Culture hit lists banner Drama, comedy, documentary, and baking: presenting our highly subjective list of the best that British TV has to offer Compiled by Gabriel Tate, Ben Lawrence, Michael Hogan, Gerard O'Donovan, Catherine Gee The Thick of It (BBC, 2005-2012) Before he became a Timelord, Peter Capaldi was splenetic spin doctor Malcolm Tucker: the government's Director of Communications and a not terribly “civil” civil servant. Armando Iannucci’s fearsome fly-on-the-wall political satire is about the advisers and incompetents who prowl the corridors of Westminster power, waiting for the next ministerial “omnishambles”. This 21st century update of Yes Minister is sweary, savage and prescient, frequently predicting real-life events. Tucker’s resemblance to Alastair Campbell is, of course, purely coincidental. One Born Every Minute (Channel 4, 2010-2015) One Born Every Minute Credit: Channel 4 A genuine trailblazer, One Born Every Minute set the trend for Channel 4’s ‘"fixed rig" documentary series, ditching voiceovers and editorial intrusion for more organic storytelling, courtesy of cameras fixed around a maternity ward. The results offered unprecedented access and unusual intimacy, and were often deeply moving. After this came 24 Hours in A&E, 24 Hours in Police Custody and many more. The Camomile Lawn (Channel 4, 1992) Causing a stir at the time for scenes of raunch and romping that now look decidedly tame, Peter Hall directs a wonderful pan-generational cast (also including Paul Eddington, Toby Stephens and Hall’s daughter, Rebecca) in a faithful adaptation of Mary Wesley’s wartime saga from Ken Taylor who adapted The Jewel in the Crown for ITV eight years earlier. Cornwall looks as glorious as some of the characters (one storyline tackles rape and child abuse) are unsavoury. Pulling (BBC Three, 2006-2009) One of only two BBC Three shows on our list, and the fact that Pulling was canned after only two series while the benighted Two Pints of Lager… ran for nine, suggests why that might be. Sharon Horgan and Dennis Kelly’s scabrous comedy of three women swearing, boozing and bonking their way through rootless thirties singledom was broadcast at the same time as Gavin and Stacey, yet has aged far better by favouring emotional honesty over sentimentality. Horgan has since become a welcome fixture of small-screen sitcom. Pulling Credit: BBC Yes Minister (BBC. 1980-1984) This sublime political sitcom still feels fresh, thanks to co-creators Jonathan Lynn and Peter Jay’s sharp ear for the absurdities of Whitehall speech. The Rt Hon Jim Hacker MP is the well-meaning minister for Administrative Affairs but it’s manipulative mandarin Sir Humphrey Appleby who steals the show. Ahead of its time in terms of satirising spin, it’s also fondly remembered for Gerald Scarfe’s opening titles. There are two series of sequel Yes, Prime Minister to savour here, too. Vic Reeves’ Big Night Out (Channel 4, 1991-2) Incredibly influential, Big Night Out gave the ailing alternative comedy scene a shot in the arm with its warm embrace of the surreal and absurd, giving traditional variety humour a postmodern twist. Even Reeves and Mortimer themselves wouldn’t let it lie, reviving many of the characters and skits for their ongoing arena tour. Yet one burning question remains: whatever happened to Les? Coronation Street (1960-present) When scriptwriter Tony Warren pitched his kitchen-sink drama to Granada, who’d have thought it would still be going strong 55 years later – the world’s longest-running soap and central to ITV’s success? Half the nation watched Corrie at its peak and the cobbled streets around the Rovers Return are part of British culture. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (BBC, 1979) Much imitated, oft-remade, never improved. Adapted from John le Carré’s classic espionage novel, this quadruple BAFTA-winning thriller was a darkly classy take on Cold War mistrust, carried by a mesmerising performance from Alec Guinness. Taciturn spymaster George Smiley agrees to come out of retirement, re-enter “the Circus” and lead the labyrinthine hunt for a Soviet mole in the British secret service. Top Gear (BBC Two, 1978 onwards) Love it or loathe it, in terms of global reach the motor-mouth motoring magazine is the BBC’s most successful show (an estimated 350 million viewers a week in 170 countries) of recent years, a pugnacious mix of testosterone and petrol fumes delivered with an unerring feel for the essentially adolescent, and aspirational, nature of car love. Hard to credit that as recently as 2001 the BBC axed it, until Jeremy Clarkson and producer Andy Wilman pitched the more entertainment-based format we know now. Now that Clarkson, Hammond et al have departed for Amazon Prime, it is hard to imagine the show in its current incarnation surviving a best of list 20 years from now... Top Gear The Singing Detective (BBC, 1986) There are other Dennis Potter works here - notably Blue Remembered Hills and Pennies From Heaven - but this semi-autobiographical series is his greatest achievement and remains as boldly brilliant as it was 30 years ago. A crime writer lies in a hospital bed, ravaged by a terrible skin disease and escaping into his imagination. It’s multi-stranded and boundary-pushing, mixing musical interludes with childhood flashbacks, pastiche wartime noir and present-day medical scenes. Dem bones, dem bones, dem dry bones… Sherlock (BBC, 2010-present) The game is on. Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss' ingenious contemporary reimagining of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s classic sleuth made a megastar out of Benedict Cumberbatch and became Britain’s most watched drama in more than a decade. Full of dazzling deduction, breakneck-paced plots and spiky camaraderie, the scripts are also crammed with knowing references to the original adventures - as well as so many twists, it’ll leave you dizzy with admiration and reaching for the rewind button. Prime Suspect (ITV, 1991-2006) Seven landmark series of the grittily hypnotic police procedural were “event television” before the term was coined. Helen Mirren’s was a towering star turn as trailblazing Met officer DCI Jane Tennison, who battled sexism and alcoholism as well as criminals. Prime Supect Credit: ITV / Rex Features The Day Today (BBC Two, 1994) Meganews! Factgasm! The wincingly accurate news parody aired for just six episodes in 1994 but became hugely influential – both on comedy and current affairs coverage. Morris went on to make Brass Eye, co-creator Armando Iannucci created The Thick Of It, Steve Coogan’s sports reporter Alan Partridge became a cult hero and TV news could never be brash or bombastic again without being accused of “going a bit Day Today”. See the "Bomb Dogs" sketch. Queer As Folk (Channel 4, 1999-2000) Queer as Folk certainly isn’t subtle. It is explicit, inclusive, warm and ferociously funny, however, and one of British television’s first series to celebrate rather than defend or apologise for its subject matter, as the lives of super-confident Stuart (Aidan Gillen), wallflower Vince (Craig Kelly) and neophyte Nathan (Charlie Hunnam) collide on Manchester’s gay hub, Canal Street. Writer Davies recently reprised and updated some of the themes with his Banana/Cucumber/Tofu triptych, all also available on All 4. Wolf Hall (BBC Two, 2015) Who needs Game Of Thrones when you’ve got the real deal? The TV event of 2015 found Mark Rylance giving the performance of a lifetime as Thomas Cromwell, all-powerful fixer in the court of Henry VIII. Writer Peter Straughan’s masterful adaptation did ample justice to Hilary Mantel’s Booker-winning Tudor novels, while director Peter Kosminsky’s vision - all mud, blood and candlelight - was somehow gritty and sumptuous at the same time. Porridge (BBC, 1974-1977) “Norman Stanley Fletcher, you are an habitual criminal who accepts arrest as an occupational hazard and presumably accepts imprisonment in the same casual manner…” Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais’ prison sitcom remains one of the all-time greats. Ronnie Barker was the petty crook and old lag using every trick in the book to make his sentence at HMP Slade more bearable - mainly by showing naive cellmate Godber the ropes and making life hard for the staff. Spaced (Channel 4, 1999-2001) Establishing its leading lights as geek savants par excellence, Spaced was on the surface a simple flatshare sitcom. Yet the adventures of Tim (Simon Pegg) and Daisy (Jessica Hynes) flouted the form’s convention with glee, drenching episodes in surrealism and packing in more pop-culture references than a Wayans brothers film (and with both far greater sophistication and many, many more laughs). Repeat viewing essential. Black Mirror (Channel 4/Netflix, 2011-present) “Nihilistic bleakness” with “occasional bits of lightness” is how creator Charlie Brooker has characterised his futuristic anthology series. Alongside grim gadgets and sociopathic social media, the series also features ingenious plotting, top-drawer acting and – in the latter years ,courtesy of Netflix’s magic cheque book – whiz-bang production values. But thanks to standout episode San Junipero, Brooker is also responsible for one of the loveliest screen romances ever seen on TV. I, Claudius (BBC, 1976) This epic adaptation of Robert Graves’s novels about the ruling dynasty of ancient Rome may appear stagy to modern viewers but it wowed Seventies audiences with its combination of Grand Guignol horror and meaty emotional truth. Derek Jacobi in the title role of the stuttering underdog won hearts and prizes. Mum (BBC Two, 2016-present) This gentle family sitcom was something of a sleeper hit when it first aired in 2016 - and has continued to delight in its second series. The ever-excellent Lesley Manville returned as Cathy, a widow who must come to terms with her grief, while trying to tolerate her dippy son's even dippier (but well-meaning) girlfriend. Series two reached its climax with Cathy at last declaring her feelings for life-long family friend Michael. It made an air-punching, eye-dampening conclusion to what’s undoubtedly been among the finest shows in recent memory. Read our review of episode one This is England 86/88/90 (Channel 4, 2010-15) Spinning off from the 1983-set film, Shane Meadows broadened and deepened the storytelling to embrace fringe characters and, in the process, forge some of the most indelibly affecting (and often heavily improvised) scenes in recent years of British television. The blend of comedy and tragedy wasn’t always seamless, but when it worked it packed a punch like little else. Dad's Army (BBC, 1968-1977) Who do you think you are kidding, Mr Hitler? Forget the flop recent film version. Jimmy Perry and David Croft’s sitcom is quintessentially British and a bona fide classic, full of slapstick laughs and sly satire. The hapless antics of Captain Mainwaring’s Home Guard platoon in Walmington-on-Sea regularly attracted 18m viewers, have been exported worldwide and are widely recognised as one of the all-time great sitcoms. Don’t panic. You stupid boy. Dad's Army Credit: Allstar/BBC Save Me (Sky Atlantic, 2018) Lennie James has been forging a career in the US of late, and currently starring in the Walking Dead spin-off Fear the Walking Dead. But he returned to his home-town of Lewisham, London for this brilliant self-penned crime drama with a difference. He starred as Nelly, a local barfly whose estranged daughter, Jody, is kidnapped, turning his world upside down as he becomes increasingly desperate to find her. Suranne Jones co-starred as Jody's mother. Chilling, unforgettable and utterly original, Save Me is a masterclass in authentic story-telling, with a Dickensian eye for detail. Read our review of episode one Planet Earth (BBC One, 2006) Some of David Attenborough’s most memorable natural history documentaries - including Frozen Planet, Blue Planet and latest landmark series The Hunt - can be savoured via BBC Store but we’ve gone for his ground-breaking portrait of Earth’s sights and sounds. It was the most expensive nature series ever commissioned by the BBC and the first to be filmed in HD. Three years in the making, this epic achievement was watched by 11 million awestruck viewers at its peak. State of Play (BBC, 2002) Paul Abbott’s densely plotted thriller, which spawned a Hollywood remake, combined a political affair, a gangland killing and dodgy oil deals into a dizzying and all too credible conspiracy. John Simm is the tenacious journalist who uncovers corruption while investigating the murder of promising politician David Morrissey’s secret lover. Gripping, credible and crammed with talent on both sides of the camera, it won three Baftas, while injecting topicality and ambition