TV Top Tens: No 3 – British Drama Series

The Singing Detective

The slowdown in production continues to limit viewing just now (though there is ample football to fill the void), so it is back to list-making and to catch-up for the time being. Drama series are the subject or the prime focus of the most TV lists you can find. Even lists of just the “best TV” will be dominated by them. There is a need for some definitions up front – I am talking about series and serials, though most of the entries on my British list below will be what Americans would call miniseries, in other words self-contained stories told in multiple parts with a beginning and an end in the one “season”. There are two reasons why they dominate my list – they are what British TV has been best at and they are what I like best. In recent years there has been a trend, following the American model, for series which would previously have been self-contained to go to a second or third season, with the decision to continue often being taken after the original work has been made and depending on its success. In turn, this encourages the writer (singular, because there is usually only the one, following the traditional British model) to leave open the possibility of continuing the story. Sometimes this has proved well worthwhile (Happy Valley), but often has led to disastrous misjudgements which have spoiled the reputation of the original (Broadchurch, The Fall) and made me wish they hadn’t tried.

But I digress into a rant, which was not the point of this blog. To return to my definitions, I am only including anthology series where there is creative or thematic continuity: so, Black Mirror and Talking Heads qualify; Play for Today doesn’t. I have also, from personal preference, tended to privilege original writing for television over adaptations of novels, though the inclusion of a few of the latter has been inevitable. Finally, having included them in my earlier sitcom lists, half-hour dramatic comedies are not included here. 

So, to start with the top 10:

  1. The Singing Detective (BBC, 1986)

Dennis Potter’s masterpiece is unrivalled – a brilliantly complex interweaving of memory, fantasy, songs and fiction-within-fiction to produce a superb six-part psychological study of the (semi-autobiographical) protagonist. Much of the credit must go to director Jon Amiel, because the visual grammar is as important as Potter’s magnificent script.

2. Talking to a Stranger (BBC, 1966) 

Writer John Hopkins and director Christopher Morahan honed their skills on the seminal series Z-Cars and combined to produce this searing four-part psychological study of a family in crisis for the Theatre 625 slot on BBC2. A landmark in the presentation of challenging drama on television, it gave an unforgettable role to a young Judi Dench.

3. Pennies from Heaven (BBC, 1978)

No apologies for putting two Potters in the top three. If anything, this was an even greater leap of the imagination than The Singing Detective – nothing like it had been seen before, though the device of having the characters mime to popular songs, as both an indication of their desires and a commentary on the action, has been much imitated since, but never used as effectively as here. Gripping, thought-provoking and, above all, highly entertaining.

4. Brideshead Revisited (ITV, 1981)

The finest literary adaptation of them all and a major milestone in the development of quality television drama shot on film, not to mention an enormous financial risk for a commercial broadcaster (albeit produced by Granada, the most public service oriented of the ITV companies). Everything about it is lavish – the locations, the period recreations, the casting – but it is also so much more: a riveting saga played out over 13 monumental episodes.

5. Boys from the Blackstuff (BBC, 1982)

The effects of unemployment in the early 1980s seen through the eyes of Alan Bleasdale’s vivid and unforgettable characters. Brilliantly written, acted and directed, it is of its time, yet speaks directly to us today through raw emotion and human empathy. Yosser’s despair will always remain the series’ touchstone, but every moment rang true.

6. The Shadow Line (BBC, 2011)

Writer/director/producer/sometime actor Hugo Blick is British televison’s greatest auteur and his first drama series, after a string of comedies, came as a blast of very fresh air. Stylish, gripping, full of wonderful set-pieces and mesmerising characters and totally unique in both its visual and narrative approach, it thrilled and provoked over six memorable episodes

7. Prime Suspect (ITV, 1991-2006)

Difficult now to remember the full original impact of this portrayal of the struggles of a female police detective both to be taken seriously by her colleagues and to solve a horrific crime, mainly because the gripping drama and the brilliant performance by Helen Mirren in the first and subsequent six stories are by themselves enough to secure its place as one of British TV’s greatest productions.

8. Quatermass (BBC, 1953, 1955, 1958)

The pioneering and experimental nature of live television drama in the 1950s found no greater expression than in Nigel Kneale and Rudoplh Cartier’s seminal science fiction serials featuring Professor Bernard Quatermass: The Quatermass Experiment, Quatermass II and Quatermass and the Pit. Powerful, gripping and totally original, they were the event television of their day.

9. Days of Hope (BBC, 1975)

Ken Loach and Jim Allen are the prime exponents of socially conscious left-wing drama on British TV, and this collaboration was a rare series amongst the single films and plays they usually produced. Ranging over ten years from the First World War to the General Strike its four feature-length episodes traced the growth and ultimate betrayal of the labour and trade union movements through the story of a working-class family.

10. Black Mirror (Channel 4, 2011-13, Netflix, 2015-)

The anthology for our times, Charlie Brooker’s bleak warnings about the direction our technology may be taking us are more than just fantastic ideas – they are full of wonderful writing, direction, acting and production value and the quality has been constantly maintained. Brooker is the guiding force, but other writers have made telling contributions and, although much of the production may have shifted to the US, it remains British in both origin and spirit.

In my sitcom lists, I followed my top ten with my next ten (11-20) but, in this instance, there are so many series I want to mention that I’m going to add another 15 to make a top 25:

11. Talking Heads (BBC, 1988, 1998, 2020)

12. The Street (BBC, 2006-9)

13. Blind Justice (BBC, 1988)

14. Utopia (Channel 4, 2013-14)

15. Cracker (ITV, 1993-2006)

16. Wolf Hall (BBC, 2015)

17. Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (BBC, 1979)

18. Doctor Who (BBC, 1963-)

19. The Prisoner (ITV, 1967)

20. This is England (Channel 4, 2010-15)

21. Z Cars (BBC, 1962-1978)

22. Holding On (BBC, 1997)

23. Jewel in the Crown (ITV, 1984)

24. Top Boy (Channel 4, 2011-13, Netflix, 2019-)

25. I, Claudius (BBC, 1976)

…. and, even then, I have not been able to find room for Our Friends in the North, Traffik, Sherlock, Law and Order, GBH, Save Me or Shooting the Past!

I followed my list of best British sitcoms with a list of American ones and I will do the same with drama series: expect my US drama list later in the year (and expect an inverse ratio of series to miniseries). After that, I will give you a top ten drama series from that magical place “the rest of the world” and will attempt to combine the three lists to give an overall top ten. I wonder if this year will produce anything to crash into the reckoning?

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