12 tasty TV treats for 2012

Our guide to some of the best television programmes to look forward to this year

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1 – Birdsong (BBC1)

Bringing Sebastian Faulks’ historical-romantic bestseller from the page to the small screen has been quite a production. A clutch of directors – including Sam Mendes, Iain Softley and Paul Greengrass – have been attached since the epic World War One novel was published in 1993. Actors ranging from Ralph Fiennes to Ewan McGregor to Jake Gyllenhaal have been in the frame to play British officer Stephen Wraysford.

But the span of the book – from drowsy Amiens in 1910 to the carnage of the Western Front, plus a related story running in the almost-present day – proved daunting.

Enter, finally, writer Abi Morgan (The Hour and The Iron Lady) and director Philip Martin (Wallander). Their two-part, three-hour adaptation of Faulks’ novel stars Eddie Redmayne (My Week with Marilyn) as Wraysford and Clémence Poésy (Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire) as married Frenchwoman Isabelle Azaire. The ill-starred lovers’ pre-war romance haunts the Englishman as he tries to survive the trenches, and the tunnels beneath.

“We did all the war stuff – the latter part of the story – first and then we did the romance,” says Redmayne. Filming in Hungary last summer, the actor spent five weeks huddled in dug-outs in an increasingly frayed uniform, then had to slip into gentleman’s finery for the scenes set six years previously when he meets Isabelle. “It was an amazing challenge, and an exciting one – it’s like two different films intertwined.”

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A preview of an unfinished, special effects-free version of episode one suggests that the team have managed to combine all those strands brilliantly. Those who love the novel can be assured that its heart, soul and gut-wrenching drama have not been lost in translation. 

2 – Shakespeare season (BBC1, BBC2)

In a church in London’s Clerkenwell, a throne sits vacant. Around it, actors and crew circle in anticipation as director Rupert Goold prepares for a take in what will be a landmark in TV drama. As part of the BBC’s contribution to Cultural Olympiad and the London 2012 Festival, BBC 2 is bringing four Shakespeare history plays to the small screen in the spring.

In the course of Richard II, Henry IV (Parts I and II) and Henry V, the throne will be occupied by Ben Whishaw, Rory Kinnear, Jeremy Irons and Tom Hiddleston, with a supporting cast including David Suchet, David Morrissey, Michelle Dockery, Maxine Peake, Julie Walters and Patrick Stewart. It’s a line-up as dazzling as any of the costumes worn by Whishaw, who this year will also feature in the Bond movie Skyfall and series two of The Hour.

“Playing Richard II has been hugely rewarding,” says Whishaw of the months he has spent being steeped in the mud, blood and the King’s poetry.

3 – White Heat (BBC2)

Following a group of art students from their flat-sharing teens in the 60s to the present day, the drama White Heat takes us from Harold Wilson to Margaret Thatcher, feminism to the Falklands, hedonism to HIV, while exploring where life, love and betrayal leads them.

“As students they are all really excited about the world and what they can achieve,” says Claire Foy who plays Charlotte, a young feminist. “They are excited about what they can do with their lives, and they really do do something, unlike today’s students, who think being famous or playing Call of Duty on their computer all day is more exciting than actually being out in the world.”

Foy ages over 40 years during the course of the six-part series with the aid of prosthetics, but the highlight for her was seeing Juliet Stevenson playing her older self. ‘I went to see her on stage while I was at drama school, when she was in The Seagull. I remember thinking ‘Oh my God, I want to be able to do what you can do’. And now I am.”

4 – Titanic (ITV1)

When Julian Fellowes was scripting the opening episode of hit drama Downton Abbey, he was setting himself on a collision course with his own iceberg.

The first scenes of Downton open with the news that the Earl of Grantham’s heir has been killed on the Titanic. Now, marking the centenary of the cruise liner’s sinking, Fellowes has created a four-part series about the most famous ship in history.

Fellowes’ latest project does have the feel of a companion piece to Downton, but any resemblance is entirely coincidental – Titanic was commissioned before the Crawley family saga made it to the screen.

“My job was to people the ship,” explains Fellowes – adding that the job of the creative team behind the TV series was most definitely not to compete with James Cameron’s record- breaking 1997 epic.

“Obviously we couldn’t rival the movie for special effects. And that was essentially a love story told against the backdrop of the Titanic. We wanted to tell the story of the ship and all the different groups of people travelling on it.”

Shot in a studio outside Budapest last summer, Titanic is a tale of many stories; of real and invented characters spanning the class, political and geographical divides; and of Hungarian carpentry – the two-tiered, 150-foot scale replica of the ship took only three months to build. Titanic promises a spectacular and dramatic journey… even if we do know how it ends. 

5 – A Touch of Cloth (Sky 1)

The motivation behind A Touch of Cloth was simple, writes the show’s creator Charlie Brooker. Along with my co-writer, TV Burp’s Dan Maier, I wanted to create the silliest programme we could muster, but disguise it as the most serious. Writing this was a joy: we all sat round a table attacking our favourite clichés and lobbing in as many extra gags as possible.

