2014: My Top 50 TV Shows

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Now we’re talking. For almost four years now, I have been required to watch television for a job. It is a lovely job, even in the weeks when it is an uphill struggle to find anything to rave about into a camera at the Guardian offices in King’s Cross. (You surely know me well enough by now to know that I am a bad TV critic because I have too much empathy with people who make TV programmes and thus find it difficult to slag them off for dramatic effect. So be it.) I cannot lie to you: when, in November, I appeared as a talking head on Channel 5’s Most Shocking TV Moments, I was inordinately proud to be captioned for the first time ever as “Andrew Collins, TV critic”.

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Most Shocking TV Moments was not one of the Top 50 TV shows of 2014, although it wasn’t at all bad, and was important in its own way.

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I can definitely list 50 TV shows that I loved this year, which is a first for my cultural roundup of the year so far, currently a bit undernourished. That’s because I watch a lot more telly than I listen to records or read books. It’s best to get used to that, and not worry about it. Telly is in the best shape it’s been in for years and we should give thanks for that, while music’s in a parlous state and films are struggling to keep up with the small screen. You know it’s true. I’ve had a rethink since first publishing this list, which is a pointless qualitative exercise in any case, and instead of a Top 50 (or whatever the total is up now), I’m reverting to the Top 10, followed by all the rest, as, frankly, after that it’s a fairly random list of television programmes that I thoroughly enjoyed in 2014. There’s no way of measuring which was my 21st favourite and which was my 22nd favourite. (Also I caught up with two episodes of Toast after first composing the list and tried to move it up the chart, but it threw everything else out of whack and I conceded my folly!)

In its present state, it can do no harm, especially if it prompts debate or that warm feeling of “Oh yeah, I forgot about that.”

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1. The Leftovers, HBO/Sky Atlantic
2. Gogglebox, C4
3. Peaky Blinders, BBC2
4. Detectorists, BBC4
5. Hinterland/Y Gwyll, S4C/BBC Wales/BBC4
6. The Newsroom, HBO/Sky Atlantic
7. Game Of Thrones, HBO/Sky Atlantic
8. The Code, ABC1/BBC4
9. True Detective, HBO/Sky Atlantic
10. Gomorrah, Sky Italia/Sky Atlantic

The Lost Honour Of Christopher Jefferies, ITV
Looking, HBO/Sky Atlantic
The Missing, BBC2
Boardwalk Empire, HBO/Sky Atlantic
Happy Valley, BBC1
Line Of Duty, BBC2
Last Week Tonight With John Oliver, HBO/Sky Atlantic
The Walking Dead, AMC/Fox
Intruders, BBC America/BBC2
Mad Men, AMC/Sky Atlantic
Toast Of London, C4
Olive Kitteridge, HBO/Sky Atlantic
The Good Wife, CBS/More4
Babylon, C4
Stammer School, C4
The Mimic, C4
Marvellous, BBC1
W1A, BBC2
Boss, Starz/More4
Veep, HBO/Sky Atlantic
Penny Dreadful, Showtime/Sky Atlantic
Utopia, C4
Stewart Lee’s Alternative Comedy Experience, Comedy Central
The Honourable Woman, BBC2
Cilla, ITV
The Strain, Watch
Nixon’s The One, Sky Arts
The Legacy, Sky Arts
Plebs, ITV2
Scot Squad, BBC Scotland
Grayson Perry: Who Are You?, C4
The Bridge, BBC4
The Mill, C4
A Very British Renaissance, BBC2
The Village, BBC2
Uncle, C4
Suspects, Channel Five
The Great British Bake Off, BBC1
Dave Gorman’s Modern Life Is Goodish, Dave
The Trip To Italy, BBC2
The Art Of Gothic, BBC4
The Life Of Rock With Brian Pern, BBC4
People Just Do Nothing, iPlayer/BBC3
Modern Family, ABC/Sky1
Rev, BBC2
Hannibal, Sky Living
Sherlock, BBC1
Bright Lights, Brilliant Minds, BBC4
Louie, Fox
The Daily Show, Comedy Central
House Of Cards, Netflix

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Glib conclusions? Thank the lord for HBO, and by definition, Sky Atlantic. Also, what a year for drama. And not just American drama. In the Top 10 we find an Australian drama, and an Italian drama, as well as one from the UK (Peaky Blinders, which I hymned at length for the Guardian’s Top 10 TV here), and more specifically one from Wales, in Welsh (which premiered on S4C, in its native language, in 2013, but expanded into countless other territories, from Denmark to the US and Canada, in 2014). Other notable British entries include The Lost Honour Of Christopher Jefferies (which reminds us that ITV is the equal of the BBC when it wants to be), The Missing, Happy Valley, Line Of Duty and Intruders (a co-prod with BBC America).

I find it intriguing that a number of dramas in the list have been based on novels: The Leftovers, Game Of Thrones, Intruders, The Strain, The Walking Dead (a series of graphic novels). Great long-form TV drama is often referred to, with critical reverence, as “novelistic”, and this seems now to be literal. I’ve often felt that a 90-minute feature film, the usual resting place for a novel, is the wrong medium; eight hour-long parts seems so much more conducive to capturing a book’s essence. (Hey, that’s why Lord Of The Rings was made into three movies.) Anyone see The Slap, another all-too-rare Aussie import, in 2011? That was a novel; it worked on telly. I guess the weird bit – and this will be true for my favourite show of the year The Leftovers – is how to produce a second series when the source has dried up.

