Monday, October 27, 2008


Ahead of Friday's release of Quantum Of Solace, we reveal our top ten James Bond books...

1. Moonraker (1955)
They may share characters, locations and plots, but Ian Fleming and Albert Broccolli’s James Bonds are very different beasts indeed. On screen, Bond has always been something of a hollowed-out shell, a bombastic action man who rarely displays the depth, humanity and vulnerability Fleming allowed his 007 to show. Moonraker sees this point writ large. In celluloid form, Fleming’s third novel is a ramshackle Star Wars rip-off which is comfortably the weakest of 007‘s 21 cinematic outings. On the page, however, it’s a grounded, melancholic tale which presents the reader with a very human hero, one who doesn’t even leave Britain, never mind the planet. That means no hover-gondolas, no rocket ships and no grandiose scheme to take the human race into space, just a painfully bruised Bond sighing his way through paperwork, covertly working his way into Hugo Drax’s lair and falling in love with Gala Brand, one of Fleming’s most complicated leading ladies. In a melancholic twist, she fails to be wooed by Bond‘s dangerous lifestyle in the sombre finale, and instead returns to her normal, far safer life. How something so subtle and nuanced could spawn the abomination cinema screens witnessed is a mystery. Time for a remake, perhaps?

2. From Russia With Love (1957)
Coming after Diamonds Are Forever’s poor critical reception, Fleming intended this to be 007’s final outing, and wanted to give him a fitting send-off. He certainly did that. From Russia With Love is a triumph of a novel, perhaps the only Bond book to transcend its pulpy roots and rank alongside the more serious, less fantastical thrillers Fleming‘s peers created. Shot through with an air of death and finality, it spends the first half of its weighty page count deep in the bowels of SMERSH introducing us to the Russian organisation’s odious officials, primary among them those magnificent creations Rosa Klebb and Red Grant. Fleming’s portrayal of Grant as a cold, mechanical assassin is utterly chilling and perhaps the birth of the modern fictional serial killer, while his descriptions of Klebb ooze with grotesquery. However, it‘s the landscapes that steal the show, the renderings of Istanbul and the Orient Express (where most of the rest of the story takes place) dripping with foreboding menace. The novel culminates with a showdown between Klebb and Bond and a closing line that is among the best Fleming ever wrote. Thankfully, it would not be the last…

3. Doctor No (1958)
Doctor No is a novel written by an author brimming with confidence. Vindicated by the success of From Russia With Love, Fleming embarked on the fifth Bond novel reinvigorated, and what he created is a bright and breezy piece of work; a wonderfully simple, but still hugely satisfying, read set almost entirely in his beloved Jamaica. Before we get there though, we are stuck in London, and Fleming takes huge pleasure in the drabness of the capital, describing it as a windswept wasteland in which M stews as he grumpily hands Bond what he dismissively calls a “holiday in the sun”. As if to prove the point, Fleming describes the Jamaican-set passages in stunning terms. The island’s lush greens and deep blues pop from the page, the tropical warmth glows in every syllable and the lovely Honey Ryder seems so astonishingly beautiful it’s almost a let down to watch the film and see Ursula Andress rather than the angelic Venus Fleming describes here emerge from the sea. The ending, which involves a bizarre fight with a giant squid, almost undermines the whole endeavour with its ridiculousness. But Fleming’s prose is so rich and detailed that even the most absurd of sequences proves, like the book as a whole, utterly compelling.

4. For Your Eyes Only (1960)
Taken from the anthology of the same name, this melancholic short story was adapted almost verbatim for the 1981 film. Bond is tasked with assassinating a hitman, only to find his path obstructed by another assassin, who turns out to be the daughter of the people the killer bumped off. However, while the film is a rather drab affair, Fleming lights up the dark subject matter with some glorious descriptive prose. The opening scenes, in which the elderly couple are killed in their home in Jamaica, are filled with the same luxurious detailed descriptions of the island as Doctor No, only here Fleming indulges his love of the wildlife, describing one bird in detail so rich you‘re almost convinced the story will be about it instead of Bond. The rest of the tale takes place on the American-Canadian border and while there a lonely Bond reflects on why he is on this mission and what gives him the right to take the life of a man who has done nothing to harm him. Great, compact stuff, which, in an added bonus, comes sans the Maggie Thatcher cameo.

