On 21 April 2003, 16.7 million people tuned in to watch the makers of Who Wants To Be A Millionaire spend a couple of hours of primetime television outlining their role in one of the most notorious instances of rigging a quiz show in recent memory.

Tonight: Millionaire – A Major Fraud was a truly bizarre affair, leaving Millionaire‘s producers Celador looking hugely smug besides chiding the viewer for wanting to sit through what was little more than a massive plug for one of ITV’s programmes. Still, it was yet another chapter in the remarkable history of the most successful game shows of the last 10 years, and one that – despite falling ratings and endless, half-desperate format tinkering – remains a bedrock of ITV’s schedules. Millionaire survived 2003 in one piece. Many others were not so lucky.

It’d been a while since BBC1 was able to boast of not one but a family of flagship, high-profile drama series whose scope and ambition was matched by commendable production values. Leading the pack was the near-flawless State of Play. Paul Abbott’s political thriller may have tended towards the over-arch in having wise-cracking characters forever sitting around postulating, but more than made up for such deficiencies with genuinely edge-of-the-seat atmospherics, some devastating cliffhangers, and an unusually disciplined display of plotting.

Slightly less satisfying, but still great entertainment, was Jonathan Creek. With just a miserly three-episode run to play with, David Renwick didn’t quite hit the standard of previous series, (and let’s hope the BBC refrains from rationing out future installments in the manner that so crippled Only Fools and Horses). An occasional Jonathan Creek, however, was far better than a full series of the ill thought-out Strange, which deservedly only attracted 3.9 million viewers. The Canterbury Tales, meanwhile, was just the sort of thing the Beeb could and should do, and was by and large a success worth applauding. Charles II easily outflanked ITV1′s Henry VIII by dint of being coherent and consistently well-acted. Completing the pack was Spooks, blessed with huge publicity and an expanded run, but which lost focus the longer it went on. Taut tales of subterfuge turned into rambling character pieces reaching out for piquancy and failing thanks to inadequacies in the script. Having two different episodes based around child computer geniuses was even more unfortunate.

Yet for all their respective quirks and drawbacks, this was a suite of programmes that benefited from faithful scheduling and an air of permanence. In utter contrast barely a week passed without a new mini-series airing on ITV1, and as the months ticked by the impression became one of a lumbering production line churning out one personality-led extravaganza after another: William and Mary, Lucky Jim, Rosemary and Thyme, Margery and Gladys … At least these escaped the indignity of being turfed out of their slot and consigned to an ignominious backwater late on a weeknight; Fortysomething, Sweet Medicine (supposedly a permanent replacement for Peak Practice) Single and others all ended up adrift in the post-News at Ten wilderness. The actions of a no-nonsense business-minded network, maybe, but the cumulative effect was to belittle ITV1′s whole drama strategy.

There were, as there always are, exceptions: The Last Detective, despite its Touch of Frost overtones, actually managed to pretty much do its own thing, and more importantly be a proper “whodunnit” – rarer than you’d think given the number of other small screen detective shows. The Second Coming, however, was just too fantastical for its own good, and was cursed with, as is evermore the case with writer Russell T Davies, a hopelessly half-arsed conclusion. Attempts to spin off Heartbeat (The Royal) and The Bill (MIT) received more of a mixed response than perhaps ITV1 bosses were hoping; and now that Cold Feet has concluded, the channel urgently needs fresh, vibrant mainstream series around which it can build its schedules. One-off stunts (The Bill – Live) and revivals (a decent enough Prime Suspect) could not offset the feeling of 2003 being one of the most inconsistent, uneasy years for ITV1 drama in a long time.

The second series of 24 divided opinion here at OTT. Some considered it every bit as good as it should have been, albeit with a weird propensity towards scenes of torture and people locked up in rooms. Others grew tired of its repeated demands for the viewer to suspend their disbelief and terribly clunky dialogue (“This better not be another of your manipulations!”). At least it featured a strong plot that enjoyed a proper beginning, middle and end – and it was easily the most substantial drama series on either BBC2 or Channel 4. Cambridge Spies, Teachers, 40, Second Generation – none really capitalised on their interesting subject matter or star names to offer up plausible, involving storylines. Were it not for a couple of outstanding, one-off productions – George Orwell – A Life in Pictures and The Deal respectively – neither channel would have delivered any notable homegrown drama this year.

BBC2 reaped substantially greater rewards from resurrecting old favourites. Joining University Challenge and Treasure Hunt was a new series of Mastermind, amiably hosted by John Humphrys and somehow far more interesting than we remembered it in its previous incarnation. When BBC1 chipped in with Superstars we suddenly had an unusually large number of old programmes in circulation – all of which, perhaps remarkably, were faithful and good fun. Superstars was a textbook example of how to revive a series, paying deserved tribute to the original run while still managing to come across as fresh and exciting. Only Treasure Hunt‘s lamentable scheduling spoiled things.

