1995 – 2004

By Ian Jones, Chris Hughes, Graham Kibble-White, Jack Kibble-White, Steve Williams and Simon Tyers

First published October 2005

1995 – Heartbeat

After a quiet debut in a 9pm slot on Friday nights in April 1992, Heartbeat was moved to primetime Sunday evenings the following year and almost in an instant became one of the most popular ITV dramas ever. The reasons were obvious. There was a big name star in Nick Berry, appearing in his first show since EastEnders, supported by a number of veteran actors such as Bill Maynard and Derek Fowlds. Set on the North Yorkshire Moors in the 1960s, its use of appropriate incidental music and just enough period detail lent it a nostalgic air, while head writer Johnny Byrne had previously scripted dozens of episodes of an equally venerable and cherished series, All Creatures Great and Small. Come 1995, Heartbeat was so well established as an absolute ratings banker that the BBC avoided transmitting anything worthwhile against it, unable to cope with its 14 million plus audience. Indeed, the death of Niamh Cusack’s character – Berry’s on-screen wife – in September 1995 even saw the show beat Coronation Street to number one in the ITV chart.

The programme was perfectly suited to midwinter nights, and joined You’ve Been Framed and London’s Burning in becoming an integral part of ITV’s Sunday line-up every autumn for years. Cleverly, what had started as a star vehicle was soon broadened to involve more of the supporting cast, so that come Nick Berry’s departure in 1997 (and an ITV “golden handcuffs” deal that thrust him into a giddy amount of mediocre one-offs) his replacement with the unknown Jason Durr failed to derail the series. Bill Maynard was promoted to the top of the cast list, something that would have been highly unlikely a few years before, and a constantly changing roster of faces stopped proceedings becoming stale. Although recent ratings inevitably haven’t reached the heights of its mid-’90s pomp, Heartbeat is still a valuable brand for ITV. Extended runs and the introduction of spin-off The Royal in 2002 mean that its nostalgic adventures are part of Sunday evenings nearly all year round. It remains a textbook example of how to sustain a long-running, hugely popular drama.

1996 – Man O Man

Ever since Game for a Laugh, ITV had held the upper hand on Saturday evenings thanks to a bulging portfolio of durable, well-liked formats such as Blind Date and Barrymore. The BBC, meanwhile, dithered over whether to axe Little and Large and half-heartedly commissioned cheap and nasty game shows. Come the mid-’90s, however, things had changed. Noel’s House Party had become the first Beeb effort to combat ITV’s dominance for many years, its live transmission making for genuine talked-about TV. From 1994 it also had the obvious pull of the National Lottery draw plus a revitalised Casualty. These ensured a massive audience every Saturday night, while many of ITV’s big hitters were now playing to declining, ageing audiences.

The upshot was a raft of experiments designed to hook in a younger audience more attractive to advertisers, one of which turned out to be Man O Man. Previously a fixture on Tarrant on TV-style shows as an example of hopeless foreign television, Man O Man arrived on British screens with its meaningless name intact and a reputation as one of the oddest light entertainment programmes ever. The host was Chris Tarrant himself, helming what seemed to be the world’s largest hen party. Each week 10 young men would attempt to impress the all-female audience by flexing their pecs, dancing, essaying Frank Spencer impressions and anything else that would get the ladies sparing them a ducking in the in-studio swimming pool. The same process was repeated relentlessly for an hour until only one man was left standing, revelling in the satisfaction of being the most popular. Or least unpopular, perhaps. Crass and shamelessly simplistic, Man O Man was typical of ITV’s increasingly desperate and ill-advised forays into youth-aimed programming around this time, also typified by the equally unpopular marriage quiz The Shane Richie Experience where engaged couples could win an in-studio wedding if they could identify each others’ bottoms. Indeed, after just one series that appeared to be it for Man O Man, but bizarrely the show was revived two years later, first in the shape of two specials apparently to provide a female-friendly alternative to the World Cup, and then for a whole series in 1999. Thankfully it failed to match Blind Date‘s two decades on screen.

1997 – Monarchy: The Nation Decides

Imagine the conversation that must have gone on somewhere in ITV at some point in 1997. What better way to revitalise our ailing current affairs output, somebody says, than a protracted examination of one of the most contentious issues of the day? Fair enough, says another. What about a phone poll to see whether viewers want to keep the crown? Makes sense, comes the likely response. OK, so how about we do it in the National Exhibition Centre in Birmingham in front of 3000 hyped-up ultra-partisan members of the public who’ve each got coloured voting cards to hold up like on Ready, Steady, Cook, and we’ll throw in a huge panel of belligerent experts chaired by Roger Cook, play in vox pops from the likes of Wendy Richard, Lesley Joseph and Henry Cooper, and make the whole thing almost three hours long and completely live? Er …