5. Casino Royale (1953)
Here’s where it all began. The book that defined an icon, made a name for its author and would go on to make cinema history, Casino Royale is the most legendary of Bond novels, and not just because it’s the first. Featuring devious villainy, tense card games and, naturally, a beautiful girl, it’s astonishing to think that (rubbish 60s spoof aside) it took over half a century to bring this story to the big screen. But it is perhaps a good thing that we had to wait so long. With any other Bond at the helm, a cinematic version of Casino Royale wouldn’t have worked. Bond here is too normal, too every day (he described himself as a civil servant) to have been properly fleshed out by Connery’s charm, Moore’s cheek, Dalton's intensity or Brosnan's suaveness. But Craig has a realism that illuminates the human, cynical (that iconic last line from the film is taken directly from the book), bruised, but still effortlessly cool Bond that Fleming describes here. Good thing too. Because Fleming's Bond will always be the best.

6. Live and Let Die (1954)
Perhaps the most controversial and dated of the 007 novels, Live and Let Die finds Fleming dropping the N bomb. Repeatedly. Deplorable certainly, but even in our politically sensitive times the frequent and highly unpleasant use of that particular word doesn’t make Live and Let Die any less enjoyable. A scuzzy, sweaty crime tale that features the grizzly meeting between Felix Leiter and a bunch of sharks that would inspire one of Licence to Kill’s best sequences, Live and Let Die is Fleming at his pulsating best. Sentence and chapter length are short, the words are never minced (frequently to the book‘s detriment), chosen as they are with huge precision for maximum effect, and the action is swift and punchy. Indeed, more than a spy book, Live and Let Die is an excellent action novel, one that comes with the obligatory bonuses of exotic locations, mouth-watering food and gorgeous women, including Solitaire, who comes across as a far more interesting character here than she does in the film. Another 007 outing that could (with careful censorship) benefit from a do-over.

7. The Spy Who Loved Me (1962)
If Live and Let Die displays Fleming’s racial ignorance, Spy Who Loved Me shows his ignorance towards women. An unusual interlude between Thunderball and On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, this novella is barely about Bond at all, 007 not appearing until the final few chapters. Instead, we focus on Vivienne Michel, a luckless young woman who stumbles into trouble and has to be saved by the spy. The book proved highly controversial upon release, being reviled by critics for it lack of Bond and, more importantly, its line about women enjoying ‘semi-rape’. Even in context, a line like that is pretty unforgivable, but leaving such slips aside, SWLM is actually a pretty bold move, one that engrosses with its unusualness and complicated leading lady. The story was, of course, utterly changed for the screen, and it’s unlikely to ever be adapted wholesale. But characters and scenarios could be cherry-picked to form the basis of future films, particularly the grotesque mobster villains Sluggsy and Horror.

8. You Only Live Twice (1964)
The culmination of Fleming’s ‘Blofeld trilogy’, You Only Live Twice is a novel tinged with melancholy, the book where it really becomes clear that the Bond saga is gradually winding to an end. Dripping with death, this magnificently macabre story follows on directly from the devastating end of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service and finds Bond tracking Blofeld down to Japan, where the SPECTRE head has set up a fiendish Garden of Death. Very different from the film in terms of plot, then, but the dubious race relations remain, with Bond, like in the film, disguising himself as a Japanese, and, even worse, Fleming portraying the people of Japan as death-obsessed crackpots. What stays with you though is the melancholy. The Land of the Rising Sun seems steeped in sadness for Fleming, and, as Bond ponders his future in the novel's closing pages, it's difficult not to feel a twinge of sadness for both the character and the author who created him.

9. Quantum of Solace (1960)
Those still wondering why this exotic title has been chosen for Bond 22 should read the short story it is borrowed from. Fleming sends Bond to a dinner party, where his only refuge from boredom is a story told to him by a fellow guest of government official Phillip Masters’ unhappy marriage to an air hostess. The relationship begins well, but gradually deteriorates and soon she is cheating on him. Humiliated and stripped of any kind of basic human compassion towards his one-time love, Masters cuts off relations with her and eventually leaves her with nothing. Bond leaves the party contemplating the story and concluding that real life is far more interesting than his fantastical adventures. Sounds like a great way to describe the series’ new direction to me…

10. Goldfinger (1959)
One of Fleming’s most uneven novels, Goldfinger would have been higher in this list had the final part measured up to the first two. Told in three segments, the seventh Bond novel is a blast for the most part, a tense double-header between Bond and Goldfinger in which each man tries to work out exactly what the other is up to without giving his own secrets away. Sadly, as we all know, the story does not come to a close in such style, instead exploding into a bombastic heist of Fort Knox which tests plausibility to its limit and turns on a huge contrivance, with Goldfinger forcing Bond to help him with his scheme when it would have been easier to just kill him. Baffling. Still, those first two parts are incredibly strong, finding Fleming at his bold best and Bond at most normal. 007 on the Tube? Shocking. Poshitively shocking.

