What more?

Review 2006 Gratefully, just before Christmas I was asked to contribute to Off The Telly's television review of 2006. Ian Jones has collected together the material and it's a peach of an article, filled with programmes I'd missed or forgotten about. I happened to go mad and write far more than could be used, so I've decided, to present the deleted scenes here. Sorry for any repeats. Let's just call them 'another chance to see' shall we?

One of the highlight's of the year was certainly BBC Four's Silent Cinema season and its keystone Paul Merton's Silent Clowns in which the comedian passionately reinvigorated the reputations of Chaplin, Keaton, Lloyd, Laurel and Hardy. Taking a deceptively analytical approach, Merton described the mechanics of jokes, the use of music, editing and timing, illuminating some forgotten masterpieces, interviewing such luminaries as Bond stunt coordinator Vic Armstrong and Python Terry Jones who were given space to share Merton's enthusiasm. Perhaps the biggest joy was that having explained why he loves each comedian, an example of their work was included within the body of the programme usually restored and always with a new sympathetic soundtrack from his collaborator, composer Neil Brand.

Another success from the BBC's documentary department was the excellent and educational Balderdash and Piffle. Ace poker player, columnist and daughter of Alan, Victoria Coren flounced with purpose about Oxford trying to convince the curmudgeonly keepers of the dictionary that the earlier appearance of Ska sent in by a viewer was better than the one they had. The clever inclusion of celebrities and others in mini-documentaries about each word doing things which we wouldn't ordinarily see them do meant that none of the shows were actually dull, the high point being the oddly poignant New Orleans visit by Jerry Hall recorded before the floods.

Simon Amstall has reinvigorated Never Mind The Buzzcocks with the kind of clever wit he brought to Popworld but with a much edgier tone in keeping with the later timeslot, demolishing television stalwarts such as Penny Smith and Bill Oddie left right and centre. The genius of sitting Lily Allen and Jamelia opposite one another, two of the bitchiest popstrells currently in the charts was magic.

Whilst some would suggest (including me) that this year's series of Doctor Who was less potent without the reliance on mythology it did bring the magnificent Steven Moffat penned episode The Girl In The Fireplace which, with its postmodern mix of outer space and historical settings was as good as the show has ever been. Sophia Myles as Madam de Pomadour pulled off the miracle of convincing us that The Doctor would fall in love with her so quickly, and Neil Gorton's production design on the creatures, particular in their bald clockwork state was breathtaking. David Tennant was another excellent choice to play the Doctor, bringing all of the brilliant madness the part requires and Billie Piper's Rose will really be missed.

Life of Mars came from nowhere and threw everyone of their step, most of all me as I realised that whole scenes were being filmed in and around Manchester University in places I was actually going for lectures.

Danny Wallace's humorous How To Start Your Own Country was in the end a particularly sobering account of the decisions a government has to take about its citizens. The premise was hardly stock - man decides to turn his flat into a private country - and cleverly, rather than presenting a chronological journey, Wallace tackled each theme in turn, often with surprising methodology, such as actually going to the UN and unsuccessfully seeking diplomatic status. The real innovation was the live show, Citizen TV, that appeared only to interactive viewers in which some of the themes of the preceding programme were discussed and Wallace's endeavor became a public phenomena culminating in a naming ceremony in Leicester Square giving Ian Lee, late of RI:SE his first presenting gig in ages.

And my surprise of the year ?

Not Going Out, the BBC One sitcom scripted by Lee Mack and Andrew Collins received some bizarrely mixed (pre)reviews from a couple of raves to notices which seem to have been written by people who don't like television period. I went in with an open mind and fingers crossed. And you know, given all that, I loved it. The premise is refreshingly simple. Lee and Kate share a flat, he's a bit of a bloke, she's a bit of an American and they both know this other bloke Tim, because he's Lee's friend and Kate's ex-boyfriend (he dumped her). And err... that's it. In an industry that increasingly relies on high-concepts, it's lovely to see a British sitcom that strips everything away to the important essentials -- the characters.

