This wasn’t by any means easy. As I tell people, I really like British TV. I always have. I barely watched TV in the US last year when I was home. Doctor Who always qualifies as good TV, but unfortunately I chose the year of the Specials to return to Britain. Sigh. Anyway, I’ve separated this into two parts—my ten picks for best TV series --and then a few choice one-offs or other types of programmes that weren’t series. To be truthful, it’s not a complete survey of the field—I tend to watch programmes that I suspect I will like, but I will tune into things recommended to me. But I often surprise myself—Spooks anyone?—so I might just surprise you, too. These are, by the way, in no particular order.
1. City of Vice This is my one choice that isn’t current, but it was so good I had to include it (even if I’ve only seen 2 episodes . . . that’s a situation easily remedied since Jamie bought me the series on DVD!). As I said before, I want to aspire to write like this for my Milton project—if it could be produced at even a fraction of the sophistication and accessibility of this series, I would be happy. As far as I’m concerned, it ticks every box for me. My historical expertise is most profound in the 19th century, also I’m getting a fair way into the 17th, but my knowledge of the 18th isn’t bad either, so I am pleased to see it’s shown as the sordid, cheerful, random era it was. The idea has just enough of the genres it straddles to appeal both to mystery fans who like watching modern day detectives such as Robson Green pursuing murders, and the historically-mad, who just like looking into the past. It follows the real life Bow Street Runners, the only oasis of crime-fighting in the dark and dangerous London of the 18th century famously banded by novelist Henry Fielding and his blind brother, John. I remember watching the two episodes I saw and thinking how I loved every scene, every line of dialogue. Ian McDiarmid is a perfect Henry Fielding. Everything we know and don’t know of the 18th century is there: sexual perversion, extreme poverty, prostitution, coffeehouses, broadsheets and newspapers, London as a maze, and the Fieldings have to apply some kind of logic and procedure to an era that seethes with the ephemeral. There is a huge dose of the kind of overt sexiness that has made dramas like HBO’s Rome and The Tudors a success but in the case of City of Vice I feel it’s earned, whereas those programmes may on occasion have to stretch at it. The audience’s way into the story is achieved by Henry’s narration and clever, almost interactive maps that chart the progress of the story through London—indeed, the city is made palpably its own character. I must also make a special mention of Iain Glen, who plays John Fielding, the brother blind since youth. He makes a corking good character, and I have to confess he is exactly how I would imagine Old Milton.
2. Tess of the D’Urbervilles A superlative adaptation—sexy, moving, beautifully filmed, and well-cast and acted. Gemma Atherton was a superb Tess. The fact that it was four hours long made it possible to adapt the book in a reverent fashion, so that you could really understand why Tess, Angel, Tess’s mother, and others acted the way they did. The music was absolutely gorgeous and moving. The tail end of the 19th century in Hardy’s Wessex was perfectly recreated. Although I’ve always regarded Angel Clare as a little sh*t, in the final episode I did at least want him and Tess to get together—though of course I knew they wouldn’t end happily (yes, I did cry). I’ve always been a fan of Hans Matheson, and he made a perfectly dissolute Alec d’Urberville .
3. Stephen Fry in America Certainly I was biased by being an American and I wanted not only to see Stephen’s take on the US—a combination of the genuinely affectionate and bewildered!—but what format it might take in order to be fit for British consumption. In the process I learned a lot about my home country that I didn’t know, and I have to be honest: it made me homesick. Last fall, Fry drove across all 50 states in the London cab he owns. In Vermont he mixed ice cream at Ben and Jerry’s (he said something to the effect of the world needed ice cream). He spent a lot of time in Massachusetts in Harvard discussing the principles behind the founding of our country (he quotes Gore Vidal in that the Puritans were escaping persecution so they could find someone to persecute). He went hunting in upstate New York, cab driving in Queens, and mixed with the Mob (sort of). Very often this show teaches me stuff about my own country that I don’t know, including the “Body Farm” in Tennessee where students study bodies in states of decomposition in order to find killers—Stephen saw his first dead body. He went ballooning over North Carolina and had a very traditional Thanksgiving in Georgia. He hates Florida, visiting with “snowbirds” the “living embodiment of hell.” In Alabama he attended a college football game. Aaaaand so on.
4. Mock the Week The funniest thing on British TV, IMHO.
5. Spooks I didn’t expect to like Spooks, it wasn’t really my cup of tea, you know, spy shows. But then again, if you think about it, I am into League of Extraordinary Gentlemen so maybe it’s not such a stretch. Anyway, I will admit readily that Richard Armitage is the reason I started watching (though the fact James Moran had written an episode helped), and he made the viewing of it even more enjoyable than it would have been otherwise. I personally found the season I saw (called MI5, understandably, in the US) quite slick, nail-biting, well-made and well-acted. Perhaps it wouldn’t stand up to constant scrutiny, but I found it quite unpredictable and modern, relevant. As you can tell when you look at this list, I don’t tend to favor many contemporary dramas so the fact I found it entertaining enough not to miss an episode probably says far more about it than I can right now.
