When TV pundits of the future look back at 2008 (a process that is sure to start in earnest in just over 12 months time as we begin the second decade of the 21st century), what will they make of the year just gone?  2008 brought us Rock Rivals, The One and Only, The Invisibles, Harley Street and The Duchess in Hull - five utterly forgettable series destined for curiosity status almost straight away.  Yet wasn’t this too the year of Lark Rise to Candleford and a resurgent The X-Factor?  Viewed in the context of the decade as a whole how will 2008 fare? Will it be seen as a significant year or 12 months that slipped through the cracks of television’s wider historical development?


As ever, but perhaps surprisingly this year given the hand of Michael Grade at the tiller, ITV1 enjoyed a mixed 12 months in drama. Its bold adaptation of He Kills Coppers back in Easter ended up as a fusion of The Long Firm and Our Friends in the North, with Rafe Spall excelling as ambitious police officer Frank Taylor. Meanwhile, The Children, by Lucy Gannon and starring Kevin Whately and Geraldine Somerville, superbly evoked the messiness of extended families – but lost points for bolting a superfluous murder story onto the plot.

Midnight Man was even less successful, an old school conspiracy thriller starring James Nesbitt as down-at-heel investigative journalist Max Raban, who suffered from a phobia of daylight… except when the plot required him not to. In a multi-layered tale, he stumbled upon a seemingly government-sponsored death squad taking out ‘undesirables’ – but, alas, the character archetypes offered up here were so hackneyed (grubby reporter; soulless millionaire – played by Alan Dale; aggrieved ex-wife etc) it was hard to get involved.

Things were even worse in Flood, a bland US co-production of the disaster porn variety, which depicted a deluged London. Of a slumming-it cast – including David Suchet, Robert Carlyle and Joanne Whalley – Sir Tom Courtenay stood out for his appallingly phoned-in performance. Bafflingly bad. On a descending scale, we then come to the aforementioned Rock Rivals, clearly fitted out by Shed Productions as a “guilty pleasure”, this dramatisation of an X-Factor-style competition did little favours for leads Michelle Collins and Sean Gallagher who seemed uncomfortable in their respective Sharon Osbourne and Simon Cowell roles. With neither character displaying an ounce of likeability, viewers voted to watch something else instead – however this same subject would prove more fertile ground for Peter Kay later in the year. 

Britannia High, a modern day reworking of Fame, was commendable in the scale of its ambition (a live finale, a spin-off album masterminded by Gary Barlow, an online radio station), but lamentable in terms of plot and characterisation – both horribly hackneyed and clichéd, and it too ultimately suffered at the hands of a viewer vote to watch anything else instead.

But these relative failures have nothing on Harley Street, another of ITV1′s vehicles for Suranne Jones, which saw the former Coronation Street star playing a dynamic private doctor, struggling with a cut-glass accent. The show, some sort of weird throwback to the ’80s avarice-dramas, seemed woefully out of step with its bland sorties into the world of the over-indulged. Even its efforts to intersperse some working-class grit into the mix were misguided: Dr Robert Fielding (Paul Nicholls) a northern lad who loves his parents, turns in night shifts at the local NHS hospital just so he’s keeping it ‘real’. Laughable. If ever a series was designed to be unloved, this was it. Although BBC execs were doubtlessly grateful it showed up on the tail of Bonekickers to take some of the heat off that stinker.

Of course, the BBC suffered its fair share of failures – with the aforementioned Bonekickers leading the pack. From the creative team who brought us Life on Mars, starting with the show’s name upwards, here was perhaps the most misconceived drama of the year. Presented as some kind of Time Team meets Indiana Jones in Bath, the series was forever battling with a remit to make archaeology sexy and essayed Scooby Doo plots, appallingly clichéd characterisation (Hugh Bonneville’s lascivious, eccentrically attired and textbook-spouting Prof ‘Dolly’ Parton being the worst offender) and some jaw dropping dialogue (“Identify yourself, creepy caller!”).  It’s little wonder the press gleefully bundled in to kick the whole concept to pieces, and unsurprisingly ratings sunk with each passing episode, rising only slightly for the final instalment.  The BBC and Kudos later announced Bonekickers won’t be excavated for a second series.

Thankfully, Matthew Graham and Ashley Pharoah’s Ashes to Ashes performed rather better, even though it had the unenviable – and some might say unwise – task of following on from Life on Mars. While the show’s creators insisted they wouldn’t have gone ahead with this sequel if a strong idea hadn’t presented itself, it’s kind of hard to know what that was, other than setting the drama in 1981 (and, interestingly, we’ll be shunting forwards a year for the second series). In truth, this felt like more of the same. 

Keeley Hawes as the central character of Alex Drake was unpopular with some, but perhaps this had more to do with the character, rather than Hawes’ performance.  A greater problem was the tension existing between the series’ core genres, cop show and fantasy, failed to cohere.  There were too many appearances from the clown and not enough clarity in the detective work.  These different strands rarely overlapped making it – at times – an irritating programme to watch as your attention was cast hither and thither. 