The performances were very fine too. Lee Mack and Tim Vine previously worked together in ITV's late night sketch comedy experiment The Sketch Show and presented real chemistry in the scenes in which their characters propped up the bar and reflected on their differing relationship with Kate. In the middle, majestic Megan Dodds in her first television sitcom role proves that her scene stealing turn in Spooks wasn't a blip. Her timing was excellent particularly in the aftermath of a water spillage. Sometimes sitcom acting can detour too far away from anything like realism, but here the work was perfectly measured and in places touchingly dramatic.

Across the six episodes it has to be said that some well worn storylines were trotted out, from the flatmates having to pretend to be a couple to the successful blind date but as with the best sitcoms this was sidestepped with some blisteringly good if traditional execution. I'm pleased to say that for the first time in some time, there waa British sitcom worth watching on a main channel that isn't by Ricky Gervais. Not Going Out somehow managed to straddle the mainstream and not so mainstream and I'm sure that the harsher reviews were too quick to dismiss it because of the supposedly unfashionable elements of a studio and multi-camera setup instead of taking pleasure in the script and performances. The best measure of any sitcom is whether it makes you laugh and I did, all the way through.


The Lost Gospels Now and then BBC Four has wobbles and late in the year, The Lost Gospels an exploration of the books that didn't make the bible was one of them. Presenter/Anglican priest Pete Owen Jones, a sub-Michael Wood figure aimlessly drifted across Europe using the kind of voice over filled with words but little actual content teasing the audience and all but winking his way through the salacious details. Despite being a BBC Religion commission it looked like something from a US cable station, forever repeating information for the benefit of non-existent advert breaks, endless montages featuring the same shot of the Pope every couple of minutes and all too dramatic music whenever some sliver of information was finally revealed after minutes of rhetorical questions such as 'So what was it about the Gospel of St. Thomas that the early church found so controversial?' Just tell us will you !?!

Never Mind The Full Stops was an exercise in how not to do a panel game with boring questions, guests who often looked bored and pissed off and a host in Julian Fellowes who must have looked great on paper but was completely unlikeable on screen. The trailer which contrived to make him look like a bullfrog through the magic of slow motion didn't really help either.

Disappointment of the year ?

Torchwood I was talking to an old college friend recently and we inevitably got onto the subject of Torchwood, a show she'd been eagerly anticipating but had unfortunately ended up missing because of work commitments. She had managed to catch the last half of the episode Small Worlds and had but this to say. 'John Barrowman can't act can he? He was quite good in Doctor Who but (sigh) he should stick to musical theatre'.

I was about to take John's corner but then thought - well, hold on, if the only thing she could think about is the probable leading man's acting ability, then there must really be something going horribly wrong. Torchwood is a show in trouble and its difficult to really understand quite what the production team are trying to achieve. If this wasn't a Doctor Who spin-off I would probably have stopped watching by now. It says a hell of a lot that I'm now looking forward to a new episode of Robin Hood more than this.

After the promise of the still brilliant opening episode the programme quickly descended into a disappointing mix of random characterization, clichéd storylines and annoying visuals. For every cool moment, such as a cyberwoman battling a pterodactyl there's some distractingly poor bit of dialogue or storytelling - including an astonishingly mawkish moment at the end of one episode when Barrowman had to deliver the line: 'A million shadows of human emotion - we've just got to live with them...' whilst standing on a roof looking out across Cardiff (again). Perhaps its biggest crime was to introduce an apparent group of ongoing guest characters -

Fundamentally the show lacks romance. With the word 'adult' fixed in their heads, Russell T Davies and his production team try and inject as much sex, violence and swearing as they can even when the story doesn't necessarily call for it. The premise appears to have been to tell the kinds of stories that Doctor Who can't when really they should develop from apparatus of the show. It was promised that Cardiff would be seen as one of the characters in the show, but apartment from endless shots of the ring-roads and Cardiff Bay and accents these stories could be happening anywhere, unlike Joss Whedon's Angel (which Davies himself has suggested for comparison) which was very much of its place and could not have been set anywhere else - New York for example.


