This year television proved to be a comfort and an escape, but also a reminder of all the challenges the pandemic has brought and continues to bring. The television schedules were not as disrupted by news announcements and official statements as they were in 2020, but we began to see more dramas and documentaries reflecting on the toll the pandemic has had. Among these were writer Jack Thorne’s Help, with Jodie Comer and Stephen Graham, and ITV’s affecting documentary Kate Garraway: Finding Derek, which followed presenter Garraway and her family as they cope with the appalling consequences of her husband’s illness with Covid.
Thorne delivered this year’s MacTaggart Lecture at the Edinburgh TV Festival, and used the platform to highlight industry wide failings in disability inclusion – challenging the industry to do more to address representation of disabled people, both in front of and behind the camera. As part of his lecture Thorne poignantly pointed out that the power of television is as an “empathy box in the corner of the room”.
Away from the pandemic, one positive change to the schedule was the airing of Channel 4’s Black to Front project on 10 September, a day of broadcasting devoted to Black talent on and off screen. Channel 4 plans to follow up the initiative with further commitments to ethnically diverse representation in commissioning.
Though the challenges presented by Thorne and others are still to be fully met, the year’s new British television at the very least showed that creativity, invention and boldness are not in short supply. The list below is limited to new British work – so no second series here, regardless of how great they may be.
Here are a dozen of the best new British programmes from 2021.
2021 brought many unexpected things, but perhaps most unexpected of all was my enjoyment of Jeremy Clarkson learning how to be a farmer. This series follows Clarkson as he attempts to take on the running of his own Cotswolds farm. He soon finds that the enterprise is far more difficult than he imagined and has to take on several highly skilled local workers to get things going, and to keep them running.
The show has been embraced by the farming community for showing the complications and precariousness inherent in working on the land, and it’s interesting to see the restrictions and difficulties facing farmers season by season. The series is also highly watchable as Clarkson finds joy in his work, even when his search for water leads him to compare himself to Jean de Florette. It’s rather heartening to discover that he is, as we all are, at the mercy of nature.
Dementia & Us
“We want to show you who we are. And we’ve no idea, yet, who we’ll become. This is our story.” Narrated by Dreane Williams, who has vascular dementia, this moving and witty documentary follows four people with dementia and their families, over two years. Chris, 43, from Manchester, has early onset dementia, and reflects: “It could be worse. I could be a Man City fan.” We’re caught up in interludes of laughter, fear, fun, uncertainty and everyday challenges for Chris, Gilly, Clover, Marion and their loved ones, who sometimes find themselves exhausted by the daily demands of living.
The two programmes were co-directed, produced and filmed by duo Paul Myles and Zoe Jewell. During the demanding and lengthy gestation period of the programmes, this wasn’t the only production the couple were involved with – they also became parents.
Help (Channel 4)
The mood of many of the most popular TV series of the year seemed to reflect our collective experience of the pandemic as they meditated on grief and loss, but there were only a few dramas that attempted to tackle the pandemic head on. Help is the best of them. Set in a care home during the outbreak of Covid-19 in the spring of 2020, Jodie Comer plays Sarah, a young woman who finds that her new job as a carer brings out the best in her. Sarah connects with a resident called Tony, played by Stephen Graham, who has early onset Alzheimers.
Jack Thorne’s drama is unsparing in its detail of how care home residents and staff were left to cope as the pandemic raged. It’s a bitter antidote to the rhetoric around clapping for carers, and a reminder of the human cost of the pandemic.
It’s a Sin
Russell T. Davies’ emotional drama follows a group of young gay men and their friends in London between 1981 and 1991, as their lives are impacted by the HIV/AIDS crisis. The series produces an authentic account of those who were affected, with Davies taking inspiration from his personal experiences when writing the show. It was made all the more moving by its premiere in January 2021 during the peak of the coronavirus pandemic in the UK, when It’s a Sin’s themes of loss and grief became all the more potent.
Due to its tough subject matter, it took a few years before It’s a Sin secured a broadcaster, eventually premiering on Channel 4, with all the episodes available on All4 shortly after the first episode had aired. It became an instant hit, with the first episode reaching an impressive 3.26 million views. It’s a Sin has deservedly been praised as a landmark of LGBTIQ+ television, focusing on an area of history that has rarely been addressed in mainstream television.
Kate Garraway: Finding Derek
“Pain.” That’s the first word spoken by Derek Draper, with difficulty, halfway through this film, from the hospital bed in which he’d lain since being stricken by a devastatingly harsh case of Covid, early in 2020. The ITV documentary centres on his wife Kate Garraway, who shares with us much of their journey. Pain looms large – but jostles with hope, humour and valuable public information.
Not being a breakfast telly fan, Good Morning Britain’s Garraway was never massively on my radar before, but watching this I so admired her compassion, courage, common sense and communication skills. Populist in the best sense, this moving programme was neither narcissistic nor exploitative: a celebrity’s story but also a human being’s, and with truths to tell us all.
