Top 40+ British TV Shows
Best British TV Shows
As I said in my American TV shows wrap-up, the British simply do television better than the Yanks. Here’s my Top 40, plus some other worthwhile diversions.
The Top 40 (in order of preference)
Danger Man/Secret Agent 1960-68) — The Irish actor Patrick McGoohan accomplished what few have done in TV: to achieve cult status for two different TV series. First, McGoohan played John Drake, in the two-pronged British series Danger Man (later called Secret Agent in the U.S.), then as Number 3 in the underground favorite The Prisoner. Danger Man started as a half-hour, black-and-white series in 1960. It set Drake in Washington, D.C. (though traveling the world) as a spy for NATO. These shows are not bad, but tend to over-do the drama and are sometimes downright corny in their attempts at self deprecation. What a revelation the hour-long shows were, though. From the first episode, “Battle of the Cameras,” Danger Man/Secret Agent was the most realistic spy drama ever put on television, but with a very stylish veneer of excellent mod fashions, ripping scripts and dagger-sharp dialogue. The black-and-white cinematography was terrific. And directors such as Peter Yates (Bullitt) provided some crackling suspense. McGoohan is nothing short of outstanding in virtually every one of the three seasons of hour-long shows. He is a moralist, and takes himself (and is missions) very seriously, but Drake is moral, often regretting what his government does with and to the people he runs to ground. It’s also noteworthy that Drake, throughout the entire series, though he plays cat and mouse with a cast of svelt females, never kisses one (much less beds them), unlike James Bond. (In fact, McGoohan turned down the role of Bond for the initial movies, before Sean Connery accpeted, and defined the role.) McGoohan simply said he felt all that screwing would be bad television for younger viewers. And we don’t miss the literal sex, the sexy stories, action, dialogue and acting are enough. Great episodes abound in Danger Man/Secret Agent: “Don’t Nail Him Yet” (in which Drake pretends to be a timid school teacher trapping a spy), “No Marks For Servility” (a servile butler bent out bringing a murdering kidnapping business tycoon to justice), “The Black Book” (uncovering a Russian defector’s blackmail ring), “A Date With Doris” (Drake as journalist in a post-Cuban revolution adventure), “The Outcast” (in which Drake pretends to be a petty crook tracking a murderous Navy deserter), “The Not So Jolly Roger” (Drake playing an offshore Pirate radio disc jokey to foil a spy ring). There are dozens of terrific Danger Man/Secret Agent episodes, each with the perfectly timed logic and suspense of outstanding movies. The series is, in fact, essentially made up of 47-minute movies. I would argue that this is the most consistently satisfying action drama ever to appear on television. That McGoohan went on to conceive of, star in, and even write and direct (sometimes) the series The Prisoner makes him, I think, unique in television history. Oh, yes, and American pop start Johnny Rivers had a hit song with the simple electric guitar hook-driven song “Secret Agent Man,” which served as the theme song for the American version of the program. Own it.
Sherlock Holmes (1984 to 1994) — Jeremy Brett owns Sherlock Holmes. Jeremy Brett was Sherlock Holmes. The British actor, who died of heart failure in 1995, was possessed of the extreme intelligence, penetrating gaze, magnetic charm, mordant wit, and passion that any reader of the Sir Arthur Conan Doyle detective series would hope for in a screen actor’s efforts to bring Holmes to life. I, as a Tween, had read all the Conan Doyle novels and short stories before I saw the old, 1940′s movies with the hawk-nosed Basil Rathbone as Holmes, and bumbling Nigel Bruce as Watson. And, to my mind, Rathbone was the consummate screen Holmes. That is until I stumbled upon a sale DVD of one of the Brett-version episodes of Holmes. Brett’s performance as Holmes is revelatory: like the first time you see on the large or small screen Sean Connery as James Bond, or Brando as Stanley Kowalski (after Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire), or Nick Nolte as Ray Hicks in Who’ll Stop the Rain (after Robert Stone’s shattering novel Dog Soldiers). These are performances that define their characters, no matter how famous the characters were from literature, and how we had “pictured” them before. Hugh Laurie accomplished that same sort of alchemy with Bertie Wooster (from the P.G. Woodhouse stories), which you will also see recommended on this website. The great director Stanley Kubrick, who only worked from “source material” (i.e., novels and short stories) to craft the scripts for his films, once said that one should never compare a book to a movie, because they are completely different art forms. But, most people inevitably do that, don’t they? I do. Of course, I’m not Stanley Kubrick. Finally, I would say in closing that if you like the Sherlock Holmes stories, or even just great television, and you don’t like Jeremy Brett as Holmes, that you should (figuratively), as Gregory Peck’s officer said to the flyboys getting ready to go out on a suicide bombing run in the movie Twelve O’Clock High, ” … consider yourself already dead.”