Original quiz shows didn’t fare quite so well. Meet My Folks could have been a decent format, but was executed incredibly badly thanks to the absence of a presenter, thereby requiring the contestants to continually explain what they were doing and ensuring proceedings came across as thoroughly contrived. It was really no surprise to see the show dropped from Saturday nights and remaining episodes flung out late at night. BBC2 tried to combine ancient history, advanced graphics and Eddie Mair in Time Commanders with mixed success; while Nobody Likes a Smartarse spoiled a fairly intriguing concept by becoming over-reliant on the supposition that a studio audience would hold people who actually knew something in contempt.

ITV1 trundled out a chain gang of game shows and quizzes all lacking in wit, spark or tension. Its obsession with placing celebrities in humiliating situations gave rise to Russian Roulette: Celebrity Special and Drop the Celebrity, both doomed by the fact that the personalities in question were uninteresting attention seekers for whom you neither cared or liked. June was the nadir: the return of The Vault, coupled with Brian Conley’s Judgement Day, delivered ITV1 its lowest Saturday night audience ever recorded. The former was simply a mess, which took an age to explain and still didn’t make sense; the latter was desperate and demeaning.

The situation was no better on Channel 4, who appeared to have become preoccupied with mounting repeatedly unsatisfactory attempts to find a successful “subversive” quiz show. Without Prejudice, Your Face or Mine and Distraction all relied on tired “shock” concepts aimed at imagined masses of hip young audiences. In terms of genuine excitement and elucidation, Grand Slam, a devoutly conventional tournament between winners of other quiz shows, was far more substantial. BBC2′s QI likewise made no attempt to present itself as anything other than it actually was – teams of verbose individuals trying and failing to show off about their knowledge of obscure subjects, and tackling them with a sense of wit and irreverence.

The line between game show and reality TV became even more blurred during the year, as the fortunes of reality programming veered between increasingly wild extremes. BBC1′s ratings flop The Murder Game was almost the best of the bunch: a classy, very “BBC” take on the genre, revelling in appearing as cerebral as possible and never failing to impress with the scale of its stunts. Perhaps the whole thing was just a little too cold and cynical for your Saturday night audience.

Just as good was an outing for the US version of The Mole on Challenge TV. With the first two series (the second deliciously subtitled The Next Betrayal) hosted by the charismatic ABC news correspondent Anderson Cooper, this was something of a consolation prize for those of us who were still pining for five’s UK version. Although the show arguably dwelt too much on awarding players free passes to the next round, there was still plenty of double-dealing and espionage to maintain interest. Celebrity Mole: Hawaii saw Cooper out and sportscaster Ahmad Rashad in, but despite fears the format was about to plunge into banality, if anything this turned out to be an even more entertaining experience as micro-celebs Stephen Baldwin and Corbin Bernsen ratcheted up the paranoia and whole-heartedly threw themselves into the game.

Pop Idol surpassed its first series in terms of unforeseen twists and surprises. Watching odds-on favourite Sam crash out in the semi-final was jaw-dropping stuff, although it did have the net result of leaving two also-rans battling it out for the big prize. It was an instructive contrast to the dire Reborn in the USA. Down at heel and seemingly piped into our TV sets direct from Mars (so awful was the picture quality), a series set around a bus trip taken by a dozen sweating has-beens was never going to be an appealing prospect. For host Davina McCall the whole thing seemed to prove a bridge too far, finally forcing her to embrace that shouting, hunched-up caricature she’d been toying with since the start of Big Brother.

Then there was the return of I’m a Celebrity … Get Me Out of Here! It would’ve been nice if even one of ITV1′s entertainment shows of 2003 could have gone more than 10 seconds without making any sort of reference to this programme, especially as this year’s version did nothing to surpass the impact of the original. While some at OTT appreciated the appointment-to-view nature of proceedings, others found it increasingly hard to care about the subjects or find much time for Ant and Dec’s smug observations within a warm, cosy studio. In fact, Pop Idol aside, ITV1 really did seem to lose the plot with reality TV; consider The Club, which featured Dean Gaffney running a nightclub, perhaps the most depressing commission ever; or Design Wars, based on the idea that the public would give a toss which country produced the best interior designer.

BBC1′s Fame Academy was simply bloody awful, losing everything that made it individual and unique first time round and instead turning into Son of Pop Idol without any of the wit or appeal – an even more ridiculous idea when you remember it was actually screened opposite Pop Idol itself. The programme mistook “must-see” television for having people be really nasty to each other, and the ensuing bitterness and rancour of the judges’ comments and their unceasing desire to shout each other down and make one another look foolish resulted in ghastly viewing. The whole unsavoury palaver was also blessed with the presence of Patrick Kielty, revealing himself to be one of the worst presenters currently working in television thanks both to his hopeless attempts at fronting a live show and a demeaning spat with judge Richard Park that got in the way of, and undermined, the whole contest.

