There were notable deaths and unfortunate flops, but we also got some brilliant drama, writes
There were enough decent dramas on offer in 2019 to suggest rumours of the death of the golden age of TV were greatly exaggerated. Top of the pile for many people was season two of Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s incredible series. Take your pick of acclamations for a show that will surely sweep the awards over the next few weeks — original, hilarious, touching, brilliantly written, superbly acted, etc, etc, etc. Apart from the main star — who developed the TV version from a one-woman stage show — we saw top-class support turns from the likes of Fiona Shaw, Kristin Scott Thomas and Bill Paterson, while Andrew Scott got a cult following all of his own as the Hot Priest.
The last series of the biggest TV show in the history of the world came with a tsunami of anticipation for the most eagerly awaited TV show since the big reveal on who shot JR. Who’d win the Iron Throne? Unfortunately, by the end, most people wouldn’t have cared if Jon Snow had walked out of the shower arm-in-arm with Bobby Ewing. The bond had been broken. Ponderous opening episodes were followed by to a rush to the end, and along the way we got clunky dialogue, anti- climactic departures (‘Cheerio so, Mr Night King’), token box-ticking, and a character-jump involving Daenerys that left us feeling like they’d left at least three episodes on the cutting room floor. It really didn’t have to be this way.
Who is H? Line of Duty returned for an fifth series after a two-year absence, and the big question it herded us towards was the identity of the bent copper that Dot Cottan had identified as having the initial ‘H’. Surely it couldn’t be our own Ted Hastings. Over six episodes we faced more twists and turns than the old Mallow road. And then came the big reveal... there was no H after all! We know Jed Mercurio’s show has at least two more instalments on the cards — hopefully the talented writer can reel us in again.
Creators of natural history shows have long faced a dilemma. For decades they’ve witnessed the destruction of forests, pollution of seas, etc, but if they produced anything too preachy or depressing, most of us would reach for the remote control. At last, in 2019, the crisis went mainstream. David Attenborough and others still created stunning wildlife shows, but always with the message of ‘We need to act when we still have time’. Also, whatever about forest clearances and plastic pollution, it’s a difficult task for film-makers to get across such big-picture issues as climate change. The calving glacier scene on Our Planet on Netflix managed to do so in an astounding sequence that underlined how those alarm bells are ringing loudly with the tone of a sundering mountain of ice.
While the fuss around the deaths of some well-known people can have a whiff of the worst aspects of celebrity culture, in the case of Gay Byrne every column inch and mention on the airwaves was fully deserved. Few broadcasters on the planet have had the impact of Byrne, and the outpouring of national appreciation from all corners of society formed a fitting tribute.
Of course, a big chunk of Byrne’s legacy is the strength of the Late Late Show brand, a programme that TV experts and common sense tell us is well past its sell-by date. But still it endures. Ryan Tubridy will never get Gaybo levels of adulation, and it’s an overly-long show to try and keep afloat in this era of media-savvy/bland guests, but the 46-year-old has very much established himself as King of the Toy Show. The most recent episode set a course towards less toy reviews, and instead focused on heartwarming tales for an adult audience, as well as providing comfort for children who might find themselves on the fringes. It might not be something that’d work every year, but this time, it made for a lovely show. Other highlights among the Friday night offerings included a perfomance from a healthy-looking Sinead O’Connor; while a tribute to Shane Mac Gowan was probably long overdue, even if some of the fare on offer wasn’t how we’d choose to remember The Pogues’ frontman.
Dee Forbes was a regular fixture in the news pages through the year, as RTÉ’s director general characterised the organisation’s financial predicament as “unlike anything we have seen before”. It has long been a national sport to complain about the national broadcaster, but the network really faces a tough predicament as the broadcasting world undergoes seismic shifts. Fewer people are watching live TV, advertising revenues are diminishing, and quality content is being hoovered up by international players. Selling off the (publicly-owned) family silver will only plug a tiny hole in the balance sheet in what is already looking like the end of an era for RTÉ. Most of us probably don’t care which network we watch our shows on, but a weakened public broadcaster is a loss for us all.
In ways, the Prince Andrew public relations debacle was all the fault of Netflix. If they had released season three of The Crown just a few days earlier, young Andy might have seen the episode about how Daddy’s idea to open royal lives to BBC cameras in 1967 proved to be rather counter-productive. The public just didn’t ‘get’ how great they actually were. Fast- forward 52 years and a similar mix of stupidity and arrogance seems to have come into play as Andrew felt he could explain away the accusations being made against him. Cue tales of his inability to sweat, which sounded bizarre even before every newspaper was plastered with pictures of him dripping with enough perspiration to extinguish an Aussie bushfire. As an aside to the tawdry issue that we’ll be hearing plenty more about, Emily Maitlis again proved a superb interviewer. It’ll be interesting to see who plays her in The Crown series seven.
- Catastrophe might not quite have regained the heights of that first season in 2015, but the show bowed out with a heartwarming finale that reminded us of the talents of Rob Delaney and Sharon Horgan.
- In many ways, This Way Up felt like a sister show to Catastrophe — complete with the appearance of Horgan — and Aisling Bea hit a particularly Irish beat in her lighthearted approach to some of life’s weightier issues.
- The Troubles were even worse than we remember. Back in the day, a lot of those south of the border became somewhat immune to it all, and people everywhere have probably forgotten how awful it really was. Timely reminders came from Darragh MacIntyre’s series for the BBC, Spotlight on the Troubles: A Secret History; and Children Of The Troubles, a documentary on the child victims of the conflict from Joe Duffy and Freya McClements.
- We’re still waiting for the new Love/Hate. Dublin Murders started with plenty of promise, but even all that talent on both sides of the camera couldn’t prevent the show being abandoned by many viewers.
- There are also interesting days ahead for Netflix. Increased competition means it no longer has the muscle it once had in the streaming world and, despite a few notables, much of its own content is grand rather than great. Hit shows such as Stranger Things and Mindhunter faltered this year with disappointing seasons.
- Alan Partridge didn’t recapture the glories of his early days, but his version of ‘Come Out Ye Black and Tans’ deservedly became one of the viral hits of the year.