20. Colditz (1972-1974)
Major Pat Reid, imprisoned by the Germans during World War II, eventually wrote a successful memoir of his experiences as a prisoner-of-war, and that hugely successful book inspired the feature film The Colditz Story in 1955. Almost two decades later it inspired Colditz, a co-production between the BBC and Universal Pictures. Reid served as technical advisor on the series, which used real-life events to inspire a two-season account of Allied attempts to escape their Wehrmacht captors.
A prestigious cast included American star Robert Wagner, The Man from UNCLE alumnus David McCallum, and British actors including Jack Hedley, Edward Hardwicke, Christopher Neame, Bernard Hepton, and Anthony Valentine. With a grounding in fact, Colditz presented a story of World War II with a laudable amount of nuance: the psychological horrors, personal conflicts between allied soldiers, genuine escape techniques, and – most interestingly – a properly insightful depiction of the Germany army, where patriotic Wehrmacht soldiers bristled under the control of the fanatical nazis. Producer Gerard Glaister went on to develop a second World War II drama for the BBC: Secret Army.
19. Absolutely Fabulous (1992-2012)
The importance of Jennifer Saunders’ hugely successful sitcom Absolutely Fabulous honestly cannot be over-stated. While there had been plenty of women-led comedy series on British television before, they invariably took on a domestic element, or placed a focus on their female protagonists’ marriage or romantic relationships. Instead Saunders’ creation focused on professional women and their family: four female leads in Saunders, Julia Sawalha, June Whitfield, and Joanna Lumley. Saunders and Lumley in particular got to behave badly in a manner usually reserved for their male equivalents.
Lumley shone as fashion director Patsy Stone, playing directly against type as an over-sexualised, viciously bitter, and ageing object of ridicule. The series’ focus on the fashion industry gave it a direct line into naturally ridiculous situations and conflicts; so successful was it in lampooning celebrity culture that it soon attracted a raft of real-life famous figures wanting to get in on the act. Guest stars and cameos included Elton John, Lulu, Emma Bunton, Helena Bonham-Carter, Christian Lacroix, Jean-Paul Gaultier, and many others.
18. Blake’s 7 (1978-1981)
A space opera created by Terry Nation, Blake’s 7 to a large degree was a benefit of happenstance: after the BBC agreed to produce a 13-episode first series, Star Wars hit cinemas worldwide and pushed the space-faring adventure genre to forefront of everybody’s minds. The production budgets were miniscule, of course, but Blake’s 7 made up for that shortfall with decent actors and some absolutely marvellous dialogue – mostly courtesy of script editor Chris Boucher. Following a group of criminals and political dissidents on a mission to overthrow a totalitarian galactic Federation, it ran for four seasons from 1978 to 1981.
When lead actor Gareth Thomas quit playing Blake at the end of the second year, initially plans to replace him with a space captain figure were dropped in favour of promoting the cynical, deeply amoral computer hacker Avon (Paul Darrow) to the forefront. The second half of the series are thus in many ways more interesting than the first. Modern audiences have no problem watching television drama based around flawed, if not outright villainous, characters. In 1980 it was a very different situation altogether. Characters changed and developed in Blake’s 7. Actions had permanent consequences. Most strikingly for the time, beloved regular characters died. Numerous attempts have been made to revive or reboot Blake’s 7, all of which have failed. It is probably for the best: that specific combination of cast, writing, and bleak tone were like lightning in a bottle.
17. Pride and Prejudice (1995)
It is a truth universally acknowledged that any discussion of the best of BBC television must, at some point, mention a wet Colin Firth swimming in a lake. So iconic is this moment, captured as part of the BBC’s 1995 drama Pride and Prejudice, that its memory doggedly follows Firth’s screen career around to this day – despite literally dozens of excellent performances.
Here is writer Andrew Davies again, with a script that probably remains his most famous, directed by Simon Langton, and adapting one of Jane Austen’s most popular and enduring novels. Austen’s strong dialogue and characters made her a perfect fit for the BBC’s typically attractive and stately literary adaptation, and a cast including Firth, Jennifer Ehle, Alison Steadman, Susannah Harper, and Julia Sawalha brought much-loved characters winningly to life. It is estimated that more than 40 per cent of the viewing public watched the sixth and final episode upon broadcast. For almost 30 years now it has deservedly been the face of BBC period drama.
16. The Young Ones (1982-1984)
I have written already about the generational changes that came to BBC comedy through new shows and new comic actors: Not the Nine O’Clock News, The Mary Whitehouse Experience, The Mighty Boosh, and even Horrible Histories all signified the arrival of a new collective of faces and talents. In the entire history of BBC television, there are two programs that announced such a profound new style of comedy that they permanently changed the face of British entertainment – and one of them is The Young Ones.
A group of young comedians and comic actors were poached from London’s Comedy Store club. While Channel 4 engaged them for a series of short comedy films under the banner The Comic Strip presents, the BBC set about framing five of the actors inside a new sitcom. With Peter Richardson leaving the group under acrimonious circumstances, the final lead cast consisted of Nigel Planer, Ade Edmondson, Rik Mayall, Alexei Sayle, and ring-in Christopher Ryan. The series was written by Mayall, Ben Elton, and Lise Meyer, and introduced a new comic style with a working and lower-middle class background, an undergraduate sensibility, and a political edge fit for Thatcher’s Britain. As a canny move to have the series classified as light entertainment rather than comedy (and thus attract a higher production budget), producer Paul Jackson put a live music performance into each episode. The unintended result was a combination of youth-centered, anti-authoritarian comedy matched with popular music including Motorhead, Madness, and the Damned. The Young Ones remains a scrappy, groundbreaking masterpiece.
