2015: out with “new”

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To paraphrase the Electric Light Orchestra, the big wheel keeps on turning. But before 2015 winds down and 2016 rattles into view, I thought I’d reflect on the old year with a stock-take of new experiences I have notched up since January 1. This may not be a long list, as life tends to solidify into routine when you pass 40 unless it doesn’t, and fresh experiences are rarer. This also makes them more cherishable.

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For the record, these are my cultural roundups of the year, now patted into shape after a few last-minute additions, the incorrigible bean-counter that I am.

I didn’t do the year in theatre or gigs as I didn’t step foot inside a theatre in 2015, and only attended one live show, albeit a splendid one, and a new experience, so let’s start there.

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  • Classic FM Live | I have been to a classical concert before – the then-controller of Radio 2 invited me to a Prom when I was at 6 Music – and I’ve been to the Royal Albert Hall countless times, albeit usually to see rock or pop in the line of duty (Elton John, Echo & The Bunnymen, the Manics), and once, a ballet. This was my first Classic FM concert, and my first time seeing the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra under the direction of their Principal Conductor Vasily Petrenko. It was their 175th anniversary year and a very special night – also, my initiation into the rites of Classic FM, my new employer, who provided a box, and sat me with a selection of Lords (who were the first peers I have ever met). I loved seeing the young pianist Ji Liu doing Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No.2, and it was fun to see James Galway playing a selection of favourites, as I had actually heard of him! I would say that the explosive rendition of Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture by the RLPO was a musical highlight of 2015. (I also saw my pal Justin Moorhouse live; he was on terrific form in Edinburgh – arguably his best – but this is not the first time I have seen him so does not count as a “new” experience. If I hadn’t been working in Edinburgh, I might have seen a few more shows and chosen them less conservatively.)

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  • Saturday Night At The Movies | One thing I didn’t foresee when this year began was a new job on the near horizon. Since my tenure at 6 Music ran out in 2012, I’ve relied on the occasional Front Row nod to keep my voice on the radio, but the wireless took a back seat. When the eminent Howard Goodall announced that he would no longer be able to present Classic FM’s weekly film programme Saturday Night at the Movies (due to having a West End musical to write and oversee), I didn’t expect to be asked to audition for the gig. I leaped at the chance. And, after a couple of tryouts in late 2014, I found myself royally announced in February as a new, contracted Classic FM presenter. My first show was on March 7, and I’ve been on pretty much every Saturday thereafter, a new experience all round. I’ve been on commercial radio stations as a guest (I’ve even reviewed the papers on Nick Ferrari’s LBC breakfast show, which is in the same building as Classic, and is owned by the same media company, Global), but I’ve never presented on one, and it’s a whole new ballgame, and I feel incredibly proud to slot in between the august likes of John Suchet, Alexander Armstrong and Charlotte Green. My appreciation of classical music, and movie music, has been vastly expanded and refined over the year and the experience has given so much back. I’ve also loved discovering videogame music (which we also cover), and becoming an evangelist for it, and communicating with the listeners and movie music fans via social media. One new thing I’ve discovered is how appreciative composers are when you play their music on the radio – as, frankly, movie music doesn’t get much of a look in. I genuinely feel as if I am offering a public service.

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  • County Cork | I’ve been to Cork before, but it’s not a county I know as well as I know Galway, or Kerry, and this year’s holiday in Glengarriff was a highlight of 2015, and packed with the new! First time in Glengarriff itself, a tidy harbour town, and first time to neighbouring Bantry, a metropolis by comparison, and a surefire spot for picking up the Guardian of a morning. We also visited Garinish Island by boat, saw seals in repose and dolphins at play along the way, and drove through the pretty Bandon, where Graham Norton was raised (and which has named a river walk after its most famous son). The waterwheel in the large photo above is in Bantry.

