Belfast Telegraph

Thinking outside the box: TV shows that defined the last 19 years

In an attempt to hold a (black) mirror up to our viewing tests, Ed Power records the home-produced television shows that defined each of the last 19 years

A nation's taste in television tells you a lot about its state of mind. In the UK's case, since the dawn of this millennium, viewers have been keen on Z-list celebrities screaming at each other and Simon Cowell flexing his eyebrows menacingly.

That's not the entire story, of course. Alongside the rise of reality juggernauts such as Big Brother and The X Factor, the past 19 years have witnessed new heights of sophistication in home-grown drama (presumably in response to the challenge laid down by American 'golden age' fare such as The Sopranos and Mad Men). This, in other words, has been an era of thrills, spills and chills; of flapping great-coats, squirm-inducing comedy and cheeky voiceovers.

A countdown of the best shows since the year 2000 is naturally subjective. With the following list, we have taken into account both the sheer quality of the material and also its cultural significance. The overall picture is of a country that, as it has hurtled from late-stage Cool Britannia to Brexit Blues, has done an excellent job entertaining itself and left us with some decent telly along the way.

2000: Big Brother (Channel 4)

After endless tawdry seasons dominated by kitchen-sink bust-ups and diary-room rants, it's easy to forget how revolutionary Big Brother was when it arrived at the dawn of the new century.

Adapted by Netherlands production company Endemol from its already notorious Dutch hit, Big Brother was a grand social experiment repurposed for prime time. Random individuals were plucked from obscurity and forced to share a glorified Portakabin for a month. Overnight, heroes and villains were created. And, when Celebrity Big Brother came along in 2001 (Jack Dee the first winner), the vaguely famous jumped at the opportunity to humiliate themselves too.

After it moved to Channel 5 in 2011, the law of diminishing returns kicked in and it was announced that this year's Big Brother was to be the last, leaving us with memories good, bad, hilarious and disturbing.

2001: The Office (BBC)

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The Office
 

Alan Partridge had arguably beaten Ricky Gervais to the punch in exploring the tragicomedy of life as a middle-aged man labouring under delusions of cool.

But as World's Hippest Boss David Brent, Gervais (with co-writer Stephen Merchant) perfected the art of making us cringe and laugh in the same heartbeat.

Using the fly-on-the-wall documentary style of the period, The Office was also the arguably the first workplace sitcom to capture the soul-shrivelling tedium of sitting at a desk all day, nothing but your fag break to look forward to. And there was a genuinely affecting romantic arc, as besotted colleagues Tim (Martin Freeman) and Dawn (Lucy Davis) overcome impossible odds - ie Dawn's idiot fiance - to be together.

2002: Top Gear (BBC)

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Top Gear
 

It would end in a punch-up over a cold-meat supper, but when Jeremy Clarkson and producer Andy Wilman rebooted the BBC's creaky motoring show as a lad mag in TV form, they were doing something genuinely revolutionary.

Top Gear was TV for blokes that wasn't in the least apologetic about it. Cyclists were jeered at, expensive cars driven at speed, single-entendres dropped like breadcrumbs at a pigeon convention.

Top Gear quickly became BBC's global cash-cow. The audience spanned continents and, at its peak, the franchise was worth an estimated £50m annually to the corporation. Clarkson and co-presenters Richard Hammond and James May (above) left under a cloud when Clarkson lamped one of his crew in 2015. Top Gear has since struggled to replace the dynamic trio. Cheeky duo Freddie Flintoff and Paddy McGuinness were recently unveiled as the latest strapping in for a test drive. We wish them well - perhaps in vain.

2003: Peep Show (Channel 4)

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Peep Show
 

Step aside David Brent. If The Office made us glance away in embarrassment, David Mitchell and Robert Webb's two-hander had audiences doubled over wincing.

With the laconic comedians playing housemates and straight men to one another, Peep Show was embarrassment comedy at its finest and starkest - a buddy movie as scripted by Samuel Beckett.

2004: The X Factor (ITV)

We've long since stopped caring but there was a time The X Factor loomed large in the national conversation. At its peak, the talent show ran from the sublime to the ridiculous - or, to put it another way, from One Direction to Jedward.

It minted genuine stars - the aforementioned 1D - and gave us a lifetime supply of sob stories. The greatest TV villain of the 2000s, moreover, was early-period Simon Cowell, who, merely by frowning, could crush the dreams of a 15-year-old ingenue.

2005: The Apprentice (BBC)

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sugar
 

Where the original New York-set Apprentice featured a pre-Apocalypse Donald Trump and legions of shiny-toothed Americans, the British version was something else entirely.

With contestants' patter drifting between conventional English and the glossary of self-help business manual, The Apprentice interwove comedy and drama like no other reality show. Whether the 'candidates' were trying to buy a bucket of eels for a fiver off a recalcitrant fishmonger or shrinking before Alan Sugar's (right) stubby finger of doom, The Apprentice was - and largely remains - consistently amusing. Here was a reality show that reminded us nothing is quite so ridiculous as an ordinary person shoved unprepared before the cameras.

2006: Life on Mars (BBC)

It was always widely understood the Seventies were rubbish - a blur of Ford Capris, smoke-filled rooms and sexist 'banter'.

But Life on Mars, with John Simm as a Manchester policeman sent (or so it seemed) 30 years back in time, brought the era of a three-day week and Bovril for supper grippingly to life. It also gave us one of the great TV anti-heroes in detective Gene Hunt (Philip Glenister).

2007: Skins (Channel 4)

'Yoof' drama finally exorcised the ghost of Grange Hill.