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Telly drama made the news in April when “Mumblegate” saw the BBC in the firing line – again – for the questionable sound quality of its latest original British drama, a three-part dramatisation of a novel, Daphe Du Maurier’s Jamaica Inn. This was mere weeks after I’d sat on the Bafta jury for Best International Programme with its talented writer Emma Frost (I really liked her adaptation of The White Queen in 2013). I enjoyed the first episode of Jamaica Inn, and said so in my Guardian review, but having viewed it on catch-up I think we missed out on the technical problems that bedevilled it for those who watched it live. Also, we watch so much mumbly drama in our house, we had no problem straining to hear what Sean Harris was saying. Others had a bigger problem, and a storm in a teacup brewed. Harris redressed the balance with his sweetly self-conscious acceptance speech for Southcliffe at the Baftas. But I felt sorry for Emma, because I am a writer, and there but for the grace of executive whim, go I.

I also thoroughly enjoyed the coverage of The World Cup on ITV and BBC in June and July, and you can re-read my enthusiastic but clueless reports, Braz1l, Bra2il, 3razil, Br4zil, Bra5il and 6razil here. That’s a lot of hours of television, right there.

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My own contributions to the small screen have been limited this year. I was thoroughly proud to have script-edited the second series of Badults on BBC3, and – a new gig – the second series of Drifters on E4. One of my in-development sitcoms bit the dust, but not through want of effort and lateral thinking and getting Simon Day in to help gag it up.

My talking head was on the aforementioned Most Shocking TV Moments on Channel 5, also, for the same channel, I did Greatest 80s Movies, which I didn’t see, but I assume went out? More covertly, I added my two-penn’orth to Crime Thriller Club on ITV2, as I like the kind of crime thrillers that are on that channel and quite fancied talking about them with my head. Apart from that, I’ve been busying myself writing and rewriting my dystopian thriller, which is, yeah, yeah, in development. Here’s hoping it does something slightly more meaningful than get rewritten in 2015. Reuniting with Simon Day has been a positive thing, and I’d love to think we can do something together in the near future.

Telly Addict continues, of course, which is a bit like being on the telly, isn’t it? Here’s your static moment of Zen …

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A lobby of green-ink heart attack candidates in the Sunday Times Culture section’s You Say TV forum (to whit: “What about the 50 million licence fee payers who don’t like football?”) have been wishing for four weeks that World Cup 2014 was all over. It is now. Thanks to the fleet left foot of the German substitute who looks like my niece’s boyfriend Shane – Mario Götze – who misshaped the bottom corner of the Argentinian net in the 112th minute from a cross by André Schürrle, Germany are now four-times World Cup champions, and this is their first team to win it since the Wall came down. A new star will have to be embroidered onto their shirt. Götze already is one, a 22-year-old symbol of Germany’s “New Generation.”

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The Maracanã, pulsing with coloured lights from above like a sea anemone as the sun went down, hosted a thrilling final, whose single goal and singular lack of shots do not quite describe the action within. Having ungratefully humiliated the host nation and sent the whole of Brazil spiraling into despond – forced, by default, to cheer them on – Germany were the stronger side, but Argentina’s defence was stout. Unfortunately for the South Americans, their “demigod”, as Alan Shearer describe him, Lionel Messi, was only occasionally the best player in the world, and couldn’t finish.

However, and this is now a commonplace, Germany were a team: unreliant on demigods or talismen, they were eleven men, who simply looked for each other, passed clearly and cleanly, cleared some space, created chances, and, more often than not, converted those chances into goals. Only one last night, but it only required one. Stoically, they dealt with the zero-hour loss of Khedira – injured during training – by replacing him with Christoph Kramer, who was himself rendered dazed and confused by a shoulder to the bonce, and replaced by Schürrle. This is how a good team works. It is a sum of its parts. Brazil, as we have seen, cannot function without Neymar. Argentina, in this instance, couldn’t win without Messi. Messi was there, but not quite.

Let us not sanctify Germany; one or two of them did their fair share of diving (albeit not at the theatrical level of Holland’s Iron Robin, whose supercilious grin made him one of the most difficult to like stars of the tournament, right through to the pointless Third Place Playoff against an undead Brazil). But there are eleven reasons why Germany are the first European side to win the World Cup in South America. Oh, and one of those reasons happened to be the best keeper of the last four weeks.

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As Gary Lineker said to the shy and retiring Alan Hansen during the suited-up half-time mull, “You like stats.” Here are some I’ve lifted from the BBC Sport website:

Germany have won the World Cup for a fourth time. Only Brazil (5) have more wins. Argentina conceded a goal in extra time at the World Cup for the first time.
Argentina failed to have a shot on target in a World Cup game for the first time since the 1990 final v West Germany. Germany are the first European team to win a World Cup in the Americas.
Germany’s total of 18 goals is the most in a World Cup since Brazil scored 18 in 2002. Argentina only trailed for seven minutes in the entire tournament.

It was, of course, over for Brazil a lifetime ago on Tuesday, just after Germany’s second goal from Klose, when they went to pieces before the eyes of the world. Or, if you prefer to dig back a bit further: the moment Colombia’s Zuniga high-tackled Neymar in the quarter final and put him out of the frame. Or, if you prefer, the moment in the same match when captain Thiago Silva got sent off, for surely it was the lack of a cohering skipper as much as the lack of what Sam Matterface later called “a goal-scoring striker” that took the legs out from under Brazil. (Or Brazeel, Brazeeel, as I still call them, after the ITV theme tune, an affectation that has taken on a melancholy air.)

