Magic moments that bring the nation to a standstill are more special than ever #englishheadline
Thank the stars for Tv — the one force that still has the power to bring the nation together.
On Sunday night, as the BBC1 police thriller Line Of Duty finally revealed the bent copper at the heart of its web of corruption, up to 13 million Brits were glued to their sets . . . at the same moment.
Whatever you thought of that finale — and many applauded it as subtly ingenious, while others denounced it loudly as a letdown — it achieved its purpose. We’re all still talking about it.
There’s a magical sense of community in knowing that millions of us are watching together. Every gasp of surprise and grunt of puzzlement is echoed across the land.
Bob Hoskins and Cheryl Campbell in the television programme Pennies From Heaven in 1978
Actor Dan Stevens in the ITV acclaimed period drama series Downton Abbey
Actors David Tennant and Olivia Coleman in the ITV thriller Broadchurch
No other medium can do that. It’s true that lockdown has seen us rediscover the joys of radio and reading, and more people than ever are hooked on podcast serials and streaming video shows.
But we experience those stories individually, drop by drop — not in a great tidal surge together, as we do with live telly. And it’s been that way for more than half a century.
The national fascination with Line Of Duty is no different to when we were all still watching in black-and-white, in 1967.
The country was divided by Soames’s domineering treatment of his wife (Eric Porter and Nyree Dawn Porter) in The Forsyte Saga. That provoked arguments in homes and offices that made Brexit look like a wry difference of opinion.
Or a decade later when almost everyone was mesmerised by Bob Hoskins and Cheryl Campbell in Dennis Potter’s mini-series Pennies From Heaven in 1978.
In 1980, normal life all but came to a halt as in our millions we turned in to the glossy soap Dallas, to find out Who Shot J.R. (Larry Hagman). Insiders refer to shows like this as ‘appointment-to-view TV’ — the ones we are so determined to see, we clear our diaries.
And they remain as highpoints for years. You might think you don’t remember anything special about Christmas 2012 . . . until you realise it was the night Cousin Matthew (Dan Stevens) suffered his fatal car wreck, moments after becoming a father in Downton Abbey.
Downton’s forerunner was Upstairs Downstairs, with Gordon Jackson as the stiff-necked butler and Nicola Pagett as the family’s flighty daughter, Elizabeth.
Stars Sarah Lancashire and James Norton in the British crime drama Happy Valley
Keeley Hawes and Richard Madden in the BBC crime drama Bodyguard
The Night Manager with Tom Hollander, Olivia Colman, Elizabeth Debicki, Tom Hiddleston and Hugh Laurie
The sense of scandal that gripped Britain in 1972, when Elizabeth’s sexually repressed husband handed her over to a friend so she could conceive a child, can hardly be exaggerated.
Now, it’s mainly crime (though not always) that brings us together in breathless anticipation. Broadchurch in 2015 did it, when DS Ellie Miller (Olivia Colman) broke down as she learned who killed her best friend’s son.
You could add to that list James Nesbitt in The Missing, Sarah Lancashire in Happy Valley, Hugh Laurie in The Night Manager, Reese Witherspoon and Nicole Kidman in Big Little Lies — superb actors in cunningly constructed compelling dramas.
And the 2019 Christmas special of Gavin & Stacey delivered what every fan of the series had wanted to see — although it was Nessa going down on one knee to propose to Smithy (Ruth Jones and James Corden) rather than the other way round.
That episode was watched by 17.1 million people, the most for any scripted, ie non factual, show of the decade.
On Sunday, more than half the entire viewing audience — 56.2 per cent of everyone watching TV — was tuned in.
The average figure of 12.8 million viewers surged at one point to 13.1 million, the biggest for any crime drama in 20 years.
The fact that this was by no means one of the show’s better episodes (or even series) was irrelevant. Kelly Macdonald as DCI Jo Davidson was neither a likeable nor credible officer — unlike predecessor Keeley Hawes as DI Lindsay Denton, who could be brutal, obnoxious and vulnerable all in one breath.
We were watching because we were finally going to find out the solution to the mystery.
For ten years we’d seen the dogged sleuths of AC-12 turning over stones to expose layers of squirming corruption.
At last, they had a chance to get their man (or woman) — the fabled ‘H’. There’s a huge expectation in any long-running story that the writer will bring all the threads together. Every loose end will be tied off, every question answered, every detail revealed to be significant.
Lucy Davies and Martin Freeman as Dawn and Tim in the British comedy The Office
James Corden and Ruth Jones in the much-loved British comedy Gavin and Stacey
Patrick Duffy, Victoria Principle, Charlene Tilton, Barbara Belle Geddes, Larry Hagman and Linda Gray in Dallas
Done well, there’s nothing more satisfying than the climax of a shared Story.
It has been a human pleasure since the dawn of language, the act of gathering around the storyteller in silence.
Art of an ending
Game of Thrones ran for eight seasons
The longer the series, the more desperate we become for a great conclusion. But which ones left us fulfilled and which ones were simply frustrating?
MISS Game Of Thrones: The finale of this blood-drenched fantasy’s first season was staggering. It sent millions reeling to bed, unable to believe what they’d seen. The climax of the third season topped even that. So the damp squib that brought the story to an end felt like an outright betrayal. Eight seasons, 2011-2019.
HIT Blackadder: Rowan Atkinson’s historical comedy took a year or so to get into its stride, but gradually evolved to give us some of the best-loved characters in sitcom — especially Tony Robinson as Baldrick. The final episode, in the trenches of World War I with the characters sent ‘over the top’, broke the nation’s hearts. Four seasons, 1983-1988.
