Now that summer is here and sport is ruling the airwaves, it seems a good time to review the TV year so far by choosing our 10 top titles for January to June. As before, we have attempted to balance this list across genres and channels, but one thing is clear: this is charter-renewal year and the BBC is putting on a really good show, so no apologies for the fact that the corporation’s output dominates the list. Another deliberate decision was to celebrate the new and original in this list – so, while we loved the second series of Happy Valley, the third of Line of Duty and Peaky Blinders, the fourth of Call the Midwife and the return of The Hollow Crown, you will not find them among the 10. We have however, once again allowed ourselves the indulgence of adding a few individual favourites.
War & Peace (BBC1)
The BBC gave us a suitably glittering start to January with the first in this year’s impressive roster of Sunday night dramas. Andrew Davies refined the epic story to its fundamental elements and a terrific cast carried off the desires, ambitions and failings of all too human hearts with aplomb. Paul Dano’s performance as Pierre – his face an eternal question mark – was a particular pleasure. Director Tom Harper ensured that the battle sequences were impressive and visceral while intimate scenes and personal betrayals were equally urgent and compelling. Even Clive James had to admit the series was “lavish, sexy, heart-rending, head-spinning and generally not-half-bad”.
How to Die: Simon’s Choice (BBC2)
Desperately moving and utterly involving, yet also thoughtful and balanced, Rowan Deacon’s beautiful film follows terminally ill Simon Binner through the final months of his life, following his decision to use the services of a Swiss assisted-dying clinic. It may be his choice, but it’s not only his story, and this study of the devastating effect of his decision, and the complications it brings, on those closest to him makes it the most impressive exploration of the issue we have seen.
A Midsummer Night’s Dream (CBeebies)
A delightful contribution to BBC’s Shakespeare Festival and broadcast on 23 April, the 400th anniversary of the Bard’s death. An impressive production, interpreting the language of Shakespeare’s magical play for a preschool audience (and adults) by cleverly using comic asides from Shakespeare himself, along with Cook and Line (from CBeebies’ Swashbuckle), to provide explanations of the dialogue and characters. Filmed at Liverpool’s Everyman Theatre, the play was condensed into less than an hour, performed by a cast of CBeebies presenters including Justin Fletcher as Bottom and Josette Simon as Titania, with vivid costumes and a simple staging.
The Secret Life of a Bus Garage (ITV)
Tucked away in a late-night slot at the height of the Euro 2016 competition and the referendum debate, this gem was largely overlooked, yet it had more to say about immigration, diversity and community than anything else around. Concentrating more on the personal lives of characters who work at Stockwell bus garage than on the work they do, Nick Poyntz’s documentary was full of humanity, humour and the highs and lows of ordinary lives.
The People Next Door (Channel 4)
‘Disturbing’ is the word most used to describe this hour-long Channel Four drama, another outstanding piece by Cyberbully’s Ben Chanan. A young couple have moved into a new house and suspect their neighbours are guilty of child abuse. They decide to act on their suspicions and go to extremes to collect evidence. The drama unfolds ‘on screen’ through camcorder footage, CCTV, a nanny cam and police tapes – illustrating how easy it is to spy on and be spied on. One for the water cooler moment – how far would you go?
My Name Is… and I’m an Alcoholic (Channel 5)
Filmmaker Mikey Trotter’s softly-spoken take on a very raw and personal subject proves the old adage that a strong story well told needs very little embellishment. Eight alcoholics – young, old, men, women, from all walks of life and at different stages of recovery – tell their own stories of the ups and downs of their alcohol dependency; the pleasures or solace drink gave them as well as the unfathomable depths of despair it brought them to. An ultimately uplifting gem of a film.
