90. Extras (2005-2007)
It’s not Ricky Gervais who made Extras sing, it is the mind-boggling array of famous and respectable actors and singers willing to ridicule themselves in name of comedy. Whether it was Patrick Stewart pitching a movie where everybody’s clothes fall off (‘but I’ve seen everything’), David Bowie singing about how much he hates Gervais’ character, or Kate Winslet playing a nun in a holocaust drama purely to score an Oscar, there is something truly wonderful in the way this series brought in A-list talent in the manner that it did.
Gervais own stand-up comedy regularly crosses the line with homophobic and transphobic rhetoric, and that absolutely makes him a difficult man to enjoy. His script writing work, however, feels near-faultless, whether in this, The Office, or the underrated Life’s Too Short.
89. Steptoe & Son (1962-1974)
I swear there is a formula to a good BBC sitcom, which is to find two characters who grate badly against one another and then force them into a space from which they are unable to leave. It is pretty much Steptoe & Son in a nutshell: a father (Wilfrid Brambell) and son (Harry H. Corbett) run a junkyard. The son, Harold, dreams of bettering himself and leaving home. The father, Albert, has dedicated his life to thwarting Harold’s ambitions.
The series remains one of the most successful comedies the BBC ever had: eight seasons over 12 years, two feature film spin-offs, and a brace of foreign remakes including popular American copy Sanford & Son. In 2012 two men accused Brambell, who died in 1985, of child sexual abuse, which does rather take the shine off the series.
88. I’m Alan Partridge (1997-2002)
Cringe comedy is an acquired taste, even in the context of comedy already being highly subjective. See a character embarrass themselves repeatedly, while hilarious to some, can be so grating and unpleasant to others. Alan Partridge, played by Steve Coogan since 1991, is an incompetent television and radio host whose propensity for gaffes and mistakes constantly disrupts and ruins his broadcasts. For some, his antics are painful. For others, he’s among the funniest characters in the history of British television.
Partridge had got longevity as well. He debuted on the Radio 4 comedy On the Hour before graduating to television with Knowing Me, Knowing You as well as I’m Alan Partridge and even the feature film Alpha Papa (2013).
87. Teletubbies (1997-2001)
Teletubbies was a global phenomenon in the late 1990s, as impressionable toddlers fell in love en masse with the brightly coloured, oddly creepy creatures Tinky Winky, Dipsy, Laa-Laa, and Po. The amount of merchandising was crazy. The home video sales were enormous. The cultural impact was so great that the theme tune hit #1 in the UK Singles Charts.
It was a genius proposition for toddlers television too. Colourful, eye-catching, and simple – and the best part? After a short live-action segment, the Teletubbies themselves would shout “again! again!” and simply watch the segment twice in a row. For anyone who had ever minded a toddler in front of the television, it was the most pitch-perfect observation of how two year-olds watch the TV. A revival of the series aired from 2015-2018.
86. Adam Adamant Lives! (1966-1967)
When Verity Lambert was assigned to produce Doctor Who in 1963, she was the youngest-ever drama producer at the BBC and its first woman. After leaving the series, Adam Adamant Lives! was the next series she produced. Gerald Harper played the hero, a 19th century dandy frozen for decades and revived in the 1960s for a series of adventures.
This was the closest thing that the BBC ever produced to ITV’s The Avengers. It is also sadly one of the many BBC series affected by the loss of episodes. In the 1960s and 1970s old programs were not seen to have any worth, so the BBC Archives would regularly junk or burn copies of their old programs. Sadly 13 out of 39 episodes of Adam Adamant – including the first – no longer exist. We’ve also lost two of the three episodes directed by Ridley Scott, a BBC director who would quit for the advertising sector before directing Alien, Blade Runner, and numerous other feature films.
85. The Trip (2010-2020)
Comedian Steve Coogan accepts a commission to review several northern English restaurants for The Observer. On the eve of the assignment, his girlfriend temporarily breaks off their relationship – so Coogan invites colleague Rob Brydon to accompany himself. It would be a somewhat awkward reality series if it was real, but it is not: The Trip presents the real Coogan and Brydon essentially playing fictional characters named Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon, all directed by acclaimed British film director Michael Winterbottom.
