The Critics' Awards 1998: TV drama - Big, real and sporty: why women rule the airwaves

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Typical. You wait years for some full-bodied ensemble drama about women to turn up, and then half a dozen come along at once. No wonder Tiffany and Bianca of EastEnders asked to be let off at the next stop. You couldn't move for female vehicles this year. There were three sisters in Deborah Moggach's Close Relations, four publishers in Fay Weldon's Big Women and five old friends in Susan Oudot's Real Women. There was a whole football team of women in Kay Mellor's Playing the Field. In Alan Bennett's magisterial Talking Heads 2, the ratio of soliloquists was five women to one man. The ranks of TV detectives were swollen by the ubiquitous Pauline Quirke playing bolshy in Maisie Raine and the lissom Samantha Janus, who in Liverpool 1 pretended to be a cop from Essex with a degree in psychology. She was one of those female characters from the bad old days: the only sign of stretch-marks was in your credulity.

Channel 4's best offering was The Young Person's Guide To Becoming a Rock Star, which cheekily pilfered Trainspotting's box of stylistic tricks. Otherwise there was Big Women, Mosley, Ultraviolet - young persons' guides to becoming a feminist, brownshirt or vampire. They should try contemporary realism some time. It seems to work for everyone else. Though they needn't go as far as BBC2's The Cops, in which the wobbliness of the camera was spoilt by the wobbliness of the acting.

The BBC produced challenging period drama in A Respectable Trade and Our Mutual Friend, but Vanity Fair was the one to capture the imagination, while boiling the blood of a loud purist faction. Natasha Little's Becky Sharp was the minx of the year. ITV blew millions on a flotilla of feature- length Hornblower films, but the scripts had enough holes in them to sink the British Navy. If only because it cost so much, it beats the more modestly useless Mrs Bradley Mysteries to the wooden spoon.

The most haunting period piece was A Life For A Life, Granada's grim snapshot of northern Britain in the 1970s, when Stefan Kiszko was fitted up by the police for a murder he was incapable of committing. Tony Maudsley gave an extraordinary debut that he will probably never better. Another promising newcomer was Susan Vidler. She excelled as the Woman in White of the title in the BBC's lush gothic chiller; in ITV's The Jump, she discovered that her husband was a criminal and, consistent with the year's theme, learnt to look after herself.

There was a familiar look to many of the BBC's single dramas, which spend years in production, but still emerge undercooked. The honourable exception was Lucy Gannon's Big Cat, in which a timid woman in the thrall of a brutally charismatic husband overcomes her weakness. This was the script of the year, matched for every flickering nuance by David Morrissey and Amanda Boot. While so much drama casually embraces sex (see the wife-swapping saga, Touch and Go, and anything with Daniela Nardini in it), it was a treat to see a film that pored over the tensions of a couple who aren't getting any.

t TV Drama of 1998: Lucy Gannon's `Big Cat' (BBC1)