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The semi final against Germany at Belo Horizonte has already gone down in the World Cup and even footballing annals as one of the most shocking ever played. And that’s according to people who’ve seen a lot more games than I have. It certainly left a lot of people horizonte. The word “humiliation” is an emotive one, but in the case of Brazil’s 7-1 drubbing – and that particularly surreal five minutes during which they scored four and the numbers went up like the counter on a pinball machine – it has hardened into cold fact. It really was all over before half time. Records were being smashed so often, there was no time to stop and appreciate the fact that Klose’s goal made him the World Cup’s highest ever scorer. (One of the reasons we didn’t have time to take it in was Kroos’s first of two, which he scored a minute after Klose’s.)

Over the last 20 years I have watched a lot of international football matches at two-year intervals, and there has been nothing like Brazil Germany, which was almost eerie. The volume on the majority Brazilian crowd dipped around the 20-minute mark and only recovered once when little Oscar pulled one back in the 90th minute. (Oh, and when they collectively booed their team off the park at the end of each half. Incidentally, you had to give shy and resigning coach Scolari some credit for taking the blame. He wore a “Forca Neymar” baseball cap as he went off, presumably with a lining of irony.)

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It has been a memorable World Cup, already fading away like a white Rubicon of referee’s foam. All those South American players crossing and prostrating themselves before God – and, conceivably, Christ the Redeemer – to no appreciable avail. Enough yellow cards to build a replica Yellow Submarine. Two African sides in the final 16. So much offside. So many talismen. So much pointless, Jonathan Pearce-flummoxing goal-line technology at the beginning, and so much less of it at the end. So little Phil Neville come the end, too. So many goal-of-the-tournament contenders! My own favourite – hope it’s one of yours – was catapulted from the toe of 23-year-old Colombian forward and ingenue James “Haymez” Rodriguez against Uruguay in the last-16. It was art.

He also won the Golden Boot with six goals in five matches, ahead of Muller and Messi.

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So much finely sculpted and greased hair. A few poodles. One or two headbands. In Neymar’s two-tone creation, a tribute to the drummer of Kajagoogoo. One ridiculous rat-tail sticking out at any angle from the otherwise shaven head of Rodrigo Palacio which, knowing my luck, will turn out to be a tribute to a dead member of his family, something he hasn’t cut since they perished, or something, in which case I’ll delete this aesthetic complaint. Apparently, Thierry Henry’s cardigan cost £505. You can’t buy that kind of style. And Adrian Chiles won’t stuff his tackle into those one-size-too-small M&S short again. He rather ruined the view when ITV’s gang were seated out on the Opinion Terrace. Only Fabio looked truly attractive with his legs out. But some kind of medal for the salmon-skinned Gordon Strachan and Neil Lennon for being outside at all. I wonder if anybody watched the Final on ITV? I mean, anybody at all.

I like the fact that, come the Final, I was able to name ten out of the eleven starting German team from their faces during what I still controversially think of as Deutschland Über Alles – albeit less of the Argentinians during Canción Patriótica Nacional. It’s small personal victories like this that make the four-week commitment worthwhile. This means that, in two years’ time, I’ll know about four of them, of course. But it’s a start.

I still haven’t quite got to the bottom of why a taciturn Scot in his 50s is “retiring” from sitting in a chair and talking about football, but farewell, Alan Hansen, in any case. You picked a good one to go out on.

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It was either Guy Mowbray or Steve Wilson who, during the last-16 Argentina Switzerland game when the score still stood at 0-0, wondered aloud (because what other kind of wondering would a commentator do?) whether we were about to see “a Messi Moment.” We weren’t, as it happened, or at least not the goal Mowbray/Wilson was hoping for, and it went to extra time, during which one of Messi’s less talismanic compatriots, Di María, swivel-volleyed one in off his deflected pass and put them through to the quarter finals. (Di María was later benched with an ice-pack on his leg.)

This World Cup has been all about such great expectations, but it’s not always great for great men. Gary Lineker commented last night that of the six badly-drawn boys on the BBC’s Mount Rushmore-like slum-wall of fame in its opening credits, only one remains in the competition, with the other five either knocked out, banned for four months for biting, or horribly injured.

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Germany, otherwise known as “Manuel Neuer and ten other blokes”, had a fairly easy time of it against France, with Mats Hummels facing down “flu-like symptoms” (all that hot and cold) to head in the first and only goal in 12 minutes. The one good thing you can say about the 1-0 score is that at least it spared us extra time and … that other grim foot-lottery.

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Brazil Colombia was a better bet, if a festival of fouls. A South American derby with atmosphere to spare, and controversial refereeing decisions at every turn. The Spanish ref at least managed to piss off both teams, which surely clears him of bias. Colombia’s fatted calf Rodriguez was, as they say, kicked around the park, and his opposite number Neymar actually left the field, and the tournament, in agony in the orange out-tray of doom after Juan Camilo Zúñiga’s knee-high challenge from behind. Let’s see that again …

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I’m not a coach, but surely it’s a risky business, relying on one star forward. (I seem to remember Brazil having about three in 2002.) That said, it’s better than no star forward, and it’s bad luck to lose him completely before a semi final against Germany. It’s like Zúñiga kicked Jesus. (Fifa are looking into the tackle, so we’ll see, but it’s literally after the event.)

QArgBel3 The quarter finals have certainly been full of messy moments. With the brakes well and truly on, and teams more evenly matched I guess, the goal rate has plummeted. (This World Cup has apparently given us 159 goals, and it feels that way, although I don’t know if this includes penalties, which are goals, but stripped of context, and thus sort of not-goals. It could have been a lot more goals if not for the likes of Howard, Ochoa and the other super-keepers.)