Channel 4, however, held the record for the most number of reality TV misses. Because they were all high-profile, hugely-publicised affairs, the scale of the failure was all the more potent. The Salon soon felt like it’d been running on every day for years; but we still can’t see what the point of it is other than ensuring there’s no space for any new episodes of Futurama. The Games, meanwhile, resembled an attempt to fill gaps between runs of Big Brother given the fanzine-style spin-offs at teatime, the late night streaming and the endless discussion on the wretched RI:SE. C4 boss Mark Thompson had the gall to claim that The Games was groundbreaking scheduling no-one else would dare try – forgetting that ITV1 had stripped I’m A Celebrity … every night twice in the previous 12 months.

Big Brother went for non-character characters, and suffered as a result. Teen Big Brother: The Experiment was pre-recorded and the better for it, yet all the laboured efforts to play up the sociology foundered on the fact that, yet again, the contestants were hard to like. Trust Me, I’m a Teenager achieved nothing except give viewers a headache from the constant shouting. And so it went on, adding up to a litany of shows that collectively pointed to a mindset at C4 which dictated the actual format of the series was immaterial; all that mattered was having at least one reality show running at any one time.

This perception has proved fatal. For all of C4′s individual successes, its relationship with reality TV has conspired to rob the channel of most of its cutting edge and imaginative credentials. 2003 has turned out to be one of the most disappointing years for C4 in quite a while, simply because of this smothering association with one genre. Mark Thompson and his team continue to talk about returning C4 to its roots, of paring things back, of being radical. So far there’s little sign of this on screen.

Perversely, however, two of the channel’s stand-out one-off commissions had their roots in reality TV: Derren Brown Plays Russian Roulette and That’ll Teach ‘em. Having long admired Brown, OTT was a little worried this year when he seemed to throw his lot in with the David Blaine school of overblown stunts. However his attempt to “not get killed” thankfully turned out to be a smart and subversive show that dissected the hype built up around the event. Even though the whole thing was simply a trick, Brown made no pretence of the fact. That’ll Teach ‘em exploited a cunning selection of “characters” and everyone’s memories of the classroom to deliver uplifting, enthralling, genuinely insightful television. You really felt and cared for its subjects, which is always TV’s greatest achievement. Whether C4 dares to roll out the kind of bravado, fun and unconventionality of both this and Brown across the rest of its schedules in the future remains to be seen.

The last 12 months have seen various attempts to revive light entertainment. The problem was nobody could agree on what exactly made the glorious, golden days of big-budget, much-watched variety spectaculars so glorious or golden. For Channel 4 it meant sending out for the man who re-invented Saturday night entertainment nine years ago. The result was quite possibly the worst programme of the year on any channel: Boys and Girls. It was written by Chris Evans himself, and it showed, as only someone who’d been out of the country for a long period of time would think there was anything vaguely exciting or shocking about contestants seeing their parents appear naked. The Evans production it most resembled is probably Red Alert – with 200 contestants, none of whom you could care about, and disorganised, noisy presentation.

Ant & Dec’s Saturday Night Takeaway became, unbelievably, even more like Noel’s House Party – in some ways a good thing, but as the bearded one knows only too well such a format is a tremendous eater of ideas. As for the rest of ITV1′s entertainment output, it was almost entirely populated by more of those contestants from I’m a Celebrity …; the likes of Rhona Cameron, Tony Blackburn and especially Tara Palmer-Tomkinson washed up almost every single week, presenting or guesting on a dizzying array of forgettable formats. Additional mention must be made of Mark Durden-Smith who, after being one of the worst aspects to the critically-panned, unpopular RI:SE, somehow managed to appear on ITV1 non-stop despite having little in the way of charisma or warmth.

Andi Peters returned to the BBC to try and overhaul Top of the Pops, but as All New Top of the Pops the show seemed even less concerned with reflecting the state of contemporary music and the charts. The National Lottery continued to suffer from unfocused presentation, and from being bolted onto mostly unrelated game show formats that were difficult to follow. Over on C4 Graham Norton demonstrated that even the biggest talents can suffer from over-exposure, with his show losing a lot of its appeal thanks to running every night for months on end. This was a situation that also meant C4′s 10pm slot was booked up for most of the year, severely limiting what other kinds of programmes could be shown post-watershed.

Neither light entertainment nor reality TV delivered 2003′s chief “watercooler” moments. EastEnders and Coronation Street jousted for predominance in both the ratings and headline-grabbing stunts. But while both played host to an audaciously higher number of unsubtle arrivals and departures than usual, they often forsook low-key menace for over-the-top frenzy and crude, bumbling dénouements. Nothing could match the must-see appeal of Richard Hillman’s demise at the start of the year and Den Watts’ resurrection at its close, but these set-piece forays into epic tragicomedy had limited appeal. Leslie Grantham is still a decent enough actor, we’ll give him that, but somehow EastEnders failed to capitalise on his return. Perhaps casting him as the ultimate “Daddy” of the Square wasn’t the best idea in the world; we don’t recall the likes of Nick Cotton being particularly scared of Dirty Den during his original tenure. As the year went by the EastEnders production team became more and more fixated on gangsters and “top dogs”, in the process frittering away their critical lead over Coronation Street. In turn the residents of Weatherfield, despite never matching the cringingly described “Norman Bates with a briefcase“, have at least been able to set up base camp for possibly more success in 2004.