The sublime comedy highlight of the year, with a depth of characterisation that most dramas would be hard put to match in just six 30-minute episodes. Lesley Manville’s newly-widowed Cathy manages to keep a smile on her face and a calm presence as her family swirls around her making constant demands on her time and patience. Moments of great poignancy are layered with the subtle details which give all the characters a credible feel, and the viewer is left longing for more. And then there’s Pauline…
Behind Closed Doors (BBC1)
Following cases of domestic violence from initial 999 calls all the way to trial and prosecution, this remarkable documentary from director and producer Anna Hall explored the complexity and tragedy of domestic abuse from the perspective of victims. Brave women waived their right to anonymity to provide powerful testimonies about their experiences of emotional manipulation and horrific violence, and the ambivalent feelings which still tie them to their abusers. The forensic examination of how cases progress, and why they often fail, made this an outstanding film.
In a year that has seen a host of powerful documentaries, Hillsborough still stands out; the definitive story of a disaster that should never have happened. Daniel Gordon meticulously details the events leading up to it, the fateful day itself, and the decades-long struggle for truth and justice. We hear heartbreaking personal stories not only from relatives and surviving fans but also the policemen on duty, and the CCTV footage and previously unseen footage from inside the stadium is almost unbearable to watch. Documentary filmmaking at its best.
The Night Manager (BBC1)
TV drama got glamorous and sexy again with the BBC’s cracking adaptation of the John Le Carre novel. Tom Hiddleston was perfect as the hero, Jonathan Pine, with viewers left wondering to the very last minute whether he could be trusted or had switched sides. Hugh Laurie’s arms dealer, Richard Roper, was evil personified, and with exotic locations aplenty it was perfect Sunday night escapism.
Pam Rostron adds: The third series of Line of Duty (BBC2) had me shouting at the telly, while Two Doors Down (BBC2) provided laugh-out-loud comedy with a great ensemble cast, but particularly fine performances from Arabella Weir and Doon MacKichan. Meanwhile, on CBBC, Dick and Dom turned their attention from movies to TV and provided acute observation and plenty of laughs in Diddy TV – “a brand new rival for the BBC”.
Gosta Johansson adds: Like Hillsborough, Dunblane – Our Story (BBC2) was an exemplary piece of filmmaking that treated a harrowing subject with the dignity and respect it required. Peaky Blinders (BBC2) was back for a third series and did not disappoint; skilfully weaving in as disparate strands as Birmingham gangsters, Russian revolution, suffragettes, unionisation and more with a healthy dose of sex and violence. The wonderfully dysfunctional pair of Siblings (BBC3) was back for a second series, causing just a much enjoyable mayhem as before – special praise for Charlotte Ritchie’s Hannah.
Kathleen Luckey adds: In a year where the BBC has taken the plaudits for Sunday evening drama, ITV’s The Durrells was a delightful addition to the schedules, beautifully played by an ensemble cast and a stunning location. On a much darker side, a welcome return to Welsh crime drama Hinterland. Love the multi-layered storylines and moodiness. For comedy, I enjoyed the latest laugh-out-loud instalment in The Life of Brian Pern: 45 Years of Prog and Roll. What next for Brian Pern and Thotch?
Lisa Kerrigan adds: The second series of Happy Valley (BBC1) was incredible and it was a joy to see the return of Catherine Cawood so assuredly directed by writer and creator Sally Wainwright. I was also moved by Murdered by My Father, which continued the fine BBC3 tradition of dramas based on true stories. Kudos to ITN for both the work of Channel 4 News this year and Children on the Frontline: the Escape (C4), a follow-up to a 2014 edition of Dispatches, which told the vital and heartbreaking story of a Syrian refugee family over the course of three years.
Steve Bryant adds: The team that brought us The Secret History of Our Streets went one better with The Secret History of My Family (BBC2), a mixture of personal testimony, reconstruction, animation and archive research brilliantly combined to tell riveting historical narratives. In comedy, I loved the off-the-wall weirdness of Channel 4’s Flowers and continued to be astonished and delighted by Stewart Lee’s Comedy Vehicle (BBC2), still pushing boundaries in its fourth season. And The Hollow Crown was superb!