Tinker, Tailor, Solider, Spy/Smiley’s People (1979) — As long as I’m on the subject of actors who define and “own” roles of fictional characters, George Smiley, the bland-but-acute British desk-jockey spy from the novel Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (from the keyboard of the magnificent John le Carré) is a point in case. Since the broadcast/release of the 1979 TV drama, starring Sir Alec Guinness as Smiley, there could (or should, sorry Gary Oldham) be another. As directed by John Irvin (later to make the acceptable movie, The Dogs of War), Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is in the highest ranks of TV drama, much less spy drama. The casting (this being British TV) is faultless. Guinness is in exactly the right place: bright as the Sun, cold as a dead eel, dispeptic, fussy, insecure, completely committed to his country (right or wrong), and a damned dangerous opponent. Other absolutely riveting performances are turned in by Ian Richardson as Bill Haydon, Bernard Hepton as Toby Esterhase, Hywel Bennett as Ricki Tarr, Beryl Reid as Conie Sachs (who Guinness, to his discredit, one hears never treated her very well on or off the set), and Michael Jayston as Peter Guillam. But, really, its a perfect cast throughout. It’s a measure of the excellence of the writing and directing that there is never a moment, in a very complexly plotted series, when you are unsure of what is happening the the spies going double and triple on you, where you scratch your head on reach for the “re-wind” button. This nail-biting, uber-smart spy drama is in six episodes that you wish would never end. Sadly, they do. Luckily you can view them repeatedly (and should want to). And equally lucky, the series was followed later by a second installment, Smiley’s People, which picks up the story of the Cold War battle between Britain and the Soviets. The same beautiful cast is back again, and as strong as ever. Both of these series demand to be owned. As my mother says, what are you waiting for, an engraved invitation? Oh, and I guess you should be forewarned that now they are talking about doing a “remake” (almost always a bad idea) of this with Gary Oldham as Smiley. Why don’t these Hollywood idiots ever leave well enough alone?
Jeeves and Wooster — People in the industrialized nations in the early 21st century sit around complaining that things have gone to hell in a hand basket. They lament that the housing market is soft. That they haven’t as much disposable income as they used to, etc., ad nauseum. I got news for those sad-sack Johnnies. The last time that life had any dignity anyway was back in the 1920s and 1930s, and that’s the era that Jeeves and Wooster covers. Back when people dressed for dinner, were witty, and knew which fork to use at table, and that there are only about half a dozen cocktails worth drinking. When men wore hats, vests, and pocket squares, and carried canes because it was a cool thing to do, by Jove. In the exceptional British TV adaptations of P.G. Wodehouse’s classic stories, the incomparable Hugh Laurie plays Bertram Wilberforce Wooster (Bertie), Stephen Fry is his “brain box” manservant Jeeves, who will say, for instance in trying to dissuade his master from wearing a pair of plaid trousers to the golf course, “I’m told that, sir, that Mr. Freddy ‘He’s a Riot’ Flowerdew often appears on the music hall stage in comparable attire.” The names alone of the ancillary characters is enough to make the shows interesting, but that they are played by hilarious, self-righteous, or cavalier nutters makes it all the more marvelous. Meet portly, slow-witted bungler Tuppy Glossop, newt fancier Gussie Fink Noddle, squeaky voiced bad poetess Madeline Bassett, proto-fascist Spode, stern Aunt Agatha (with her mordant put-downs of Bertie’s n’er-do-well lifestyle, and her mischievous Westy, Macintosh), inept priest Beefy Bingham, pinch-faced blackguard Rupert Steggles, and the smiling, idiotic Barmy Fungy Phipps. This cast of wealthy, oblivious charmers spend their time observing the social graces, kicking about meaningless details, deliberately poking holes in each others’ hot water bottles, taking prat falls over coffee tables, playing silly songs on the piano and singing along, diving into lakes fully clothed, throwing dinner rolls at policemen whose helmets they’ve just nicked, sailing across the ocean on the Queen Mary, and, in short doing about everything in life that is worth doing (unless you have to work for a living). Do yourself an immense favor and buy the whole series on DVD, or download it, or do whatever bally thing you have to in order to have it around. So, the next time that someone bitches, as they inevitably will, that there’s nothing to watch on the 1,000 channels you are paying for, you can just watch Jeeves and Wooster for the ga-zillionth time. It always endeavors to give satisfaction, and does.
