The best TV of 2018

Benjie Goodhart / 11 December 2018

Our TV blogger reviews the year’s most standout programmes.

So here we are, at the tail end of another year. It’s an opportune moment to look back at the last 12 months in the absurd, overblown and boundlessly marvellous world that is Tellyland. Let us join hands, cast aside our cares, and leap joyfully into the world that was 2018 on TV, with our annual awards. (Lawyer’s note: There are no awards).

The Lenny Henry Mistaken Identity Award: Named after the actor in honour of the occasion, in 2015, when ITN used footage of Ainsley Harriot instead of Henry after the latter, was awarded a knighthood. Last July, Newsnight illustrated an item about Pakistan’s Prime Minister, former cricketer Imran Khan, with footage of former cricketer Wasim Akram. Oops. 

Political contribution of the year: This year, our screens have been absolutely rammed with politicians of every hue talking absolute gobbledegook regarding Brexit. It took EastEnders hard man Danny Dyer to bring some clarity to the situation, with his epic rant on Good Evening Britain, alongside the rather peculiar duo of Pamela Anderson and Jeremy Corbyn, where he referred to Brexit as a ‘mad riddle’ and to David Cameron as, well, as something unmentionable, before accusing him of ‘scuttling off’ and putting ‘his trotters up in Nice’. Rightly awarded TV moment of the year at the Edinburgh Television Festival.m

TV Fakery Award: To mark the inestimable This Morning’s 30th anniversary, they brought back the weather-map-on-the-water, and had Alison Hammond doing the forecast. As she leapt from the UK to Northern Ireland, she ‘accidentally’ collided with a beefcake in a sailor’s outfit, knocking him into the water. Cue an all-too-slick cut back to Phil and Holly’s shocked faces, followed by a welcome shot in the arm, publicity-wise, for the show. Hmmm.

Reality Storm in a Teacup: Okay, so Seann Walsh kissed Katya Jones while the two were dance partners on Strictly. Yes, she was married and he had a girlfriend, I get it, it’s unattractive behaviour. But honestly, Britain: Three weeks ago you had no idea who either one of these people was!!! Now we are treating it as the biggest news story since the fall of the Berlin Wall, and his past is being raked over like he was a mass murderer. Some perspective, please.

Least Palatable Watch of the Year: Sometimes you have to have a pretty strong stomach to watch TV. Some of the Bush Tucker Trials were pretty revolting, and there is a definite trend towards showing more and more graphic medical content. But in terms of queasy viewing, nothing came close to the sycophantic love-in back in January, when Piers Morgan gave Donald Trump such a gentle soft-soaping he probably felt he’d visited a spa.

Guilty Pleasure of the Year: Look, I’m not proud of myself. I blame my wife. After years of mocking her and retiring to a different room to watch something else, I relented and watched a single episode of Love Island with her this year. And then one became two, two became three, and before I knew it, I was planning my social calendar around it. Technically, this disqualifies me from ever writing about television again, but I won’t tell if you won’t…

Humble Home of the Year: Princess Margaret’s description of Buckingham Palace as “a very cosy house” made it sound like a snug little two-up, two-down terraced house in Croydon. Admittedly, she said it on Desert Island Discs in 1981, but the quote was broadcast in the excellent two-part series about her this year.

Suffragette Movement Memorial Award: In January, Channel 5 got the year off to a thoughtful start by introducing a female-only cast for the first few days of Celebrity Big Brother, in honour of the 100th anniversary of women getting the vote. Watching a Made in Chelsea star and a friend of the Kardashians falling out over the washing up? I’m sure it’s what Emmeline Pankhurst would have wanted.

Overhyped Drama of the Year: Look, The Bodyguard was really good (at least until the car-crash final episode). But was it really worth all the hype? It wasn’t even the best drama on the BBC in September. It wasn’t even the second best drama on the BBC in September!

The Second-Best Drama on the BBC in September: Trust, the extraordinary story of the kidnapping of John Paul Getty III, was criminally overlooked by critics and audiences alike. Donald Sutherland’s masterfully reptilian turn as Getty senior was grotesquely watchable, and the shots of Italy’s verdant hills and medieval towns were breath-taking.

The Best Drama on the BBC in September: Killing Eve, adapted by Phoebe Waller-Bridge from Luke Jennings’ Villanelle novels, was an absolute joy, with two central performances, from Sandra Oh and Jody Comer, that deserve to share every award going. Violent and darkly comic, it wasn’t to everyone’s taste, but those who loved it really loved it.

The Best Drama of the Year on the BBC or Anywhere Else, Bar None: A Very English Scandal. Russell T Davies’ examination of the extraordinary story of Jeremy Thorpe was an absolute tour de force, with Hugh Grant turning in the performance of his career as the embattled Liberal leader. If he doesn’t win the best actor award, I’m sending back my BAFTA membership. Or would do, if I had one.

Sporting Event that Never Quite Captured the Imagination: Did the Winter Olympics really happen? According to my notes, they took place in South Korea in February, but I can’t remember a single thing about them.

Sporting Event that Most Certainly Did Capture the Imagination: In July, 26.5 million of us gathered to watch ‘our brave boys’ crash out in heart breaking fashion against Croatia. What I want to know is, who on earth are the 35 million people who didn’t watch it? And what were they doing? (Yes, I’m aware that not everyone in the UK is English, but I suspect viewing figures in Wales and Scotland would have been enormous, as would sales of Croatia replica shirts…)

Hero of the Year (1): Jodie Whittaker, whose Doctor Who turns out to be funny, brave, clever and compassionate, in the finest traditions of the show. It just so happens she’s female as well – and not before time.