Graham Kibble-White said...

In a similar vein, and because very little of my contributions to the same thing were used, here's what I submitted, complete ...


Where once home finance appeared to be a nascent TV genre all of its own, Alvin Hall and Lawrence Gold can go and jangle their BMW key fobs somewhere else, as the City completed its takeover bid for the TV schedules. The Apprentice's second run sent the chattering classes - well - chattering once more, thanks to executive ghouls such as Syed, who had not an ounce of self-awareness but boundless self belief. That always makes for great telly and the show's promotion to BBC1 for 2007 will doubtless reap dividends. Dragon's Den proved - yet again - similarly impressive. But what's left to say about this programme? It delivers every week. Yes, it is becoming increasingly formulaic (this year, everyone who entered the den in the last 15 minutes got their investment), but it is now pursuing a more comedic line (Duncan Bannatyne trying to get to grips with a home gym ? built into an armchair) which lets some air in on the proceedings. Unsurprisingly, ITV1 are kicking off the New Year with their own variant of the format, Fortune, hosted by Richard Madeley and featuring ? Duncan Bannatyne. It's got "own-brand" knock off written all over it.

But if you want the real signifier that business telly is booming, it's Saira Khan's move into children's TV. BBC1's Beat the Boss ruled the schedules for one week, with Khan pitting junior entrepreneurs against their adult counterparts. Notions of profitability, focus-grouping, marketing et al were an easy part of the tableaux. The young audience were expected to be familiar with the concepts now; as recognizable a part of reality television as phone-in votes and eviction nights. This is enterprise culture of a like even Margaret Thatcher couldn't have conceived.


A TV trend has surely permeated its way through the schedules right down to the sea bed when ITV1 jump on the bandwagon. That's been true of business television, and it's true of sci-fi. Primeval now waits in the wings - with dinosaurs, dodos and Douglas Henshall - hoping to catch some of Doctor Who's fairy dust, and good luck to it. Thus far, the third channel's efforts have failed to convince. But then, even the Doctor Who team have been finding it problematic to repeat their own success. In ratings terms, David Tennant's first year in the TARDIS has bettered Christopher Eccleston's stint, and yet, creeping in, one can a sense an element of ennui about the show from varying quarters. Of course, nothing can be new forever, so second time around (well, second time around since 1989) is never going feel quite so exciting, but still, we know the format now. The "celebrity historical", the two-part finale, the contractual obligation that is episode 11, the oh-so daring hints at sex ? already they pall. Here's hoping 2007 will subvert our expectations and inject some unpredictability back into the show.

And talking of unpredictable, did anyone truly expect Torchwood to provoke such brickbats? Perhaps, as the little brother to Who, it's considered precocious, trying too hard to subvert and tease with sex and violence. And yet, on its own terms, it's solid, enjoyable stuff. Sure, it misfires all the time, but it's driven with such energy and excitement, it should be forgiven where it goes awry.

By contrast, NBC's Heroes doesn't put a foot wrong. Okay, by rights it shouldn't be mentioned here - it doesn?t hit British screens until February (and then, only on the Sci Fi Channel) - but its streets ahead of anything else. It balances the challenges of a large cast and a storyline set over a changing time zone (episode 10 takes place six months before episode one) with such bravura and finesse, it's truly exciting. However, like its stablemate, Lost, as soon as there's one whiff the show's creators are making it up as they go along, the whole thing will fall apart.


It?s hard to fathom why ITV2 is now the nation's sixth favourite channel, presenting as it does an array of inessential companion shows to ITV1 fare or micro-celebrity led derivations of successful formats (Ghosthunting with Girls Aloud or Michelle and Andy's Big Day). And yet, that said, on Sunday nights it gets it right with HBO's Entourage and NBC's The Office. The former - incredibly, when you consider its subject matter - most resembles the original run of Auf Wiedersehen, Pet, presenting us with a group of friends making their way in an alien environment. Where once it was brickies from Tyneside working in Düsseldorf, now we have wiseguys from Queens taking over LA. Entourage is light on plot, but huge on character. With Hollywood agent Ari Gold ("Let's hug it out, bitch!"), the show has a classic TV creation - acerbic, hyperactive and narcissistic. In contrast, the central character, Vincent, is something of a black hole, and easily the most disposable of the lot. But then, perhaps that's the point. The US take on The Office, meanwhile, has easily transcended its source material, turning into a successful ensemble show, boasting a bravura performance at the core from Steve Carell as Michael Scott. It's hardly laugh-a-minute stuff, but like its schedule mate, presents us with a group of people its fun to hang out with.