Sunday, October 05, 2008


The staff of Entertainment Manchester reveal what's been entertaining them over the last seven days...


WATCHING: The last film I saw was The Strangers at the cinema. To be honest, we would rather have watched the similar Eden Lake, but that wasn't on anymore by the time we actually got round to going. The Strangers was well-made though and scary enough in a fairly obvious and predictable way, though it was rather unpleasant and pointless too. All in all, not bad, not great. The final episode of The Wire was much, much better, of course and a fitting finale to the best TV series I've ever seen.

READING: The House Of The Dead. No, it's not a novelisation of the arcade horror shoot 'em up or Uwe Boll's film adaptation, it's by Dostoyevsky and is a fictionalised account of his time in a Siberian prison. It's about as cheery as that sounds, but it's a great book so far and despite the subject matter it's very easy read. I finished by Sherlock Holmes odyssey a few weeks ago, just in time to discover that Guy Ritchie is making a Holmes film. Which is a really depressing prospect.

LISTENING TO: At the moment, lots of music by the genius that is Mike Patton. From his time as Faith No More singer to the quirky and fascinating Mr Bungle to the even more unconventional stuff he's done since FNM called it day, he's never less than interesting. One of his best projects has been the metal supergroup Fantomas, who have made some very unconventional music, like their collection of movie theme covers Director's Cut and the 74 minute single-track Delìrium Cordia, which is one of the scariest and weirdest pieces of music you'll ever hear.


WATCHING: Spider-Man and his Amazing Friends. It may be cheesy and silly when compared with some of today's cartoons, but this 1980s Spider-Man show is, for me, the finest animated adaptation of a comic book outside of the Fleischers’ 1930s Superman shorts. Our friendly neighbourhood wallcrawler teams up with Iceman and Firestar (the Amazing Friends of the title) to take on the likes of the Green Goblin, Kraven the Hunter and Doctor Doom in a series of fantastically outlandish adventures. I‘ve only watched three episodes so far, and Spidey has already stopped dinosaurs, a megalomaniacal pensioner and a bid to poison New York‘s water supply. Brilliantly, there are still two more seasons to come!

READING: In terms of reading, I'm really just getting to the end of the books I've been going through for the last few weeks. Goldfinger, which I'd heard ends quite poorly, is still going strong into the final few chapters, with Bond and Goldfinger now at complete loggerheads after playing cat and mouse with each other for the first two thirds of the book. Meanwhile I’ve finished Star Wars Expanded Universe novel Heir to the Empire. A sequel to Return of the Jedi, it takes place five years after the Battle of Endor and author Timothy Zahn has set things up nicely for follow-ons The Dark Rising and The Last Command by putting the New Republic on the brink of civil war by the end of this book. Cracking stuff.

LISTENING TO: After being unsure on the first few listens, I've finally come around to the new Bond theme. Another Way To Die doesn't rank alongside the best Bond songs, lacking the kind of memorable hooks Goldfinger, Nobody Does It Better and Live and Let Die have, but it does have a real sense of drama to it that means it should work well in the title sequence - and that is far more important than it being a good standalone single. Plus, it finishes with the words 'Bang, bang, bang, bang'. And anything that ends quite as boldly as that is undoubtedly worthy of a place in 007 history.

Friday, September 05, 2008


The staff of Entertainment Manchester reveal what's been entertaining them over the last seven days...


WATCHING: My love of the Star Wars: Clone Wars movie has reignited my interest in all things Jedi, so all my choices are Star Wars related this time around. First up, I’ve been watching the original Clone Wars TV series by Genndy Tartakovsky. Many fans reckon this is the pinnacle of the modern Star Wars era, and it’s certainly very, very impressive, Tartakovsky using the short cartoon format to strip the franchise back to its bare components of cool planets, bizarre aliens and kick-ass battles - basically all the things you want from a Star Wars story. However, many seem to have forgotten that there’s some pretty ropey dialogue in there as well, and while it is better than the film, it’s not quite the Empire Strikes Back of the present day.

