A couple of weeks ago, I wrote this list of TV things that let me down in 2015. I stand by everything I said there, but I also don’t want this blog to become a bog of negativity, so I am now going to offset it by listing five brilliant things that happened on TV in 2015. Shall we?
I’m sure that casting a soap is a tricky business; you don’t just need to find someone who’s capable of performing the role well, you also need someone who’s up to the rigours of the hectic production schedules and – crucially – you need someone that the viewers at home will want to watch. And while soaps remain a great proving ground for new talent, they’re also increasingly becoming a place for showbusiness veterans to go and remind us that they’ve still got it. Last year, EastEnders made a couple of casting announcements that I was a little unconvinced by at first, specifically Bonnie Langford as Kush’s mum Carmel Kazemi and Richard Blackwood as Kim’s estranged husband Vincent Hubbard. In the case of the former, I felt she was surely just too much of a West End Wendy to ever properly look at home in Walford, and in the case of the latter – well, it’s Richard Blackwood, who seemed to be the punchline to any “where are they now?” joke you can think of. But fast-forward a few months, and these feel like some of the best casting decisions the show has made in a long time: Richard Blackwood has done a great job with a complicated character (sure, his portrayal occasionally slips into outright camp, but most of the best soap roles do if you ask me), and the fact that Vincent’s struggles as a conflicted husband and father are just as engaging as his nefarious dealings is all credit to him. Hell, it’s all credit to him for managing to make a man named “Vincent Hubbard” have any air of menace at all. And Bonnie Langford has been an absolute revelation with her subtle, nuanced portrayal of an overbearing mother struggling with an empty nest, a divorce, and the realisation that her golden boy has made a lot of mistakes. This character could have been an absolute nightmare of annoyance, but she’s been nailing it week after week. And, as a result, I promise to give the EastEnders casting team the benefit of the doubt in 2016.
BBC Three makes a killing
BBC Three had an uncertain year as we all waited to hear whether its future lay within linear broadcasting or as a pioneering online exclusive – and, as a result, I tried not to get too attached to anything shown on the channel just in case it had no part in this brave new world. (Case in point: golden child Don’t Tell The Bride making an uncomfortable move to BBC One and then getting unexpectedly poached by Sky1.) However, one show that made a persuasive argument for its own (and the channel’s) continued existence from minute one was spoof-detective-comedy-improv Murder In Successville. The premise of the show was that maverick detective DI Sleet (played by comedian and character actor Tom Davis, finally getting the recognition he deserves) polices the shady town of Successville, where all the celebrities live, and in each episode a big star is killed and a rookie officer (played by a different celebrity each week) is brought in to help him solve the crime. The improvised nature of the show meant that the celebrities – all, I imagine, chosen precisely because they lack any real comic or improv background – were on the back foot to begin with, and the tone of the episode was largely dictated by how they chose to respond to what they were presented with. This, in turn, gave a lot of the stars a chance to show a different side to themselves – Made In Chelsea’s Jamie Laing was surprisingly charming as a bumbling, giggly sidekick who ultimately picked the wrong culprit but provided one of the series’ most memorable moments with his battle cry of “Yippee ki-yay, Darcey Bussell!” Dermot O’Leary brought out a previously unseen über-competitive side as he got caught up in the minutiae of the case and was so determined to catch every clue that he ended up completely overthinking it. However, my favourite episode of the series was definitely Dragons’ Den star Deborah Meaden’s, purely for the hilarious (lack of) sexual tension between her and Sleet. She clearly found the character to be an arsehole, so Davis picked up on this and tried to flirt with her in-character as much as possible, and Meaden gave as good as she got by shooting him down (figuratively speaking) every time. As chalk-and-cheese partnerships go, I could have watched them together for a whole series.
