If news was on a slippery slope wearing tap shoes, documentaries threw up some of the finest work in any area of artistic life. At least seven series deserved awards. Christopher Terrill's Beloved Country (BBC2) got under the skin of South Africa with beautiful, troubling portraits of its variegated citizens. Phil Agland's Beyond the Clouds (C4) did the same for China. A study of a small town, it was shot so ravishingly you thought they must have snuck in Zhang Yimou on camera. A cool, penetrating look at a coldly calculating family, Philip Whitehead's The Windsors (ITV) made everything else on this subject look like overheated slop. In True Brits (BBC2), a canny Stephen Lambert appeared to get into bed with the Foreign Office only to yank off the covers and reveal cold feet and other endangered extremities. A series about cars that was actually a vehicle for reflections on humanity - or, more importantly, who gets to control the heater - From A to B (BBC2) confirmed that Nicholas Barker is a star. Sois Jonathan Meades, whose droll demotic in Further Abroad (BBC2) made him television person of the year. Meades has weighed into cultural commentary where Robert Hughes left off. An exhilarating performer, he combines a principled intellect with bolshy post-modernism: Leavis and Butt-Head.
The award for overall documentary series goes to A Skirt Through History (BBC2). Philippa Lowthorpe and her team of female directors illuminated the lives of forgotten women - which sounded worthy but came out wonderful. Among individual documentaries, Iloved The Club (C4), Brian Hill and Kate Woods' hilarious slice of golfing life; Presumed Guilty, Jenny Abbott's plangent account of the pioneers of divorce; and Playing Out, Ian Duncan's blithe take on boyhood. Network First restored prestige to ITV's factual output with superb films such as Waking from Coma and John Pilger's Death of a Nation. But my documentary of the year is Peter Dale's The Dead (BBC2). Marking 25 years of Irish casualties, it used stark symbolism and bleaker recollection to confirm that the only sides that really matter are the living and the dead. Staying with Irish elegy, the reporter of 1994 is the BBC's Fergal Keane, whose dispatches from Rwanda proved that care for language was indivisible from care for its subject.
Towering above them all was Without Walls: Dennis Potter (C4). No surprise, perhaps, that television's greatest maker of fiction should sign off with the Factual Programme of the Year. Gently supported by Melvyn Bragg, Potter was free to spin an astonishing cloth of memory: Sunday-school psalms, love of country, hatred of Rupert Murdoch, the psoriasis behind the writing itch and, outside his wondow at home, the "whitest, frothiest blossom there ever could be". He should have died hereafter, but if we had to lose him there could be no better memorial than a spellbinding civilised conversation in the medium he believed was good enough for anything.
WITH THE Government selfishly monopolising farce, professional comics were often pushed to compete for laughs. A raft of dire new sitcoms mercifully sank without trace. None could match America's ruthlessly refined Larry Sanders Show (BBC2) and Roseanne (C4). Only Richard Curtis's The Vicar of Dibley (BBC1) showed signs of understanding that graded gags make finer laughter. It also introduced a great new comic talent - Emma Chambers, whose daffy Alice talks the same apologetic body language as Joyce Grenfell. Blue Heaven (C4) had a fine surreal streak and incidentally confirmed Frank Skinner as the most adorable man on telly. Otherwise, the year belonged to Steve Coogan, Patrick Marber and Armando Iannucci, the team behind The Day Today and Knowing Me,Knowing You with Alan Partridge (both BBC2). Every 10 years or so, if we're lucky, a team of comic genius emerges. These guys are it. Their skits on news and chat are, like all the best satire, commonsense dancing.
The muse of comedy-drama travelled up the M1, inspiring Debbie Horsfield (The Riff Raff Element) and Tim Firth (All Quiet on the Preston Front) to subtle, character-led work that left Southern scribes looking like clogdancers. Best of all was William Ivory's Common as Muck (BBC1), a hilarious, deeply humane piece about binmen and the garbage they have to put up with.
Straight drama was in more trouble. The single play looks set to be discarded as the BBC rushes to discover the new Heartbeat (as if the old one weren't bad enough). Somehow, original work got through. John Macure's Cardiac Arrest (BBC1) was a properly vicious satire on the life of a junior doctor, Roddy Doyle's Family (BBC1) a devastating account of paternal tyranny. It was shot with rare style by Michael Winterbottom (my director of the year) and drew superb performances from everyone, but above all Ger Ryan whose Paul - always bouncing back from the last punch and still hopeful for love - earns her actress of the year.
The best cop show was the delectable NYPD Blue (C4). But this was the year of classic drama. Those who complained that we should be watching contemporary work not stuffy heritage pieces failed to grasp that great authors, like diamonds, are forever. Evensecond-rate Dickens has more to tell us about ourselves than the average News at Ten. Martin Chuzzlewit (BBC2) was a delight, thanks especially to the cast: Tom Wilkinson, Pete Postlethwaite, Paul Scofield, Philip Francks and Emma Chambers (again).
But my drama of the year is Middlemarch (BBC2). For Andrew Davies's masterful adaptation, for giving the BBC the confidence to make Chuzzlewit and the forthcoming Persuasion and Pride and Prejudice, for putting one of the greatest novels of all back on the bestseller list, for Patrick Malahide's desiccated Casaubon, for Douglas Hodge - television actor of the year - showing us Lydgate's terror at the death of idealism from the inside. And for Rufus Sewell striding in that big red cloak across the lawn to the place where Juliet Aubrey kneels deadheading the flowers, so that life can begin again. Now that's what I call drama. Period.
Previous winners: 1991 `Prime Suspect' (Granada); 1992 `Katie and Eilish: Siamese Twins' (`First Tuesday', Yorkshire); 1993 `The Ark' (BBC2). This is the first year there have been two TV awards.
1991 `Prime Suspect'; 1992 `'; 1993 `The Ark'.Reuse content