So it’s that time of year again as I look back at the best UK TV shows of the past year.
25. Silk (BBC1, Feb-Apr)
We kick of the best of the year list with a legal drama from the man behind the Criminal Justice sagas and one that really won me round as it went on. I think the reason Silk made the list is that it is a proper drama series with well-drawn characters and believable plot-lines. Set around a group of barristers at a Chambers in Central London it echoes Peter Moffat’s own experiences at the bar before he became a writer/director. Having worked alongside her in the second Criminal Justice series, Moffat cast Maxine Peake as Silk’s heroine Martha Costello who is attempting to become a QC and competing with her colleague Clive Reader for the title. While Peake’s compelling performance and Moffat’s writing were both great it was Neil Stuke’s Senior Clerk Billy who was the most interesting character somebody who was seemingly manipulating his charges but praising them at the same time. With as much intrigue outside of the court as inside it Moffat created an interesting legal drama and assembled a great cast to make one of this year’s best drama series.
24. Marchlands (ITV1, Feb-Mar)
Though there were a lot of things wrong with it this haunted house drama was a personal favourite of mine went in aired at the opening of the year. The drama was all based around the death of a small child in the 1960s and spanned three generations going through to the 1980s and then to the present day. There were inter-linking characters in the three tales and the mystery of what happened to little Alice lay dormant for over forty years. While the plot was ridiculous that was part of the charm as were the performances from an ensemble cast that included Jodie Whitaker, Anne Reid, Dennis Lawson and Alex Kingston. While Marchlands won’t be returning for a second series, as there was really no way they could go with it, anything that has spooky little girl ghosts alerting to a woman in dungarees that her son is having an epileptic seizure is alright with me.
23. Lead Balloon (BBC2, Jul-Aug)
I’ve always been a fan of Jack Dee’s part self-referential sitcom and in 2011 it came to its natural conclusion after Dee’s Rick Spleen briefly found fame and then lost it again in only the way he could. This year’s Lead Balloon saw Rick quit the stand-up and try his hand at other things which included becoming a presenter on a TV shopping network and a teacher of stand-up comedy. Both of these careers saw him participate in some hilarious set-pieces including choking on a Communion Wafer at the funeral of a colleague and getting held hostage by Robbie Coltrane’s convict while teaching his comedy in prison. The two-hander between Coltrane and Dee was one of the highlights of the season and a bit of an insight into why the Spleen character lies so much before the finale in which he is asked to host the Pride of Britain awards after claiming he masterminded his own escape while in reality he just left after his captor fell asleep. While I’ll miss such characters as Anna Crilly’s brilliant Eastern European housekeeper Magda it is probably time for this series to leave us before it runs completely out of steam but Dee can be proud that he’s made us laugh over four seasons of embarrassing incidents.
22. Fry’s Planet Word (BBC2, Oct)
Just before Derren Brown orchestrated his assassination, Stephen Fry presented this scintillating programme all about language and words. It saw him journey all over the planet to see how words are developed as we grow up and also have his brain scanned to see how our words were formed. I honestly couldn’t imagine anyone but the articulate Fry presenting this programme and he threw himself into all of the tasks from swearing at random when he discovered the etymology of curse words to participating in a Klingon version of Hamlet when he was discussing made-up languages. There’s not a lot I can really say about this show apart from how fascinating it was learning about sign language and even the ways in which animals communicate and seeing if they have a language similar to our own. I could just watch Fry present anything in particular and well done to the BBC for airing this captivating documentary.
21. Downton Abbey (ITV1, Sept-Dec)
If you look behind the gloss of Downton its really no more than a soap opera with upstairs-downstairs romances, possible wife murderers and evil press barons but because of its compelling nature and ensemble cast it still charts high in my list. This was the year that Downton went to war as Matthew Crawley found himself in the trenches briefly being crippled and losing the use of his vital downstairs organs, I’m not talking about the one that Carson plays, before losing his intended to the dreaded Spanish flu. Matthew and Lady Mary’s romance also was thwarted on several occasions mainly because they both had intended partners and hers was horrible press magnate Sir Richard Carlisle who blackmailed her into staying with him after he discovered her liaison with the Turkish Diplomat in Series One. The other big stories include Anna and Bates getting married before he was arrested for murdering his first wife and the youngest of the Grantham daughters running of with Branson the chauffeur. Overall a busy year, or three years if you were paying attention to the Downton timeline, that capped off with a Christmas special but I don’t mind how long the programme goes on as long as Dame Maggie Smith is on hand with a witty putdown or two.