back into BBC drama. This Country (BBC Three, 2017-present) This mockumentary written by and starring siblings Daisy May Cooper and Charlie Cooper recently completed its second series. Once again set in a small Cotswold village, this funny, well-observed comedy saw the two cousins attempt to get jobs and try not to annoy their scary neighbour Mandy (Ashley McGuire). For all of their cleverness, mockumentaries, with those excruciating pauses and winks to camera, can be uncomfortable to watch. This Country has tweaked the formula, importing a key element from good sitcom – a pair of characters (in Kurtan and Kerry) that viewers desperately want to escape, while knowing full well that they never will. Read our review of episode one This Country The Forsyte Saga (BBC Two, 1967) This 26-part dramatisation of John Galsworthy’s stories about an upper-middle class family from the late nineteenth century to the Twenties was an unexpected hit and, following its BBC Two airing, was repeated on BBC One (at the time BBC Two wasn't available nationwide). It was the last major British drama to be made in black and white and is still a masterclass in shaping a rather unwieldy set of novels into something gripping. Car Share (BBC Two, 2015-2018) Peter Kay's comedy showing the unrequited love between two supermarket co-workers (Kay and Sian Gibson) is as keenly observed, sharply scripted and warm-hearted as all Kay’s work. But it's so broadly likeable and unashamedly populist that it appeals to everyone, regardless of age, gender or social class. Car Share pulled in bumper ratings of 9 million, became the BBC’s most-watched iPlayer boxset and won two BAFTAs. When it signed off on a tantalising cliffhanger in 2017, there was outcry. More than 100,000 viewers signed an online petition demanding a conclusion to John and Kayleigh’s story - and they got it. The final episode was shown in May 2018. Brass Eye (Channel 4, 1997-2001) Transplanting Chris Morris’s acerbic news anchor from The Day Today, Brass Eye's even-handed iconoclasm attacked establishment complacency, hypocrisy and smugness with ruthless efficiency. Its finest moments are still cited today, notably the debate over made-up drug 'cake' in the Commons, while the 2001 paedophile special remains one of British television’s bravest, most wince-inducing and hilarious satires, an hour of non-stop chutzpah. The Fall (BBC, 2013-present) The acclaimed psycho-sexual thriller is back for a third (and possibly final) run this year, so now’s the time to catch up. When ice-cool Met cop DSI Stella Gibson (Gillian Anderson) is seconded to Belfast to review a murder case, it soon becomes a hunt for a serial killer: Paul Spector (Jamie Dornan), who is stalking young professional women with chilling precision. A stylish, suspenseful drama crackling with chemistry between the two leads. Peep Show (Channel 4, 2003-2015) The longest-running comedy in C4’s history retained its high standards of low comedy right to the end. Flat-sharing protagonists awkward Mark (David Mitchell) and feckless Jeremy (Robert Webb) evolved scarcely a jot, remaining fundamentally awful yet oddly sympathetic. The conceit of using POV cameras and voicing internal monologues was so successful that it’s no surprise few have attempted to imitate it. Brideshead Revisited (ITV, 1981) Charles Ryder, Aloysius and Sebastian Flyte Credit: Granada Source: Television Stills This sumptuous adaptation of Evelyn Waugh’s novel was obsessively faithful to its source material and it showed. Leisurely and literary, this examination of the aristocratic Marchmain family seen through the eyes of Charles Ryder (Jeremy Irons, pictured right, with co-star Anthony Andrews) remains the benchmark for costume dramas. Inside No 9 (BBC Two, 2014 - present) Easily one of the most inventive shows on TV, Steve Pemberton and Reece Shearsmith’s comedy-horror anthology is a wonderful throwback, inspired by retro series such as The Twilight Zone, Armchair Thriller, Alfred Hitchcock Presents and Roald Dahl's Tales Of The Unexpected. Each episode is effectively a short play, with a self-contained story, entirely new characters and fresh setting, and all starring Pemberton or Shearsmith, usually both, along with high-profile guest actors. All that connects the episodes is the number "9", which always features in some form - most frequently on a door number - along with twist endings and a certain macabre mood. Tucked away on BBC Two post-watershed, its ratings are modest and it rarely wins awards. Yet viewers who seek it out never regret it. Happy Valley (BBC, 2014-present) Writer Sally Wainwright’s superlative double Bafta-winning police drama. There’s a career-best performance from Lancashire as strong-willed Sergeant Catherine Cawood, who must face her past and fight for justice when the man who drove her daughter to suicide gets released from prison. Savage, suspenseful and stunning, it also provided the breakout role for War & Peace star James Norton. I'm Alan Partridge (BBC Two, 1997-2002) Steve Coogan’s most enduring character – the conceited, tactless and talentless sports reporter cum chat show host – was invented by Coogan and others for Radio 4’s On the Hour and first seen on television in The Day Today and the hugely popular spoof chat show Knowing Me Knowing You. This was Partridge’s first appearance in sitcom form, a behind the scenes glimpse of his failing career when he’s reduced to local radio in Norwich following the axing of his TV show (after he accidentally kills one of his guests). A cringe-making comedy giant, whose recent movie outing proved he still has legs. He's Alan Partridge Credit: JACKIE DI STEFANO / Rex Features Utopia (Channel 4, 2013-2014) There were just two seasons of Dennis Kelly's dark and dangerous conspiracy thriller, but its trippy, easter egg-laden influence can be seen everywhere today: in Westworld, Legion, and even Sherlock. Funny, shockingly brutal, and worthy of endless rewatching, no wonder Amazon are about to spend untold millions on a US remake. GBH (Channel 4, 1991) Supposedly based on the rise and fall of militant Liverpool council firebrand Derek Hatton, Alan Bleasdale’s taut and deeply principled drama pits corrupt, charismatic councillor Robert Lindsay against Michael Palin’s meek, upright teacher in a battle that neatly reflected the wars being waged in the Labour party at the time. The