The first series concluded with an attempt to tinker with the show’s central premise by having Drake  recollect meeting Gene Hunt in “real life” when she was a child.  However, given we are being led to believe Alex has created the fictional world in which the drama takes place, isn’t the most likely explanation of her meet up with the Gene Genie simply to assume her imagination is retrofitting Hunt into her memory?  Regardless of this psychological conundrum, it seems clear Ashes to Ashes will never be a premier league proposition, but like stablemates Hustle (set to return in revamped form in January) and Spooks, it’s good, solid entertainment. 

Speaking of which, Spooks now on its seventh series, seemed to benefit from the real-life Litvinenko affair, with the Russians once again (alongside Muslim extremists), the enemies of freedom. The show even spawned a spin-off series that was broadcast on BBC3. Spooks: Code 9 was set in the near future following a nuclear attack that had wiped out the south of England, and was patently aimed at a much younger audience than its progenitor. Unfortunately like much of recent BBC sci-fi, it suffered from a premise that worked at the level of high concept, but fell apart when it hit the ground.

Other drama franchises proved to be in sound health. Doctor Who appeared for its fourth series, and the last one to feature David Tennant as the Doctor. This year’s episodes were a mixed bunch, with ‘Planet of the Ood’ and ‘The Doctor’s Daughter’ both betraying a sense of running low on fresh ideas.  Catherine Tate’s casting as the companion wasn’t particularly well received among fans but she seemed to win around a lot of people with her performance. The series is now well-placed for a major reboot come 2010, and hopefully a slight change of focus away from the Earth-bound stories and the family of the companion.

Who‘s spin-off show, The Sarah Jane Adventures returned for a 10-part series, and featured a change in the main cast with the departure of Maria. Anji Mohindra took the role of new kid Rani and was an immediate improvement on her predecessor. One of the best stories of the run was ‘The Day of the Clown’ which featured an superbly sinister performance by one-time light entertainment star Bradley Walsh. Conversely, one of the poorest stories this year was ‘Secrets of the Stars’ which featured a rotten turn by one-time light entertainment star Russ Abbott. 

Meanwhile Torchwood remained the Doctor Who spin-off that still doesn’t know what it wants to be. It’s clear there is a decent, entertaining series buried somewhere, but it is hidden beneath layers of silliness and crude sexual innuendo. Hopefully, the forthcoming third series (which will be stripped across a week early next year) can resolve some of these now longstanding problems.

Back to the parent show and while the finale to this year’s Doctor Who was over-laden with characters and under-endowed with plot, it achieved a first for the series by securing the number one position in the viewing charts for its week of transmission. Winter Saturday nights, meanwhile, were pepped up no end by Merlin a show that was obviously designed as a seat-warmer for the Time Lord, but was entertaining in a light and fluffy sort of way, even if things did get a bit samey with an evil sorcerer turning up at Camelot most weeks. The show would have benefited from taking the action away from the castle a little more often.

Starting in the winter, Survivors marked yet another sci-fi comeback, and remained entertaining viewing. The opening episode did a fairly good job of updating the premise for a modern audience, and the new characters seemed to fit in quite well. You could see the show owed a debit of inspiration to Spooks with the killing off of an apparently important player in the first episode. Our band of heroes are, in the main, engaging – Max Beesley particularly impressive as the amoral Tom Price. And come the series finale, was Paterson Joseph really being written out so he’d be free to take on the mantle in that other sci-fi comeback?

But there were some flaws. Insights into a secret government lab added little to the drama; wouldn’t it have been more exciting if their presence had only been signified by occasional sightings of the lone helicopter? Worse still, the issue of law and order (a highlight from the original series) was horribly fumbled. The idea of the group struggling to take communal responsibility for justice was simply swept aside when a government representative took the decision to enforce a death sentence upon a criminal. In this post apocalyptic world, we can still rely on the authorities to do our dirty work. And, dramatically, that’s a wasted opportunity

Remaining on a fantastical tip, Apparitions starred Martin Shaw as a zealous exorcist. A ratings failure, chances of the show’s resurrection look poor, and that’s a great shame. A fusion of mad plots (women possessed by the spirits of aborted babies, a sex offender battling the spirit of the patron saint of rape victims) and utmost seriousness, this was an unusually rich – and often times – shocking offering.

Another debuting series was the ambitious Echo Beach / Moving Wallpaper from ITV1. A clever idea in principle, the pair of series were set on opposite sites of a television production: one looking at the making of a soap, the other – the soap itself. Unfortunately for ITV1, and despite having some big names behind the two shows, the public never really took to the idea and the soapy half of the pair – Echo Beach – was axed. The characters from Moving Wallpaper are set to be retained, but this time there will be no companion show, just an ‘in-house’ zombie thriller featuring Kelly Brook.

The Royal Today was a much more successful product from ITV1. Running daily, this half-hour spin-off from The Royal capitalised on the success of the BBC’s Doctors. Other new series in 2008 included The Invisibles on BBC1 in May.  This was a drama starring Anthony Head and Warren Clarke as two burglars. It was as entertaining as you would expect of a show from the pen of William Ivory, but evidently ratings were not good enough, and so it was cancelled after a solitary run. 

