Not quite yet a Christmas tradition up there with The Snowman or The Great Escape (was this ever actually shown on Christmas Day?), the Review of the Year is our excuse to reflect upon 12 months of telly, attempting to identify the trends, assess the programmes and distil that which was “in fact the strongest link” from that which was merely “My Arse!” (yes – that was still a popular catchphrase in 2000).

In 1999, Who Wants to be a Millionaire annihilated all comers (anyone remember 2000 to 1?) and indeed in 2000 it remained a strong, strategic element of ITV’s evening schedules. Predictably though, it was unable to captivate audiences or – for that matter – the press in quite the way it once had. This year, the BBC finally got its huge promotional machine in gear as it stumbled upon game shows worth shouting about and went at them with gusto. Happily for the Beeb, a big push in self-promotion was coupled with a big brain within their light entertainment department.

David Young, the BBC’s thirty-something head of the genre, came up with not one, but two hit series – both of which managed to outscore more “prestigious” opposition (that said, he also produced Stars Sing The Beatles). Friends Like These first went out immediately before the “revamped” Red Alert, and whilst the latter managed to be even worse than the first series (arm wrestling and observation rounds on peak time Saturday night!), Friends Like These was a vibrant, youthful and modern alternative. It made ITV’s Saturday opposition look terribly outdated – consisting, as it did, of yet more Blind Date, twice as much Stars in Their Eyes as before, and a Moment of Truth “revised” to such an extent nobody had a clue what it was about. The Weakest Link at times threatened to reach Who Wants to be a Millionaire levels, with a strong format executed perfectly. The interest can’t lie simply with Anne Robinson’s “unique” presentational style, perhaps more to do with the fact that a simple quiz will always have a fascination. It was certainly better value than ITV’s The People Versus, a hugely expensive flop, which tried too hard to be WWTBAM Mk II to the detriment of actually being any fun to watch. Of course, the Beeb did have its own flops in this genre too, with Nick Ross’ The Syndicate (which echoed the woeful Masterteam) something of a crime against game shows. And indeed Nick wins the prize for the worst attempt at establishing a catchphrase in 2000. Understand?

Those who cared to track the progress of the game show genre across BBC and ITV were to witness a microcosm of the increasingly high profile ratings battle that lasted throughout 2000. Funnily enough, each channel seemed at last to address deficiencies that had plagued them for the last decade or so. Whilst the BBC were intent on putting their LightEnt house in order, the other side almost managed to break in and steal BBC1′s sitcom crown straight from the head of The Royle Family.

The Royle Family - another heavily promoted BBC1 programme – degenerated into self-parody this year (introducing that baby was the worst thing ever to happen) as Aherne and company alarmingly took the programme into Carla Lane Bread territory. Elsewhere pre-watershed comedy was, as ever, a no-man’s land. The BBC’s two big mainstream comedy hopes, My Hero and My Family, simply weren’t funny enough (remember those “Look at all the great comedians who work here!” trails at the beginning of year: Ardal O’Hanlon in his My Hero guise, despite the series not having started yet). ITV’s Pay and Display was equally forgettable. Post-watershed was little better, with The Peter Principle and Kiss Me Kate moving to a later slot and suddenly sniggering over homosexuality. The one bright spot – the last series of One Foot in the Grave – was the perfect end to the long-running show, just as memorable and affecting as any of the previous episodes. Over on BBC2, Bruiser and Operation Good Guys, and indeed most attempts at “innovation” were unspeakable. The League of Gentlemen, although arguably not as good as before, was still one of the best things on telly this year – period. Something completely different from the team might be nice, though. The Christmas Special appropriately offered us an insight into a potential future for the League, suggesting that the boys could be entering “difficult third album territory”. Focusing further on the grotesque and horrific they run the risk of alienating much of their fan base. For some this special was a truly shocking and brilliant piece of telly, for others another example of a comedy submitting to that newest of sub-genres: the “Evocom” (we just made that up, by the way).

