40. All Creatures Great and Small (1978-1990)
Veterinary surgeon Alf Wright, writing as James Herriot, had made a lucrative career out of a series of semi-fictionalised memoirs about caring for animals in the Yorkshire Dales. While his work had already been adapted for film, in 1978 the BBC made a commitment to adapt them for television. Three seasons were thus produced between 1978 and 1980, starring Christopher Timothy as Herriot, Robert Hardy as his employer Siegfried Farnon, Peter Davison as Farnon’s younger brother Tristan, and Carol Drinkwater as Herriot’s wife Helen.
The series ended after running out of material to adapt. It took more than half a decade for producer Bill Sellars to convince Alf Wright to allow the BBC to produce original scripts based on his characters. Most of the cast returned in some capacity for the final four seasons, save for Carol Drinkwater – who was replaced by Linda Bellingham. A final Christmas special was aired in December 1990.
All Creatures had a powerful legacy in the decades after it finished, and even day it seems the perfect example of BBC Sunday night family entertainment. There were some half-hearted attempts to reunite the cast for another Christmas special. It was famously parodied by Mark Gatiss in The League of Gentleman. In 2011 the BBC aired Young James Herriot, a three-part prequel based on Wright’s university days. In 2020 a remake of the original books was launched to great success by Channel 5.
39. The War Game (1966)
Having earned raves for his 1964 docudrama Culloden, Peter Warkins next wrote and directed this 44-minute film, commissioned by the BBC to show the after-effects and impact of a nuclear weapons strike near Canterbury, Kent. It presents a hypothetical scenario in which USA-USSR relations deteriorate to the point where a small tactical warhead is detonated by the Soviets above a British air force base. It is important to note that nothing in Watkins’ film was sensationalised or exaggerated. The War Game does exactly what its brief instructed it to do: show the effects of such an attack on a local populations. Like Culloden before it, the entire docudrama is framed as a BBC factual entertainment program.
Sadly BBC executives – and, in turn, the government of the day – were horrified by Watkin’s depiction of third-degree burns, melting eyeballs, radiation sickness, civil collapse, the shooting of the terminally ill, martial law, and firing squads. Its October 1965 broadcast was cancelled. In a response to Parliament, a BBC representative explained “the effect of the film has been judged by the BBC to be too horrifying for the medium of broadcasting.” In a sense the BBC were correct. So effective and upsetting is Watkin’s film that it is difficult to believe anybody who saw it and let its implications sink in would ever allow nuclear weapons to be stationed in the UK ever again.
As compensation, Watkins was at least able to submit his film to international film festivals starting in 1966. So successful was it that the following year it won the Oscar for Best Documentary Feature, making one of the most widely acclaimed BBC productions of all time. Despite this, it was only broadcast on the BBC on 31 July 1985 as part of a series of programs timed to the 40th anniversary of the Hiroshima Bombing.
38. Fleabag (2016-2019)
Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s solo fringe play was a huge hit at the Edinburgh Festival, and inspired this: two six-part seasons of an unnamed woman (Waller-Bridge) suffering an enormous personal crisis and resolving it shockingly self-destructive ways. She is never named, neither are many of the series’ supporting characters: her father (Bill Patterson), godmother (Olivia Colman), “the hot priest” (Andrew Scott), and even “arsehole guy” (Ben Aldridge).
It is always tempting, when a series comes along like this and becomes a massive critical sensation, to give it a bit of side-eye and dismiss it out of hand. Fleabag genuinely deserves the acclaim it received. The fourth-wall-breaking scripts were incredibly clever – at one point jaw-droppingly so – and Waller-Bridge proved a fascinating character to watch despite some genuinely awful behaviours. One of the absolute highlights was Sian Clifford as the protagonist’s bottled-up sister Claire, which earned her a much-deserved Emmy nomination.
37. The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (1981)
Like many BBC television comedies, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy came to the screen after first being a successful radio series. Creator Douglas Adams rewrote his own scripts for the new version, chopping and changing elements that resulted in what was by-and-large a better, funnier version. Despite predictable budgetary challenges, this TV edition pulled out all the stops – particularly by visualising the radio series’ famous ‘book’ sections with what seemed like stylish computer-generated imagery – all actually animated by hand.
About half of the radio cast graduated to the television version, and those who joined it fresh fitted in brilliantly. The end result, six episodes in all, were popular with viewers, well-met by critics, and won both a Royal Television Society award and multiple BAFTAs. Sadly, Adams did not get along at all well with producer/director Alan Bell, and had issues over royalties, budgets, and his writing fee, and thus a second season never eventuated. Hitchhiker’s has also been a stage play, a feature film, and an audio drama sold on LP. This TV version remains far and away my favourite of them all.
36. The Day Today (1994)
Lasting just six episodes in 1994, The Day Today was one of the BBC’s best-ever satirical series, presenting a particularly knowing and savage reflection of popular news and current affairs programming. Created by Chris Morris and Armando Iannucci, it stands as pretty much the starting point of two sensational TV comedy careers: Iannucci into The Armando Iannucci Shows, The Thick of It, and Veep, and Morris into Brass Eye, Jam, Nathan Barley, and the films Four Lions and The Day Shall Come.