Elsewhere, the Corporation attempted a couple of high concept thrillers. Neither proved terribly effective. The Last Enemy starred Benedict Cumberbatch as a researcher who returns to the UK to find a country cowed under the tyranny of excessive government surveillance. Ponderous and pretentious it may have been, but sporting a giant talking computer as a central macguffin, suddenly it all looked a bit silly. Meanwhile, Burn Up boasted Rupert Penry-Jones along with Bradley Whitford and Neve Campbell in a clunky eco-thriller which failed to convince in its tale of an oil magnate who suddenly develops a conscience. It didn’t help the script felt like it was written some time circa 1987.

But 2008 did give us some huge drama hits. As well as regulars such as Silent Witness (which had two series this year), Foyle’s War, Poirot and New Tricks, there were also a number of other popular series returning for second runs following successful launches last year. Kingdom, the Norfolk-set Stephen Fry television equivalent of Horlicks was back on ITV1, nestled snugly in the Sunday evening schedules. Inspector Morse spin-off Lewis was also back, with the promise of a further run for 2009.

Game shows

While the drama genre seemed to be in rude health (judging by the number of series broadcast if nothing else), 2008 was a quieter year for game shows.  Gladiators returned with much hoopla to the (newly rebranded) Sky1. Although this was an impressively confident production, it lacked the ‘ITV hysteria’ of the original run, depicting the Glads as characterless lunks in black. A second series, however, is on its way, so here’s hoping there’s a bit more comic book on offer.

Celebrity MasterChef and MasterChef: The Professionals proved that Shine’s TV cookery show could do just about anything. The former brought us one of the TV moments of the year, as Holby City‘s Mark Moraghan cracked under the oh-so pervasive pressure and told Marcus Wareing to “shove it up your fucking arse” before fleeing the kitchens of Petrus. The latter brought a formidable new presence to the world of the TV chef – Michel Roux Jr. In his first continuous onscreen role, he proved pleasingly taciturn, offering up mealy-mouthed compliments that somehow invigorated that blandest of all platitudes: Good. “I find the fish good” or “The flavours… are good.”

While Masterchef graduated from daytime to primetime, Channel 4′s culinary contest Come Dine With Me did likewise, but to less pleasing effect.  Somehow the format seemed perfect at five 30-minute episodes a week, and the shift to hour-long weekly shows (with the consequent reduction of dinner party hosts from five to four) stripped the programme of much of its indefinable sizzle. 

Far better was Argumental which was that rarest of things – a digital channel commission that actually felt like proper telly. This production for Dave not only had the good fortune to employ John Sergeant as host just as his Strictly storyline was coming to fruition, but in its debating format employed a simple structure that felt as though it had been around for years. Honestly, you could stick this on BBC2 and no-one would know…

Back at Channel 4 again, and if you’d been away from the UK for a decade and returned this summer, you would have been staggered to hear of the bitching and backstabbing behind the scenes on Countdown.  It seems ever since Richard Whiteley passed away, the series has been all at sea – which is amazing given that a large part of Whiteley’s appeal was his obvious inability to gain mastery over the format.  Meanwhile, erstwhile presenter Des Lynam’s performance on Sport Mastermind proved what a terrible quizmaster he is.  Seeing the man who was once the ultimate unflappable TV host stare at the camera like a rabbit in the headlights and stumble through his script was horrifying.

However, 2008 was perhaps the first year in a while in which a game show failed to really grip the public imagination. Deal or No Deal is still trundling along nicely for C4, while BBC1′s National Lottery: Who Dares Wins returned for a second run and consolidated itself as the show with a format so good even Nick Knowles couldn’t ruin it.  BBC4 again attempted a highbrow quiz, but where previous entrants had failed because they were just too smug, Only Connect worked pretty well (although we could without the self-consciously cerebral music stings next series please).


2008 for some reason seemed to be the year of the television travelogue. Louis Theroux appeared in a couple more specials in which he set out to seek out oddballs in Louis Theroux: Behind Bars and Louis Theroux’s African Hunting Holiday. He also reappeared in November and December with a double bill on law and order in Philadelphia and Johannesburg. Joanna Lumley got to fulfil a childhood ambition and went to see the Northern Lights. We also had an intriguing series in which Jonathan Dimbleby travelled across Russia in… Jonathan Dimbleby’s Russia. Until now he has never really come across as being the most personable of chaps, but his sojourn across this vast nation was fascinating and presented him in quite a different light.

Charley Boorman’s made his third big journey in By Any Means for BBC2 in September. In contrast to the previous series, this time it all felt very rushed, with a number of places covered only briefly as Charley, his producer and cameraman attempted to journey from Ireland to Australia using as many different modes of transport as possible.

Over on Five, Paul Merton was off to India, and while this is the sort of programme the channel should make more of, it was difficult to escape the feeling it all felt a little familiar. Merton does make for an affable host, and it is to be hoped he can continue his association with Five. Meanwhile, fellow comic Stephen Fry’s sojourn across America was a worthwhile attempt to cover the whole country in a single series. Unfortunately, while Fry was as good as ever, the problem with this series was that it was just too short. Covering 50 states in six shows was a massive task.

