We asked two writers to choose 5 ‘must see’ British television shows. We present to you 10 Brit shows. Shame on you if you don’t have them! First up - the choice of Josh Turner...
Fawlty Towers: A show so hilariously British that if your friends don’t laugh at it, you’re actually allowed to have them shot in the UK. The genius that is John Cleese plays the ever-frustrated Basil Fawlty, stomping around catering for guests he loathes in his mis-managed and under staffed hotel, always to catastrophic and comical results. Sadly it only ran for 12 episodes but that almost adds to its charm. Andrew Sachs plays Manuel the endearingly terrible Spanish Waiter and Prunella Scales takes the role of Basil’s long-suffering wife. Watch it. Laugh... or else.
Doctor Who: The bastion of Britishness that is Doctor Who. How to sum up a show that ran from 1963 to 1989 only to be reborn in 2005 to great acclaim? Prodigious. Soon to celebrate its 60th anniversary – the 50th anniversary episode played in cinemas and rose to 3rd in the UK cinema box-office weekly chart! As immortal as the title character, it fuses beautifully the elements of child-like glee and family-friendly comedy that makes it suitable for all ages. Never has a show made a child out of more adults. Don’t like one of the lead actors? That’s fine, there are thirteen to choose from.
Black Books: I could have filled a list with British comedy, but some really stand out. From the episode when Manny (Bill Bailey) drinks too much coffee and spirals into a series of events that ends up with him mistaken for a police officer to the dinner party where our lead, Bernard (Dylan Moran), has to reconstruct from a patchy memory the drunken damage he’s caused; Black Books is a leg slapping dance of hilarious delight. Britain seems to like the loveable arse, and none are more loveable or arsey than the beautifully portrayed Bernard.
Unreported World: What’s this, a factual show on a best of list? Honestly, watch it and you will see why.
This is investigative journalism at its best. Often harrowing, the stories of Afghan child drug addicts whose parents provide them heroin to mute the hunger pangs because it’s cheaper than food, it can also be uplifting, like the story of a Mogadishu chef who refuses to leave his country despite threats on his life because he wants to make something better. With 24 seasons under its belt you can still rely on amazing stories that don’t pull punches.
Planet Earth: Arguably the finest work involving the great British institution that is David Attenborough. Using advances in camera technology and the reliable allure of Attenborough’s soothing tones to provide a look at the natural world that is second to none. The story of the cameraman who spent months in a brick bothy, staring at the grey slopes of a mountain just waiting for an elusive glimpse of a snow leopard really highlights the lengths the producers were willing to go. There are some amazing moments; the wild beauty of a wolf chasing a caribou over 10km, a time-lapse of Autumnal colours swallowing North America, and aerial shots of Angel Falls to name but a few. Supremely watchable.
Next, Derek Thompson selects his choice of five ‘must see’ British TV shows...
The Sweeney: A much-loved cops and robbers series that was rough around the edges and all the better for it. It reflected the 'Lundun' I could identify with, growing up. In The Sweeney, you had car chases with Fords, tracking shots of a gasworks, punchy dialogue and even punchier police officers. No martial arts in the fight scenes, just proper fisticuffs and a sort of earnest chaos whenever the rozzers caught up with the blaggers. There was great chemistry between Jack Regan and his oppo, George Carter. The theme music got the blood pumping and the action didn't stop until the strangely wistful closing titles ended. Yes, it's of its time, but it has a style that endures. One thing I do remember (correct me if I'm wrong here) is that the bad guys sometimes got away with it, and Jack's activities were sometimes curtailed by politics. How thoroughly modern!
Spaced: To be honest, I could just read you out the main cast: Simon Pegg, Jessica Hynes, Nick Frost and Mark Heap. But there's so much more to it than that; there are robots, a stolen tank, comics, a very British romance, paintball, Bill Bailey and Peter Serafinowcz. Here's a one-line synopsis that in no way does Spaced justice: Two people pretend to be a couple to get a flat and the rest is sheer...magic. This is a sitcom that talks up to its loyal viewers with a slew of cinematic references throughout both series. In essence, you have several shades of loveable loser (you'll root for them, trust me) along with a teasing 'will they or won't they' thread that's guaranteed to keep you hooked. Special mention has to go to Mark Heap for his tour-de-force performance as a tortured artist. Plus, in case you didn't know it, Spaced is the foster parent of the cult film (starring Messrs. Pegg & Frost), Shaun of the Dead. Oh yeah, and there's a dog called Colin in it - the series I mean, not the film.
Robin of Sherwood: You want a Robin Hood to make Richard Greene envious? Forget Kevin Costner, Russell Crowe and that BBC series. Travel back to the 1980s and experience the magic and myth of Richard Carpenter's creation (he also did Black Beauty and Catweazle, among others). This Robin has a mythical backstory, a Maid Marion that would straighten any bow and an original take on a classic tale. Forever fused with Clannad's evocative music for the series (my other half and I still have our own albums), RoS added to the mythos by including a shaman, known as Herne the Hunter, more magic than you could shake a staff at, and a Saracen who joins the gang (copied afterwards, but we won't talk about it here). The Merry men are young, rebellious, and not that merry. And if all that isn't enough for you, there's Ray Winstone as Will Scarlet. Nuff said?
Vera: This programme is the closest detective series we have to Nordic Noir. The wild and sometimes desolate landscape of Northumberland is both feature and metaphor, as DCI Vera Stanhope (Brenda Blethyn) stomps about, giving rich meaning to the words frumpy, antisocial and sharp. She's a wondrous mixture of the shambolic and the insightful, with all the people skills of a chocoholic on early closing day. Her entire team tiptoes around her and even DS Joe Ashworth (David Leon), her sidekick, calls her Mussolini behind her back. Despite all that, or maybe because of it, you cheer her on, through a series of twisting plots. Because, when it comes down to it, she's like the long-lost cousin of Columbo combined with the sort of British copper we can actually believe in. Does she get the villains? What do you think!
Ever Decreasing Circles: While not as well-known (or appreciated) as The Good Life, this other Richard Briers sitcom is still a gem and much more subtle. On the face of it, pillar-of-the-community man, Martin, has everything - a lovely (if woefully neglected) wife, Anne, social standing and suburban certainty. That is, until his new neighbour turns out to be a champion of one-upmanship and all of it done with a smile. Three things lift this beautifully observed comedy of manners:
1. Martin, the lead character, doesn't get the joke. Ever. Which is unfortunate as he's usually the butt of it.
2. The series is devoid of cruelty (ah, those were the days...). Everyone, in Martin's world, at some point, is beset by human frailty.
3. It's great to see an ensemble cast fitting together, and a leading actor who doesn't need to come out on top.
There's a lovely conclusion to the series as well, but you'll have to watch to find out what it is.
Published on May 28th, 2021. Written by Josh Turner and Derek Thompson for Television Heaven.