performances, in particular, are astounding. Jake’s Progress, again by Bleasdale and starring Lindsay, is also available on All 4. Doctor Who (BBC, 1963-present) A strange bloke in a blue box, travelling through time and space, making friends and fighting alien threats. Across more than half a century and 12 incarnations, the basic pitch for the much-loved sci-fi stalwart has remained the same. There’s a galaxy for Whovians to explore here, from early gems when William Hartnell first encountered the Daleks and Cybermen, through to the current adventures starring Peter Capaldi. Pass the sonic screwdriver. Blackadder (BBC, 1983-1989) Rubber-faced, simile-loving Edmund Blackadder schemes his way through history, getting funnier as he goes. The consummate period sitcom starts with its hit-and-miss medieval incarnation, before our anti-hero becomes an Elizabethan nobleman at the beck and call of Miranda Richardson’s petulant Queenie, butler to the Hugh Laurie’s buffoonish Prince Regent and ends up in the First World War trenches. Luckily, servant sidekick Baldrick always has a cunning plan. Father Ted (Channel 4, 1995-1998) When an anti-austerity protester was spotted carrying a placard saying “Down With This Sort of Thing”, the enduring influence of Graham Linehan and Arthur Mathews’ peerless comedy was confirmed. Replacing Irish jokes with Irish humour, it exiled three disgraced priests on an island and chased the ensuing laughs relentlessly. Mathews and Linehan’s ensuing collaboration, The IT Crowd, had to settle for being merely excellent in comparison. Peaky Blinders (BBC Two, 2013-present) Peaky Blinders creator Steven Knight, who was also behind Tom Hardy’s Taboo, has established a signature style with his trigger-happy Brummie gangster show: he drags costume drama out of country houses and into inner cities, then douses it in ye olde sex and violence. He then adds star names, films it with cinematic swagger and acquires a cult following that includes the likes of Tom Cruise, Brad Pitt, and David Bowie. The Shelby clan have captivated viewers with high-octane violence and their sense of style Credit: © Caryn Mandabach Productions Ltd / Robert Viglasky Only Fools and Horses (BBC One, 1981-2003) One of the best-loved shows of all time, it’s fair to say that Only Fools and Horses’s quality is variable. Yet the hopes and dreams of Peckham market trader Del Boy (David Jason) caught the public imagination and throughout the series’ long run there were many terrific moments combining slapstick (that bar-hatch pratfall) and genuine poignancy (Rodney’s courtship of the up-market Cassandra). Spitting Image (ITV, 1984-1996) A weekly dose of latex lampoonery was essential for pricking politicians’ egos in the 80s and early 90s - although having your own Spitting Image puppet eventually became a sign you’d made it. A staggering 15m watched the satire-on-strings in its pomp. Line of Duty (BBC Two, 2012 onwards) Writer Jed Mercurio’s masterly police corruption thriller became the channel’s top-rated drama in a decade when it debuted in 2012. The second series, led by a standout performance by Keeley Hawes as the “did she or didn’t she?” prime suspect, was even better: stylish, tense and twisty, and the third maintained that delicious sense of tension. A fourth series began in March, 2017. The Crown (Netflix, 2016-present) Some were sceptical about how compelling a partly fictionalised Windsor family saga would be, only to have those expectations thoroughly upended by the first series - a sumptuous, well-observed and surprisingly moving survey of Britain and its monarchy between 1947 and 1955. The second series, covering the mid-1950s to the mid-1960s, including the Suez Canal crisis and the Profumo affair, was perhaps even better. It’s the performances that impress above all: it would be easy to take Claire Foy (playing Queen Elizabeth) for granted, so comfortable is she now in this role, but she makes the impossible – bringing the unknowable to life – look easy. Matt Smith (Prince Philip), too, has seldom been better. Claire Foy's Queen Elizabeth stunned the critics Credit: Robert Viglasky / Netflix Seven Up (ITV, 1964 onwards) When Michael Apted interviewed a group of seven-year-olds for a World in Action documentary, he couldn’t have realised that this would be the start of one of the most important social documents of the 20th and 21st centuries. Following a range of people from diverse backgrounds, we have shared their high points and their heartaches. It has been a consistently powerful and moving experience. The League of Gentlemen (BBC Two, 1999-present) Fifteen years after it ended, the macabre comedy series created by Mark Gatiss, Steve Pemberton, Reece Shearsmith and Jeremy Dyson, made a welcome return in 2017. So frequently do comedy revivals fail. As time passes, what made them so fresh has inevitably gone stale and the writers struggle to make them relevant without relying on gags about Instagram and Netflix. But the talents of its creators and stars have never gone off the boil. The new series was updated but still fresh, still on the cutting edge of acceptability and probably over many people's line of repulsion – and still very funny. Read our review of episode one Inspector Morse (ITV, 1987-2000) Less a detective series, more a cultural phenomenon, there was an operatic scale and complexity to these two-hour mystery sagas based on the late Colin Dexter’s popular crime novels. John Thaw played the Wagner-loving, real ale-quaffing, Mark II Jag-driving Oxford cop who was more than a match for academics intent on dreaming up the perfect crime. Head-scratching sidekick Lewis (Kevin Whately) provided the brawn. Not the Nine O’Clock News (BBC Two, 1979-1982) Pre-empting the alternative comedy of the Eighties, this frenetic satirical sketch show launched the careers of Rowan Atkinson, Griff Rhys Jones, Mel Smith and Pamela Stephenson. No topic was considered taboo and the writers tackled such controversial topics as institutionalised racism in the police force. Not all of it has aged well, but sketches such as Gerald the Gorilla and I Like Trucking are some of the finest ever seen on British TV. For its sheer ambition, it should be regarded as one of the most important TV comedies of all time. Strictly Come Dancing (BBC One, 2004 onwards) After the calamitous Fame Academy, the BBC was desperate for a