Surprisingly then, the great new comedy shows of 2000 all sprang from the commercial channels. Bob Martin was a funny, “grown up” sitcom, albeit one that appeared to alienate almost the entire ITV audience, Baddiel and Skinner Unplanned was the most daring commission, and despite a pointless smear campaign by most of the press, presented some hilarious TV moments and exciting television. Channel 4′s main contributions were Black Books: a great sitcom – seemingly alone in not attempting to establish a “mood” or “feel” but just be a funny series, and – of course – Trigger Happy TV. First broadcast on 14 January, its buzz sustained throughout the year (doubtless assisted by the release of the “soundtrack” of the series in December), but we left 2000 wondering how much longer Dom Joly could sustain the concept. Series one worked on the basis that no one knew who the hell he was. The resultant fame has changed all that. Such dilemmas also faced Sacha Baron Cohen who returned to our screens with Da Ali G Show and Chris Morris (who wanted us to taste his jam). Still able to generate column inches and laughs (particularly with the introduction of Borat – a Kazakhstani television reporter) there was an overriding sense though, that Da Ali G Show was pretty ephemeral stuff, as Cohen eschewed much of his phenomenal quick wit in favour of quick and easy thrills. Conversely, jam seemed to be a conscious attempt to create a timeless series – uninfluenced by present popular culture and able to bear repeat viewing. Who would have guessed then, that Ali G would have made the better fist of 2000? jam seemed to be either one massive in-joke on the part of Morris or the spectacle of some supposed genius crashing to Earth. Either way, bereft of humour, this was the year’s most extreme example of all “Evoc” and no “Com”.

A lot of our fun then came out with traditional comedy. Without a doubt the biggest trend in 2000 was that of good old-fashioned nostalgia. The schedules positively groaned under the weight of reminiscence programmes, each of varying quality. I Love the Seventies spread its presence across the summer like a behemoth, each programme eagerly anticipated (much like TOTP used to be), bringing together a motley collection of stars of yesteryear, contemporary pundits and lashings of irony, all glued together with archive clips and pin sharp production. Top Ten meanwhile, wallowed in the luxury of a 90 minute slot, enabling expert dissection on, err, each top 10 single in a given chart, which included love songs, stadium rock and one-hit wonders. ITV’s Smash!, by contrast, was very much an also ran. Shoehorned into an inadequate 30 minute slot, it was hopelessly too short to imbue any depth or breadth into the categories covered. In addition, its “usual suspects” pundit line up of Mike Read and Jamie Theakston lacked the time to go into any detail. In retrospect it really was the level of punditry that determined which nostalgia programme would be a hit and which a miss in the year 2000. Special mention then for Stuart Maconie who completed his metamorphosis from sometime journalist and broadcaster to guardian of the nation’s collective memories with his spot-on “talking head” armchair reminiscences and rapid fire irony. By contrast many other pundits were left gasping for breath as they struggled to keep up. By Christmas time, of course, we were all getting a little sick of all this nostalgia. Did you know that Noddy Holder’s favourite line from his evergreen Yuletide hit is the one about Granny dancing? This particular reminiscence appeared on three different programmes in rapid succession over Christmas. Holder, seemed to be turning up all over the place in 2000. In fact, at times it seemed he might even turn up on your own street. Still, for those who enjoyed the chance to talk about Spangles and Space Hoppers, their time had truly come in 2000 as nostalgia received a positively 21st century makeover.