Experiments with daytime television left all the main channels with a profoundly patchy record. The BBC gambled on a limited revival of The Afternoon Play that garnered a positive reception from critics and audiences; but its attempt to nail the magazine format in the shape of The Morning Show was derisory. In both presentation and content the show was utterly unconvincing; nobody was interested in Nicki Chapman’s thoughts on repatriating asylum seekers. ITV1 chose to soldier on with brands and personalities that had been around for decades and which were showing their age. The sole exception was Today With Des and Mel, an unapologetically brash knees-up with usually at least one guest worth catching every day.

Channel 4′s decision to stand by Richard and Judy paid off as the series finally hit its stride and piled on the ratings, but moving Countdown, already floundering at an unnecessary 45-minute length, to a mid-afternoon graveyard was utterly perverse. Here was yet another case of the channel offering up no adequate explanation for its actions. If they wanted to kill Countdown off then why proscribe it the conditions for an undignified, slow demise; and if they did not, why treat it with such disdain? As for five’s The Terry and Gaby Show, once the fantastic title sequence was out the way all that was left was a ramshackle affair, its two hosts constantly talking over each other or, in Gaby’s case, dementedly shouting for attention. The whole roustabout was topped off with an irritating will-this-do attitude that could be traced right back to its creator and executive producer – that man again – Chris Evans.

With the BBC preparing for its Charter Review, ITV stumbling towards merger and the ITC legislating itself out of existence, newspapers were often thick with talk of reconciling television’s need to sustain audiences with public service obligations. Particular ire was reserved for the BBC, which had to weather a torrent of criticism almost without respite, all the way from bitter outbursts of ex-employees like Jimmy Young in January through to the Daily Telegraph’s “Beebwatch” column in the autumn. At the same time, however, the Corporation demonstrated a more inspired and practical approach to finding a suitable balance between unapologetic mainstream and accessible niche programming than it had done for decades.

Take its arts output, for example. In the face of Melvyn Bragg’s ongoing boasts about how much culture he managed to get onto ITV1 (failing to mention The South Bank Show‘s transmission time of close to midnight) both BBC1 and BBC2 were able to roll out a number of projects demonstrating their commitment to lively, accessible arts programming. Instead of the often ghettoised, abstract and tokenistic output of the past, we got big budget, heavily-promoted strands in the middle of primetime. Alongside the fantastic Rolf on Art came major series on Byron and Michaelangelo; Arena remained a recurring staple on BBC2; The Big Read and Restoration had demonstrable impact in raising awareness of and participation in the study of literature and architecture; and perhaps most significantly of all Alan Yentob hit a bulls-eye with BBC1′s Imagine …, the long-trailed replacement for Omnibus and home to a number of thoughtful, entertaining profiles and investigations. The Corporation are now doing far more in the way of arts programming – however you define it – than their rivals. That goes for both ITV1 and, indeed, Channel 4, whose arts output dwindled to the sum total of a couple of modern operas and the erratic The Art Show bundled out at 7.30pm on Friday nights.

Then there was the business of reporting a major intentional conflict. When the long-expected war against Iraq arrived in March, both the BBC and ITV could call upon a resource neither had to hand during the last Gulf conflict: 24-hour digital TV news services. In contrast to Sky’s self-conscious bombast and graphics-heavy presentation, BBC News 24 seemed subdued and uneasy, picking its way – often live on-air – between truth and fantasy, rumour and hard facts. With some of the most accomplished reporters in TV journalism out in the field, however, the Corporation ran the most comprehensive and vivid coverage of the hostilities; and it was BBC1 who delivered the last word on the war in the shape of the astonishing Panorama Special in November, an extended edition built around the moment when John Simpson and his reporting team kept their camera rolling while caught in the middle of friendly fire.

BBC News 24 won a bad press all year round, some of it based on constructive criticism, some of it merely negative and lazy. A makeover in December seemed a somewhat token gesture of appeasement; the station really wasn’t that bad at all, and at least it did actually show proper news – unlike the ITV News Channel, a candidate for the worst digital station currently in existence. Here, precious little reportage made it to air in between repeats (such as the Rugby World Cup Final about half a dozen times) and ITV content that couldn’t be fitted anywhere else (like live football). Under-resourced and over-hyped, the channel even resorted to hiring faces from yesteryear to boost their war coverage, a tactic which ended up looking embarrassing and undignified.