show to rival Simon Cowell’s all-conquering shiny-floor shows on ITV. In the end, this unlikely hit came to eclipse them all, dusting off the creaky and unremittingly cheesy Come Dancing format, adding some b-list stardust and giving Bruce Forsyth one last run in the spotlight. The result was a visual feast, both contest and lark, competitive without ever getting nasty. It shows no sign of running out of steam. Former MP Ed Balls on the dance show Credit: Joe Giddens/PA Wire Fawlty Towers (BBC Two. 1975, 1979) Basil Fawlty is the English Riviera’s rudest hotelier, Sybil is his formidable wife and Manuel is the waiter who knows “nahthing”. Well, he is from Barcelona. Eccentric guests descend. Basil’s money-making and social-climbing schemes invariably backfire. Hotel inspectors, builders, rats, Germans, Americans, moose heads, corpses and faulty cars further complicate matters, The breathless result is peerless sitcom brilliance. House of Cards/To Play the King/The Final Cut (BBC, 1990, 1993, 1996) The British original that spawned Kevin Spacey’s Netflix remake. Ian Richardson excels as scheming chief whip Francis Urquhart, who will stop at nothing to govern Britain - even when murder and the monarchy stand in his way. Across three gripping, near-Shakespearean four-part series, Andrew Davies’ Emmy-winning adaptation of Michael Dobbs’s novels charted Urquhart’s ruthless rise to power. The ultimate political thriller? You might very well say that. We couldn’t possibly comment. The Office (BBC Two, 2001-2003) Such a well-observed creation is David Brent - “I’m a friend first and a boss second, probably an entertainer third” - that his name has entered the lexicon as shorthand for a bad boss. So innovative and downright hilarious was Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant’s mockumentary-style sitcom set at a Slough paper merchants that it moved the goalposts for 21st century comedy. It was the first ever British sitcom to win a Golden Globe and has been exported worldwide. Remind yourself of its joy and genius. Fleabag (BBC Three, 2016) This comedy series, starring Phoebe Waller-Bridge who adapted it from her own Edinburgh Fringe play, depicts its lead character as, in her own words, “a greedy, perverted, selfish, apathetic, cynical, depraved, morally bankrupt woman who can’t even call herself a feminist.” This unusual and incredibly fresh combination of comedy and sadness made it a hit, taking an unflinching look at modern sex, situations which are simultaneously farcical and familiar and the invasion of mental illness – all as our heroine attempts to navigate her way through her failing business and the relationship with her best friend and dysfunctional family. Phoebe Waller-Bridge in Fleabag Monty Python’s Flying Circus (BBC One, 1969-1973; BBC Two, 1974) Four decades after ceasing to be, Monty Python is now so iconic and relentlessly referenced as to be almost impossible to assess now. What remains striking are the relentless sense of iconoclastic invention and democracy within the troupe, with each member allowed to bring their own unique brand of silliness to the series and, ultimately, to the lexicon of the English language. Unquestionably the most influential television comedy ever made. Press Gang (ITV, 1989-1993) Just as Children’s Ward established Paul Abbott, so Press Gang did Steven Moffat, as Julia Sawalha led an immensely appealing cast of young hacks on a school newspaper. Like Grange Hill, it explored serious issues (drug abuse, teen pregnancy) amid the sharply scripted tomfoolery and teen romance. The Great British Bake Off (BBC One/BBC Two, 2010-2016, Channel 4, 2016-present) Possibly the most unlikely TV phenomenon of the last decade. Who could have predicted the people of Britain would take a low-budget baking competition so firmly to its heart. A perfectly conceived recipe, much lot of the show’s success is down to the bogglingly complex baking challenges, and plucky contestants’ creativity and ambition. But judges Mary Berry and Paul Hollywood brought a nail-biting level of professional rigour to the proceedings, complemented perfectly by Sue Perkins and Mel Giedroyc’s madcap presentation style. Prue Leith, Sandi Toksvig and Noel Fielding have taken over the helm at Channel 4, and the result is as tasty as ever. The Prisoner (ITV, 1967-1968) Perhaps the most baffling TV series ever made, this drama saw Patrick McGoohan as a former secret agent who is captured and held in a strange coastal village (real-life Portmeirion in Wales) where he is chased by a giant white ball when he attempts to escape. The Prisoner rarely made sense but its essential strangeness still managed to captivate. It remains perhaps the only example of counter-cultural fantasy that was a hit with a mainstream audience. Downton Abbey (ITV, 2010-2015) Sentimental. Nonsensical. Soapy. Julian Fellowes’s upstairs-downstairs country-house juggernaut is all of these things and more, but it is also astoundingly successful and ITV’s biggest dramatic hit for many years. 120m viewers worldwide mourned the death of Matthew Crawley, while three Golden Globes and 11 Emmys are testament to America's enduring fascination with the British class system. The sprawling cast of the sprawling pile became familiar friends to much of the nation Credit: Nick Briggs/ITV/PA Wire Catastrophe (Channel 4, 2015-present) Rob Delaney and Sharon Horgan have huge chemistry as the Transatlantic couple thrown together by her pregnancy in this ribald romantic sitcom. Rude one-liners and loud snorting laughs are scattered throughout its tightly packed 30-minute episodes, but crucially it has a lot of heart, too. Around the World in 80 Days (BBC One, 1989) The first and most entertaining of Michael Palin’s televised expeditions could instead have starred Noel Edmonds or Alan Whicker. Fortunately, the former Python proved an inspired last resort, harnessing his everyman appeal and natural curiosity to the clever hook of following in the footsteps of Phileas Fogg. The result was an entertaining and genuinely exciting reinvention of the televised travelogue, and a second career for the comic actor. The Morecambe and Wise Show (BBC One, 1968-1977) The greatest British double act of all time spent nearly a decade on the BBC, and it was here that their talents were used to the greatest effect, most notably in a series of Christmas specials