It is generally marvellous stuff, and was also edited down from six half-hour episodes to a feature film for international release. It was so successful that the trio made another three editions, each combining TV series and film, set in Italy, Spain, and Greece.
84. The Paradise Club (1989-1990)
By the time writer Murray Smith came to create The Paradise Club, which ran for two seasons on BBC1, he had already been responsible for the popular ITV dramas Strangers and Bulman. Both starred actor Don Henderson, and they would collaborate once more on this London-set crime drama. It followed two brothers, played by Henderson and EastEnders veteran Leslie Grantham, who inherited a nightclub after the sudden death of their criminal matriarch mother.
Rights issues over the series’ musical soundtrack have, to date, prevented an official home video release. It’s a deep shame, because this excellent drama really deserves to be remembered a little better.
83. Doomwatch (1970-1972)
Kit Pedler and Gerry Davis famously created the Cybermen for Doctor Who, and in 1970 created their own speculative drama series Doomwatch. It featured a government agency, headed up by Dr Spencer Quist (John Paul), which investigated ecological and technological threats and disasters across the UK. It is a drier sort of science fiction series that other BBC productions of the 1970s (save perhaps for the unbearably somber Moonbase 3), but remains a fascinating drama nonetheless. It was a popular hit too: the death of a main character at the end of Season 1 generated the greatest amount of viewer complaints since the end of World War II.
As with Adam Adamant Lives!, many episodes were destroyed by the BBC Archive, with some since returned to the BBC via international prints and the like. At the time of writing 14 out of 38 episodes are still missing, presumed lost. A pilot was made and aired for a relaunch in 1999, on Channel 5, but a full series was never commissioned.
82. Mr Men (1974-1978)
Roger Hargreaves’ series of Mr Men picture books were hugely popular in the 1970s, and they continue to be big sellers today. In 1974 the BBC started adapting the books into an animated series, each episode featuring a different character identified by a single trait (i.e. Mr Happy, Mr Bossy, and so on) and used them to deliver a small moral lesson.
Like the books, the TV series was an enormous success. 28 episodes were produced over a five-year period. Actor Arthur Lowe, the star of comedy series Dad’s Army, narrated them all. Each did a marvellous job of capturing the look, humour, and tone of Hargreaves’ work.
81. The Year of the Sex Olympics (1968)
Over its history the BBC has produced many ongoing series of one-off television plays, sometimes grouped by theme but other times simply allowing a venue for writers and directors to do a variety of single-episode dramas and comedies. One such series was 625 Theatre on BBC2, which ran from 1964 and 1968, and presented drama in BBC2’s then-superior picture resolution of 625 lines. In July 1968 the series featured the 105-minute television play “The Year of the Sex Olympics”.
“Sex Olympics” posits a future Britain where the masses are entertained by television broadcasts of pornography – intended to pacify them and keep them subservient to the ruling “hi-drive” class. After an incident involving the death of a protester, TV coordinator Ugo Priest (Leonard Rossiter, Rising Damp) invents an all-new broadcast concept: The Live-Life Show, showing a genuine family living on an island and broadcast live-to-air.
The play was written by Nigel Kneale, arguably the single-best writer that British television ever had. His science fiction serial The Quatermass Experiment (1953) was essentially the first-ever event television production, and his subsequent works consistently marked a high point in the BBC’s presented of science fiction and horror. “The Year of the Sex Olympics” is particularly noteworthy, as in it Kneale effectively predicts the rise of reality television 31 years before John de Mol Jr invented Big Brother. The original videotapes were again destroyed, but a black-and-white print was rediscovered and released to home video by the BFI.
100 Years of the BBC
#100-91 (Coupling, The Box of Delights, The Devil’s Crown, Top Gear, Jackanory, Not the Nine O’Clock News, The House of Eliott, The Mary Whitehouse Experience, 1990, Roobarb.)
#90-81 (Extras, Steptoe & Son, I’m Alan Partridge, Teletubbies, Adam Adamant Lives, The Trip, The Paradise Club, Doomwatch, Mr Men, The Year of the Sex Olympics.)
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