LISTENING TO: In my review of The Clone Wars I described Kevin Kiner’s score as “workmanlike”, and I stand by that statement - to an extent. Kiner’s score is certainly not as good as John Williams’s work (naturally) and it takes quite a while to get used to the more run-of-the-mill, action oriented sound he‘s created. However, after a few more listens, the pounding war drums and rock guitars that inspired my original complaint actually mix quite well with Williams’s trademark themes, ensuring the more militaristic tone doesn‘t overshadow that distinct Star Wars sound too much.

READING: I’ve been considering delving into the vast expanded universe for a while now, and the film inspired me to pick up Timothy Zahn’s Heir to the Empire. Set five years after Return of the Jedi, it’s the first in a trilogy of books in which the villainous Grand Admiral Thrawn attempts to overthrow the New Republic and restore the Empire’s control over the galaxy. In less capable hands, it could have been a retread of the films, with the plots being essentially similar, bar the role reversal of Empire and Rebellion. But Zahn’s intelligent development of the three core characters and creation of a host of new players, planets and conflicts means that this is every bit as good as the original trilogy.


WATCHING: Having only recently discovered the joys of Virgin On Demand (which isn't anywhere near as dodgy as that sounds), I've watched the entire first four series of Peep Show (across about four days), which I've always quite fancied watching without ever managed to catch it at the start of a series. It's really good, though my total immersion has affected me and made me have a load of internal monologues in my head, which isn't good. Other than that, there's The Wire (not long to go now) and Dexter, both of which are really good, obviously.

LISTENING TO: Autumn means Sinatra for me. As soon as the dark nights start to come in and the rain and the leaves start blowing around (earlier than usual this year, seemingly), I start to really REALLY love listening to Frank Sinatra's torch songs, which just seem to fit perfectly with the gloomy weather, making it all seem to cinematic and romantic (in a doomed sort of way). The same goes for Harry Nilsson's A Little Touch Of Schmilsson In The Night, which has the most gorgeous version of Somewhere Over The Rainbow you'll ever hear.

READING: My Sherlock Holmes odyssey continues and I'm still enjoying these stories a lot. I want to read some other books, but I still want to finish the Holmes stories, so I think I'll get through the remaining few books before moving on to somewhere else. Thankfully, the schools are back and the double trams have started again, so there's more opportunities to sit down and read, so I'm getting through them a lot quicker. Flipping kids...

Wednesday, August 13, 2008


Ahead of the release of the new Clone Wars animated movie, our film critic gives us his top ten Star Wars moments...

1. Death Star Assault (A New Hope)
Vader’s paternal revelation at the end of Empire is probably the saga’s most famous scene, but it’s the end of A New Hope that best sums Star Wars up. From John Williams’s driving score to the brilliant effects of a young ILM, the destruction of the Death Star is just, well, it’s just awesome. There’s no other word to describe it. Even to this day, I still feel captivated as Luke fires that last gasp shot, still sense that deathly breath on the back of my neck as Vader homes in on his prey, and still jump for joy as Han swoops in right at the last second. It’s what cinema was made for, and nothing before or since has come close to matching its unique adrenaline rush.

2. “No, I am your father…” (Empire Strikes Back)
Well duh.

3. Battle of Hoth (Empire Strikes Back)
It’s the AT-ATs. The second those mechanical behemoths move gracefully through the Hoth fog, you know you’re in for something special. Beautifully crafted by ILM they’re probably the series’ most impressive effects achievement, and lend the Battle of Hoth a grandeur that most other Star Wars war sequences lack. Throw in vicious wampas, those nifty snowspeeders and the nicely tense relationship between Leia and Han and you have the perfect opening to the deepest and darkest of all the Star Wars films.

4. Darth Maul vs. Qui Gon and Obi Wan (Phantom Menace)
Arguably the coolest (though not necessarily the best) lightsaber fight in the saga, this is all about the visuals. Because while it’s impossible to invest much emotion in what’s going on - what with Qui Gon and Darth Maul being mere fillers designed to flesh out Episode I’s scant story - it’s still undeniably cool watching a big red evil guy fighting two Jedi with a double-ended lightsaber. And with John Williams whipping up a storm on the music front, you can even ignore Jar Jar Binks’s wacky antics and just sit back and enjoy some classic Star Wars escapism.