which saw Glenda Jackson, Shirley Bassey and Andre Previn (among others) be subjected to a series of sublimely crafted sketches. Civilisation (BBC Two, 1969) Landmark documentary is an over-used term but Kenneth Clark’s series really was, giving audiences a thorough, erudite (if rather patrician to modern eyes) series of lectures on the history of western art, architecture and philosophy. Before transmission it was seen by some within the BBC as an expensive folly, but viewers and critics were soon in raptures. The essential idea of Civilisation, that humanity can be explained through art, remains extraordinarily powerful. Boys from the Blackstuff (BBC Two, 1982) Alan Bleasdale’s comi-tragic look at unemployment in the north west was not only a polemic against Thatcherite politics but also a journey into the psyche of the white working-class male. It spoke volumes about the time and Bernard Hill’s "Gizza Job" howl of despair became a catchphrase up and down the land. Our Friends in the North (BBC Two, 1996) In 1996, Royal Shakespeare Company writer Peter Flannery adapted his own stage play into this epic nine-parter, charting the course of the lives of four Geordie friends from youth to middle age. The ambitious series took a decade to get to the screen and ate up half of BBC Two’s drama budget for the year but boy, was it worth it. It also launched the careers of its four stars, including the next Doctor Who (Christopher Eccleston) and James Bond (Daniel Craig). Threads (BBC Two, 1984) The nuclear war docu-drama that gave a generation nightmares. In 1984, this harrowing film – inspired by Sixties equivalent The War Game, which had been deemed too disturbing to air – examined the devastating effects of a one megaton warhead on the city of Sheffield. It was watched by 7m viewers, who sat in stunned, terrified silence when the credits rolled two hours later. Apart from the horrors of nuclear war, Threads should be remembered for raising concerns about economic stability and the possibility of social collapse. Grange Hill (BBC One/CBBC, 1978-2008) Grange Hill’s creator, Phil Redmond, went on to make Brookside, but this soap for younger viewers was every bit as pioneering and fearless, on occasion making national headlines with the issues it addressed at the titular north London comprehensive. Racism, homosexuality and most famously drug abuse were all tackled head on, while certain characters – fearsome head Mr Bronson, comic relief Ro-Land, lovable rogue Tucker Jenkins – became playground shorthand. Grange Hill Credit: alamy Blue Peter (BBC/BBC One, 1958 onwards) The middle-class magazine show, with its gung-ho spirit and homespun aesthetic, may have launched a thousand parodies but its influence must not be underestimated. Here was a clarion call for children to go out and make things, learn about the wider world and, most significantly, raise money for good causes. The Christmas Charity Appeal remains the most-ego free act of philanthropy on TV. Play School (BBC Two, 1964-1988) First broadcast the day after BBC Two launched, this programme for pre-schoolers brilliantly combined fun and games with an educational remit. It was a simple and effective model and the format was copied in several other countries. Its social impact must be stressed, too. Speaking on Radio 4 in 2011, presenter Floella Benjamin recalled how she had letters from children growing up in care who regarded her as a mother figure because she talked through the camera "as if she loved them". Victoria Wood… As Seen On TV (BBC Two, 1985-1987) Comedian Wood created many fine TV shows over her career, but never did her trademark combination of silly songs, ribald stand-up and deathly accurate parody fuse together to such great effect. Years later, bad soap Acorn Antiques still seems as funny, even though the show it was parodying (Crossroads) has long gone. Match of the Day (BBC Two, 1964-present) The football show kicked off in 1964, showing highlights of one match per week. Several clubs tried to block it, fearing it could lead to a fall in attendances. They needn’t have worried: instead it launched the sport into the stratosphere, becoming a Saturday night fixture for the next half-century. It was promoted to BBC One the following season and four years later, went full-colour. Shameless (Channel 4, 2004-2013) In all honesty, you could probably leave it after series three, after which it rapidly descended into soap opera self-parody. But the first few visits to Manchester’s chaotic Chatsworth Estate were among the most invigorating depictions of British working-class culture in recent years, launching the careers (and marriage) of Anne-Marie Duff and James McAvoy in the process. Black Books (Channel 4, 2000-2004) The only time stand-up Dylan Moran’s unique brand of misanthropic whimsy has really been effectively captured on the small screen, this engagingly surreal sitcom pivots on the nihilistic rantings of bookshop owner Bernard Black (Moran), while Bill Bailey and Tamsin Greig provide charm of a innocent and manic kind respectively as Bernard’s assistant and oldest friend. Drop the Dead Donkey (Channel 4, 1990-98) Something of a time capsule in the internet age, Andy Hamilton and Guy Jenkin’s (Outnumbered) sitcom was at its best breathlessly funny, with the frenetic atmosphere of Globelink’s newsroom entirely unmanufactured: episodes were usually written and filmed only a week before broadcast to ensure maximum topicality. Delighting and appalling those it lampooned, it doubles as a sort of Yes, Minster for hacks. Pride & Prejudice (BBC, 1995) Colin Firth emerging from the Pemberley lake in his damp shirt was arguably the definitive television image of the Nineties. Andrew Davies’ irresistible, witty and romantic adaptation of the 1813 novel got blockbuster ratings of 11m, won both Baftas and Emmys, and inspired not just the Bridget Jones phenomenon but a Jane Austen renaissance which has continued ever since. It looked suitably handsome too, shot mostly in National Trust properties at a cost of £1m per episode. Worth every penny. Colin Firth as Mr Darcy in Pride & Prejudice Credit: BBC Porterhouse Blue (Channel 4, 1987) Malcolm Bradbury adapting Tom Sharpe: what could possibly go wrong? Nothing at all in the event, as David Jason’s conservative Cambridge porter and Ian Richardson’s reforming Master wrestle for the soul of Porterhouse