In this special edition I count down my Top 25 favourite UK shows from the past year
25. Lab Rats (BBC2 Jul-Aug)
A surreal sitcom in the vein of say a Red Dwarf or a Father Ted. Created by The Thick of It’s Chris Addison and including a wealth of new comic talent as well as the old reliable Geoff McGivern. It was the old story of people at work not doing work but because that work was scientific research it added to the air of surrealism about the whole thing and included lemon-powered calculators and giant snails. This wasn’t everyone’s tastes at that’s why it’s only at 25 but in a year of crap new comedy this was a glimpse of hope for the future.
24. The Kevin Bishop Show (C4 Jul-Sept)
Bishop spends a second year at number 24 on the countdown after last year’s comedy showcase pilot. A mismatch of sketches some worked some didn’t but as with Lab Rats good new comedy should be triumphed therefore we will look at some of the awesome sketches such as ‘Dangerously High School Musical’, ‘Walken’s Crisps’ and the Americinasation of British shows as well as those pesky Daily Mail discs. Even though Bishop has kind of become better known for his Comedy Awards behaviour this show was still good.
23. The Fixer (ITV1 Mar-May)
Enjoyable action thriller starring Andrew Buchan as a man who comes out of prison and is recruited as a hired killer who steps in where there’s a problem with someone and ‘fixes it’. The action was good and it was added to by good performances from Peter Mullan and Shameless’ Jody Latham even though the female lead in Tasmin Oulthwaite was a bit poor, it was an entertaining show.
22. Peter Kay’s Britain’s Got the Pop Factor (C4, Oct)
Peter Kay’s first comedy in four years saw him spoof The X-Factor and shows similar to it. It was a very unsubtle spoof pulling out all the themes associated with these shows – sob stories, bickering judges, odd dance routines. Adding a Peter Kay stamp to it he included a lot of random cameos (Lionel Blair, Rustie Lee, Rick Astley) and song choices. Kay of course also starred as sex-change dinnerlady Geraldine and released a single off the back of the show which beat crap X-Factor champ Leon Jackson in the charts. An extra show in December was less successful due to the presence of Ben Shepherd.
21. Survivors (BBC1 Nov-Dec)
A wildly inconsistent show the opening episode of this remake of Terry Nation’s 1970 show of the same name was really good and kept me watching for ninety minutes. The performances by Max Beesley as the escaped murderer and Patterson Joseph as the survivalist were particularly impressive. The scenes of vast openness and the general feel of isolation were also good. However further episodes concentrated too much on Julie Graham’s Abby’s search for her son and less on the other characters. A story about the flu-virus being created in a lab was tantalisingly added to in each episode and apart from a society created by a government underling there wasn’t much of a plot in the further five episodes. However Survivors is returning and just about justifies this through some good scenes and actors.
20. Doctor Who (BBC1 Apr-Jul, Dec)
Yes I actually did watch most of this series of Doctor Who and I felt it was hit and miss. This was mainly down to Catherine Tate who at sometimes was rather annoying as new companion Donna Noble but at other times was rather good. Tate’s appearance meant that there was also a lot more Bernard Cribbins as her grandfather. However can it be any coincidence that ‘Midnight’ the episode I enjoyed the most was almost free of Tate. There was also a lot of good character actors such as Phil Davis, Lesley Sharp, Alex Kingston, Steve Pemberton, Tim McInnerney and Gita from Eastenders. The all-star final episode where everyone who’s ever featured in the re-imagining of Doctor Who turned up for a bit should’ve been a forethought that this might be Tennant’s last stand. The recent Christmas episode felt like a bit of a rest after the hectic series even though the Cybermen were reliably creepy and provided a gentle storyline. Although the Doctor won’t be fully back unitl 2010 and will be played by someone new.
19. Love Soup (BBC1 Mar-May)
David Renwick’s delightful 2005 series returns in a new format gone is American writer Gil and half an hour is shaved off the run time. This time Tasmin Greig and her beauty counter girls take centre stage and it becomes more of a sitcom about what it means to be a woman dating in the modern world, Sheridan Smith and Monseratt Lomabard provided some good support for the comic storylines. Later episodes became a little melodramatic, and additional characters didn’t seem to work but thankfully Ronnie Corbett in a wig pulled it back and bought some of the comedy back to it.
18. White Girl (BBC2 Mar)
A one-off drama shown in March as part of BBC2′s White Season, this saw a working-class girl with a put-upon mother and an abusive stepfather starts to find solace in the Muslim religion as they move to a multi-Ethnic area. As the mother Anna Maxwell-Martin was superb but it was young Holly Kenny as Leah who stole the show, as you could really understand her reasons for doing what she did.