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  • Nice people | My job, when writing, can be solitary. However, over the last few years, hosting has grown into a more significant string to my professional bow. My fourth consecutive year at the Edinburgh TV Festival, hosting Q&As and screenings both public and industry-only, was another blast, but something of a regular event for me. What’s always new about the job is the sparkling parade of people I get to meet and talk to in the name of work. I’ve upped my work-rate for UKTV this year with events for channels Watch and Dave that have been among my favourites. And among those new people I’ve met and green-roomed with have been: Ron Perlman and the cast of Hand Of God; the band Glasvegas (unexpected stars of the reality show Singing In The Rainforest); Monica Galetti of Masterchef: The Professionals; Roger Allam (pictured, with Barry Cryer, as voluble as ever, at January’s Radio Times Covers Party); Myleene Klass (also a colleague now); Charlie Simpson of Busted; Peter Kosminsky, who I interviewed as part of a BBC staff morale-boosting day in Salford, where I met DG Tony Hall for the first time too, too; the entire dramatis personae of Gogglebox as it stood after series 5 (minus Steph and Dom, who were busy), with special mention for the lovable and witty Giles and Mary, with whom I caroused at the Radio Times Festival before interviewing them in a freezing cold tent in front of an audience who doggedly refused to throw in the towel and seek warmth elsewhere; it was, naturally, a boyhood dream come true when I interviewed Harrison Ford in the flesh for Classic FM, in December – a hell of a way to end my Zelig year.

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  • Such thing as a free lunch | Sky Atlantic invited me, along with other gentlefolk of the press, to dinner at the top of the Gherkin in the City of London (a building that now stands as a paragon of architectural modesty in the gruesome shadows of the Shard and the Walkie Talkie), which was another first for 2015. I also discovered for the first time that the SD memory card in my knackered old phone sometimes erases all your photos for a laugh, never to be recovered. This pic was taken by Charlie Jordan. It was a fabulous evening, with a top view, and we were there to watch exclusive clips from The Last Panthers, which turned out to be one of the TV dramas of the year, luckily. UKTV also kindly invited me to a noisy Christmas press lunch at Mossiman’s, the “private dining club”, my first time there as well, although fine dining is not all it’s cracked up to be and there’s no point putting on airs and graces if you have tacky, framed pictures on the wall of all the celebrities who’ve privately dined there!

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That’s it for the new. It’s already old, so let’s throw it out with the neither new nor old. I’ve totted it up and I saw 140 films in 2015 that I hadn’t seen before, of which 97 were released in 2015. Nothing to trouble Mark Kermode but I pay to the go to the cinema and he doesn’t have to. And in any case, that’s quite a bit of new. I’ve also started to try and pronounce the word “new” properly, having noticed that it still comes out as the flat Northamptonian “noo” on the radio, when I prefer to to hear it exit my lips to rhyme with “phew”. Just goes to show that, even at 50, you’re not finished yet, and there’s more to do, things to improve and refine. I’ve blogged only intermittently this year, but not through want of things that enrage and engage me. May things do both once again in the new year. I am definitely getting more left wing as I get older, which I wholeheartedly welcome.

 

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2015: the year in music

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Well, I surprise myself. (And at my age, that’s a surprise in itself.) I have a solid 15 albums, all released this year, worthy of compiling into an end-of-year list. I will put them in qualitative order, despite the iniquity of doing so – I purchased three of these albums in the last couple of days, keen to catch up, so while the majority have had a really meaningful run around my head in the car (we drove from London to Cork in October, there and back, and many points inbetween, with a battery of CDs to guide us), on foot and on public transport, Adele, Kendrick Lamar and John Grant have some catching up to do. What the hell. Here goes.

1. Sleaford Mods Key Markets Harbinger
2. Adele 25 XL
3. Young Fathers Black Men Are White Men Too Big Dada
4. Carter Burwell Carol Varese Sarabande
5. Foals What Went Down Transgressive
6. Jamie xx In Colour Young Turks
7. Debbie Wiseman Wolf Hall Silva Screen
8. John Grant Grey Tickles, Black Pressure Bella Union
9. The Maccabees Marks To Prove It Fiction
10. Kendrick Lamar To Pimp A Butterfly Interscope
11. Pete Williams Roughnecks + Roustabouts Basehart
12. Rob St. John Surface Tension Rob St. John
13. Hot Chip Why Make Sense? Domino
14. Lana Del Rey Honeymoon Interscope
15. Blur The Magic Whip Parlophone

Sleaford Mods have been my lifesaver this year. I am at an age where I don’t expect to have my head turned by new artists (or newer artists, if you got there before me, and I rather expect you did). But this pair of East Midlands fortysomethings with their bendy vowels sounded as good as they read on paper. Good to get in at the ground floor with their eighth album – and I promise to dig backwards forthwith – but I’ve found it difficult not to play Key Markets through my ears. The only problem with it is that it demands your full attention. It’s not background music. So I’m reading less on public transport. And hearing the word “coont” a lot more.