Yesterday’s lumpy but nonstop Argentina Belgium game had plenty of Messi Moments while he stylishly went about equaling Maradona’s 91 caps and fending off attackers like an action hero chased by velociraptors and giving it plenty of pirouette, but it was swarthy Gonzalo Higuain who put them one-up with a volley that was decisive and powerful. It hinted at the eight-minute mark that we might be in for a high-scoring game as Argentina’s streetwise teamwork squared up against Belgium’s pluck, but no. Argentina keep winning by one goal, but I’d have rather seen another 3-2 or a 2-1, and not another top-loaded 1-0. (How demanding we become.)

Belgium couldn’t break their duck, and Argentina couldn’t put one past Courtois again. A similar pattern of deadlock dogged Holland Costa Rica, except without a single goal for 120 minutes. Plenty of chances, and most of them fumbled by the Dutch in what was never even hinted as being an international sectarian clash, even though it kind of was, with the Orangemen versus the Catholics. (The Dutch team may well be humourless atheists; but the self-crossing, saint-kissing, upward-genuflecting Latin Americans do seem to believe that God is on their side.)

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It was weird to see minor Game Of Throw-Ins character Iron Robin on his best behaviour, having had his card marked about all the diving, clutching and play-acting that frankly undermines his elegant ballsmanship and age-defying, Terminator-like energy. Costa Rica’s coach, Pinto, had apparently voiced his concerns pre-emptively to the ref, and all eyes were on the passive-aggressive egghead. Not once did he melodramatically claim a foul through the medium of mime, although, ironically, he was fouled plenty of times and the sky was filled with yellow cards to prove it. (Four Costa Ricans earned one, although – sadly – there will be no next match to miss.)

It’s partly the game’s fault, and partly mine, but I found myself dozing off during the second half, and when I snuffled awake after a sofa snooze, it was still 0-0. For reasons of middle-aged self-preservation I took myself off to bed, unaware of the next act. I was awoken this morning and advised without spoilers to rewind and watch the extra time. So I did.

It was among the most exciting blocks of football this World Cup has thus far spoiled us with, Holland reawakened by the hour and Costa Rica determined to hold them to a draw and let the penalties decide. As they searched for the hero inside themselves, they were truly in search of the CRC. But – and here’s where it gets interesting – the most thrilling moment came when the unreadable and apparently egomaniacal Dutch coach Louis Van Gaal made his chess move. He took clean-sheeted keeper Japser Cillessen off in the 121st minute and replaced him with a man I’d never heard of called Tim Krul. Newcastle United fans will have heard of him.

Could this vital game, at this vital stage, really turn on a frankly insulting substitution? Or had Van Gaal planned it all along? (Danny Murphy’s always reminding us that games can “turn” on something.)

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Hardly worth mentioning that he’s a gangly fellow but he lacks the neat, boyish, Germanic look of Cillessen. Krul – helpfully named for headline writers (“Krul summer … Krul fate … Krul to be kind … Royal Society for the Prevention of Krulty to Animals”) – seemed to me a bit of a yob. I certainly crinkled my nose when he started psyching the penalty-takers out by marching up and down in front of them like a sentry and then giving them some verbal and a you’re-going-down hand gesture before taking up his line. I was already a Costa Rican so I wished him ill with this grubby technique. Imagine my dismay when it seemed to work. And imagine my joy when it didn’t, twice. And then my dismay again.

There is no shame whatsoever in Costa Rica’s defeat, not with a performance like theirs. Their first World Cup quarter final will have to be milestone and testament enough for a Central American republic and medical-tourism hotspot with a population of 4.5m and no military since 1949 (although “plenty of fighters” in their team, as Sam Matterface chirruped).

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As you might imagine, I’ve been saving the Sports section of my newspaper from the recycling tub for over three weeks now, and even a visitor picks up on things. I’ve divined previously that people don’t like Andy Townsend, so I continue to not-mind him just to be my own man. I’ve no idea if it’s OK to like Danny Murphy? But I do like him. Although he overuses the word “actually” and mixed up the last 16 with the quarter finals last night, he seems sincere and self-effacing (perhaps to a fault), and knows when to join in. I’ve looked him up and he only started punditing for Match Of The Day last year, so maybe he’s still on probation with the hanging jury. I also like the fact that he looks like he’s related to Morrissey, and very well might be. Clearly, Glenn Hoddle remains a figure of fun, and I have no defence for him.

Gary Lineker really needs to spend less time on the weights. His shoulders will soon be so rounded he is unable to carry a bag without it sliding off. Alan Hansen has announced his retirement after this World Cup. From Match Of The Day? That sounds a bit grand to me. He’s not even 60. Is he simply leaving, rather than retiring?

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Roll on the semis. My fever-dream of a Brazil Belgium final is a future I’m glad I didn’t put money on. (I don’t put money on anything.) It’s going to be Brazil Argentina, isn’t it? That’s fine. Even though I keep reading that Brazil are “ordinary” – and certainly left spineless without Neymar – they have so many home-team advantages and now a fallen comrade to play for, the Germans will have to tighten a few nuts and add a lot of oil if they want to achieve Vorsprung durch Technik. I certainly find myself – without prejudice or discrimination, Fifa! – hoping Holland go out.