Monarchy: The Nation Decides was supposed to signal a brave new dawn of topical programme-making. Of course it was nothing of the sort, instead resembling a sprawling slanging match that did none of its participants any favours. The audience heckled everyone, no matter what was said. Trevor McDonald reassured us we were watching “the world’s biggest live current affairs event” with a look of blind panic in his eyes. John Stapleton roamed the hordes encountering a man who watched the Queen’s speech on video at 3pm every day (“There’s someone behind me shouting ‘sad!’”), self-dubbed “international businessman” Peter Stringfellow and an old duffer who wanted to “thank Carlton Television for recognising Northern Ireland as part of the UK.” Meanwhile Frederick Forsyth in a velvet jacket told everyone to “shut up”, referred to other panelists as “rats” and pointed his pencil at the crowd bawling that the royals “keep you in jobs”. Andrew Morton smelled “a very fetid atmosphere.” Ann Leslie screamed we were witnessing “licensed cock-fighting”. “Give us a chance down here,” pleaded Roger. Nobody cared. The crowd wanted blood. 66% of viewers voted to keep the monarchy, but by that point all anyone was interested in was when the fistfights were going to break out. Easily the most preposterous programme ITV has ever screened – and therefore one of the most entertaining, if for all the wrong reasons – Monarchy: The Nation Decides provided the industry with another chance to give Carlton a kicking, and gave the rest of us notice that the age of the half-hour investigative documentary on ITV was, for good or bad, over.

1998 – Who Wants to be a Millionaire?

There was no reason to suggest Chris Tarrant, by now something of a televisual Jonah, would do any better with his latest venture than he had with the other numerous game shows and untransmitted pilots inside his bulging CV. It sounded like a rehash of Double Your Money. Sure, there was a huge amount of cash up for grabs, but other series, such as the ill-fated Raise the Roof, had proven that quizzes need more than just big prizes to become hits. On top of that, ITV were intending to run the show from September 1998 every night of the week. Director of Programmes David Liddiment had similar misgivings when Celador had brought him the original format, named “Cash Mountain”. After a session in his office with real money, however, he realised the appeal of the game. What the renamed Who Wants to be a Millionaire? did was ratchet up the tension. By giving the contestants all the information they needed to make an informed decision, and allowing them to leave with what they’d accumulated or risk it all on the next question, you got to see members of the public going through the mill on television and playing for life-changing amounts. The game took second place to the emotion.

ITV’s stripped scheduling also proved to be a masterstroke, wooing back viewers night after night. By the second series … Millionaire was pulling in audiences close to 20 million even though nobody was coming close to winning the mythical top prize. It became a ratings weapon for ITV, deployed whenever the channel needed a fillip or to attract viewers to an entirely different series. The show’s status as national taking point was never going to last, though, and after an attempt at replicating its success with the ill-conceived The People Versus, from the autumn of 2000 … Millionaire became a weekly fixture, deployed every Saturday night and anywhere else that needed a boost. Inevitably this permanence meant it lost some of its appeal, and while it remains a reliable performer for the channel even today, it has never captured the public’s attention as it did in those heady early years.

1999 – News at Ten

Little sums up the recent chaotic, accident-prone history of ITV better than the demise of News at Ten. For some 30 years since its launch in 1967 it was undoubtedly the most famous news programme in Britain. Mixing incisive reporting with shameless gimmickry (such as the Friday night “Jobwatch” with its on-screen ticker listing “gains” and “losses”) and helmed by authoritative and charismatic figures such as Alastair Burnet or Sandy Gall and the barking mad Reginald Bosanquet, the programme was hugely iconic and influential. It was the first half-hour news service, and the first to be hosted by two people. However by the ’90s, ITV claimed to be tired of having 40 minutes of news (including the regional bulletin) in their schedules every night, limiting the amount of programming that could be shown post-watershed and forcing dramas and films to be screened in two parts. In addition, too many people for ITV’s liking were treating the “And Finally” as the perfect cue to go to bed.

Noises had first been made about shifting the programme in the early ’90s, but after the fabled “questions asked in Parliament” the idea was put on the back burner. Eventually, though, the regulators ITC gave permission to move News at Ten from March 1999. The early evening bulletin was shunted to 6.30pm, substantially beefed up and re-branded the “flagship” bulletin, while the ITV Nightly News was packaged as a speedy wrap-up of the day’s events at 11pm. This cleared the decks, so the theory went, for long-form drama and movies to be shown without interruption, and for some late night entertainment aimed at a slightly younger audience. But the move didn’t come off. Complaints rained down from all sides that this was marginalising news – bulletins were either too early or too late – especially as it seemed to coincide with content becoming less authoritative and more trivial. Ratings dropped, not helped by ITV unable to find much to air at 10pm that gave the news a decent lead-in (one such effort, Julian Clary’s revival of Mr and Mrs, was pulled after two episodes). So less than two years later, News at Ten returned – but, fatally, for only three nights a week thanks to a half-hearted compromise with the ITC. Worse still, it was now opposite the BBC News, who had sensed a gap and quickly moved to fill it, and who beat ITV in the ratings virtually every night. After three further years the white flag was waved, 10.30pm was fixed as the new slot, and News at Ten mark II ended for good. ITV had casually tossed aside one of the most famous brands in television.

