Film and Television Features

The Slack-Jawed and Square-Eyed Review of 2011

It might seem a bit indulgent for only my sixth television column to be devoted to a look back over the past year. But then these end of year lists have always been more than a bit indulgent, besides I think that my spending most of 2011 in front of the telly more than qualifies me to write this.

What might be a bit indulgent though is the fact that I'm attempting to do this despite the fact that I can barely summon up an opinion for the year in TV; partially this can be ascribed to my inability to watch anything on ITV (the number three button on my TV remote remains almost as pristine as the day I bought it), so I have nothing to say about whether The X-Factor was any worse this year than normal, or if Appropriate Adult was a controversy too far, or if series two of Downton Abbey was a massive disappointment. The worrying thing though is that I can barely remember much of what was on the other channels over the year, I'm choosing to see this as a sign that it wasn't that great a year for telly, rather than an early indicator of my memory going.

It's probably fair to say that British TV did not quite have the banner year that its music and film did, which might explain why The Shadow Line was met with near universal critical adoration. I have absolutely no idea where the "It's the British The Wire!" line came from, but from my experience it seemed like the most egregious example of mis-selling of a TV show this year. (Full disclosure I only managed to sit through one episode as Rafe Spall's hideous overacting gave me a headache, so it might have actually gotten better after that, I've been informed that it didn't though).

Slightly better (only slightly mind) was The Hour, which much like The Shadow Line/The Wire comparison was touted as Britain's answer to Mad Men. Needless to say it wasn't, instead being a potentially interesting take on TV news in the 1950s somewhat ruined by being smothered by a really turgid, ultimately nonsensical spy plot. It'll be interesting to see what happens with series two as, with the espionage storyline wrapped up (I think - the denouement was hardly plausible) there's a chance that the show will just focus on what it's good at and we'll get the cool, intelligent period drama that we were promised. Either way, hopefully the ever-fabulous Anna Chancellor will be given sufficient room to chew as much scenery as she wants.

Unfortunately Romola Garai fared less well in the show, which is a shame as only a few weeks previously she had so impressed in the BBC's adaptation of Michel Faber's faux-Dickensian romp The Crimson Petal And The White. Although even more impressive were The IT Crowd/Bridesmaids' Chris O'Dowd and Gillian Anderson revealing previously unseen sides of themselves (though Anderson has since gone from one unfit Victorian matriarch to another with her fairly unique take on Miss Haversham in the fairly decent version of Great Expectations that's just been shown over Christmas). The term 'unfilmabIe novel' gets thrown about surprisingly often, but considering the sheer amount of between the sheets action in Faber's book (I was going to describe it as increasingly kinky, but to be honest it starts out pretty sordid and stays that way), it's pretty amazing that the series turned out so well, or that it was greenlit in the first place. Shame that the BBC didn't stretch to more than four episodes though as it made for a bit of a race through the book's 900-odd pages.

Perhaps the biggest surprise success for British TV this year was The Great British Bakeoff. Largely ignored during its first series (you couldn't help but feel a bit sorry for the lot who slogged their guts out in the competition last year to near total public indifference), something about the cosy, fairly middle class view of Britain the show presented, not to mention the delicious, fattening treats on offer struck a chord with viewers and tweeting along to a cookery competition briefly became the 'in' thing (of course, as has been suggested by thousands of others, the show's success probably had something to do with everybody being miserable about the recession). Not that it was all a big sugar-fuelled love-in, as the competitors had to deal with both the very British stern disapproval of judges Mary Berry and Paul Hollywood, not to mention hosts Mel and Sue's (whose reunion came as something of a delight to anyone who was a student or unemployed in the late nineties - I still find myself mourning the passing of their daytime show Light Lunch) overly enthusiastic 'tasting' of the ingredients. And, of course, the most alarming pair of squirrel testicles you're ever likely to see.

An equally unexpected triumph came in the form of Steps Reunion, which exposed the heart of darkness that beat within the reanimated corpse of the 90s bubblegum popgroup. With the revelations about spectacularly shitty behaviour coming thick and fast before each ad break, and never-ending squabbles over who got to sing which vocal, none of the band came out of it particularly well, other than Faye, and that's only because she didn't do very much. Still, shame that Sky Living had to ruin the whole "will the reunion happen or not?" cliffhanger by running adverts for the group's 2012 tour during the penultimate episode, and for that matter it was a shame that the channel then squandered any goodwill it might have earned by following the show with the unbearable Signed By Katie Price.

