Saturday, January 1, 2000 by and

It is customary at this time of year to reflect on what has come before. Please don’t expect OTT to be any different.

It is also customary to pick through the phenomena and define televisual trends. So what is the trend of 1999? Perhaps simply: more of the same. Of course the phenomenon of the year has been ITV’s Who Wants to be a Millionaire. Yet surprisingly its influence has been felt in ratings alone. The early imitators (TFI, 2000 to 1) have served only to highlight that WWTBAM‘s winning formula is not dependent merely on big cash prizes. There is an emotional clarity to “ITV’s ratings battering-ram”, in that all the component parts work in sympathy with the increasing tension that the show demands. Evans’ cynical attempt to usurp Tarrant’s headlines provided only lukewarm spectacle, and – one would suspect – tepid ratings.

And what of Evans? Popular culture is in a transitional state. The Zoo-TV format has begun to bore its audience, and Event TV has too often turned out to be “for the sake of it” TV. Popular entertainment floundered badly this year. Post Crinkley Bottom BBC struggled with Families at War (too post-modern, therefore too outdated), Channel 4 attempted to squeeze the last out of the Evans lineage with the risible Something for the Weekend, and generally, there was a feeling that star names could no longer carry second rate entertainment shows. Whither Van Outen, Roslin, Lulu, Reeves and Mortimer. Johnny Vaughan remains popular yet untested and Graham Norton can perhaps take satisfaction from being the only real achiever in the class of ’99.

The documentary too struggled to forge a distinctive identity in the wake of previously pervasive trends. The docusoap retained its predominance and began to walk the path of its fictional progenitor in attempting to provide more and more sensationalist stories (the apotheosis thus far perhaps being Sky’s Uncovered series), thus lighting the fuse of genre burnout. MacIntyre Undercover applied similar tactics in Roger Cook country, and similarly called time on the current run of undercover investigative journalism. So, to journalism then. This year, the agenda followed by news organizations on either mainstream TV channel was increasingly set by the Government, more so than ever before, and rendered more explicit during the prosecution of war on Serbia in the spring. Here the mechanics of reporting and controlling the dissemination of information were dramatically exposed when the BBC tellingly introduced a degree of dissent and opposition to the Government line. This was principally voiced by John Simpson who remained trapped in Belgrade after the war began and found himself having to angrily refute the government’s accusations that his reports were unpatriotic. Although the Corporation commendably stood by their man, and by definition free journalism, their stance was somewhat compromised by their general acceptance of the news agenda as dictated by the Labour party elsewhere, and by the palpable dumbing-down of news coverage throughout the industry.

In a year which saw off News at Ten and marked the remarketing and repositioning of the BBC’s news output (the emphasis being now on style, informality, reporters talking to other reporters and a surfeit of “real lives” features) the appointment of Nicky Campbell to Newsnight served as almost an admission of this trend. Away from the front-line, Walking With Dinosaurs set the world alight. The debates regarding authenticity rather missed the point. The point being that the effects were really not that great. Is this what we pay our license fees for? The minority channel’s major documentary strands failed to find a positive direction, and in the end the only really successful popular documentary series this year was BBC2′s Living with the Enemy (enthused about elsewhere on OTT).

OTT also enthused this year over How Do You Want Me? which – along with The League of Gentlemen – demonstrated that the way forward for comedy on British television is finely crafted, literate works that engage in the darker aspects of human behaviour. The former also introduced a new spate of cod-naturalism making mumbled delivery and awkward pauses de rigueur for comedy ’99-style. People Like Us, exploited this trend to the nth degree, subtly lampooning the entire docusoap canon and roping in a complicit BBC who announced the series as “proper” documentary. Meanwhile, Victoria Wood’s dinnerladies resolutely demonstrated that there will always be an audience for wry observations on bust sizes and armpit scratching. Similarly hygienic predilections were central to The Royle Family‘s eminent success. Jim Royle is a fine hero for Britain at the end of the ’90s, and in the first year ever to contain two hit comedies ostensibly written by women, it was the sympathetic reading that Ricky Tomlinson brought to the figurehead of The Royle Family that allowed that series to flourish.

Tomlinson’s other partner in crime Jimmy McGovern proved that there is still a voice on television for the auteur. The Lakes proved as disappointing second time around, and Dockers failed to recapture the missionary zeal of Hillsborough, still it was good to have him around. Bleasdale turned out an action packed “roister doister” version of Oliver Twist thus prolonging his natural constituent’s despair. Is this how Dylan’s fans felt when he turned electric? Previous hit makers returned in the shape of Shergold and Marchant (director and writer respectively of the BAFTA award winning Holding On) and the law of diminishing returns held good. Kid in the Corner was a tub thumping irritation, badly written and badly cast (as epitomized by the gurning Henshall – the figurehead for controversial dross in 1999 and surely the year’s worst actor). Eureka Street made more of a fist of it yet was ultimately confused and confusing. Cold Feet manfully carried the post-This Life zeitgeist, yet failed to deliver its predecessor’s innovation. This was supplied by Garnett’s The Cops which showed that this life is awash with fascinatingly trivial difficulties, seldom explored elsewhere on TV. Arguably, however, the stand out drama of the year was Russell T Davies’ Queer as Folk which proved to be, by turns, a pacy, hysterical and moving account of a group of characters inhabiting a new space in TV drama – homosexuality. Davies consciously shied away from equating a treatment of gay lifestyles with issue-led programming and instead focused on creating likeable characters serviced by a good, soapy story. The result was an uncompromising and upfront inversion of existing preconceptions about portrayals of homosexuality on mainstream television, which also succeeded in being original and exciting telly in the process.

Soaps this year dealt little in originality and almost exclusively in excitement. Coronation Street, Emmerdale, EastEnders and Brookside continued their seemingly inexorable transformations in to one interchangeable drama as soap operas picked up on the Chris Evans ethos: the event is everything. The middle of the week episodes soon became the intake of breath between the week ending cliff-hanger and week beginning dénouement. Our soap actors continue to be our biggest stars (such that Joe Absolom’s snidey comments at his ex-colleague is tantamount to a fight at telly’s top table). Brookside maintained it’s position as the most perceptive trend spotter in the business and consequently retained its title as Worst Soap of the Year. Signs of a shift in philosophy at the back end of 1999 may prove instructive as Brookside‘s top story (the rape of Nikki Shadwick) appeared to be played with something more than a scant regard for the logical repercussions of such an event. Engaging TV it most certainly was not, yet at least the primary law of physics (cause and effect) may now be returning to British soap.

So, what sense can one unpick from a year seemingly characterized by a lack of true innovation? The relative creative chiefs at the BBC, ITV, C4 and the rest appear to have spent 1999 trying to psyche each other out. Big Train‘s running stare competition joke appears to be an apposite analogy for the reason behind the fearful, cautious fodder that has been served this year. Life is cyclical, and TV is life. Danger will lurk around the corner, and the first year of the millennium will unfold with perhaps a more courageous television. Either way, we can indulgently reflect that TV’s myriad output still allows (in this most moribund of years) airtime for the likes of Stuart Alan Jones, Ali G and “Fireman!” Micky.


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