Animal and human welfare was also on the TV menu this year. Jamie Oliver’s latest crusades covered both chickens and people, with Jamie’s Fowl Dinners and Jamie’s Ministry of Food. In the former Oliver attempted to bring to attention the plight of the nation’s battery hens, while, in the latter, he tried to educate people who can’t or won’t cook. Laudable as his attempts were, he attracted considerable flack from the press for seemingly targeting working-class people and portraying them as lazy uneducated slobs. Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall also studied the battery hen problem in Hugh’s Chicken Run (appearing in the same month as Jamie’s Fowl Dinners), and despite seemingly managing to convert some to the joys of free-range, its hard to escape the feeling most have probably already reverted to buying the cheaper supermarket product and TV dinners.

Fearnley-Whittingstall popped up again in River Cottage Spring and River Cottage Autumn. Also cooking on the television this year was Delia Smith with her series Cooking for Cheats, in which we could all learn how to prepare tinned mince.  Meanwhile, Stefan Gates took another tour of the world’s most dangerous spots in Cooking in the Danger Zone, while The Supersizers Go… saw Sue Perkins and Giles Coren experience food from a variety of historical periods. Meanwhile Gordon Ramsay at last found himself a half-decent magazine show format with Gordon Ramsay: Cookalong Live.  Not great, but a million miles better than The F Word.

Away from the hotplate, this was the year Ruth Watson checked out of her Kitchen Nightmares inspired series on Five, The Hotel Inspector, to helm a, er, Kitchen Nightmares inspired series on C4 – Country House Rescue (fact fans might like to note Ramsay’s show bore the working title Restaurant Rescue). Essentially more of the same, Watson continued to prove she was the quintessence of “redoubtable”, gleefully effing and jeffing when property owners failed to take her advice on board. Meanwhile, back on Five, firebrand Alex Polizzi proved a more than adequate successor, as The Hotel Inspector continued journeying around Britain’s most horrible hostelries.

A surprise pleasure this year was BBC2′s variously scheduled Return to… documentaries, which revisited the Corporation’s slew of docu-soaps from the turn of the century. Celebrating the likes of Castaway, Vets in Practise, The Cruise and – surely the most forgotten of the lot – Lakesiders, this was a good humoured exercise, surprisingly candid at times as various proponents admitted to manipulating either the programme-makers, or the subjects to their own ends.

Other standout factual programmes of the year included Life in Cold Blood - David Attenborough’s last natural history series for the BBC; Channel 4′s Can’t Read, Can’t Write  - in which award-winning educator Phil Beadle attempted to teach adults basic literacy; Griff Rhys Jones on Anger, which saw a seemingly mild-mannered comedian-cum-presenter demonstrating he can blow his stack as easily as the rest of us; and Ian Hislop Goes off the Rails – a programme examining the impact of Doctor Beeching’s railway reforms. Hislop also helmed a documentary exploring the role of conscientious objectors during the World War I.

Sticking with the theme of war, Laurence Rees returned with another excellent series covering the events from the 1930s to the 1940s in World War II: Behind Closed Doors. Worth a look too was a show tucked away on Five featuring a celebrity who seemed to be everywhere just a couple of years ago: Dom Joly’s The Complainers. Here, Joly looked at the trials and tribulations of modern life and set out to investigate just why so few people are prepared to complain when they have suffered an injustice. It wasn’t all serious though, as was witnessed by his encounter with an irate man in a café who he had spoken of as a “beardy-weirdy lesbian type”  in a segment showing how annoying mobile phones can be.

As already pointed out by Charlie Brooker, 2008 was the year of the personality documentary and Dawn Goes Lesbian was perhaps the absolute personification of this trend.  Journalist Dawn Porter made a series of programmes for the constantly struggling BBC3 in which she tried out an alternative lifestyle.  This was essentially Bruce Parry’s Tribe for the Hampstead set, with London’s gay scene instead of the Babongo.  Over the course of an hour we watched Porter become the very best of friends with a Fenella Woolgar look-a-like who she ultimately spent the night with, afterwards stressing both parties kept their pyjamas on.  Much of the programme was issue-led (there’s abuse in lesbian relationships too etc), but at times Porter seemed not quite up to the task of taking on the issues.  This became more apparent in her C4 documentary on mail order brides.  Here, instead of trying to get to grips with the subject in hand, she spent more time letting the viewer know which of the men smelt the worst.

Far, far better programming came in the form of BBC4′s Pop, What Is It Good For?  Paul Morley offered up a list of his favourite songs of all time, explaining why and interviewing the people who made them.  Although he can come across as a rather cynical figure, faced with his heroes, you really saw Morley’s passion and the esteem in which he holds their music. 


Things started badly for TV comedy in 2008, with ITV1′s Paul Merton-fronted series Thank God You’re Here. Based on an Australian show, it involved celebrities having to improvise their way around a comedic scenario that would always begin with the eponymous phrase. Merton seemed slightly out of place here and the standard of humour frankly wasn’t that high.

Far better from ITV1 was TV Burp, which enjoyed two series in 2008, one starting in January and a mammoth 25-part run that commenced in October. TV Burp has long been the most entertaining thing on the box, but you have to wonder how they are going to maintain the quality and laughs in the show over a six-month span. Too much burping could well result in viewers feeling sick.

The Kevin Bishop Show appeared on Channel 4 in July and was faster than The Fast Show in its presentation of sketches. Some of Bishop’s impressions were perhaps less than perfect, but he displayed enough promise to probably guarantee a further series, even though he was guilty (as is much of recent television comedy aimed at “the kids”) of taking unchecked juvenilia too far.  It might be amusing to refer to “Wanking The Dead” in a pub chat about telly, but surely in the process of making Bishop up as Trevor Eve and finding a corpse for him to masturbate, the ‘joke’ starts to pall.