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Now you’re getting my opaque typographic titles. (Remember Essay1, Essay2, Essay3 at the South African World Cup?) The final group stats are now being carefully felt-tipped into my Guardian World Cup Guide. It’s like I’m ten years old again. When I was a boy, I was football crazy (hard to credit now that I am such a stranger to the leagues, but it’s ultimately down to a lack of available space in my brain and hours in my days). I made my own football quiz books, in which I challenged imaginary readers to name the first division club by a pencil drawing of its badge, or by its stadium, or nickname. I would do players’ name with letters removed and you had to fill in the blanks. I also collected whatever stickers or badges were on sale and diligently swapped them and stuck them in. I remember fondly a set of metal circular badges that came free with Esso petrol and were mounted on a stout card display. I rather expect one of you to now jump up and offer a scan of this long-lost heirloom.

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The seemingly disgraceful, infantile and possibly mentally unstable behaviour of Luis Suárez – a very good footballer, whose rehabilitative PFA Player Of The Year award presentation keeps being looped in news reports – has cast an evil-chipmunk shadow across the tournament as we near the end of the groups. The Mexican ref didn’t see him mime sinking his teeth into the shoulder of Italian defender Giorgio Chiellini in the 79th minute of their group game when the score stood at 0-0. Those of us watching in telly couldn’t believe we’d just seen what we thought we’d seen. (Not following club football, I didn’t realise Suárez had previous in this unpleasant area, although sub judice reports are being careful to put speechmarks around “biting”.)

Uruguay’s Diego Godín scored from a Suárez corner – oh, the irony! – before the dust of controversy had had time to settle, and an understandably aggrieved Italy were out. Chiellini pulled down his collar and displayed what looked like human man bitemarks but could have been from a large South American insect who fancied some Italian, and FIFA are investigating it, with the threat of a long ban hanging over Suárez’s baffled, squirrelly head. Amazing how a moment of madness can resonate so odorously across such a magnificent ocean of football.

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Ouch. I have picked up on the larger narrative that Suárez went “from pariah to hero” with the PFA last year. I fear he’s just gone back to “pariah” – maybe he’ll be more comfortable there. Tensions run rampant in these high-stakes games. Italy – four-tiimes World Cup winners, of course, who only needed a measly draw to go through – were already a man down, after midfielder Claudio Marchisio was sent off for an upwards-studs incident (the same kind that would put Ecuador down to ten men in last night’s game against France). It’s hard to cheer on a plucky side like Uruguay when they have such a wild card in their pack.

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Here’s Ecuador’s captain Antonio Valencia petulantly tearing off his armband on being sent off for pointing his boot in the wrong direction during a tackle. This transgression – an accident, potentially, but the same outcome in this black-and-white disciplinary case – effectively signed their return ticket, even though France were unable to get a single goal past spectacularly lanky goalie Alexander Dominguez, surely the man of the match.

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His ability to deflect or absorb French shot after French shot was phenomenal, from Pogba, Benezema, Sissoko, Griezmann, Matuidi, even the cupcake-headed Giroud, the back of whose shirt looks like it might say Girls Aloud if you uncreased it. Where were all these goals we’ve grown used to?, we asked ourselves as we thrilled to Dominguez’s octopoid skill set. But his impermeability was not enough to secure the South Americans a win. Although, to be fair, Switzerland were simultaneously making Ecuador’s life increasingly difficult with each new goal Bayern Munich’s Xherdan Shaqiri concurrently scored against the bottom-bound Honduras in Manaus.

BBC commentator Steve Wilson hid any hint of facetiousness when he pointed out that Ecuador had 30 seconds to score two goals before the end of injury time. Perhaps because it never seemed totally out of the question. (They had a Valencia to spare – relentless striker Enner – and he continually looked like a miracle might rest on the end of his foot.)

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I’d pinned hopes on Nigeria, as I love to see African clubs in the knockout, and their high-energy 3-2 defeat to Argentina didn’t stop them qualifying, thanks to Bosnia beating Iran in parallel. They now face France next week, which will not be a walkover, as France are the side who couldn’t score a goal against ten Ecuadorians. With Cameroon (seemingly officially dubbed “the hapless Cameroon”) and Ivory Coast knocked out, and Ghana dependent on beating Portugal in Group G tonight, it may well be down to Nigeria and possibly Group H’s Algeria (if they can beat Russia like they beat South Korea) to carry that mighty continent’s hopes and dreams.

Nigeria certainly gave us our money’s worth against the fancied Argentina, with Ahmed Musa equalising within minutes of Lionel Messi’s opener, the first time in World Cup history that opposing sides have both scored within the first five minutes. That tells you something about the even match. Musa would open the second half with another goal, keeping things interesting. As with Ecuador’s Dominguez, Nigeria’s keeper Vincent Enyeama did them proud, keeping out Di Maria and Messi, most of the time. (And one of those that defied him was from a free kick.)

WCNigArgMessiMessi, with the look of a young Liam Neeson, is an incredible chap. He’s scored four goals in three matches in Brazil. Not to dwell on England, who are long gone, but they lack a Messi, or a Balotelli, or a Neymar, or a Robben/Van Persie. One superhuman striker doesn’t make a team, I know that, but it helps. I’ve heard the word “talisman” a lot this tournament, and that’s the voodoo that counts, I think. Post-Beckham, England haven’t really had that magic.

