Though the vast majority of programmes that flicker before our eyes on television these days are of American genus, smaller-scale British television seems to retain a unique aesthetic and a loyal following worldwide. Prominent production and broadcasting companies like the BBC and ITV are proof of this, respected and successful on the world stage of television. More and more British shows are being met with success worldwide. Indeed, British accents certainly weren’t holding shows back at last month’s Emmy Awards ceremony.
This list ranks the top 10 most popular British television series from lowest to highest according to IMDB viewer ratings. All of the series featured scored 8.8 or over on their IMDB viewer rating. With broadcasting dates ranging from 1969 to the present, it’s evident British television series’ popularity has little to do with glossy production qualities or special effects. Most of the series on this list that have long since ended but are still being rerun or bought as DVD box sets.
A British nostalgia for certain historical periods seems to be at the root of its success. Indeed numerous period dramas feature on this list, looking back on British history, specific time periods and famous historical figures. Moreover, a uniquely dry humour seems to characterise British television’s more popular offerings. The irony and often simple, understated subject matter of many of its television series attracts viewers worldwide. Britain recurrently demonstrates an understated aesthetic that American television series producers have often tried to imitate, adapting shows such as Skins, Shameless, The Inbetweeners and The Office for American audiences with widely varying degrees of success.
Over the past few years, more and more American viewers seem to be looking to the UK for quality TV, aided by online services like Netflix and Amazon that make it easy to do. The American broadcasters, too, have been involved in helping the more recent popular British shows take off – particularly PBS, which co-produces Downton Abbey and Sherlock.
So, the next time you’re puzzling over which television series to watch, don’t just look to which glossy shows are running at the moment, but turn instead to the wealth of story produced by Britain over the past decades. Not only will you get a glimpse of some of the characters that embody the British psyche and nationhood, but in many cases you’ll be able to devour the full box-sets of bygone series one after the other.
10. House of Cards (1990)
Set after the end of Margaret Thatcher’s tenure as British Prime Minister, House of Cards is a British political thriller series created by the BBC in 1990. Former Chief of Staff at Conservative Party headquarters Michael Dobbs wrote a novel that Andrew Davies adapted for the screen. House of Cards centres around antihero Francis Urquhart (played by Ian Richardson), a fictional Chief Whip of the Conservative Party. We follow his schemes to become party leader and Prime Minister of the United Kingdom. Richardson was familiar with Shakespeare’s plays and drew on the narratives of power, ambition and corruption of Macbeth and Richard III in his performance. Particularly poignant are the scenes when Urquhart addresses the audience, looking directly into the camera and breaking the fourth wall. Richardson won a BAFTA in 1991 for his performance, and Davies won an Emmy for outstanding writing.
The first episode of the series aired two days before the Conservative Party leadership election. Dobbs claimed that John Major’s leadership headquarters ‘came to a halt’ to watch it. It is thought that the series was particularly popular because it caught the mood of a nation at a time of political disillusionment. Greatly popular in the UK, in 2013 a US adaptation of the series set in Washington, D.C was commissioned by Netflix – starring Kevin Spacey – and has known great success.
9. Downton Abbey (2010)
British costume drama Downton Abbey, created by Julian Fellowes and co-produced by Carnival Films and Masterpiece, has been running since 2010. Four series have been aired since, with the fifth to be released at the end of the month. The series follows the lives of the aristocratic Crawley family and their servants in the fictional country estate of Downton Abbey in Yorkshire. Set in the post-Edwardian era, the narrative spans great historic events such as the sinking of the Titanic, the First World War, the Spanish influenza pandemic, the Marconi scandal, the interwar period and the formation of the Irish Free State. The repercussions of great political and historic forces on this country estate are made explicit, constantly threatening the rigid British social hierarchy.
Downton Abbey has been lauded worldwide, receiving critical acclaim from television critics and winning numerous awards including a Golden Globe Award and eleven Emmy Awards. It is the most popular British drama in the US and has earned more nominations than any international television series in the history of the Primetime Emmy Awards. As the most watched television series on ITV and PBS, Downton Abbey is the most successful British costume drama series since Brideshead Revisited (1981). By the third series, it had become one of the most-watched television drama shows worldwide.
8. Doctor Who (2005)
British sci-fi television programme Doctor Who began production in 1963 by the BBC and was revived to audience delight in 2005. The series follows the adventures of Time Lord Doctor Who, a time-travelling humanoid alien that explores the universe in his time-travelling space ship TARDIS. With many and varied companions by his side, the Doctor overcomes enemies to save civilisations. Twelve actors have headlined the series as the Doctor including, most recently, Peter Capaldi.
Moving between one actor and another in the central role is built into the plot of the show, as the Doctor regenerates in new incarnations. It is this changeability of the central protagonist that allowed Russell T Davies to revive the show in 2005 with relative ease. The Doctor is a significant part of British popular culture and is cited as an influence by generations of British television professionals.