Without wanting to sound like an old fart, the rise in popularity of Netflix and other streaming services means that genuine, watercooler-moment drama is harder to come by on TV these days – the shows are still there, it’s just that it’s rare for enough people to be watching them live for it to become a weekly conversation point where everyone’s at the same stage of the story. The right idea can still buck the trend though, as we saw with Doctor Foster, where it seemed like half the people I spoke to were absolutely glued to it. The plot revolved around GP Gemma Foster, whose life seems to be absolutely perfect until she discovers a long, blonde hair on her husband’s scarf (her family is entirely brunette) and begins to suspect he is having an affair. It seems like a fairly standard, even tropey, beginning to a series, but writer Mike Bartlett smartly decided to elevate it to a psychological thriller by having us view virtually everything from Gemma’s perspective and share in her paranoia. Once it became clear that husband Simon (played thoughtfully by Bertie Carvel and resisting any urge to make him a one-note villain) was a wrong’un, it became about Gemma’s state of mind, and what she was going to do – and with each passing episode, it became clear that Gemma’s ultimate revenge would be devastating. Even though it occasionally veered into melodrama, strong dialogue and uniformly excellent performances kept the whole thing surging forward to a nerve-shredding conclusion, where it gained the honour of being one of very few BBC dramas where the protagonist gets called an “ancient fucking cunt” by her love rival before having her head slammed into the dinner table. Like Happy Valley, it didn’t particularly need a second series but was far too successful not to get one, so let’s hope that Bartlett and co manage to find a way to continue the story without demolishing everything that worked so well about it in the first place.
Forget me not
And speaking of shows that took a fairly generic-sounding premise and did something unexpectedly compelling with them, ITV’s cold case drama Unforgotten was another show that crowbarred its way into my viewing schedule and refused to let go. It overcame a slightly generic title (I kept calling it Unforgiven before remembering that was the one with Suranne Jones in) to deliver a pleasingly twisty mystery thriller, where detectives Cassie Stuart and Sunny Khan (played with reliable skill by Nicola Walker and Sanjeev Bhaskar) were called in after a skeleton was found during the demolition of a building, not entirely knowing at first whether it was a few years old, or a few hundred years old. It turned out to belong to Jimmy Sullivan, a young man who went missing in 1978 – and four main suspects soon emerged. What set the show apart was the amount of time it spent with the suspects rather than the police – it wasn’t so much about the investigation as about what happens when past events come knocking at your door, and you have to confront the person you once were. That was borne out by the casting of some fairly high-profile names in these spots, with Tom Courteney, Trevor Eve, Bernard Hill and Ruth Sheen as the four under suspicion, and the likes of Gemma Jones, Peter Egan, and Cherie Lunghi operating around them. Opinion seems a little split over whether the show actually stuck the landing or not, but since I was more invested in the side of the show that dealt with people coming to terms with the possibility of having a killer in their family than I was in the actual “whodunnit” side of things, I wasn’t terribly hung up on the actual outcome.
Second To None
After picking up the rights to the works of Agatha Christie from ITV, the BBC had slightly mixed fortunes in bringing them to the screen this year. Partners In Crime started strongly with viewers but ended with a bit of a whimper – perhaps because nobody really bought David Walliams and Jessica Raine as a married couple, despite the herculean efforts of the latter to make it convincing. So there was a fair bit riding on their star-laden three part adaptation of Christie’s most famous book, And Then There Were None – which got a plum Christmas slot airing on consecutive nights. And thankfully, it turned out to be a much more confident project. Where Partners In Crime was muddled, trying to play everything straight but constantly sandbagged by Walliams’ theatricality, And Then There Were None didn’t dare to wink to the camera and instead writer Sarah Phelps doubled-down on the psychological intensity of the drama as ten strangers were assembled on a deserted island and picked off one by one. Okay, fine: some of the cast couldn’t resist hamming it up a little bit (Anna Maxwell Martin, I’m looking at you) but not to the extent that the overall tone of the show suffered, because director Craig Viveros kept things intimate and intense and sensibly anchored the whole thing in Maeve Dermody’s performance as the gradually unravelling Vera – which made it all the more devastating when we saw Vera’s true colours. Best of all, the adaptation stuck to the novel’s original ending rather than going with the more cheerful denouement used by the stage play and most film versions – a bold step for something that was going out in peak family viewing time at Christmas, but one that paid off handsomely as the conclusion really resonated with viewers. I’m sure I’m not alone in feeling that this series proved that you can still do a really good, chilling, atmospheric whodunnit without needing to be postmodern or ironic about it, and I’d quite like more programmes like this in future please. (It also proved that Aidan Turner is every bit as sexy in 1939 as he was in the late 18th century, but that’s another matter.)