The Best of British TV

Alert: The Follow Post Contains Copious Amounts of British!

Here in the UK we are blessed with some stellar television, that is if you wade through the crap… (Hollyoaks, Geordie Shore, The Only Way is Essex I’m looking at you). The BBC in particular is famous worldwide for producing groundbreaking documentaries, intelligent quiz shows, engaging dramas, and side-splitting comedies that much is certain. Naturally everyone will have their own special shows which will stick with them for decades to come, long after said shows have gone off the air. The reason this post is not the “Best British Characters” is because the casting and acting in the following shows is so stellar that singling out a few performances is nothing short of criminal.
I’m about to list off, in no particular order, my own “Best of British TV” shows I have seen over the years. Most of if not all of the following are available on DVD.

Blackadder (1983 – 1989) [BBC]
Even if you are not from the UK odds are you have heard of the legendary comedy-through-time that is Blackadder. Blackadder to me displays one of the British people’s best traits; the innate ability to laugh at ourselves, to not only recognize our past but to not take it overly seriously. The first season of Blackadder aired in 1983 and took place in medieval times. It featured several actors who went on to become household names not just in the UK but overseas as well; Rowan Atkinson, Stephen Fry, and Hugh Laurie (Yes, Dr. House). Following on from its’ smashing success during it’s first season the setting moved to Elizabethan England in it’s second outing, introducing Miranda Richardson as ‘Good Queen Bess’ herself. From there the show went to 18th century England and further on to the Somme battlefield of the First World War.
What makes Blackadder such as phenomenal show is that its’ cast remains consistent throughout the seasons, so you get to see how the actors perform in completely different historical settings with each passing season – it’s absolutely fascinating. Funnier still is that Rowan Atkinson’s portrayal of Edmund Blackadder throughout the ages retains many of the same traits and in a way acts as the avatar of the audience. Brilliant writing, brilliant settings, brilliant acting, overall excellent show!

Sharpe (1993 – 2008) [ITV]
Sharpe is a series which holds a special place in the hearts of history enthusiasts (like myself) and re-enactment societies alike. Based off the historical novels by Bernard Cornwell Sharpe follows the career of Richard Sharpe; a fictional British soldier who fights against the French during the Napoleonic Wars. There is so much good to say about this series; firstly how can you go wrong with Sean Bean with a good script and director? Secondly this show expertly depicts not only the Napoleonic War but the state of British society during the early 19th century, which is hard to do without coming across as stereotypical and parody-like. It is inspiring watching Richard Sharpe rise through the ranks as a lowly soldier to eventually commanding his own battalion, not to mention doing so in the middle of an extremely elitist society (again, the British rarely back down from showing the grim side of their social history). Thirdly the focus on the characters and the sense of comradeship which develops between them is epic to watch unfold. Finally, the settings are diverse and the writing is nothing short of masterful – key features for any piece of historical drama.
The series also deserves special mention because it is one of the few occasions where Sean Bean features in a story and does not die!

Red Dwarf (1992 – 1999 / New Season in 2012)
Another show that audiences across the pond have probably heard of at some point, Red Dwarf is one of the most instantly recognizable shows that has ever aired on television. The show uses the pastiche of science fiction as a backdrop, instead being a primarily character-driven comedy, with off-the-wall, often scatological science fiction elements with act as plot devices more than anything else so don’t expect technobabble on the scale of Star Trek! The story takes place in deep space aboard the mining vessel ‘Red Dwarf’ and focuses on the characters of it’s motley remaining crew. The main characters are Dave Lister, the last known human alive, and Arnold Rimmer, a hologram of Lister’s dead bunkmate. The other regular characters are Cat, a lifeform which evolved from the descendants of Lister’s pregnant pet cat Frankenstein; Holly, Red Dwarf’s computer AI and Kryten, a service mechanoid. Despite the show only using sci-fi elements as plot devices it still delivers laughs in truckloads mostly due to Chris Barrie’s famous portrayal of Arnold Rimmer; an egotistical, incompetent, megalomaniac with a flair for sardonic and condescending quips.