I don’t discover music or artistes any more. How could I? I come to them at my own speed, and pay for the pleasure. I am no longer someone record companies or pluggers send records to. Why would they? (Actually, the quality indie reissues house 3Loop do, and I appreciate their loyalty.) This means I have entered a state of grace. I am a 6 Music listener, a Guardian music section reader and viewer of the BBC’s scant musical output (Later … With Jools Holland, Glastonbury, essentially) and these three institutions continue to direct me to a physical record shop on a physical high street. Not every month. Often in mini-binges, to catch up (and the prospect of a driving holiday in Ireland caused a phenomenal influx in late September).

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The big change in listening in 2015 has been Classic FM, who took me on in March. On a weekly basis this year I’ve been helping to curate a two-hour show of orchestral movie music and it’s been an education, as well as an excuse to play scores I already love. I’ve included two new, full scores in my Top 15, Carol and Wolf Hall, as I’ve listened to both as albums and returned to them again and again. The bulk of my iPod year has been taken up with classical music, and my savage breast is all the calmer for it.

And a final note about Kendrick Lamar. It was 6 Music and Alexis Petridis who between them led me to this artist and what turns out to be his third LP, and his second million-seller. Who knew? I bought the album – the “album of the year” for many critics – having only heard two tracks, and while slightly disappointed by the amount of “motherfuckers” on it, it’s clearly a work of uncommon invention and pluralism, and is a friend of jazz. I’ll need to try harder to get into it, as I really don’t like the interludes, but there’s something going on here, I’m just late to the party. As always.

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Oh, and a nice little link between two very disparate LPs: Rob St John’s delightfully immersive multimedia experience Surface Tension is based on recordings taken along the River Lea in London (it’s an elementally London record); Adele’s 25, which may have sold one or two more copies than Rob’s but they’re not really competing for the same audience, contains a lovely, gospelly song called River Lea. You have to look for connections, but they are always there. Buy both.

2015: the year in books

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The traditional composite illustration above – which is always fetching, a smart line of book covers – might convey to the untrained eye that I have chosen nine of my favourite books from this year. In fact, it depicts 100% of all the books I read this year. And of those books, only four were published this year. This, if you’re a regular browser, is fairly typical. I’m not a voracious book-reader, certainly not like I used to be, but I always blame that with cast-iron certainty on the New Yorker, and this year has been no different. (One of the books up there, The Unwinding, is by a New Yorker writer, but I find I’m still slogging through it. I haven’t given up yet, though, which is why it’s still pictured, and still by my bedside.)

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Three of them, I read on holiday, during an intensive fortnight of downtime. It’s what holidays are for (something I’d forgotten). All three were old, not that it matters, and two of them novels. I found Capital compulsive to begin with, as it’s set in a street in South London, which is my quarter, at the time of the 2008 crash, which I lived through, but felt the thriller element was a distraction from the social history and by the end I was reading out of a sense of dogged loyalty. When it appeared on TV last month, I was able to pick fault with the adaptation in a way that I am never normally qualified to do. Room, I purchased because I was due to see a preview of the film, by Lenny Abrahamson, and fancied seeing how it worked on the page. Brilliantly. It’s my second favourite book of 2015 (it was published, and raved about by the rest of the readerati, in 2010, but I have never claimed to be a tastemaker). The film is out in January.

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My first favourite book was The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen, a novel that took the world by storm in 2001. It’s been in our house for at least a couple of years, and the holiday enabled me to tackle it. I couldn’t put it down. But most people probably knew that already. I don’t care. It was a revelation, and not a book that should ever be turned into a film or a TV series (as was once mooted). It’s pure literature. It needs to be read, not adapted. Oddly, I followed up this edifying and electrifying experience by starting Freedom by the same author, and it just did not click with me. I put it down. Maybe, like Lionel Shriver, he has one masterpiece in him, which is one more than the rest of us.