Old-timers Harry Enfield and Paul Whitehouse were back on BBC1 this year with another batch of shows. Ruddy Hell, It’s Harry and Paul was distinctly patchy, but the re-titled Harry and Paul showcased some of the best stuff the pair has done for years. Little Britain USA, on the other hand presented a series that looked increasingly tired and past its sell-by date. 

February brought us another run of That Mitchell and Webb Look that followed on more or less from where it had left off. Also returning for the umpteenth time was Mock the Week, a show that looks like it might be good but is always unfailingly disappointing.  Meanwhile, 8 Out Of 10 Cats always feels like it’s going to be terrible – awful set, appalling title sequence, a guest booking policy that seems to be no more sophisticated than get who was funny on Buzzcocks last week, appalling editing that renders half the show inaudible – but it always turns out to be good fun, thanks no doubt to Sean Lock, the best panel game participant in Britain. Nobody, even Paul Merton in his prime, is as good at going off on tangents and gently mocking the sheer pointlessness of news-based satire.

In sitcoms, Sunshine was a three-part BBC series from the pen of Craig Cash and Phil Mealey, starring Steve Coogan. Never quite sure what it wanted to be, the show was diverting enough, but had a tendency at times to be overly mawkish and sickeningly sweet. An unexpected and largely unnoticed sitcom was far better. Tucked away on E4 was The Inbetweeners – a series about a group of sixth formers in a comprehensive school married filthy humour with four excellent leads. Pleasingly, there is going to be a second term.

As good as The Inbetweeners was, perhaps the best sitcom of the year was Gavin and Stacey. As Henry Normal pointed out – there are loads of scenes when everyone’s laughing but nobody’s the butt of the joke – a refreshing approach. The sequence where the entire family got fantastically over-excited over Gavin’s dad’s (three-second) appearance on the news was probably the best portrayal of family life on TV since the early days of The Royle Family. We’ll put aside memories of that horribly disappointing Christmas special, though, and hope for the best when the recently announced third series rolls around.

Conversely, quite possibly the least funny sitcom that has ever been broadcast appeared in March, and it starred Adrian Edmonson. Teenage Kicks – which had been sat on ITV1′s shelves for several months – featured the former Young One as a father who had been forced to move in with his two kids. It was appalling. This was a show that made jokes about ‘comedy’ Chinese accents. Better from the channel was the second series of Benidorm which featured a terrific performance from cast newcomer Geoffrey Hutchings as the perma-tanned tanning salon king Mel. A third run has been commissioned for 2009.

In the main though, there were too many sitcoms in 2008 that dispensed with a laugh track and served up naturalism in place of jokes. Step forward both The Visit and The Cup, the latter being the third sitcom in a year to feature Steve Edge acting gormless. How many more times must people try and remake Phoenix Nights? Northern whimsy is not in itself hilarious – most of these were no more edgy than Last of the Summer Wine.

Of course, were Peter Kay to do anything as good as Phoenix Nights again we’d be happy. Sadly it was almost impossible to judge Britain’s Got the Pop Factor… with an open mind as the man hasn’t done anything for four years except mime to other people’s records and release the same DVD over and over again. The sheer scale of this one-off Channel 4 comedy spectacular was a big problem.  Running for two hours may have been accurate, but it meant jokes were stretched to breaking point. Once you’ve seen one inappropriate musical segue, you’ve seen them all. Plus, surely we have now bled dry that seam of comedy that sees celebrities sending themselves up? Here it was like one prolonged back slap, and while it may make sense of the plot to record a generic song for the winner, singing it three times on the programme and then releasing it is not comedy, it’s advertising.


On paper there were two soap highlights this year, Dot’s monologue in EastEnders and the death of Vera Duckworth in Coronation Street.  Yet neither event plucked at the heart strings as quite they should.  In fact, given its rich and long history, the death of a beloved character on the Street should be a major event, however, Vera’s demise joins that of Mike Baldwin in somehow failing to be affecting at all – and all this from the same soap that was able to render us senseless with despair simply through Hilda Odgen fumbling with a pair of Stan Ogden’s specs. 

If they’ve lost the ability to do the quiet emotional moments well, 2008 was also the year in which soap set-pieces failed to feel extraordinary.  The early part of the year was punctuated in Coronation Street by David Platt continuing his reign of evil, at one point going on a violent rampage around the street before redeeming himself in the eyes of his mother and grandmother following a spell in a young offender’s institute. A long lost face from the past returned to the street when ’60s character Jed Stone found himself subject to the machinations of the show’s latest hate-figure Tony Gordon.

EastEnders’ big story was the return of Ricky and Bianca and the latter’s numerous offspring. It was also the year in which Frank Butcher passed away, albeit off-screen. Charlie Brooks returned in the role of Janine for the funeral, with a more permanent homecoming later in the year.  The Branning family were paid a visit by Jim too, following his stroke (and that of John Bardon who plays him). Bardon’s appearance was quite something, really, and considering he didn’t utter a line he still managed to convey every aspect of the script that had been written for him. Further turmoil came for Dot with the long-awaited return of her son Nick at the end of the year. It’ll be interesting to see how long he sticks around this time, and how his relationship with his mother will develop.

