30. Wolf Hall (2015)
The BBC do period drama like nobody’s business. Wolf Hall, broadcast in 2015 and based on the novels of the late Hilary Mantel, is one of the very best. Both books and series focused on Thomas Cromwell, first minister to Tudor king Henry VIII, and the political machinations undertaken to keep his unpredictable and inconsistent master happy. The BBC had tackled the subject before, via the excellent The Six Wives of Henry VIII, but Wolf Hall gave it all such a wonderful bleakness and cynicism.
The series was helped immeasurably by a genuinely brilliant cast, including Mark Rylance as Cromwell, Damian Lewis as Henry, and Claire Foy as Anne Boleyn, as well as Bernard Hill, Anton Lesser, Mathieu Almaric, Tom Holland, Jonathan Pryce, Thomas Brodie-Sangster, Joanne Whalley, Jessica Raine, and many others. A second series, based on Mantel’s 2020 novel The Mirror and the Light is in the development stages.
29. Walking with Dinosaurs (1999)
Dinosaurs remain a crowd favourite, which is no surprise – who doesn’t like real-life giant monsters? In 1999 the BBC scored a memorable hit by combining their popular natural history programs with some then-impressive puppet and CGI work to create Walking with Dinosaurs. The series was the brainchild of science producer Tim Haines, who used the experience making this series on producing not just a series of spin-offs (Walking with Monsters, Walking with Beasts) but also the science fiction drama Primeval on ITV.
Kenneth Branagh’s narration was superb and evocative. The production was one of the most handsome produced by the BBC to that point, and it is still the most watched natural science production in British television history. It has aged by now of course, and been superceded by other dinosaur-based series with more up-to-date science and visual effects, but Walking with Dinosaurs remains remarkable.
28. Bottom (1991-1995)
The Young Ones will always be the best comedy series to showcase Rik Mayall and Ade Edmondson, but if you go looking for this comedy duo’s most distilled, distinctive, and uniquely “Rik & Ade” production then it is absolutely Bottom. Originally titled Your Bottom until BBC management objected (pity the poor continuity announcer forced to recite ‘up next on BBC2, Rik and Ade muck about in… Your Bottom‘), it ran for three seasons from 1991 to 1995.
The humour of Bottom was scatalogical, and sleazy, and sometimes offensive (one ABC broadcast was preceded by a warning that the episode contained ‘ribald sexual humour and blasphemy’), but ultimately it was all about the violence. No one can sell being comically smashed in the head with a frying pan that Edmondson and Mayall. Few things in British television comedy have ever equalled Richard and Eddie enthusiastically trying to beat a gas inspector to death. Bottom was followed by a feature film spin-off (Guest House Paradiso) and a series of sell-out live shows. Sadly the quality did diminish, largely due to a catastrophic quad bike accident in 1998, from which Mayall acquired a brain injury – his comic timing never seemed quite right after that.
27. Parkinson (1971-1982, 1998-2004)
Today, of course, the flame of talk show entertainment on the BBC is ably carried by Graham Norton, but if one was going to pick an all-time best for entertaining an audience, asking interesting questions, and putting their guests at ease, it would have to be Michael Parkinson. Rather dry in delivery, he smartly kept the focus on his guests in the way that the best hosts always do.
The most regular of Parkinson’s guests was Scottish comedian Billy Connolly, who appeared 15 times. It is arguably his appearances here that made him a mainstream star in the UK. In the 1970s in particular the show attracted a surprisingly prestigious range of Hollywood talent, including Orson Welles, Fred Astaire, Bette Davis, and Gene Kelly. The last three seasons of Parkinson jumped ship to ITV, ending with Michael Parkinson’s retirement in 2007.
26. The Wombles (1973)
In 1968 the author Elizabeth Beresford introduced the world to the Wombles, a community of pointy-nosed mammals living underneath Wimbledon Common and venturing out to tidy up the trash left by ignorant human beings. In 1973 Filmfair London adapted the books into a BBC television series, using stop-motion animation and breaking them up into five-minute episodes. Actor Bernard Cribbins narrated all 60 episodes.
Maybe it’s the nostalgia talking, but The Wombles to me stands as one of the very best children’s series made for the BBC. The characters are a sheer delight, the animation is charming, and Cribbins’ narration is simply superb. A remake was launched in 1996, but was nowhere near as successful – and the less said about the 1977 film Wombling Free the better.
25. House of Cards (1990)
Andrew Davies adapted Michael Dobbs’ novel into this outstanding BBC drama, depicting Westminster politics as Shakespearean tragedy. The series starred Sir Ian Richardson as Conservative chief whip Francis Urquhart who, resenting his lack of promotion in the new government, plots the downfall and replacement of the British Prime Minister. The scripting and performances were outstanding; the phrase ‘you might very well think that, but I couldn’t possibly comment’ became so popular that it has since been used multiple times in the real UK parliament.
