Monday, 4 January 2010

Television Picks of the Decade - Reality Used to Be A Friend Of Mine

Up until last year, at this time of year, I had been doing posts where I had been choosing my 5 best television programmes of the year. Time and, more crucially the diminishing quality of terrestrial television, put paid to last year’s pieces. I had intended to pick my five television picks of the year, and spread them out. Instead, you’re getting this two-parter. I’ll try and get my albums of the decade out. Probably at some point this month.

At the turn of the decade, our television schedules were full of fly on the wall documentary series which had made stars of ordinary people. Who among you isn’t now thinking ah Jeremy or oh my god Maureen. In the summer of 2000, Channel 4 took this line of programming one stage further and put “ordinary” people into a confined area and recorded their every move, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. “Big Brother” ushered in the era of reality TV, a “genre” which divided opinion like no other. Some people lapped up “reality TV”, the Channel 4 commissioning editor Stuart Cosgrove recently described Big Brother as art, while the red tops and the recently launched “celebrity” bible “Heat” magazine began saturation coverage of Big Brother. With it being the topic of discussion on radio shows, there was no escape. The BBC and ITV soon cottoned on to this idea which had caught the imagination of the Red Tops (without garnering the ratings, with only eviction nights close to the final night and the finals night itself garnering viewing figures over 10 million). The BBC launched Castaway 2000 where people were sent to live on a Scottish island for 3 months. On the other hand ITV bought the rights to Survivor – where contestants were sent to live on a remote tropical island. Both formats were not ratings success. However ITV produced a celebrity version of “Survivor” called “I’m a Celebrity, Get Me Out Of Here” set in the jungles of Queensland, Australia, which became an inexplicable ratings juggernaught.

Another variant on the “Reality” show was the spin which this added to the old fashioned talent show. ITV had started this thread with “Popstars” where a boy/girl band would be started from scratch (the band which came from this – Heresay – had a career of about 3 singles together). “Pop Idol” democratised this process by introducing the phone vote element – democracy being another key part of the reality genre. Soon programmes incorporating some sort of phone vote were all over the television schedules. This reached saturation point before in 2008 a scandal erupted over false winners of phone in competitions. Since then the BBC has more or less banned phone in competitions and introduced a set of guidelines to govern their use. For ITV, phone votes and competitions have returned. That these provide a revenue stream to ITV is entirely coincidental to their re-introduction, especially when ITV’s current ratings juggernaught’s strictly come… Dancing on Ice (yes I know that it’s called Dancing on Ice), Im A Celebrity… and The X Factor relies heavily on audience phone-voting and has associated phone in competitions.

Considering that we live in troubled times, the start of the decade saw fuel protests, a close presidential election in the United States decide in the courts followed by a rise in religious fundamentalism, which reached boiling point on Tuesday September 11th 2001, and has stayed there ever since. Conventional wisdom would suggest that we would turn to fictional and escapist forms of entertainment. In this country the drama’s produced in the first part of the decade reflected life rather than escaped from it. Paul Abbott created the excellent “Clocking Off” a drama series which focused on an individual factory worker’s life each week. His next project was an old fashioned political thriller which focused on the relationships between Politicians, Lobbyists and Journalists, relationships which were at the centre of New Labour. “State Of Play” remains still the best drama of the decade as it charted the investigation of two murders from the viewpoint of investigative reporter Cal MacCafferty (played by John Simm), one of the murders is that of a researcher working for an old friend, Stephen Collins MP( played by David Morrisey). Collins is a high flying MP and chair of the Energy Select Committee. With a controversial report due, these murders happen, and lead MacCafferty & Co after several shadowy oil companies with vested interests. It is a drama so well written, that it appears to have survived a Hollywood re-make.

Abbot then made “Shameless” which celebrated/shone a light on/documented (delete to your own view-point) sink estate life through the eyes of the sprawling Gallagher family. 2003 also saw the start of another trend in broadcasting with “The Deal”, the first of many re-imagining’s of historic events. “The Deal” was a stab at telling the story of the relationship between Tony Blair and Gordon Brown up to their fabled meeting at the Granita restaurant where it was decided that it would be Blair would run for leader of the (then) Labour Party. Brown was played by David Morrissey, but was over shadowed by the chap playing Blair – Michael Sheen. Playing real life famous people would go on to become Sheen’s stock in trade. He would reprise his role as Blair in “The Queen” and in a film in production about Blair’s relationship with Clinton, be absolutely storming as Kenneth Williams in “Fantabulosa”, he played David Frost in the play and adapted film “Frost/Nixon” and lastly (for the moment) he played Brian Clough in the film adaptation of David Peace’s controversial book “The Damned United”

Even the most successful comedies of this period took inspiration from real life. “The Office” was based in paper merchants Wernham Hogg, who had let a fly on the wall documentary crew film their daily routines. It did not take long for the manager of the Slough office David Brent to hog the camera. While “The Office” was the breakthrough project for its creator Ricky Gervais, its contempory also saw its main writer/performer attain mainstream popularity. Peter Kay was already an established stand up. In 1999 Channel 4 broadcast “That Peter Kay Thing” which was essentially 5 pilots for potential sit-com’s, one of which featured a wheelchair-bound club owner called Brian Potter. Kay, and his co-writers Neil Fitzmaurice and Dave Spikey, then developed and starred in a sit-com about Potter and the club he owned – the Phoenix Club. “Phoenix Nights” as it became was a glorious satire on working peoples clubs and club-land in general. The Office and Phoenix Nights also were the early record breakers in the fledgling DVD market, alongside US Drama “The West Wing” and the BBC’s spies are civvies too drama “Spooks”. As we will see as the decade went on, real life began to be less appealing to the Television producers.

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