20. Doctor Who (BBC1, Apr-Jun, Aug-Oct, Dec)
I know I’m in a lose-lose situation when it comes to placing Doctor Who on any of these lists as there’s a good friend of mine, and you know who you are, who is constantly criticising the placement of the show in these countdowns. But there has been so many good programmes that this is the highest place I could put the season in which we discovered who River Song actually was and saw the Doctor sort of die. There were some episodes that I really liked including The Girl Who Waited and that one that Neil Gaiman wrote about the Tardis briefly becoming a woman but then there were the episodes about the pirates and Comedy Hitler which didn’t sit well with yours truly. But this was a year in which the Tardis team of The Doctor, Amy and Rory really clicked for me and it was their chemistry which made the two blocks of episodes worth watching and maybe why I wasn’t too taken with the recent Christmas episode. All in all though I think Matt Smith’s reign as The Doctor has been a successful one but it remains to be seen if this can still be the case after the announced departure of Amy and Rory next year.
19. Eric and Ernie (BBC1, Jan)
Some of you may not remember this as it was aired right at the beginning of the year but then again for those of you who did watch this great biopic of the young Morecambe and Wise it probably has stuck with you as it has me. Charting the rise of Ernie Wise as a young performer and Eric Morecambe as a wannabe singer with a pushy mother this showed how the two clicked after they first met backstage through to their disastrous first TV show and their triumphant variety show comeback. Peter Bowker, who’d penned the memorable war drama Occupation, seemed like an odd choice to write this drama but it worked and he was able to plot the course of the legendary comedy duo with ease. Daniel Rigby rightly won a BAFTA for playing the young Morecambe but that’s to take nothing away from Bryan Dick as wise. Victoria Wood, who also served as executive producer, was great as Morecambe’s pushy mother but the real revelation was Jim ‘Vic Reeves’ Muir as Eric’s fairly distant father showing a dramatic edge that I didn’t think he had. Overall an excellent biography of two of our most famous comedians which was both entertaining and respectful throughout.
18. Strangeways (ITV1, May)
ITV continued to produce great documentaries about the nation’s prisons in 2011 with this sometimes harsh look at one of the most notorious lock-ups in Her Majesty’s Prison Manchester better known to most of us Strangeways. It focused on both the inmates and the guards as we met a man who was awaiting his sentence and another man serving another three years who had decided to get married to his beloved while he was still inside. Running alongside these stories were the images of violence, self-harming and drug use which were rife among the men who didn’t have anybody to lean on in the outside world. One of the things that made this documentary so affecting was its lack of a narrator instead just letting the staff and inmates tell their own story backed up by Ernie Wood’s haunting score. While I’m not sure if ITV can do a fourth prison series all three of these programmes have been so well-handled that it does show that this channel can produce thought-provoking television as well as all the reality show dross that it pedals on a weekly basis.
17. Fresh Meat (C4, Sept-Nov)
What do you get when you combine one of The Inbetweeners with the writers of Peep Show? The answer is another series about a group of disparate characters thrown together because of their social situation in this instance it was a bunch of first year students at Manchester University who ended up in a share house together. Joe Thomas from The Inbetweeners plays the likeable Kingsley who has come to University after years spent caring for his sick mother with one of the main plots of the series being his will they/won’t they romance with Kimberly Nixon’s Josie one of his fellow housemates. The revelation of the series was the acting prowess of stand-up comic Jack Whitehall playing the snobbish JP who felt himself better than all of his housemates and constantly acted like he was slumming it. There was a great cast all in all with Greg McHugh’s Howard being the weird second-year who had been living in the house prior to the rest of the freshers moving in and Zawe Ashton as the all-drinking all-drug taking Vod. As well as being funny this was also heart-warming as the students formed a sort of family unit and it was also a well observed series about what its like living away from your home for the first time and how different people adjust. I’m glad this well-written and well-cast comedy drama has done so well and am looking forward to see what happens in series two.