6. Little Dorrit Some people objected to the fact this was cut up into 14 episodes, but I really enjoyed it—felt appropriately serialized and Dickensian—and I didn’t miss an episode. For the most part it was well-adapted and moved along at a good pace, except for a few spots when it stalled. There were some superb performances from the likes of Matthew Macfadyan (formerly of Spooks no less), Andy Serkis, Eddie Marsan, Russell Tovey, Alun Armstrong, Emma Pierson, Claire Foy, the list goes on and on. How much money did the BBC have to employ this many people?! Anyway, in addition to the great performances, the sets, the costumes, and the filming in Venice must have cost a pretty penny—yet in my opinion it was all worth it, what a glorious spectacle. Moving, too, in its smallest moments, also a bit scary and often quite funny. Maybe not one of Dickens’ greatest novels (she says, having read only three!) but still very enjoyable.
7. The Victorians: Their Story in Pictures It was really difficult to choose one show to typify the many things I’d seen on BBC4 having to do with the history of the Victorians. I decided on this one, written and presented by Jeremy Paxman, because it didn’t try to sensationalize Victoriana, nor make it too ridiculous and quirky. He used contemporary pieces of art to show what Victorian life was really like and how it was still relevant to us today. The first episode of the series piled on the sweeping melodrama of “the City!!” as well as the degradation and misery of the poor. Paxman showed one of my favorite paintings of all time, Ford Madox Brown’s Work, as well as some other stunning crowd-work by the likes of William Frith, and a blacksmith/painter named Scalper. The second episode concerned maybe the first Victorian cliché I ever learned, the Angel in the Home. The show also did a masterful job showing the ignominy of the Crimean War in canvases by the likes of Lady Elizabeth Butler, and describing the atrocities on both sides in the case of the Indian Mutiny. It also was most eloquent on the nature of imperialism through art like the Albert Memorial. Overall, very valuable—it took itself a bit too seriously on occasion, but it wasn’t afraid to be irreverent.
8. Being Human I started off as a skeptic; I really couldn’t see how a show about a vampire, ghost, and werewolf sharing a flat could actually work (in Bristol no less), even if it was written by Toby Whithouse. However, I was quickly proved wrong. It’s funny how issues surrounding such supernatural characters remind us so succinctly of the problems facing humans. For example, how do you tell a potential love interest you’re a werewolf? Or what do you do when you find the werewolf who made you one? What do you do when you find out your fiancé killed you? If you’re a vampire how do you respond to the woman you made a vampire against her will and who still loves you? The weakest link in this show was only inevitable—there had to be some big threat against which our heroes had to prepare themselves and it was vaguely boring in its way. The real threat was humanity!
9. Ashes to Ashes I only saw one episode of Life on Mars and never saw any of Ashes to Ashes series 1 (though I lived vicariously through the Staggering Stories podcasts where they discussed the plot in detail, with spoilers and all!). Again, I couldn’t really imagine myself liking the show particularly, seeing as these police procedurals didn’t really interest me and I couldn’t see how they were going to explain Alex Drake’s journey, especially in the light of the way Life on Mars ended (plus, although the ‘80s interested me slightly more than the ‘70s, it isn’t near to my interest in the 1880s!). Despite myself, Ashes to Ashes really grew on me. It was accessible, and it was much better to see Philip Glenister playing Gene Hunter proper instead of a vanilla version in the boring Demons. I thought the music was cool, the fashions spectacularly ‘80s , and the twists and turns interesting and entertaining. Again, I don’t know how well it would stand up to scrutiny but it seemed logical in its own weird way. It’s genuinely funny, and I know some people were criticizing the possible sexual tension between Gene and Alex, but I thought it was tastefully done and extremely subtle. Looking forward to series 3!
10. The Devil’s Whore Like City of Vice, I expect this will have a lot of bearing on my Milton project. was another superb costume drama. It was subtitled “The Life and Times of Angelica Fernshaw,” and that’s exactly what it depicted—the riotous gaiety of the court of Charles Stuart, followed by the turmoil and battles of the Civil War, followed by Cromwell’s Protectorate. The sumptuousness in costumes was matched only by the outstanding performances. Andrea Riseborough goes from 18 to 40, a landed aristocrat marrying for love who accidentally gets her first husband killed, who falls in love with a revolutionary, Rainsborough, who is killed for opposing Cromwell, then takes turns with the Diggers, the Ranters, and finally returns to her ancestral home. Through it all floats Edward Sexby, a mercenary who falls in love with Angelica almost as soon as he sees her. I grow to admire John Simm more and more, and he positively smoldered as the enigmatic Sexby. Peter Flannery said this took years to get to the screen, but I hope for him it was worth it—it was for me. Bravo Channel4!
Lost in Austen was quite fun, as were The Sarah Jane Adventures. The Tudors were fun but sordid (but that’s HBO as I keep forgetting!). Whitechapel and Moses Jones were both good. I would have put Red Dwarf on the list but that’s cheating a bit too much; suffice it to say, I wish I had not been ignorant of its charms for so long. I also love QI; Alan Davies=squee! The Last Word Monologues were simple TV at its best. Robin Hood might have been on this list but there wasn’t room and besides, it failed.
As for the one-offs, Doctors (with Sylvester McCoy) was particularly memorable. I will probably never watch the show again, but that episode was really funny and sweet. Armando Ianucci’s Paradise Lost you know all about. That doesn’t make it any less great! I also liked How Reading Made Us Modern.
Here’s to another year of British TV!