50. This Life (1996-2007)
As the mid-1990s saw the United Kingdom succumb to the Britpop explosion, so television and film evolved to accommodate this new music-inspired craze for youth and drug culture. In 1996 audiences got Trainspotting in the movie theatres, and arguably This Life held up the “cool Britannia” phase on the small screen. The series followed a group of twentysomething law graduates living in a London share house.
It took the second season for the series to actually kick off with mainstream viewers, at which point production was already scheduled to wrap up. A one-off sequel, This Life+10, aired in 2007. More than 25 years later, perhaps the most striking element is its cast, which included Jack Davenport (Coupling, Pirates of the Caribbean) and Andrew Lincoln (The Walking Dead, Love Actually) in key early roles.
49. Dad’s Army (1968-1977)
Created and written by David Croft and Jimmy Perry, Dad’s Army was a massive popular hit for almost a decade. Portraying an incompetent platoon of home guard volunteers during World War II was a particularly gifted cast of comedy actors including Arthur Lowe, John Le Mesurier, John Laurie, Bill Pertwee, Ian Lavender, and Clive Dunn. Rewatched today it is oftentimes a rather dated artefact – albeit nowhere near as much as Croft and Perry’s risible follow-up It Ain’t Half Hot Mum (1974-1981) – but when it shines it still does so marvellously. Hand on heart, “don’t tell him, Pike” remains one of the funniest punchlines that the BBC ever had.
As with many BBC programs, the first season of Dad’s Army was almost totally lost after being destroyed by the BBC Archive. In an unusual move, three of those missing episodes were recreated by UKTV in 2019 with an all-new cast including Kevin McNally and Robert Bathurst.
48. Culloden (1964)
In 1964 Peter Watkins wrote and directed Culloden, a 69-minute docudrama that explored the 1746 Battle of Culloden that marked the end of Scotland’s 18th century Jacobite rebellion against the English crown. Rather than simply dramatise the events, however, Watkins shot the film as if a BBC news crew were actually present on the day of the battle, and had filmed it for posterity.
Culloden features interviews with key players in the battle, as well as rank-and-file soldiers on both sides. It was progressive in its extensive use of handheld camera work to present a sense of immediacy and contemporary relevance. The appalling actions of the English army in the battle’s aftermath makes for a sobering watch when presented in this fashion: history palpably made relatable and real.
47. Red Dwarf (1988-1999, 2009-2020 on Dave)
When writing about Steptoe & Son earlier in this countdown, I noted how it nailed the perfect formula for television comedy: two people who cannot stand each other, forced into a place where neither can leave. Red Dwarf was created as a science fiction variant, but essentially follows the precise same model. Dave Lister (Craig Charles) is the last surviving member of the human race, stuck on an enormous spaceship three million years from Earth, forced to live with a hologram simulating his dead, loathed cabin-mate Arnold Rimmer (Chris Barrie). Add in senile ship’s computer Holly (Norman Lovett) and an evolved Cat (Danny John-Jules) for flavour, and you have a series that – in its best moments – was one of the BBC’s funniest.
The first two seasons (both in 1988) represented this format at its best. The further the series strayed from it – the introduction of Kryten (Robert Llewelyn) to the regular cast in Season 3, the growing focus on science fiction concepts over comedy, the increased mobility afforded through Starbug – the weaker it became. When the BBC declined to produce a ninth season in 1999, it seemed a mercy killing at the time. An ill-considered three-part follow-up in 2009 seemed to confirm that. Thankfully the 10th through 12th seasons, on subsidiary channel Dave, have seen a partial return to form.
46. The Thick of It (2005-2012)
For 20 years audience were forced to wait for a television comedy that could match the intelligence and pointed political satire of the BBC’s Yes Minister. In 2005 that series arrived with the BBC4 broadcast of Armando Iannucci’s The Thick of It. Portraying the inner workings of a government department, including ministers, civil servants, and media spin doctors, it took a particularly savage hand to British politics for a whole new generation.
Two three-episode seasons ran in 2005. It was revived for a pair of specials in 2007, minus star Chris Langham – who had been arrested (and was later prosecuted) for the crime of owning and sharing indecent images of children. In 2009 the series was revived against for a third season, now starring a brilliantly funny Rebecca Front. A fourth and final season aired in 2012.
Absolutely the best element of the series, and a constant presence throughout, is Peter Capaldi’s abusive and manipulative spin doctor Malcolm Tucker. With his aggressive demeanor and expletive-laden dialogue, he quickly became an iconic figure in British comedy culture. He was also the only character to remain in a feature film-spinoff, In the Loop, released in 2009. Iannucci later created Veep for American broadcaster HBO, which followed a very similar tone and theme.