Elsewhere, the police force were abolished in Holby. Or rather, Holby/Blue was axed following a disappointing showing. Meanwhile, the BBC announced that as part of its regional strategy, Holby City hospital would in future be filmed in Cardiff rather than Bristol. Quite what the wisdom of this is was difficult to discern, given that Cardiff is only 49 miles down the road from Bristol.  It seems like a whole load of unnecessary fuss and trouble for little reward.

Perhaps the most significant event to happen in soapland, was scheduling, as Emmerdale and Coronation Street were moved off Sundays and into midweek slots. Their departure made Sundays, normally ITV1′s best night of the week, seem weak with mediocre light entertainment formats such as Beat the Star brought in as replacements. In addition, weeknights on ITV1 have become terribly crowded and monotonous. With The Bill and Tonight taking up space, the only primetime weekday slot left to try something new in is 9pm to 10pm.

2008 may be regarded in the future as something of watershed, as soaps could no longer rely on securing the number one slots in the ratings – Doctor Who, Britain’s Got Talent, The X-Factor, The Apprentice and even New Tricks topped the charts this year, while nobody seemed to care that EastEnders and Emmerdale now clash every week, thus halving their audience.  In fact, Emmerdale only pulls in a million more viewers than The One Show.


Family entertainment was the hot ticket for telly in 2008.  The X-Factor enjoyed a particularly strong series, despite its many devices to inject tension having now long passed into self-parody.  Similarly, John Sergeant and a last-minute vote pull ensured Strictly Come Dancing remained prominent in the public eye, which in this type of show is all for the good.  Britain’s Got Talent excelled earlier in the year, in no small part thanks to the excellence of Ant and Dec.  Unlike the aforementioned X-Factor and Strictly, Britain’s Got Talent‘s big problem is the acts featured seldom bare seeing more than once. As such brevity is the key here, and ITV1 wisely refused to turn the whole thing into a protracted series, instead bundling it out in late-spring so that we weren’t too bored of the finalists by the time the finale came around. 

While those established talent formats endured, 2008 demonstrated that any new talent shows are going to struggle.  In particular The One and Only typified everything wrong with current television, simply taking a well-worn format and trying to apply it to a new group of contestants, in this case tribute acts. Not only did this do nothing that Stars in their Eyes hadn’t already done with a great deal more humour, but it was also made by the people behind Fame Academy and followed that show’s (tedious) format to the letter, right down to the contestants voting each other off in the presence of Carrie and David Grant. It was also ridiculous to offer a residency in Las Vegas as a prize and then put a Robbie Williams tribute act in there, given the man is a complete unknown in America.  Last Choir Standing later on in the year at least gave us some nice music to listen to, but similarly failed to ignite widespread public interest. 

That show was co-presented by Nick Knowles and Myleene Klass, but seemingly every other series of this kind shown on the BBC in 2008 was presided over by Graham Norton. There are many things the man can do but unfortunately he remains completely useless at trying to sound sincere or reading from an autocue – the two basic requirements for a Saturday night light entertainment host. After The One and Only, he fronted I’d Do Anything, a slightly more entertaining outfit.  However, when you string all these shows together along with Strictly, it adds up to about nine months of the BBC1 Saturday schedule offering slight variations of the same format.

Amusement of a more traditional kind came in the form of For One Night Only, an ITV1 entertainment extravaganza, and probably the most explicit sign of the return of the aforementioned Michael Grade.   This was followed up at Christmas by one-off specials featuring Take That and Girls Aloud.  Both stuck rigidly to the chat and songs format established way back in the 1960s and ’70s when the likes of Cliff Richards and Lulu essayed similar fare across the screens, and both were far better for it.  Such throwaway extravaganzas are exactly the kind of programming ITV1 should be making.

Contrary to various reports, Big Brother didn’t flirt perilously with failure in 2008, rather it has now settled into a groove, and although its days of massive ratings and column inches may well be over, the latest series demonstrated there is still a sizeable core of viewers willing to tune in.  Of course it didn’t help it all ended with a massive anti-climax this year, with the victory of the deadly dull Rachel. Still the series as a whole was okay and far better than Big Brother: Celebrity Hijack.

I’m a Celebrity… Get Me Out of Here! also felt a little less remarkable, although Ant and Dec’s chat is getting pleasingly ever more ribald.  Not a vintage outing, but plenty to warm the hearts of those who watched it (not least the friendship that developed between Joe Swash and George Takei – perhaps this year’s most heart-warming relationship).

In conclusion…

2008 has been a year of controversy, and no one generated more hot air than Jonathan Ross and Russell Brand for their now infamous radio broadcast.  In the resulting furore, Ross pulled out of presenting the British Comedy Awards and it’ll be interesting to see what form his chat show takes when it returns in the New Year.  Perhaps the most telling thing about this whole business for him is that it illustrated how absolutely desperate he is to hang around with any fashionable comedian going, a la Gervais. If he was still knocking about with Rowland Rivron none of this would have happened.

