TV  |  Lists

The 16 Best BBC TV Shows

August 23, 2012  |  10:21am

This week the BBC celebrated the 80th anniversary of their first experimental broadcast. While British television series typically only run for a few seasons, the UK network has managed to produce many beloved and enduring shows. While we Yanks may be limited to what’s available on BBC America or various streaming services, these programs (sorry, programmes) have successfully made the leap across the pond, leaving a lasting mark on transatlantic pop culture. To celebrate 80 years of the network, check out our 16 favorite BBC television series below.

16. Top Gear
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Creator: BBC
Stars: Jeremy Clarkson, Richard Hammond, James May
You don’t have to be a gearhead to appreciate this car show. Hosts Jeremy Clarkson, Richard Hammond and James May deliver enough humor to keep even the most casual fans interested, and the show’s races, challenges and features like Star in a Reasonably Priced Car keep the long-running series fresh.

15. Luther
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Creator: Neil Cross
Stars: Idris Elba, Warren Brown, Paul McGann
He may have made a name for himself as Stringer Bell on The Wire, but this series finds Idris Elba on the other side of the law, as Detective Chief Inspector John Luther. Elba recently took home an Emmy for Best Actor in a Miniseries for his portrayal of the genius Serious Crime Unit cop.

14. Top of the Pops
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Creator: Johnnie Stewart
Stars: Fearne Cotton, Reggie Yates, Jimmy Saville
With a staggering run of 2,212 episodes, Britain’s Top of the Pops reached nearly 100 countries at its peak, ensuring a steady stream of British music invading the rest of the world. While the show ended its regular run in 2006, the Christmas special has continued on. The first program on New Year’s Day, 1964, featured both The Rolling Stones and The Beatles.—Josh Jackson

13. Torchwood
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Creator: Russell T. Davies
Stars: John Barrowman, Eve Myles, Kai Owen
The show follows Captain Jack Harkness—a dashing, bisexual, immortal alien (John Barrowman). Along with his secret team of government agents, he protects the Earth from all sorts of intergalactic species—who always seem to make their way to the town of Cardiff, Wales.—Josh Jackson

12. Life on Mars
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Creators: Matthew Graham, Tony Jordan, Ashley Pharoah
Stars: John Simm, Philip Glenister and Liz White
Series One of this highly imaginitive UK show came out on DVD right when ABC was busy canceling the lesser American remake. Detective Sam Tyler (John Simm) is a Manchester police officer in 2003 who wakes up to find himself in 1973 after getting hit by a car. With no idea whether he’s “a time-traveler, a lunatic or lying in a hospital bed in 2006 and none of this is real,” he copes as best he can, trying to do police work without the benefits of modern technology. What makes the show great, though, is its exploration of misogyny and abuse of power on the ‘70s police force. Tyler’s modern sensibilities are at odds with the rest of the boys in the police department, particularly DCI Gene Hunt (Philip Glenister), who rides roughshod over suspects’ rights and well… anyone or anything else who stands between him and closing a case. As the show progresses, though Tyler keeps searching for his own truth, he starts to make the best of a strange situation.—Josh Jackson

11. Little Britain
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Creators: Matt Lucas, David Williams
Stars: Matt Lucas, David Williams, Tom Baker
The Office’s primary competition for awards and audience when both were searing embarrassing images onto retinas for the first time, Little Britain captures the madness beneath the stodgy British exterior and pushes the boundaries of sketch comedy (and good taste) to the limit. Where The Office was embarrassingly real, Little Britain is embarrassingly surreal, with eccentric characters like two on-the-dole friends (one of whom scams his way through life pretending to be confined to a wheelchair) and two 19th-century transvestites with prominent facial hair. Distasteful, cringeworthy, horrific and absolutely hilarious, Little Britain takes up where Canadian sketch show Kids in the Hall left off.—Leila Regan-Porter

10. Planet Earth
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Creator: BBC
Stars: David Attenborough (narrator)
Sure, we all walk about it on a daily basis, but Planet Earth—which was narrated by Sigourney Weaver and aired on the Discovery Channel in the US—got us to take a closer look at this rock we call home and all its wonders. The most expensive nature documentary ever commissioned by the BBC (and the first to be shot in HD), it’s since become a truly global phenomenon, airing in 130 different countries.

