100 Years of the BBC: #70-61


70. Cracked Actor (1975)
Tasked with covering David Bowie’s Diamond Dogs tour, director Alan Yentob (later controller of BBC1 and ultimately creative director of the whole BBC) was granted full backstage access. Combining behind the scenes observations, sit-down interviews, and excerpts from D.E. Pennebaker’s concert film Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars, this 60-minute film is one of the greatest rock documentaries ever made.

Yentob captures David Bowie in the middle of a mental health crisis: over-tired, strung-out, and addicted to cocaine. In a contradictory manner, it also captures the singer-songwriter in one of the most inspired and creative periods of his life. This is a tightly made, utterly honest, one-of-a-kind film. It has never been commercially released, but the BBC has periodically re-broadcast it; most recently after Bowie’s death in 2016.


69. The League of Gentlemen (1999-2017)
Technically a sketch comedy, although its wide regular cast of characters – all played by three actors – and ongoing storylines mutated The League of Gentlemen into a series all of its own. Once again a radio series graduated to television, with actors Mark Gatiss, Steve Pemberton, and Reece Sheersmith – along with writer Jeremy Dyson – populating the English town of Royston Vasey with an array of disturbed, odd, freakish residents.

The remarkable part was how, over the course of three seasons, the series went from being a comedy with an absurdly bleak edge into something very close to full-blown horror with the occasional joke. The gang knew their stuff as well: Gatiss in particularly is an expert on British screen horror, while Dyson has demonstrated a superb skill in writing horror short fiction. A film followed, as well as three new episodes in 2017.


68. The Office (2001-2003)
Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant’s The Office is just a splendid achievement in television comedy. A mockumentary showing the everyday workings of a Slough paper manufacturer, it resonated heavily with anybody forced to work a day job in an open plan office: the rumoured office romances, the ‘funny’ boss, the intolerable workmates – it was all present, and all brilliantly satirised across 14 episodes. As noted in the earlier entry on Extras, Ricky Gervais has since done a resounding job of making himself fairly unlikeable by attacking the trans community through his stand-up. It makes it easy to forget just what a superb achievement The Office really is.

It reached its creative peak with the final two-part Christmas special as well. For one thing, it was so unusual to see a comedy series end in such a definitive, final manner. For another, that ending was so heartily beautiful and emotive. Plenty of great comedy series can make their audience laugh. The end of The Office brought me to tears.


67. To the Manor Born (1979-2007)
There are certain actors that cannot be ignored in a celebration of the BBC, and one of those actors is Penelope Keith. Her crisp delivery, pitch-perfect comic timing, and bright personality uplifted an impressive array of sitcoms. As a former member of the Royal Shakespeare Company she brought the highest quality of performance to comedy at the BBC and ITV. Her co-star Peter Bowles is no slouch either, of course, and between them they made this four season comedy about a rich commoner buying out a poor aristocrat much more enjoyable than its concept probably deserved to be. It even scored a brief reprise when a
 special anniversary episode was produced in 2007.

It is worth noting the other six sitcoms in which Penelope Keith subsequently starred: Sweet Sixteen (BBC, 1983), Moving (1985, ITV), Executive Stress (1986-88, ITV), No Job for a Lady (1990-92), Law and Disorder (1994, ITV), and Next of Kin (BBC, 1995-97). She is an absolute legend.


66. Grange Hill (1978-2008)
One of the BBC institutions: When Phil Redmond devised a children’s drama about an urban comprehensive school in 1975, he probably did not expect it run 30 years. It took three years for Redmond to sell the idea, since his employer at the time (ATV) wasn’t interested, and he had to jump ship to the BBC to get into in front of the camera.

It is easy to look back on Grange Hill and find it quaint and outdated, and even twee. In context, however, it was a groundbreaking program. It presented the high school environment as rife with bullying, learning difficulties, racism, and class issues. While it may not have always nailed its subject matter perfectly, it is astounding just how many social issues the series was willing to tackle. Knife crime got a look-in. Homosexuality was covered. Anybody what watched it during its second peak during the 1980s will remember when Zammo (Lee McDonald) got hooked on smack. The BBC retired the series in 2008, feeling it had run its course. I’m not sure a format this solid ever really does. There are always new audiences of British teenagers wanting to see themselves on screen, and it feels like there are more social issues to tackle than ever.

tipping_0165. Tipping the Velvet (1998)
Sarah Waters’ best-selling novel was adapted by the BBC in this three-part serial written by Andrew Davies and directed by Geoffrey Sax. While the BBC had flirted with prime-time lesbian drama in 1990’s Oranges are not the Only Fruit, Tipping the Velvet was the most frank and openly queer production the broadcaster had aired to date. Stars Rachael Stirling and Keeley Hawes were excellent, as was Davies’ close, widely lauded adaptation.

