60. Challenge Anneka (1989-1995)
This entertainment program was devised specifically as a vehicle for Anneka Rice, who had become very popular in the UK off the back of the Channel 4 game show Treasure Hunt. The concept was trialled in 1987 as part of the BBC’s Children in Need charity appeal, and then went to series from 1989. Each episode would see Anneka, armed only with a large blue truck, a mobile telephone, and a small beach buggy, receive a written note with a task to achieve – usually within 2-3 days. Anneka would have no prior knowledge of what the task was, which was invariably charity-based, and would need to persuade local businesses and government to help out.
The result was basically wholesome good-heartedness distilled into 50 minute doses. Challenges achieved over the course of the series included: getting a symphony orchestra to play the “1812 Overture” on a river barge on the Thames backed by a fireworks show, finding and converting 10 double decker buses into mobile children’s playgrounds, restoring a Victorian-era walled garden to its original state, and – in one particularly famous episode – renovating an entire Romanian orphanage that was home to 600 children.
The series was revived in 2006 for a series of specials on ITV, and again in 2022 on Channel 5. The format sold internationally. In the USA Erin Brockovich hosted Challenge America. In Australia, A Current Affair briefly co-opted the format for a series of episodes featuring rock singer Angry Anderson.
59. Top of the Pops (1964-2006)
Launched in 1964, Top of the Pops provided viewers with a weekly run-down of the country’s most popular singles, paired with in-studio performances by contemporary singers and bands – more often miming to a prerecording rather than performing live. It ran consistently until 2006, when the BBC chose to retire it. Dusty Springfield was the very first act. Snow Patrol were the very last.
There were better music programs on British television, but for decades Top of the Pops was a constant, widely-loved presence. Numerous highlights are well-remembered: Marc Bolan’s outfit for “Hot Love” is often referenced as the origin of glam rock, David Bowie’s performance of “Starman” hyper-charged his career with British audiences, and Nirvana famously protested having to mime “Smells Like Teen Spirit” in 1991. Queen’s famous music clip to “Bohemian Rhapsody” was specifically made to avoid miming.
While the series has been dead for years, it presence on the BBC lingers on. Old episodes of the series continue to be re-run on BBC4, save for those presented by Jimmy Saville (due to child sex offences) and Dave Lee Travis (due to an indecent assault).
58. Our Friends in the North (1996)
Despite its remit as a broadcast for the whole of the United Kingdom, the BBC has rightfully been criticised over the decades for a general trend towards London and the south of England, at the expense of the rest of the country. A big step in the other direction came in 1996 with Our Friends in the North, a nine-part drama set in Newcastle-Upon-Tyne from the 1960s to the 1990s. Playwright Peter Flannery wrote the series, which was awarded a British Academy Award for Best Drama Serial. It took more than a decade for the BBC to finally commit to making the series, as much of it was based on real-life people, and there was a genuine concern someone might sue.
One of the genuine achievements of the series was in its casting. The four lead roles were played by Gina McKee, Daniel Craig, Mark Strong, and Christopher Eccleston – all four of whom subsequently found enormous success both in the UK and internationally.
57. Outnumbered (2007-2016)
Created by Andy Hamilton and Guy Jenkin, Outnumbered took the typical family sitcom – two parents and three kids – and vigorously shook it back to life. While scripts were written for each episode, and learned by the two adult leads – The Mary Whitehouse Experience‘s Hugh Dennis and Life Begins‘ Claire Skinner – all of the dialogue by the three children was essentially improvised based on notes given to them immediately before filming. The result was a series that felt much more immediate, vigorous, and honest-to-god funny that previous shows of this type.
The series ran for five seasons, followed by two specials aired between 2012 and 2016. The longevity of Outnumbered is now part of its charm: when the first series aired, juvenile actors Tyger Drew-Honey, Daniel Roche, and Ramona Marquez were respectively 11, 7, and 5. In the most recent special they were 20, 16, and 14. It was a genuine pleasure to watch these fabulous, funny kids grow up.
56. Look Around You (2002-2005)
In 2002 comedians Robert Popper and Peter Serafinowicz were given the opportunity to make their own comedy series – so long as it didn’t cost any money, and could fill a 10-minute time slot. The result was Look Around You, a pitch-perfect combination of schools program satire and surrealistic non-sequiturs. Shot in the cheapest way imaginable with a tiny cast, it beat the odds to be one of the funniest things the BBC ever made. Serafinowicz performed most of the on-screen roles, with the assistance of Popper and friends including future film director Edgar Wright.
Three years later the series returned, extended to 30 minutes per episode and abandoning the schools format for a parody of pop science program Tomorrow’s World. Joining Serafinowicz and Popper on-screen were Josie D’Arby and future Oscar winner Olivia Colman. Guest appearances were made by Simon Pegg, David Walliams, Nick Frost, Sarah Alexander, David Mitchell, and Benedict Wong. This second season is great, but it is the first for which Look Around You will be remembered.