The North Water
The vogue for Arctic drama continues on the heels of The Terror (2018) with this adaptation of Ian McGuire’s hyper-realist novel. It’s set in 1859 as a whaler leaves for the Arctic, doomed as an insurance job by its owner, a splendidly evil Tom Courtenay. On board is Patrick Sumner (Jack O’Connell), a disgraced army surgeon who is pitted against the brutish harpooner Henry Drax (portrayed with great intensity by Colin Farrell).
With the repeated shock of knife against flesh, visceral is the only word for this tale of whaling, murder, rape and survival in the bleak Arctic wastes. Its director, Andrew Haigh, was the man behind Weekend (2011) and 45 Years (2015) but is also a veteran – as assistant editor – of several Ridley Scott historical movies. His vision combines breathtaking photography with an epic storyline that’s given the right amount of space in a TV format.
1000 Years a Slave
This remarkable documentary series weaves together the history of the slave trade with the more recent past: the Windrush generation, civil rights protests in Britain in the 1960s, and the protests following the murder of George Floyd in 2020.
Such enormous subjects are given a personal approach, with celebrities such as David Harewood and Hugh Quarshie tracing their family histories – in a riposte to the BBC’s Who Do You Think You Are? Harewood’s journey is particularly striking: he discusses white supremacy as an English invention, confronting that history in the present day by meeting the current Earl of Harewood, the descendant of the family whose forebears enslaved his ancestors.
A focus on Bristol culminates in Professor David Olusoga visiting the statue of Edward Colston in its current resting place. As the series persuasively shows, this history shaped the world we live in today.
Good things come to those who wait. A year later than planned, the animated musical special Robin Robin arrived on Netflix like an early Christmas present at the end of November 2021.
A decade or so earlier, creators Mikey Please and Dan Ojari emerged from the Royal College of Art with clever, metaphysical stop-motion shorts, which earned Please a BAFTA and led to them joining forces at their own Parabella Studios. They successfully pitched Robin Robin to fellow RCA alumni Sarah Cox, now executive creative director at Aardman, and so the considerable experience and infrastructure of the Bristol studio became the perfect incubator for the film. Beautifully realised with needle felt puppets, elaborate set-ups and a distinguished voice cast (including Richard E. Grant’s memorable Magpie), it’s a delightful and stodge-free seasonal treat.
The first ‘must watch’ series of 2021 retold the story of serial killer Charles Sobhraj. This seductive conman insinuated himself into the trust of travellers on the 1970s Asian hippie trail, until he was eventually apprehended through the dogged efforts of a junior Dutch diplomat in Bangkok.
The leisurely eight episodes allow for in-depth explorations of each character, and, while all the lead actors are compelling, Tim McInnerney deserves special mention for his portrayal of a boozy, jaded Belgian. The period recreation is spot-on and the aesthetic choices perfectly complement the mood. Grainy 4:3 establishing shots evoke 8mm home movies, while vintage airport display boards click out dates, orienting the viewer through the switchback narrative structure of this gripping true-life drama.
Jimmy McGovern’s harrowing prison drama laid out the failings of Britain’s prison system with persuasively realistic detail but without ever becoming overly didactic or generic. Sean Bean is astonishing as Mark Cobden, an English teacher who has killed a young man while drink-driving. Though haunted by guilt and accepting of his punishment, Mark is in no way mentally equipped for prison’s brutalising environment, and quickly becomes fodder for more ruthless figures.
Just as good is Stephen Graham as Eric McNally, the prison officer of 20 years’ service, who is dragged down into corruption when his own son is imprisoned elsewhere and threatened. It’s how the wider institutional failings are revealed through the specifics of these individual human stories that made Time so affecting, and arguably McGovern’s finest work in years.
We Are Lady Parts
Riotous and joyful, We Are Lady Parts centres on an all-female British Muslim punk band, looking for a new member. Seeing range and nuance within marginalised identities is unfortunately still rare on TV, but this is one of many reasons why Nida Manzoor’s music-comedy needs to be celebrated.
Among the sharp one-liners and reflections on the highs and lows of internet fame, We Are Lady Parts ultimately gives us the feel-good narrative of a lovable bunch of misfits finding their community and the importance of being true to yourself. The actors regularly went through full band practice while on set, and it shows in their group dynamic and their performing together on screen. But crucially, for a show about a band, every song they play is an actual banger.
Can a gruesome forensic series be heart-warming? Maybe, in the hands of Paul Abbott. Wolfe is a forensic scientist whose team investigates horrible crimes. Their companionship and flashes of dark humour keep them going through all the dissections and revolting clues.
With some weekly cases as well as an ongoing mystery to solve, Wolfe is a satisfying watch for any fan of crime drama. Like some other procedural series, Wolfe is organised around a chaotic genius, but Babou Ceesay is incredibly charismatic in the title role. And the added dimension of the portrayal of Wolfe’s bipolar disorder makes the series a stand out, even if you wouldn’t want to watch it over dinner.
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