“I could be wrong – and being new to this game I probably am – but there appears to be some quite good television around at the moment,” began the Guardian TV review of 2 February 2004. The writer went on to mention a few programmes, some of which still seem quite good, others perhaps less so. Shameless, The Alan Clark Diaries, Little Britain, Six Feet Under, I’m a Celebrity … Get Me Out Of Here! (Hey, it was still relatively new; it was the series with Katie Price and Peter Andre. And OK, maybe the writer – I – was wrong.) The review itself was about a programme in which Alistair McGowan went wild with rhinos and a South Bank Show about television, both forgettable.
That was my first review (apart from a brief stint a few years before, but let’s not complicate this). Since when I have written about bonnets and ballroom dancing, Big Brother, baking and a whole bunch of stuff that doesn’t start with B. Drama, documentaries, comedies, soaps, gameshows, Nordic noir, Black Mirror, Red Riding, Green Wing, Blue Planet. I have written about people who marry horses, and eat their lovers, and about Rolf Harris painting the Queen. I have covered the coverage of elections and World Cups, the Olympics and presidential inaugurations, and I have reviewed other people reviewing TV.
Fourteen and a half years, it’s been, and because of the extremely high-pressured nature of the work, reviewing years are like dog years – worth seven. So that’s a century, in which I have produced about 2,500 reviews, getting on for 2m words, seen five incarnations of the Doctor (if you count Jodie Whittaker’s tantalising appearance at the end of the last Christmas special), and 13 seasons of The Apprentice …
The Apprentice, maybe more than anything else, drives home that I have been doing this long enough; too long, some might say. I have written 20 – twenty – reviews of The Apprentice, and that’s not including The Young Apprentice, plus interviews with winners, with Lord Sugar and with Sugar’s sidekicks. I have nothing left of any interest to say about The Apprentice. They are all tossers – I have said so too many times. It’s not just the show that is tired – I am, too. When the new series begins next month, it’s very important that someone else should cover it. Sam: you’re fired.
But first, a few things I have learned during my innings.
I’ve learned about the universe …
… and the solar system, from a man named Brian, who knows some very big numbers and can often be found sitting on top of mountains, staring into eternity. I have learned about the world from David – Sir David, though it should really be King David – and that it is under threat, and that racer snakes will give you nightmares. I have learned about the power of nightmares, and world politics and how we got to where we are now (or at least where we were then) from a man named Adam with a very big record collection. From Charlie, I’ve learned that the near future is a nightmare. From Mary, I have learned how to make a heavenly Victoria sponge and that baking is bigger than everything, even the BBC. From Danny I have learned that genealogy – even someone else’s – can be entertaining. And recently, from Danny’s daughter Dani, I have learned that, even in the current climate, geniality can prevail.
And I have learned that television is bloody brilliant
If that original February 2004 list underwhelmed, how about this little lot that has dropped since, on my watch? Nighty Night, The Thick of It, Sherlock, Skins, Bodies, Green Wing, Breaking Bad, The Inbetweeners, Mad Men, Broadchurch, Pulling, Extras, Him and Her, Appropriate Adult, Black Mirror, Nathan Barley, Extras, The Trip, Happy Valley, The Killing, Borgen, The Bridge, Homeland, Top of the Lake, Toast of London, Gogglebox, Better Call Saul, Girls, The Staircase, True Detective, Transparent, The Night Manager, Camping, Big Little Lies, Educating Essex and Yorkshire (Oh, God, remember Musharaf and Mr Burton? I’m welling up all over again). Plus Planet Earth 2, Blue Planet 2, Line of Duty, The Crown, Wolf Hall, The Handmaid’s Tale, Wild Wild Country, A Very English Scandal, Patrick Melrose …
Obviously I have missed out loads of programmes in this list, for which I will quite rightly get crucified – one-offs and mini-series, and whole genres, such as news coverage, sport, reality and scripted reality. And there are shows that began before I did but I still got to get involved with – The Wire, Peep Show, Family Guy, South Park, Michael Apted’s Up Series (possibly the greatest documentaries of all). And personal favourites, such as Pimp My Ride, The Armstrongs (owners of Coventry’s third-largest double-glazing company, remember?), and Brat Camp, which made me proud of badly behaved British teens. These might not make any greatest-of-all lists but have a special place in my heart. Overall, what a time to have been watching the telly.
What, I have to do my best of the best, even though that is impossible? OK, then, quickly …
Drama: Breaking Bad, because The Wire was already up and running.
Adaptation: The Handmaid’s Tale (just, over Patrick Melrose, because of the nerve it hit).
Documentary strand: The Up series, even though it was already up and running.
One-off documentary: a Storyville film called The English Surgeon.
Comedy: The Thick of It.
Guilty pleasure: The Inbetweeners.
Best idea: Gogglebox.
Television has changed
Little things have changed. Fashions, popular subjects: sharks, Tourette’s, posh people, poor people, beautiful bodies, embarrassing ones, naked people, clothing people, mad people, bad people, bad kids, posh kids, ladettes to ladies, Gypsies, baking, more bloody baking, sharks again, celebrity sharks.