2000 – SM:TV Live

Ever since Chris Tarrant had left Tiswas there’d been no competition on Saturday mornings. The BBC’s big hitters Going Live! and Live & Kicking had easily beat numerous ITV attempts that normally consisted of irritating presenters linking cartoons and pop videos. So when Ant McPartlin, Declan Donnelly and Cat Deeley took over the slot in August 1998, there was no reason to expect anything other than another failure, despite a marathon 52-week commission. And indeed for the first few months that’s exactly what we got (Cat: “We thought the show would be taken off the air”). However things soon began to click. The trio stopped trying so hard and let their natural personalities take over, while “Blue Peter-style features”, as Ant called them, were dropped for extended sketches and daft banter. The exact moment SM:TV Live established itself as something special came when a viewer faxed in details of their father’s habit of breaking wind, which was read out on air to absolute hysteria from the team. This was now a show on the kids’ side, and thanks to a botched revamp of Live & Kicking, one that come the millennium was beating the BBC on Saturday mornings for the first time ever.

2000 was undoubtedly SM:TV‘s high water mark. High profile celebrity guests, often told to go on by their kids, joined in with the cheerfully awful sitcom spoof “Chums” and the deceptively simple riddle-me-ree game “Wonkey Donkey”, notable for Dec’s genuine anger with callers unable to grasp its concept. This was fun for adults too, although Ant’s invitation to a guest to “come drink my love custard” failed to amuse the regulators. In December the series won the viewers’ vote at the British Comedy Awards, beating off competition from a number of established “grown-up” series. As with so many shows in this list, though, it couldn’t last. Ant and Dec departed in December 2001 to be replaced by James Redmond, but disagreements behind the scenes led to him being dropped within weeks. When Cat Deeley quit shortly afterwards a huge number of presenters were hired and fired, none of whom were able to stamp their personalities on the format. It meant that when it ended in 2003, SM:TV had become precisely the same mix of cartoons and over-excited hosts for which it had once been the perfect antidote.

2001 – Crossroads

Despite being way out front with daytime TV throughout almost the entire 1990s, at the start of the new decade ITV were in something of a state of flux. The BBC had made great strides, most notably with Doctors: an original British drama of the kind not seen on daytime TV for years and which pulled in a loyal audience. So when Home and Away was poached by Channel Five, ITV decided to fill the gap with a home-produced drama of their own. But why bother coming up with a new concept when a ready-made format was on the shelf? Crossroads mark II was first mooted by Carlton, who now owned the rights, in early 2000 seemingly for publicity alone. Somewhere along the line, however, it started to be taken seriously. Nostalgia buffs were no doubt hugely excited by news that the likes of Jane Rossington and Doris Luke would be making a return. Mere weeks after the show’s launch in March 2001, however, they were all cynically killed off. What was left was a bog-standard soap at the same level as Family Affairs. It was an adequate example of the genre but, at a time when the schedules of ITV1 (as it was officially rebranded in August) were already saturated with ever more episodes of Emmerdale and Coronation Street, who cared?

So Crossroads plodded along in its unremarkable way, comprehensively failing to build any sort of loyal audience, let alone the impressive one garnered by Home and Away. A general lack of interest meant the number of episodes was cut from five to four episodes a week by the end of 2001. Come June 2002, ITV had spent so long dithering over whether to recommission it, all the cast’s contracts had expired and they had to start again from scratch. The upshot was Crossroads mark III, which began on ITV1 in January 2003. Soapstars judge Yvon Grace was now in charge and decided to camp the whole thing up. The plan was something like Dynasty with a gay audience in mind. The reality was appearances from the likes of Lionel Blair. This was way too knowing and stupid to sustain on a daily basis, and five months in ITV pulled the plug entirely. The final episode revealed that the entire series had all been a dream and the whole cast actually worked in a supermarket. The sort of plot twist you’d have written in a primary school creative writing lesson, such a risible ending seemed somehow appropriate for such a risible revival.