7. Blackadder Goes Forth (1989)
Blackadder Goes Forth aired in autumn/winter of 1989 on BBC One. It is the final Blackadder series and the one that has received the most acclaim. Written by Richard Curtis and Ben Elton and starring Rowan Atkinson, Tony Robinson, Hugh Laurie, Stephen Fry and Tim McInnerny, the series places Blackadder characters Baldrick and George in a trench in Flanders during the First World War and follows their doomed attempts to escape death under the command of the misguided General Melchett. Critical of British Army leadership, the series refers to real-life prominent war figures. At first, it was feared that the series might be perceived as trivialising the horrors of the war. Indeed, historians have criticised it for presenting an oversimplified view of the conflict, reinforcing the popular notion that ‘lions were led by donkeys’ on the battlefield. However, the series was extremely well received upon its release, taking home the 1989 British Academy Television Award for Best Comedy Series.
6. Only Fools and Horses (1981)
British situational comedy Only Fools and Horses was written by John Sullivan and broadcast over seven series on BBC One between 1981 and 1991. Set in Peckham in south London, the show stars David Jason as an ambitious market trader, Nicholas Lyndhurst as his younger brother Rodney, and Lennard Pearce as their elderly Grandad. The series tells the story of Trotters’ lives, in particular their ill-advised and generally dodgy attempts at getting rich.
Although it took a while to take off, Only Fools and Horses went on to achieve consistently high ratings. 1996 episode ‘Time On Our Hands’ holds the record for the highest UK audience for a sitcom episode, having attracted an impressive 24.3 million viewers (representing over a third of the entire population). The series left such a mark on British culture that some of the script’s words and catchphrases have even made their way into the everyday English language. The Fools and Horses team received countless awards at the BAFTAs, the National Television Awards and the Royal Television Society. In 2004, it was voted Britain’s Best Sitcom in a BBC poll.
5. Fawlty Towers (1975)
Broadcast on BBC2 in 1975 and 1979, Fawlty Towers is an all-time British favourite. Written by and starring John Cleese and his wife of the time, Connie Booth, the series reveals the goings-on at Fawlty Towers, a fictional hotel in seaside town Torquay. At the root of the comedy are Basil Fawlty (John Cleese), the rude, exasperated owner and his bossy wife Sybil (Prunella Scales) as well as chambermaid Polly (Connie Booth) and Spanish waiter Manuel (Andrew Sachs) who is perpetually lost in translation. Farce arises when they try to make the best of the most hopeless hospitality situations in the face of demanding, often eccentric guests.
In 2000, the British Film Institute voted Fawlty Towers the best British series of all time. The fact that the series was limited to a mere twelve delightful episodes is often claimed to be a national outrage. However, the popularity of Basil and Sybil’s fictional hotel has stood the test of time despite the limited material available.
4. Monty Python’s Flying Circus (1969)
The 1969 British sketch-comedy series Monty Python’s Flying Circus was a guaranteed success from the beginning: commissioned by the much-loved David Attenborough and created by the renowned Monty Python comedy troupe, how could it possibly fail? The 45 episodes revolve around the idiosyncrasies of British life, expressed through observational sketches and clever, surreal risqué humour that is at times politically loaded. The five cast members Terry Jones, Michael Palin, Terry Gilliam, Eric Idle and John Cleese were all educated at prestigious universities and bring an intellectuality to their humour which can only be described as ‘Pythonesque’.
3. Rome (2005)
Featuring Kevin McKidd, Ray Stevenson and Ciarán Hinds, Rome is yet another British historical TV series that was met with great acclaim and popularity. Following the lives of soldiers Lucius Vorenus and Titus Pullo, the action of Rome unfolds in the setting of 1st century BC, during Ancient Rome’s transition from Republic to Empire. Opening with Julius Caesar’s conquest of Gaul, the first series ends with Caesar’s assassination and proceeds to document the rise of Augustus as first Emperor of the Empire. Many of the characters’ features are based on real figures described in historical records. Co-produced with HBO, the series also received acclaim in the US. However, despite a generally positive reaction, the show was cancelled after the second reason for financial reasons – the series’ aesthetic grandeur was notoriously expensive.
2. I, Claudius (1976)
Released in 1976 by the BBC, I, Claudius remains one of the most popular British TC series of all time. Based on Robert Graves’s novels I, Claudius and Claudius the God, the stories were rewritten for the screen by Jack Pulman. The series features Derek Jacobi as Claudius, launching his acting career. The series plot follows Rome’s history as narrated by the elderly Claudius. From the outset, I, Claudius was hugely popular: When it was originally aired in 1976, the BBC estimated that the series had an average audience of 2,500,000 viewers per episode. Made at a relatively low cost of £60,000 for an hour of broadcast material, the series raked in a great profit. The show won BAFTA and Emmy awards and features in Time magazine’s 2007 ranking of the ‘100 Best TV Shows of All-TIME’.
1. Sherlock (2010)
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes detective stories have been revived and modernised by BBC1 in the number 1 hit TV series Sherlock. The explosive episodes, just 3 pe series, are always awaited with baited breath. Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman star in the lead roles of Sherlock and Dr Watson in this modern remake. Creators Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss have released 9 episodes across 3 series since 2010, and the third series is the UK’s most watched drama series since 2001. Sherlock‘s popularity goes beyond just the UK, having been sold to over 200 territories. Sherlock‘s triumph was confirmed when the show took home seven Emmy awards this year, hailed as 2014’s standout winner.