55. The Morecambe and Wise Show (1968-1977)
By the time comics Eric Morecambe and Ernie Wise arrived at the BBC they were already hugely popular television stars, having made their sketch comedy series Two of a Kind for ITV since 1961. More money, and a chance to switch to colour, persuaded them to jump ship. On the BBC they changed writers, tightened up their format, and started a long tradition of inviting celebrities onto the show only to treat them terribly. A running joke involved actor Peter Cushing complaining he had never been paid.
It is difficult to exaggerate just how popular “Eric and Ernie” became with the British public. Their Christmas specials were always their most popular episodes; the 1977 edition was seen by 21 million people, and famously included a chorus line of male BBC presenters singing “There is Nothing Like a Dame”. In 1978, Morecambe and Wise accepted an offer from Thames Television and jumped back to ITV.
54. Only Fools and Horses (1981-2003)
In 2004 the BBC polled viewers for their choice of Britain’s best sitcoms. Only Fools and Horses, created by John Sullivan, ranked at number one. This is no great surprise: the series ran for seven hugely successful seasons between 1981 and 1991, and another 10 specials took it up to 2003. It was always a popular hit. The first episode was watched by an audience of 9 million. By the fifth season this had increased to 15 million. The 1996 Christmas special was watched by more than 24 million people.
The series followed the constant get-rich schemes of Peckham entrepreneur “Del Boy” Trotter, played by David Jason – already a household name thanks to Open All Hours. Brother Rodney was played by Nicholas Lyndhurst (Going Straight), with their grandfather played by Lennard Pearce. When Pearce died following the third season he was replaced by Buster Merryfield as Uncle Albert.
Weirdly, and unlike most other BBC comedies of the time, Only Fools and Horses never managed to find much global success. I am not certain if it was ever broadcast in Australia at all; if it was, it was never with the frequency of The Goodies, Fawlty Towers, or Are you Being Served.
53. Between the Lines (1992-1994)
This police drama followed Tony Clark (Neil Pearson), an ambitious police superintendent forcing into working for the Complaints Investigation Bureau (CIB, aka internal affairs). Assisted by fellow officers Harry Naylor (Tom Georgeson) and Mo Connell (Siobhan Redmond), Clark soon learns police corruption may be closer than he thinks.
This is just a superbly written and performed drama, with a peppering of action and thriller thrown in. It won a BAFTA in its third and final year, while writer/producer Tony Garnett went on to produce This Life and Ballykissangel. Of note was the character of Mo Connell, presented as bisexual without it forming a core part of the plot – one of the first times this was included in a British television series.
I have never seen the BBC’s popular drama Line of Duty, so cannot rank it in this list, but it is fair to say Line of Duty exists because of Between the Lines.
52. Antiques Roadshow (1979-?)
I think you either get Antiques Roadshow, or you don’t, Clearly this long-running factual series, in which a team of antiques appraisers visit a stately home and assess artefacts brought in by members of the public, can be viewed at face value by those who appreciate stately homes and have a passion for antiquing. It is gentle, low-key television of the politest kind.
For the rest of us there is the vicarious glee of watching an old lady discover that her favourite knick-knack is worth 50 thousand pounds, and the quiet schadenfreude of seeing the disappointment on the face of some arrogant dealer who bet the farm on a 19th century luggage case in 1957, only to discover that today it’s only worth ten quid.
51. Spooks (2002-2011)
There have been espionage series throughout the decades. Some have been more realistic than others, notably the BBC’s Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy and ITV’s Callan, and some – such as Spooks – have been so bluntly and casually lethal to their characters that they come close to traumatising the audience.
The series ran for 10 seasons and a sequel film, but audiences knew if they were onboard with Spooks from the second episode. The merest mention of ‘the deep fryer’ to those in the know provokes either an involuntary shudder or a knowing nod. Possibly both. Even today, a quick glance at the series’ Wikipedia entry reveals almost twice as many main characters died during the 10 seasons as lived. This is one spy series that definitely was not for the sentimental viewers.
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.)
#80-71 (Star Cops, The Mighty Boosh, Blue Peter, The Onedin Line, Jonathan Creek, The Goodies, The Fast Show, Robin Redbreast, Torchwood: Children of Earth, Takin’ Over the Asylum.)
#70-61 (Cracked Actor, The League of Gentlemen, The Office, To the Manor Born, Grange Hill, Tipping the Velvet, Survivors, The Omega Factor, Tenko, The Night Manager.)
#60-51 (Challenge Anneka, Top of the Pops, Our Friends in the North, Outnumbered, Look Around You, The Morecambe and Wise Show, Only Fools and Horses, Between the Lines, Antiques Roadshow, Spooks.)