Anti-BBC rhetoric took on a whole new colour during the second half of 2003. It had been a very long time since the BBC had found itself the lead story on news bulletins week in week out. The ferocity of the attacks mounted against the organisation by politicians and press alike were nothing new; the tenacity and vigour with which the BBC fought back were a revelation. Not for a generation had the Corporation demonstrated such bluster. The Hutton Inquiry then proceeded to lay bare the workings of Auntie Beeb right up to the highest level – e-mails sent to and from Greg Dyke and Gavin Davies by colleagues suddenly became public property. The year ended with the BBC seeking to pre-empt the Inquiry’s findings by visibly toning down its bullishness and improving its complaint procedures; yet it’s fair to say the Corporation’s reputation, overall, had been enhanced rather than diminished by 2003′s most incendiary and contentious story.

A raft of impressive current affairs programmes – from Jeremy Vine’s avuncular turn on The Politics Show to the unflinching Holidays in the Axis of Evil – found the BBC mixing the accessible and the accomplished with considerable ease. Less convincing, indeed downright irritating, was the continual promotion of Andrew Neil as the face of BBC political broadcasting. Over-bearing and predictable, he robbed the business of televising politics of all its fun and dynamism.

Last year OTT welcomed the growing preponderance of one-off documentaries within the schedules, and 2003 has seen that trend continue. In Comedy Connections BBC1 showed there were new and imaginative ways of re-telling now-familiar anecdotal stories and repackaging archive clips; but an even more perceptive, thought-provoking and genuinely eye-opening insight into the UK’s comedy heritage came courtesy of the late Bob Monkhouse. Behind the Laughter was a landmark programme, harnessing all of Monkhouse’s enduring attributes – erudition, self-deprecation, timing, and that epic capacity for humour and mining the past – in an enticing, profound new format. This was oral history at its most mesmerising and achingly honest, and a fitting memorial to the great comic.

BBC1 also demonstrated it could match time-honoured investigative techniques with up-to-the-minute technology in order to produce historical recreations – Pompeii – The Last Day – and undercover reporting – The Secret Policeman – that were classic examples of their kind yet also utterly contemporary. A Life of Grime continued to be one of the few docusoaps to have survived that genre’s great flowering, retaining the knack of finding likeable subjects to follow, all of whom talked about their lives with wit and honesty, while John Peel’s wry narration added to the appeal. And then there was the return of the mainstream documentary strand in the guise of One Life, a collection of thoughtful, diverse films, sometimes objectionable, sometimes harrowing, always interesting.

Judging by this year, documentaries remain the most eclectic strand on British television. A host of films, one-offs and mini-series fought for attention on both BBC2 and C4, appearing so frequently that they sometimes ended up of blatantly similar stock and scope. As BBC2 ran Gerry Robinson’s business trouble-shooting series I’ll Show Them Who’s Boss, C4 followed scant weeks later with a more psychological look at workplace ructions in Reality Check. Both were interesting shows, albeit limited as returnable commodities. This was particularly noticeable when week after week Robinson ordered the same palliative for a wide variety of problems (in short: get rid of the current manager and promote someone from within the ranks) with the result that I’ll Show Them … became progressively less gripping as time went by. Reality Check escaped this fate thanks to Kate Marlow’s persistent emotional interrogation of workmates under the microscope, reliably uncovering a different kind of repressed trauma every week. How much of this amounted to “good therapy”, though, was uncertain given how many of the businesses post-Marlow went on experiencing the same problems she was there to fix.

C4′s suitably deferential treatment of its “landmark” series of the autumn, The First World War, contrasted pointedly with BBC2′s ludicrous scheduling of the 1964 classic The Great War: a different transmission time for every edition, sometimes up to a month between episodes, and an attempt at complimentary repeats on BBC4 which had to be abandoned after the same episode had to be aired four weeks running. This was behaviour that sapped all the excitement of this being a proper TV event. BBC2 did much better with a number of signature commissions: the ever-reliable Trouble at the Top, docu-drama The Day Britain Stopped, affectionate trawl through the archives The Way We Travelled, headline grabber When Michael Portillo Became a Single Mum, and the eye-opening The Kennedy Assassination: Beyond Conspiracy. Fighting the War provided a near-definitive account of the conflict in Iraq a mere few months after principal operations had ended, while The Fall of Milosevic marshalled some of the most powerful people in international politics before the camera.

In May, five presented a one-off documentary on the controversial all-female ensemble Rock Bitch, and against expectations turned out a fascinating insight into the group’s shared sensibilities, instead of the expected nude-fest. It was the network’s only documentary of note. For its part, C4 at last came good with 25 Years of Smash Hits, The Story of the Novel and, inevitably, Return to Jamie’s Kitchen. Trained French athletes leaping across the rooftops of the capital should’ve been compelling viewing, but Jump London almost couldn’t contain their ambition and visual brilliance. Hats off to the religious travelogue Hajj – The Greatest Trip on Earth and the definitive DNA: The Story of Life; no thanks to the risible Snorting Coke With The BBC and the unnecessary Bernard’s Bombay Dream which simply confirmed a load of stereotypes and proved nothing.

