A year in television

Playing it for laughter, truth and hollow farce starkly and laughably to the frankly indigestible
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The Independent Online

Television pervades our world so thoroughly that it is almost impossible to stand far enough back for a clear view of it. Still, it is clear that television has certain drifts, that it pushes in certain directions. Looking back over the year's television, the programmes that stood out could be divided into two categories: those that worked hard against the grain of television, and the ones that exploited its biases most cannily.

Television pervades our world so thoroughly that it is almost impossible to stand far enough back for a clear view of it. Still, it is clear that television has certain drifts, that it pushes in certain directions. Looking back over the year's television, the programmes that stood out could be divided into two categories: those that worked hard against the grain of television, and the ones that exploited its biases most cannily.

Three arts documentary series were especially intriguing, all of them on BBC2 on a Sunday night: Neil MacGregor's Seeing Salvation, an examination of images of Christ in art; Richard Eyre's Changing Stages, a history of the British theatre over the last century; and Thomas Sutcliffe's round-up of cinematic tics, Watching.

What all three had in common was an intellectual confidence that amounted to swagger. But Watching succumbed too easily to some of television's traps - it was too restless, too eager to illustrate; Changing Stages strained to have its cake and eat it, acknowledging the futility of trying to transfer the experience of theatre on to the small screen, and cramming in every possible visual device as a substitute. Seeing Salvation, despite occasional fits of twitchiness, had enough confidence in the power of argument to opt for a more leisured visual style, at times verging on the dull.

In a weak year for drama, by far the most effective series was one that was advertised as a comedy: Rob Brydon and Hugo Blick's Marion and Geoff (BBC2), 10 perfect tragic miniatures about Keith, a mini-cab-driving holy fool, was a fascinating demonstration of the emotional versatility and magnetic power of talking-head television. The whole thing was filmed with a single fixed camera, in shots that lasted for minutes at a time; all we had to go on was Rob Brydon's face, and it was wonderfully sufficient. It also had a sense of intimacy.

Unlike many docusoaps and fly-on-the-wall documentaries, Paul Watson's A Wedding in the Family, a one-off for Channel 4's Cutting Edge, also made you feel that he had got up close and personal; and in its portrait of romance struggling to keep going against a background of divorce and disillusion, it seemed to say something shrewd about the wider world.

Something similar happened in When Louis Met Jimmy (BBC2), Louis Theroux's titanic contest for mastery of the camera with Jimmy Savile, only without any sense of anything important going on.

When it comes down to it, I don't think any series ( Buffy and The Sopranos aside) has given me more unforced pleasure this year than Louis Theroux's Weird Weekends, forever testing the limits of what geniality can do for you. The other series that demands mention, though in some ways I'd rather not, is Chris Morris's Jam (C4) - obscene, disturbing and unfunny, but utterly gripping and unlike anything else.

As for the worst programme of the year - well, when you have the pomposities of Peter Jay's Road to Riches and the vacuities of Baddiel and Skinner Unplanned to choose between, it's hard to know what to do. But I'm plumping for Big Brother (C4), not just because it was bad in itself but because it summarised all TV's worst tendencies - for youth and sex, against intelligence and individuality; banal, intrusive, hungry for celebrity. "The most talked about programme in Britain," say the trailers for a compilation: we should have our mouths washed out.

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