Rooney is a singular force, with a unique, almost classical look about him and eyes to hypnotise, and the notches on the goalpost and caps to prove his usefulness. Minus the tabloid baggage (I note that the Daily Star has been desperately trying to sell Big Brother with headlines about current female inmates with spurious Rooney tales to tell), I feel sure I’d have greater affection for him if I supported Man United (Fabio Capello said he only played well in Manchester), but in terms of England, a yet-to-heal foot put him off form in his first World Cup in 2006, and he was red-carded in the quarter final. He’s always scored like a demon in the qualifiers (which of course I tend not to watch), but only scored in a World Cup for the first time last week. I was pleased for him. But with Gerrard and Lampard eyeing the garden centre now, England will surely have to rebuild from the ground up, and find a new talisman.

World Cup 2014

A word about Philip Neville (second from left) – maybe even “the hapless Philip Neville”. The BBC received 445 complaints from Daily Mail readers with nothing better to do about his co-commentary for England’s game against Italy, which was deemed “monotonous” and elicited the usual hoots of armchair derision. Well, being typically behind the curve, I’d wrongly assumed it was Morrissey’s long-lost cousin Danny Murphy who was wingman to Steve Wilson for last night’s Ecuador France match, and it was only at half-time that I was dissuaded of this incorrect assumption. It was a newly invigorated Phil Neville!

Surely it is the greatest compliment that I could pay his ability to learn and improve on the job to say that I didn’t realise it was him. Once the penny had dropped, I could hear him straining to enthuse and modulating his tone. He gave pertinent insight on cramp, too. Good on him, I say. He works in a snap-judgement culture, with Twitter acting as judge, jury, executioner and grave-dancer – and it’s not as if the TV channels don’t constantly promote social media interaction – so to take criticism on the chin and turn it to his advantage shows great character. (He was even funny about it on 5 Live: “I will get better – it was my first live gig and I’m just glad I helped everyone get to sleep back home!”)

Now, back to the action …

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Brazeel, BrazeelDay 7 of the World Cup; 16 games into the group stages; one cardigan; one headbutt; one smashed studio window; one England goal. But it’s not about England. Alright, it is a bit. If you’re new to my expert football writing, I do not profess – and never have done – to being a football fan in the sense of someone who lives for when Saturday comes and knows who scored what and when against whom and was transferred from where for how much. I do not follow club football, and I have no team (which is how come I was able to “support” Norwich City for a year or so when I was first on 6 Music, out of heartfelt allegiance to Gary, an ardent fan who worked on the show). The closest I get to such a thing is to feel a sort of vague geographical pull deep in my guts for England, and they make me pay for that sentimental weakness. We’ll come back to them presently.

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If you are halfway interested in my previous football reports from World Cups, please put “World Cup” into the search engine above right. I re-read a few entries yesterday and was frankly impressed by the level of detail and observation. Was I really so blessed with free time in the summers of 2010 and 2006? Apparently so. Unlike most top football players, I appear to working harder and earning less. Ah well, let’s give this roundup a crack.

I  must admit, watching Brazil fail to be Brazil against Mexico last night, and thus seeing a team play for the second time, I started to feel a bit of context forming around my position as a well-meaning fairweather enthusiast running to stand still and then finding out that standing still is pointless and running again. As the group stages unfold, generalisations can be confidently made, themes and tropes harden into a narrative, and hairstyles and habits can be matched with men and their positions in teams.

Due to being in Northampton last week, I was able to experience the first night – ie. the interminable interpretative dance-based opening ceremony and speculative heel-kicking in advance of the tournament’s first nightmarishly late kickoff – at my sister’s house with three card-carrying male football fans: my brother-in-law Graham and two of their boys, Ben and William, both glued to iPads throughout, naturally. (Although this enabled Ben to find out if “Hulk”, “Fred” and “Oscar” were the actual names of the Brazilian players so listed – no, yes and yes.) Due to school and work in the morning, staying up until the final whistle was tricky, so I nipped home at half-time and continued watching at Mum and Dad’s, on my own. Beers were taken, as is traditional. I fear for my waistline over the next month. Last World Cup, I had to foreswear the hops and move to chilled tapwater, mid-tournament.

Once it eventually kicked off, Brazil Croatia was entertaining enough. With a welcome early-ish Brazilian goal – albeit on behalf of Croatia – the game and World Cup at least broke their duck at 11 minutes. Defender Marcelo – and not blameless, brilliantly-named keeper Julio Cesar – will have to live with the unwelcome accolade: Brazil’s first ever World Cup own goal. Although what his OG meant ultimately was that Brazil basically played themselves to 3-1. Incidentally, Marcelo is one of an alarming number of players with a “sleeve” tattoo. I respect them but don’t like them. And I won’t have to wake up to one when I’m 70 and they will.

Poster boy Neymar (who my Guardian World Cup Guide tells me plays for Barcelona, a city being homogenised by the holiday cruise ship trade, so I read elsewhere in the Guardian) scored two for his own team, once in each half, the first from 25 yards, the second from the penalty spot after “Fred” was fouled (sorry, Fred was “fouled”). I have little context beyond their World Cup performance in 2010 to help place their continued international brilliance, but I have learned that Neymar keeps scoring for them. (I have major trouble remembering previous World Cups and Euros. I can just about recall which countries they took place in; this is what happens when you take your eye off the ball for two-year stretches.)

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I missed Chile beat Australia and Mexico beat Cameroon (I usually enjoy watching the African sides play, so I’ll remedy this), but the big goal haul came with Spain Netherlands, a decisive 5-1 dismantling of a once formidable team now in the doldrums. You could tell a lot had changed since I last saw Spain reign: when Torres was brought on in the last act, the BBC commentator wondered aloud why coach del Bosque had even bothered playing him. How the mighty are fallen, even when they’ve moved on from their Alice-band period. (Spain have not conceded five goals in a World Cup since 1950, stat fans.) Good to see some other old faces: non-too-shabby Xabi Alonso, who took the misleading penalty for Spain at the top of the shop; Holland’s statuesque Arjen Robben, who made it five at the other end; Robin van Persie, or RVP, who now seems now to be carrying the whole team on his shoulders, like Balotelli and Italy, or Messi and Argentina, or … cough … Rooney and England? (As we speak there is talk that Roy Hodgson might not even start Rooney against Uruguay as the owlish multilinguist seems to be all about the young players and I rather applaud him for that.)