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The book about ISIS, one of many rushed out this year for obvious reasons, is a useful guide, but inevitably out of date already. I’ve appreciated it as a potted history, as much of it takes place after The 9/11 Wars and The Looming Tower, when al-Qaeda were the ones to watch.

 

Billy Bragg’s book is a compendium of his lyrics, and a lovely thing to have if you’re a fan. Jim Bob’s second Frank Derrick novel is a lovely, humane social comedy about ageing that really should be turned into a film or a TV series, and you don’t have to be a fan of his music (although why wouldn’t you be?) to appreciate its lyricality. Talking of being a fan, if a single image sums up my year in books, it’s this one.

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It’s a thrill to be able to say I had a book out this year. My name may not be on the cover of the Gogglebook, but it’s in full view inside, and I really did write it, except for the bits that are taken from the TV show, clearly. If you’d like to order it but not from the biggest online bookshop in the world, this link takes you to Hive, and means you can send custom to a local bookshop, an initiative I fully support.

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My name was on the cover of another book, too. Less mass-market, it’s an art book, End Of A Century, another beautifully designed and illustrated tome, which I was delighted to be asked to edit: a tribute to the amazing artwork of my late friend John Wrake, better known as Run, who died in October 2012. To research the book with his wife Lisa, who designed it and provided footnotes from his original notebooks and diaries, was a labour of love, and allowed us to spend two days in the NME’s archive in November 2014 (all the illustrations in the book are for the NME’s lead album review – I reprint one below). It’s a hefty chap, but something I’m proud to put my name to. You can order it and sample some more of Run’s work here.

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Not as bookish a year as it might have been, but full of words and pictures.

2011: here isn’t the news

I am incredibly busy this festive season, but keen to do my usual themed reviews/lists of the year. Let’s do TV. In a year where the most exciting stuff happened on the news, I will concentrate on new and returning dramas, comedies and documentaries. Clearly, there are more than 15 TV shows I loved in 2011 – I enjoyed Frozen Planet, like everybody else, and Spooks – but you have to draw the line somewhere, otherwise you would go mad. Here is the line that I drew.

1. The Shadow Line, BBC2

I spent much of the year watching British drama on television and failing to really passionately engage with it. And not all of it could blame its own hype for in-built disappointment, like The Hour. As a writer who can currently only dream of writing serious drama, I want everything to be great. I will it to be so. But much of it seems designed to be understood by idiots, which is likely to be down to pressure from broadcasters and producers, and I understand that. Meanwhile, Hugo Blick’s near-Shakespearean police corruption potboiler moved about familiar territory with such panache and confidence, it put all those identikit new cop shows like Vera, Case Sensitive, Case Histories and even The Body Farm in the shade. And required you to think at every turn. Even though none of us guessed the ending – surely! – it wasn’t a whodunit. It was so much more than that. I can never forgive it for seeming to drown a cat, and the fact that I have made it number one despite this shows just how good, and resonant all these months later, it is.


2. This Is England ’88, C4

This could have been more of the same from Shane Meadows, who found a comfortable spiritual home on TV last year with This Is England ’86. But he raised the emotional bar, and wrung so much more out of his gang, not least Lol, perhaps the most inappropriately named character in modern drama, through whose troubles Vicky McClure played a blinder. Lovely use of The Smiths on the soundtrack, too.

3. The Story Of Film: An Odyssey, More4

A truly epic undertaking, Mark Cousins filled a void we didn’t even know existed by providing a history of cinema that was at once personal and polemical, but strove for mainstream legitimacy and arguably achieved that, constantly criss-crossing continents to show echoes bouncing around the globe concurrently, but firmly placing entirely original and thrilling comparisons into context. His lilting voice – which I love – conveys “pretentious” to his detractors, but its softness and sense of wonder humanised a big subject. I didn’t want it to end.


