The year in Television: Triumphs amid the disasters

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The Independent Culture
They were triumphant

Delia Smith, Carol Smillie, Jeremy Clarkson, Caroline Ahearne, Dame Thora Hird.

They were not

Chris Evans, Professor Robert Winston, Ainsley Harriott, Pauline Quirke...

Pauline Quirke?

The Birds of a Feather sitcom actress, boosted no doubt by critical raves for her role in The Sculptress, tried "doing a David Jason" and crossing over into a BBC1 police drama, Maisie Raine.

Not good?

Not unless you like people who go round shouting all the time.

Other dramas that


Marks and Gran's too-linear life of Oswald Mosley, as well as Frank Deasy's look at the explosion of hard drugs in 1980s Edinburgh, Looking after Jo Jo, which marked the return to the small screen of John MacKenzie, the director of The Long Good Friday. The similarities with that 1979 Bob Hoskins movie were a little too marked perhaps, and this was also over-familiar terrain for Robert Carlysle. Vanity Fair was more interesting, capturing Thackeray's satirical tone with fantastic design work and brave casting. You didn't hear people talking about it at work the next day, though.

The best dramas

The other big costume drama of the year, Our Mutual Friend, was another well-designed film, which managed to rise above the cliched use of natural light (the impression of dust-laden everything was particularly well conveyed). After Christine Edzard's Little Dorritt, this was the most convincing portrayal yet of Dickens's world. Anna Friel looked very pretty in a corseted dress, but not as lovely as Aisling O'Sullivan in the year's best all- round cossie drama, The American. Michael Hastings's adaptation of the Henry James novel, starring O'Sullivan, Diana Rigg and Matthew Modine, transcended its style to involve the viewer with the lives of its characters. As did Adrian Hodge's adaptation of John McGahern's Amongst Women, with a great performance from Tony Doyle as the strict Irish widower. The bravest of Alan Bennett's new round of Talking Heads 2 involved David Haig as a paedophile. The best had Dame Thora Hird as a nonagenarian war widow recalling her dead husband

Not so modern horrors

Two big-budget dramas tried to make us take seriously an alien invasion (Invasion: Earth) and vampires (Ultraviolet). The latter was Jed Mercurio's sophomore project after writing for This Life. Brothers and Sisters, about the lives of a gospel choir community in the north of England, was every bit as good as This Life, but I don't recall one word of criticism spoken for or against it in any television review. Perhaps it only pays to reflect the lives of metropolitan media types.

Who needs dramas when you've got real people?

The flood of docu-soaps came, as was expected. The Cruise, Superstore, Pleasure Beach, Airline, Clampers, Zoo Keepers and Health Farm were just some of the better of them. Heck, someone even made one about The Independent - a salutary lesson to us Canary Wharfers on the distorting power of the docu-soap genre.

Programmes from Hell

Nannies, Christmases, neighbours, weddings, builders and divorces were all from hell. Andy Hamilton entitled his Huw Wheldon Memorial Lecture on the pitfalls of "real people" television, "Brain Surgeons from Hell".

Is it funny?

One of the greatest reasons to be cheerful about television in 1998 was that the British sitcom showed some signs of emerging from the purgatory of attempting to emulate Fawlty Towers (John Sullivan's Heartburn Hotel showed that not everybody had shaken off the habit). First we had to wave off some dinosaurs, in particular Drop the Dead Donkey, which re-emerged for a final series in a shower of self congratulation. Father Ted ended for different reasons, although this was always going to be the last series despite Dermot Morgan's untimely death.

Promising newcomers were How Do You Want Me, with Dylan Moran bringing some much needed comic timing to a comedy of townie folk adrift in the country. Men Behaving Badly's Simon Nye wrote this, as well as the mirth- free Is It Legal?, which only goes to illustrate the (some say) glorious unpredictably of the British one-man-and-a-typewriter approach to sitcom writing.

The American team-writers gave us Ally McBeal in a straight (as it were) swap for the fast disappearing Ellen, who came out and lost out. The refreshingly different The Royle Family took a somewhat Beckett-like approach to situation (Northern family sits around watching TV, scratching their backsides) and concentrated on the comedy. Big Train, from Father Ted's Graham Lineham and Arthur Matthews, promised much, but didn't know whether it wanted to be Monty Python or The Fast Show. You can't be both.

Just because you're well drawn doesn't mean you're funny

The malaise of the recent British sitcom spread to the emerging British animation scene. Stressed Eric and Rex the Runt were both superb animations which were badly undermined by weak scripts. One would be mightily peeved having spent months painstakingly manipulating Plasticine if one one discovered that the writers hadn't taken a quarter the trouble.

You're famous. Here's a TV programme

Janet Street-Porter walked from Kent to Wales in Coast to Coast. Perhaps the BBC wanted her out of the office. Jools Holland's Beat Route ("here I am driving through a city I don't know much about") wasn't much of an improvement, though it did have better music. In Tee Time, Chris Evans toured the world playing golf. He ain't stupid.

Other bad ideas

If I Ruled the World (debating society exercise that would struggle on Radio 4); Food Fight (comedy quiz about food - this year's winner of the Tibs and Fibs prize for desperation); Babes in the Wood, the return of Miss World (and much else on Channel 5); and Jo Whiley. If God had meant pop stars to talk, he would have made them all Leonard Cohen.

Now everyone's a chat show host

Just to show up Ian Wright, Johnny Vaughan, Jeremy Clarkson and the year's other chat show upstarts, Michael Parkinson made a comeback last January. Unfortunately, he started by interviewing David Attenborough, Billy Connolly and other, well, not exactly cutting-edge types. His interview with George Michael pointed to better things to come. His next guest is Geri Halliwell, apparently, who seems to follow George Michael everywhere these days. The most frightening interview of the year was Ruby Wax with OJ Simpson. If you didn't think the man was guilty before, you sure did now.