Across the space of OTT’s five consecutive reviews of the year it’s probably fair to say we’ve yet to see a TV genre rise and then fall off our screens for good. Nostalgia shows came close, however, pushing their way up to the surface in 2000 with I Love the Seventies and rather neatly appearing to submerge again around about 2001′s I Love the Nineties. Yet with 2002′s excellent The Showbiz Set it seemed as though the nostalgia industry was about to stage a second coming, this time in the form of rather more considered analysis of far less generic subject matter. This year’s Designing the Decades on BBC2 followed in that trend, presenting us with a hard-faced factual look at the growth and development of design trends. There was no room for fuzzy feel-good punditry here; the programme simply got on and did its job – and did it well. As such, our tip for next year is an escalation of this style of nostalgia telly, which as far as we’re concerned is good news.

Another kind of factual output, lifestyle programming, remained all-pervasive. While OTT feels more and more uncomfortable at C4 throwing its lot in with aspirational “how to” fare, it can’t be denied that, going by 2003′s efforts, the channel has a whole fleet of well-made and engaging shows in this genre. This year the triumvirate of Other People’s Houses, Property Ladder and Grand Designs all delivered the goods, each boasting that Holy Grail in presenting terms – a nicely turned out, knowledgeable trade person who not only knows their stuff but can communicate it for the cameras with enthusiasm. Who’d have thought that Victorian pump houses or protecting a property against dry rot could make for an absorbing primetime hour? Put in terms like that, it’s clear these were programmes bringing in audiences but also ticking public service boxes in C4′s charter.

That said, when preparing for this review we did have to go back and consult C4′s website to remind ourselves exactly what Selling Houses was (an unprepossessing House Doctor variant). A series we’d followed all the way through, it nevertheless fell foul to this housing hegemony, perhaps highlighting the fact that there is actually only so much property programming the viewer can sensibly follow before the whole thing becomes diluted. Indeed, alongside Selling Houses the Justice League-style team-up of Sarah Beeny, Naomi Cleaver, Daniel Hopwood and Jon Weir in Britain’s Best Home was another offering that sank due to its lack of distinctiveness. Witnessing Sarah and Naomi battling it out for face-time demeaned both of them; never again!

For all of C4′s efforts, a few at OTT are pushing hard for BBC2′s The Million Pound Property Experiment to be named programme of the year. On the face of it the series had nothing going for it: a derivative take on Property Ladder fronted by two of the most unappealing faces from BBC daytime. Yet against all odds the show proved utterly entertaining, treating its presenters – Justin Ryan and Colin McAllister – more as documentary subjects. The pair bickered wonderfully with each other, and in Justin’s case with pretty much everyone else too, while remaining highly likeable. Both pitched all their emotions into the project, scurrying with excitement every time the phone rang and traversing every hiccup with maximum drama. Then there was the additional pleasure of watching the duo continually surfing the fashion zeitgeist: one minute sporting goatee beards, the next wearing tracksuits, then shirts and chinos.

Unfortunately, all of the above lifestyle efforts were overshadowed in terms of hype by Wife Swap. OTT can really find little good to say about this series, which pitted caricatured and repugnant people into a bearpit simply in the hope of provoking a brawl for the amusement of the chattering classes. As a people show that majored on the very worst the public has to offer, it was really no more worthy of praise than Trisha or Kilroy. Masters and Servants was slightly more appealing in that it notionally rewarded pleasant behaviour and teamwork. Ultimately, though, we couldn’t quite escape the feeling that here were programme-makers trying to tease out any traces of bad behaviour they could find, in the belief that that was where the entertainment lay.

Elsewhere No Going Back continued to impress as proper aspirational television tied to a solid narrative that – week-in, week-out – involved you in the latest disasters befalling some or other ex-pat. The Dinner Party Inspectors, now something of an acknowledged flop, did have its charm with batty hosts Victoria Mather and Meredith Etherington Smith serving up some pearls by way of constructive criticism. The fact that they didn’t actually interact with the parties, however, seemed a baffling conceit that rendered the whole affair rather pointless. The Nation’s Favourite Food failed to ever rise above a sense of existing purely because it was the sort of thing BBC2 should be doing; while The Life Laundry successfully overcame its awful name to deliver up memorable vignettes of rather fragile people gaining the strength to re-order their detritus-filled existence.

