These days we have so many options for television viewing that finding good programming can overwhelm even the pickiest of viewers. Between networks, cable, and streaming, we have an endless number of series at our fingertips, which means that good shows can slip through our fingers.
Add international shows to the mix, and the opportunities for quality viewing grow. Most everyone is familiar with some British shows from Doctor Who to Absolutely Fabulous to The Crown. But there are plenty of other wonderful shows and miniseries from across the pond that are worth your time.
Here are ten of the best British series you can spend your time on. There’s something for everybody here from comedy to thrillers to a reality competition show unlike any other. I’ve even included options for viewing them so that you don’t have to waste too much time looking. Enjoy!
(A note on streaming: two niche services have opened the door for more terrific UK shows. Britbox offers tons of classic series and current favorites, while Acorn TV brings British and Australian shows along with some series and movies from other parts of Europe and original programming. Both are worth checking out.)
10. Life on Mars (2006-2007)
A motorist hits Manchester Police Detective Sam Tyler, and he wakes up in 1973. Is he dreaming? Is it a coma? Did he really travel back in time? And how will he get back? These questions surround the truly original drama Life on Mars.
The show does an incredible job of recreating the ‘70s from costumes to sets to the gritty look of a crime drama from the era. Many of the crimes Tyler has to solve connect to the incidents he was working on in 2006 and the show provides plenty of comic relief in watching Tyler adjust to a time with fewer technological advances in law enforcement and far less political correctness.
Life on Mars is quirky and sometimes tough to follow, and Tyler can sometimes frustrate viewers by overthinking his situations or asking the wrong questions about why he wound up where he did. But all told, it’s a worthwhile show for someone looking for a twisty drama with a generous amount of laughs thrown in.
To be honest, I prefer the short-lived American version of Life on Mars, mainly because I understand the cultural references without having to look things up. But the original is worth a try. Check it out on Amazon or Britbox.
9. State of Play (2003)
Paul Abbott’s searing miniseries about the intersection between journalism and political scandal takes so many twists and turns that you may find all your theories proven wrong after six hours.
On a typically busy London morning, someone pushes an aide to a member of Parliament. Around the same time, a teen is shot in what appears to be a drug deal gone wrong. When journalists begin to look into both crimes, they see threads that connect the incidents, and the investigations blow the lid off a scandal involving the politician and an oil company.
The lives of politicians and their families intertwine with those of the reporters and editors, and nearly everyone finds his or her life in danger at some point. But a smirking humor runs through the series that keeps the plot from getting too macabre.
Abbott’s writing sparkles and the acting from a cast that includes Bill Nighy, Kelly Macdonald, and James McAvoy is top-notch. State of Play is tense and at times shocking, but it’s always engrossing.
Universal attempted an American feature film version, but it lacks the punch that the UK version packs.
8. House of Cards (1990)/To Play the King (1993)/The Final Cut (1995)
Forget the Netflix version of House of Cards. The BBC presented the original – a series of three short miniseries from 1990 to 1995 – and it’s deliciously British fun.
Francis Urquhart (Ian Richardson) is a conservative politician who will do everything he needs to do to gain and hold on to power, with the help of his equally amoral wife Elizabeth (Diane Fletcher). Urquhart beds a journalist, humiliates rivals, topples a king, and even faces his own demons in the build-up to and during his reign as prime minister.
The screenplay includes a wicked sense of humor that tempers the amoral nature of the characters and breaks some of the tension. Urquhart breaks down the fourth wall, letting the viewer in on his thinking, and he often smiles or winks to the camera as if the viewer is in on the joke.
Richardson and the rest of the cast are stunningly good, and while the plot slows down a bit much in To Play the King, it’s worth sticking it out for the bracing ending to Urquhart’s story in The Final Cut.
The House of Cards trilogy pops up on PBS from time to time, but you can own it on DVD through Amazon. It’s definitely worth getting your hands on.
7. The IT Crowd (2006-2010, 2013)
No offense to my friends who work in information technology, but technicians have a reputation for not possessing people skills. Needless to say, characters without people skills make for good comedy, so it stands to reason that someone would create a sitcom set in the IT industry.
When Jen Barber (Katherine Parkinson) applies for a job at Reynholm Industries, she becomes manager of the IT department, where she works with uber-geeks Moss (Richard Ayoade) and Roy (Chris O’Dowd). The trio navigates the corporate world, complete with barely competent management and boneheaded decisions from the top. Their personal lives intersect when Jen and Roy share dating problems and Moss wins a game show championship.
The comedy is broad and absurd, and even American viewers can enjoy the writing without missing too many cultural references. Nearly every character on the show fits a comic stereotype, yet the stars remain charming enough to keep them from grating on the audience’s nerves.
6. The Indian Doctor (2010-2013)
Sometimes we turn to television for gripping drama that demands a lot out of its viewers, but occasionally we look to the tube for light entertainment that doesn’t challenge us much. The Indian Doctor falls into this second category.
The National Health Service sends a new doctor to the mining village of Trefelin in South Wales in 1963. The residents aren’t used to an Indian doctor, and everyone faces a steep learning curve. The locals must learn to trust Dr. Sharma, and he and his wife have to get used to the rhythms of life in rural Wales.
Although The Indian Doctor is a light drama, it doesn’t shy away from serious topics. The villagers deal with racism, teenage pregnancy, health scares, romance, faith, and the industrial progress of the ‘60s. The show handles these subjects thoroughly, without coming across as heavy or preachy.