16. Misfits (E4, Oct-Dec)
It’s the third year that this juvenile delinquent superhero show has featured on this list as it continues to make me laugh and shock me in equal measure. The format was spiced up a bit by introducing Matthew McNulty’s Seth a man who could both buy and sell the powers of people who had them and therefore all of the Misfits were given knew powers with Kelly in particular revelling in her ability of understanding rocket science. Robert Sheehan’s departure as Nathan opened the door for a new character in Joseph Gilgun’s Rudy a guy with a sort of split-personality disorder as a separate version of himself would appear to voice his inner fears and anxieties. Other highlights of the series including Curtis now being able to morph into a woman and Simon and Alisha continuing to adjust to being in a relationship together. The mix of slick action and great dialogue meant that the show went from strength to strength before a shocking ending which saw the death of one of the major characters. As it moves into its fourth year a question mark hangs over whether Misfits can still be successful with only two original characters remaining but as long as it continues to feel fresh and exciting I’m sure it will manage it somehow.
15. Outnumbered (BBC1, Sept-Oct, Dec)
A bit of a disappointing year for one of the best sitcoms of the past five years as it fails to chart in the top ten. I think the problem with this year’s Outnumbered series is that some of the jokes have gotten old and with the kids growing up there’s no longer an innocent charm to them as there once was and now they are starting to get a bit annoying. This is especially true of Ben who hadn’t been given anything new to do so continued to be a bit weird and creepy which is no longer as cute as it used to be. Thankfully Karen and Jake’s characters continued to grow with the former trying to climb the popularity scale and get in with the cool girls and the latter entering a relationship with a supposedly much older pole dancer. The end of the series got things going again with a two-parter which saw the return of Samantha Bond’s disastrous Auntie Angela as well as the revelation of Jake’s relationship which all ended in a hilarious conclusion involving a German exchange student. The announcement that Outnumbered may not return for Series Five, at least for a couple of years, may be a good thing and give the writers time to decide where these characters are going next.
14. Black Mirror (C4, Dec)
The warped mind of Charlie Brooker was on full display here as he wrote two of the three episodes in this Twilight Zone style series which looked at the impact that technology continues to have on our everyday life. The first story saw a Kate Middleton like princess being kidnapped and would only be returned if the Prime Minister had sex with a pig an episode which mocked the continued reliance on social networking as well as the sometimes tasteless coverage of 24 hour news channels of certain events. Episode Two focused on both our constant need for some sort of distraction from our lives as well as people trying to find a way out of their humdrum existence by appearing on TV talent shows while Sam Bain’s final episode looked at what would happen if we were constantly able to relive our memories of events. All in all a weird, funny and sometimes disturbing look at the future and some of the events were completely believable which made the show even more shocking in a way. I wish TV would always be this brave with the first episode in particular being critically praised despite it being one of the most-complained about TV episodes of 2011.
13. Rev (BBC2, Nov-Dec)
There are plenty of reasons why a show like Rev. shouldn’t work in 2011 in that it’s far too cosy, the characters are on the whole quite nice and that the main character is a clergyman but thankfully this does all gel quite well due to some great writing and performances. Tom Hollander’s Adam Smallbone continued to do his best as the reverend in charge of the small congregation at the inner city parish of St. Saviour’s. This time around he developed a bond with a woman in a nursing home, worried that he and wife Alex would never have a baby and even find out that the ghastly Archdeacon had a personal life that he didn’t want to get out. Hollander’s Adam was someone who was constantly questioning his motives this series being jealous of both a young, female trainee and an atheist primary school teacher as well as his constant questioning of his worth as a husband. It was these themes that made Rev. such a likeable, if not always laugh-out-loud funny, programme as well as Hollander’s always great central performance backed up by Simon McBurney’s Archdeacon and Miles Jupp’s lay reader Nigel as well as the always dependable Olivia Colman as Alex. The brilliant Christmas special tied everything together nicely in a show which is always warm and welcoming and which richly deserved the Best Sitcom BAFTA it won earlier in the year.
