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When This Life entered our lives…

Anna and Miles spoke to a nation, while we were charmed by a cheeky animated character by the name of Bart. Josephine Monroe scans Screen’s hit list of TV programmes that defined the decade.

The Observer Sunday December 12, 1999

1 This Life
A cast of unknowns, green writers and some seriously shaky camera work – it wasn’t immediately apparent that This Life would become the show of the decade. A dynamic and idiosyncratic drama about a group of sexually active lawyers in London SE1, this had dialogue that rang true, behaviour we recognised and seductive storylines. It broke moulds – in terms of narrative and photography – and enthralled at the same time.

Part of This Life’ s charm was that we were not commanded to watch it by endless trailers, but encouraged by friends. Unlike its rivals for the best ensemble drama – Our Friends in the North and Holding On – it wasn’t consciously trying to be epic. But by capturing a spirit of dissatisfaction, This Life was a focal point for a generation and represented the audience’s urban lives without apology. This Life also had Anna(Daniela Nardini). With pockets of self-doubt sewn into the seams of her armour of one-liners, fags, alcohol and legs, she was a female icon born out of the legacy of Jane Tennison and was TV’s first ladette.

2 Modern Times
The Death Of Yugoslavia was a remarkable documentary – in story, structure and understanding; and Painted Babies, about toddlers’ beauty pageants in the US, was unforgettable. But, as a strand, Modern Times offered both greatness and wonderful film. Throughout the decade it built a style that was unmistakably individual – arch, contemporary and lush. It gave us some of the most visually enriched films, from Lucy Blakstad’s The Lido (about Brixton Lido) to Lynn Alleway’s Quality Time ( nannies). Not to mention an anatomy of a Jewish wedding.

3 The Sopranos
The finest US drama series ever made. It pandered to no one and didn’t promise anything it couldn’t deliver in spades. On the face of it, David Chase’s contemporary drama was about the New Jersey mafia but we all knew that it was about modern urban society in terminal decay. The two families of Tony Soprano (played with subtlety and brutality by James Gandolfini) told us what was wrong with our ambitions for ourselves without nostalgia for a time that never existed. Funny, dark and complex, it left us open-mouthed by its daring and originality.

4 Murder One
After Hill Street Blues, LA Law and NYPD Blue , producer Stephen Bochco’s brand of polished class was becoming predictable… until this. For 23 episodes we followed the murder trial of actor Neil Avedon, the distractions of office romances, crumbling marriages and the uneasy alliance between the law and the media – and right after O.J., too.

5 The Royle Family
Caroline Aherne and Craig Cash’s sitcom stands out for its acidic accuracy and radical lack of ‘sit’. The Royles – who do bugger all but scratch their arses and watch telly – were a family we recognised and despised for their stretch pants, chain-smoking and selfishness, but most of us would have swapped our own families for a night on their sofa.

6 Brass Eye
Those who saw Noel Edmonds telling kids to ‘say no to cake’ will never forget it. Chris Morris’s Brass Eye was biting satire at its best. A mix of set-ups (Carla Lane getting very upset about an elephant with its own trunk stuck up its arse) and scripted inserts, this was astonishingly bold TV.

7 Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?
This sleek, powerful machine lived up to the hype and we watched even though we didn’t want to, even though dinner was ready and the cab was waiting. The first British TV show in a generation to become ‘event television’ on a par with royal weddings.

8 The Simpsons
This has taken a long time to infiltrate the British psyche. But now people are just as likely to say ‘Doh!’ when they hit their thumb with a hammer as ‘bugger’ because whenever we watched, we wanted more: more of its inventiveness, subversion and blistering observation. The Simpsons, like The Sopranos, tells us more about modern family life than any documentary.

9 Absolutely Fabulous
Forget the last series, and cast your mind back to Jane Horrock’s Bubble and the ‘important paper’ episode or remind yourself of the time when Joanne Lumley’s Patsy fell over in France. This was a show that everyone watched and enjoyed. Until the third series, of course.

10 Cracker
Jimmy McGovern’s Cracker took the crime genre from whodunit to whydoit. Supremely intelligent writing, gifted acting from Geraldine Somerville, Christopher Eccleston and Ricky Tomlinson – not to mention Robbie Coltrane – this delivered intelligent entertainment to a massive audience.

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