With the Baftas fast approaching, it’s the perfect time to revisit some of the greatest hits of twenty-first century (and some slightly older) British television:
This Country (iPlayer)
Two awards (2018)
When BBC Three – the BBC’s youth-oriented channel – was demoted to an online-only service in 2016, the response from most critics was an indifferent shrug. Yet freed from the demands of filling a daily schedule, the slimmed down BBC Three has become a godsend for British comedy, launching some of the funniest British shows of the past few years.
Cream of the crop is This Country, an idiosyncratic (and surprisingly life-affirming) sitcom about the misadventures of two country bumpkins and their friend, the local vicar. If you haven’t watched it, get stuck in now. If you have, you may have missed that the Beeb have just released a special bonus episode on iPlayer. And for an additional recommendation, check out BBC Three’s superb Ladhood – it’s also on iPlayer.
Three Girls (Netflix)
Two awards (2018), One additional nomination
Nicole Taylor’s acclaimed miniseries – a dramatised version of the Rochdale grooming scandal – is a remarkable piece of television, pulling off the seemingly impossible feat of doing justice to one of the most disturbing scandals in modern British history.
That Taylor – an acclaimed dramatist – managed to capture the soul-sucking darkness of the grooming gangs is perhaps not surprising. What’s more impressive is how the script captures those more nuanced elements of the scandal – like the tensions within the social services, and the partial-culpability of the victims’ families. If you can stomach the story itself, this is an incredible watch.
Life on Mars (iPlayer)
One award (2007), two further nominations
Though it doesn’t tend to get much praise from television snobs, Life on Mars – which ran from 2006 to 2007 – remains a shockingly successful piece of television: an original and intelligent cop drama that went on to be exported to dozens of countries around the world.
If the central idea – an urbane 21st century copper finds himself teleported to the rough-and-ready 1970s – seems unremarkable, it’s only because you’re comparing it to the standards of modern television. At the time of its launch, British dramatists were kept on a tight leash by commissioners – and Netflix was still in the business of mailing out DVDs of Hollywood films.
Life on Mars showed that mass-market audiences had bigger horizons than we’d previously thought. Rather ironically for a nostalgia-driven drama, it was ahead of its time in that way.
Our Friends in the North (Britbox)
Two awards (1997), five further nominations
Widely regarded as the one of the best British television dramas of all time, Our Friends in the North – adapted from an RSC play starring Jim Broadbent and Roger Allam – was the runaway winner at the 1997 awards. With Daniel Craig, Christopher Eccleston and Gina McKee in the lead roles, the serial follows the travails of four acquaintances whose personal stories are intertwined with the political turmoil of the 1980s.
In a similar vein to Boys from the Blackstuff and Cathy Come Home, Our Friends in the North doesn’t hide its politics – you’re never more than 30 minutes away from a sneering Thatcherite or modern day robber baron – but at least it does it well. Polemical, yes, but mighty powerful too.
Peep Show (Netflix)
Two awards (2008 and 2009), ten further nominations
As someone who was at university in the late 2000s, I sometimes fall into the trap of thinking there isn’t a person on earth who hasn’t seen Peep Show (though I do at least refrain from quoting it all the time).
Yet for its initial three series, this Channel 4 comedy – featuring David Mitchell, Robert Webb and, almost implausibly in a supporting role, Olivia Colman – functioned largely as a sleeper hit, drawing a small but loyal audience. In 2008, it broke through into the mainstream.
As the longest running sitcom on British television in history, it’s fair to say Peep Show has now entered British comedy royalty. And rightly so.
Breaking Bad (Netflix)
One award (2014), one further nomination
Given the entire point of the Baftas is to celebrate British television, I’ve taken the conscious choice to ignore the award for best international programme (which has historically always gone to whichever American show happens to have gone viral that year).
I’ll make an exception, though, for Breaking Bad, which – along the near perfect Better Call Saul – I still maintain remains the best television drama of the past ten years. For all the gushing essays penned by critics, the secret of Breaking Bad’s success is down to one thing: having a really good plot. Yes, the lush cinematography and nail-biting tension helps too, but ultimately this is just a cracking story told brilliantly.
Michael McIntyre’s Big Show (iPlayer)
One award (2017), six further nominations
Long the target of fashionable snobbery, Michael McIntyre was the first of a new wave of stand-up comics to make the transition to headline television.
While his Big Show is an unashamed slice of crowd-pleasing kitsch, I can’t help but have an unshakable respect for McIntyre himself. He’s a decent comic, yes, but more importantly he embodies that long-lost ‘showman’ quality of being able to do everything – tell a story, sing a song, charm a crowd, crack gags – at just the right level.
Though history recalls many light entertainment legends, there never seem to be more than a handful living at any one time (Hugh Jackman – no relation – is another contender). Enjoy your award, sir.