12. Frozen Planet (BBC1, Oct-Dec)
Any series that has anything to do with David Attenborough is always going to make one of my lists despite me never being a fan of nature documentaries as a whole. But then agian I don’t think Frozen Planet was a nature documentary but more of a geography programme about two areas, the Arctic and the Antarctic, that we really don’t know that much about. Obviously there was a major focus on the wildlife in these two areas with polar bears and penguins being the two main focuses but this was OK because with Attenborough’s voice-over this whole process became fascinating. It always baffles me how good the camerawork is on these programmes and even though there was some controversy over stock footage being used in one of the scenes there was still a cavalcade of great segments in the programme to justify one of two shortcuts. Overall a captivating look at the two poles and another programme which proves that some uses of the BBC’s budget are more than justified.
11. Top Boy (C4, Oct-Nov)
When Big Brother finished on Channel 4 we were promised some HBO style comedy dramas obviously they never materialised but the argument can be made that Top Boy does have its roots in American shows most notably The Wire. Those comparisons can be made as Top Boy, which was aired over four consecutive nights, focused on the gang wars between two groups of London drug-dealers. Ashley Walters took the lead as Dushane a young man who had aspirations of being the top dog of the drug world at the Summerhouse Estate in which the show was set. However it was the story of thirteen year old Ra’Nell which was the real focus on what was essentially a coming of age story. At the beginning of the show Ra’Nell’s mother is hospitalised forcing him to step up and become a man and after Dushane is warned off enlisting him he instead helps out his mother’s friend Heather into cultivating cannabis plants. Obviously there was a lot of gritty goings on in here including several violent deaths but this wasn’t just a stereotypical youths are bad show as the reasons for why some people go off the tracks are explored here also. The cast of mostly unknowns were brilliant, especially Malcolm Kamulete as Ra’Nell, and the writing was top notch and thankfully a second series has been announced. If this proves what Channel 4 can do without Big Brother then I wish that the reality franchise had packed its bags a long time before it finally left us.
10. Twenty Twelve (BBC4, Mar-Apr)
We kick off the top ten with a sitcom that looks towards this coming year’s big event and supposes some of the mishaps that are going on behind the scenes in the build-up to the Olympic Games. Twenty Twelve is filmed in a mockumentary style, the whole show being given a sarcastic voice-over by David Tennant, and focuses on the exploits of the Olympic Deliverance Committee in the run-up to the games. The beauty of Twenty Twelve is that at its heart is a simple farce of people being faced with dilemmas and dealing with them in the worst possible way and the episode in which a coachload of foreign delegates gets caught in a traffic jam was an example of this. Hugh Bonneville was a perfect straight man as the overwhelmed ‘Head of Deliverance’ Ian Fletcher being surrounded by middle-management types such as Amelia Bullmore’s ‘Head of Sustainability’ Kay Hope. Best of all us was Jessica Hynes as the PR woman from hell Siobhan Sharpe who comes on board as the new ‘Head of Brand’ and doesn’t really seem to understand about the job she has been given and constantly speaks in buzzwords. Although the mockumentary genre seems to have been done to death, Twenty Twelve somehow makes itself feel fresh and at the end of the day was very very funny.
9. Educating Essex (C4, Sept-Nov)
As Channel 4 took all the cameras out of the Big Brother house they vowed to move away from these voyeuristic programmes where people acted out their daily lives in front of cameras. And then they took those cameras and put them up in police stations, model agencies, hotels and maternity wards. One of the best examples of these programmes was when they put their cameras up at Passmores School and Technology College in Harlow the result of which was Educating Essex. For anybody who says teachers get an easy ride they should really watch this series to see how much care and attention every pupil needs and on the whole receives. The loveable head Mr Goddard was someone who took his job incredibly seriously but at the same time wasn’t much of a disciplinarian leaving that job to his sergeant major Deputy Head Mr Drew. As well as focusing on the staff we saw what the teenagers are going through while studying for their exams we saw friends falling out, children with behavioural issues and teen pregnancy throughout this seven-parter. It also shows how valuable every member of staff is especially those involved in pastoral care who are those who can listen to the children when nobody else has the time. At a time where schools are facing numerous cuts the government really needs to watch this programme to see how valuable every member of staff is. Both funny and engaging this was the type of documentary that I would watch over and over again.
