Few countries have produced as many wonderful television shows as Britain. Perhaps it's the island air that leads to creativity – or the awful weather that has Britons trying to find escape and solace in fictional worlds of their creation. Whatever the case, there are bountiful numbers of series created on these pleasant shores, meaning that choosing the best British shows is no easy task.
Such is the quality of the best British shows that the likes of Monty Python's Flying Circus, Sherlock, and The I.T. Crowd – all phenomenal in their own right – failed to make this list. Other notable exclusions include The Inbetweeners, Spaced, The Great British Bake Off, and The Office (UK, obviously). But we're not here for them – we're here for our picks of the best British shows. Enjoy!
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Available: All 4, Amazon Prime
What is it: Writing duo Sharon Horgan and Rob Delaney unite for this Channel 4 sitcom that follows two strangers – named, er, Sharon and Rob – who have a one-night stand that results in an unexpected pregnancy.
Why you should watch it: Horgan and Delaney prove they’re a safe pair of hands with Catastrophe. Between them, they manage to capture the minutiae of everyday life, while providing escapism in the purest form. Their chemistry shines through in an often-hilarious series that’s unafraid to deal with the tough aspects of life (alcoholism, infidelity, death) in a light-hearted manner. The supporting characters – including Rob’s eccentric mother (Carrie Fisher) and Sharon’s mischievous brother (Jonathan Forbes) – are a delight. All four series are brilliantly-realised slices of relatable comedy.
Available: iPlayer, Netflix
What is it: Gritty crime drama starring Idris Elba as John Luther, a detective who, after finding himself unable to arrest a psychopathic murderer, turns to her for advice on fresh police cases.
Why you should watch it: The Noughties saw anti-heroes take centre stage – and the 2010s kept that habit going. Standing tall as one of the most memorable is undoubtedly Luther. With Alice Morgan – played delectably by Elba and Ruth Wilson – the two central characters come from two worlds that should never have collided, but their partnership equates to unmissable television. Thanks to the grotesque crimes committed by the drama’s almost superhuman villains, Luther is more akin to a graphic novel adaptation than other crime procedurals, and it’s this uniqueness that ensures viewers come back for more… after checking their doors are double-locked, mind.
Available: Amazon (purchase), BritBox
What is it: Jimmy McGovern produces this Manchester-set series following a criminal psychologist who works with the police force to solve grisly crimes. Robbie Coltrane played the lead role of Dr Edward “Fitz” Fitzgerald for three series between 1993 and 2006.
Why you should watch it: It could be argued that Coltrane (who later become globally know for his portrayal of Hagrid in the Harry Potter movies) popularised the anti-hero on British television screens. In Fitz, he found a foul-mouthed, alcoholic protagonist, who – despite various flaws – was always considered an undisputed genius in his field. The Bafta-winning Cracker features impeccable acting talent – Christopher Eccleston, Ricky Tomlinson, Geraldine Somverille, to name but a few – and is regularly hailed for its realistic scenes that see Fitz come face-to-face with psychotic figures at the heart of the cases he's working.
12. Brass Eye
Available: All 4
What is it: Back in a time when everyday news didn’t seem like a spoof, Chris Morris created Brass Eye, a comedy series that parodied current affairs news programming. Among its ensemble of impressive writing talent is The I.T. Crowd’s Graham Linehan and Charlie Brooker, who later created Black Mirror.
Why you should watch it: Brass Eye is worth watching if only to witness how much you could get away with in comedy back in the '90s. The show places the satirical spotlight on several topics, ranging from drug use to paedophilia, and is never anything less than controversial. Fortunately, the comedic mastery with which each episode is written ensures it never seems off-colour for the sake of being off-colour, and remains an eye-opening classic in the British comedy oeuvre.
11. Line of Duty
What is it: Before Bodyguard, Jed Mercurio created this BBC drama that places the focus on a different police officer each episode. It’s down to a fictional anti-corruption unit, known as AC-12, to investigate whether they are corrupt or not.
