TV in 2009

TV As ever, I've contributed to Off The Telly's annual review and as usual find below my unexpurgated raw passages:

Held in great affection by anyone who saw it, Being Human (BBC Three), somehow managed to synthesise everything we’d love about the Buffyverse then dilute it with a British sensibility rooted in Hammer Horror films and Channel 4 “contemporary” dramas. As is often the case, much of its success came from the chemistry between the three leads (two controversially replaced from the original pilot) Russell Tovey, Aidan Turner and Lenora Crichlow, finally with a part that allowed her to demonstrate that her iconic role in Sugar Rush was not a one off. While the arc story, a potential vampire invasion veered into cliché, it was the incidental storylines and scenes that impressed; there were few more chilling moments on screen this year than the snuff movie in which a murder was committed in flagranti by an unseen female assailant or a street full of norms misinterpreting the approaches by vampire John towards a local boy who accidentally took possession of said tape. A rare example of a BBC Three commission that deserved a main channel repeat and the second series which has been gifted to it.

Torchwood: Children of Earth (BBC One) surprised everyone (who watched) in turning out to be one of the best dramas of the year. After a rubbish first series and a qualified ok second, stripped across five nights, this was taught, philosophical, exciting block of programming that somehow managed to ram some of the show’s camper elements into plotting that wouldn’t have looked out of place in some of Nigel Kneale or Troy Kennedy Martin’s best work. About as morally suspect as the Doctor Who universe has been since the Virgin New Adventure novels, it asked questions about exactly how far over the mark a government may go in order to protect itself even if it means destroying its own people, as the cabinet happily put the countries children into the hands of junkie alien threat the 456 except for their own offspring. Also had the added bonus of offering revenge by Twitter after the close of episode four when American fans were screaming “NO SPOILERS!” despite the fact that they’d quite happily ruined the end of everything from Battlestar Galactica to Heroes in previous months. And what other drama featured the image of a Rachel Whiteread sculpture being dumped into a quarry, its smashed concrete remains revealing a butt-naked John Barrowman? I’m not saying this is a good thing, but it was certainly a valid alternative from Total Wipeout.

Newswipe with Charlie Brooker (BBC Four) brought the critic’s sensibilities to current affairs began with initially uncertain results but improved immeasurably when gravitated towards commenting on how news was covered rather than the news itself, with incisive commentary on the coverage of the G20 protests (which concentrated on the tiny pockets of violence rather than the vast majority of peaceful demonstrations) and the shift in what constitutes as being news (Jade Goody, snow instead of international affairs with global implications). Later in the year, Brooker hosted his first “panel” show, You Have Been Watching (C4), which was a welcome variation on the Screenwipe format. As so often the case, the quality of the episode depended on the quality of the guests, though it was usually at its most entertaining when Brooker revealed his vulnerability such as forgetting momentarily that Frank Skinner could be considered a celebrity or that Richard Bacon was friends with Jeremy Kyle just after giving the chat show foreskin both barrels of his verbal dexterity.

Electric Dreams (BBC Four) was a genuinely nostalgic trip through three decades of technological advances in which a family found themselves shifting through 1970-2000, a day per year, despite seemingly being an intentional shot for shot remake of the Adam & Joe sketch “The 1980s House”. As well as offering the spectacle of The League Against Tedium’s Simon Munnery recalling his earlier career as a games programmer for the ZX Spectrum, there was also an oblique fascination to be had in the domestic habits of participants, who had designated the lounge as the “adults room” with the mother then complaining that the family weren’t spending nearly enough time together before the experiment began, with their own experiment beginning at the end as they opened up that room now and then for the children so that they could watch films together. Suburban life ain’t what it seems etc.

