Talking Heads, The Salisbury Poisonings, Normal People and I May Destroy You - My TV highlights of 2020: Anthony Clavane

I was tempted to ditch the customary review of the year. With the global pandemic producing closures, cancellations and cuts throughout the arts, I thought I’d just pretend 2020 never happened.

The Salisbury Poisonings was one of the year's most acclaimed dramas. Picture: James Pardon/BBC/PA
The Salisbury Poisonings was one of the year's most acclaimed dramas. Picture: James Pardon/BBC/PA

This, however, is the last column of the year. It would be wrong not to mark it, despite it being, as everyone keeps pointing out, an annus horribilis. Like in Coronation Street, which this month celebrates its 60th anniversary episode, terrible things have happened. But there’s no need to go over the top and get too carried away.

There’s no need for metaphorical trams crashing off viaducts, as happened in the legendary soap’s 50th anniversary.

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Indeed, I thought I’d take a leaf out of the Street’s book and celebrate the unshowy resilience and quiet strength that continues to give us hope in these dark times.

Normal People was among Anthony Clavane's TV highlights this year. Picture: BBC/PA/Element Pictures/Enda Bowe

Just like those Corrie residents currently fighting off a developer’s plan to bulldoze their houses, the arts have stuck two fingers up to the virus.

In fact, very much in this spirit, this has been the year that TV drama, as a whole, has kept calm and carried on, producing memorable – and at times life-enhancing – storylines.

According to Coronation Street’s producer, Iain MacLeod, the pandemic “has forced us to go back to brass tacks and focus on character and writing and performance”.

It has emboldened TV drama to eschew big-budget blockbusters and concentrate on the vagaries of ordinary, human existence. High production values have been replaced by down-to-earth, character-driven storytelling. Needs must.

Four series stood out. The BBC remade Alan Bennett’s masterpiece Talking Heads. Originally broadcast in 1988 and 1998, it showcased the best acting talent in the country – Martin Freeman, Kristin Scott Thomas, Jodie Comer et al.

The Salisbury Poisonings was a ratings hit. Based on the real accounts of the 2018 Novichok attack, it was a fitting tribute to the unsung heroes of that crisis, tapping into the fears, anxieties and hopes of the Covid-19 era.

Normal People became something of a phenomenon, an absorbing and heart-breaking account of an on-off relationship between two shy youngsters from a sleepy Irish town.

Best of all was I May Destroy You, the surprise hit of lockdown. In many ways, it broke all the rules of conventional storytelling. But it ended up reaffirming the triumph of those three old-school values: character, writing and performance.

There were a few duds, of course. But, in the spirit of being positive, let’s not mention any trashy whodunits featuring preposterous plot-lines and gratuitous orgies.

Yes, let’s not mention White Lines. I can’t believe I wasted ten hours of my life on a series starring Laurence Fox.

I can just about forgive the former Lewis actor the preposterous plot-lines and gratuitous orgies. I can forgive him hugging his friends in his house during lockdown.

I can even forgive his terrible northern accent in that Netflix series I don’t want to mention.

Although, I would like to ask him why southern actors have such a problem with a northern twang. All they need to do is listen to Gogglebox’s Lee and Jenny, from Hull, or sisters Ellie and Izzi, from Leeds.

Or Chris, from Grassington. The last of these northern TV stars, Chris Mason, has had a great year. He has taken over as the host of Radio Four’s Any Questions, appears regularly on BBC Breakfast and is part of the Brexitcast podcast gang. All of which didn’t stop the snobbish Sunday Times radio critic Gillian Reynolds pointing out to her readers his “slight speech defect… a faint Yorkshire impediment”.

But back to Fox. One thing I can’t forgive him for is his campaign to, as he puts it, “utterly defund the BBC, decriminalise the licence fee and get rid of it, throw it out to the free market.”

The anti-Beeb obsessives have, throughout this year, continued to attack this great institution. It may be flawed but only this channel could have produced such brilliant drama as Talking Heads, The Salisbury Poisonings, Normal People and I May Destroy You, the kind of drama that has made us laugh and cry. That has inspired and provoked, helping us feel less isolated and more connected.

That has kept us human – and sane.

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