Hero of the Year (2): Rahul Mandal, winner of The Great British Bake Off. This small, quiet, self-effacing chap, a bundle of nerves and riddled with self-doubt, gave an object lesson in how nice guys can finish first. It was a moving end to another triumphant series.

Villain of the Year: In the truest tradition of villains, Jodie Comer’s Villanelle (in the aforementioned Killing Eve) – a psychopath who killed without compunction – was a genius creation, the most remarkable aspect being that, against all the odds, you really end up rather liking her.

Travelogue of the Year (1): Travels in Trumpland with Ed Balls – a truly great piece of TV, part tour of the Deep South, part political documentary, this three-part series shone a light onto the people who thought – and still appear to think – that electing Donald Trump was a good idea. Not only that, it showed Ed Balls – one-time attack dog of New Labour – to be a kind, sensitive, compassionate, funny and engaging character, as at home tickling the ivories as donning Spandex and taking part in a wrestling match.

Travelogue of the Year (2): Michael Palin in North Korea. It couldn’t really be anything other than brilliant – the daddy of the genre, going to the world’s weirdest country. One highlight was the extraordinary, huge-hatted, robotically-choreographed female traffic police. Another was the spookily sinister tune played across Pyongyang every morning, “Where Are You, Dear General?”

Travelogue of the Year (3): The Silk Route with Joanna Lumley. She’s so warm, funny and insightful, you’d watch her present a travel series around suburban Altrincham. Ever the genial guest, she even managed to smile when presented with a warm bottle of Albanian white wine to drink.

Read our interview with Joanna Lumley

Travelogue of the Year (4): Dale Winton’s Florida Fly Drive. Back in February, dear old Dale seemed on cracking form as he packed his Golden Shred marmalade and Typhoo tea and headed off to the sunshine state. With hindsight, it is desperately poignant watching him drink from the fountain that supposedly produced the ‘elixir of youth’. Sadly, just two months later he was dead.

Absurd rhetorical question of the year: Paul Rose, wild swimming in 17°C Lake Windermere on a chilly morning. “Is there a better place in the world to do it.” Yes. Antigua. Or Cape Town. Or Cannes. Or, indeed, anywhere where the water is over 17°C.

In memoriam: Dale wasn’t the only TV star we lost this year. Some of those were heartbreakingly young – Emma Chambers (Alice in Dibley) was only 53. Others, like Ken Dodd and Denis Norden, went well into their 90s. But all had given untold pleasure to millions, and will be missed. Others included Lesley Grantham, Barry Chuckle, Bella Emberg, Jim Bowen and Ray Galton. Two more starred in two of my all-time favourite shows – John Mahoney, who played Martin Crane in Frasier, and David Ogden Stiers, who played Charles Emmerson Winchester in M*A*S*H.

Best documentary series: I greatly enjoyed another thoughtful batch of documentaries from Louis Theroux, and the two-parter My Baby’s Life: Who Decides was moving, powerful and thought-provoking. But the stand-out series of the year was Paddy Wivell’s extraordinary Prison, filmed over seven months in HMP Durham. The viewer came away feeling sympathy for the prisoners, respect for the staff, and dismay at the system. The conclusion of the episode on mental health, when viewers discovered one of the contributors killed himself soon after filming, was arguably the most devastating moment of the year on TV.

Please Go Away Now: X Factor. Is anyone still watching? And if so, why?

The For Heavens Sakes Cheer Up a Bit Award: Watching the second series of The Handmaid’s Tale was a bit like listening to The Smiths in the late 80s. You knew you were experiencing something quintessentially brilliant, but you could also do with the occasional moment of levity to lighten all the unremitting gloom. I love this show, but in Season 3, could Offred please catch a break?

Most Romantic Conclusion: At last, after two series and a couple of specials, Peter Kay gave the audience what they wanted in the last ever episode of Car Share: John and Kayleigh finally got together, even if she did cost him a car door. They rode home together on the bus, hand in hand, listening to the mix tape he’d made for her. And for a moment, just for one moment, all was right with the world.

Family Most on TV (Part I): The Johnsons. While it’s almost impossible to watch the news without seeing Boris (and believe me I’ve tried) father Stanley has continued his later life reinvention as a TV personality, while Rachel Johnson is never far from the cameras. Then, in late 2018, younger brother Jo completed the set (if we were playing the card game Happy Families) by resigning from the government and becoming an overnight sensation. Though, bearing in mind he resigned in opposition to Brexit, perhaps ‘Happy Families’ isn’t quite apt.

Family Most on TV (Part II): Remember when the royals were distant, remote figures shrouded in mystique (or, in Margaret’s case, Mustique) who one barely ever saw or heard? Not any more. This year, we had programmes or series about The Coronation, Kensington Palace, The Queen’s Green Planet, Countryfile Royal Specials, Queen of the World, The Queen’s Birthday Party, Princess Margaret, and Prince Charles at 70. We also had the best part of a fortnight’s programming surrounding Harry and Meghan’s wedding in May, before Eugenie and Jack’s nuptials reinforced the theory that sequels are never as popular as the original. Not that I’m complaining – it’s been fascinating getting to know them a little better – and it’s been up there with the best years of my mum’s life!

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