MISS The Undoing: For a show that was worth watching for Nicole Kidman’s wardrobe alone, it’s a shame that the creators didn’t dress up the ending a little more. The big twist was . . . there was no twist. One season, 2020.
HIT Breaking Bad: This took the smalltown tragedy of a cancer-stricken teacher, whipped it up into an international criminal enterprise, added confusing backstories and characters, and wiped the slate clean with an ending that made sense. Five seasons, 2008-2013.
MISS House Of Cards: The 1990 original, with Ian Richardson as a scheming chief whip in the Commons, had all Britain agog. The U.S. remake with Kevin Spacey as a murdering presidential candidate was already falling apart when the star was accused of sex crimes. His character was abruptly killed off. Then Donald Trump arrived, and made it all look tame. Six seasons, 2013-2018.
HIT The Sopranos: The greatest gangster serial ever screened Every scene, every line of dialogue in this show resonates and re-echoes. Everything means so much more than it seems. And then, that ending . . . Six seasons, 1999-2007
MISS Lost: Possibly the most controversial ending of any TV series. The drama, about a group of plane crash survivors stranded on an island, had multiple supernatural elements. Fans argued endlessly over what it all might mean. They could agree on only one fact: they didn’t like it. Six seasons, 2004-2010.
Neil Gaiman, who created TV hits including Good Omens and American Gods, says the most powerful human instinct can be summed up in four words: ‘And Then What Happened . . ?’
It’s the question that will lure us back to Line Of Duty if the series ever returns — regardless of whether we thought the denouement was worth all that effort.
I found it a crashing disappointment. The revelation that slow-witted DCI Ian Buckells (Nigel Boyle) was the copper feeding information to organised criminals came as no surprise.
Writer Jed Mercurio was making a valid point — most criminals are stupid and mastermind villains exist only in Sherlock Holmes stories.
But we didn’t stay glued for 37 hour-long episodes in the hope of being rewarded with a mundane observation from an essay by a psychology undergraduate.
We expected to be shocked, delighted, horrified, bamboozled, dumbstruck . . . and for me Line Of Duty did not deliver. And I’m not alone.
Novelist Marian Keyes tweeted: ‘Like, NO! I’ve never felt so let down.’ My colleague Piers Morgan, punning on the show’s infamous, misspelt clue, called it: ‘Definately a tad underwhelming.’
And Peter Andre, who was ‘beyond buzzing’ before the finale, was sadly deflated. ‘Is that it?’ he groaned.
By the way, that in itself is a remarkable achievement.
No other artform ever invented could unite a bestselling writer, a heavyweight columnist and a 1990s heart-throb, along with about 13 million other people, in a simultaneous obsession.
We’ve been lucky enough to experience this several times in the past few years — with another Mercurio production, for example, Bodyguard, which in 2018 had the nation by the throat from its explosive opening scene.
Off-duty policeman Richard Madden talked a suicide bomber out of destroying a crowded train, and we were hooked.
Another series is planned, though filming has yet to begin — and a further two seasons might follow.
We don’t worry that Bodyguard’s ending was also forgettable.
The climax earlier this year of The Undoing, with Nicole Kidman and Hugh Grant, was also not much cop — most people (and I don’t mean this nastily) were hoping to see Hugh hurl himself to his death from a bridge, not hand himself in meekly to police.
But for every disappointment, there’s an ending that leaves us wonderstruck.
No one could have predicted that Ricky Gervais’s mock-documentary The Office would rise to a joyous, almost inspirational conclusion.
Yet the memory of the romance between salesman Tim and receptionist Dawn, and that hint of redemption (and love) for clueless boss David Brent, can’t fail to generate a smile.
It’s enough that every show offers the possibility, the hope, of a stunning denouement . . . and many deliver.
Who knows when the next one will arrive? I can’t wait.
And your next fix
Caroline Proust as Laure Berthaud in Spiral
Spiral — iPlayer: Captain Laure Berthaud might be the toughest female cop ever seen on TV. She treats her romances like cage-fights. These stories of the Paris underworld are dark, gritty and bad for your blood pressure. Eight series, 2006-2021.
The Shield — Amazon Prime: Politics and corrupt policing mingle on the streets of Los Angeles. It’s cynical, hard-bitten and ruthless, from the heartland of film noir. Seven series, 2002-2008.
Babylon Berlin — NowTV: As Nazi thugs take over post-war Germany, shell-shocked Inspector Gereon Rath (Volker Bruch) joins forces with goodtime girl Charlotte Ritter (Liv Lisa Fries) to find a murderer . . . and uncovers much more. Three series, 2017-2020.
Lupin — Netflix: Inspired by a 19th century detective story, Assane Diop (Omar Sy) — a thief and son of a Senegalese immigrant in France — plots his vengeance on the arrogant millionaire who drove his father to suicide. Diop is elegant, cunning, a gentleman thief in the mould of Arsene Lupin . . . the French equivalent of Raffles. So far only five episodes have been released, but the show has fans on tenterhooks. One season, 2021.
Money Heist — Netflix: Possibly the maddest crime show ever. A group of bank robbers, controlled by a mastermind who calls himself The Professor, blockade themselves into Spain’s national mint and start printing a fortune. Hilariously exciting. Four series, 2017-2020.
The Bridge — iPlayer: At first, it was the mystery that mattered. This was a murder designed to shock and confuse the police of two countries. But as the show unfolded, the crime became secondary to the characters and especially to Swedish detective Saga Noren (Sofia Helin). What we cared about most was to see her find some kind of happiness, in place of that perpetual expression of pain and puzzlement. Four seasons, 2011-2018.
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