2002 – Pop Idol

It was the show that gave ITV back Saturday nights, and one that became a genuine talking point – not least as, upon its first outing, nobody seemed to be quite sure how the format was going to unfold. From open auditions to an intermediate knock-out stage to the pomp of a regular live Saturday night performance, sometimes it felt like Pop Idol was making it up as it went along, swelling its scope in response to its unexpected popularity. Whatever the case may be, come the finals you couldn’t help but conclude the impossible had happened: Popstars, its much-publicised predecessor, had been well and truly trumped.

So how did the offspring succeed in putting one over on the illustrious parent? Neatly enough it was Hear’say’s Noel Sullivan who first hit the nail on the head when, during Christmas 2001, he moaned, “Pop Idol has been more about the put-downs than the actual kids.” And that was pretty much the truth of it. Despite Nigel Lythgoe’s purported “nastiness”, the twin foundations of his show were encouragement and constructive criticism. By contrast, Pop Idol was a battle for survival, thanks to the lurid and icy put downs dispensed by Simon Cowell. Although the man’s bon mots were hardly Wildean, his relentless negativity was compelling and transformed him into the show’s hate figure – a role everyone had previously pegged for the plain-talking Pete Waterman. Meanwhile all the kids that we were supposed to be rooting for were transformed into performing battery hens desperately trying to avoid the cull. Which was precisely how it should be. It’s telling that, while the first series finale went out in February 2002, the following year the channel had got its act together and Pop Idol‘s second (and ultimate) swan song was an integral part of ITV1′s Christmas package.

2003 – The Second Coming

On the night of BBC3′s launch, viewers were treated to an achingly modern, hugely controversial drama that would depict the Son of God having sex before taking his own life. On ITV1, that is. For this reason alone, The Second Coming was a landmark programme. Originally conceived for Channel 4 and then the BBC – both of whom knocked it back – the series arrived at the unlikely home of ITV thanks to the network’s controller of drama Nick Elliot deciding the channel needed “high-quality, challenging and audacious” output. Writer and atheist Russell T Davies explained away his motivation with the claim: “I wanted to challenge myself by asking: ‘What if I woke up tomorrow and it was incontrovertibly true that God existed? How would I deal with it?’”

The result was a two-part production that boldly challenged the sensibilities of the ITV heartland, but did so in a remarkably restrained fashion. Cast with an array of faces who denoted quality drama – Christopher Eccleston, Lesley Sharp, Annabelle Apsion and Mark Benton – viewers knew from the off this was a serious venture which demanded respect. And in the main The Second Coming lived up to that first impression, courtesy of a gripping, dark, plot free of invective. Things only fell apart at the conclusion, where Eccleston’s Christ figure agreed to take his own life seemingly just to provide some sort of closure to what had been an interesting debate about religious belief versus free will. Worse, the subsequent “well everything’s all right again” sequence depicting the catalyst for Eccelston’s demise going about her business unmolested in a supermarket was saccharine and, well, stupid. But, despite its flaws The Second Coming was still a programme of which the network was justly proud. What’s more, BBC3 would’ve killed for it.

2004 – Simply the Best

Half a century on from single-handedly revolutionising popular television through classy game shows, adventure series and variety spectaculars, ITV’s failure to find any new hit light entertainment since the 1990s meant things were looking desperate. Now, while the BBC were developing popular and critical successes like Strictly Come Dancing, ITV spent the summer months flinging out the sort of offerings they most probably thought had died out several decades before. 2004 saw this process reach its unwelcome nadir. Simply the Best was based on the ancient Intercities format that had been running in France from the year dot. Owing more than a little to It’s a Knockout, it was hosted from an arena in Jersey, meaning a rare network production credit for Channel Television (so at least someone was doing well out of it). Each week members of the public and “celebrities” – and you know they were in trouble when the most famous person on one episode was erstwhile Blue Peter host Stuart Miles – took part in an array of demeaning and pointless games. Kirsty Gallacher oversaw events, with the trailers emphasising the fact she would be wearing a bikini rather than, say, any mention of her talent. Phil Tufnell joined her, part of ITV’s depressing policy to assume anyone who’d appeared in the successful I’m a Celebrity … Get Me Out of Here! had any sort of personal popularity and hence could be whacked into any format going.

What started as a tedious 90-minute show, with pop bands and phone-in competitions padding out the repetitive business of the games, was then unbelievably extended to an actively offensive two-hour behemoth midway through its run. This was despite appalling audience figures. Eventually ITV’s patience snapped, and the big gala final was flung out at 3.30pm. Being neither popular nor of any discernible quality, Simply the Best was not really any more objectionable than contemporary stablemates Celebrities Under Pressure and With a Little Help from my Friends. Yet the arrival of Doctor Who on the BBC in 2005 illustrated that an appetite still existed for family entertainment of the type ITV seemed incapable of producing any more. It appeared, for the time being, the channel had completely forgotten how to do what it had once done best – and first.