Blackadder — laksjlkasjsdfalk
The Prisoner — Patrick McGoohan, as the ex-spy exhiled to a bland, beautiful resort for the rest of his life, suffers from the modern malady. He has everything he could ever need: sunshine, clean clothes, a nice house, people who smile all the time, plenty of food, and “entertainment,” no need to ever do any real work. But he’s not really “free.” So, the entire season of The Prisoner is about this one man (who is only ever know as Number Six) trying to get away from paradise, where he can be free — to live in squalor, or unhappily, or anything else he damn well chooses. this beautifully shot show, full of internal angst and games of half-drugged, Alice-in-Wonderland cat-and-mouse between the “free man” Number Six and Numer Two and all his minions is sunlit science fiction. There’s even a menacing weather balloon object, Rover, that patrols the outskirts of paradise, waiting to envelop/suffocate any fool brave enough to try to make a break for the real world. That The Prisoner was a cult hit in its day, the late 1960s, is no surprise. That it’s even bigger now, decades after its short run on television is equally unsurprising. And, it figures, that some idiots would try to remake it as a movie that stunk up the place (which they and it did). Reportedly, McGoohan who had had a long run on TV as John Drake in the excellent spy series Danger Man/Secret Agent “sold” billionaire producer Sir Lew Grade on the concept of The Prisoner on a napkin at lunch. Those were the days when people used to have ideas that good, and chaps with pockets that deep would green light some terrific notion with the wave of a gold-tipped fountain pen. Take a trip to The Village and enjoy The Prisoner. It is that rarest of beasts: a program that looks and sounds like nothing else.
Lipstick on Your Collar (1993) — This six-episode Dennis Potter-written series for Channel 4 is probably the best musical that’s ever been on television, on either side of the Pond. Filled with appropriately over-the-top acting, bombastic musical numbers, super-saturated color, and excellent script, acting and art direction (by Paul Cross). It’s as addictive as a big, fatting banana split. It also was the first big break for later-film-star Ewan McGregor. But, really, the whole cast shines throughout. McGregor plays a petty, Whitehall-based civil servant who breaks the monotony of every day life by imagining vivid, frenzied musical numbers set to the tune of the rock ‘n’ roll hits of the era (1956). Songs that any self-respecting pop aficionado will recognize include Gene Vincent’s “Be-Bop-A-Lula,” Carl Perkins’ “Blue Suede Shoes,” “Blueberry Hill” (Fats Domino” and “Your Cheatin’ Heart” (Hank Williams). There’s a stiletto-sharp sideline plot (of course, this being Potter, after all) which impales the bumbling of the military and those who also serve by shuffling paper back home (London), during the Suez Canal crisis. (Part of the Potter trilogy that includes Pennies From Heaven, and The Singing Detective.). The whole series was beautifully directed by Renny Rye, a yeoman-service British TV director of some 30+ years, for whom this is his highest achievement.