The Well (BBC Two) was a short form horror series produced by BBC Switch, the slightly hazy department brought in when it was decided that the BBC Childrens shouldn’t cater for anyone over the age of twelve to offer something to older teenagers, in this case one of those 360 degree productions that also includes a computer game on the website. This fairly spooky haunted house story would probably have gone unnoticed to everyone outside its target audience had it not appeared to the last work of new Doctor Who companion Karen Gillan before moving to Cardiff. Gillan wasn’t given much to do but be a bit posh and offer scorn and exposition. This wasn't a Billie Piper in Bella and the Boys style eurekacorblimeyshe'sgood moment. She did give the odd look and scream that hinted at something interesting, but sadly The Kevin Bishop Show was a better shop window for what we can expect from Amy Pond, especially since there she was allowed to use her own accent. Your tolerance of it probably depended on whether you could stand dialogue which included what looked like an unironic use of the phrase "No probs, dollface."

Baroque! From St Peter's to St Paul's in which a typically enthusiastic Waldemar Januszczak enthusiastically crystalised the artistic period and its implications, somehow managing to even find something new to say about St Peter’s in Rome, perhaps the most filmed church outside of The Vicar of Dibley. The best sequence described the rebuilding of London’s churches by Christopher Wren and Nicholas Hawksmoor, which in illuminating the deliberate variety demonstrated the sullen boredom of most modern ecclesiastical construction.

Boy Meets Girl (ITV) stretched the hoary old body swap plot idea, stretched it across four episodes and tried to approach it with a modicum of realism succeeding admirably, largely due to Rachael Stirling’s affecting performance as Martin Freeman trapped in a woman’s body. Despite necessary emphasising certain gender stereotypes (he works in a B&Q, she works for a fashion magazine), it was unafraid to confront issues like the treatment of the mentally ill and homelessness, the show perhaps lost ground by not injecting nearly enough humour, afraid as it was of falling into the usual fish out of water scenarios. Nevertheless this was brave bit of programme for ITV1 and reminder that once upon a time it was a channel that produced something other than celebrity jungle shows, talent contests, psychological thrillers and detective series.

With Heroes dying a slow, convoluted death, it took Misfits (E4), late in the year to do something new with the ordinary people with extraordinary powers idea by giving those abilities to a group of repellent youngsters working community service, their costumes orange jumpsuits. Broadcast late, it scored by introducing bad language and sex into a genre otherwise usually barren of such things and underscored the post nu-Who shift towards adding comedic fantasy elements into series that might otherwise have become worthy explorations into the dark heart of society.

One of the most captivating televisual events of the year was happening online. Anthony Gormley’s fourth plinth escapade One and Other (online) attracted a couple of thousand volunteers to stand for an hour each none stop for three months on the empty patch of stone and allowed to do what they liked (full disclosure: I was one of them). A surprising number chose to do nothing but sit or stand and take in the atmosphere or take a few photos, but the participants who attracted the most attention were inevitably the attention seekers, the nudists, the fancy dresser, the karaoke singers, those with a cause to promote and the feeders throwing food into the square. Like Big Brother in its earliest days, viewers watching the live feed on the Sky Arts sponsored website didn’t initially know what to expect but would then tune in precisely because they enjoyed the element of the unexpected. And since no one could have seen the whole thing there was an added conversational element: “You won’t believe what I saw on the plinth earlier…”

Transferring from Radio Four to its television cousin, I've Never Seen Star Wars (BBC Four) was an unexpected pleasure as some of the corporations talent establishment (and oddly David Davis) lined up to be taken through their cultural blank spots by Marcus Brigstocke. Though none of them admitted to not having seen the film in the title, it was certainly entertaining to see John Humphrey’s cooing over Michael Jackson’s Thriller, Esther Ranzen (returning from a spot on the radio version) discovering Alien and the joy of watching Hugh Dennis nibble on road kill. Unflappable through most of the series and on serious form when required, even Brigstocke seemed genuinely moved when he had to reveal that the legendary Nigel Havers had agreed to and received a potentially career changing tattoo for his little BBC Four show; there were plenty of surprising moments on television this year but none of them were quite like Dr. Tom Latimer revealing the silhouette of scorpion permanently printed on his upper arm.

I agree, despite all of this, it was an unspectacular year, with the more inspirational content pushed to the margins. As the Today programme identified yesterday theatres are booming, which is only to be expected given the state of television, and how little it's catering for that kind of audience.

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