17. Lost in Austen (ITV Sept)
This high-concept show which saw a 21st Jane Austen fan swap places with Elizabeth Bennett and starts living Pride and Prejudice drew obvious comparisons with Life on Mars. However this was a lot more upbeat and fun thanks to Jemima Rooper as Amanada and Hugh Bonneville as Mr. Bennett. The guys behind the show were allowed to tweak the story so Jane marries Mr. Collins, Lydia runs off with Bingley and Wickham turns out to be a nice guy. This is on the list because in a year of comebacks and spin-offs someone had the balls to try something completely left-field like this.
16. Jamie’s Ministry of Food (C4 Oct-Nov)
A kind of working-class movie in the vein of Calendar Girls or Brassed Off in which a conceited TV chef comes to a Yorkshire town and the townspeople have to do their best to work with him. That’s what would’ve happened if this had been made as a film, but here Jamie Oliver goes to Rotherham to teach them all how to cook simple recipes and then pass it on. Sounds a bit contrived but at the same time the people on it especially single mother Natasha and middle-aged miner Mick made the show and Oliver was even tolerable at times. The message behind it is also the reason that it ranks so high on the list.
15. Curse of Comedy (BBC4 Mar-Apr)
Not strictly a series I couldn’t decide between three of the four films in this season of which one would be on the list. The Curse of Steptoe starting Jason Isaacs and Phil Davis, Hancock and Joan starring Ken Stott and Maxine Peake and Hughie Green: Most Sincerely starring Trevor Eve were all great insights into the minds and backgrounds of so-called comedy icons. The one weak point was David Walliams’ performance as Frankie Howard but the other three films were so strong that it carried the fourth weaker one. Overall a great series.
14. Peep Show (C4 May-Jun)
Last year’s number six falls down the chart eight places, although Mitchell and Webb’s sitcom still is funnier than the most there just wasn’t enough plot this time as Olivia Coleman’s Sophie was out of the show for most of the series probably because she was filming the dreadful Beautiful People. That meant most of the episodes concentrated on Mark and Jeremy’s relationship with each other and the introduction of the character of Dobby, a new love-interest for Mark, seemed a little forced. I’m sure Mark and Jez will return for another series and will have learnt from their series 5 mistakes.
13. Wallander (BBC1 Nov-Dec)
This shouldn’t have worked, Shakspearian actor Kenneth Branagh playing the central role in a remake of a Swedish series playing a troubled Swedish detective named Wallander. The characters were all meant to be speaking Swedish yet they were all speaking English and each episode featured at least two or three bloody murders. It all kind of worked thanks to Branagh and the troubled detective genre which has been lacking a good anti-hero since Morse ended. With only three shows this year, the Wallander series looks sure to continue in 2009.
12. Tess of the D’Urbervilles (BBC1 Sept-Oct)
This adaptation of Thomas Hardy’s classic wasn’t tinkered with that much which was part of its charm, what’s made it was the love that was given to the characters through the adaptation and the performances by Gemma Arterton as Tess and Hans Matheson as Alec. The final episode were Tess is tragically hung was done with such flair and grace that I shed a little tear at the end.
11. Stephen Fry in America (BBC1 Oct-Nov)
Although the travelogue did get a bit passé with Charley Boorman’s third epic trip round the world. But anything that Fry’s attached to is pure gold and this show which saw him drive a taxi cab around America was great. Meeting with mobsters, creating his own ice-cream and making whale sounds were just some of the highlights of this great documentary.
10. Skins (E4 Feb-Apr)
Last year’s number 18 jumps up eight places thanks to the maturity of the writing and the performances in this second series of the E4 teen favourite. With Tony recovering from a head injury, Maxxie acquiring a stalker, Jal getting knocked up and Chris dying you’d think there wouldn’t be any humour but this was just as funny but not in a juvenile way. This series was also more about growing up and moving on and the last episode was brilliant with its use of light and shade and its ambiguous ending. Series 3 will see an almost entirely new cast but they have hard act to follow now that Sid, Cassie, Chris et al. have left us.
9. Gavin and Stacey (BBC3 Mar-Apr, BBC1 Dec)
Last year’s number three drops six places as James Corden and Ruth Jones’ series struggles to find things for its characters to do after the titular characters have got married the only thing that can happen is a partial separation. The series revolved around Nessa’s pregnancy and Smithy trying to deal with becoming a father while Stacey was feeling lonely living in Essex and missing her family in Barry. The humour mainly came from the support performances from Alison Steadman, Rob Brydon, Larry Lamb, Julia Davis, Adrian Scarborough and Corden and Jones themselves. Although still brilliant because of its likeable characters and random singalongs it has kind of lost a narrative pace which was evident in the slightly overlong Christmas speical. This is still a modern classic but there have been funnier sitcoms this year.
