Best TV Documentary 2012

Russia, Putin & the West
Russia, Putin & the West – BBC
The latest documentary mini series from Norma Percy who previously delivered the excellent Iran & the West, this was probably the most satisfying doco aired this year. Anyone in any doubt as to how this quiet and unassuming former KGB man rose so fast from obscurity to total control of the largest country on Earth need look no further.

Masters of Money
Masters of Money – BBC / Open University
Succinct and accessible examination of the methods of three of the titans of 20th century economics: Keynes, Hayek and Marx. While the presenter clearly favoured the Keynesian path the programs were balanced fairly with continual references to the western world’s current financial difficulties. That said I could have probably lived without variable labour costs being explained with Lego figurines.

The London Markets
The London Markets – BBC / Open University
Another collaboration between the Open University and the Beeb, this time casting an eye on the anachronistic day-to-day operations of London’s three main food markets: Billingsgate; Smithfield and Spitalfields. All three programs proved fascinating insights into a mostly unseen corner of London life where the day starts at 1am, ends at 8am and chimes to rules laid down over four hundred years ago.

56 Up
56 Up – ITV
It took me a long time to get around to Michael Apted’s decades spanning series of documentaries but I made the leap early in the year and hoovered up the first 7 editions just in time for this, the latest broadcast showcasing the cast at 56. Happily most of the interviewees seem very comfortable in middle age and – in the main – content with how their lives have turned out. Even the perenially grumpy Lynne beams her way through the episode.

The Fall of Singapore
The Fall of Singapore – BBC
Just when you thought all possible episodes of the Second World War had been raked over ad nauseum a program like this comes along. The tale of two British airmen who had developed such friendships and business connections with Imperial Japan throughout the 20s and 30s that, even after hostilities had begun, they continued to provide the Japanese with military intelligence that ultimately led to the capture of Singapore and possibly even Pearl Harbour.

As if this were not bad enough the archives reveal that when caught one was interned immediately but the other, due to old school connections and a friendship with one Winston Churchill, was allowed to quietly drift off into obscurity. Really makes you wonder how Britain came out on the winning side in 1945.

Metal Evolution
Metal Evolution – VH1
From the early days of Little Richard and The Kinks through to Power Metal and Linkin Park, Sam Dunn takes an anthropological look at the changing face of hard rock. Continually referring back to a rather fabulous family tree of Metal and interviewing a regular Who’s Who of Rock. His exhaustive research even manages to convince that the real progenitors of the genre were the likes of Wagner, Vivaldi and Holst. Great stuff.

Whale Wars : Viking Shores
Whale Wars : Viking Shores – Animal Planet
Following a temporary victory against the Japanese whalers of the Antarctic Paul Watson and his entitled hippie acolytes head North to take the fight to the Faroe Islands. As ever the mix of atrocious man management and prissy arrogance makes it near impossible to side with the anti whaling campaigners and I rather found myself warming to the charming Faroese especially when they met the newly arrived Sea Shepherds with welcoming plates of whale meat.

Derren Brown : Apocalypse
Derren Brown : Apocalypse – Channel 4
This could be included in the list for ambition alone. Not content with his previous experiment involving a complete amateur landing a passenger plane this time Derren creates a entire Truman Show type world for the express purpose of improving the life of a single person.

9/11 Voices from the Air
9/11 Voices from the Air – National Geographic
Meticulously researched and well constructed recreation of the terror aboard the four hijacked 9/11 planes. To-camera interviews with Air traffic controllers and military brass are complemented by recordings of plane to tower calls including the extraordinary 25 minute commentary from a stewardess aboard the first American Airlines to crash.

Networks of Power
Networks of Power – Sky
Britain’s former ambassador to the US opens up his impressive contacts book and visits the world’s great cities to find out how to navigate and prosper in the power games of each. I’m not sure all of the locales visited qualified as being amongst the great power centres (Los Angeles I’m looking at you) but the presenter was such a charmer even the dull moments were a pleasure.

Proud and Prejudiced
Proud and Prejudiced – Channel 4
Brave and excellent investigative report on two sets of opposing bigots intent on tearing the town of Luton apart. On one side a vocal band of Salafi muslims who picket military funerals; on the other the English Defence League who respond by flaunting Israeli flags and throwing uncooked bacon at the picketers. This would be hilarious stuff were it not inevitable that the simmering low level violence is soon going to boil over into something much more serious.

Just missed the cut

  • Ross Kemp Extreme World
  • The 70s
  • Exposure – The Real Jimmy Savile
  • Unreported World
  • Bradley Wiggins: A Year in Yellow
  • The Plane Crash
  • Sex, Death & the Meaning of Life
  • Falklands Most Daring Raid