Of course we all remember the resultant media fallout, the low point of which was Emily Maitlis reading out Mock the Week jokes about the Queen’s pussy on Newsnight.  The papers were therefore bound to be on red alert for any future indiscretions and the ubiquitous John Barrowman provided them with some more fodder when he supposedly exposed himself while giving a BBC radio interview.

Happier times were remembered as Blue Peter celebrated its 50th Anniversary with a number of special programmes. Two new presenters were introduced at the same time, with the relatively new Andy finding himself as the senior face on the show. Hopefully the mooted move to Salford won’t be of detriment to the series, given that it seems to be finding its feet again following the slump it suffered in the wake of the Richard Marson resignation. Meanwhile in children’s telly Grange Hill fizzled out and came to an end after 30 years, the last episode featuring another return appearance from Todd Carty as Tucker.

On digital, the UKTV channels underwent the start of a rebranding process, with each of them getting bizarre new names, despite for the most part showing more or less the same sort of programmes they had transmitted 1000s of times over the years. UKTV Gold, once a mighty force in archive programming, was renamed GOLD (Go On Laugh Daily) and now concentrates on cycling through the same old comedy programmes on a permanent basis. UKTV Drama became Alibi, with a remit to screen crime-based drama, while Watch was the replacement for UKTV Gold+1. This is where the once-mighty Richard and Judy fetched up after leaving Channel 4, although their attempt to crack the evening schedules failed, when they realised they wouldn’t ever topple the soaps.

And it won’t stop there: in 2009, UKTV People becomes Blighty, UK History becomes Yesterday and UKTV Documentary will transform into Eden. Bizarre names all of them, but Dave somehow seems to have caught on in the minds of the public – whether you like it or not it is certainly more memorable than UKTV G2.

BBC4 remained the best channel on TV. The Pop on Trial series in January led to some fascinating roundtable debates chaired by Stuart Maconie, supplemented by wonderful archive programming including complete episodes of Top of the Pops. In fact, BBC4′s archive stuff was always entertaining, with the likes of The Rolf Harris Show getting an airing. But surely the biggest surprise was the rerun of Washes Whiter, the 1990 series on the history of advertising. This was a bizarre repeat run, as most of the theories had been long disproved and the general points it made are now extremely out of date.  Nonetheless, it was a treat to see it again.

Sad news came with the death of comedy legend Geoffrey Perkins in a car accident. He wasn’t a household name by any means, but was involved in some of the most famous television comedy since the 1980s, as well as appearing on screen in a number of series. It would have been easy for this news to have slipped under the radar, but BBC2 duly showed a special edition of Comedy Connections as a tribute. Emmerdale lost its longest-serving cast member this year with the death of Clive ‘Jack Sugden’ Hornby. His passing marks the real end of the Sugden family in the series, with only his daughter Victoria, his ex-wife and adopted son now remaining.  Meanwhile for fans of Saturday night telly, the death of Jeremy Beadle in January was particularly sad news.

Of course, television in 2008 hasn’t just been about what’s flitted across the cathode ray tube in the last 12 months.  Indeed CRT televisions are starting to look a bit quaint, and the sight of one in the background of an aspirational ITV1 drama is a sure sign you’re watching a repeat.  If 2008 on screen has been rather unremarkable, it will perhaps be remembered as the year in which the telly became less a piece of furniture situated in the corner of your living room, and more a concept.  Increasing numbers are viewing television via watch again mediums such as the BBC’s iPlayer.  That’s not to say the TV schedule is to become a thing consigned wholly to the past.  For those weary of proactively deciding what they want to watch, good old fashioned telly will always be there for you to flick on, demanding nothing more of you than your idle attention, and that’s perhaps why the medium is, and will remain, so enthralling and powerful – even when there’s nothing much on.


9 Responses to “2008”

  1. Ljones on January 1st, 2009 2:59 pm

    *thinks …. One thing I would add though was the resignation of Terry wogan from eurovision (is Graham norton taking over?). So it’ll be intresting to see what eurovision 09 will be like.

    IHMO 2008 wasn’t a very remarkable TV year and there are still some out of place shows, such as C4′s property shows – hopefully these “look at how much money my house is worth” style of shows will vanish in 2009.

    Also maybe (with any luck) BBC2 will finally kill off “The weakest link”. This show IHMO is long past its sell by date (remember the failed attempt to get it to the USA?).

    And what of BBC1′s “The one show”? For me it still seems as it was when it started, a rag-bag collection of items presented by people who sometimes give the impression that they don’t really seem all that intrested. And then there’s this years’ attempt at a really appaling xmas tune. Who was the guy sitting on the seat in the one show’s xmas tune “video”? He looked totally bored and unintrested!

    As for ITV IHMO their schedule still remains completely unremarkable and forgettable. For me the only thing even remotely worth watching on ITV is “TV Burp”; the rest of it is either cheapo programming, reality TV or talent shows. Yawn.

    It must be quite hard to recall the whole of TV over the previous 12 months, mind you most of it is so bad it is pretty much forgettable anyway!

    Hopefully 2009 will be better!


