It’s the fourth time out for OTT’s annual review of the year’s television, and the fourth time we’ve started proceedings by considering Who Wants to be a Millionaire.

Described by us as “the phenomenon of the year” in 1999, “a strong, strategic element of ITV’s evening schedules” in 2000, and as still “one of ITV’s biggest successes” in 2001, we have been anticipating reporting the series’ eventual fall from grace for some time now. But with two editions of Millionaire on Christmas day this year, we’re once again putting off that task for another 12 months.

But aside from Tarrant’s series – which has remained a model of consistency (save for the introduction of the audience voting) – our impression is that 2003 has been a very uneven year on television. There have been times when there’s been an unusually high concentration of must-see programming, but then at other points, nothing at all. Predictably, then, none of the channels have obviously “won” this year, as far as OTT is concerned. That said, one of them has rather more obviously “lost” …

In the year of its fifth birthday, it’s been staggering the way Channel 5 (renamed this year simply as “five”) has suddenly come in for a torrent of praise and veneration – culminating in it being voted Station of the Year at the Edinburgh Festival. Its much-lauded “arts” output largely consists of one man standing in front of a painting lecturing at the camera and the schedules are changed on a whim, sequenced erratically and promoted with a mania that is as off-putting as it is relentless. Big budget films and over-hyped one-off documentaries secure five brief bursts of ratings and headlines but that’s all. Amongst all this, the worst programme it has broadcast this year, Live With Chris Moyles, remains a hugely sycophantic and self-obsessed effort with no charm or rapport with viewers. Unsurprisingly, then, it’s been recommissioned.

So what of our other terrestrial channels?

ITV1 now trades under a curious onscreen image that, while featuring a load of well-known high profile faces, still leaves a residual impression of anonymity and confusion. No group of personalities should be more than their channel. And since when has Geri Halliwell been an ITV1 face? Nonetheless, after last year’s awful performance, ITV1 seems to have clawed a bit back this year – perhaps as it stopped experimenting (remember last year when Monday nights were supposed to be aimed at a younger audience, a concept that lasted five weeks until Bob and Rose was replaced by Denis Norden’s Laughter File) and concentrated on what it’s good at, family-orientated viewing.

Lest we forget, 2002 was also the year that ITV1 dropped its regional identities in favour of a more uniform brand (LWT’s reaction to this change was for many the best television moment of the year), and ITV Digital called in the receivers (both of the financial kind, and the set-top-box variety).

Over at Channel 4 incoming Chief Executive Mark Thompson found that he’s inherited a Chinese puzzle of a problem. His predecessor has bound up the station’s fortunes with that of Big Brother for another three years: a disheartening legacy for anyone to inherit. C4 have also lumbered themselves with a turkey of truly gastronomic proportions: RI:SE. It’s as if the last 20 years of breakfast TV haven’t happened. In reaction to all of this Thompson’s streamlined the channel, axing 300 jobs and the FilmFour arm and it looks like C4 might be back in profit again. Tellingly his promise has been to rediscover the channel’s old nose for risk, plans that will hopefully bear fruition in 2003.

As for BBC television, collectively it has offered up some of the most impressive, enjoyable and illuminating programmes of 2002, but its individual channels don’t feel like they possess an identity you can relate to. BBC1 in particular can, in any one week, look like the best channel in the world one evening and then a clueless, under-funded, derivative network the next. It’s indicative of something (although we’re not sure what) that the best shows on BBC1 in 2002 all featured people aged 60 or over: Michael Palin (Sahara), Rolf Harris (Rolf on Art) and David Attenborough (The Life of Mammals). Meanwhile, since BBC2 ditched the under 35 market it’s become very bleak up to 9pm, when suddenly things start kicking off and there’s a bit more energy and attitude to its schedules.