College through the mediums of canteens, contraceptive machines and female students. Merciless, grotesque and utterly riveting, they don’t make ’em like this any more. Educating Essex/Educating Yorkshire/Educating the East End/Educating Cardiff (Channel 4, 2011-15) Taking the "fixed rig" concept to new heights, this ongoing success story embeds cameras in secondary schools (to date, in Essex, Whitechapel, Yorkshire and Cardiff) and watches the sparks fly. Yet not all the most compelling drama emerged from teacher-pupil conflict: the most memorable episode came in the Yorkshire iteration as young Musharaf is coached through overcoming his stammer, climaxing in a speech at assembly that leaves not a dry eye in the house. Southcliffe (Channel 4, 2013) The barnstorming Broadchurch may have gripped the nation, but Southcliffe dealt with similar issues – grief, psychosis and suspicion in a small town – more broadly, more deeply and more intimately, exploring the build-up and aftermath of a lone gunman going on the rampage. Monumentally bleak, formally audacious, superbly performed and exquisitely directed, this was not an easy watch, but equally impossible to take your eyes off. Career bests all round. A Very British Coup (Channel 4, 1988) The rise of Jeremy Corbyn has lent an additional frisson to this pungent tale of far-left Labour MP Harry Perkins (Ray McAnally) rising to become Prime Minister and finding his policies – nuclear disarmament and open government among them – are thwarted by the combined, conspiring forces of an establishment eager to protect its position. A political thriller of a very superior stripe. Oranges are Not the Only Fruit (BBC, 1990) "My father liked to watch the wrestling, my mother liked to wrestle.” So begins Jeanette Winterson's skilful adaptation of her own prize-winning novel. Winterson's semi-autobiographical tale of a girl’s childhood and sexual awakening amid Pentecostal evangelists in Sixties Lancashire was harrowing yet humorous. It won the Bafta for Best Drama and remains a series of rare power. Dispatches (Channel 4, 1987-present) Very loosely representing C4’s version of Panorama, Dispatches has arguably overtaken its rival as television’s current-affairs series of note, racking up awards and controversy in its investigations of everything from MPs’ expenses and Islamic extremism to global warming and budget airlines. An honourable mention, too, for Unreported World (most episodes also on All4), which does its designated job with tenacity and insight. The Lost Prince (BBC One, 2003) Stephen Poliakoff and the BBC have had a long and often fruitful relationship, but in recent years the auteur’s rambling, portentous yarns have sorely missed a strident editor. His last essential work, and arguably his best, was this contained and ultimately heartbreaking miniseries about George V’s epileptic, possibly autistic son John, locked away and forgotten about while the Russian Revolution engulfed the King’s distant relatives. Informed but not didactic, stately without being stodgy, it showcases all of its creator’s great gifts without indulging his tendency to bang on a bit. The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin (BBC One, 1976-1979) Nervous breakdown seems an unlikely subject for sitcom, yet David Nobbs’s series was as perfect a realisation of suburban disappointment and male inadequacy as has ever been seen on television. The masterstroke was to cast Leonard Rossiter in the lead, increasingly exasperated by the superficiality of modern life and the idiocy of those around him (an unforgettable array of comic turns led by Geoffrey Palmer and John Barron). The 2009 Martin Clunes-led remake singularly failed to recapture the magic of the original. The Two Ronnies (BBC One, 1971-1987) The Two Ronnies Credit: BBC Worldwide Ronnies Barker and Corbett spent nearly 20 years in this seemingly old-fashioned sketch show, which nevertheless displayed their genius for verbal gymnastics (four candles) and lavishly filmed serials of which The Phantom Raspberryblower of old London Town remains a highlight. Politically incorrect, of course, but so wonderfully performed that you quickly forget your misgivings. The Box of Delights (BBC One, 1984) A wintry, deeply atmospheric John Masefield adaptation dating from an era when children’s television went all out to give its target audience delicious nightmares. The adventures of one boy through the centuries and religions old and new, mixed with a ripe character turn from Robert Stephens as arch-villain Abner Brown, cast an irresistible spell. Some of the effects now look as ropey as the performances from the child actors but, for a certain generation, it’s as Christmassy as The Snowman. 1984 (BBC, 1954) Our earliest entry is a terrifying adaptation of George Orwell’s novel which was only five years old at the time. Peter Cushing, about to make his name in the Hammer film franchise, played Winston Smith with a nerve-jangling sense of intellectual paranoia, and the micro budget was used to full effect. There was an extraordinary political reaction at the time, with five MPs signing a motion that criticised “the tendency, evident in recent British Broadcasting Corporation television programmes, notably on Sunday evenings, to pander to sexual and sadistic tastes". The Nazis: A Warning from History (BBC Two, 1997) TV has squeezed every last possibility from the 20th century’s darkest chapter, but the thoroughness of Laurence Rees’s six-part history and the power of its first-hand testimonies (including those of former members of the Nazi party) has never been bettered. Man Alive (BBC Two, 1965-1981) This documentary series, which tackled a range of political and social issues, has been rather forgotten and that’s a shame because much of its output pushed the boundaries, investigating such subjects as sex, class and religion which were then seen as taboo. Highlights included Gale is Dead (1970), the harrowing tale of a drug addict who had been brought up in 14 different institutions, and convinced herself that her life was of no consequence to anyone. Z-Cars (BBC, 1962-1978) Perhaps the most influential police drama of all time, this show with its catchy urgent theme tune revolved around the police force of Newtown, a fictional northern town. Prior to Z-Cars, crime shows were cosy, but this showed their jobs to be often thankless