  2. Glenn Aylett on January 1st, 2009 9:21 pm

    2008 was a watershed year for soaps with Emmerdale achieving its lowest ratings since it was a daytime show in the seventies and Corrie’s ratings falling as well. Just as with the Australian variety in the nineties, the overkill is hurting ratings and a lot of people who were avid fans of the two ITV soaps have given up as the acting is pathetic, the plots repetitive and the sets like something out of Cell Block H. Perhaps in 2009 the soaps will see a cut in their allotted airtime and I think in a few years time Emmerdale will end up a daytime show.
    Also reality seems to be in a downturn now. Your contributors have failed to mention such forgettable and low rating dross as Celeb Air, When Women Rule The World and Colleen’s Real Women which came and went with almost no interest. However, as this is cheap, disposable television I can see digital channels running reality shows for a good few years.

  3. Jack Kibble-White on January 1st, 2009 11:21 pm

    Hi there Glenn – you’re quite right we didn’t mention Celeb Air and those other shows you listed. Unfortunately even at over 7,000 words, some things inevitably slip through the net. It would have been fun to talk about Noel’s HQ too, and the horrible insidious, growing trend of the angry small minded rising up and hitting out at anything and everything they don’t like (see also the Ross / Brand affair), as I think that’s another emerging trend from 2008. I quite agree with your thoughts on soap, and I think we did cover some of those points. Your Emmerdale prediction sounds likely, although what would ITV1 screen at 7pm instead?

  4. John G on January 2nd, 2009 1:35 pm

    A great review of the year, although one major category you overlooked was costume drama. I sensed this year that the costume drama bandwagon was beginning to run out of steam, with Little Dorrit in particular feeling distinctly underwhelming and unengaging – I am not surprised that the ratings tailed off, though poor scheduling by the Beeb was also doubtless a contributory factor. I think part of the problem is that Andrew Davies has too much of a stranglehold over the genre, and other adapters are needed to bring a fresh approach. My favourite costume dramas of the last 15 years are actually Martin Chuzzlewit (why on earth has it never been repeated?) and Cranford, neither of which were adapted by Davies. At least Channel 4 has given us a different approach to the genre with The Devil’s Whore and John Adams, although neither show quite lived up to my expectations.

    Speaking of The Devil’s Whore, I think Andrea Riseborough has been the definite acting find of the TV year. Her performance as young Mrs T in The Long Walk to Finchley was superb, and I look forward to seeing what she does next.

  5. David Bridgman on January 2nd, 2009 8:39 pm

    I think Wogan’s Eurovision retirement was, arguably, overdue. The wry chuckles and sly digs were fun in the 1980s but it’s hard to maintain that stance when the UK is in the bottom five each year.

    Coronation Street was on something of a slippery slope in 2008. One producer axes the Morton family just as they were given a few decent storylines. The came the Windasses, a kind of Battersby-lite clan. Given the number of episodes produced, I have a terrible feeling that even more creaking old storylines are about to resurface.

    Nice to see Blue Peter get a mention. Twelve months ago the show appeared to have plumbed new depths of awfulness, hindered by a lacklustre presenting team. The disappearance of three of them has possibly been the shot in the arm the programme needed, especially as the two replacements have arguably enhanced the show.

    Unsung hero of the year? Holby City. Some of the storylines are, shall we say, odd but generally the standard of both plots and acting is pretty high. Compared to Bonekickers, it’s Shakespearian . . .

  6. Glenn Aylett on January 3rd, 2009 10:08 am

    Hello, Jack, I can foresee the one hour episode of Emmerdale being pared back as this is failing badly against Eastenders. Maybe Emmerdale could be cut back to a twice a week show, but as you say ITV has relied for it for so long in the 7pm slot that it would be unsure about what to put in its place. However, doesn’t Mr Grade remember that this slot on non Emmerdale days was often filled by highly successful game shows and Wish You Were Here? Perhaps this is what he should consider instead of letting Emmerdale burn itself out.
    My predictions for 2009 will be that Emmerdale and Corrie will see their episodes reduced, that the traditional ITV game show will be revived at 7pm, telefantasy will continue its revival and this year will see the end of Big Brother. Reality will continue, but be confined to digital channels as the public’s appetite for it is waning. However, X Factor, Strictly and Britain’s Got Talent will continue to be the biggest shows on television.

  7. Jon Haw on January 3rd, 2009 4:41 pm

    Did I accidentally skip a bit, or did you really fail to mention BBC One’s “Criminal Justice” in the drama section?! That has to qualify as the best drama serial of the year, surely?

  8. Glenn Aylett on January 9th, 2009 7:34 pm

    Perhaps we could add Bonekickers as the most banal, incompetent and downright stupid drama of the last few years. What was that piffle about German soldiers in the First World War trying to resurrect Joan of Arc or something? Exactly, no wonder people named it Bonkers.
    However, Survivors worked very well, even pulling in a hefty audience against I’m A Celebrity, and a new series in 2009 is eagerly awaited. Done well, as in the case of Doctor Who, Survivors and Primeval, telefantasy can prove a big ratings draw as it did in past decades and the creative juices are still flowing in some drama producers.

  9. Lucie Jones, Wales on December 20th, 2009 8:47 pm

    Re. The Kevin Bishop Show’s ‘Wanking the Dead’ sketch, I don’t think it was Kevin dressed up as Trevor Eve, but his co-star Oliver Maltman…not too sure though. HAHA

    2008 was a fantastic year for TV in my opinion, and 2009 has been even more fantastic. Roll on 2010..