What has remained consistent since 1999 has been the lack of signature dramas on any of the channels; and that remains the case in 2002. The most significant drama this year was an import: the American series 24 on BBC2. Superlatives were heaped on the show from everywhere, but most remarkable from a writing perspective was the integration of exposition. More than most shows there were characters standing around telling each other information they already knew, but somehow it didn’t matter because of the fantastical plot. Beyond the eye-catching real-time format, the series breezed effortlessly through its first 12 episodes, before becoming tangled up in its own web of intrigue for the second (still enjoyable) dozen.

Channel 4 had it’s own US success to boast about, however, with Six Feet Under making its debut. The macabre sense of humour that dominates each episode has been a refreshing change from both the cosiness and predictability of most current shows, and from the increasingly tiresome point-missing “dark”-ness of The League of Gentlemen and latter day Chris Morris. The show is only strengthened by the fact that none of the regular characters are entirely sympathetic, creating a world that the viewer can observe and believe in without feeling a need to empathize with. Channel 4′s decision to endlessly trail the first showing of the new series on E4 in the slot that it used to occupy on terrestrial television, alas, just personifies everything that is wrong with the television industry in 2002.

Arguably the year’s most successful home-grown drama was all on BBC1. Auf Wiedersehen, Pet‘s return proved to be better than almost anyone expected, but in the final analysis everything was perhaps a little too pat, too nice, too safe and sanitized. As OTT reflected at the time, it was as if we were watching a movie version of the old series, with the generalization and shortcuts that movies tend to employ. And then there was Spooks.

A long trailed programme (The Guardian was referring to the series being in production shortly after 9/11) Spooks arrived with a trumpeted website (designed to provide a “seventh” episode to the series, we quickly lost interest in it) and a superb, shattering plot twist that cleverly subverted the grammar of popular drama. Shoving an ex-soap actress (Lisa Faulkner) into the cast and then killing her off without warning at the end of episode two was arguably enough to buy the viewers’ loyalty over the rest of the run. Whilst obviously being informed by US television (needless inclusion of split-screen, for one) Spooks was brave enough to keep its characters resolutely British. As straightforward, middle-of-the-road drama it proved that the BBC could still pull it off, with √©lan … sometimes.

Unfortunately, not all drama was as commendable. Attachments became ludicrously stagy and navel gazing and was thankfully chopped, whilst Bob Mills’ latest offering – Stan the Man – found its last two episodes quietly dropped to be rescheduled/buried sometime over Christmas. OTT’s nomination for the most unpleasant offering of the year, however, was the abysmal and insulting Footballers’ Wives. This wasn’t faux-crap TV – it was simply crap. Similarly OTT’s submission for the weirdest drama of 2002 would have to be Andrew Davies’ Tipping the Velvet. It looked and felt like a Sunday night ITV1 Catherine Cookson adaptation, only with lesbians. Both Johnny Vegas and Alexi Sayle appeared in minor roles and the rehearsal scenes looked like a montage from Pop Idol. It’s our feeling, however, that there wasn’t actually anything controversial about the sex scenes at all, especially for anyone who had seen This Life.

By contrast 2002 fared pretty well in the category of one-off dramas. The year started with the deeply affecting Smallpox 2002: Silent Weapon a carefully crafted and intensely moving docudrama. It was one of those rare occasions when fantasy mixed seamlessly with fact to the extent of making everything you saw on screen seem hideously possible. Conspiracy was a fascinating and stylized depiction of the meeting held during World War II to thrash out the details of The Final Solution, a subject where an element of self-conscious melodrama and imagery was very much called for; some topics are just too important to be left to allusion and understatement. On the other hand, thanks to the nascent BBC4, The Falklands Play finally got made – and turned out to be a lot of talking heads, whilst The Project was a portentous and ponderous retelling of how New Labour got into power – scrupulously acting out what was imagined to go on behind the scenes, there seemed to be no actual character development, with people just drifting along from one point to another inexorably. A kind of insight into why decisions were made would have been nice, but as it was, The Project could have done with having “Reconstruction” tagged onto the screen, so sparse was the attention to character and motivation.