5. Zam Wessell Attacks! (Attack of the Clones)
For my money, Attack of the Clones is the best of the prequels, boasting as it does some of the finest action the modern trilogy has to offer. The coliseum battle, the Jango Fett versus Obi Wan fight, and the sight of Yoda arming-up for his duel with Count Dooku were all contenders for a spot on this list, but the chase for bounty hunter Zam Wessell takes the crown. Delivering both eye popping spectacle and some pretty well-written banter between Anakin and Obi Wan, it’s a great way to open the film and prime the audience for a long-awaited roller-coaster ride after the staid exposition of Menace.

6. Order 66 (Revenge of the Sith)
Lucas has often said that he thinks of Star Wars as a silent movie, and while that goes a long way to explaining the verbal diarrhoea he calls dialogue, it also contributes towards scenes like this. Palpatine is on his way to becoming Emperor and as he executes Order 66, the directive that turns the army of Clones against the Republic, Lucas shows us Jedi across the galaxy meeting their maker. The fact that their names are known only to the most ardent of Star Wars geeks doesn’t really matter. This is all about sound and vision, with Williams’s haunting music setting a tragic tone and the astonishing CGI vistas for once coming up trumps.

7. “How about…sister?” (Return of the Jedi)
Another example of Williams’s fine music, this is the high-point of the lightsaber battle between father and son that concludes Return of the Jedi. Trying to work out a way to finally lure Luke to the Dark Side, Vader turns his attentions to his friends and, in particular, his sister. His threat to seduce Leia encourages Luke to attack his father and Williams’s guttural music (in what is arguably the finest of his Star Wars scores) is suitably epic accompaniment for one of the series’ most emotionally-charged moments.

8. The Rebel Fleet (Empire Strikes Back)
Before The Dark Knight, this was the darkest ending any blockbuster had ever seen. A lot of its bleakness is due to the set-up, of course, with Han encased in carbonite, Luke’s hand located in Cloud City several hundred parsecs from the rest of his body and Chewie and Lando heading off to Tatooine to take on the might of Jabba the Hutt. But there’s also a lot to be said for the scene itself. Kersher shoots a simple wide shot which has Luke and Leia looking out into the bleakness of space, their futures undecided. Star Wars wouldn’t be this depressing again until Episode I.

9. Twin Suns (A New Hope)
It’s hard to believe that the guy who filmed this iconic shot of Luke staring meaningfully into Tatooine’s two suns is the same man who drenched the prequels in messy CGI, because what makes this sequence work so well is its simplicity. Stripped back to its bare components - just the scenery, the actor and the music - it’s one of the banner moments of A New Hope, and acts as a reminder of what Lucas seems to have forgotten: that he’s an incredibly talented visualist even without all his technology.

10. “Begun the Clone War has…” (Attack of the Clones)
As well as being jam-packed with action, Attack of the Clones is the only prequel which neatly connects with the original films (Sith is a little too ham-fisted for me). We see some of Anakin’s anger and arrogance bubbling up to the surface, the origin of Boba Fett and the start of the Clone Wars. Time will only tell if the campaign is worth fleshing out in the latest no-honest-this-really-is-the-last-ever-Star-Wars-film film, but the start is stunning stuff. Look at all those Clone Troopers…

Sunday, August 10, 2008


For most people of my generation, Isaac Hayes is the guy who played Chef in South Park and sang about his chocolate salty balls. Sadly, he's also the guy who seemingly couldn't take jokes about Scientology and quit the show because of it, amongst various rumours about exactly who was making his decisions for him. That was pretty much the last thing he did that hit the headlines, so it's a shame they were mostly negative, with accusations of hypocrisy from the show's creators, as he'd been happy to make fun of other religions, but drew the line when it came to his own.

But Ike won't be remembered for that in years to come, he'll be remembered as one of the greatest musicians ever to walk this earth, with his output from the late 60s to the late 70s breaking new ground for black culture. Even if you only know Theme From Shaft, you can appreciate just how incredible his talents were, as it's a song that shatters all kinds of boundaries and defies all kinds of conventions for the way it uses orchestration in the lengthy and famous intro.

The Shaft soundtrack was an incredible achievement, arguably making the film more famous and important than it actually deserved on its own merits, but his greatest work was probably the album Hot Buttered Soul, which demonstrated his ability to take pop songs and turn them into funk-soul epics. The album starts with Walk On By, lasting over 12 minutes and incorporating more great pop hooks than most artists can manage in their whole careers.

