The television schedules in 2022 were more disrupted than UK train services. Programmes were derailed by Jubilee celebrations, government collapses and – of course – the period of mourning for Queen Elizabeth II. Yet even in the gaps between big news stories, the curators of the BFI National Archive have found far more debut television works of merit than we could possibly stuff into this feature.
The proliferation of streaming services has given us more shows to watch than ever before, with AppleTV+, Disney+ and Amazon all upping UK production. Yet public service broadcasters also had an astonishing, wide-ranging year. It is with some regret that we could not find space for Jack Rooke’s tender and very funny Big Boys (Channel 4) or the remarkable and unsettling Am I Being Unreasonable? (BBC One).
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2022 was a year of celebration and reflection for broadcasters: the BBC centenary, 40 years of Channel 4, and even the country’s youngest public-service broadcaster turned 25. While there remain questions about the direction that UK television is travelling, it is far from diminishing.
The sheer vitality of British television is on display in this list of the best new British programmes from 2022. There are sobering and necessary reflections on the state of the nation through the lens of class, race and money (Grenfell, Brian Cox: How the Other Half Live, The Real Mo Farah). Vibrant storytelling can be found in the evocative and haunting Sherwood or in the playful gothicism of The Sandman. Of course, there is also love and joy to be found in the triumphant Heartstopper.
– Elinor Groom
Brian Cox: How the Other Half Live
“I am not Logan Roy,” says Brian Cox at the beginning and end of How the Other Half Live. In many ways this bald yet heartfelt two-part documentary is Cox’s way of distancing himself from the callous man he plays in Succession. At one point, having mistaken a Ferrari for a Maserati, he jokingly explains that he doesn’t know anything about cars – he drives a Prius.
Broadcast on Channel 5 the same day as Jeremy Hunt’s revised autumn statement, this anti-travelogue couldn’t have been timelier. Cox begins in his native Dundee, where he recounts his dad giving customers their groceries “on tick” (credit), before journeying across the UK and USA meeting people at both ends of the widening wealth gap. He is unequivocal in his assessment that conspicuous wealth perpetuates poverty: “It’s not good, it’s bad, it’s bad, it’s obviously bad.” However, he also employs some Logan Roy-esque characteristics to great effect, speaking truth with a raised eyebrow or some choice swear words.
– Elinor Groom
The Essex Serpent
This six-part Apple TV adaptation of Sarah Perry’s Victorian gothic romance is beautifully produced. The sinuous, winding waterways of the Blackwater marshes, seen from the air in the very classy, opening sequence, suggest the coils of the eponymous serpent: a monster to terrify the superstitious or an evolutionary missing-link to excite the Darwinian scientific mind.
The atmosphere of the Essex landscape suffuses the narrative, which starts out like a mystery but builds steadily into a character-led drama of powerful emotional complexity. The stellar cast includes Claire Danes as the amateur naturalist recovering from an abusive marriage and Tom Hiddleston as a rationalist vicar, but it’s Frank Dillane as the hubristic genius surgeon and Clémence Poésy as the vicar’s delicate wife who linger most in the memory.
– Bryony Dixon
Grenfell: Scenes from the Inquiry
The television play, like accountability in public life, has become increasingly rare. Channel 4’s staging of Richard Norton-Taylor’s Tabernacle play Grenfell: Value Engineering – Scenes from the Grenfell Inquiry resurrected the former to reveal the latter’s absence. Played straight, the dramatisation included evidence from the inquiry to raise pertinent questions about how systems in Britain interact.
Although the production made the mistake of prioritising authoritative establishment voices over community voices directly impacted by the tragedy, the results offered a searing dissection of a society where many pass the buck. Here was a reminder of the consequences of ignoring community concerns and the continuing horrifying absence of accountability.
– Xavier Pillai
The highly anticipated Netflix adaptation of Alice Oseman’s graphic novel series Heartstopper did not disappoint. The series’ tender exploration of the experiences of LGBTQI+ teenagers follows protagonist Charlie as he meets and develops romantic feelings for classmate Nick. As Nick begins to reciprocate Charlie’s feelings and navigate his own sexuality, Heartstopper celebrates identities in all their forms, and what it means to be true to yourself.
The success of Heartstopper can largely be attributed to its aversion to LGBTQI+ stereotypes, and its inclusive and authentic representation. Executive producer Patrick Walters explained “the spirit of the piece is all about making people who don’t feel seen, seen”, and this commitment to on-screen diversity, with a story brought to life by a largely LGBTQI+ crew, resonated with its viewers. It’s unsurprising, then, why Heartstopper proved an international hit and was swiftly (and deservedly) renewed for two more series.
– Jade Evans
The Lazarus Project
App developer George (Paapa Essiedu) begins to question his sanity when finds he himself caught in a time-loop – experiencing timelines that no-one else can remember (sometimes lasting days, sometimes months), each time restarting on 1 July. He’s recruited by an operative of the Lazarus Project, a secret organisation working to prevent mass extinction events. If an event does occur time is reset to restart on ‘Checkpoint Day’ – 1 July – but unlike everyone else these operatives can remember the events of each loop.
The complex plot of this Sky Max drama is unveiled slowly, as an investigation into an imminent threat plays out alongside back-stories of the project’s operatives. It has an ingenious perspective on time travel, the consequences of restarting time, and the emotional fallout of flashbacks of multiple versions of events. It asks the question, ‘If you had the power, how far would you go’?
– Kathleen Luckey
The Real Mo Farah
“The only thing that I could do to run away from this was to go out and run.” Mo Farah’s open, unassuming and sometimes bashful manner belies the shocking revelations of the events of his childhood. The big reveal of this documentary hit the headlines shortly ahead of transmission – so most viewers had already discovered that the record-breaking Olympic athlete had been trafficked into the UK and domestic servitude as a young child.