In terms of the soaps, Coronation Street is on the way back up with a storyline (Mr Hopwood from Grange Hill killing people) that seems to have genuinely caught the public imagination. Both Brookside and Emmerdale went “filmic” this year, although Emmerdale dropped the look shortly afterwards and Channel 4 moved Brookside into a Saturday afternoon slot where the programme will now tell more self-contained 90 minute stories each week. EastEnders maintained its current popularity, and like it or loathe it you can’t deny that it seems to be getting everything right at the moment. Meanwhile Hollyoaks continued as always, doing its own thing. The programme-makers seem to be aware of the fact that it has its own niche, and play to that with great success. A recent one-hour special neatly built up the possibility of two major characters getting killed off, before resolving events with everyone unscathed – only to kill them in the next day’s “regular” edition. Clever misdirection, and a subversion of the format that none of the “big” soaps would ever dare try to emulate. And then somewhere off from the main highways and byways of the TV day, no one quite knows what has happened to Crossroads and Night and Day, suffice to say both experiments seem to have been deemed failures.

If you were to believe all that you read in the Radio Times, then you would have to concede that 2002 has been a vintage year for comedy. However, considering that all of the most highly regarded programmes were sequels to earlier series, our overriding impression is that 2002 was actually a year of comic stagnation. For some, The Office continued to bore (mainly thanks to the disproportionately positive press it received) but on the whole series two – whilst perhaps not as consistent as series one – was still able to attain a high standard when compared with other programmes shown in the same strand (i.e. Coupling or tlc)

Entirely overshadowed by the Gervais series, though, the return of I’m Alan Partridge was surprisingly low-key. Unfortunately it appeared to have moved on so little, and seemed like a blunt instrument in comparison to – yep – The Office. The formulaic “Alan-says-something-inappropriate-then-says-something-else-inappropriate-then-says-something-else-inappropriate” approach and the feeling that we’ve seen it all before meant that whilst still able to raise a laugh, I’m Alan Partridge failed to hang together.

The League of Gentlemen, now moved to a rather ignominious Thursday evening slot, appeared to have been written with the express intent of not including any actual humour, and was characterized by an increasing and disturbing preoccupation with visiting violence on the disabled and mentally subnormal. The young “street magician” character indicated that the series was still able to throw up a decent comedic creation when inclined, but the overall effect this year was of a beautifully produced series of gruesome and unfocussed tales of tragedy, sexual deviance and woe. The return (again) of Papa Lazarou in the final episode seemed a curious touch of self-indulgence.

Phoenix Nights similarly disappointed, however it is impossible not to feel a huge level of affection for the series even when it is not being funny. The decision taken by Peter Kay to direct seems to be at the centre of its decline. The commentary on the Phoenix Nights series one DVD hints at tensions between Kay and the original director, which may explain the decision, but certainly does not justify it. A genuine pity, because with less autonomy and an outside perspective at the helm of series two may have worked much better.

Of the new comedies, Look Around You succeeded in splitting opinions. Although the production team may have created a rod for their own backs by insisting that the show was a direct pastiche of a school’s TV programme “from 1980″ (would a 1980 schools’ TV programme really have been made on film, or have featured footage of a singer-songwriter?), for some the whole exercise was a lot of fun, yet the majority rule was that the series was poorly written. It would seem that being stupid with a straight face just isn’t comedy.

Our two other noteworthy “new entries”, The Book Group and tlc, summed up virtually everything wrong with comedy with pretensions. At least I’m Alan Partridge, with its laugh track and cardboard sets sought to be nothing more than amusing. Created by Weakest Link devisor Dr Finton Coyle as a fast-paced farce, tlc was sadly reminiscent of Chalk with lots of shouting, caricatures, and an over-reliance on the grotesque and gruesome. The Book Group on the other hand, was unlike any other sitcom, featuring as it did a paraplegic, three footballer’s wives and the death of a major character after a drugs overdose. Lacking in actual laughs it was at best something of a cult hit.