8. Him and Her (BBC3, Nov-Dec)
After a promising first series, Stefan Golaszewski’s romantic comedy Him and Her came back with an exceptional second run of seven episodes. Central couple Steve and Becky were now living together in his decrepit bedsit and still had to face the fact that her parents didn’t think he was good enough for her as well as the fact that Becky’s sister Laura was now working with Steve’s ex-girlfriend . As always the couple acted as the straight man to the funny man of all the oddballs that came into their life whether that be boorish Laura and psychopathic fiancée Paul or weirdo hairy upstairs neighbour Dan who the pair just accept will keep turning up at their door. The final episode proved that the show could be both filthy and dramatic as Steve and Becky faced new problems in their relationship and the Laura and Paul story took on a whole new element. As well as the great writing both Russell Tovey and Sarah Solemani deserve praise for their convincing chemistry which makes you utterly believe that they are a couple. Him and Her is a comic gem that definitely deserves more exposure than it currently does languishing away on BBC3.
7. Exile (BBC1, May)
Combining both a conspiracy thriller and a human story about a family broken down by the father suffering from dementia, Exile became one of the most compelling dramas of the year when it debuted on BBC this May. Concentrating on John Simm’s disgraced journalist Tom coming back to his Lancashire hometown it explored his relationship with his father played by Jim Broadbent a once prominent figure who had since succumb to Alzheimer’s disease. Tom looks into the relationship breakdown between his parents and his exploration leads him into a world of rape and murder. While the thriller element kept the story going it was the more human elements of the story that made this a memorable piece of work. This saw Tom try to get his father to remember him and clash with his sister Nancy who has been caring for her father since he became ill. While Simm and Broadbent were there usual brilliant selves it was Olivia Coleman who was the revelation here playing the put-upon dowdy Nancy she stole the show which is hard when you’re on screen with two of the country’s best actors. From the writing to the acting to the final revelations Exile kept me hook till the final scene and I have to say it dealt with Alzheimer’s element very well indeed.
6. The Fades (BBC3, Sept-Oct)
It’s quite hard to make a believable supernatural story but that’s what I felt that Jack Thorne did with his series The Fades which was part horror film part coming-of-age story. Iain de Caestecker played Paul a 17 year old who found he had special powers which could help against the rise of The Fades, dead people who were coming back to life, and help out a group called The Angelics. However Paul was a nerdy outcast who was constantly insulted by his popular twin sister and secretly in love with her best friend. As the series went on we saw characters killed off and the main villain played by Joe Dempsie once the loveable Chris in Skins. The brilliance of The Fades was that it never let its human elements overshadow its more fantastical one and Paul’s relationship with his best friend Mac was the sweetest one in the series. This is England’s Johnny Harris was also great as Neil the only Angelic who hadn’t been killed off and someone who acted as Paul’s mentor yet had to go to extreme measures in order to convince his young charge to do the right thing. The Fades wasn’t afraid to shock the audience but always kept its story hurtling on to the final battle between good and evil. Shows like The Fades don’t come around all that often and when they do they deserve to be seen by more people but hopefully a second series will enchant more people than this brilliant first one did.
5. Appropriate Adult (ITV1, Sept)
Televising the story of Fred and Rose West was never going to be an easy task but in seeing the police investigation and trial through the eyes of an outsider. That outsider was Janet Leach the woman asked to be Fred’s appropriate adult a role which would see her explain any elements of the questions to Fred who claimed to have learning difficulties. Throughout the drama we saw Fred become more and more obsessed with Janet who had enough to deal with at home with numerous kids and a partner who was mentally ill. Though most of us felt we already knew the story of Fred and Rose West the decision to film it from this angle showed us new insight into both characters. Dominic West’s Fred showed him to be a charming individual with an extremely deadly side but someone who may just wanted to be loved. Dominic was brilliant at both Fred’s West Country accent and his mannerisms he also really rocked the horrible jumpers that he was to wear. Meanwhile Emily Watson, who is one of Britain’s finest actresses working today, was great as the morally-torn Janet who ultimately found out that she was another victim of Fred West but in an entirely different way. Monica Dolan also deserves a mention for portraying a crazy and violent Rose West to the point where you actually believed she was the person she was playing. A great drama about a shocking event told in a relatable way, Appropriate Adult was the best thing ITV aired all year.