8. Little Dorrit (BBC1 Oct-Dec)
This was an incredible ensemble affair over 20 actors bought life into over 20 very different characters from newcomer Claire Foy’s loveable but never annoying Amy Dorrit to Andy Serkis’ comedy French villain Riguard, to Annette Crosbie’s almost mute performance as an old crone to Alun Armstrong playing himself again. I really got into the story this was a testament to Andrew Davies who split the series up into 13 episodes. I enjoyed the show that much that I’m now reading the book, see that’s culture for you.
7. The Royle Family (BBC1 Dec)
We thought that they’d left us with 2006′s The Queen of Sheba, but this one off Christmas Special entitled The New Sofa was a return to more comic fare that Aherne and co. are known for. This also saw a great change of location to Denise and Dave’s house and the introduction of Helen Fraser and Tom Courtneay as Dave’s parents. This was a giant farce of disaster as Denise tried and failed to cook a Christmas lunch. Although I don’t think The Royles should return on a regular basis it’s nice to see them now and again.
6. Lead Balloon (BBC1 Nov-Dec)
Jack Dee’s sitcom jumps a couple of places from number 8 last year thanks to a more coherent plot structure and a lot more laugh-out-loud moments. Maybe the characters aren’t as based in reality as say those in Gavin and Stacey and Outnumbered but some of the situations that get built up result in hilarious pay-offs that coupled with the one-liners given to Eastern European home-help Magda and stoner boyfriend Ben makes for a classic sitcom.
5. Life in Cold Blood (BBC2 Feb-Apr)
Documentary of the year and Attenborough’s last of his planet Earth series. This one was all about reptiles and amphibians and was full of the animal love-making and fighting that we’re used to in Attenborough shows but with the most impressive visuals yet and a fascinating subject matter this was watchable throughout. It was also added interest as Attenborough went to rediscover some of his old haunts when he started out making nature documentaries forty years ago.
4. Sunshine (BBC1 Oct)
Craig Cash’s writing gets him in the Top 10 again as he collaborates with Phil Mealey on this brilliantly dark comedy-drama where Steve Coogan plays a gambling addict who loses his wife, son and job and hits rock bottom but bounces back with help from his dad played by an always awesome Bernard Hill. The supporting cast had been picked from Cash and Mealey’s earlier sitcom Early Doors but the effect was one of wonder and also relied on a completely natural child actor in Dominic Senior who narrated the whole story. The ending was a little cheesy but apart from that this was a TV show with grit and heart and that’s a rare thing.
3. Dead Set (E4 Oct)
Genius TV critic and all round-wit Charlie Brooker, comes in at number three with this parody of Big Brother and what would happen if the fame-hungry wannabes had to defend themselves against zombies. Brooker demonstrated a love for the Big Brother format but at the same time couldn’t let his protagonist be one of the wannabes so it was up to Jaime Winstone’s likeable show-runner to turn kick-ass zombie fighter. There was some moments of great satire and other times brutal horror although the end was a little bleak this was such a good idea and so original that it deserves a place high up on the list.
2. Outnumbered (BBC1 Nov-Dec)
For the second year in a row, this suburban family sitcom sits pretty at number two, although this time a lot more people will have seen it as its on at 9 on Saturday nights as opposed to post news slots Tuesday-Thursday. The part-improvised show remained the same as the kids caused problems for the adults and the humour tended to be off-the-wall overseen by the capable Hugh Dennis and Claire Skinner. Hopefully the exposure will lead to more awards and a third series.
1. Criminal Justice (BBC1 Jul)
Although there’ve been a lot of good shows this year there hasn’t been one stand-out show but I’ve decided this drama shown over five nights in July deserves the top spot. The first reason is the plot seemingly disparate characters tied together by the conviction of a young boy of a murder that he’s not sure that he’s committed or not. The second is the performances from Pete Posslethwaite, Bill Patterson, Con O’Neill, David Harewood and Lesley Duncan among others were cracking and Ben Whishaw in the lead gave a strikingly innocent portrayal of this morally ambiguos character. Well-written, well-acted and well-paced this drama should’ve had pride of place in the autumn schedule instead of packed away in summer but there you go.
And with that done on to 2009….