Why you should watch it: There’s a reason Line of Duty is the most-watched scripted drama in Britain despite starting out as a small-fry BBC Two series. It’s the feverish word of mouth that has made Mercurio’s gripping plots and unpredictable twists appointment television, with the whole country seemingly tuning in to work out whether the coppers are corrupt or not. However, the secret to the show’s success is the casting: Lennie James, Keeley Hawes, Thandie Newton, and Stephen Graham have all brought their respective A-games.
10. Fawlty Towers
What is it: Classic sitcom following Basil Fawlty (John Cleese), a short-tempered hotel manager who tries to run the business alongside his wife, Sybill (Prunella Scales) and their Spanish waiter, Manuel (Andrew Sachs).
Why you should watch it: When you consider Fawlty Towers’ influence on British comedy, it’s hard to comprehend that there are a mere 12 episodes in existence – but this fact is testament to how everyone involved made each episode count. The laughs, none of which are wasted, are delivered with precision by actors who – despite a handful of other roles – will always be best loved for playing these characters. It’s hard to name another sitcom where every line is so quotable (“Don’t mention the war!" ranks as a fan favourite).
9. Inside No 9
Available: Netflix, BritBox
What is it: Created by The League of Gentlemen’s Reece Shearsmith and Steve Pemberton, Inside No. 9 is a British anthology series that tells new twist-filled stories each episode. The one thing bonding each tale together? The number nine.
Why you should watch it: Inside No. 9 really deserves more love from the world at large. Black Mirror went global thanks to Netflix, but Pemberton and Shearsmith’s series has been firing on all cylinders since it began in 2014. Each episode is a meaty, cleverly-told tale that encourages discussion among viewers, and impressively sees the duo turn their hand to any genre they so desire: surreal comedy, family drama, period horror. In terms of ambition, look no further than the live episode they pulled off in 2019 – it's a masterwork of trickery that left the country shellshocked by its ambition.
Read more: the 15 best episodes of Inside No. 9 (opens in new tab)
What is it: This beloved British sitcom reimagines certain periods of history by placing Rowan Atkinson’s Edmund Blackadder front and centre of famous events alongside his bumbling sidekick Baldrick (Tony Robinson).
Why should you watch it: There’s no denying that Blackadder is one of the greatest sitcoms of all time – and one that only builds as it endures. This isn’t to say the first series – written by both Atkinson and Richard Curtis – is weak, but the final three outings, which enlist the services of Ben Elton, rank among some of the most hilarious episodes of television. Period. It helps that the cast, including Rik Mayall and Stephen Fry, always throws themselves into the zany material headfirst. Without that commitment, Blackadder wouldn’t factor so highly on this list.
7. Planet Earth
What is it: Narrated by David Attenborough, the Planet Earth documentaries focus on certain habitats on Earth – from the world’s oceans to deserts and polar ice caps – in a way that has never been done before.
Why should you watch it: Simply put, there’s nothing quite like Planet Earth. Produced by the BBC Natural History Unit, the series has been taking viewers’ breath away ever since the series first aired in 2006. The nature that’s been documented by producers in Planet Earth and its spinoffs – including Frozen Planet, Blue Planet, and Seven Worlds, One Planet – has never been captured so marvellously on-screen before. More importantly, at such a crucial time for the world’s environment, it serves as a beautiful and often-terrifying reminder at what’s at stake.
Available: Amazon Prime, iPlayer
What is it: British comedy series following a woman known as Fleabag, who attempts to navigate life and love in London while also coping with a past tragedy.
Why should you watch it: In Fleabag, Phoebe Waller-Bridge has created a British series for the ages – a complex, acerbic, and endlessly inventive comedy that tears up the rulebook. Every single word uttered by the leading character lands exactly as intended – a rarity with any show. Impressively, Waller-Bridge manages to back up the first outing’s success with a superior second series. Underneath its raucous bravado is a beating heart, and it’s in the disarming way in which viewers discover this that positions Fleabag as one of the greats.