4. 24 Hours in A&E (C4, May-Jul)
In addition to Educating Essex, Channel 4 also put their cameras up in a busy Emergency Ward and then aired the results over 14 episodes. For me 24 Hours in A & E was the best documentary series of the year for a number of reasons mostly because it bought to life the busy atmosphere of an inner-city casualty department and all the emotions that it brings to the core. King’s College Hospital was the setting and over seventy cameras were set up to capture life over a 28 day period in their A & E department. We saw minor injuries caused by excessive alcohol intake up to major incidents including a man being hit by a truck while on his bike and surviving. We heard from a multitude of staff from the doctors down to the porters and everybody in between as well as from the patients who talked about their experiences after they’d left Kings. My favourite member of the extended cast was Sister Jen the hard-as-nails ward sister who in one scene managed to break up a gang war going on in the waiting room single-handedly. This series just demonstrated all stages of the human condition and how fragile human beings really are.
3. Psychoville (BBC2, May-Jun)
I may be in the minority here but I feel that the second series of Steve Pemberton and Reese Shearsmith’s macabre comedy drama Psychoville much better than the first. This was because they got rid of the extra baggage early killing of Dawn French’s unsettling nurse Joy in the first episode and finishing off dwarf actor Robert soon after that. The series became focused on the contents of evil mental institute nurse Edwina Kenchington’s locket and Imelda Staunton’s Grace Andrews’ attempts to track it down. Obviously this meant sending out a man to question and then kill all the characters we’d got to know in the first series unfortunately this also meant that doddery Oscar Lomax. Thankfully as old characters were being killed off new ones were being introduced including Jason Watkins’ effeminate Nazi sympathiser and toy shop owner Peter Bishop, librarian Jeremy Goode and his haunting visions of The Silent Singer. Part mystery, part horror and part sitcom the story went through plenty of twists and an odd funeral scene in which someone was burnt alive to the strains of the song Superman to the final reveal. It’s a shame that Psychoville won’t be returning for a third run despite setting up a cliffhanger but Pemberton and Shearsmith have promised a new series soon and I for one can’t wait.
2. This is England ’88 (C4, Dec)
After voting This is England ’86 my favourite programme of 2010 I was sceptical of a festive return for the series despite it only being a three-parter I thought they’d ruin the legacy of the series and the original film. How wrong I was because in many ways ’88 was superior to ’86 in putting all the secondary comedy characters to the background instead focusing solely on Woody, Lol and Shaun all of whose lives had changed since we’d last met them. Lol was now living as a single mum after giving birth to Milky’s daughter and as a result of this split up with Woody who was now living with his parents and his nice yet simple girlfriend. Shaun seemed that his life could be turned around as he was studying drama at college and getting close to classmate Faye despite him still being in an unfulfilling relationship with Smell. After winning her BAFTA Vicky McClure was once again the star of the show here as Lol tried to find some salvation in her situation but was constantly haunted by visions of her father. This want to escape could be seen through all of the three major stories in this nostalgic miniseries which once again made use of its fantastic ensemble cast and combined tragedy and comedy in such a realistic way that I say roll on This is England ’90 which hopefully will be just around the corner.
1. The Shadow Line (BBC2, May-Jun)
I have to say I had this in mind as my programme of the year for some months then This is England came along and made me question my decision. But at the end of the day The Shadow Line was something that rarely comes along on British TV screens a thriller with multiple plot strands which keeps the viewer guessing till the final scene who were the good guys and who were the bad guys. Starting with the death of drug kingpin Harvey Wratten we saw the investigation from the side of both the police and the criminals the former being represented by Chiwetel Ejiofor’s Jonah Gabriel who had returned to work after being shot, losing his memory and having the bullet lodged in his brain. The criminals were initially Christopher Eccleston’s loveable drug-dealer and Wratten’s number two Joseph Bede and Harvey’s psychotic nephew Jay played with aplomb by Rafe Spall. The real memorable figure throughout The Shadow Line was Stephen Rea’s Gatehouse a mysterious figure who was constantly seen in a hat and coat lingering in the shadows while fellow veteran actor Anthony Sher was equally compelling as Gatehouse’s rival Glickman. What I loved about The Shadow Line was the little things with cats often playing a part in people’s death and a character also being close to death when something they were heating up on the gas boiled over. Some may say that the final episode was a little bit of an anti-climax but I absolutely adored The Shadow Line from beginning to end and implore people who didn’t see it the first time around to seek it out on DVD.