and their personalities to be sometimes flawed. The show spawned two spin-offs – Softly Softly and Barlow. Alistair Cooke’s America (BBC Two, 1972-1973) Cooke’s Letters From America was a highlight of the radio schedules for decades, but when he brought his imposing presence to TV the result was equally successful. Cook's personal account of his beloved adopted nation could at times be incredibly moving, as anyone who has seen his meditation on slavery will testify. Steptoe and Son (BBC, 1962-1974) The best sitcoms are about conflict and nowhere was the conflict more acutely felt than in this tightly wound tale of Albert, an ageing rag-and-bone man (Wilfrid Brambell) and his aspirational son, Harold (Harry H Corbett). Real-life tensions between the two lead actors added a danger to the show (which, in its early days, was filmed live). The episode in which Harold breaks down as he realises he can’t escape the cycle of poverty provides one of sitcom’s greatest moments. EastEnders (BBC One, 1985 onwards) Peggy Mitchell as Barbara Windsor Credit: BBC The BBC’s first proper soap opera is still the best, combining relevant issues, shock storylines and a large Dickensian cast of characters. Life in Albert Square may be easier than it was 30 years ago, but the show still kicks hard when it wants to and, indeed, at its best provides drama of a quality that would not look out of place on a Play for Today. Play For Today (BBC, 1970-1984) Throughout the Seventies and into the Eighties, the Play For Today strand meant high-quality original one-off teleplays. This treasure trove includes pioneering works from the likes of Dennis Potter (the long-banned Brimstone & Treacle), Ingmar Bergman (disturbing marriage drama The Lie), Alan Bennett (seaside retirement gem Sunset Across the Bay) and Mike Leigh (camping comedy Nuts In May and social-climbing classic Abigail’s Party). Walking with Dinosaurs (BBC One, 1999) Perhaps the BBC Natural History Unit’s finest moment came with this staggeringly sophisticated-looking show which related the story of the dinosaurs as if they were the subject of a contemporary wildlife documentary. Incredibly detailed in its research, never before had something so alien been conceived in such a realistic way. The Family (BBC One, 1974) Revived in 2008 by C4 to some effect, Paul Watson’s 12-part series inadvertently opened the door for reality television, but we won’t hold that against it. The original documentary, with its revolutionary fly-on-the-wall verité approach, followed Reading’s working-class Wilkins family through their daily lives for three months. The everyday breaking of taboos, from bad language to mixed-race relationships, proved controversial, but The Family was such a hit that the wedding of one of the Wilkins daughters was invaded by fans and paparazzi alike. Talking to a Stranger (BBC Two, 1966) John Hopkins’s cycle of plays, recounting events over one tragic weekend through the eyes of four different members of a dysfunctional suburban family, is seen as the first dramatic masterpiece on British television and proof that the genre could rival theatre for acute observations and challenging themes. Judi Dench won her first TV Bafta for her role as daughter Terri. Jackanory (BBC One, 1965-96; CBBC 2006) In this age of multiscreen media bombardment, it’s almost impossible to imagine children enraptured by nothing more than a famous face reading them a story. Yet for thirty years, they were treated to memorable turns from the likes of Kenneth Williams, Rik Mayall and Judi Dench, while the Prince of Wales turned up to plug his own children’s book, The Old Man of Lochnagar. The success of Dave’s adult story-time, Crackanory, has since mined the nostalgic format with considerable success. The Power of Nightmares (BBC Two, 2004) The pinnacle of writer/producer Adam Curtis’s career came with this three-part documentary which compared the rise of the Neocon movement in the US with that of radical Islam. More problematically, it argued that the threat of al-Qaeda was a myth created by the west once dreams of a Utopian ideal had failed. While Curtis's theories may not have stood the test of time and his recycling of the format has dulled its impact, this was nevertheless a provocative, brilliantly assembled (via a constant stream of archive material) piece of documentary making. 40 Minutes (BBC Two, 1981-1994) More digestible and parochial, less esoteric than the same channel’s Arena, this documentary strand covered subjects ranging from Brits competing in a sumo tournament and the upper-class adrift in a post-colonial age to cherubic arsonist Michael ‘Mini’ Cooper and a day in the life of Angel underground station. There have been many imitators (notably BBC Two’s sporadically excellent Wonderland series), but few equals. Talking Heads (BBC One, 1988) The monologue may not be a very televisual format, but under the unswerving eye of Alan Bennett it can be nothing less than magical. And so it proved in this sextet of plays in which the protagonists’ often rather tragic lives are enmeshed within Bennett’s idiosyncratic, detailed writing. The highlight, A Cream Cracker Under the Settee, won a Bafta for its 77-year-old star, Thora Hird. Maggie Smith in Talking Heads Top of the Pops (BBC, 1964-2006) The quintessential music show, having showcased almost every major music star for five decades, occasionally in defiance of hosts who often seemed to think they were the main attraction. From Bowie and Ronson to the Madchester special, highlights are too numerous to mention – so much so that the wiping of many early recordings to make room for the entirety of Pot Black remains one of the great smallscreen scandals. It survived the advent of MTV but, as the singles charts declined in relevance, so too did TOTP. Its demise came to resemble a mercy killing. See David Bowie performing Starman - one of the show's most iconic moments - here. The Good Life (BBC One, 1975-1978) Suburban sitcoms come and go, but few have proved as durable as John Esmonde and Bob Larbey’s hit which tapped into the (then) modish idea of self sufficiency as a Surbiton couple (played by Richard Briers and Felicity Kendal) decided to go it alone. Much of the humour came from the contrast between the chicken-rearing Goods and their unashamedly middle-class neighbours, the Leadbetters (Penelope Keith and Paul Eddington).