Autumn schedule: Water-cooler TV!

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As viewing figures hit an 18-year high, we trail the shows that everyone will be talking about.

All over Britain, cushions are being patted and sofas plumped. Despite the internet and video games, television viewing figures are at an 18-year high according to a report from the Institute of Practitioners in Advertising published earlier this year; and from now on, up to 12 million of us will spend our evenings staring at the flickering screen. The autumn schedules are being packed with some of the best, most popular and most lavish television productions of the year.

From reality crowd-pleasers such as the X Factor to critically lauded shows with small but dedicated followers like Mad Men via a costume extravaganza written by an Oscar-winning heavyweight, there has not been so much "watercooler television" since the medium's 1970's heyday.

"The variety of drama in the next months is amazing," said Nick Cannon, from What's On TV magazine. "We don't seem to have the usual lavish BBC costume drama of a Charles Dickens or Thomas Hardy adaptation, but ITV has jumped in there with its splendid Downton Abbey and Channel 4 has snapped up the rights to Pillars of the Earth, a medieval melodrama and a massive production. But the BBC hasn't been outdone and has some smaller gems like Christopher And His Kind and The Road to Coronation Street – just wait until you see Jessie Wallace as Pat Phoenix, she's a revelation."

Ben Halpin, a TV analyst at advertising agency Walker Media, also pointed to ITV's increased investment in "high quality drama" in an attempt to attract a more up-market audience.

"Downton Abbey, Albert's Memorial, Whitechapel II, Bouquet of Barbed Wire and Law & Order should all perform well," he said. "Channel 4 will be hoping their big American import The Event is a success – it is being billed as the new Lost. The brilliant Inbetweeners returns – it could possibly be the highest rating programme ever on E4.

"Another programme that has everyone talking at Walker Media is An Idiot Abroad. I have a feeling this will be a massive success. Anything from Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant will attract big audiences. Finally, the list would not be complete without a mention of the fourth series of Mad Men. Genius TV.".

Downton Abbey

ITV used to be renowned for its lavish costume dramas, with gems such as The Jewel in the Crown. Recent years have seen the BBC ransack the wardrobe room, but the commercial broadcaster hopes to be back with this Upstairs/Downstairs-style drama written by Oscar-winner Julian Fellowes. It stars Dame Maggie Smith and follows the fortunes of the residents of the eponymous Abbey in 1912, both the Crawleys who own it and the servants who run it.

"Julian Fellowes and Maggie Smith together is a costume drama dream," said Radio Times editor, Ben Preston.

ITV 1, 26 September, 9pm

Come Fly With Me Matt Lucas and David Walliams became light entertainment heavyweights with the runaway success of Little Britain – their bizarre mockumentary sketch show replete with numerous eccentric characters about life in the UK. Not to rest on their laurels they are back with a new, six-part comedy show set in an airport, with new characters and a weekly guest star. Preston's view: "Big, bold comedy." BBC1. Date to be announced

The Apprentice

The genius of The Apprentice is that a host of pushy, wannabe-wealthy buffoons crash down to earth with their ears ringing to a wonderfully harsh rollickings from Lord Sugar. The Apprentice has been off our screens for 18 months because of the general election – Lord Sugar is a Labour peer.

Preston's view: "It's a blue chip show ... the format just works."

BBC1. Date to be announced

Mad Men

It may have its initial run tucked away on obscure BBC4 but the saga of the badly behaved but impeccably dressed New York advertising men – led by the complex but irresistible Don Draper – is already causing traffic in cyberspace as die-hard fans discuss the lavishly recreated décor, style and manners of the early 1960s.

Preston's view: "Compulsive, addictive all consuming television for 300,000 people."

BBC4 Wednesdays, 10pm

Seven Days

C4's latest reality show is a live docusoap. "Viewers will be able to follow characters as they actually happen," boasts the blurb. A hairdresser, a budding rapper, a single mother, and a student are among the denizens of Notting Hill who have agreed to be filmed.

Preston's view: "It could be intriguing."

Channel 4, 22 September, 10pm

The X Factor

It may be criticised for exploiting the deluded and being a cash cow for Simon Cowell – but the millions who will spend Saturday nights glued to their sets don't care. The live finals will dominate the TV ratings until Christmas and, be fair, it does give a break to talented people who don't have a famous dad.

Preston's view: "Never mind the music, watch the judges."

ITV 1, Saturdays, 7.45pm

Strictly Come Dancing

Back for its eighth series with former Tory politician Ann Widdecombe and magician Paul Daniels among the hoofers. Strictly's success lies in its teatime sexuality, but it will be the celeb with two left feet who gets viewers talking.

Preston's view: "It's another titanic struggle with the X Factor."

BBC 1, Saturdays. 6.25pm

The Inbetweeners

This is how sixth form was for uncool, spotty, 17-year-old boys: a mostly fruitless attempt to buy alcohol and engage in some kind of sexual fumbling. Their antics should have everyone rolling with laughter.

Preston's view: "It has the genuine smell of a teenage boy's bedroom."

E4, tomorrow, 10pm

The Young Ones

Take six celebrities from 1975, put them together in a house and let them fend for themselves. Just one week later tests will show how their memories and their vision have improved.

Preston's view: "Any show that promises to reveal secrets of youth is going to have a following."

BBC1 Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday at 9pm

An Idiot Abroad

Ricky Gervais' podcasts in which he and his Office and Extras co-writer Stephen Merchant taunt their "round-headed, chimp-like buffoon" sound engineer Karl Pilkington into making weird but strangely logical philosophical observations were a smash hit and turned into an animated series by HBO. So why not send the culturally-challenged Pilkington around the world's seven wonders so he can look at the Pyramids for the first time and describe them as a "death trap".

Preston's view: "The glory of TV is that it doesn't have to be good to be talked about."

Sky One, Fridays, 9.45pm

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