Across the next four or five albums, Ike proved himself time and time again to be a genius arranger and composer, even if many of his most famous tracks were covers. Along with David Porter, he co-wrote and performed on so many of Stax Records' biggest hits (like Soul Man, for example), and his legacy is an incredible one, even if his later work didn't match up to his golden years. Ike's gone, but he won't be forgotten.

Saturday, August 09, 2008


The staff of Entertainment Manchester reveal what's been entertaining them over the last seven days...


WATCHING: The Mummy 3: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor. The Mummy franchise is one of the better Indiana Jones rip-offs and this second sequel to the 1999 original is a solidly entertaining piece of fluff - despite its flaws. Rachel Weisz replacement Maria Bello is a particular problem as she grapples unconvincingly with an English accent, while Mark Millar and Alfred Gough's screenplay is limp and uninspired. Still Brendan Fraser's on top charismatic form and there are enough wildly OTT action scenes to make this a worthwhile Friday night out.

READING: Goldfinger. Last summer I decided to work my way through all twelve of Ian Fleming's James Bond novels, and I‘m currently on book seven: Goldfinger. I've heard that it gets a little silly towards the end (although it's hard to see anything being dafter than the giant squid at the end of Doctor No), but I'm only half-way through so far and at the moment it's quite a low-key head-to-head between 007 and Goldfinger. They've met twice, first in a Miami card game and then for a few rounds of golf, and Fleming has built a taut, gripping tale of two men trying to get the better of each other. Let's hope it doesn't slip quite as badly as its reputation suggests.

LISTENING TO: I've had two albums on my iPod recently: Coldplay's Viva La Vida and The Dark Knight soundtrack. The former is an entertaining but frustrating listen. It certainly has the variation that X&Y lacked and there are some fantastic songs on there. But it feels like the band are trying too hard to defy their critics and I'd prefer them to go back to the maligned but more satisfying 'indie schmindie' of Parachutes. Meanwhile, James Newton Howard and Hans Zimmer have created another corker for The Dark Knight. It incorporates the epic grandiosity they perfected on the Batman Begins soundtrack, but fittingly for something Joker-related, it possess a vicious twist that cuts through you like a certain criminal's famous pencil trick.


WATCHING: No thanks to Richard Branson, I've been watching The Wire and Dexter on FX, which has now disappeared from Virgin's cable TV just after the new series of both of them had started. Thanks for that, Dicky. Luckily my parents are now recording them off Sky for me. The most recent episode of The Wire was awesome, and while Dexter isn't quite up to the high standards of the first series, it's still better than most other things out there.

READING: Taking a break from Sherlock Holmes, I read Grace After Midnight, the autobiography of Felicia 'Snoop' Pearson from The Wire, where she plays, erm, 'Snoop'. She was born a crack baby in Baltimore, grew up on the streets and was sent to prison for killing a woman in self-defence before getting spotted by the guy who plays Omar on the show and getting hired to basically play herself. Not your usual actor's story, then.

LISTENING TO: Sometimes, you can forget just how great an album really is, and I 'rediscovered' Curtis by Curtis Mayfield this week when it came up on my iPod. Every single track is genius personified, with powerful socio-political lyrics, funky soulful pop hooks and such dense and varied instrumentation that new sounds appear to you every time you listen to it. The man really was a legend.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008


With classic 90s TV show The X-Files returning to the big screen for a second time, The Editor lists his top ten programmes...

1 - The Wire

Those who love The Wire, REALLY love it, but the vast majority of people have never seen it and would probably give up after one episode if they did, scared off by the slow-moving storylines, lack of an obvious 'star' and tales of life on some of the worst and most violent streets in America. Fans compare it to Dickens, Tolstoy and Greek tragedies, which all sounds very pompous, but in the case of this show, it's the only way to describe it. The Wire tells the stories of a wide cast of characters in Baltimore, from the Mayor down to a homeless junkie, and it does so at its own pace and by its own rules. With some of America's top crime authors joining the show's creators (an ex-cop and an ex-journalist) each series is like a chapter in a novel, with a theme to each - the war on drugs, the plight of the working man, the machinations at City Hall, the failing school system and the media. The Wire really does live up to the hype and make everything else on the small or big screen look a bit cheap, easy and hollow by comparison.