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It might be remembered in all the easy Rooney-bashing that he set up England’s only goal of the tournament. England’s first game against Italy (get the toughest of their group out of the way first) was, initially, a revelation. Revelations are all relative, but “our boys” – and some of them are boys – seemed to be playing as a unit, pushing forward, creating chances, passing to each other. If you followed England during the friendlies here and in unfriendly Miami, you’ll already have a handle on their current form, but I didn’t. (Adrian Chiles made a remark last night about the general disdain for “soccer” among the Floridian camera operators he spoke to, who can’t get to grips with all the amateur-dramatic rolling around in pain involved in the game – they probably can’t understand why we don’t wear armour either, or split the matches up into tiny chunks to accommodate the advertisers.) I’m excited not to know so many of the England squad: Phil Jones? Luke Shaw? Raheem Sterling? Adam Lallana? Ross Barkley? Daniel Sturridge? I know who Sturridge is now, of course. His cool equaliser at 37 minutes, so soon after Marchisio’s goal for Italy, acted as a symbol for our raised hopes and dampened fears. I, for one, approached the second half with optimism, which duly evaporated like a line of that squirty cream the refs now carry on their utility belts. So we’re left with England in third place in Group D and Costa Rica first. It’s not over ’till it’s over, of course, but it’s started, hasn’t it?

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Mexico were “accomplished” against Brazeel last night, according to Jonathan Pearce (a man still confused by the goal-line technology: “NO GOAL!”). Free-flowing football was expected from Brazil; in actual fact, it was flowing-free. As I say, after witnessing two below-par Brazilian matches, I can now say with confidence that the team could provide a serviceable Kajagoogoo tribute act, or at least two Sideshow Bob lookalikes, should the bottom fall out of their football careers. I don’t know if he actually was the man of the match, but the man of the match was Guillermo Ochoa, the Mexican keeper, who’s definitely a “keeper”. Every time a Brazilian goal looked likely, there he was, with his supermop of hair bouncing behind his headband, in front of the ball: fists, chest, stomach, whichever part of him was nearest, as as graceless as it may have looked. (As Mark Lawrenson wryly commented, “You get no marks for artistic impression.”) It was enjoyable to see Fred replaced by Jo, who has even less letters in his full name.

If Brazil and Spain can cock up on the world stage, England are in good company.

What Brazil need to do is bottle the unity and spirit that was actually free-flowing during the singing of their massive national anthem, from the tortuously long intro to the a capella final verse. Tremendous. Accomplished. Total anthem singing.

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Fast shows

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Working in TV can be like striding through treacle. Specifically, writing for TV. So why do we do it? Specifically, why do I do it?

At the end of February last year, I hosted what we in the hosting trade haughtily call a “corporate”. It was an in-house event for the Shine Group, Elisabeth Murdoch’s production company, which has acquired a number of other production companies in the UK, including Kudos, Dragonfly and Princess, and operates Shine satellites “out of” France, Spain, Germany, Australia and the States. (They approached me after seeing me host a screening and Q&A at the Edinburgh TV Festival for the thriller Hunted where a miscalculation meant that I didn’t get a chair and had to host it standing up. One job leads to another.)

The Shine gig proved an exhilarating day; smoothly run at their end, and with a good, attentive audience of media buyers from around the world, who were able to see exclusive previews (or “premieres”) of three high-priority new shows: murder mystery Broadchurch, zombie fable In The Flesh and the sitcom Vicious. My job was to frame each screening and conduct a Q&A with “key talent” afterwards. In preparation, I was able to screen the first episodes of the two dramas privately, and in the case of In The Flesh, shooting scripts, which is quite a privilege, and a thrill if you’re a) a fan of TV drama, and b) a scriptwriter. Vicious was still in production at the time, but it was, again, quite an insight to see shooting scripts by the American writer Gary Janetti (alumnus of Will & Grace and Family Guy).

As a writer, it’s always meeting writers that thrills me the most. Why wouldn’t it? I’ve also hosted Q&As for Bafta, the BFI and Edinburgh with the likes of the writers and showrunners of Lost; Graham Linehan about The IT Crowd; creators of Outnumbered and Drop The Dead Donkey Andy Hamilton and Guy Jenkin; The Job Lot’s Claire Downes and Ian Jarvis; aforementioned Hunted and X-Files scribe Frank Spotnitz; the great Stephen Moffat; the great Victoria Wood; and James Corden and Matt Baynton about The Wrong Mans – all illuminating about the process.

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Part of my job as Shine’s host was to oil the wheels, hand out nibbles and ensure all went smoothly and to time onstage (we had a lot to get through in one day). (The nibbles bit was a joke.) To aid that process, I had preliminary phone conversations with the “key talent” in the days preceding the event, including the producer of In The Flesh, the producer and writer of Vicious, and the writer of Broadchurch, the now-famous Chris Chibnall. (He’ll have been known to Doctor Who and Torchwood fans already, and I’d admired his single 2011 drama United and said so on my blog, which he’d read, so we had common cause.) On the day, I also met Dominic Mitchell, who was making his TV debut with In The Flesh, which made it all the more impressive.

