Critics' Awards 1999 - Television: Hilarious, intelligent and, of course, American

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The Independent Culture
For those of us who remember when Space 1999 was television's idea of science fiction, it is a little startling to find 1999 on the verge of becoming history, although we can at least be comforted by the thought that there has, as yet, been no sign of the giant, intergalactic, man-eating squid that so troubled Martin Landau and the crew of Moonbase Alpha.

That was 25 years ago, and whatever anyone says, television has subsequently made progress. Casting an eye over the past 12 months, I am surprised by how much decent stuff there has been on our screens, much of it home- produced, although my favourite drama of the year was an American import. Michael Jackson took over at Channel 4 vowing to cut down on its American content, yet if The Sopranos is anything to go by, he should perhaps think about increasing it. Actually, it's not anything to go by. The Sopranos, like The Larry Sanders Show (which the BBC continued to schedule witlessly), represents the cream of the cream of the cream of American television. It was hilarious, intelligent, superbly written and impeccably acted.

Which other dramas made an impact? The Murder of Stephen Lawrence (ITV) and Warriors (BBC1) told true stories without dramatic gloss and were all the better for it. Queer As Folk (C4) was hard to like but impossible to ignore, and struck another blow for those who would have us believe that Britain's most happening city is not London but Manchester.

Cold Feet (ITV), also set in Manchester, was a delight; Helen Baxendale partly, but not entirely, made up for her intensely irritating performance in Friends. Cold Feet was streets ahead of two other thirtysomething dramas on ITV, Wonderful You and Big Bad World. Indeed if there is one thing to wish for on telly next year, it is fewer middle-class dinner parties in stripped pine kitchens. Meanwhile Psychos (C4) was terrific, and its leading man, Douglas Henshall, was on top form again in Tony Marchant's moving Kid In The Corner (C4). Oliver Twist (ITV) and Wives and Daughters (BBC1), in their different ways, are marvellous.

The highs and lows of comedy were both attained by the BBC. The League of Gentlemen (BBC2) was a scream, and People Like Us (BBC2) had its moments. The Royle Family, which moved to BBC1 and deservedly thrived there, elevated Caroline Aherne to National Treasure status. She might even be officially Britain's funniest woman; at any rate, she had a much better year than two previous contenders for that label, Dawn French and Jennifer Saunders, whose French Revolution comedy, Let Them Eat Cake (BBC1), was even worthier of the chop than Marie Antoinette. The single comedy performer of the year has to be Ali G (played by the improbably-named Sacha Baron-Cohen), whose contributions to The 11 O'Clock Show (C4) made a sixth-formy current affairs spoof nigh-on unmissable. The single documentary of the year was Paul Watson's extraordinary study of Alzheimer's Disease, Malcolm and Barbara - A Love Story (ITV). It wasn't enjoyable, but it was unforgettable. I did enjoy Michael Portillo's Spanish travelogue in Great Railway Journeys (BBC2) - will he revert to being a little Englander now he is back in the House of Commons?

As for a documentary series, The Major Years (BBC1) was absolutely compelling, as were Family Life (ITV), Shanghai Vice (C4), The Planets (BBC2) and The White House Tapes (C4). The Jeremy Isaacs/Ted Turner epic Millennium (BBC2) was an honourable attempt to chronicle the last 1,000 years, and especially bold on Turner's part, given that America didn't even rate a mention until more than halfway through the story. However, Millennium was a disappointment. Walking With Dinosaurs (BBC1), by contrast, was a triumph, notwithstanding those pedants who argued that much of it was based on guesswork and that we cannot possibly ascertain that a triceratops fart was louder than a dozen revving Harley-Davidsons, or whatever.

In current affairs, the scoop of the year was arguably Jon Snow's interview with Monica Lewinsky. At pounds 400,000 it was not the cheapest of catches, but I dare say Channel 4 recouped some of their money by selling advertising space (the stain removal people Vanish had the wit to buy some of it). In March, News at Ten bowed to commercial demands and Trevor McDonald climbed astride his new vehicle, Tonight (ITV).

Middle England's other favourite uncle, Des Lynam, also made headlines. But aside from his surprising defection to ITV, it was a remarkable year for sport, and therefore, for sport on television. The BBC, derided for losing so many key events, still had quite a few of them - the denouement to golf's Open Championship (BBC1 and BBC2), in particular, was a slapstick classic. Meanwhile, Sky's football coverage got better and better; its cricket coverage is pretty good too. Even Channel 5 is getting more competent at handling sport, though it did precious little else worth remarking, except to lose its most cherished asset, Kirsty Young.

Children's programming has, I fear, rather passed me by. All I can say is that in our house, those stalwarts Blue Peter (BBC1) and Teletubbies (BBC1) still have a following, but are now rivalled in popularity by Rotten Ralph (BBC1) and Pig Heart Boy (BBC1). I haven't much to say about light entertainment, either. It was hard to see further than Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? (ITV). Gardening and cookery programmes showed absolutely no sign of abating. The Naked Chef (BBC2) was perhaps the pick of the latter genre, creating a charismatic new star in Jamie Oliver as an old one, Jennifer Paterson, rode off towards the celestial multi-storey. She joins two much younger women, Helen Rollason and Jill Dando, whose deaths, for such different reasons, were so sad.

Previous winners

1991 Prime Suspect (ITV)

1992 Katie and Eilish -

Siamese Twins (ITV)

1993 The Ark (BBC2)

1994 A Skirt Through

History (BBC2) and

Middlemarch (BBC2)

1995 Princess Diana's Panorama (BBC1) and A Village Affair (ITV)

1996 Timewatch - History of

a Mystery (BBC2) and

Our Friends in the North (BBC2)

1997 The Provos and

Born to Run (both BBC1)

1998 Big Cat (BBC1)

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