4. The Killing, BBC4

I’ve only seen the first season. The second is stacking up in my Sky+, deliberately, so that I can watch it box-set style in big swathes – that’s how I devoured this one. I sense that Forbrydelsen II is not the equal of the original, but how could it be? It’s half as long, for a start, whereas the first one, out of the blue, took us into a whole other world and allowed us to linger for 20 episodes, all the while changing our minds about whodunit, and learning Danish as we went. Sophie Grabol was superb as Sarah Lund, but it wasn’t just about her and her jumper. This was a window on the parallel universe of Scandinavia, where grisly murders don’t happen as much, politics is all about coalition and the rain seems never to stop. Who knew that a subtitled drama would be one of the year’s best? (It originally aired in 2007, of course, but it’s new to us.)


5. Boardwalk Empire, Sky Atlantic

I apologise to all of you who diligently snub all of Rupert Murdoch’s works and thus cannot join in the chorus of approval for what is, effectively, our own little HBO: Sky Atlantic. Its launch was, for my household, one of the best bits of news of 2011. Whether it’s oddities like Bored To Death, from-the-start re-runs of the likes of Big Love and The Wire, TV movies of the quality of Too Big To Fail or Temple Grandin, or brand new, still-wet broadcasts of the best US stuff, like this, or Mildred Pierce, the stopcock of quality never stops flowing. What’s most astounding about Boardwalk Empire is the way the second season has turned it on a new pivot, with Jimmy taking over from Nucky, or attempting to, and Van Alden starting a new life. Also: the best opening credits on television. You can probably see those on YouTube for free.


6. American Horror Story, FX

Delighted to see this get a Golden Globe nomination today. I have a soft spot for FX (more Murdoch, I’m afraid, but he’ll get his comeuppance in hell), which this year brought The Walking Dead back and went all BBC4 with its thrilling French cop import Braquo. But American Horror Story, one of the few truly chilling pieces of mainstream television since Twin Peaks, pretty much instantly became a favourite, with Jessica Lange bringing some Hollywood ballast to a cast otherwise made up of familiar folks from other TV shows, like Connie Britton from Friday Night Lights, Morris Chestnutt from V, Zachary Quinto from Heroes, Frances Conroy from Six Feet Under, and on it goes. The haunted house standby gets an eerie makeover from the creator of Nip/Tuck and the now off-the-boil Glee (with both of which it shares a delicious sense of camp), with a gimp seemingly living in the attic, and everybody who ever died in the house living in the cellar.


7. Game Of Thrones, Sky Atlantic

I’m really not one for fantasy lit. And I doubt I’ll ever pick up one of George R.R. Martin’s novels. But this epic saga, based upon that very source material, provided a stirring narrative in its first season, with a parallel world of warring factions so complex the opening credits (which won an Emmy) are based upon a map. Perhaps a little too fond of soft porn nudity for its own good, it’s full of British and Irish actors – and shot in Northern Ireland – so has that instant appeal. And it’s got Peter Dinklage in it – another Emmy winner – so what can go wrong? Season two due to air on HBO in April 2012, and that means we’ll get it almost concurrently, something that never used to happen, did it?


8. Fresh Meat, C4/Rev, BBC2

Hedging my bets a bit, I realise, but these two comedies, so very different, cannot be separated in my mind. Fresh Meat, which showed Campus how to do a student comedy – mainly by doing it about the students and not the staff – will surely win Jack Whitehall a Comedy Award on Friday, and if not, it doesn’t matter, he’s redeemed himself in the eyes of anyone who had him down as a smug, preening, fast-tracked, over-privileged stand-up hunk, breathing life into the monstrous but lovable JP. (Zawe Ashton also a revelation as Vod.) Sam Bain and Jesse Armstrong created the template and, we may assume, the characters, but other writers, some much newer to telly, took on individual episodes. This programme is actually like a university. And Rev I’ve raved about very recently. It continues to delight.