It is worth noting Andrew Davies, whose other writing will come up later, and the extraordinary impact he has had on British television. Like Nigel Kneale, Dennis Potter, and Russell T Davies, he is arguably one of the UK’s finest-ever writers for television. His cleverly developed adaptations of classic literature have included many series that could easily make this list, including To Serve Them All My Days (1980), House of Cards (1990), Middlemarch (1994), and Vanity Fair (1998). He also wrote the script to 1995’s Pride and Prejudice, but we will get to that later.


64. Survivors (1975-1977)
The three great achievements of Terry Nation: inventing the Daleks in Doctor Who, creating Blake’s 7, and finally creating Survivors: a post-apocalyptic drama that feels more prescient the longer that time rolls on. A virus rages across the planet, killing most of the human population. With civilization broken down, those who survive the virus most find a way to rebuild their society from scratch.

The third season never lived up to the quality of the first two, but in its beginning episodes Survivors is still one of the hardest-hitting takes on the post-apocalypse genre television has ever had. Choices the characters make have real consequences. People make mistakes. People die. One episode in particular, “Law and Order”, is among the best hours of television drama the BBC ever produced. A remake was launched in 2008, that ran for two seasons. It wasn’t as good.

omega_0163. The Omega Factor (1979)
After his wife is killed in a car crash, Tom Crane (James Hazeldine) begins to exhibit strange psychic powers. It brings him into conflict with rogue psychic Edward Drexel (Cyril Luckham), and onto the radar of Edinburgh-based think-tank Department 7. Working with scientist Dr Anne Reynolds (Louise Jameson), Crane investigate supernatural happenings while trying to track down and take revenge on Drexel.

As a BBC Scotland production, The Omega Factor seemed to fly a little under the radar. This clever, creepy 10-part series was a brilliant work of horror, and deserves a bigger audience and a longer run. Sadly its disturbing content ran a little too close to the edge: conservative activist Mary Whitehouse complained about its content, and an internal audit by the BBC found that the series had indeed breached the Beeb’s own content guidelines. Thus The Omega Factor ended on a cliffhanger, unresolved and half-forgotten.


62. Tenko (1981-1985)
A key drama for the BBC, and a most significant one for women on British television. Not many series were made that focused so carefully on female characters, and by setting Tenko inside a women’s internment camp during World War II it was ensured that this series at least would showcase some of Britain’s best female talent. Three seasons were produced, followed by a post-war special to follow up on what ultimately happened to the characters.

It is tempting to consider Tenko as a companion piece to the BBC’s Colditz. That 1970s series followed the inmates of a German prisoner-of-war camp, and was heavily based on factual testimony by real-life POWs. It was the same situation here, with creator Lavinia Warner consulting extensively with former prisoner Margaret Thompson to generate narratives and ensure accuracy.


61. The Night Manager (2016)
It does not feel like too big a spoiler to admit that Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, the 1970s spy drama based on the John Le Carre novel, will be turning up later in this countdown. The reason I mention it is that it was such a pleasure in 2016 to see the BBC return to La Carre for this handsomely staged, brilliantly acted, and suspenseful thriller. Tom Hiddleston played Jonathan Pine, the titular manager, drawn into a international spy plot after meeting international arms trader Richard “Dicky” Roper (a stunningly against-type Hugh Laurie).

Directed by Susanne Bier, The Night Manager boasted world-class production values (thanks to a co-production with AMC) and was an absolutely hot-bed for quality performances. Hiddleston showed off his leading man credentials, Laurie showed audiences an entirely new side to his persona, and both were well supported by the likes of Olivia Coleman, Elizabeth Debicki, Tom Hollander, David Harewood, and Tobias Menzies. The Night Manager‘s success led to the BBC subsequently producing Le Carre’s The Little Drummer Girl in 2018.

100 Years of the BBC
(Coupling, The Box of Delights, The Devil’s Crown, Top Gear, Jackanory, Not the Nine O’Clock News, The House of Eliott, The Mary Whitehouse Experience, 1990, Roobarb.)
#90-81 (Extras, Steptoe & Son, I’m Alan Partridge, Teletubbies, Adam Adamant Lives, The Trip, The Paradise Club, Doomwatch, Mr Men, The Year of the Sex Olympics.)
#80-71 (Star Cops, The Mighty Boosh, Blue Peter, The Onedin Line, Jonathan Creek, The Goodies, The Fast Show, Robin Redbreast, Torchwood: Children of Earth, Takin’ Over the Asylum.)
#70-61 (Cracked Actor, The League of Gentlemen, The Office, To the Manor Born, Grange Hill, Tipping the Velvet, Survivors, The Omega Factor, Tenko, The Night Manager.)

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