Losing two more director generals, the BBC finds a cop show that even the wee donkey watches, sees Johnson and Trump coming and finally broadcasts an event secretly rehearsed for four decades.
2012 – Line of Duty/Call the Midwife
Off screen, a catastrophic year: long-serving DG Mark Thompson was forced out by the board and replaced by George Entwistle, who resigned after only 54 days. He had failed to take control of two crises involving BBC’s Newsnight: its decision to abandon a report showing Jimmy Savile was a paedophile, but then to run a piece falsely attributing child sexual abuse to Tory politician Alistair McAlpine. But on screen, a franchise began that would grace the BBC for the next decade. So bitterly brilliant was the 1994 BBC One medical drama Cardiac Arrest that it seems bizarre the writer, John MacUre, never had another credit. That’s because he had been a practising doctor, forced under NHS rules to use a pseudonym. Under his real name, Jed Mercurio wrote another great medical show (Bodies) before creating Line of Duty, in which an internal police discipline unit hunted “bent coppers”, one of the catchphrases, along with “mother of God!” and “Jesus, Mary and Joseph” (later joined by the “wee donkey”) of Adrian Dunbar’s Supt Ted Hastings.
Mercurio challenged UK TV drama orthodoxy by running storylines across series (the search for “H”, the top corrupt cop) and killing off stars (Keeley Hawes, Daniel Mays, Jason Watkins, Stephen Graham) during a run. The approach was so successful that the show moved from BBC Two to One, and swelled its audience from 3 million to 16 million by 2021’s sixth series, in which the corrupt police leadership explicitly became a metaphor for Boris Johnson’s government. Attempting to provide something for everyone, the BBC also launched the gentler Call the Midwife, Heidi Thomas’s story of mid 20th-century nursing nuns with an almost Nobel prize level of medical innovation. A decade on, it is almost as popular as Line of Duty.
2013 – The Politician’s Husband/Today
Equality was a long way off – in 2017, the government forced the BBC to reveal that the highest earners were way more likely to be men – but it was a sign of progress that key programmes across TV and radio were female-led. A pioneering writer, Paula Milne (Juliet Bravo, John David, Driving Ambition), created a marvellous BBC Two three-parter, The Politician’s Husband, about husband and wife MPs, played by David Tennant and Emily Watson, competing for party leadership and willing to ignore secrets including rape and murder to gain power. Writing while Johnson was mayor of London, Milne previewed the values vacuum that was coming to high British politics.
Coverage of Mishal Husain joining Today made much of her being the first woman of colour and first Muslim to host the veteran show, but, more importantly, she is one of the most impressive broadcasters to emerge across the years, equally adept on radio and TV and with an informed, persistent political interviewing approach of her own, rather than echoing the growly men around her. Another BBC News move – attaching Today’s James Naughtie to Good Morning Scotland in the run-up to the independence referendum – diagnosed another of the BBC’s ailments of old age: the (possibly irresolvable) problem of being a British Broadcasting Company in a Britain increasingly heading in four different directions.
2014 – Sherlock/Inside Number 9
Alumni of The League of Gentlemen went in different directions to create thrilling new projects. Mark Gatiss joined Steven Moffat (with whom he had worked on the rebooted Doctor Who) to update Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories, keeping the violin-playing, cocaine-taking and serpentine plots, but using modern technology and transport to create a gleaming vehicle for Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman, as Holmes and Watson, to become major stars. Equally twisty was Inside Number 9, in which Gatiss’s former colleagues Reece Shearsmith and Steve Pemberton created tense half-hours in various genres – farce, horror, ghost, heist, commedia dell’arte – all somehow linked to the number nine.
