We’re bathing in the glow of TV static at MostlyFilm right now. On Wednesday we delivered the last word on this year’s Doctor Who. And today, four of our most squared-eyed scribes are here to tell you more about the telly in 2014. Here is what you should have been watching…
Until this autumn I hadn’t watched TV for a year. My TV broke, and then I moved house and didn’t have a TV, and it turned out I only missed it once, when a small child came to visit and I couldn’t think of anything to distract them with. But then I became part of a TV-watching household, and now I watch everything, and one of the things I like watching best is the show where you watch people watching TV.
Yes, I know, you’ve known about Gogglebox since the beginning, but for me it was a revelation, and the revelation was that people are awesome. I knew that in theory, but I still started watching with an ugly, snobby, dismissive attitude of “why would I care what other people think about TV shows?”. Well, more fool me, because not only do I care what the people on Gogglebox think about TV shows, I also care about them as individuals, about their lives and homes and feelings and relationships: about Sandra’s desire to lose weight (but only from her belly); about the infinite variety of positions in which the Rev Kate’s dog manages to sleep; about Sid Siddiqui’s quiet pride in his sons; about Steph and Dom’s wine collection and the way they always hold hands and like to flirt with each other.
“But they all just play up to the cameras”, someone said to me when I told them how much I loved the show. Maybe, but Leon and June really have been a couple for sixty years, Sandra and Sandy really are childhood friends, the Tappers really do like to sit with their legs curled over each other as they watch. It is the realest of reality shows, and in a world where we have to listen to candidates on The Apprentice and The X Factor talk absolute rubbish in the name of entertainment, the reminder that in the main, people are warm, smart, funny and loving is a welcome one.
Just as Fargo got its own telly spin off, Sally Wainwright (she’s so hot right now) was pursuing her own West Yorkshire version in Happy Valley. A kidnapping plot is botched and spirals rapidly and violently out of control and a redoubtable female cop deals with the fall out, but instead of the flat snowy Minnesota plains, we had the winding roads and bleak moors of the post-industrial Calder Valley.
In a year of good TV crime drama, Happy Valley was a particular highlight, providing edge-of-the-seat tension and shocking plot twists along with plenty of old-fashioned kitchen-sink family drama.
There were some false notes. It perhaps failed to sustain its richness and complexity across all six episodes, descending into a bit of a silly psychodrama as it neared its conclusion. And efforts to address the drug problems that blight some of the Calder Valley’s deprived communities sometimes felt clumsy and heavy handed.
But these are minor quibbles when there was so much to enjoy. It was stuffed full of good solid Northern actors doing excellent work. Steve Pemberton playing it straight as the craven accountant who sets the terrible plot in motion, George Costigan and Siobhan Finneran together again 30 years after Rita, Sue and Bob Too and this year’s break-out star James Norton breaking out as villain Tommy Lee Royce. Happy Valley, though, belonged to Sarah Lancashire as tough, complex, compassionate Sgt Catherine Cawood, trying to do the right thing in the face of so much wrong. If she doesn’t get the BAFTA, I’ll eat my hat.
For his latest album Dave Grohl led his band the Foo Fighters along an interesting creative path; each song would be written in a different US city and would reflect the ‘spirit’ of that city, as well as that of the band, and while they were at it they would film the process as a documentary. The result is Sonic Highways – an album and a TV series, which aired on the BBC in the UK (you can catch some episodes on iPlayer if you’re curious). The documentary aimed to explore the creative process of song-writing and the influence that your environment has on the music you make.
Grohl has been promoting the album and series worldwide. He has said his initial thought was to record each song in a different country, but budget and time constraints meant this wasn’t practical, so they did a US tour instead. It is, of course, hard to comment on what might have been, but I think the intimacy of the portrait that Grohl has created would have been lacking if he had followed his original idea. What is so compelling about Sonic Highways is how personal his attempt to express the influences on his songwriting becomes. But this personal touch is expanded to include other musicians who are from, or are associated with, the city in question (each hour-long episode features a different US city) and this creates a broader and more compelling tapestry.
Sonic Highways is part travelogue; part exploration of a nation’s modern cultural roots expressed through music; part historical document; part expression of a creative process; and, almost coincidentally, an insight into the dynamics of a hugely successful and now 20 something year old band. Whatever you think of the music of the Foo Fighters, or indeed of this particular album, it offers a unique perspective and with Grohl as front man (both of band and documentary), we have a charming and enthusiastic extoller of all that separates and also connects modern US music.
Grohl has said he is receiving offers to direct more, and this series, alongside his piece shown earlier in 2014 on the BBC about Sound City (another compelling watch for anyone interested in modern music), certainly suggest that he is able to offer viewers an insight into the music industry, thanks to his connections and love of what he does. In each series he has explored an element of his own history and process, and yet in each his fascination with the process and stories of other artists is what shines through. If these are vanity projects, then they express the vanity of a man who wants to learn more about his contemporaries and share what it is about them that he finds so compelling with a larger audience. A documentary version of the mix tape, if you will.
Watching Sonic Highways I found myself hearing songs I knew well with new ears. An admission that I suspect would please Grohl greatly.
Inside Number 9
My actual best telly of the year was the final, bruised, brutally elegiac season of Boardwalk Empire, but there’ll be a post on that along shortly. Look out for it! In the meantime, Inside No.9 will suffice.
Of the League Of Gentlemen alumni, while Mark Gatiss gets mystifying plaudits for b-list Doctor Who and the truly fuck-woeful Sherlock, his old band-mates Reece Shearsmith and Steve Pemberton just get on with making honest, original, worth-something television. After two series of the post-LoG comedown Psychoville, (which contained some fuckbusters moments) this year saw their creepy and ever-surprising anthology-show Inside No.9; six short, distinct plays which ranged from pretty-good to amazing, the mundane audacity of which even got Mark Lawson in a tizz, which, to be fair, these days could be done with a pie and a picture of some tits. Or a tit and a picture of a some pies – Mark isn’t fussy at the moment.
With a seriously enviable guest-cast (yeah, Gemma Arterton and Oona Chaplin, as if you didn’t have other shit going on) and a relentlessly macabre tone, each half-hour nearly always ended up in the opposite place from where you expected it to go. Some of the six were better than others, but while Gatiss talks the talk when it comes to dealing with genre tropes, his two pals walk the walk when it comes to subverting them and getting them onscreen. More of this please.