15. The Magic Roundabout (1965-1977)
In 1963 writer Serge Danot created Le Manège enchanté, a popular childrens animation produced in five-minute episodes for French television. When offered the series, the BBC initially turned Danot’s series down: the French dialogue was seen as too difficult to translate effectively, making the program more trouble than it was worth. When the BBC did pick up the series two years later, they sidestepped translation issues by simply having new unrelated scripts written – and performed by Eric Thompson – based on what was happening on screen.
This mash-up approach led to a wonderfully strange and surreal series, which by virtue of being broadcast immediately before the evening news attracted an audience of both children and adults. Characters included Dougal the dog, Brian the snail, Dylan the guitar-strumming rabbit, a human girl named Florence, and a strange half-spring Dali-esque character named Zebedee. Thompson’s scripts and delivery were a delight for viewers of all ages. A CGI remake was launched in 2007, but lacked the charm of Danot’s stop-motion animation.
14. Hancock’s Half Hour (1956-1961)
The BBC’s first major television comedy was, once again, originally a radio series. Once it hit TV screens it by-and-large dictated the BBC comedy format going forward: less variety and sketches, and more narrative and character development. Of course, being historically significant does not make a series one of best BBC productions of all time – it is also still one of the funniest TV comedies you can watch, starring two absolute masters of the genre.
Tony Hancock was the star, but the series wouldn’t have been half as funny without sidekick Sid James acting as a sounding board for Hancock’s jokes and typically downbeat complaints. James, of course, graduated to an array of British comedy productions including the widely loved Carry On movies. Writers Ray Galton and Alan Simpson progressed to writing such comedy classics as Steptoe & Son and The Galton-Simpson Playhouse. As for Hancock, the BBC’s most popular comedy star of his time? After ending this sitcom he struggled to match its success. Alcoholism led to his tragic suicide in 1968. His legacy as BBC television’s first genuine comedy great is assured.
13. Nineteen Eighty-Four (1954)
In 1954 television production was still at an early stage where programs were performed live-to-air like theatre, and any mistakes made were simply broadcast automatically without cuts, re-takes, or breaks. Into this challenging environment came producer/director Rudolph Cartier, who on a Sunday night presented a two-hour adaptation of George Orwell’s dystopian novel Nineteen Eighty-Four starring Peter Cushing, Andre Morell, Yvonne Mitchell, and Donald Pleasence. Writing the teleplay was Nigel Kneale, whose science fiction serial The Quatermass Experiment had recently been the most successful British television drama to date. The bleak, allegorical content of Orwell’s novel was not toned down or removed; it was inarguably the most adult and confronting television work the BBC had ever staged.
Which is, of course, where the trouble started. There was a wave of public complaint, debate in Westminster, and sometimes fiercely negative newspaper reviews, all arguing that the BBC had gone too far, and had indulged in sadism and cruelty. Even Queen Elizabeth II made public comment, that she and her husband Philip had viewed the play themselves and found it to be entertaining. So intense was the public interest that the BBC had no other recourse but to mount the play all over again the following week. That second performance, recorded for posterity by pointing a 16mm film camera at a television set, was the highest-rated BBC broadcast since Elizabeth’s coronation. Thanks to that ‘telecine’ copy, you can still see Nineteen Eighty-Four today. It is a marvellous insight into the early days of television.
12. Edge of Darkness (1985)
A grieving policeman (Bob Peck) investigates the murder of his own environmental activist daughter (Joanne Whalley), and stumbles into a secret world of cover-ups, international incidents, and nuclear espionage. Written by Troy Kennedy Martin (Z Cars, The Italian Job) and directed by Martin Campbell (GoldenEye, Casino Royale), Edge of Darkness was not only a sensational TV drama but an aggressively partisan political attack on Thatcher, Reagan, and the other right-wing forces that were pushing the Cold War closer and closer to some kind of Armageddon.
Campbell’s direction gave the series a feature film quality that BBC drama often lacked. The performances were off the charts: not simply Bob Peck, the most underrated actor of all time, but also Whalley, Joe Don Baker, Charles Kay, and Ian McNeice. The acclaim for Edge of Darkness was so high that the BBC took to unusual step of running the series again less than a month later. It won six BAFTAs, including Best Drama Series, Best Actor, and Best Original Television Music for its memorable score by Michael Kamen and Eric Clapton.
11. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (1979)
Following a failed espionage operation in Czechoslovakia, British intelligence deputy George Smiley (Alec Guinness) is forced into an unwanted retirement. When it becomes clear that the mission was leaked to the Soviets, Smiley is dragged back into the fold to track down and identify the mole within the secret service’s highest echelons.
This seven-part adaptation of John Le Carre’s novel works brilliantly, in part because it does such a great job of reflecting the bureaucratic, low-key nature of Le Carre’s spy fiction. Eschewing the glamorous, sexy world of Ian Fleming’s James Bond, Le Carre painted a world of hushed conversations in nicotine-stained rooms, where the interal politics of British espionage often seemed a greater threat than anything the Russians were doing. It is an intelligent, complex drama that refuses to talk down to its audience. Its greatest asset, however, is Alec Guinness: George Smily is almost certainly his finest screen performance, and one of the finest the BBC ever saw. A follow-up adaptation of Le Carre’s The Honourable Schoolboy was dropped due to budgetary concerns, but Guinness did return for 1982’s Smiley’s People.
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.)
#20-11 (Colditz, Absolutely Fabulous, Blake’s 7, Pride and Prejudice, The Young Ones, The Magic Roundabout, Hancock’s Half Hour, Nineteen Eighty-Four, Edge of Darkness, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy.)