Hyperdrive turns a similar trick, and while its first run has been notably low on laughs, there's just something that feels right here. It's good news, then, that it's been granted a second series, and with a tightening of scripts, there's potential to consolidate on the successes and address those (many) failings. Conversely, while it feels like a more rounded show, Lead Balloon seems a little like a box-ticking exercise. Clearly inspired by Curb Your Enthusiasm, its jaunts between coffee shops, front rooms and kitchens , and lead character Rick Spleen's sparring competitions with his maid, dry cleaner or the paper boy all betray an obsession with Middle England, achingly on the nose for BBC4. Telly to drink lattes to.


Gordon Ramsay's Kitchen Nightmares marked a clear return to form. Ironically, the show's success is now telling against the acerbic chef, with many of this year's participants hoping to boost their business' profile simply by appearing on the programme. In addition, Ramsay encountered real hostility in the kitchens from chefs who'd been press ganged into the whole processes by their glory-hungry bosses.

Knowing a good format when they see it, five produced their own version, The Hotel Inspector, and dodged the bullet normally reserved for "tribute" programmes by turning out a rather good series. In Ruth Watson, the titular inspector, they have a genuine TV find. Decked out in voluminous coats and Spitfire-esque make-up, she speaks in shrill RP, but often lapses into the most agreeable sort of profanity - particularly when the heat is on. Genuinely passionately involved in the endeavour, the best bits of her show are simply when she forgets she's on telly and just loses her rag.

Cross pollination affected the usual crop of parenting programmes too, resulting in one memorable episode of Supernanny where Jo Frost encountered parents clearly failing to implement an eating regime they picked up from The House of Tiny Tearaways. Something else common across both shows was a racheting up of tension, with Jo and Dr Tanya Byron tackling more complicated cases than ever before.

Stephen Fry's The Secret Life of the Manic Depressive was a brave effort, but seriously flawed. Heavily biased towards the hypothesis that bi-polar disorder is a brain disease, it only really explored medical perspectives on the condition and distilled the whole discussion into one simple decision: Whether or not to take the pills. True, Professor Jan Scott did appear in the second episode to highlight the psychological perspective - but it seemed too little, too late. There was also a slightly unhealthy element of romance - Fry, Tony Slattery, Carrie Fisher and co painting the picture of tortured geniuses, who considered manic depression an acceptable trade off for talent.

Sheer lack of content dogged other shows. The Real Hustle, in the main, did well to fill out its second series with a slew of new scams, although it did slightly over sell the old rent-a-shop-and-bang-out-any-old-rubbish-before-doing-a-runner trick. By contrast, the BBC1 daytime consumer programme Don't Get Done, Get Dom, should really have been tagged with a consumer warning itself ("Contains 60% new content") such was its repetitious nature. But even that was nothing compared to The Great British Menu, which went out on weekdays on BBC2 over the summer. Progress across Monday to Thursday's episodes was painfully thin, jammed full of recaps explaining again and again the show's format, who was taking part, and what just happened a minute ago. It was only by the time we reached Friday the thing finally found its purpose. This solitary episode was then repeated on BBC1 on Saturdays. It therefore seemed the series had been specifically constructed so that four of the five episodes each week could be junked without affecting the integrity of the remainder.

Far more dynamic was Master Chef Goes Large, which brought us another action-packed, shouty and ridiculously macho run through the catering industry, before going one better and dragooning famous faces into proceedings with a successful celebrity edition (eventually won by Matt Dawson). But if either Gregg Wallace or John Torode quit, the show will be over.