It was a year of upheaval too for news and documentaries, as both became caught up in the ever-intensifying ratings battle The News at Ten debate droned on for most of the year, reaching farcical proportions with ITV not wanting a 10pm news bulletin but being forced to produce one, whilst the BBC desperately wanted a 10pm news bulletin and – initially – being prevented from doing so. Panorama staggered on in a new graveyard slot, but it only had itself to blame – too many commentators were waiting to see any hints of “dumbing down” and the BBC lacked the nerve to do anything radical with it. The new slot on Sunday nights proved to be a wholly unsatisfactory compromise. A decent current affairs programme in prime time is badly needed – new thinking is required, and fast. Panorama itself may need to go for this to have any effect. It was not a year to be despondent though, as the Beeb produced a number of excellent documentaries – two recent examples being A History of Britain and Changing Stages. ITV too were able to contribute admirably to the medium with the one-off John Pilger documentary earlier this year (Paying the Price: Killing the Children of Iraq). This was an amazing piece of television, if only for the fact that it was made by Carlton, whose other major contribution was to threaten us with the return of Crossroads.

So in 2000, Home and Away departed from our screens – albeit temporarily. It will prove an interesting test of channel versus programme loyalty to track how many people follow it across to Channel 5 when it returns. Elsewhere, this was something of a run of the mill year for soaps. EastEnders loudly celebrated its 15th Birthday, but really it was business as usual. The death of Ethel Skinner provided a brief respite from the cloddish drama that now populates the Square, and there seemed to be the happy realization part way through 2000 that some of the more outrageous EastEnders activities would have to be curtailed in order for the soap to retain some connection with credibility. Over at Coronation Street they didn’t give a toss. Their 40th birthday celebrations were even more raucous and self-indulgent. “Sir” Ken Barlow found himself caught up in some of the soap’s most hackneyed plots ever: one week he was trussed up with bitter enemy Mike Barlow – both innocent victims of the most ludicrous hostage situation ever shown on British television; and the next he was defending the honour of the Street’s cobblestones like a modern day Churchill. The surreal inclusion of Noddy Holder, followed by Barlow’s speechmaking and the subsequent cheering of the cast directly into camera, brought back memories of that great Slade song “Mama Weer All Crazee Now”. Elsewhere, the Redmond soaps ambled inconsistently on – Hollyoaks varied from great to merely watchable on a regular basis, and Brookside showing occasional flickers of promise (the early aftermath of Susannah Morrisey’s death was particularly good) but never amounted to much. All in all (and despite the anniversaries) this was a quiet year for soaps. Something else must have been filling the tabloid column inches.

Although providing some of the best television moments of 2000 (particularly Gwyneth’s unfolding confrontation with Peter), the BBC’s Castaway 2000 was washed away by Channel 4′s Big Brother – not only the most talked about, but also surely the most repeated programme of 2000. Almost four months on from the series’ conclusion, and it still feels like Craig, Nick, Mel and the gang are part of our lives. Whilst inhabitants of the house in Bow and the pods on Taransay might have regularly commented that within their societies little problems became big dramas, they were not a patch on us. Their every move provoked sensational coverage. We have not yet been able to fully understand the Big Brother phenomenon, and our confusion in dealing with it can be seen in the ever changing manner in which the BBC has attempted to turn Castaway into a comparable hit (reaching a low point at the fag-end of the year with the imposition of presenter Julia Bradbury on the island).

Last year’s reflection concluded with the assertion that 1999 had been a year of inactivity. The same could not be said for 2000. A re-energised BBC (under the guidance of Greg Dyke) ended the year looking slightly uncertain about its identity, but producing strong programmes nonetheless. ITV stuck with its tried and tested winners, and really changed little in terms of programming, concentrating instead on tactical scheduling. BBC2 stands now at a crossroad, forced to abandon much of its youth programming (to the obvious delight of Channel 4), but overall, TV was slightly more courageous this year than last. What of 2001? Soaps have fallen out of the ratings stratosphere and can no longer be solely relied upon. Further excursions into “reality television” and nostalgia will doubtless occur over the next 12 months. The continuing proliferation of digital television, plus new ways in which to record and review your favourite programmes will undermine our current duopoly still further and destabilize the terrestrial television environment. Watch as the BBC – ITV battle intensifies, both grateful for the fact that – at least with each other, and for the time being – this is an enemy they know and understand.


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