2002, however, fared rather better with imported comedy. Surprisingly Malcolm in the Middle wins the OTT vote as the best comedy of the year. The series isn’t the most consistent, but its representation of boyhood is spot on. With a great ensemble cast it’s what The Simpsons should be now, but isn’t. That BBC2 should continue to kick it around the schedules is to the channel’s detriment, but not untypical of British television’s treatment of such programmes. Similarly Futurama continues to languish in the Channel 4 schedules at the worst times imaginable and 3rd Rock From the Sun has suffered a similar fate.

Despite that, this year’s bitterest comedy pill is surely the cowardice, hypocrisy, and contempt for the intelligence of the viewing audience that the BBC displayed in firing Angus Deayton as the host of Have I Got News For You. Such insulting behaviour was only compensated for by the fact that the editions following his departure were amongst the most relevant and entertaining in years. The Boris Johnson helmed episode in particular should be marked out for special attention, bringing back that sense of successfully winging it that has been missing from the programme for too long.

The ever-increasing proliferation of documentaries and reality television continued unchecked throughout 2002. Thankfully, here there were several highlights and scooting around the channels almost everyone had something good on offer.

The Secret Life of the Office on BBC2 was a wonderful investigation into the world of the call centre, managing to take a look at a real environment without creating any “stars” or “characters”. The insights into the working practices were well-observed and the programme-makers seemed to have the confidence to let people do what they do, and speak for themselves, thus showing more and making a stronger point than any artifice. The same channel also brought us The Experiment a dazzling example of how best to marry the mechanics of television to the science of ideas. Often coming across as rather “earnest” programming, the true purpose of The Experiment seemed lost on many (the point of the series was not to attempt to replicate a prison environment, but to conduct an experimental study into the psychology of group inequality) but was good and thought provoking television nonetheless. Other than that, the remainder of BBC2′s documentary output this year seemed to consist of either programmes featuring Louis Theroux, or programmes produced by him. The When Louis Met … series rapidly ran out of steam, concluding with a tepid account of how Louis himself became the victim of his own methods via a run in with Max Clifford. As predicted in these pages last year, Theroux is no longer essential viewing. The Entertainers, meanwhile, presented a different spin on a similar subject and whilst still failing to be completely enthralling it did a good job of stripping through artifice in a manner not always achieved when Theroux is in front of the camera.

BBC1′s treatment of narcolepsy, Nap Attack, and their revisitation of Tourettes sufferer “Fuck Off” John in The Boy Can’t Help It both felt like Desmond Morris style programmes and were all the better for it. Rather more modern in outlook, and depressingly so, was the much-trumpeted 11/9 made by two French filmmakers inside the World Trade Centre as it collapsed. The programme was an astonishing achievement and mercifully free of chest beating.

As proved by our prior end-of-year reviews most of the best documentaries could be found on Channel 4.

The Edwardian Country House infused the by now familiar C4 “House” series with an upstairs/downstairs dynamic that made for brilliant and tense television. Similarly the ups and downs of buying, building and renovating a country home in France (and the humiliation of having your young beautiful mortgage broker’s boyfriend turn up in the middle of a romantic dinner) were captured in the superlative A House in France. In truth the programme was probably utterly contrived (in that unusually for a documentary a camera seemed to be present at all the important moments) but it remained winningly so.

Continuing on a lifestyle trip (and it’s been a useful sub-genre for C4 this year), Jamie’s Kitchen proved that Jamie Oliver (or his agent) is a very astute individual. The mockney mannerisms of The Naked Chef, and references to Oliver’s risible band were successfully discarded as Jamie found himself reinvented as subject matter for an edgy, beautifully constructed documentary series. However, portraying Jamie’s prodigies as – in the main – unreliable and ungrateful encouraged us to view with disparagement these “working class” individuals who continually bit the hand of their benefactor. Dubious morals aside this was a series with a stack of great moments, none better then Jamie finally losing the plot in the penultimate episode. That it’s to return in 2003 is great news. Jamie’s Kitchen has all the makings of a Channel 4 stalwart. Conversely while Faking It continued to entertain, the series’ longevity looks in question. With even five beating it in the ratings we’re perplexed as to why the format has fallen from grace so quickly. And just to conclude our look at Channel 4′s mass of lifestyle programmes, mention must also be made of both Grand Designs and Property Ladder. Both feature charismatic experts on their topic, occasionally at loggerheads with the featured house renovators/resellers. But best of all, both have a strong narrative – either following a house from plan to construction, or from makeover to sale.