But really big things have changed, too, such as The Way We Watch Television. You know how it goes: the idea that you sit down to something when someone else decides that you should is a ridiculous, old-fashioned notion and only my mum sees TV in its scheduled slot. There was once just the one screen and not many channels; now there are multiple screens and the sheer volume of stuff is terrifying. You are watching University Challenge from the Monday before last; the kids are in their rooms watching … well, who knows what? The role of television in family life, even in national life, has changed. It is no longer a blanket to snuggle up under together.
Netflix has changed everything, too, churning out highly polished drama and documentaries at a rate that is terrifying to conventional channels. And – like other streaming services – it isn’t constrained by such quaint old ideas as schedules to fill, advertisers to please and a licence fee to justify.
Yet reports of the death of event TV …
It is not just football that can unite. Look at Bodyguard. More than 10 million have now seen the first episode; more tellingly, seven million watched the last one when it went out (still reeling, btw). That is practically Den and Angie territory … Well, maybe not quite: Den and Angie are gone for ever (Den really has: RIP Leslie Grantham).
Strictly, too. And Bake Off, both are best served straight from the oven. The crowning of Queen Nadiya will surely one day be seen as a key moment in 21st-century British social history. Twitter has played its part in this. #VeryBigCyberSofa #NewBlanket
And it is better than ever
In the paragraph about bloody brilliant shows above, a lot are quite recent, and that is not just down to my memory issues. This absolutely is a 24-carat golden age, particularly for drama, but also for documentaries, comedy, everything. To the nostalgic, rose-tinted specs-wearers, I challenge you to watch The Jewel in the Crown or Brideshead Revisited next to Patrick Melrose or A Very English Scandal and tell me TV was better then. Look at the actors and the writers that TV attracts: Hugh Grant and David Nicholls. The big-screen movie stars queueing up to get on to the big little screen. Look at the brilliant new talents coming out of television, such as Phoebe Waller-Bridge, the creator of Crashing and Fleabag, Michaela Coel, who brought us Chewing Gum, and Will Sharpe, who wrote Flowers.
And look at all the money. Netflix can spend £5-£10m on an hour of drama that is only watched by a handful – though who knows how many? – of people in any one country. That may be sending waves of fear through the industry, but to us on the sofa, well, there is no need to get off, ever.
If I were starting now, my list of quite good telly around at the moment would be easy. Jed Mercurio’s Bodyguard and Hugo Blick’s Black Earth Rising (starring Coel). I’m excited about the new one from Waller-Bridge, Killing Eve, which starts on Saturday, and Channel 4’s new reality show The Circle, and more Gogglebox. Oh, go on then, the bloody Bake Off, too.
It can be lonely work
Ah, poor me, all alone on the sofa at home, or in a disgusting, smelly (my fault, to be fair) little windowless box in the office, watching telly. Not always alone, though. Look at the comments below the line; sometimes just a few, sometimes hundreds. This sofa is an infinitely extendable one. Everyone is invited, not just friends, and not everyone is friendly.
“Is this the worst Sam Wollaston ‘review’ ever?” (To be fair to me, I don’t think that one was the worst.) “How can he be paid for writing this drivel?” (Usual way, into my account, monthly.) A well-known writer of television comedy once appealed to his hundreds of thousands of Twitter followers to encourage me to quit.
People have been kind, too. I have, here on my desk, a box full of letters – actual letters that came in the post, so obviously all from people who are even older than me – but almost all lovely. Thank you.
It can be awkward
I once found myself, in the pub, sitting opposite someone I had recently described in print as a twat. He didn’t seem to have read it, though, or to have heard of me. I never had to review a drama by my boss, as Nancy Banks-Smith did, brilliantly and mercilessly. I did once find myself writing about the person sitting opposite me in the office. He bought me tea from the trolley; I was kind about his programme. Call it a bung, if you like.
I have been wrong
I said that the 2006 BBC series Robin Hood was good; it turned out not to be. Apologies. And I think that’s about it, for getting things wrong. Once, for a review of a Money Programme called The Sicknote Scandal, about people taking the day off work for no reason at all, I didn’t write anything, just left the slot blank. It was supposed to be a joke but not everyone thought it was funny. My dad was furious. There’s no point linking to it; it really doesn’t work at all online.
I may have been over-harsh on Downton Abbey, for being a soap (what’s wrong with soaps?). On Call the Midwife, for being sanctimonious and dull (although it is sanctimonious and dull). On Top Gear for being Top Gear (what happened to that lot, I wonder?). And Game of Thrones has never been my thing, for which I don’t apologise.
Mostly it has been a joy
For me, I mean, if not for you. Watching television, for work, for the Guardian. I am not leaving the paper: I’m going to be writing about other things, getting off the sofa, out of my smelly little room, maybe even talking to people. I am leaving the best job in the world, though. Now it’s someone else’s turn.