9. Top Boy, C4

Although arbitrarily broadcast across successive nights when it should have been allowed to bubble and simmer across the same number of weeks, Top Boy was writer Ronan Bennett at his dramatic and journalistic best, translating what he learned from residents of estates in East London into a story that – in bravely dispensing with the police (or “Feds”) – found a human story among the hardship. Along with Attack The Block, another fiction about black youths by a white writer that sidestepped caricature, this dared to look beyond the cliches. Also, what an atmospheric piece, so brilliantly founded upon the insistent, ambient riff from Ghostpoet’s Finished I Ain’t. (It’s interesting that this came so soon off the back of The Jury on ITV1, also by Bennett, but replete with cliches and clunky exposition, almost as if someone somewhere decided that ITV1 viewers needed their food cutting up into chunks for them, which I would argue they don’t.)


10. Treme, Sky Atlantic

Like Boardwalk Empire, here’s another sprawling drama that manages to keep a number of stories spinning, and was not defeated by a second season, despite a spectacular first. So very different to The Wire, whose Ed Simon co-created it, and yet so similar in many ways, it concentrated on the black experience, but not exclusively, and did a unique thing in narrative drama in letting the music tell the story. There is clearly music in the veins of New Orleans, and this aspect was what made Treme so different. It’s not a musical, but it is.


11. All Watched Over By Machines Of Loving Grace, BBC2

I saw a lot of documentaries this year, as I am drawn to non-fiction. But Adam Curtis is more than a documentary maker, and his latest, esoteric, uniquely paced three-part opus took in everything from Ayn Rand, Alan Greenspan and Buckminster Fuller to President Mobutu, Richard Dawkins and the Club Of Rome, all the while taking the back off our obsession with computers and machine-age utopianism. This is a filmmaker who joins dots that you didn’t even know were dots.


12. The Promise, C4

Sometimes, ambition is not enough. But in tackling the Israel-Palestine question from both a historic and a contemporary viewpoint, without ever decisively demonising or lionising either side, Peter Kosminsky – a dramatist who likes issues – created a compelling story that asked as many questions as it answered. Claire Foy came of age (did that sound patronising enough?) as the initially apolitical tourist in Israel who delves into the past via the death of her grandfather. I didn’t feel brow-beaten – terrorism, cruelty and prejudice was shown on both sides – but came away feeling pretty sad about the whole situation. (It made me re-attempt Martin Gilbert’s epic account Israel, but it defeated me again. The Promise was in that sense far more successful.)


13. British Masters/Art Of America, BBC4

It would be churlish to separate these fine art series on the channel that does them best. The former gave us a new expert, Dr James Fox (with whom I entered into a pleasant correspondence when I contacted him through the faculty of Gonville & Caius College, Cambridge while trying to ascertain his actual age, which is a sickening 29), the latter set a well established one, the persuasive Andrew Graham-Dixon, at another part of the world, this time America. So we had Dr Fox, not that one, moving from bathhouse to terraced street in search of the great, in some cases unsung, British painters of the 20th century, from Nash, Spencer and Freud to Hamilton, Bomberg and Hockney, while Graham-Dixon hopped in the statutory open-top car and went from coast to coast to get to the heart of Hopper, Wyeth, Rockwell and Warhol. Both utterly absorbing – the former knocked on forums by certain academics for sanding down the rough edges (a criticism my new friend Dr Fox refutes) – and both pulled off, with aplomb and approachability, in just three parts apiece. I could have watched either for twice as many. Can’t wait for their next LP. In a year when BBC4 had a large chunk of its pocket money taken away by a government that hates it, we have to hope they have ringfenced funding for this type of thing. Sky Arts do an ever improving job, but we can’t have Murdoch taking over the whole sandpit. Even Sky Atlantic disciples understand that.


14. Modern Family, Sky1

Still the best US import, Modern Family has been a constant in my life all year, and, when a run coincides with 30 Rock and Curb, as it did this autumn, I feel spoiled by American wit. Favourite character? Still Cam.


15. Celebrity Masterchef, BBC1

You know I have a soft spot for this, and it gets into the Top 15 partly because it had such a likable and impressive bunch of contenders in Kirsty Wark, Hollyoaks‘ Nick Pickard, Danny from Supergrass and eventual winner, the sweet and soft-spoken retired rugby captain Phil Vickery, but also because the show was exiled to the salt mines of daytime from the early evening and I think this was a bad move. It deserves to be reinstated.