Opinions are once again divided here at OTT over just how much of a comedy resurgence there was in 2003, and whether it marked the beginning of long-term revival or merely a short-lived burst of activity. Hardware, an ITV1 sitcom scripted by Simon Nye, is evidence enough for some, who cite its unpretentious wit as redolent of brightly lit videotaped successes scarcely seen since the late 1980s. Add in Harry Hill’s TV Burp, the argument continues, with its cunningly crafted structure that allowed viewers to appreciate jokes about other television programmes even if they hadn’t actually seen them, and the reliable Baddiel and Skinner Unplanned, then you’ve got cause for hope about the future of mainstream comedy programming.

Others disagree, finding Harry Hill’s ultra-knowing delivery and tendency towards self-satisfied smirking singularly unappealing, while Hardware was simply tiresome and unfunny. BBC1 certainly failed to come up with a new hit comedy, happy to run My Family, My Hero and All About Me all year round. The Crouches was simply appalling, and Trevor’s World of Sport should never have been on BBC1 in the first place – it was too similar to Bob Martin but without any jokes. Even Absolutely Fabulous was dragged back to life, despite Jennifer Saunders publicly disowning the show’s previous revival, and with the same ill-edifying results. At least mainstream impersonation thrives in the shape of The Big Impression – still leagues ahead of the clever-clever, ultra-smug Dead Ringers.

Aside from the new run of Shooting Stars, which seemed to have much more energy and invention than in previous runs, BBC2 had little else to offer either. Absolute Power spoilt its decent premise and script by swamping them in flashy presentational techniques and employing far too many references and jokes that only really had relevance to media insiders (who surely made up only a minute proportion of the viewing audiences). Early Doors was sporadically amusing, but 10 times more funny than Double Take and Monkey Dust – shows that were both sold as being groundbreaking, but on viewing proved to be tedious attempts to shock in lieu of actually having any humorous content.

C4 was no better. With virtually no scripted comedy shows of any kind, the channel rather desperately fell back on hidden camera or “format” shows like The Richard Taylor Interviews, My New Best Friend (a three-minute feature on Noel’s House Party at best), Distraction and The Pilot Show – all using members of the public to be funny for them, and the latter three all scheduled around the same time. Gash, Armando Iannucci’s somewhat misguided return to topical satire, traded in-jokes that were well below the man’s usual standard, while The People’s Book of Records was simply a retread of Banzai without any of the wit or energy.

With such a gloomy state of affairs on terrestrial TV, OTT was grateful for – and unanimous in its welcoming of – digital and satellite channels Sky One, BBC3 and BBC4 for its laughs this year, in the shape of Malcolm in the Middle, Little Britain and Curb Your Enthusiasm respectively. The new series of Malcolm was easily an improvement on last year’s, with the balance between playground and sophisticated humour as poised and delightful as ever. Little Britain, while undoubtedly hit and miss, carried with it an air of the next-big-thing. A truly excellent show, it was blessed with brilliant performances and a keen eye for throwaway jokes between the sketches (“Kelsey Grammer School”) that meant not one minute of airtime was wasted.

Then there was the wonderful Curb Your Enthusiasm. Rightly handled with obvious reverence by BBC4, it was this year’s standout comedy. Meticulously and sublimely plotted, witty and beautifully played, it was a real jewel that, for all digital TV converts, was kept all the shinier by being hidden away from the terrestrial services. The manner in which convoluted storylines resolved into masterful demonstrations of comic timing, slapstick and misunderstanding recalled Fawlty Towers at its peak.

Curb Your Enthusiasm also provides us with a neat link into OTT’s choice of channel of the year. 12 months ago BBC4 had an aura of austere, unappealing remoteness about it. At the close of 2003 the complete opposite is true, and such a reversal is almost entirely down to the impact of Curb Your Enthusiasm and the documentary strand Time Shift. Both series have contributed to an about turn in public perceptions of the BBC’s “place to think”; no longer an irrelevant intellectual ghetto, it’s sparky and enthralling and addictive. OTT was lucky to get a first hand insight into Time Shift from its executive producer Tom Ware, and it’s been a superb series that has taken unlikely but fascinating subjects – Cold War paranoia, Nigel Kneale, The Magic Roundabout, hidden cameras, political thrillers – and explored them in a detailed and deeply researched yet stimulating and highly watchable manner. Better still, each edition has been aired alongside appropriate “supporting” features such as Kneale’s adaptation of 1984, Threads, archive editions of Tonight and many more.

BBC4 is still not without its faults – Clive Anderson’s botched presentation of the historical series What If? for instance – but it now hits the mark more than any other channel, and smacks of self-confidence and assurance. Indeed, the spirit of Time Shift seems to have infected its entire schedules, giving rise to a host of other superb one-off documentaries on topics like the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, Gerald Scarfe and the works of JG Ballard (itself supplemented by a welcome repeat of the sublime Out of the Unknown episode “Thirteen to Centaurus”). Then there was Art Safari, in which Ben Lewis investigated the outreaches of the art world by tackling luminaries such as the joker Maurizo Cattelan whom Lewis had to interview via family, friends and at one point a lookalike. In Search of a Lost Novelist: The Stone Reader saw Mark Moskowitz embark on a Field of Dreams-like quest for Dow Mossman, author of acclaimed forgotten masterpiece The Stones of Summer. Then there was the fantastic The National Trust, with one of the quotes of the year: “We’ve bought three houses and now we’ve got to buy another one so that Ringo doesn’t feel left out.”