The Indian Doctor is three short, five-episode seasons, which makes it easy viewing, even for the most ardent binge-watchers. The series is light without being mindless and heartwarming without being saccharine. You can find it on Acorn TV, Amazon, and iTunes.
5. Keeping Faith (2018-)
One of the hottest shows on Welsh TV debuted in February of this year, and it became a sensation throughout the rest of the UK this summer. Keeping Faith is a twisty thriller that keeps viewers on their toes just as much as the characters.
Faith Howells (Eve Myles) is a lawyer partnering with her husband, Evan, in the family firm. While she is on maternity leave, Evan vanishes. Faith is forced to contend with clients as seemingly contradictory clues trickle in. At the same time, a ruthless police investigator dogs Faith, convinced that she has murdered Evan. The ending of the first season packs a shocking punch, and the second season promises to build on that finale.
Producers filmed the show in both Welsh and English, part of a growing trend in Welsh television, with an all-star cast of Welsh talent. The writing is taut and intense, with emotional twists and turns that are truly unexpected. The acting is tremendous, even from the kids. And the Welsh landscapes will take your breath away.
4. No Offence (2015-)
Most procedural shows don’t demonstrate much more than a gallows humor – unless you’re talking about a sitcom, of course. Rarely does a police show provide gut-busting laughs alongside gritty drama. No Offence is that rare bird.
The brainchild of State of Play’s Paul Abbott, No Offence follows a police precinct in Manchester as they sort through crimes small and large. The detectives and uniformed officers under the leadership of Detective Inspector Viv Deering (Joanna Scanlan) contend with the seedier aspects of the city as well as the general public with an intense determination and a wicked (and often inappropriate) sense of humor.
Every one of the show’s seasons features a crime that threads through the season, along with specific cases in each episode. The series combines smart, witty writing with a winning cast and a unique look. I haven’t laughed as hard at a police show (even ones as funny as Brooklyn Nine-Nine) as I have at No Offence, but be warned: it’s definitely not a family show.
3. The Great British Baking Show (2010-)
The Great British Baking Show (or the Great British Bakeoff in the UK, GBBO for short) is a cult favorite, largely because it’s nothing like most cutthroat competitions that appear to be fake. Instead, there’s a spirit of camaraderie and friendliness that permeates the competition – contestants even help each other out in a pinch.
Each season whittles down a group of competitors from a dozen or so to three, with the judges crowning a winner in the finale. Every episode has a theme, and they consist of three challenges. In the Signature Bake, bakers produce an impressive item that they’ve had the chance to practice and perfect at home. The Technical Challenge presents the competitors with an item to reproduce from one of the judges’ recipes, which is whittled down to limited information. For the Showstopper, the contestants produce a stunning centerpiece or large item using the skills they’ve developed.
The judges – Paul Hollywood, Mary Berry in the first seven seasons, and Prue Leith in the most recent season – give strict and specific, yet constructive, criticism of the bakes, and the hosts provide encouragement and comic relief. I miss Mel Giedroyc and Sue Perkins, the comedy legends who hosted the first seven seasons, but I love new host Noel Fielding, and I’m warming up to his co-host Sandi Toksvig. The changes in networks, hosts, and one of the judges haven’t altered the look or feel of the show drastically.
2. Hinterland (2013-2016)
No police procedural has held my attention like Hinterland. The Welsh drama only ran for three incredible seasons, but the series made for some of the most satisfying television drama I’ve ever experienced.
The show follows the detectives of the Aberystwyth Police as they solve murders in the town and surrounding areas. Lead detective Tom Mathias (Richard Harrington) battles his own demons as he and his team investigate crimes. The detectives contend with tight-knit communities, bizarre family situations, and some surprising local history. Viewers will rarely be able to solve the mystery before the authorities do.
The writing is sharp, the cast – including supporting players and guest stars – is talented, and the gorgeous Welsh countryside will leave you looking at flights to the UK. Hinterland is a powerful and unforgettable journey.
If you give Hinterland a try, pay close attention to the first episode (that’s all I can say without spoiling anything). Find it on Netflix or Acorn TV, and Amazon has the first season on DVD. You won’t regret riding along with DCI Mathias and his team.
1. The Hour (2011-2012)
I remember the premiere of The Hour when it first aired on BBC America. It was unlike any drama I had seen before, and I was hooked. Taking place in the mid ‘50s, The Hour deals with the titular news program, a show that looks to cover the news like no one else has before.
Ambitious first-time producer Bel Rowley (the radiant Romola Garai), her best friend – or true love? – and idealistic writer-reporter Freddie Lyon (Ben Whishaw) become part of the team launching The Hour, along with presenter Hector Madden (Dominic West) and foreign affairs journalist Lix Storm (Anna Chancellor). Together the team navigates the stories of the day, while dealing with resistance from the BBC, including government liaisons, as well as their personal attractions.
The first season of the show deals with the Suez Canal crisis, the Hungarian Uprising, and the fear of a Communist spy in the BBC news organization. Season two draws the focus closer to home, and the plot line surrounds a police crackdown on vice in London. The cast is top-notch (and I’ll admit that I’ve developed quite the crush on Garai), and the writing is superb, winning an Emmy for its second season scripts, though I prefer the first season by a hair.
There’s my list. Are there any British shows you recommend? Let us know in the comments below.