Two sequels followed – To Play the King (1993) and The Final Cut (1995) – and in 2013 Netflix famously remade the entire enterprise with Kevin Spacey as an American Urquhart. None of it quite matched Richardson’s outstanding skill at Richard III-inspired direct address villainy. This was one of the very, very best – that it originally aired two days before a Conservative Party election is just the icing on the cake.
4. The Forsyte Saga (1967)
Arguably the BBC’s first major success in serialised costume drama – it even sold to the Soviet Union – The Forsyte Saga adapted John Galsworthy’s novels over 26 episodes. It was an expensive series at the time, despite being one of the final BBC drama series to be produced in black and white. Its costumes were, it must be said, outstanding; so much so that more than 20 years later the broadcaster was still re-using them in other productions.
The prestigious cast included a who’s-who of character actors for the time: Kenneth More, Eric Porter, Martin Jarvis, John Bennett, Susan Hampshire, Nyree Dawn Porter, Margaret Tyzack, and many more. The Forsyte Saga effectively wrote the rule book for BBC drama: a global audience of 160 million, it is a clear inspiration for many of the period productions that followed. Without Forsyte, the likes of Upstairs, Downstairs and The Pallisers simply would not exist in the way they did.
23. The Singing Detective (1986)
Dennis Potter has already been mentioned in this countdown for his exceptional writing in productions like Pennies from Heaven and Brimstone & Treacle. To be honest he could probably have been mentioned several other times, had I drafted the top 100 in a different mood: Blue Remembered Hills, Son of Man, and Karaoke are all marvellous. The Singing Detective, however, his six-part blend of drama, musical, and noir, would always be his most highly-ranked work.
Michael Gambon plays mystery writer Philip E. Marlow, hospitalised with psoriatic arthropathy and sinking into a fantastical delusion due to his refusal to take medication or pain killers. As the series goes on, it shifts between multiple narratives – a hard-boiled detective story, flashbacks to a World War II childhood, and Marlow’s hospital stay – and eventually a blend between all three. Not only is it supremely ambitious – Potter even re-visits the musical threads of Pennies from Heaven – it succeeds at those ambitions. The series was adapted into a feature film in 2003 starring Robert Downey Jr and Mel Gibson; I don’t recommend it.
22. Rome (2005-2007)
The glory of what could have been. Rome, created by Bruno Heller, John Milius, and William J. McDonald, was supposed to tell a lavish adaptation of ancient Roman history, beginning with Caesar’s civil war in 44 BCE and running for five seasons. The enormous production cost was split between the BBC and HBO, and most of the series was shot on enormous purpose-built sets in Rome’s Cinecittà studios. The cast included Kevin McKidd, Ray Stevenson, Ciarán Hinds, Polly Walker, James Purefoy, Tobias Menzies, Lindsay Duncan, and a host of others.
It seemed a marriage made in heaven, combining the high drama of the BBC’s I, Claudius with HBO’s famed production values, and in practice the first season is one of the best historical dramas of the past 20 years. Sadly the series struggled to find a mass audience. An already commissioned second season rushed through as much plot as it could manage, which reduced the quality considerably. That first season, however? One of the best things ever to come out of either HBO or the BBC.
Somewhat weirdly, three members of the cast – Purefoy, Walker, and Hinds – were reunited five years later in Andrew Stanton’s massively expensive science fiction movie John Carter (2012). You have to assume he was just a really big fan.
21. Threads (1984)
In 1966, Peter Watkin’s docudrama The War Game presented an account of a hypothetical nuclear attack near the city of Canterbury – and it’s content was so famously confronting that the BBC refused to actually air their own production. Two decades later, the ban on The War Game became rather moot with the release of Threads, a made-for-television film directed by Mick Jackson that was more confronting, horrific, and traumatic than literally anything Watkin’s effort had presented.
Threads begins as the Cold War spills out into open warfare, and a nuclear attack hits close to the city of Sheffield. In many ways Threads is a more recent retread of The War Game, except that it goes further – much further – into depicting not just the immediate horror but the long-term repercussions of nuclear war. Nothing on the BBC has ever been more depressing, or disturbing. It is a small masterpiece, but it is the kind of masterpiece where you really should not feel you have to watch it if you’re not up to the task. One thing is for sure: when you do watch it, you never forget it.
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.)
#30-21 (Wolf Hall, Walking with Dinosaurs, Bottom, Parkinson, The Wombles, House of Cards, The Forsyte Saga, The Singing Detective, Rome, Threads.)
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