It all made for a marked contrast with BBC3, which launched on Sunday 9 February to a suspicious, sceptical reception and against a background of more of that anti-BBC spite and smear. While in some respects still redolent of its predecessor BBC Choice, the channel has stayed true to its remit. A number of its programmes, such as Grass and Dreamspaces, were incredibly different to anything you’d get on E4 and Sky One, and totally unlike the output of most digital channels. There have been notable one-offs such as The Announcement, written by and starring Morwenna Banks: a Coward-esque drama revolving around a Hampstead party unravelling over the course of 12 hours. There have indeed been bad shows – the most obvious being This Is Dom Joly – but BBC3 has had the widest range of programmes and the highest production values of any of its competitors. It has to succeed; too many of the BBC’s enemies want it to fail.

Before leaving digital TV, a special mention must go out to Living TV, which spent 2003 successfully re-branding itself in the most cynical manner as the station of liars and charlatans (i.e. mediums and mystics). Their series of live specials from haunted houses were genuinely entertaining, thanks to Yvette Fielding’s ability to freak out at the slightest thing. Then there was BBC Parliament, which once again rustled up one of the TV highlights of the year in the shape of its near-complete, “as it happened” re-runs of the BBC’s General Election results coverage from June 1970 and February 1974. Thanks to their unexpurgated nature, these broadcasts, replete with presenters smoking on air, chunky telephones on desks, sound problems and a sense of history really in the making, were extremely evocative glimpses into the TV of yesteryear.

One clear area in which the BBC continued to massively outflank and outperform all its rivals was children’s programmes. No doubt the chronic underfunding of CITV plus Channel 4′s obsession with US imports and shows about modelling have played a part, but there hasn’t been as much energy, enthusiasm and infectious good humour in kids TV for decades.

CBBC’s centrepiece remained, as ever, Blue Peter, which has been on a roll for almost five years now thanks to one of the best presenting teams ever (a feat justly recognised by Matt Baker winning a BAFTA two years running) and a production team clearly out to ensure the show’s as much fun to watch as it is to make. Newsround continued to thrive, and rightly so, while returning series such as Rule the School and Serious Desert demonstrated how much potential there still is within reality TV formats once you add a bit of imagination and fun. Rule the School in particular produced some of the year’s most inspiring entertainment thanks to the judicious selection of pupils and teachers willing to take their job swap to logical, exuberant extremes. The decision to contract out Grange Hill to Phil Redmond’s Mersey Television gave its creator full control over the drama for the first time, and found the show’s recent preoccupation with the private lives of staff sidelined for a back-to-basics style format with the confusion of starting “big school” well to the fore. There was even room for a cameo from Tucker.

The absolute highlight, however, and the unanimous nomination for OTT’s best programme of 2003, was an in-house Beeb production initially confined to the CBBC channel but then, from the autumn, unfurled on BBC1 as well: Dick And Dom In Da Bungalow. Flawless, imperial, utterly unmissable, its hell-for-leather charge through a cavalcade of noise, colour, toilet gags, slapstick and general silliness has completely reinvigorated a part of the schedules that had previously grown stale and predictable. It’s totally reinvented the careers of its two ace presenters and long-time CBBC faces Richard McCourt and Dominic Wood. It also means that, after years of neglect, Saturday mornings mean the BBC once more, which for many is just how things should be.

Finally, while sifting through all the programmes of the past year, it’s been impossible to ignore the ever-increasing chorus of goodbyes. The number of shows axed, cancelled or simply at the end of their lifespan in 2003 was staggering: three soap operas (Crossroads, Night and Day and Brookside), a Saturday night staple for almost two decades (Blind Date), an entire breakfast television service (RI:SE), a once all-conquering children’s programme (SM:TV), a much-loved regular of C4′s daytime output (Fifteen-to-One), and two genuine television institutions (This Is Your Life and Tomorrow’s World).

Many of these were written off as commercial failures; the culling of the last two, however, was never properly explained and still feels unseemly. The BBC’s decision to ditch them was courageous, but in a defiantly Yes Minister sense of the word. Yet in a way it was wholly emblematic of the Beeb’s torrid 2003, a period spent scoring innumerable triumphs in the face of potential disasters, taking risks that haven’t always paid off, and doing it all while a legion of detractors and enemies sound the most virulent anti-Corporation rhetoric for a generation. All in all, this was the BBC’s year, no question, with its advances in children’s programmes, drama, digital output, documentaries and current affairs leaving its rivals floundering. Just how and where it is able to maintain such a predominance will be the key factor in shaping the TV of 2004.


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