That’s the other thing about hosting. As host, you see the shows first, and then find yourself watching them again on the day (often with a craned neck), which is unusual, but two viewings close together really tests a piece of television. Both Broadchurch and In The Flesh passed that unrealistic test. I’m not going to say that I knew both would be honoured by Bafta just over a year later. But I knew they were good.

So, let’s flash forward to Sunday evening. I’m sitting at home, watching the Bafta TV awards on telly. (For the first time, I actually sat on the jury for one of the award categories this year, Best International Programme, but you get a bottle of champagne for doing that and not, as I’d hoped, a ticket to the ceremony; when you judge the Sonys, you get a seat on the night, albeit at a table at the back, but still.) The hat-trick for Broadchurch – best drama, best actress, best supporting actor – was not a surprise; it was the cherry on the cake of an awards season ripe with accolade for Chris’s show – a Kudos production and a kudos-magnet – which had become an actual “phenomenon”. The best miniseries award for In The Flesh (bet they’re glad they were only commissioned to make three episodes now!) was more of a surprise, but a pleasant one, albeit cruelly cut from the two-hour TV broadcast. Vicious was also nominated – Frances De La Tour – so of the three shows I helped in my own small way to premiere last February, all had been given the Bafta nod.

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In the interim, I befriended Chris Chibnall. We got on well when we met at the Shine bash, he kindly contributed a piece I wrote for the Guardian about “showrunning” and we have run into each other socially a couple of times since, notably at the Radio Times awards, where he introduced me to more “key talent” from the show, as you can see. They were collecting their framed Radio Times covers that night. More prizes. It’s nice to be there at the start of it, and nice to be there at the end of it, even if it is in a peripheral role. You should be thankful to get to be in the orbit of talented folk, and only become blase after you’re dead.

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The reason I tell this labyrinthine tale is that it belies the notion that TV takes ages. It can do, and it does. But once a show’s green-lit and in production, it can move very quickly, not least because broadcasters have slots to fill and there’s very little wriggle room once the date is set. Broadchurch debuted on ITV a day after Mayday on BBC1 last March – that’s two whodunits set in small English towns, both produced by Kudos, although Mayday ran over five consecutive nights.

I gather that Kudos had done their damnedest to convince the rival broadcasters to put a bit of breathing space between the two mysteries but history tells us that neither would budge. As a result, Mayday fell between the cracks a bit, despite being written by the talented husband-and-wife team behind the phenomenal Ripper Street. How many times do you read an interview with a writer, or writers, who say they’ve been developing the drama that’s about to be shown on telly for years?

A TV writer of some note reminded me, sagely, that actors can potentially do between five and ten jobs a year, directors between three and five, while production companies often have several on the go at once, while writers might only get one job a year, or even every two years, unless they are in such demand the are able to overlap, which must only apply to the very highest echelon. This is a fair point to remember. As I have found, you can also spend months, even years, “in development” (and thus on a very reduced fee in comparison to a full commission), only to fall at the final fence, while other hired talent – to generalise – only start work once a project is green-lit and the hours are contracted.

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I love TV. I love watching it, and I love working in it. As a job, even a living, it’s a privilege, and, for the most part, a pleasure. But as a writer, you need superhuman patience and, in tandem, ridiculous faith in your own ability, a faith that is knocked on a regular basis, no matter what level you’re writing at. The clearly talented Chris Lunt, whose first originated on-air commission was ITV’s recent Prey, has been writing pilots, bibles and treatments for years if you read his CV – he’s effectively been in development since 2008. This invisible work improves your craft. And that which does not kill you makes your stronger.

I’m also lucky enough to work as a script editor, which also helps hones my licks as a writer, or should do in theory, but it’s always easier to cut someone else’s work than your own. (I’m script editing series two of the comedy Drifters for E4 right now, and it’s bracing to be hands-on with scripts at any level.) As previously stated, I’m in development with my first drama since leaving EastEnders in 2002, and I can only dream of that green light. I spent a lot of last year writing a long, detailed treatment for a drama that sort of went cold after two broadcasters turned their noses up at it. Not a single penny changed hands, although it involved a number of pleasant meetings with a nice, well-known actor who also has a production company and we’ve bonded, so none of it was for nothing. And that’s the job.

Going back to the end of February last year. None of us knew that Broadchurch was going to become a phenomenon – pretty much credited with saving television! – but you could sense it was bloody good. Likewise In The Flesh. It’s pleasing to me, and reassuring, that both could go from premiere to Bafta in just over a year. You wonder if Prey, series two of Line Of Duty and Happy Valley will repeat the trick in the 2015 Baftas. I’ll be rooting for Lunt out of developmental solidarity!

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The business moves as if striding through treacle and we who are footsoldiers have no choice but to struggle in step behind it. But when it all comes together, it’s sweet.

The Odin catalogue

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The Guardian seems a bit stingy about Telly Addict at the moment, rarely leaving the traditional plug for it up on the homepage for longer than a day, which, it seems, reduces traffic to a trickle, thus sealing my longterm fate by their own hand. Boo! I can’t really do much more than provide an alert on Twitter and on this blog. So …

This week, we have two historical dramas, the Game Of Thrones-influenced Vikings on History and Penny Dreadful from Showtime on Sky Atlantic (I won’t ruin it for you, but I much preferred Vikings); also, the return of Showtime/BBC co-prod Episodes, and my highlights of Sunday night’s Bafta TV Awards, which I hope you enjoy.