Eldest and I are nearing the end of re-watching Breaking Bad. It’s raised a family debate about the various qualities of TV shows over the years that may or may not shuffle them towards the status of ‘great’ or even ‘legendary’.
Like attempting to rank your favourite Quality Street, this is a task that requires much thought, significant testing, and not a little subjectivity. Is the sweet tang of the Orange Cream superior to the sumptuous feel of the Green Triangle? And there’s only a few of those – think about the hundreds of thousands of TV programmes that have proliferated our screens since we were plugged in at an early age.
Statistics revealed today show that in a lifetime we spend on average 17 hours picking our nose, 92 days on the loo, 24 years asleep, but an astonishing 138 years watching TV*. It is a pastime that will never feature on a CV or at a job interview (Q: Mr Smith, why do you want to be a doctor? A: Because I’ve watched all eight seasons of House), yet it is ever-present and all consuming like nothing else, except perhaps a recurrent fungal infection.
A chart was recently compiled by the Press Association to mark the 80th anniversary of television beginning in the UK. You may have guessed that Only Fools And Horses and Coronation Street made the Top Ten audience figures, but you’d have done well to nominate The Mike Yarwood Christmas Show and To The Manor Born in that list.
And anyway, TV is such a personal obsession. One person’s Strictly is another person’s X Factor. Some get more excited by Great British Bake Off than Game Of Thrones. Here is my own Top Ten of favourite long-running TV series (therefore excluding one-off programmes, sporting events and films) in alphabetical order – ranking them properly would take another 138 years*:-
(* statistics entirely made up)
Around The World In Eighty Days – not the first fine attempt at travelogue, but the first to bond it to that element of suspense. The funny but somehow fragile Michael Palin guided us through his own personal adventure whilst showcasing the quirky and occasionally obtuse nature of the world beyond our doorstep. The will-he/won’t-he nature of the escapade spawned a new genre of exciting reality travel adventures, as well as a stunning debut book from Neil Andrew on his attempt to go Around The Races In Eighty Days.
Castaway – the idea of being marooned on an island is such an attractive one, even if it is in a Scottish winter with a bunch of weirdos. An in-depth examination of survival and society, this was well-meaning and not as attention-seeking as some of the series that have followed. Without this groundbreaker there may never have been Bear Grylls, although some might say that would be a good thing.
Channel 4 Racing – this is a horse racing blog after all (despite much evidence to the contrary) and this stalwart has become as much a staple of my weekend as the Sunday roast. Much maligned in recent years (and rightly so, I would humbly suggest), let us not forget the supreme entertainment it offered in its heyday – the squabbling of Francome and McCririck, the wit of Down, the enthusiasm of Plunkett and the cheeriness of Thompson. It was like taking a privileged seat at a homely kitchen table as old friends bantered the afternoon away.
ER – No fewer than 15 seasons of this US behemoth, and although it could have stopped a bit sooner, at its peak it rightfully garnered nearly 50 million viewers and many accolades. The juxtaposition between the frenetic action of an emergency room and the trials and tribulations of everyday life made us feel so close to the main characters. The Wife and I have pencilled this in for retirement.
Fawlty Towers – no problems about going on too long for this British classic; just two series of six episodes each, but what a triumph each of them was. In amongst the sublime farce and frantic calamity were brilliant writing and extraordinary performances. I put it to you that this is the best comedy series ever made.
It’ll Be Alright On The Night – my family loved to laugh (when you grew up with my family, you had to really) and we laughed no longer or harder than when watching the original Dennis Norden vehicle of the seventies and eighties. This is the granddaddy of cock-up programmes, and the forerunner of You’ve Been Framed and all the YouTube ‘Epic Fail’ compilations. Why is it not available on DVD or catch-up?
Louis Theroux’s Weird Weekends – I love the documentary genre, and could have named any number of individual masterpieces, but as a series this was captivating and ghastly all at once. The gentle and faux-naive inquisitor allowed his subjects enough space to open up, and they usually did to spectacular results.
The West Wing – some cynical friends see this as gross American triumphalist hogwash, but watch the first six episodes and tell me it isn’t some of the most intelligent, engaging and hopeful television to ever be made. Clinton and Trump should be watching this as a guide to how it could, and should, be done.
The Wonder Years – some emotionally inept friends (the same ones, in case you were wondering) see this as mawkish, twee American teenage pap, but suspend for a moment the realisation that you are watching an angst-ridden story of kids growing up in the suburbs and you will find a tender, beautiful, joyous tale of life, love and friendship.
Top Gear – elements of the aforementioned reality travel adventures and light banter made this compulsive viewing (try watching the Bolivian special without letting your chin hit the floor). Yes, Clarkson is a buffoon and the three of them make a very odd couple (so to speak), but somehow it works brilliantly. On the surface it is three grown men in cars acting like children, but underneath there are subtle subplots of danger, camaraderie and humour.