That Was the Week That Was — klajkljsa
Edge of Darkness (Conspiracy Thriller, 1985) — This is one of the best modern TV paranoia forays, starring Bob Peck as a British copper from the North of England. Peck’s got just the right mixture of loss, and a kind of comatose haunted quality that contains what you know could be menace if it needs to be, and if and when the quiet pressure in him finally blows. All I’ll tell you to not be a spoiler is somebody he loves is murdered and he spends the rest of this multi-episode winner tracking down the killers. Once he’s lifted the rock, he uncovered a classic modern web of political and corporate conspiracies involving nuclear waste, more murders, and a whole eco-consciousness angle that is still very relevant in the 21st century. The cast is uniformly excellent, and the pacing (by director Martin Campbell) is perfect: slow, but not too slow, tense and sad (as you would imagine real life murder and being caught up in a government conspiracy would be). There’s also a lovely motif of a nocturnal train that cuts through the ending of various episodes, like a recurring musical theme. It’s a first-rate production from start to finish. The music is co-written, and probably played on guitar, by Eric Clapton (the blues-rock fellow), and the terrific scripting by long-time British policier writer Troy Kennedy Martin. There’s even a juicy, over-the-top performance by American B actor Joe Don Baker (putting one in mind of the underrated ’70s Noir, Charley Varrick. Did Baker ever do a performance that wasn’t over the top?) Put it on your to-view list.
The League of Gentlemen — slkjalskjlka
Murphy’s Law — Like all TV series that one enjoys, there doesn’t seem to be enough of Murphy’s Law. James Nesbitt plays Irish undercover cop Tommy Murphy, in a role that was apparently created for him. Nesbitt certainly owns the role, lock, stock and smoking barrel. He’s a tremendously magnetic actor, both funny, likable, and fearsome at the same time. There are five seasons and a pilot. Seasons four and five are made up each of one long, multi-part segment. The writing, by creator Colin Bateman and others, cinematography, and acting throughout are cracker jack.
Monty Python’s Flying Circus — lasjlkasjfd
Rumpole of the Bailey — laslsjlk;dsa
The Francis Urquhart Series (multi-part Mini-Series) — Made up of 12 episodes, over three powerful series, the wonderful Ian Richardson (Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy) gives a career-defining portrayal of an ambitious politician with a Lady Macbeth-like wife. The series is made up of House of Cards (1990), To Play the King (1993), and The Final Cut (1995). Modern political dramas simply don’t get any better than this. Richardson makes the handsome, intelligent Urquhart both attractive and repulsive at the same time: a mean feat. The best comment I ever heard about politics (which I loath) is that it is the entertainment branch of business. Urquhart is highly entertaining, if placing on steroids the general egomania and mind-numbing self interest of your garden variety politician (the ones who serve you right there in your home town). He’s undoubtedly a monster, but you know just why women throw themselves at him, and men fear him. Nothing is as fearsome as his cold-blooded wife, however. While we’ve seen the machinations of British government in a thousand other films and TV shows, there’s something to be said for a screenwriter, director, crew, and group of actors making it all seem fresh and exciting again. A must see.
Mobile (2007) — Mobile is one of those multi-part TV series that the British do so well. Beautifully constructed by screenwriter John Fay, it plays like three feature-length films. The over-arching story tracks three separate individuals, all of whom are caught up in a conspiracy surrounding the negative health effects of using mobile phones (i.e., radiation). In the first episode (called “The Engineer”), a man (Neil Fitzmaurice) who believes he’s been given a brain tumor by his mobile phone mounts a terrorist campaign against those he feels are responsible. In part two (“The Soldier”), a British Iraq War soldier (Jamie Draven) gets sucked up into the conspiracy. In the final episode (“The Executive”), the head of the phone carrier (Michael Kitchen) is caught in the web of intrigue. The script is crackling, the acting is as spot-on as we’ve come to expect from British thrillers, and the direction and cinematography is first-rate, on a par with feature filmmaking. On the whole, you wish there were dozens more modern British mini-series of this caliber.
Pennies From Heaven —
The Bretts —
I, Claudius —
The Singing Detective — A better screenplay than a TV series (though it’s damn good or “television”), this is another Dennis Potter triumph of the imagination. Again (like Lipstick on Your Collar) a semi-biographical, fantasy.
State of Play —
The Irish R.M.
To the Manor Born —
Life on Mars —
Man in a Suitcase —
Ready, Steady, Go —
Forsyte Saga —