The result is a deadpan spoof of detective shows like Messiah and Luther, starring John Hannah as DI Jack Cloth and Suranne Jones as DC Anne Oldman.

Expect lots of moody glances, disturbing flashbacks, gruesome crime scenes, and bits where a maverick cop battles with demons. Inner demons, not actual outer demons, obviously. Inner demons are cheaper to shoot – you don’t need CGI.

6 – We’ll Take Manhattan (BBC4)

In her first leading television role without the Doctor by her side, Karen Gillan will be stepping out of the Tardis and into the shoes of 60s supermodel Jean Shrimpton. We’ll Take Manhattan tells the story behind David Bailey’s photo shoot with Shrimpton for Vogue that changed fashion photography forever.

“I was quite interested in David Bailey’s photographs, and in the 60s in general” says Gillan. “Whenever I’d send pictures to stylists of the sort of things that I liked, she was always in the pictures. So when I saw this script, I thought it was perfect!”

The drama chronicles not only the legendary photo shoot but the love affair between the rebellious but talented Bailey and his young muse. Full of nostalgic 60s fashion and gorgeous young things frolicking around New York, it presents the modelling world as incredibly glamorous and exciting.

Gillan was in fact a model herself while she was trying to make her break into acting, but for her it wasn’t quite the exhilarating experience it was for Shrimpton. 

Now that Amy Pond is soon to meet a “heartbreaking” end on Doctor Who, would she ever consider returning to the catwalk? “I don’t think so. It was just a way to get by, to be in London and to go for auditions.” 

7 – Hit the Road Jack (Channel 4)

Mildly plummy, rapier-witted Jack Whitehall spends a week in a different British city, staying with a host family of strangers, and documenting his experiences. Along the way he visits Manchester, Cardiff, Newcastle, Glasgow, Bristol and Essex, but the result is less a travelogue and more a vehicle for his polished TV persona (although his confidence was jarred when he met his host family in Glasgow and realised he’d snogged the daughter a few years previously while on a beach holiday).

At the end of each week, he presents what is essentially a madcap variety show at a local venue. He performs stand-up, which both celebrates and gently ribs each location, and reveals some of the candid-camera stunts he has carried out – in one city he convinced passers-by he was a doctor who had delivered a human baby from a pregnant cow! 

8 – Olympics (BBC)

It won’t just be London Olympics poster boy Tom Daley going into overdrive in July. The BBC is working through the gears as it prepares to broadcast 2,500 hours of sporting action across TV and online services.

Billions will tune in for the opening and closing ceremonies, and at the peak of its broadcast activity the BBC expects to be delivering 24 simultaneous live streams on its sports website.

For those looking to escape, the key dates are 27 July to 12 August. 

9 – The Voice (BBC1)

While The X Factor may be all about tedious novelty acts, trite sob stories and glamorous makeovers, this new singing contest focuses solely on the voice.

The show starts with its four coaches – pop sensation Jessie J (above) crooner Tom Jones, Black Eyed Peas front man will.i.am and Danny O’Donoghue, lead singer of Irish rock band the Script – picking their acts. While the wannabes perform, the coaches have their backs to the stage and make their selections without ever seeing them. 

The contestants are then gradually whittled down, culminating in a series of live shows where viewers choose the winner. 

10 – Empire (BBC1)

“Much of the Empire was built on greed and a lust for power. But the British came to believe they had a moral mission too – a mission to civilise the world.” So says Jeremy Paxman as he goes in search of the extraordinary characters whose burning ambition led to the creation of an Empire that, at the peak of its powers, was four times the size of Ancient Rome.

The five episodes span three centuries and five continents, with each one looking at a different aspect of British rule: from the prosperity imperialism brought the motherland, to the cult of sport that Britain exported around the world. 

11 – Diamond Queen (BBC1)

Andrew Marr has already chalked up the History of Modern Britain and the Making of Modern Britain and now, in the Queen’s jubilee year, he’s turned his attention towards the monarch. This three-part series is a curtain-raiser to a year of jubilee events, the centrepiece of which will be a four-day celebration in June.

Marr follows the Queen on tours of America, Australia, the Middle East and Ireland to observe how the machinery of monarchy works. He also talks to family members for a very personal insight into the woman who’s reigned for 60 years.

“Over 60 years many of us have become so used to her we he have stopped asking what she does or why she does it,” says Marr. “We have taken her rather for granted. And after 60 years perhaps it’s time we stopped.” 

12 – Euro 2012 (BBC/ITV)

England manager Fabio Capello believes it will be tougher winning the Euros than the World Cup. Perhaps he’s getting his excuses in early. BBC sport will be hoping not. They have allowed ITV to take coverage of two of the three group qualifiers, thus securing England’s quarter-final and semi-final matches — should they qualify. 

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All 31 matches will be covered live on either of the two channels, with England’s opening game against France taking place on 11 June. The tournament in Poland and Ukraine lasts three weeks, and 24 days after the final the world’s footballers will be first on stage at the Olympics.