Arts: The incredible shrinking box

The number of good ideas among television executives has dwindled to `endangered species' levels. Is there anything new to look forward to in next year's schedules?

One television genre that has grown in popularity during the last 12 months is the "dumping `em in it" documentary, in which people - either "real" or celebrity - are pushed into some intolerable situation and observed by the cameras as they struggle to cope. There are two varieties: in one, man is pitted against nature, by being dumped on some remote island; in the other, hell is other people, as in Living with the Enemy or The 1900 House.

Castaway 2000, which is due to be broadcast on BBC1 next year, is an extreme example of the genre: 30 ordinary people are abandoned on a remote Scottish island for the entire year to "build a society from scratch". Those who, like me, were fed Lord of the Flies at school may find the whole idea almost unbearably terrifying. But there are also many who will be more dismayed by another aspect of the project: an entire year without television.

Happily, in some respects a TV-less 2000 won't matter too much, since a lot of what is being put out is hardly distinguishable from 1999. There will be the usual quota of sick animal programmes and make over programmes on our screens. We will be seeing a lot more real-life crime: ITV promises a pair of documentaries on the Krays, and a threesome on aspects of murder. Channel 4 has Doing Crime, which we're told "reveals the inside story of burglars, con-men, fraudsters and car thieves"; this is not to be confused with ITV's more alarmist-sounding series Beware, which will include episodes on the workings of burglars and con-men, though I don't know about the car thieves.

And, naturally, along with the real criminals go real policemen: The Force (C4) observes the RUC reacting to the Patten Report; Inside the Met (BBC2) sees the Metropolitan police in the aftermath of the Macpherson Report; while Police Investigations (C4) watches the detectives at work in the Ivory Coast and South Philadelphia.

Pop culture continues to be taken far too seriously: C4 has announced a Charlie's Angels Night; and after much trumpeting, Vic and Bob's remake of the ghostly detective series Randall and Hopkirk (Deceased) finally tramples its way on to the screen (interesting wrinkle here: in the original, Randall enjoyed a semi-romantic relationship with Hopkirk's widow; here, she's only Hopkirk's fiancee).

And generally speaking, the pool of ideas seems to have shrunk. Between them, BBC2 and C4 are offering no less than three documentaries on lost American civilisations in the next three or four months.

If you enjoyed BBC2's series on bereavement, The Long Goodbye, in 1999, then you'll love C4's Great Undertakings in 2000 - though you may find yourself thinking that the publicity material, which says that the business of death is "rarely considered and never discussed", goes a little bit over the top.

But some things are set to change, though: sex, for one thing. There seems to be far less of it about. After a year of documentaries on sex for the disabled, sex for the elderly, interracial sex, transsexual sex, sex with animals, sex with nipple rings, television has suddenly gone all quiet on the subject - worn out by its exertions, perhaps. In January, C4 is advertising a series on sleaze; but on closer inspection, this turns out to be a sober look at political scandals, presented by the impeccably respectable Anthony Howard.

The biggest concession to salaciousness I've come across so far is Safe Sex (BBC1), a guide to contraception introduced by Nick Hancock, and that sounds like a potent turn-off. We also seem to have put aside flies on the wall, Charles Dickens and, at long last, the Second World War (although a C4 series on Colditz guarantees that we can't escape it entirely).

As well as these negatives, there are some positively encouraging developments. Thinking seems to have become fashionable, though it's a shame that it seems to be almost entirely through the medium of Alain de Botton.

After the calculated and delightful dreariness of Millennium Minds (C4), he has now come up with Philosophy for Beginners (C4) - which, like his column in the Independent on Sunday, applies philosophical ideas to everyday problems.

Meanwhile, de Botton's book How Proust Can Change Your Life has been filmed as part of BBC2's ArtZone, an attempt to apply the ratings-grabbing logic of The History Zone to, well, the arts.

The new Sunday evening strand will kick off with a revamped Late Review (which, being on earlier in the evening, will be simply and logically rechristened Review), and include new series on Christ's role in art and the new Tate Gallery at Bankside. It may just turn out to be a means of keeping arts programmes from clogging up the weekday evening schedules; but it may, like The History Zone, confirm that there is a sturdy audience out there that isn't intimidated by the prospect of being educated and informed. I hope that's so.

But if I had one wish for the New Year, it's that drama and documentary, having spent the last couple of years flirting madly with one another, would realise that there's no future in the relationship. I' would like to see insanely rigorous documentaries, in which nothing is reconstructed, nothing is staged, and to hell with narrative neatness.

Much though I have loved The Royle Family and The Cops, I'm ready for stylised, rococo dramas, dramas that relish the fact that they have nothing to do with real life. From the extended promo which is all I've seen so far, BBC2's flagship drama Gormenghast may be a flamboyant answer to my prayer.

I have hopes, too, of Nature Boy (BBC2 as well) about a boy, a very special boy, who in line with the Nat King Cole song, has to find out that the greatest thing he'll ever learn is to love and be loved in return. If the television fairies will grant me that, then at the end of the year, when those poor souls crawl away from their Scottish island, we'll be able to thumb our noses and wave our Radio Times at them and sneer: "You don't know what you've missed."

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