Away from self-improvement, Jon Ronson’s postponed examination of Jonathan King was certainly one of the television highlights of 2002. Ronson is to be congratulated on producing a programme that managed to convey some of the thoughts and behaviours of paedophiles in a very clear unsensational manner. Certainly listening to the thoughts of King and his cohorts was much more powerful than ill-informed, hysterical reporting. We should also make mention here of BBC2′s massively powerful three part series, The Hunt for Britain’s Paedophiles which explored the issue with startling and highly disturbing honesty. Unsurprisingly, the series recorded the second highest ever number of complaints for a television programme (after last year’s Brass Eye special), but to judge the series on its furore alone would be to dismiss what was probably the most affecting and disturbing documentary broadcast this – or indeed – any year.

A brief mention too for Channel 4′s The Showbiz Set, a lovingly compiled, wittily packaged and thoroughly researched tribute to TV’s past that treated its subject matter with none of the tiresome irony of BBC2′s appallingly titled Fame, Set and Match (one of this year’s more forgettable offerings, and a reminder that not everything broadcast as documentary this year was so laudable).

Alas, in contrast Channel 4′s decision to broadcast Gunther Von Hagen’s live Autopsy was thoroughly depressing, as much for their cowardice in “covering” the show by listing an Oasis documentary in its slot and only announcing it at the last minute, as it was for attempting to dress shock-value post-pub television up as something “daring”, “innovative” and “informative”. The whole stunt smacked of a cheap attempt to position Channel 4 as a truly daring broadcaster once again. However the decision to focus on the reaction of the studio audience to the autopsy rather than the event itself (the section in which Von Hagen removed the corpse’s face was represented entirely by looks of horror on various audience members’ faces), revealed the programme to be about as daring and credible as an edition of Born Sloppy.

Worst of the entire year, though, had to be Channel 4′s insultingly bad When … Met … A series of reprehensible documentaries concentrating on the salacious aspects of celebrity life at the expense of anything else. The gist of the one on Freddie Mercury and Kenny Everett appeared to be that people should forget about all of their considerable artistic achievements, as all that really mattered was that they were gay and died of AIDS. Television at its most pathetic.

In the press, and to some extent on OTT itself, that bastard offspring of documentary, “reality television” came under sustained attack this year. In many cases it was well deserved, but not always. ITV1′s I’m a Celebrity … Get Me Out of Here was a genuinely surprising, intensely watchable experience. On face value, the programme had little to recommend it – following in the identikit production line tradition of the hardly weighty genres of reality TV, “docusoap” and pointless celebrity self-promotion, and looking like little more than cheap derivative filler. However, once the show got underway, it was clear that a great deal more thought had gone into it than usual, and some facets of production were little short of masterstrokes. Ant McPartlin and Declan Donnelly were inspired choices as presenters, and the image of them slapping a world champion boxer on the back and saying “go on, son” as he approached his challenge in a state of high nervousness was one of the great television moments of the year. The relative lack of publicity and promotion was another key factor in the success and appeal of the series – allowing it to hook in the viewers without alienating those who dislike having the arrival of a “new series” rammed down their throat at every given opportunity. The fact that none of the chosen participants could exactly be described as “likeable” was of considerable benefit to the dynamic of the series too.

However, the most significant achievement was that the production team realized what seems to elude the producers of most other reality shows – it isn’t good enough to simply set up the cameras and wait for something to happen. In I’m a Celebrity … the celebrities were never given a moment’s respite. A word too then, for Celebrity Fit Club – a hugely enjoyable Friday night appointment throughout much of the autumn, it proved in the end to be all pretty inconsequential but entertaining enough in its own way.

