This year British television presented a range of alternative pasts and futures, befitting a time of uncertainty. Revealing hidden histories with good storytelling, comedies and dramas pushed at the expectations of their genres to make period pieces more inclusive.
Speculative fictions opened up new possibilities with Simon Amstell’s vision of a vegan future in Carnage and an impression of royal succession in King Charles III. Meanwhile, contemporary British drama cleaved strongly to true stories, with several real cases dramatised with sensitivity. There were also powerful new works from Jimmy McGovern (Broken) and Peter Kosminsky (The State).
In documentary, political players featured alongside more personal works, but natural history remained an audience favourite – the highest rated series of the year was Blue Planet II.
Shying away from returning series and focusing on new programming, here is a selection of the year’s best from BFI curators.
The Accused (Channel 5)
The Accused joins the ranks of recent TV programmes seeking to inject some reality into our understanding of UK judicial procedure. Where this programme innovates, however, is in its decision to eschew the nuts and bolts of legal practice and focus on the psychological implications of being accused of a serious crime in the run-up to a trial.
Our subject is Kenzey, a 23-year-old charity worker accused of allowing physical harm to a child by leaving her with her violent partner, Kyle. She is also accused of perpetrating a cover-up once it became clear to the couple that their daughter was in a critical condition after an assault. As her trial date edges closer, it becomes increasingly clear that Kenzey is compromised by her own emotional understanding of the fateful events and by her problematic relationship with the child’s father.
The broader perspective is rounded out only by comment from Kenzey’s defence team and from Kenzey’s own mother, who offers up a devastating account of her granddaughter’s condition post-incident. The verdict, when it comes, isn’t entirely unexpected, but The Accused offers audiences a fresh, human perspective on the courtroom procedural.
Chris Packham: Asperger’s and Me (BBC2)
Most TV viewers will be aware of Chris Packham’s career as a natural history broadcaster and his encyclopaedic knowledge of British wildlife, but I, personally, was stunned by the level of his deep love of animals as articulated in this revelatory one-off documentary. Though talking through tight lips, he is still clearly haunted by the death of his pet kestrel some 30-plus years ago, while his abiding love of punk powerfully reflects his outsider feelings. He prefers to live with and be around animals rather than humans – all eminently relatable.
As an insight into one man’s experience of Asperger’s Syndrome, this was a very generous, personal form of television that didn’t foreground consensus and neatly tie everything up at the end. The viewer is not reassured about the way life is and should be, and yet much of it was very moving.
Written by and starring Roisin Conaty, GameFace follows the misadventures of Marcella as she deals with terrifying visions of the future, financial problems and a part-time job as a children’s entertainer, all while learning to drive. Developed from a pilot first shown in 2014, the series adds complications in the form of Marcella’s ex-boyfriend (Dustin Demri-Burns) and the dysfunctional family dynamics that lead to an unholy intervention-come-singalong for her brother’s drug addiction.
Like Michaela Coel’s Chewing Gum and Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s Fleabag, GameFace is written and created by its star, but it also has some of the spirit of Sharon Horgan and Dennis Kelly’s Pulling, in which shambling thirtysomething heroines had their best fun with their boozy girlfriends. The series is superbly funny, but the relationship between Marcella and her driving instructor (Damien Molony) adds a hint of something sweeter that has been missing from television this year. There’s romance in this comedy.
George Michael: Freedom (C4)
2017 was a year for great documentaries about great artists. During the summer, viewers were treated to an exposé of the fragile existence, rise to fame and ultimate demise of the singer Whitney Houston in Nick Broomfield’s Whitney: Can I Be Me. By the autumn however viewers were reflecting on the autobiographical documentary George Michael: Freedom. When George Michael died on Christmas Day 2016, the musical superstar was only halfway through completing this autobiographical work. Finished posthumously and screened on Channel 4 during October, it gave insight with raw honesty on just exactly what it was like for a 24-year-old to become the biggest selling artist in the world.
Like Whitney, this film is tarnished with an ultimately sad ending, leaving fans the world over in tears. Narrated by George Michael himself, “this is the story of just how fame and tragedy intervened to change a life forever”.
Guerrilla (Sky Atlantic)
Fact and fiction blend together in 12 Years a Slave screenwriter John Ridley’s drama about a couple spurred from political action to violence in London in the early 1970s. With advisers including Darcus Howe and Farrukh Dhondy, Guerrilla is based around the history of the British Black Panthers, with the central characters forming a Baader-Meinhof style gang. Freida Pinto and Babou Ceesay star as Jas and Marcus, the centre of a complex drama encompassing police, informants, activists and terrorists.