Comedy-wise it was all about a programme that wasn't even on TV this year, as the nation lost its collective mind over the imaginatively titled The Inbetweeners Movie. I can't comment on the film as I didn't bother to see it, but I'm willing to predict that it was like an episode of the show (fairly filthy, amusing, but nothing that special) that lasted three times as long. With that show now, allegedly, being over and done with there was the question of what show Britain's youth would next take to their hearts, although that was soon answered with the arrival of the fairly similar University-set comedy Fresh Meat. Personally I didn't really get on with it, possibly because I find that sitcoms get a bit tiresome if they run for more than thirty-minutes an episode, but more likely it was because it served as an unpleasant reminder that my University days are a frighteningly long time ago now. But a lot of other people loved it, which I guess is all that really matters.

More up my street was the much-hyped but little-seen This Is Jinsy. Set on an Orkneys/Channel-esque island that existed somewhere between the 1970s and 1984, overseen by a supposedly benign dictatorship, Jinsy offered such delights as Joon Boolay's punishment round-up (Harry Hill making for a surprisingly effective dragged-up dominatrix), the annual beard competition and some amazing songs such as the Wickerman-inspired folk-thrash of Face Cake, the Sandy Denny-meets-Tom Waits sound of Melody Lane and KT Tunstall (with a beard, of course) singing a song about onions to impress a dog (the island's answer to Simon Cowell). All that having been said, being buried away on the Sky Atlantic channel probably did the show a massive favour as its unbridled silliness was never going to win over a mass audience, but it's one of those things that's going to find a small but devoted fanbase. I'm already eagerly anticipating the second series in 2013.

However, as the aforementioned The Wire and Mad Men comparisons demonstrate, British TV was once again seen as rather lacking in relation to its American counterpart. And that was even considering the lack of new Mad Men episodes this year, not to mention the continuing disgraceful absence of Parks And Recreation, Community and Breaking Bad from British TV.

To be honest, it wasn't that great a year for American TV either - if you're looking for proof that we live in a cruel, godless universe consider that the execrable Two And A Half Men continued to be a ratings smash even after the departure of the increasingly ludicrous Charlie Sheen (on that note, how they wrote him out, and Ashton Kutcher in, might just be the laziest bit of scripting of the year) when it seems increasingly likely that the ever-inventive Community won't survive the year ahead, or that the one-note Whitney Cummings somehow managed to get two hit shows under her belt. I think British TV just about won the race to the bottom of the barrel with OMG With Peaches Geldof (essentially a facebook status masquerading as a TV programme), but America wasn't far behind - they even managed to top the out-of-place spy story in The Hour with the even-more-out-of-place spy story in frothy airline soap Pan-Am.

Still, at least there was Game Of Thrones, which not only got away with some of the worst excesses of the fantasy genre but actually made them very enjoyable. It also provided us with perhaps the most (intentionally) loathsome child character ever to grace our screens in Prince Joffrey, Sean Bean's ridiculous haircut (which he still managed to pull off), more than enough graphic incest to last you a lifetime and provided Peter Dinklage with a role that was finally worthy of his talents, only eight years after his last one in The Station Agent.

Perhaps most surprisingly though, the real must-see drama of the year actually came courtesy of the 24 hour news channels, as the images of the Middle East uprisings bled into footage of riots in this country (albeit with a brief bit of pleasant, yet spectacularly dull, respite from the Royal wedding), and increasingly vile details about tabloid phone-hacking, before the channels finally saw out the year back in the Middle East again. Even Prime Minster's Questions became must-see-TV as David Cameron attempted to weasel his way out of uncomfortable enquiries into his links to the Murdoch empire, and why he had been caught napping by the outbreak of the riots (or more accurately, why he hadn't bothered to come back off holiday).

And to soundtrack the images of the frighteningly fast collapse of society, we had the rather appropriate sound of episodes of Top Of The Pops from the seventies on BBC4 (still the only channel that really justifies its existence, and the one that continues to be threatened with closure). If we're really lucky increasing demand for fuel will lead to a three-day working week again and we can all relive our parents' memories of that decade during 2012.

But, even if society does completely go down the toilet next year, I'm still holding out hope that the quality of its TV shows will at least be a bit better than 2011's.