In the last post I listed ten programmes that were in the shortlist for the prestigious top ten programmes I watched on TV. They were a brilliant ten indeed, but there were ten programmes that exceeded even them. Here are the top ten in reverse order.
10. Police Squad
Laughing is something very important I learnt first and foremost from television. The funniest thing I’ve watched on television is Police Squad. Sure there are a lot of comedies, lots of cleverly constructed verbal or slapstick humour. Yet the way they played it straight with Frank Drebin and the comic set-ups in episode after episode had me in hysterics like nothing else.
9. This Is Your Life
The format for this programme was brilliant. Identify a person, ‘surprise’ them, give a glossy overview of their life with key participants, end it on a really high point, say to the person the title of the show, end credits. Back in the days of childhood innocence I had no idea just how glossy the life-portraits were. I was just fascinated by two things – the story and the storyteller. Eamonn Andrews and Michael Aspel had one of the best jobs in the world, I though at the time. This programme got me interested in biographies and how fascinating people’s lives are.
8. Family Fortunes
Game shows are the sort of shows I would take great pleasure in. Sure there was watching to see if the contestants won prizes, but there was also the element of seeing if I could get the question right myself. Family Fortunes, though, remains the best game show.
I absolutely loved it especially in the period of time when it was hosted by Bob Monkhouse He was the best at what he did, no other host was as smooth and as witty as him and that was my idea of a host – that was the standard that has never been surpassed. The show was just so much fun though whether they guessed what the survey of one hundred people said or got it hilariously wrong.
It’s nothing wrong to confess that there were some reservations when news came out that this particular DC super hero would hit the small screens. I didn’t get into Smallville and I thought that there was little that could be done with Green Arrow. Thankfully I could not have been more wrong.
The stories in series one and two were excellent story arcs about Oliver Queen his quest, his city, his family and his years stranded. Anything that can get me eager to watch the next episode and where even weaker episodes don’t detract from the attraction of the overall storyline, that’s a great sign of a good story.
The acting as well in it is hugely underrated. Another good sign of a great programme is how much I’d invest in the stories. I have no reluctance whatsoever investing time in the stories again and again.
6. Sesame Street
Children’s television is hit and miss. Get it wrong and it is an immediate turn-off. Get it right and you will have devoted followers for a lifetime. I am not beating up school or the education system, what I am saying is that a lot of my basic skills in key areas of life were developed through watching Sesame Street.
Breaking words down into their parts and them putting them together to understand how to say them – that came from Sesame Street. Maths was fun when it was delivered by The Count. Social interactions, morals of life, even scratching at questions of why we do what we do all were birthed in Sesame Street. It was the best educational tool ever and nothing can touch it for sheer quality.
5. House of Cards (UK Version)
How can we tell a story about humanity when it is power hungry? Let’s take Shakespearean themes and put it into the modern world of parliamentary power. Though the quality dropped over its three series that had to be somewhat inevitable because of the high standard of storytelling they achieved particularly in the first series.
The figure of Francis Urquhart played superbly by Ian Richardson was mesmerising in his calculated and manipulative ways. Not forgetting the significant influence of his wife Elizabeth. It energised my interest in politics and the nature of man. It told me that storytelling on the small screen could be so much better than some of the dross that was on. Indeed it could elevate the art of the story to something quite extraordinary.
4. House of Cards (US Version)
You may think it’s a contentious decision seeing as though it wasn’t on television, it was on an online portal. You can think that all you like, I still list it here because I watch it on the television! It might also be a little contentious to suggest that the American knock-off is better than the British original. On that point I can appreciate the issue. It wasn’t easy choosing between the two at all.
Yet here we have a story that has not copied the original, it has lightly lifted a template and applied it rigorously and thoughtfully in a different setting. Frank and Claire Underwood are terrific as the power couple who manipulate the levers of control to gain that which they desire most whatever the cost. The twists and turns in this version I feel give it the edge over the British version. I love returning to the stories time and again and marvelling at the things that are portrayed in the name of preserving or gaining power. Great television.
3. Law & Order: Criminal Intent
The adventures of Goren and Eames got me interested from the start. Sure I had seen partnerships on TV before. I was used to seeing that there’s an eccentric one and a strait-laced one. I saw the pattern before. There was something very different about Goren and Eames. There was Eames a cop who was the senior partner, the safe pair of hands who was not there for just asking the brains the questions. Then there was Goren a man who was insecure, complex and brilliant without saying a word. I was so glad they kept that relationship strictly platonic even as the series developed it was an earnest partnership based on their ability to look for the bigger picture – the solving of the crime.
Something that made this series particularly outstanding was that although it finished its run late and tired, at least it finished. It realised the time to finish the stories was at hand and they left a treasure trove of episodes diverse and intriguing in the life of New York City. There are other crime procedurals on television, they do their best, but with the exception of one other cop show, at its best there was nothing like Law & Order: Criminal Intent.
To this day I cannot fathom television without Columbo. I cannot believe I ever thought television was complete before Columbo. The entire set up was superb. Here he is, dishevelled, crumpled and shabby in appearance. He appears to be simple. Nothing about him says threat at all – until he starts persisting. The more he persists, the more it’s apparent that you cannot afford to judge a detective by his raincoat or car … especially the car.
The formula was a winner consistently primarily because Peter Falk as the Lieutenant was the best casting of a role ever. There just has not been a better fit for an actor and a character. He plays it so superbly and he carries the interest in the story that turns the crime procedural on its head by not asking “who did it?” but how will he prove who did it? I love the scenarios they devise, I love the guest casts that they bring in, I love the occasional regular appearances of actors in different roles but the same set up as comedy klutz to poor Columbo’s straight guy.
Capturing so many themes in a series of episodes and being able to switch from intense drama to light-hearted comedy made this entire concept a televisual masterpiece.
1. Doctor Who
Science fiction is an interesting genre. There’s quite a lot you can get done in it. Lots and lots of stories you can tell about the human condition and keep it within the cover of what things might be. As a resource for creativity it has got to be the storytelling equivalent of hitting a gush of oil. I don’t believe anyone mined that oil better than Dr Who. They mined it with some solid foundations and a brilliant concept – a main character who remained the main character even though the actor playing him would change from time to time.
That decision essentially made the key character greater in complexity than a regular character. There is the main character, his marvellous mode of transport, those that travel with him, the worlds he visits, the earth at various ages, those he opposes and the scrapes he gets into. All of that got me engrossed not just in television but the creative process. I got involved not just in a television programme but in something bigger than that. It was well worth that because of the genius of the stories told by generations of writers, executives, technicians and actors.
If I had to choose one programme to take with me into seclusion it would undoubtedly be this one with its treasure chest of fascinating stories, intriguing characters and most importantly this mystical central Doctor who walks in eternity changing his body from time to time, but never changing in his curiosity as to what goes on in the universe.
C. L. J. Dryden