Chronicling the ups and downs of teenage friends in Bristol, Skins unflinchingly unpacked issues such as substance abuse, sexual identity, bullying and mental illness. By daring to show adolescence as it was lived - rather than as how adults wished to remember it - father and son writers Bryan Elsey and Jamie Brittain had sparked a low-key revolution. Skins also served as a star factory, with Nicholas Hoult and Dev Patel among its cast.

2008: The Inbetweeners (Channel 4)

As if to countercheck Skins' gritty portrayal of teendom, Damon Beesley and Iain Morris's The Inbetweeners brought a charming bawdiness to its portrayal of pubescent derring-do.

Will, Simon, Neil and Jay were virginal young men at a hard-knocks comprehensive, their lives an obstacle course of cruel teachers, aloof girls and oblivious parents. The Inbetweeners would never win awards for subtly, but for all its crudeness, the show's heart was always in the right place and in the end it was its sweetness that made it beloved.

2009: Red Riding (Channel 4)

Future Spider-Man Andrew Garfield became enmeshed in a web of murder and secrets in darkest Seventies Yorkshire in this riveting adaptation of David Peace's Red Riding quartet of novels.

As with the source material, the feature-length miniseries portrayed Yorkshire's West Riding as a baroque backwater, sustained by rumour and lies. And the paedophile plot at the heart of the story was horrifically fleshed out as we left behind Garfield's cub reporter Eddie Dunford in 1974 and moved on to the Eighties. Here, Paddy Considine and Mark Addy, skirting the real-life story of the Yorkshire Ripper, played outsiders stumbling upon a skin-crawling conspiracy.

2010: Sherlock (BBC)

It was elementary the Benedict Cumberbatch-Martin Freeman caper would make our shortlist.

Despite the present-day setting, Cumberbatch's Sherlock was almost definitive - his Baker Street detective at once aloof, amused (and amusing) and also faintly ridiculous. Steven Moffatt and Mark Gatiss sent Holmes and Watson on ever more convoluted adventures and in the end even the two stars would appear to be a bit fed up with the fandango. But early on, and with Conan Doyle's source material to work from, Sherlock was sublime.

2011: Black Mirror (Channel 4)

What would happen if a prime minster were to be intimate with a pig?

It's an unlikely question with which to kick off what would eventually become a multimillion-pound Netflix franchise. But such was the scatalogical manner with which Charlie Brooker's Black Mirror announced itself. Initially operating on a modest Channel 4 budget, the anthology series portrayed the future and the present as dreary dystopias, in which technology ensured there were no secrets, except for the ones we kept from ourselves.

2012: Line of Duty (BBC)

Jed Mercurio's first proper blockbuster gave us cops investigating cops within the Met's anti-corruption unit.

Martin Compston's DS Steve Arnott, Vicky McClure's DC Kate Fleming and Adrian Dunbar's Superintendent Ted Hastings were our entry into a world of lies, betrayal and paranoia. Lennie James, Keeley Hawes and Thandie Newton were among those playing friends and foe (occasionally both at once) across four absorbing series (with a fifth due this year).

2013: Broadchurch (ITV)

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Olivia Coleman
 

David Tennant, Olivia Colman and future Doctor Who Jodie Whittaker headed the top-rank cast - but the true star was the haunting fictional town from which the series took its name.

A child was killed amid the ghostly splendour of Dorset's Jurassic Coast and as detectives Hardy (Colman) and Miller (Tennant) investigated, they uncovered buried secrets and evil lurking behind the seaside bliss.

2014: Happy Valley (BBC)

Proving there is life after Coronation Street, Sarah Lancashire put in a bravura turn as Sgt Catherine Cawood, a no-nonsense police officer with a tragic family history (daughter dead by suicide, sister a recovering drug addict).

This was a jumping-off point for a exploration by series creator Sally Wainwright of the dark side of rural Britain. Week by week, the outwardly idyllic setting of Wainwright's native West Yorkshire was revealed to be a viper's den of deceit, murder and sexual violence.

2015: Poldark (BBC)

This luscious reboot of a largely forgotten Seventies costumed romp gained immediate acclaim for its spectacular views.

But while audiences understandably swooned over Aidan Turner's epic combination of pecs and three-cornered hat, the swooning Cornish backdrop didn't do any harm either. Eleanor Tomlinson and Heida Reed filled out the cast.

And if the suspicion lingered that many diehard fans were watching simply in the hope moody copper magnate Ross Poldark (Turner) would once more whip off his shirt, this tale of mercantile skulduggery and romantic rivalry was still neatly drawn and deftly acted.

2016: The Night Manager (BBC)

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Tom Hiddleston
 

A turbo-charged le Carré adaptation fit for the Daniel Craig James Bond era.

Tom Hiddleston charmed and swaggered as hotel concierge-turned-intelligence operative Jonathan Pine while Hugh Laurie devoured the scenery in huge chunks as amoral arms dealer Richard Onslow Roper. The Night Manager was in the end largely a triumph of surface sheen over deep storytelling - the plot was not un-stodgy - but how this small-screen blockbuster sparkled.

2017: Blue Planet II (BBC)

It took David Attenborough and the BBC Natural History Unit to wake us up to the devastating impact on the oceans of single-use plastics.

But even aside from its stark environmental message, this breathtaking exploration of the aquatic teeming multitudes was compelling. The world beneath the waves revealed to be an alien realm as spectacular as any sci-fi epic.

2018: Bodyguard (BBC)

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Bodyguard
 

The plot had more holes than a Swiss cheese festival and Richard Madden wore the same clenched expression throughout.

Still, Mercurio's political thriller felt like a huge leap forward for British drama.

It was cool and sexy - and that's even taking into account the cringeful love scenes between Madden's special protection officer David Budd and Keeley Hawes as the morally ambiguous government minister he was tasked with protecting.

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