ARTS / When parting was such sweet sorrow: TV Programme of the Year

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PEOPLE kept telling me there was nothing on. I couldn't believe their eyes. The bigger picture looked glum - the BBC preparing to hold the scalpel at its emasculation, the ITV franchise fiasco ushering in the age of the ratings cowboy - but the small picture brimmed with pleasures.

In drama, two adaptations knocked spots off the so-called originals. Anglo-Saxon Attitudes (ITV) and The Old Devils (BBC2) confirmed Andrew Davies as our genius of the secondhand. And the actors grew to meet the writing. For its comic rage against the dying of the light, The Old Devils is drama series of 1992. Best actor goes to the entire cast for timing, pathos and ageing disgracefully. I also admired Ciaran Hinds, whose Brian Keenan blazed honesty into the misconceived Hostages (ITV), and Jane Horrocks - anguished and impotent in Bad Girl (BBC1), daffy and blithe in Absolutely Fabulous (BBC2). Best new play was Martyn Hesford's A Little Bit of Lippy (BBC2), the surreal, enchanting tale of an unfrocked transvestite. Best short film was Jeff Balsmeyer's The Room (BBC2): 10 minutes of wide-eyed Spielbergian imagining.

TV always mistakes personality for character. But you can still spot the real thing. Character of 1992 is Desmond Lynam who anchored Olympic Grandstand (BBC) with charm, deceptive ease and the right amount of impatience. But, as Des would say, that's enough of that. Best newscaster was Michael Buerk (BBC1): for a while on Black Wednesday it looked as if he were running the country. He also presented 999 (BBC1), which takes worst programme for thinking we needed to see a man with a pole through his chest to believe that firemen are brave. Other shows were tackier but less offensive, having no pretensions to virtue. Magazine of the year was Newsnight (BBC2) which, at a time of snivelling opposition, did the vital job of getting up the Government's nose.

The sitcom looked moribund: one witless, snobbish class-difference show after another. But Sean's Show (C4) gleefully subverted it. Paul Merton (Have I Got News for You, BBC2) was the funniest man on TV as he perfected the sitting gag - taking an idea and spooling it through the show. Dame Edna's Neighbourhood Watch (ITV) loosed a stiletto brain on the flaccid gameshow to deadly effect. But best comedy was Absolutely Fabulous for restoring the sitcom to rude health.

Omnibus's stirring Angela Carter's Curious Room (BBC1) sent me straight to her glorious Wise Children. This is what arts shows are meant to do, but few did in the year of the puffbore. At a time when the press has neither the money nor the stomach for investigations, documentaries are vital, and they shone. This Week's blistering account of British Rail safety (ITV) proved the value of prime-time embarrassment. Cutting Edge (C4), my documentary series of 1992, itched the nation's quiescent conscience while Secret History (BBC2), also in the shame business, uncovered the Turkish genocide of the Armenians. And BBC2's magnificent War and Peace series confounded forever any simplistic definitions of courage and cowardice. At the going down of the testcard, we shall remember them.

My programme of the year was First Tuesday's Katie and Eilish: Siamese Twins (ITV). It told the story of Mary and Liam Holton and their struggle to decide what was best for their little girls who had been born joined together. It could have been grotesque, but director Mark Galloway was all respect, delicacy and tact. If the definition of a gentleman is grace under pressure, the Holtons were gentleness itself. It is impossible to forget the sight of them forming a protective arc around the girls as they lay on their hospital bed waiting for the operation that would leave Eilish alone and clutching down one side for her sister. This was television at its best; expanding the sympathy of everyone who saw it.

(Photograph omitted)