5. Peep Show
Available: All 4, Hulu (US)
What is it: Created by Jesse Armstrong, Peep Show follows the dysfunctional friendship of Mark (David Mitchell) and Jez (Robert Webb), two extremely different men who share a flat in south London.
Why should you watch it: Over the course of nine series, Peep Show quietly revolutionised sitcoms in the Noughties, giving comedy fans something they had not seen before. The use of voiceover narration to convey the inner thoughts of its main characters, as well as the point-of-view camera style, all adds to the off-kilter awkwardness that makes Peep Show so quintessentially British. Its creator, Armstrong, has since graduated to high-brow US television with HBO comedy-drama Succession.
4. Doctor Who
Doctor Who: iPlayer, BritBox
What is it: Beginning in 1963, Doctor Who is one of the BBC’s longest-running shows – a science-fiction series following the adventures of a Time Lord who journeys around the galaxy in a time-travelling spaceship with different companions.
Why should you watch it: Doctor Who is one of the most iconic characters in British culture ever. They're up there with James Bond, Harry Potter, and King Arthur. Nothing can whip up a frenzy in Great Britain quite like the regeneration of a Time Lord (the most recent incarnation is played by Jodie Whittaker – the first woman Doctor in its 50-year history). To this day, Doctor Who attracts top writing and acting talent, with Broadchurch’s Chris Chibnall currently overseeing the latest series.
3. The Thick of It
Available: BritBox, iPlayer
What is it: Armando Iannucci’s comedy series The Thick of It pokes fun at governmental employees working as part of the fictional Department of Social Affairs and Citizenship (DoSAC).
Why should you watch it: Peter Capadli’s performance as the endlessly quotable and sweary spin doctor Malcolm Tucker may be what lures people into watching the series initially, but viewers are kept glued thanks to the glowing ensemble – including the blundering director of communications Terri Coverly (Joanna Scanlon) and bumbling senior special adviser Glenn Cullen (James Smith) to name just two. It’s the wince-inducing way in which Iannucci integrates these characters that makes The Thick of It so distinctly special – and one of the most flawless examples of political satire.
2. Only Fools and Horses
Available: BritBox, Netflix
What is it: A beloved sitcom following the Trotters, a family of market traders living in Peckham, who experience numerous highs and lows in their continued attempts to ensure that “this time next year, they’ll be millionaires.”
Why should you watch it: So embedded in cultural familiarity is Only Fools and Horses that it’s easy to forget just how terrific it actually is. There really isn’t a bad episode among the 64 written and that’s down, not only to creator John Sullivan’s writing abilities, but the effortless way in which David Jason, Nicholas Lyndhurst, and the supporting cast embody the show’s characters. Watching its classic moments, such as Del Boy falling through the bar or chasing off a group of muggers dressed as Batman, wouldn’t be half as funny without Jason playing the role. The world rarely takes characters as foolish as the ones in Only Fools and Horses into their hearts, but Jason and company make it impossible not to. Lovely jubbly.
1. This is England
Available: All 4, Amazon Prime (US)
What is it: This Is England follows the same group of characters first seen in Shane Meadows’ 2006 film of the same name – co-written alongside Jack Thorne – as they navigate Britain between 1986 and 1990.
Why should you watch it: Shane Meadows proves he's as adept at directing emotionally-charged, often hilarious episodes of television as movies. Placing the spotlight on Woody (Joseph Gilgun), Lol (Vicky McClure), and the gang is a stroke of genius and results in a show that's nothing short of impeccable. This is England consistently sparks both tears and laughter, and – while it often dials the drama to almost unbearable degrees – it always serves the characters at the heart of the story first. The peak of the series arrived in 2011 with This Is England ‘88, which is, for our money, the best British show to have ever been created.
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