Review of 2018: television

21 December 2018

A glorious year for high-quality drama

BBC/Sid Gentle Films/Jason Bell

Villanelle (Jodie Comer) and Eve (Sandra Oh), in Killing Eve, one of the highlights of a glorious year for TV drama

Villanelle (Jodie Comer) and Eve (Sandra Oh), in Killing Eve, one of the highlights of a glorious year for TV drama

IT WOULD be quite unfair to say that there was no religion on TV throughout 2018. Looking back over my year’s notes, I find at least four programmes devoted to our faith, including the fly-on-the-wall series about Herefordshire clergy, A Vicar’s Life (BBC2); Pilgrimage: The road to Santiago (BBC2); and Jesus’ Female Disciples: The new evidence (Channel 4) — which wasn’t new at all, but needs to be told.

What our religion does formally was on show in The Royal Wedding: Harry and Meghan, and many programmes that commemorated the Centenary of the Armistice. Religion in a more general sense received thought-provoking attention in Bettany Hughes’s Bacchus Uncov­ered: Ancient god of ecstasy (BBC4); Grayson Perry’s Rites of Passage (Channel 4); and that extraord­inary meditation on the high places of this earth, Mountain (BBC4).

Religion was, as always, a constant theme in many arts and cultural pro­­grammes, especially The Art That Made Mexico, on BBC4, and in Civilisations, presented by Simon Schama, Mary Beard, and David Olusoga, the curiously underwhelming remake of Kenneth Clarke’s 1960s masterpiece in the singular (BBC2).


Science, too, played with religious themes: for example in Alice Robert’s redesign of the human body (her own, actually) in Can Science Make Me Perfect? (BBC4). Politics brought a slew of major BBC2 documentaries in which religion was a key factor: House of Saud; Syria: The world’s war; and Dangerous Dynasty: House of Assad.

Weinstein: The inside story (BBC1) paid proper attention to a current issue, while several programmes inspired by the 70th anniversary of the NHS raised many questions about today as they saluted the past. Nothing brought the reality of the slaughter of the First World War closer to home than Peter Jackson’s remarkable reworking of contemporary footage in They Shall Not Grow Old (BBC1).

But 2018 was, above all, and gloriously, the year of TV drama. All channels have decided that their laurels depend more than anything else on commissioning high-quality productions: intelligent, well-written, sharply directed, magnificently designed, and brilliantly acted by top stars. We have never had such a feast.

As usual, we saw adaptations of classic novels: BBC1’s Little Women, The Woman in White, and ITV’s Vanity Fair. But far more unusual was the bumper harvest of new dramas: McMafia, Hard Sun, Kiri, Collateral, The Split, Keeping Faith, Bodyguard, Wanderlust, Strangers, Trust, Black Earth Rising, Killing Eve, The Cry: it is an astonishing tally.

BBC/CTV/Brigid McFallPilgrimage: The road to Santiago (BBC2)

Too many of them rely on sensational criminal material; too many glory in violence and blood­shed; and, very often, the final episode, with a far-fetched denouement exposing the flaws in the plot while keeping open the possibility of a further series, is less satisfactory than what has gone before; but all of them pay serious attention to serious themes.

If it’s all too much, the year’s best new comedy was Stath Lets Flats (Channel 4).

Michaelmas 2018 represented a significant moment for me as I retired after four decades of full-time parochial ministry; so expect this column to read very differently, focus­ing henceforth on daytime TV and shopping channels.

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