Television has been a more constant companion than ever this year, even as the schedules were thrown into disarray by the first lockdown and productions were halted. Daily press conferences and official statements drew large audiences to public service broadcasters, but a growing number of people also found themselves trying out streaming platforms for the first time. New subscriptions soared as the many hours spent at home were whiled away with boxsets.
Broadcasters proved how adaptable they could be under difficult circumstances with fast commissioning and inventive formats. Happily, some landmark dramas were unaffected by delays and the BBC had 2 great triumphs in Steve McQueen’s anthology Small Axe and Michaela Coel’s I May Destroy You. At its best, television brings us together and enlightens us on the lives of others, and, in our worst times, it provides a welcome escape. Here then are a dozen highlights from a most unusual year.
Get the latest from the BFI
Sign up for BFI news, features, videos and podcasts.
A Day in the Life of Coronavirus Britain
This year’s greatest TV docs were always destined to have a common theme, and A Day in the Life of Coronavirus Britain is among the best of them. Filmed on a Friday (3 April), edited over the weekend and broadcast the following Monday, this Channel 4 programme was made at a time when the virus was reaching record numbers in the first wave, and consists of footage shot by more than 3,000 members of the public to show how the UK was coping with the pandemic.
The programme touches on good humour, high spirits and, ultimately, the moving and sorrowful, as it weaves together and gauges the impact of COVID-19 on the country. Viewers were left in floods of tears by many memorable scenes, not least the widely reported moment showing a funeral director – overstocked with coffins, lonely but dignified – walking in front of the hearse at funerals where no mourners were permitted. Documentary has produced many ‘Life in a Day’ works, but this one rises above many as an all-encompassing survey of life in Britain during a very dark and unnerving period.
Grayson’s Art Club
At the height of the first lockdown, Channel 4 delivered televisual therapy in the form of Grayson’s Art Club. Not only did the programme feature the highly soothing sight of people painting and creating, but the conversations between artist Grayson Perry and his wife Philippa – a professional psychotherapist – were illuminating and thoughtful.
The fixed-rig camera set-up allowed us to enter the Perrys’ home, while celebrities and members of the public featured as guests via video call. In the best way possible, it was reminiscent of Hartbeat and the heyday of Tony Hart, when kids would thrill to have their pictures featured in the TV gallery and receive an encouraging word about their artistic endeavours. An extra bit of encouragement and connection was more valuable than ever this year.
I Hate Suzie
As our world shifts around us, there’s something cathartic about watching a fictional life crumble into the abyss. Lucy Prebble and Billie Piper’s I Hate Suzie may have arrived on our TV screens at the perfect moment, but it was the show’s razor-sharp wit, pithy writing and authenticity that set it above the rest.
Suzie is an actress, with a backstory not uncoincidentally similar to Piper’s own. The catalyst for her life falling apart is the leaking to the press of nude photos revealing her infidelity. In trying to ground herself amid the chaos that ensues, Suzie comes to the disturbing realisation that she’s defined by how others see her; not just in her sexuality, but in her career and as a mother. Her marriage to husband Cob is bitter and tense – a tumultuous dynamic highlighted by the way each relates to their deaf son, Frank (significantly, deaf consultants were engaged at an early stage in the creative process of the programme). There’s no clear resolution to Suzie’s story, but she does come to realise that “every home should feel safe and warm and supported”, which is meek but oddly comforting in uncertain times.
- I Hate Suzie is available on Sky and Now TV
I May Destroy You
A complex portrayal of sexual assault and its aftermath, a musing on the creative process and a drama about 3 friends and their relationships – I May Destroy You is all of this and more. As writer, creator, executive producer and star, Michaela Coel is the nexus of an intensely authored piece of television, which was also based on her personal experience of assault.
Over the course of 12 episodes, Coel’s character Arabella and her friends Terry (Weruche Opia) and Kwame (Paapa Essiedu) navigate sex, consent, friendship and betrayal. But within its storylines, I May Destroy You also examines sexuality, race, class, police procedures, social media and attitudes around climate change. All of these elements are gracefully combined with an energetic visual style and injections of comedy. A dizzyingly imaginative finale brings the audience back to the title of the series and the central power of the creator behind it all.
Isolation Stories / Unsaid Stories
Among the surprising effects of the pandemic and subsequent lockdowns on the TV industry was the return of original single dramas to broadcast primetime with these swiftly commissioned shorts. Isolation Stories arrived on ITV in early May and used a combination of techniques including social distancing, video calling and casting family members together to create 4 short dramas portraying life in lockdown. In August, Unsaid Stories followed with 4 dramas commissioned in response to the Black Lives Matter protests.
While the family stories in both series were affecting, and each one of the dramas was interesting in their own right, the intimate format was at its most outstanding with the pair of two-handers focusing on relationships in Unsaid Stories. In Look at Me, a couple’s burgeoning relationship is impacted when they are stopped and searched by police, and in I Don’t Want to Talk about This a former couple consider the impact that race and class had on their time together.
Night on Earth
In a year when even local travel was impossible and we faced the 4 walls of our living rooms instead, Night on Earth took us all over the globe and showed us the most incredible sights. The scenes captured in the series are so unbelievably beautiful that a related search on Google asks: “Is Night on Earth real?”