45. Pennies from Heaven (1978)
Dennis Potter was already a well-established talent when he wrote Pennies from Heaven, the first in a series of well-received and popular dramas that combined bleak fantasy and mimed musical numbers with the more traditional dramatic scenes to which audiences were accustomed. The series made a star out of Bob Hoskins, and also featured Gemma Craven, Freddie Jones, Jenny Logan, and Niger Havers.
Pennies from Heaven offered something to the viewing public that had simply never been seen before; unsurprisingly it won a BAFTA for Most Original Program. It was produced using a then-standard combination of 16mm film for exterior scenes and video for the studio scenes, but its success prompted the BBC to start using film for the entirety of Potter’s subsequent productions. In 1981 Herbert Ross directed a feature film adaptation starring Steve Martin, Bernadette Peters, and Christopher Walken. Not only was the film a commercial failure, it led to the BBC needing to repurchase the rights to the television scripts from MGM in order to repeat the original series in 1990.
44. Life on Mars (2006-2007)
Modern-day Manchester police detective Sam Tyler (John Simm) is hit by a car and wakes up in 1973: still a police officer, but a generation before his time. While serving under the bluntly violent DCI Gene Hunt (Philip Glenister), Sam tries to discover what has occurred: is he dreaming in a coma, or has he travelled through time? Life on Mars blended science fiction – or was it fantasy – with a pitch-perfect pastiche of 1970s police action as seen on The Sweeney and the like. While Simm proved an excellent lead, it was Glenister who captured the public’s attention as the amusingly cartoonish and thuggish hunt. The series finale, at the conclusion of the second season, was masterful.
A sequel series, Ashes to Ashes, ran from 2008 to 2010 and starred Keeley Hawes in Simm’s place. It can effectively be considered as another three seasons of the same show, to be honest, and even provides some explanations in its finale as to what has been going on.
43. The Old Grey Whistle Test (1971-1988)
Top of the Pops was all well and good for finding out what single were at the top of the charts, but what if you wanted something just a bit more considered in your popular music television show. Commissioned by David Attenborough, The Old Grey Whistle Test focused more on LPs than singles. It generally featured more adult bands, who played a bit more than just their latest hit, all of which was recorded in one of the smallest studio spaces the BBC’s Television Centre had. Technical limitations forced early acts to pre-record their audio. From 1973, all artists performed live.
Bands and artists who performed over the years spanned a huge range of styles and genres, including Bob Marley, Roxy Music, Siouxsie and the Banshees, David Bowie, John Lennon, The Specials, Elton John, and Fleetwood Mac. The series ended in 1988, but these days its spirit lives on thanks to Jools Holland’s Later… program.
42. Open All Hours (1976-1985)
The BBC was overloaded with national treasures: one of the very best was actor Ronnie Barker, whose work not only here but in The Two Ronnies and Porridge made him a well-deserved household name. His handling of comic timing and dialogue was close to unsurpassed. Open All Hours, by writer Roy Clarke (Last of the Summer Wine, Keeping Up Appearances) saw Barker play Arkwright, the fussy, penny-pinching owner of a small corner shop. His nephew Granville (David Jason) was his long-suffering assistant, while local nurse Gladys Emmanuel (Lynda Baron) was the object of Arkwright’s lecherous affections.
Large gaps between seasons likely helped to keep the script quality high, while the chemistry between the three leads kept things immensely enjoyable to watch. Against expectations, a sequel series was released in 2013. Still Open All Hours saw Granville run the same old corner shop with the assistance of his son Leroy. Surprisingly the series has outlasted the original, running six seasons to the original’s four.
41. The Sarah-Jane Adventures (2007-2011)
There is an argument to be made that, when it returned to television in 2005, Doctor Who lost a lot of the elements that made it such an enduring success in the first place. The 25-minute format, the legendary cliffhangers, and the more child-friendly story style were all effectively – and probably correctly – jettisoned in favour of a more up-to-date contemporary style. Then, in 2006, the series brought back former star Elisabeth Sladen in her famous role of companion Sarah-Jane Smith. The audience responded with enormous affection and enthusiasm. At the same time the BBC was pressuring producer Russell T Davies for a spin-off, and the two elements sensibly fused together.
In so many ways, The Sarah-Jane Adventures is the proper heir to 20th century Doctor Who, and a superb spin-off to a superb series. For five seasons Sarah and her own youthful gang of assistants battled alien menaces both from the mother series and original. The series saw occasional guest appearances by the Doctor himself, the final screen performance by Nicolas Courtney as the Brigadier, and the return of another former companion Jo Grant (Katy Manning). On paper it seems ridiculous that The Sarah Jane Adventures could possibly succeed but succeed it did. The only reason it ended when it did was because Elisabeth Sladen died. We all still miss her.