Monday, July 27, 2015

My highly personal list of the best TV series of all time - part 2, the British Invasion

In this post I'm going to talk about my favourite British TV imports. I was first really introduced to British television by American public television in the 1970s. For many years PBS was the go to location for British television and in many ways it still is, the major American networks have over the years co-opted many British programs and given them American twists, almost always producing an inferior product, but PBS has remained true it's vision of providing the originals. Here in Canada the Knowledge Network is a good source for original British programming .

When trying to create my listing of my favourite British television shows I came up with a very long list and then agonized over cutting it down to workable top ten, there were some obviously incredible shows that didn't make the cut and I'm sure there will be howls of "How could he leave off Downton Abbey or The Office or Poldark or Upstairs Downstairs or Dr. Who ......." . The answer is simple, the list is, as the title states, My highly personal list . Please feel free to comment on your own choices but this is mine, so here are my top 10.

Monthy Python's Flying Circus 1968-74

It was a surprise to me, given the brilliance of British comedy, that so many of my selections were dramas. Monthy Python was simply brilliant, as with all comedy they missed on occasion but rarely and when they hit they were huge hits. The list of Python sketches that were legendary is just too long to cover, but must include "The Spanish Inquisition", "The Dead Parrot" and "The Argument". It was black comedy and satire at it's best and spawned a couple of great films and an ongoing musical, despite going off the air over 40 years ago it can still be enjoyed today, and that's incredible for comedy. Available on DVD.

The Sweeney - 1974-78

A ground breaking show The Sweeney was the first "gritty" police drama to air in England, starring John Thaw, who will show up again later on this list, the show portrayed London policing as a dog eat dog procedure. The show aired at a time when the police force it portrayed, London's "Flying Squad" were under siege for bribery and violence, just the type of actions the show featured. Almost 40 years later the show is still very watchable. Available on DVD

Fawlty Towers - 1975 & 1979

Twelve episodes, that's it, and yet Fawlty Towers is stamped indelibly in the minds of a whole generation. The show, all 12 episodes, was named by the British Film Institute as the best British television show of all time.......just think about that, all told it's just a shade over six hours of running time yet it was judged the best television series ever made in Britain. The show was written by, and stars, John Cleese and his real life wife at the time Connie Booth, along with Prunella Scales as Cleese's wife on the show with the absurd brilliance of Andrew Sachs as Manuel and portrays the life of running a hotel in the seaside town of Torquay. It's brilliant and if you haven't seen it I don't want to hear from you until you have. Available on DVD

Minder - 1979-94

How to describe Minder ? Well it's a comedy/drama set in the world of the London's small time criminals. It is ostensibly about an ex-con and former boxer who with limited employment options comes to work protection and odd jobs for a small time crook, con man and used car broker, but it's really just a chance to revel in George Cole's performance as Arthur Daley, the small time crook in question. Daley is one of the great characters in television history and watching him is always a great pleasure. Available on DVD.

Blackadder - 1983-89

Long before Mr. Bean Rowan Atkinson created the comic personas of Edmund Blackadder. The four seasons of Blackadder show four different main characters, descended from one another, in four different historical eras, the middle ages, the Elizabethan era, the Regency era of the late 19th century and WWI. Each "Blackadder" deals with social issues and while the first one is a bumbler the later Blackadder's are shrewd and cunning. The show sheds light on society in its' particular era but is mostly just a showcase for Atkinson and his comic foil played by Tony Robinson. Available on DVD.

Lovejoy - 1986-94 

Lovejoy was a six season, 71 episode, series based on the books by Johnathan Gash, a nom de plume of medical doctor John Grant. Lovejoy is the name of the main character, played brilliantly by Ian McShane, an antiques dealer with less than high ethical standards always one step away from either bankruptcy or the knick. The series taught me a bunch about antiques and the industry but as with most of the television I like was more about writing and acting. The books are more graphic in their portrayal of sex and violence, neither of which play much part in the tv show. Available on DVD.

Inspector Morse - 1987-2000 

British television does police procedurals much, much better than North American television, concentrating on procedure and characters more than special effects and shoot 'em up. There are man, many great British police procedurals but to my mind the Inspector Morse series, 33 two hour episodes based on the books by Colin Dexter, are in a class of their own. Morse is played by John Thaw and it's one of those roles that you can't imagine any one else playing, Thaw was a tremendous actor who left us much too soon at the age of 60. Morse is a difficult, sarcastic, hard drinking, condescending, anti-feminist curmudgeon but his flaws are what make him so watchable. Available on DVD.

Prime Suspect - 1991-2006

Okay so maybe Morse isn't in a class of his own, he probably shares the class with Jane Tennison, the star of the 7 mini series of Prime Suspect . Tennison is played by Helen Mirren and even within the vast scope of Dame Helen's career I think Tennison may be her greatest role. As with Morse the Prime Suspect series deals in great detail with the lead character's life and flaws and over the course of the 7 seasons, each between 3 1/2 and 5 hours in length the series deals with massive social issues like sexism, racism, paedophilia, prostitution, child abuse and alcohol addiction. Each of the seven series stands on its' own merits but I would advise watching Prime Suspect 1 first to get a fuller understanding of Tennison's character.Available on DVD

Cracker - 1993-95

Three seasons, nine cases, 25 episodes and 2 tacked on "specials" of Robbie Coltrane creating one of the most memorable characters in television history, Edward "Fitz" Fitzgerald a criminal psychologist who works with the Manchester Police. The series takes its' name from the term used to describe criminal psychologists, "crackers" as they crack cases. Fitz is the classic anti-hero, in his own words "I drink too much, I smoke too much, I gamble too much. I am too much", in addition he is foul mouthed, sarcastic in terrible physical condition and an overall train wreck but he's brilliant and unbelievably enjoyable to watch. The show deals with a wide array of issues, not the least being the human mind. Available on DVD.

Luther - 2010-13

With only 14 episodes spread over three seasons it's tough to call Luther a series but if Idris Elba never becomes James Bond he'll still have DVI John Luther to hang his hat on. Luther is a brilliant detective driven by his work, he's violent, anti-social and probably psychotic but boy is he fun to watch. Anyone with a distrust of the police should probably not watch this show as it, well let's just say it doesn't show them in a positive light. Season four has been confirmed so there will be more Luther in our lives. Available on DVD.

There were a number of series that just missed this list, notable A touch of Frost, Yes Minister, The Fall, House of Cards and The Avengers but I'll stand with these ten for now.

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