2015 – Wolf Hall/Poldark/Dickensian
As each renewal of the BBC’s decade-long royal charter has approached, the drama department has pumped out classics of the sort MPs think people should watch. With the next deal due to be negotiated by December 2016, DG Baron (Tony) Hall of Birkenhead filled 2015 with parliamentary pleasers, all cannily channelling earlier successes. The long popularity of Tudor history (The Six Wives of Henry VIII) was satisfied by Wolf Hall, adapted from the first two, Booker-winning volumes of the late Hilary Mantel’s trilogy, with Mark Rylance an alarming Thomas Cromwell. Poldark, a 1975 Cornish mining-and-shagging crowdpleaser, was also remade and, in Dickensian, Tony Jordan, a key EastEnders writer, cleverly mashed-up characters and plots familiar from numerous adaptations of Dickens. The plan was to ply ministers in the government elected in May 2015 (the BBC gambled on it being Ed Miliband’s Labour) with box sets ahead of a favourable licence fee settlement in early 2016. But David Cameron won a majority and his chancellor, George Osborne, immediately summoned Hall to No 11 to impose a stingy settlement. At least viewers got a year of good drama before the cuts started.
2016 – The Night Manager
The treats continued into what should have been licence-renewal year, with another revisiting of past triumphs: the fiction of John le Carré, which had been absent from the BBC since 1987’s A Perfect Spy. His long, involved plots suited long-form TV, as proved by this six-part adaptation of Le Carré’s 1993 story of a hotel employee used by MI6 in a sting operation against a satanic arms dealer. Director Suzanne Bier and screenwriter David Farr adapted a great writer to the zeitgeist with a glossy, Bond-ish thriller with Hugh Laurie as the villain and Tom Hiddleston as the hotelier protagonist. In an unforeseen twist of feminism, Hiddleston – like Aidan Turner in Poldark the previous year – was the object of drooling reviews and tweets by women about his undressed body.
2017 – The Repair Shop
Of the many attempts to recreate the magic of The Great British Bake Off, the BBC came closest with The Repair Shop, although, as so often in this era, it was the creation of an independent company (Ricochet). As with Bake Off, there was the appeal of engaging expertise as people with ruined heirlooms, furniture, jewellery and knick-knacks brought them to be healed by friendly specialists, led by the furniture restorer Jay Blades, upholstery guru Sonnaz Nooranvary and toy-doctor Amanda Middleditch. It wasn’t completely novel – an Antiques Roadshow for broken bric-a-brac – but had extra emotional heft from the backstories, involving deep love, grief and memory. When the world itself was broken – by the Covid lockdown of 2020 – The Repair Shop made an emergency move to BBC One primetime and became a consoling hit.
2018 – You, Me and the Big C
A technological innovation – the rise of downloadable podcasts – came together with a cultural shift – the primacy of personal experience in reporting – in a show that added “and move” to the Reithian formula to “inform, educate, entertain”. Later-stage cancer patients Rachael Bland, Deborah James and Lauren Mahon broadcast against the dying of the light while dispensing advice, treatment options and the psychology of living with a medical death sentence. Bland died in 2018, James (by then a dame) in 2022. Neither they nor their loved ones would have wanted them to become famous in this way, but they stand as the brightest stars of the newest form of BBC broadcasting.
2019 – Gentleman Jack/Years and Years
That the main BBC offerings in one year would be written by a woman (about a lesbian) and a gay man would have surprised Lord Reith. But they demonstrated the extent to which the BBC had achieved diversity and maturity, although the rise of a new risk area was demonstrated by some objections to the writer of Gentleman Jack, Sally Wainwright, and Suranne Jones, who played pioneering mid-20th-century lesbian Anne Lister, both identifying as heterosexual. But the show confirmed Wainwright – after Happy Valley (since 2014) and Last Tango in Halifax (since 2012) as one of the greatest dramatists of the BBC’s later years.
