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Last Updated: Friday, 26 December, 2003, 02:52 GMT
Ingram's coughs to Blaine's box

By William Gallagher
BBC News Online

It had to be a quiet year when one of the TV hits of 2003 was magician David Blaine sitting in a box and doing nothing much for weeks.

Canterbury Tales
As Cold Feet finished, James Nesbitt moved straight to Canterbury Tales
The early part of the TV year was dominated by the conflict in Iraq, but there were key drama, comedy and factual highlights and shows that got people talking.

Or coughing: this was the year when Charles Ingram's attempt to win 1m using a friend with a tickly throat on ITV1's Who Wants to be a Millionaire was finally shown, after his conviction for cheating.

We got to see it in March, although the show was recorded in 2001.

David Blaine: Above the Below, which aired first on Sky One and was rapidly repeated on Channel 4, gave both stations high ratings as we watched him enter his box and, later, stagger out into the arms of medics.

It was also the year of an interactive show to save dilapidated buildings, Russian Roulette live on TV and a modern adaptation of medieval writer Chaucer.

Restoration on BBC Two set out to save one endangered building and really to bring dozens of them to our attention.

Derren Brown risks Russian Roulette
Ratings went up right about here for Derren Brown
Canterbury Tales on BBC One sexed up Chaucer's already quite raunchy stories and although the series seemed to fizzle away by the end, provided great roles for James Nesbitt and Julie Walters.

Martin Bashir's ITV1 special Living With Michael Jackson made waves in February when it criticised the singer for allowing boys to stay with him overnight, and the ratings stayed high for Jackson's TV response.

Early 2003 saw some shows revive and some die. The BBC brought back ITV's Auf Wiedersehen, Pet in April and ITV dropped Crossroads in March.

A must-watch show was BBC spy drama series Spooks. A June episode caused controversy when it featured a suicide bomb school in a mosque.

And a scene from another episode where a woman was tortured by having her head plunged into a vat of boiling oil drew 154 complaints, the most of any show in the year to July.

Shortlived quirky comedy The Book Group had what seems to be its last meeting that month too, and ITV1's thirty-something drama, Cold Feet, for so long dominating the ratings and awards ceremonies, went out strong in March.

The factual piece that caused the most controversy was October's The Secret Policeman, from the BBC.

It followed a journalist who trained as a policeman and filmed astonishing examples of racism that have since led to investigations and resignations.

As for the soaps, Richard Hillman brought the ratings to ITV1 when he came to a dastardly end in Coronation Street in March, while Dirty Den returned unscathed in September from what had appeared to be a dastardly end in 1989.

This year we gained a revamped Crossroads in January but lost it again in May, and Brookside went out with a whimper in November.

There were plenty of flops during the year, perhaps the biggest being Chris Evans's Boys and Girls which launched amidst great publicity in March.

It finished in May and was cancelled in June.

At the same time Channel 4 decided not to make any more celebrity versions of the original reality TV hit, Big Brother.

Yet you just cannot predict what will work. August's silly Rosemary and Thyme was a big hit for ITV1 while its equally daft September launch, Sweet Medicine, died.

Taut drama

But there were hits that were not daft at all. ITV1's The Second Coming, starring Christopher Eccleston as a man who appears to be the Messiah, was a critical smash in February while BBC's State of Play was a star in May.

State of Play was Edge of Darkness meets Lou Grant by way of Defence of the Realm - a taut drama set equally in the worlds of politics and newspapers where the apparent suicide of a young woman unravels an enormous conspiracy.

Magician Derren Brown's attempt to play Russian Roulette live on TV was criticised as a stunt, but a ratings hit - although amusingly only at the end of the show, as people tuned in to see if he lived.

Quieter hits that deserve higher ratings than they got included BBC Four's US import Curb Your Enthusiasm.

By and starring Seinfeld co-creator Larry David, it brought more agony than laughter as it conjured incredibly imaginative embarrassing situations for its leading man.


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