America may seem to have the monopoly on entertainment, but British TV has produced some spectacular successes that have entertained viewers worldwide and even snuck into American culture. Improvements in special effects have resulted in even better shows, but the Brits have always had the lead in wit, and the overall quality of acting has improved, too. Here are ten from the past and present that represent some of the best Great Britain has offered.
1. Dr Who
Premiering in 1963, this science fiction adventure stars The Doctor, the last survivor of an alien race who travels in time and space, getting into trouble and saving worlds with the help of his human companions. Brilliant, funny, courageous yet sometimes lacking in manners or (it seems at first) common sense, the Doctor is such a fascinating character that he will draw you into his adventures. But why watch it? TARDIS, Daleks, Cybermen, Weeping Angels… Dr. Who has a way of making alien monsters scary without being terrifying, and the adventures are always exciting and fun.
The BBC has a way with brilliant, eccentric men. Sherlock, a modern take on Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s classic stories, does an amazing job of combining the sleuth’s eclectic thinking and keen observational skills with modern criminology. Why watch it? Sherlock runs only three episodes a season, but what episodes!
Directors Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss start with Doyle’s mysteries and characters and expound on the relationships, update the technology of crime and investigation, and toss in some interactions that are just classic. Beyond the genius of bringing Doyle’s mysteries into the 21st century, the interaction of the long-suffering Watson and the self-proclaimed sociopath Holmes makes the show.
Part historical and part primetime soap, Downton Abbey follows a wealthy noble family through trials and changes as 20th century technology and attitudes threaten their traditional way of life. The Crawley family must grow and adapt to everything from electricity in the house to one daughter marrying a commoner and another becoming a feminist.
You don’t just see the lives of the family, either; the staff also have rich story lines and complex relationships that weave in and out of the lives of the Crawleys. Why watch? In addition to being a captivating look at that era, Maggie Smith’s performance as the Dowager Countess is not to be missed.
4. Being Human
This series was originally imagined as an agoraphobe, a sex addict, and a man with anger management issues living together and trying to help each other. With a refocus on the supernatural, you have a ghost, a vampire and a werewolf helping each other blend into normal society, and what was an interesting show becomes amazing. Why watch? This series is not about the clichés or the sparkly side of fantasy, but about real creatures dealing with the demons inside them. (PS, the American version is also fun and has a different storyline.)
5. Fawlty Towers
Wikiquote describes it best: “Fawlty Towers (1975–1979) was a BBC television sitcom about hotel owner Basil Fawlty’s incompetence, short fuse, and arrogance that form a combination that ensures accidents and trouble are never far away.” Why watch it? John Cleese’s physical humor and over-the-top sarcasm and British snark have made Fawlty Towers a comedy classic.
Cleese’s comedy in Fawlty Towers can be too rough for some folks. If that’s you, check out these misadventures of a department store staff. Why watch it? The great characters and dry wit made this comedy a favorite in Britain for 13 years and it still has a strong fanbase in Britain and the US decades after Grace Bros closed its doors.
This crime series stars Luther, a brilliant detective who fights with a propensity toward violence. It goes beyond the police procedural and easy smackdown found in many cop shows today. Why watch it? Idris Elba plays a Dark Knight worth watching, especially if you are into heavier, more sinister police narratives.
8. Monty Python
Best known for the movie Monty Python and The Holy Grail, Monty Python had a regular show featuring comedy skits that were very good, very bad, or both at the same time. Why watch it? So you’ll understand the humor behind the lines “No one expects the Spanish Inquisition!” “That, sir, is an ex-parrot.” “Spam, spam, spam” and other classic nonsense that somehow sends geeks into giggles.
9. Call the Midwife
A group of midwives working with nuns to care for an impoverished area of London bringing children into the world and caring for the elderly and infirm. Why watch it? Call the Midwife tackles the tough issues of the 1950s, but without overt political statements. Rather, you see the complex, messy, human dealing with tough issues concerning childbirth and family. It shows faith – yes, even institutionalized religion – in its beauty without making the show religious.
10. The Musketeers
This story of the King of France’s elite guard builds on the novel by Alexandre Dumas, expanding on the characters while staying true to the spirit of the story. You’ll find action, adventure, romance and political intrigue befitting 17th century France. Why watch it? Everything about this show works: the Musketeers are brave, heroic, funny, and flawed. The childish King Louie and manipulative Cardinal take their roles to the limit. The sets are amazing and the fight scenes will get your heart pumping.
The advent of cable led to the adage, “Five hundred channels and not a thing worth watching.” That’s hardly the case, anymore. The quality of television has improved to accommodate the demands of an increasingly sophisticated audience, and British TV has joined in. These are only ten of the classic must-watch shows. What are your favorites that didn’t end up on the list?