Director Leo Burley has previously worked with celebrities tracing their family roots, including directing episodes of Who Do You Think You Are?, so he was well aware of the sensitivities, and also potential legal implications, of Farah’s disclosures. The programme delicately builds up the revelations in a moving and gripping narrative, combining interviews, dramatised recreations and investigative journalism. The filmmakers were also keen that Farah’s story could help to spark a debate on trafficking, slavery and immigration. As documentary makers, they’ve said, “we could want nothing more than to change the conversation.”
– Ros Cranston
Russia 1985-1999: TraumaZone
In his new series TraumaZone, which explores the fall of the Soviet Union and the economic and political powers that emerged from its collapse, Adam Curtis has again gone deep into the BBC vaults and given us access to illuminating archive footage, much of it unseen until now.
Unlike previous Curtis docs, TraumaZone is presented with no narration, minimal score and only occasional contextualisation, a departure from his trademark use of ambient pop and sweeping narrative leaps. The effect of this new approach is surprisingly immersive and emotional – testimonies are given their own space to tell stories of a complex history from the perspectives of those that lived it. Curtis is undoubtedly a divisive figure, and some may find this seven-hour chronicle daunting, but it’s one of the most valuable historical documents he’s given us from his privileged position within the BBC.
– Caitlin Smith
The Sandman is a faithful adaptation of a beloved comic series, co-developed by its original author Neil Gaiman, and that fidelity to its source is part of what makes the programme so distinctive in its design and storytelling. In a year packed with lavish TV fantasy from Westeros and Middle Earth, The Sandman stood out as something more stylish, with an impish quality that made for compelling viewing.
It would be foolish to recap the plot of this dizzying and expansive series, which dashes and dodges through brilliantly realised stories, characters and circadian rhythms. Suffice to say it revolves around Lord Morpheus (Tom Sturridge) – the titular, mythological Sandman, aka Dream of the Endless – and the rippling consequences of his capture, imprisonment and escape. Sturridge cuts a stoic, gothy figure which contrasts well with others in the stacked cast, such as Boyd Holbrook’s menacing Corinthian, Vivienne Acheampong’s sincere Lucienne and Kirby Howell-Baptiste’s sweet-natured Death.
– Elinor Groom
With credits including 2019’s Brexit: The Uncivil War and 2020’s Quiz, Sherwood’s writer James Graham had form bringing recent British history to the screen. But with its exploration of the grievances that fester in the Nottinghamshire district of Ashfield, a place bitterly riven during the miners strikes of the 1980s, Sherwood touched a raw nerve at a time when the fabric of British society again feels stretched to fraying point, and old certainties like Labour’s ‘Red Wall’ have crumbled post-Brexit.
Graham’s great stroke was to tackle such issues through the format of the investigative thriller, tracing the tangled aftermath of two macabre crossbow murders that took place in 2004. Boasting superb performances from the top rank of British acting, including Lesley Manville, David Morrissey, Alun Armstrong, Adeel Akhtar and Robert Glenister – all playing superbly drawn characters weighed down by long-carried secrets – Sherwood was gripping, pointedly political television that never felt dogmatic. A state-of-the-nation address that befitted the claim.
– James Bell
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From Disney+, this natural history series aims to bring viewers inside the extraordinary sensory world of plants and animals, uncovering the unlikely abilities that they use for survival. Featuring glowing squirrels and the epic migration of humpback whales, the programme seems to have the ambition to prove that the animal kingdom is more marvellous than Marvel. With an amiable voiceover from Benedict Cumberbatch and a few well-chosen puns, Super/Natural is appealing viewing for the whole family.
Made by Bristol-based Plimsoll Productions, who are also responsible for Netflix’s Night on Earth and Apple TV’s Tiny World, the series is yet more confirmation of the power of British natural history production.
– Lisa Kerrigan
This British remake of the acclaimed French series Call My Agent! came at a curious time for audiences. The premise of both series concerns the delicate, and often farcical, balancing act of agents dealing with their actor clients. While the popularity of the original series rose during lockdowns, critics questioned the need for a remake. But the offices of agency Nightingale Hart, set in a sun-dappled Fitzrovia, have a bumbling British charm of their own – including a nice shout out for BFI Southbank. In the hands of writer and director John Morton (W1A), it’s a delight to see a workplace comedy back on our screens, even if an office where few meetings are held by video call now seems like a fantasy.
Online star Harry Trevaldwyn is a standout among a very strong cast, and the addition of Tim McInnerny’s character, a washed-up actor with a sentimental disposition, gives Ten Percent its own bittersweet flavour.
– Lisa Kerrigan
The Thief, His Wife and the Canoe
“My sons will never forgive me,” uttered Anne Darwin on seeing that photograph of the smiling British couple in Panama. Who knew this innocent snapshot would unravel a plot of faked death, fraud and family fallout?
In 2007, global attention fixed on John and Anne Darwin, the suspected perpetrators of an almost unbelievable deception. ITV’s retelling of this story puts its focus on Anne. She’s portrayed here as the timid victim acting on the instruction of her husband John – emotional manipulator and chief architect of the outrageous scheme to defraud an insurance company of thousands. Told over four gripping instalments, it’s a brilliantly told, well-acted piece of drama, which deftly navigates the high tension and ridiculousness of the true-life tale. Whether you know what happens in the end or not, this drama will have you questioning how they ever thought they could get away with it.
– Mandeep Kaur-Lakhan
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