QI (2003 – Present) [BBC]
QI features our cultural gem Stephen Fry as the host of a game show / quiz show / comedy show and owns his role like a total boss. It is thrilling to have a comedy show on the air which also manages to educate its’ viewers, something that very few other shows manage to pull off competently. Needless to say Fry is absolutely fantastic in QI but what also brings this show to life are it’s guest panelists; Jo Brand, Bill Bailey, Sean Lock, and many more lend their talents to this excellent show of brains and laughs.

Life on Mars (2006 – 2007) [BBC]
A more recent piece of historical drama which has had a massive impact on our culture. American readers of this post will probably recognize the title Life on Mars for it was so successful that ABC tried their hand at the same concept. The story follows good-cop called Sam Tyler (John Simm) living in modern day Manchester. After being hit by a car in the midst of a murder case Tyler awakens in 1973 to find himself working for the predecessor of the GMP (Greater Manchester Police), the Manchester and Salford Police at the same station and location as in 2006. Whilst dealing with a severe case of culture shock in his own stomping grounds Tyler faces the familiar dilemmas experienced by unwilling time travelers; from saving the life of his unborn fiancee to confronting a shocking truth about his own father the show provides thrills and drama on an epic scale.
Above all that this show achieves in being a great cultural history lesson for today’s generation it gave audiences one of the greatest protagonists in recent memory: Gene Hunt (Philip Glensiter). Gene is the anathema of political correctness and the physical embodiment of a ‘magnificent bastard’; egotistical, ruthless, overbearing, and determined. On the flip side of his coin however he has an immense sense of justice and honor, he might make fun of ethnic minorities and others he considers below himself but he would be the first before anyone else to put his neck on the line for the same people – brilliant character.

Sherlock (2010 – Present) [BBC]
Sherlock is the latest offering from the BBC and is a show already destined to become a cultural jewel. I routinely watch episodes of this incredible series it is that good! Featuring rising stars Benedict Cumberbatch (Star Trek II & The Hobbit) and Martin Freeman (The Hobbit) as Sherlock Holmes and John Watson respectively Sherlock is a show which takes the time-old classically British story of Sherlock Holmes and establishes it firmly in contemporary London. The performance of Cumberbatch as the legendary consulting detective is only matched by the masterful writing behind the stories. The media have showered praise on this series saying, with regards to it’s accuracy to the original novels: “this has to do with the fact that Moffat and Gatiss are enormously knowledgeable about Conan Doyle’s work, and their reimagining incorporates big- and small-screen adaptations of Holmes as well as the original stories. Granted it will wander at times, taking in mobile phone technology and computer hacking … But it doesn’t feel like cheating; more like an open relationship, agreed by both parties.”
If I were to list off all of the elements which make Sherlock so groundbreaking this post would be at least two times longer than it already is, you will just have to watch it yourself to allow yourself to be blown away by just how amazing it is. Seriously, watch it.

Just in case you needed further prompting…

Whew, that was a heck of a post wasn’t it?


  1. Alright, you have Life on Mars here (great show, much better than the US version), and Sherlock (how can you not love Sherlock? HOW?!?), but where is Torchwood and Doctor Who? Also, Copper was a fantastic show… and I can’t forget Downton Abbey.

    We here are forced to live off of whatever we can get on BBC America… that, and we have horrible, horrible, horrible channels full of our culture. American culture is horrific! I love my country, but good Lord… Jersey Shore, Teen Mom (whatever number they’re on now) and Bravo. Bravo is an entire channel designated to rich people behaving badly. Brain cells die. They wither into useless husks with every Botox injection and plastic surgery put on the screen.

    So, I’m going to haunt Netflix for Sharpe, because I’m a nerd and that’s what nerds watch. But seriously, Doctor Who, Torchwood (*after* and only after Captain Jack has been introduced), Copper, and Downton Abbey. You will not regret it. They are like the works of John Williams, or Star Trek: The Next Generation: simply awesome.

  2. I love British television. My current favorites are Top Gear and Doctor Who. Of course, you can’t mention British TV without Monty Python’s Flying Circus or Black Adder. Classics! If you like QI, you may also enjoy The Big Quiz Show hosted by Jimmy Carr. It’s hilarious.

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