Also on ITV1 the much-maligned Survivor returned for perhaps the last time. Big Brother needs to take a leaf out of Survivor‘s handbook, and let the plotting begin, as the various allegiances, bluffs and double bluffs create a more complex and enriching television experience. This year, in contrast to last, the initial bond stood throughout the whole programme, creating a very different outcome to series one and providing Survivor with a peculiarly appealing moral core not usually found in such programmes.

Cannily packaged to make us forget this was just Opportunity Knocks all over again, Pop Idol was a judicious reworking of an age-old formula that, obviously, was a deserved hit. Popstars – The Rivals on the other hand was a meandering, endless ordeal hamstrung by its week-about girls and boys programmes. The basic format was nicked wholesale from Pop Idol without anyone considering whether or not this was the most suitable vehicle for the concept and all in all the programme tried hard to engineer water cooler events, reaching a peak with the ludicrous two hours devoted to telling the hopefuls they were in the final 10 – basically, reducing 30 people to 20, a process that should have taken two minutes.

Altogether better, but no less maligned or derivative was BBC1′s Fame Academy. The first few shows were admittedly poor, but as it carried on, the contestants became more interesting and the evictions began to actually mean something. With Fame Academy, we saw the students improve throughout the run, thus ensuring that each Friday’s eviction show was imbued with a number of subplots that happily gravitated around the main business of reducing the academy’s number.

The granddaddy of all reality television shows – Big Brother 3 – was such a soulless affair this year that watching it was actually a form of physical labour. In the final definition it was to all intents and purposes a three-month booze marathon, and the supposed surprise innovation of the series – the dividing wall carving the house in two – merely rendered it a three month booze marathon with some iron railings in the background. Celebrity Big Brother threatened to go the same way, but ultimately succeeded due to the depth of its participants. Ironic that people from normal walks of life were shown as having less substance than those from rarefied lofty heights of fame.

Away from the genre of reality television and onto more conventional light entertainment, and there’s still nothing on any channel that has become a House Party or Blind Date-style schedule staple. The Chair was good only because John McEnroe was presenting, whereas The Vault was just awful. Ant and Dec’s Saturday Night Takeaway is still simply Toothbrush II, and while it’s more fun than Slap Bang, it’s not enough to get the public staying in on Saturday nights. Tellingly, Ant and Dec still haven’t found a successful format where it’s all about them – Pop Idol could have been presented by anyone.

Children’s telly bore witness to one of the biggest mistakes of the year when CBBC was overhauled in February to coincide with the new CBBC channels. It meant that the children’s output on BBC1 and BBC2 was completely revamped, with hundreds of new people showing up and constant references to the channels, when in reality they should have been reassuring analogue-only households that there was still going to be plenty for them. Most children must have felt as if there was a party going on that they weren’t invited to. Thankfully, however, there was a quick change of heart and the old format was (more or less) resurrected.

Whereas Blue Peter‘s again been brilliant all year, SMTV Live is nowhere near the show it was 12 months ago. It boils down to the thoroughly nasty and completely undeserved sacking of James Redmond and the subsequent hiring of Claire and H, followed by their abrupt departure, of which no reference was made (the week after their “last” show, they showed up to sing and it was as if they’d never been on before). This programme has no manners anymore!

All in all it has been a typically turbulent year in British television. Hats off to both ITV1 and five, who both somehow managed to escape the problems they had set for themselves at the beginning of 2002. 2003 should bring us both BBC3 and a renewed terrestrial opposition to the still buoyant BBC. OTT expects to be seeing a lot more of Trinny and Susannah, TPT, Chris Moyles, Avid Merrion and Dermot Mernaghan, and a good deal less of John Leslie, Michael Barrymore and Survivor. Before we embark upon another dizzying 12 months of television though, there is just time enough to reflect on one more highlights from 2002. This one came way back in January when, out of the blue, BBC1 started repeating the sublime Shoestring. Unhappily, and with no good explanation the series was curtailed with still over half the episodes in the vaults waiting to be aired.

Honestly, there were even letters to Radio Times about it.


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