2 - The Sopranos

The Sopranos would have been top of this list at the start of the year, but its drop to second is only a reflection of the incredible quality of its HBO stablemate, and the gap between the two is paper-thin. An awe-inspiring piece of TV drama, this show took obvious influences from the likes of Goodfellas and proceeded to spend six seasons bettering them in every way. A great cast - augmented by guest appearances from people like Joey Pantoliano and Steve Buscemi - and a great story told with style and class made for a show that redefined what kind of quality you could get on television. And its uncompromising approach lasted right up to the gloriously gutsy and controversial ending.

3 - Six Feet Under

The third HBO show in our top three, Six Feet Under is about death. People die in every episode and there's a funeral in pretty much all of them too, which probably makes it sound very morbid, but yet the first season had some very funny moments as the recently deceased offered advice (or abuse) to the members of the Fisher family (or at least, they did in their imaginations, there were no ghosts in Six Feet Under). Gradually, this faded out as it became more and more driven by the characters and their lives, but the black humour was still as important as the more emotional scenes in a show that could make anyone with a soul cry at least once an episode.

4 - The West Wing

Compared to the three shows above, The West Wing looks a bit cosy and old-fashioned, but that doesn't take away from how great it was, particularly at its peak. The first few seasons were a masterclass in snappy dialogue and 'making politics interesting', rattling along at such a pace that even if you didn't understand the minutae of American domestic politics, that didn't matter. With Martin Sheen as the ultimate liberal president and a welcome antidote to the real person doing the job, The West Wing may have gone into decline after creator Aaron Sorkin left, but even then it was still better than most.

5 - The Simpsons

Yes, another American TV show. They just seem to do it better. There's not a lot new that can be said about The Simpsons, and even though the quality has slipped over the years and the likes of South Park and Family Guy have offered challenges to its supremacy, it's still the best comedy on TV, animated or otherwise. Most importantly, it's also one of the most endlessly watchable shows around, a quick half hour of genius that can mostly be seen hundreds of times without losing its appeal or its laughs.

6 - Blackadder

The first British show to get on the list, Blackadder is the perfect example of British humour. It's intelligent, knowledgeable, sarcastic, cruel and not afraid to wear silly tights to get a laugh. The first series was a bit hit and miss, but once Ben Elton came on board and brought a sharper edge in place of the early surrealistic touches, Blackadder kicked into gear and taught us all we needed to know about life in Elizabethan Britain, Georgian Britain and World War I trenches.

7 - The Shield

On the face of it, The Shield is just another of those cop shows that are ten-a-penny on TV, but this is no CSI, NCIS or, indeed, The Bill. How many of those would be brave enough to have their hero shoot a fellow policeman dead in cold blood in the first episode? Vic Mackey treads a precarious moral line, fighting the bad guys and bloodthirsty gangs while not being afraid to get his hands dirty when it comes to dodgy dealings. Guest stars like Glenn Close and Forest Whittaker have come in during recent seasons to add further class to a show that has got better and better.

8 - Only Fools And Horses

Like The Simpsons, Only Fools And Horses is almost a victim of its own overwhelming success. It is so ubiquitous, so universally popular and so often repeated that it's almost becoming the kind of programme that you don't want to admit liking. But it is a remarkable programme that managed to be incredibly funny for a very long time as well as making you care as much about the characters as if they were in a moving drama series. The only shame was that they were persuaded to bring it back for three shoddy specials when the story had reached the perfect emotionally-rewarding conclusion back in 1996.

9 - Fawlty Towers

A few of these programmes have been guilty of going on for longer than they should have, but the ultimate example of a show living fast, dying young and leaving a beautiful corpse is Fawlty Towers. With just 12 episodes ever being made of it, there are simply no weak links in the Fawlty chain, which is more than can be said for the hotel itself. The Office and Sacha Baron Cohen may have re-popularised 'cringe comedy' in the last decade, but John Cleese and Connie Booth perfected it here with set-pieces like the fire drill scene in The Germans.

10 - The X-Files

Unfortunately, The X-Files did go on too long for its own good, and Chris Carter and his creative team have to take the blame for including so many twists and turns in the show's alien mythology that you sense not even they knew what was going on at the end. However, the X-Files was often at its best when ignoring the aliens and letting Mulder and Scully investigate the darker fringes of American society, like the Fluke Man, the Peacock Family and Eugene Tooms, one of the scariest characters in any TV show anywhere, ever.