Featuring Idris Elba and Zawe Ashton as charismatic activist leaders and Rory Kinnear and Daniel Mays as the corrupt officers behind Scotland Yard’s Black Power desk, the series is constantly exploring different perspectives and motivations. Wunmi Mosaku and Denise Gough play characters in impossible positions, caught between personal loyalties and police ensnarement. Though Indian actor Pinto’s casting raised criticism from many who felt that the central contribution of black British women to the activist movements had been sidelined, Guerrilla is packed full of ideas and debates. Its ambition marks it out as one of the most interesting dramas of the year.
Harlots (ITV Encore)
Tucked away on ITV Encore, Harlots appeared as an unruly period drama in the vein of Taboo or Ripper Street, but with a defiant female focus. Created by Moira Buffini and Alison Newman, and inspired by historical accounts of prostitution in 18th-century London, the series stars Samantha Morton and Lesley Manville as warring madams in Georgian Soho who will stop at nothing to attain wealthy customers and climb the social ladder.
Sumptuous, tough and incredibly bawdy, Harlots doesn’t shy away from sex and violence, nor the (often fatal) consequences that follow. Colonialism also looms large as former slave Harriet (Pippa Bennett-Warner) struggles to buy her children back and turns to Morton’s Margaret Wells and her partner Will North (Danny Sapani) for help. Here’s hoping Wells and Quigley (Manville) return for further schemes and scandals.
Man in an Orange Shirt (BBC2)
Forbidden love echoes through the generations in novelist Patrick Gale’s screen debut, an uneven but at times painfully moving two-part drama that tapped into a growing awareness of the consequences of the shame that society has imposed on gay men. In development for several years, the project serendipitously arrived as part of the BBC’s Gay Britannia season marking the 50th anniversary of the partial decriminalisation of homosexuality (alongside the excellent series of monologues Queers, and our own BFI archive odyssey Queerama).
Partly inspired by a secret uncovered in Gale’s own family, the story of the love affair between Oliver Jackson-Cohen’s swoony army captain and James McArdle’s boho war artist, scuppered by 1940s social mores and a marriage of convenience, had viewers reaching for the tissues. In the present day, his grandson (Julian Morris) is living a miserable, closeted life with his grandmother (Vanessa Redgrave), but will love save the day after all? Though the privileged milieu irked some viewers, this was a heartfelt step in the right direction.
What if a jazz band from south London took a time-travelling elevator back to the 1920s? That’s the premise of Timewasters, originally pitched as ‘Black to the Future’ by creator and writer Daniel Lawrence Taylor. ITV2 is no stranger to high-concept comedy, with original programming including ancient Roman sitcom Plebs and the post-apocalyptic Cockroaches. Timewasters makes a stylish addition, as well as a fun riposte to the numerable 20th-century period pieces that dominate British TV drama.
Taylor also stars as a member of the band alongside Adelayo Adedayo, Samson Kayo and Kadiff Kirwan. Together the quartet make a splash in the jazz age as they try to elude a villain from the present and even run into a few historical figures, including John Logie Baird (Kevin Eldon).
This Country (BBC Three)
The secret to This Country, the funniest new British comedy this year, is boredom. Endless, grinding, spectacular boredom. The brainchild of writers and stars Daisy and Charlie Cooper, the show tells a story of the kind of country life to which fans of The Archers are rarely privy. Instead, we find ourselves in a tiny fictional Cotswolds village where to say nothing ever happens would be overstating the excitement.
Starring as cousins Kerry and Kurtan Mucklowe, the Coopers have a gift for capturing the feats of imagination that go into killing time, as well as bringing us a cast of eccentrics who feel at once outlandish and unnervingly real. As in a lot of the best British comedy, there’s a hefty pinch of despair and a hint of Beckett among the memories of David Brent stirred up by the mockumentary format. And, as in another TV landmark, The Prisoner (1967), there’s the nagging sense is that no-one here is ever leaving – even if they win the scarecrow competition.
Three Girls (BBC1)
If for no other reason, this production should be celebrated for getting across the concept that “there is no such thing as a child prostitute”. This three-part drama about the Rochdale child grooming case is hard, uncomfortable viewing, and it should be. Seen from the viewpoint of three different working-class girls, the three episodes cover the grooming and descent into abuse, the initial investigation – during which they were routinely ignored and labelled as unreliable witnesses by the police, who put their experience down to ‘lifestyle choice’ – and finally the reopening of the case and legal proceedings, when it looks horribly like the betrayal is about to be repeated.
Maxine Peake’s performance is completely authentic as the sexual health worker who tries to bring the operations of the rapists to the attention of the authorities. Three Girls is as important as Cathy Come Home (1966) was in its day.