Another, Russell T Davies (Doctor Who, Torchwood), contributed Years and Years, an extraordinary six-parter following a Mancunian family from 2019-2034. Davies’s essential question was whether chaotic, amoral populism – as represented by the Trump presidency since 2017 – could be repeated in the UK, concluding, through Emma Thompson’s reckless demagogue, Vivienne Rook, that it might. One month after transmission, it did, with Boris Johnson becoming PM and governing in Rookish style; as, three years later, has Liz Truss, even triggering tweets and memes by wearing, for her first Tory conference speech, a near-replica of a militaristic red tunic dress worn by Thompson’s character.
2020 – I May Destroy You/Small Axe
TV still has much further to go in promoting diversity, but it was a sign of advancement that indisputably the best BBC show of the year was the creation of a woman of colour. In an achievement rare for anyone, Michaela Coel was quadruply involved as creator, writer, actor and director, winning Bafta and Emmy awards. Her autobiographical story of a young woman drugged and raped, who then seeks to find and punish the perpetrator, highlighted an important legal and social cause and expanded the dramatic palette.
Impressively, while much of the media rushed to refresh their schedules after the ideological questions raised by the racist police murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis in May 2020, the BBC had already made I May Destroy You, and Small Axe, an anthology of five films about Black British history from Oscar and Turner prize-winning artist-director, Steve McQueen. Receiving low live ratings in BBC One primetime, the dramas gained proper attention through iPlayer catchup, making a case that material might benefit, in a future subscription-only BBC, from being freed from overnight ratings.
2021 – Trump Takes on the World
Analysis of recent political history is a duty the BBC has taken on: since Churchill and Eisenhower, prime ministers and presidents could expect a documentary as one of their out-of-office projects. President Trump, unsurprisingly, didn’t cooperate with his, but that was not an obstacle to Norma Percy. One of TV’s greatest factual film-makers – BBC pieces include The Death of Yugoslavia; Putin, Russia and the West; and Inside Europe: 10 Years of Turmoil – Percy, in Trump Takes on the World, reconstructed the disruptor politician’s foreign policy through interviews with appalled former colleagues and enemies and astute use of archive. One of the biggest and earliest challenges of the corporation’s second century will be achieving the necessary level of access to chronicle the Johnson and Truss administrations.
2022 – Queen Elizabeth II/Sherwood
One of few Britons to have lived through the BBC’s full 95 years as a public service broadcaster, Queen Elizabeth II was often on its mind. Though various notions to rename it the Royal British Broadcasting Corporation had been resisted, the organisation was de facto that, keen to be seen as first call for Windsor weddings, jubilees and funerals. Spats with the palace – over It’s a Royal Knockout! (1987), a misleading trailer for the 2007 documentary Monarchy, and the Diana Panorama interview – caused managers and governors great pain. The eventual state funeral of the Queen, which staff rehearsed regularly from at least the 1980s, increasingly came to be seen as a grand statement of the BBC’s purpose and importance. As the monarch’s frailty became apparent from late 2021, there were fears that the funeral might preclude or (as Hamlet put it) “follow hard upon” the planned platinum jubilee in June 2022; the presenters and documentaries for both events were largely the same. As it turned out, three months after the Queen made an unlikely but perfectly valedictory final TV broadcast – having tea with a CGI Paddington during “platty jubes” events exclusive to the corporation – the long-planned Operation London Bridge was enacted.
There was a temptation for BBC supporters to say that the epic obsequies showed “why we need the BBC”, but that was a trap. Once in a lifetime events are not a good justification for the annual provision of billions of funding and thousands of staff. The death of one of the most constant presences of its first century symbolically warned the BBC that its second will require a new approach, especially with Liz Truss’s culture secretary, Michelle Donelan, not yet resiling from the suggestion of the Johnson administration’s Nadine Dorries that alternatives to the licence fee will be likely after 2027. In this context, it was significant that, in the year the corporation recommitted to one longtime aim – broadcaster by crown appointment – it also continued another: provocative drama. Sherwood, James Graham’s stunning six-parter set in a community divided by the 1984 miners’ strike, combined the political urgency of Play for Today with the creative daring of Dennis Potter’s serials.