A second run for Rock School also provided fine entertainment, with teen angst writ large as Gene Simmons toyed with the aspirations of a group of underachieving but overambitious school kids. Alas, the show is responsible for Lil Chris, but we'll skip smartly over that?

While Derren Brown's Trick of the Mind finally played itself out, revealing it had nothing new to show us, the illusionist himself continued to provide genuinely memorable TV via his own hour-long specials. The Heist was perhaps the most intriguing yet, as, under the aegis of a motivational seminar, Brown manipulated a group of business people into seemingly carrying out an armed robbery. This was fascinating stuff, throwing up more issues than we can sensibly go into here. So for 2007, Derren, let's forget the street magic, and continue to concentrate on the really important stuff.


Pokerface seems now to have been written off as a rare misfire for Ant and Dec, and yet this was a show with a format as elegant as Deal or No Deal, and apparently devised by the boys themselves. Perhaps ITV1 were wrong to schedule it across one week. If the show had gone out every seven days, there would have been more space for the public to discuss strategy, theorize on potential outcomes and generally drive themselves nuts about the show.

Wogan: Now and Then was a series that had been crying out to be made, so kudos for UKTV Gold for taking the initiative. Our host proved himself as eloquent and amusingly self-deprecating as ever - and that rematch with David Icke proved electrifying. A similar take on Jim'll Fix It can't hope to compare.


One of the standout dramas of the year had to be Channel 4's Longford. From the pen of the ubiquitous Peter Morgan, it told the story of the Lord (of Derek and Clive "gives me the fucking horn" infamy) who spent the last three decades of his life battling to win parole for Myra Hindley. This was a powerful but unsensational piece, which posed fascinating questions about faith and forgiveness. Did Hindley succeed in misleading her champion? Was his undiminished belief in the essential goodness of humanity plain foolishness? Any drama touching on the Moors murders needs to work hard to justify its existence. Moving, fascinating and beautifully made, Longford did just that.

Equally successful - but so far removed it could be on another planet - was the latest dispatch from Jack Bauer. 24 is a funny old show. It absolutely refuses to be diminished by age, and presented us with easily the most exciting "day" yet. It established its credentials by killing off President Palmer and Michelle Dessler within the first 15 minutes of episode one and - seemingly exhilarated by this act - proceeded to play fast and loose with the lives of everyone. This was thrilling, adrenaline-fuelled TV. And yet, within all that, the death of Edgar was beautifully underplayed, presenting a genuinely heart-breaking moment within the madness.

Prime Suspect was a more qualified success, bravely bowing out on a similarly anticlimactic note. There was an agreeable element of back to basis here, with Tennison brought firmly into focus. Here was a drama about aging, about coping ? about alcoholism, and excelled over other recent outings for the character because there was no "big issue" tagged on. Cracker's return, on the other hand was less convincing. Fitz's character is still magnificent, but the reliance on coincidence to propel the plot, and a preoccupation on an aging issue - the War on Terror - made the whole thing feel a couple of years adrift. Perhaps Jimmy McGovern finished the script in 2004?

Even more bogged down by issues was Tony Marchant's The Family Man. A treatise on IVF, every characters' life painfully overlapped with the central theme, while debates were hammered out by immaculately coiffured gents in plush private clinics, or over bottles of wine at the dining table. Yes, there were some pretty nifty plot turns, but - ultimately - who cared what happened to this bunch of stiffs?

And then there's Robin Hood. In an era when family dramas on Saturday night are still a novelty, it's a telling criticism that this series feels like an identikit take on the genre.

Stuart Ian Burns said...

Gosh, thanks for that. Great stuff. I'd blotted out Hyperdrive, although I saw the potential. And I thought I was the only person who watched The Real Hustle which manages to be a version of Candid Camera in which you actually learn things.


Palmer, Michelle and Edgar die? Oh - my - god!

(still waiting for the Sky Three showing or LoveFilm to send me the dvds whichever comes first)