The cast included several talented figures who would subsequently re-team with Morris or Iannucci, including Steve Coogan (in Alan Partridge’s TV debut), Rebecca Front, and David Schneider. Playwright Patrick Marber played the beautifully named news reporter Peter O’Hanraha-hanrahan.
35. The Human Body (1998)
This eight-part series presented by Sir Robert Winston was a splendid exploration of human biology from birth to death, and pretty much remains the best series of its kind. As has always been the practice with BBC science documentaries, the series took advantage of then groundbreaking technologies to showcase the workings of the human body in a fashion not previously seen.
Among plenty of highlights it is difficult to forget Winston demonstrating the effect of alcohol on the body by getting himself drunk on camera, descending into giggling fits as he goes. For a completely different reason it is hard to shake the impact of the final episode, in which a terminally ill man granted permission for the BBC to film his death. It was powerful, awe-inspiring stuff.
34. A Very Peculiar Practice (1986-1992)
One of the best BBC series that, like The Paradise Club (listed earlier), appeared to almost entirely fall out of popular memory. Andrew Davies’ absurd black comedy ran for two seasons in 1986 and 1988, followed by the television film A Very Polish Practice in 1992. Peter Davison played Dr Stephen Daker, a somewhat naive doctor employed at the health centre of a public university. His colleagues included the pushy Rose-Marie (Barbara Flynn), the fiscally-minded Bob Buzzard (David Troughton), and the alcoholic, cheerfully deteriorating Jock McCannon (a scene-stealing Graham Crowden).
While the setting was a medical centre, the thematic focus of the series was very firmly on the state of higher education in the UK, and particularly how it was changing (and declining) due to a growing focus on commercialism. Sadly it feels as if many of the corporate-style forces against which Davies’ series railed won – it is hard to imagine a series like A Very Peculiar Practice being made from the same angle today.
33. The Two Ronnies (1971-1987)
Another enduring comedy partnership, Ronnie Corbett and Ronnie Barker proved a popular hit with audiences to rival Eric Morecombe and Ernie Wise. Together The Two Ronnies entertained the masses through 12 seasons, while each continued to pursue solo comedy careers in between. It made them two of the most constantly present – and loved – TV personalities of the 1970s. They are still fondly remembered today.
Part of the strength of Barker and Corbett’s partnership was that it was so loose. While the pair would share sketches for the bulk of the series, they also starred in their own bespoke segments. For Barker, this usually took the form of a pompous speech or address that relied on his skill with complicated pun-and-spoonerism word play. For Corbett it was typically a lengthy monologue to camera in which his story would be constantly side-tracked by asides and distractions. Much of the humour came from sexual innuendo and similar references; while very much a style of the time, their work has somehow aged rather better than many of their contemporaries.
32. Never Mind the Buzzcocks (1996-2015)
If there is a format that drives British television comedy today, it is the comedy panel format: four comedians, a host, and a vague topic or format to enable them to make jokes. Such programs can often become rather tiresome and repetitive, and the quality varies wildly based on the individual talent involved. To represent this genre at its best, it is difficult to move past the best years of Never Mind the Buzzcocks.
This quiz series pitched two teams of three – usually a comedian, a musician, and a regular team captain – against one another in a string of music-based humorous questions and challenges. The contest itself was arbitrary, of course, and the best moments came from the interactions between the panelists. The team captains and hosts changed over the years, but everyone had their favourites between Mark Lamarr, Bill Bailey, Simon Amstell, Sean Hughes, Noel Fielding, and Phill Jupitus – the only cast member to remain for all 19 years.
If panel comedy seems tiresome though, and you want to sample a satire of the format instead, it’s hard to go past Vic Reeves and Bob Mortimer’s Shooting Stars (1993-2011) – one of many BBC series that probably deserved a place on this list.
31. Brimstone and Treacle (1976)
In a 1976 television play intended for BBC1’s Play for Today, married couple Tom (Denholm Elliot) and Amy Bates (Patricia Lawrence) struggle with caring for their daughter Patricia, who has been largely unresponsive since a car accident. They are visited upon by a charming man named (Michael Kitchen) Martin, who immediately expresses a worrying interest in Patricia. While the play, by BBC enfant terrible Dennis Potter, was approved for production, the finished play was pulled from broadcast at the behest of television programs director Alisdair Milne, who described it as ‘brilliantly made’ but ‘nauseating’.
Of course Brimstone and Treacle was nauseating, but intentionally so. This challenging, bleak drama stemmed from Potter’s own cynicism over his own health and society’s reliance on an invisible, seemingly irrelevant God. It is still one of the writer’s interesting works.
After its shelving, Potter adapted the script first as a West End play and in 1982 as a feature film directed by Richard Loncraine. That film, which retained Denholm Elliot, but recast Joan Playwright as Mrs Bates and popular musician Sting as Martin. The original BBC play was finally broadcast in August 1987, 11 years after it was made.
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.)
#50-41 (This Life, Dad’s Army, Culloden, Red Dwarf, The Thick of It, Pennies from Heaven, Life on Mars, The Old Grey Whistle Test, Open All Hours, The Sarah-Jane Adventures.)
#40-31 (All Creatures Great and Small, The War Game, Fleabag, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, The Day Today, The Human Body, A Very Peculiar Practice, The Two Ronnies, Never Mind the Buzzcocks, Brimstone and Treacle.)