9. The Mighty Boosh
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Creators: Julian Barratt, Noel Fielding
Stars: Julian Barratt, Noel Fielding, Michael Fielding
The brainchild of comedians Noel Fielding (Vince Noir—the trendy, arty one) and Julian Barratt (Howard Moon—the nerdy, jazzy one), The Mighty Boosh is the latest in a long history of usually bizarre British comedy duos, with Fielding and Barratt managing to make the oddness of Little Britain’s Matt Lucas and David Walliams look positively sitcom-esque by comparison. And like the comedy of Little Britain and those that came before it, the worry might be, will Americans “get it”? But the wonderful concept behind The Boosh is that there isn’t anything to get. So don’t even try. Yes, there is a green bloke with a massive Polo mint (that’s Lifesavers to you Yanks) around his eye. Yes, there is a guy with a mailbox in his afro. Yes, there is a giant piece of bubblegum called Charley. Yes, there are Mod Wolves who dance in a snazzy retro number. Don’t ask why—you won’t get a reasonable response. It’s really just best to sit back, relax and take in the sights and sounds.—Leila Regan-Porter

8. Sherlock
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Creators: Mark Gatiss, Steven Moffat
Stars: Benedict Cumberbatch, Martin Freeman and Una Stubbs
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s classic sleuth stories have been adapted for the screen nearly too many times to count, but this version puts a contemporary spin on the tales, placing Sherlock Holmes (Benedict Cumberbatch) and the loyal Watson (Martin Freeman) in modern-day London.

7. The Young Ones
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Creators: Rik Mayall, Lise Mayer, Ben Elton
Stars: Adrian Edmonson, Rik Mayall, Nigel Planer
A punk, a hippie, an anarchist and a wannabe ladies’ man living together during their time at Scumbag University is the loose premise for this ‘80s sitcom. The show’s surreal humor, slapstick gags and frequent breaking of the fourth wall helped pave the way for more “alternative” comedy, and it even aired on MTV in 1986 as one of the network’s first non-music shows.

6. Later With Jools Holland
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Creator: BBC
Stars: Jools Holland, various artists
The spiritual heir to The Late Show, Later has been hosted by Squeeze co-founder and pianist Jools Holland since 1992. The show has become known for helping introduce new bands to the U.K. and has featured live performances from up-and-comers Anna Calvi, James Blake, Yuck, Wild Beasts and James Vincent McMorrow, as well as The Strokes, Fleet Foxes and Adele. Think of it as if you saved up all the best Fallon, Conan and Letterman music performances and aired them all back-to-back on a Friday night.—Josh Jackson

5. Blackadder
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Creators: Richard Curtis, Rowan Atkinson
Stars: Rowan Atkinson, Tony Robinson, Hugh Laurie, Stephen Fry
Leave it to the Brits to find humor in World War I. The fourth season of this show—which featured comedy heavyweights like Rowan Atkinson, Hugh Laurie and Stephen Fry—took place during that Great War, but each prior season was set in a different historical era, with the Blackadder cast poking fun at the Middle Ages, the Elizabethan age and the Regency period.

4. Fawlty Towers
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Creators: John Cleese, Connie Booth
Stars: John Cleese, Prunella Scales, Andrew Sachs
While we can’t say we’d ever want to stay at the titular hotel, run by the hapless Basil Fawlty (John Cleese), we sure do enjoy watching him struggle to maintain it. Cleese has said the show was inspired by his stay at the Gleneagles Hotel in Torquay and his encounters with its owner, Donald Sinclair, whom he’s described as “the most marvelously rude man I’ve ever met.”

3. Doctor Who
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Creator: Sydney Newman
Stars: William Hartnell, Patrick Troughton, Jon Pertwee
At least 11 actors have played the title role of the whimsical Timelord who travels the cosmos in a vehicle that resembles a blue police box—a mid-century English artifact that would’ve been long forgotten were it not for the show. Thanks to low budgets and poor video quality, most of the early seasons are real eyesores, but Russell T Davies’ 2005 revival brought Doctor Who into the 21st century with sci-fi spectacle, humor and an irrepressible spirit that puts Star Trek and Star Wars to shame.—Curt Holman

2. The Office
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Creators: Ricky Gervais, Stephen Merchant
Stars: Ricky Gervais, Martin Freeman, Mackenzie Crook
The American adaptation will finally ride off into the sunset after its ninth season this year, but the British series from which it drew its inspiration managed to squeeze all the awkward workplace scenarios one could hope for into just 12 episodes and a two-part Christmas special. The humor’s slightly darker than the American version, with more focus on characters’ dissatisfaction with their dead-end job at a paper company, and Ricky Gervais steals every scene he’s in as David Brent, the bumbling boss.

1. Monty Python’s Flying Circus
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Creators: John Cleese, Terry Gilliam, Graham Chapman, Eric Idle, Terry Jones, Michael Palin
Stars: John Cleese, Terry Gilliam, Graham Chapman, Eric Idle, Terry Jones, Michael Palin
It’s a comedy troupe so iconic and largely associated with its country of origin that star Eric Idle recently was featured in the Closing Ceremonies of the London Olympics, performing (of course) “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life.” Since the TV series’ original run, there have been movies, live shows and even a Broadway play—but the sketch comedy we’ve come to know and love for being “something completely different” all started on the BBC airwaves. It’s nearly impossible to choose a favorite sketch, but we managed to whittle it down to 20 of our favorites here.

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