Bristol-based Plimsoll Productions used cutting-edge technology to film at ultra high definition in low light, capturing extraordinary images of animals including a frozen frog and hungry cheetahs. New parents will sympathise with the Caribbean flamingos who have to feed their offspring round the clock, and my heart went out to one lonely monkey. Thermal imaging lights up a ferocious amount of animal activity in the dark, and eerie nightscapes of moonlit mountains are just as enthralling as the wildlife they are home to.
- Night on Earth is available on Netflix
Our Yorkshire Farm Lockdown special
This series about the ‘Yorkshire Shepherdess’ Amanda Owen, her husband Clive and their 9 children topped the TV charts in August with well over 2 million viewers. At the end of 3 series, this lockdown special saw Amanda proving herself as adept at sheep farming on one of the country’s most remote hilltop farms as she is at filming an entire episode of her family’s lockdown spring on a phone. Toddler-cam was a highlight, with the youngest going wild in a sunlit beck.
Why do British audiences love it so much? Well it’s about North Yorkshire, it’s about unspoiled nature and unspoiled children, and as far from COVID, Brexit and politics as it was possible to get. Back in the 1970s another competent Dales-woman, Hannah Hauxwell, also fascinated audiences – there’s TV gold in them hills!
In a year in which coughing has taken on a new significance, this ITV drama examined its role in a case of alleged fraud, in which audience members were accused of signalling to a contestant on Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? From television to book to stage and back to television is an unusual trajectory even for today’s magpie media, but Quiz pulled it off with style and its stage origins were rarely visible, except for a very welcome fantasy musical number (more, I say!).
Actor of a thousand faces Michael Sheen skilfully essayed Chris Tarrant, while a third-act cameo from Helen McCrory lent gravitas to the courtroom scenes. The expert hands of director Stephen Frears were very much in evidence, but the real skill lay in the way James Graham’s script maintained the suspense throughout the 3 parts, keeping us guessing even after the final credits rolled.
Sky Arts Book Club Live
As reading surged during lockdown, broadcasters responded by bringing socially distanced book clubs into our sitting rooms. BBC Two invited us Between the Covers as celebrity reviewers struggled to convince us of their literary loves. Over at Sky Arts Book Club Live, however, something almost revolutionary and completely compelling was going on: 2 hours of Reithian values and laid-back bibliophile chat on a Sunday evening. Bringing together writers with super-engaging book club members (a different club featured each week), resident book blogger Simon Savidge and dream presenting team Andi Oliver and Elizabeth Day, this was arts programming that took its subject seriously – and entertainingly.
The series also gave us one of the TV year’s great, jaw-dropping live moments courtesy of Lionel Shriver (I’m still treasuring Andi Oliver’s expression) and made me realise that the next novel I need to read is by Elif Shafak.
There has been a quiet hope for some time that Turner Prize and Oscar-winning director Steve McQueen would focus his unique lens on the Black British experience. With his Small Axe anthology, McQueen – in collaboration with screenwriters Alastair Siddons and Courttia Newland – chronicles 5 (hi)stories of London’s West Indian community between the late 1960s and mid-1980s. At the time of writing only 3 have aired: Mangrove, Lover’s Rock and Red, White and Blue. Between them they range from the epic to the intimate, taking in a landmark legal case, police harassment, institutional racism and a giddy, sensuous house party that represents McQueen’s most viscerally charged work since his debut Hunger (2008).
That the anthology exists at all marks it out as essential television; for too long these stories have been absent on our screens and McQueen is providing a long-overdue corrective to imbalances in the British ‘heritage’ genre. That he explores his subjects with such skill and sensitivity makes Small Axe simultaneously the film and TV event of the year.
The Third Day
This contemporary folk horror was the oddball distraction of choice this autumn. A transatlantic team-up between Sky Studios and Brad Pitt’s Plan B Entertainment, it was also the first TV venture by immersive theatre mavericks Punchdrunk, whose co-founder Felix Barrett created it with Dennis Kelly (Pulling, Utopia). Jude Law and Naomie Harris play troubled outsiders who arrive – one in summer, the other in winter – on the mysterious island of Osea, separated from the Essex coast by a dangerous causeway (a memorable location in both adaptations of The Woman in Black).
Key to the show’s masochistic appeal is the level to which Law, in particular, is put through the physical and psychological wringer, while Osea’s real history and mythology is niftily woven into the fragmented narrative. Law and Harris’s nightmarish odysseys serve to bookend Punchdrunk’s 12-hour, live-streamed broadcast from the island’s sinister autumn festival. Although COVID-19 scuppered the intended public participation, it was admirably salvaged as a mesmeric exercise in creeping dread.
- The Third Day is available on Sky and Now TV
What’s the Matter with Tony Slattery?
Witty, charismatic and a frequent presence on our TV screens, Tony Slattery will be a familiar face to most people who can remember the 1980s and 90s. This moving and insightful documentary follows Slattery after 25 years out of the limelight, as he seeks a diagnosis for the mental illness that has dominated his life for decades.
Slattery and his partner Mark Hutchinson are eloquent and unflinchingly stark about the impact of Slattery’s emotional and practical struggles with depression and alcohol. Observational programme-maker Clare Richards shoots, directs and asks occasional questions from behind the camera, and is clearly utterly trusted by the couple.
As Slattery moves uncertainly towards a diagnosis, the programme sensitively explores mental health, alcohol addiction and childhood trauma. The closing scene captures the ongoing challenges, laced with humour, that recur throughout the programme: Slattery responds to Richards’ question “Have you done any hoovering recently?” with a chuckling “It’s an ambition.”