-hour survey of the Corporation’s first fifty years, presented thematically rather than chronologically. Bridcut had clearly been working on the documentary for some time and had himself conducted interviews with many of the key people who were still alive (though a lot of them, sadly, no more). As with his music documentaries, his approach to his subjects is empathetic rather than interrogative and he sometimes likes to film them listening to or watching archival recordings. As a result, the documentary was impressionistic rather than comprehensive, but contained plenty of interesting and enjoyable material.

For a more critical approach we would have to go back to David Dimbleby’s three-part Days That Shook the BBC (BBC2, August), though commentators were quick to point out that, being steeped in the culture of the BBC through both his own and his father’s careers, he was not necessarily the impartial observer he claimed to be. Where the Bridcut documentary focussed on the BBC’s first 50 years, Dimbleby’s was almost entirely concerned with the more recent 50, so together they form a diptych and it is little surprise that the former was about pioneering and innovation while the latter considered controversy and conflict. 

Dimbleby, in the best BBC tradition, turned out to be a detached observer of the various issues he considered and was at times a very harsh critic, especially over the BBC’s handling of the Jimmy Savile case, both in terms of how he was allowed to get away with his crimes and how they were (or, more importantly, were not) reported after his death. This was truly a case of the disappointment at the failure to maintain the highest standards which I mentioned above and, coming from a BBC insider, carried more weight than the entirety of the Netflix series Jimmy Savile – a British Horror Story from earlier in the year, which was a good explanation of the phenomenon for an international audience, but not much more.

Among those interviewed by Dimbleby for his series was Emily Maitlis, who, along with the likes of Andrew Marr and Jon Sopel, left the BBC this year to pursue their own journalistic projects which are more akin to newspaper journalism in terms of the scope it gives them for expression of opinion. Nothing wrong with that at all and they are all doing good work, largely thanks to their BBC training. What I would reject though is the criticism of the BBC, whether implicit or, in Maitlis’ case, openly stated, over questions of “balance”, “impartiality” or, the perjorative phrase most commonly used nowadays, “false equivalence”. In a time when there is so much digital manipulation of opinion, we need a strong example of unbiased news coverage more than ever and that is what the BBC is specifically and statutorily there to provide. It may not always get to “the truth” of an issue but it is vital that it exists. This was brought home to me by the cartoon below, which I found on social media. 

It is funny and makes a great point, but, thinking further about it, I came to the conclusion that “the idiots” must be given a say. If not, they will not be short of platforms for their ideas and will be able to say, with justification, that they have been censored by the mainstream media, which will give them further strength. Better to acknowledge their existence and challenge them openly. In a year which has seen so much political turmoil, I think BBC News has provided a true public service.

Still with documentary, the beginning of the BBC was not the only moment of great cultural significance in 1922, which also saw the publication of the “greatest poem of the 20thcentury”, T.S.Eliot’s The Waste Land (a personal favourite, though I actually think Prufrock is even better), so it was highly fitting that this other centenary should be marked under the banner of the BBC’s most influential arts series, Arena. And a terrific piece Into the Waste Land (BBC2) was – given plenty of time for an in-depth consideration of the poem’s complexity, with recently discovered letters throwing new light on its meaning, interviews with erudite academic talking heads and an archival recording of the man himself reading his own words. Another documentary for the shortlist.

But it has not just been the programmes specially prepared for the occasion which have resonated in this BBC centenary year. It has sometimes seemed that events have conspired to emphasise the Corporation’s history and its centrality to our culture and our national life. One such was that warm summer night in late June when Paul McCartney took to the Pyramid Stage at Glastonbury. Just turned 80, he put on a stunning show featuring his music from the past six decades. It was BBC history, but only by nostalgic association – and, of course, it was brought to us by the BBC.

If I had to name just one thing which the BBC does, which I regard as the most essential and the most praiseworthy, I think I would have to say The Proms. The Corporation has run this fantastic music festival, a true national institution, since 1927, broadcasting all the concerts on radio and many on television, and its own orchestras feature prominently. This year saw the return of a full Proms programme after the interruptions of the pandemic years and the crowds flocked back. Tickets for the best concerts were hard to get, but I secured one for John Eliot Gardiner’s performance of Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis on September 7th. It was superb and I was delighted to have been present at the festival in BBC centenary year and made a mental note to watch the Last Night on the coming Saturday. But the next day, something happened which ended the season early and which, more than anything else, provided the historic resonance I mentioned above.

The BBC’s hundred-year history has been closely associated with the monarchy. It was the Queen’s coronation in 1953 (the year I was born), which helped establish the BBC television service as a central part of national life and the symbiosis continued throughout her long reign. Her death on September 8th and the commemorative events of the subsequent weeks, as well as the accession of the new King, saw the BBC at its best. True, they had been preparing for it for a long time, but nevertheless there were important choices to be made about the extent and tone of the coverage and they got it pretty much spot-on. The day of her funeral was impeccably observed, the coverage was superb and the presence of the ageing David Dimbleby, who has been so closely connected with so many royal occasions, as commentator for the final ceremony at Windsor, was perfect. It truly felt like the end-of-an-era moment which it was. Certainly the TV broadcast of the year.

And, of course, the occasion demanded the extensive use of archive material from the entire history of the BBC, given that the Queen had been born in 1926. Together with the documentaries and the repeats of classic dramas which I mentioned in my previous blog, as well as the re-positioning of BBC4 as an archive channel, this meant that the archive has been utilised this year more than ever before. It is also now more accessible and appreciated than it has ever been, as you can judge from this Guardian piece. I have always been proud of the small contribution I made towards the creation of the BBC Archive and pieces like this, as well as the centenary celebrations, have only served to reinforce that feeling. The BBC may be facing an uncertain future, but its past is secure.