Television drama is, of course, what this site is all about so it makes sense to have some sort of roll-call of the best. And here it is.
Now, first, some disclaimers: this is entirely opinion-based. I would love to hear the ways in which your list differs or tallies with mine, so whether you agree or disagree please comment below. I hope I make an informed judgement given the amount I know about the subject and the amount I have watched.
I am defining “best”, that murky, tricky word, as the “best all-round”, so that factors in everything: how well-written it is, but also direction, cast, entertainment value, marketing even, everything. Ultimately what trumps it for me is how well-written it is, but your priority may differ.
This wasn’t easy. There are a hell of a lot of dramas and not many spaces. I’m comparing things as different as a science-fiction adventures and one-off Wednesday plays. Honourable mentions go to The Shadow Line, Sherlock and Lipstick on Your Collar none of which quite made the cut. Further honourable mentions go to the tons and tons of others that probably deserved to but didn’t either. (No honourable mentions go to Eldorado. You fully deserved not to make the cut.)
15. Call the Midwife (BBC) (2012-)
Call the Midwife is a show so unassuming, so kind and meek, that it would be like kicking a puppy to not include it on this list. But it utterly utterly deserves its place because, while you think it’s kind and unassuming, it’s in fact growing and growing into a monster hit. The very Poplar (see what I did there?) mainstream Sunday night drama was the BBC’s biggest drama launch for ten years, and unsurprisingly so – it has a glorious cast led by Jessica Raine and two of Britain’s best-loved comediennes, Miranda Hart and Pam Ferris. Add Jenny Agutter of Railway Children fame into the mix and you have a British institution in the making!
It’s just about births, and life, and joy. There’s never a sour taste left in the mouth – that doesn’t mean there’s no tragedy, but it’s tragedy soothed and tinged by humility and humanity. It’s slow and sentimental, but so cathartic. Indulgent television at its very best – TV can’t and shouldn’t be anger and crime all the time.
For my articles on Poplar, questioning the decision to carry on after Raine’s exit (http://wp.me/p3KHHr-id), a short review of the 2013 Christmas Special (http://wp.me/p3KHHr-gg) and a discussion on the feminism of the series (http://wp.me/p3KHHr-K) click the links!
14. Upstairs, Downstairs (LWT/BBC) (1971-1975, 2010-2012)
The reason Upstairs, Downstairs earns a place on this list is not because it honed a new and extremely popular TV genre, or because, with deft characterisation and well-structured story arcs, specifically in the revived series, it proved itself to be a strong TV drama. It earns its place because of the way in the which 165 Eaton Place was shaped into a vehicle for all sorts of good quality stories. In its original five year run, viewers watched characters develop and deepen leading to a stunning finale, and iconic moments such as one of the first televised suicides, the homosexual waiter’s shock return, the war set-pieces and so forth. It also provided sometimes light-hearted but always entertaining stories-of-the-week. In short, Upstairs, Downstairs did everything good television should do. The whole country watched some of their best-loved characters navigate some of the most difficult and formative years of the twentieth century.
And at the heart of it all is the stunning Jean Marsh as Rose Buck… It was she who guided us, and Pauline Collins, into this world way back in 1971, and it was she who took a whole new generation back into this world in 2010. Her absence from the second revived series proved just how instrumental she was to the show’s success, but even then she turned up and with a twinkle, stole the show. I really hope this isn’t the last the world has seen of 165 Eaton Place.
13. Luther (BBC) (2010-2013)
Granted, it’s only just come to a close, so still glowing from the third series it’s perhaps unsurprising to see John Luther make an appearance in the list. But Neil Cross’s breathless, revolutionary crime drama does a lot to earn its place. A stunning cast led by the fascinating Idris Elba, Luther is man and yet child, genius and yet fallible, and quite possibly genuinely on the side of the Devil. Series 1 was excellent, but it was in the two x two-part stories of Series 2 and 3 that it really found its groove. The ultimate police procedural – it will be missed.
For my episode-by-episode reviews of Luther Series 3 go to: https://grahameveleigh.wordpress.com/category/luther/
12. Karaoke and Cold Lazarus (BBC/C4) (1996)
Dennis Potter knew he was dying, and this is what he wrote.
It could have flopped. But we should have known that a writer of Potter’s calibre was incapable of doing so. He gave us two incredible but very different 4-part series, telling the same story but pulling in opposite directions, and yet both expressing ideas of living through writing, and writing through death. Karaoke tells the story of writer Daniel Feeld, who finds himself in the bizarre position of having people around him speak his dialogue to him, whilst his film of the same name is navigating the tricky throes of post-production. The series culminates in his death – he was dying throughout – which spins us off into the curious world of Cold Lazarus: a dystopian sci-fi romp, set three hundred years in the future, in which a research centre is working on reviving the mind of our very own Daniel Feeld, with disastrous consequences.
Karaoke works because its premise is so breath-taking and believable, while Cold Lazarus works because it is not quite unbelievable; the world in which it is set is supremely well thought-through, and Potter’s usual sparkle is in evidence, it’s just this time that flawless dialogue is spoken around pools in strange leotards. Lazarus is completely the last thing we expect from Potter in so many ways, and is all the more impressive and fitting because of it. The dramas also achieve the impossible and unite BBC and Channel 4 in a co-production, which seems to only benefit it; when the fruits are this good, I for one am calling for another co-production of this sort post-haste.
When it ends, we know what that means – here is a show one really can’t separate from biography – and it’s devastating, and appropriate. Everybody from Renny Rye, to Frances de la Tour (who just can’t put a foot wrong, it seems) to the star, Albert Finney, to Potter, of course… But I’ll stop now, in case his dying wish was the same as Feeld’s: “No…. biography…..”
11. Casanova (BBC) (2005)
Adaptations on television usually follow one of two routes – either they stick fairly religiously to the source material, or they aim to evoke the ‘feel’ of the text but play fast and loose with the details. Well, no term could better describe Casanova than “fast and loose”, and it is a masterclass in evocation.
Some of Giacomo Casanova’s brilliant memoirs to make it to screen – the romance with the Castrato, Bellino, sex with nuns, the duel and breaking out of prison – but actually where Casanova is at its best is when it diverts. Casanova invented the lottery! (Almost true.) Rupert-Penry Jones’ Duke of Grimani crops up at every turn! (Not true.) Henriette was his one true love! (Not even slightly true.) Rocco is his closest and dearest companion! (Shaun Parkes’ character is complete fabrication.) The cast is brilliant on both sides of the narrative – we dip effortlessly between Young and Old Casanova, with special mention to Peter O’Toole and Rose Byrne who dazzle in a dour castle. Writer Russell T Davies cherry-picks the best bits, exemplifies the flourishes and dims the dull notes, and spins an intoxicating, witty, fun, dynamic drama, with a fun and dynamic lead in David Tennant.
10. Life on Mars and Ashes to Ashes (BBC) (2006-2007, 2008-2010)
It’s a bonkers and yet brilliant premise: a Manchester cop is in a car accident and wakes up in 1973. Is he mad, in a coma, or back in time? And we really don’t know which or why until finally that huge secret was revealed at the end of sequel Ashes to Ashes, which saw a London cop experience the same, but suffer the slightly worse fate of the 1980s.
I’m being facetious; both periods are excellent and excellently evoked, with a bucket-load of nostalgia and a good balance of nods to televisual conventions without being too self-referential. Through flashbacks and montages, intriguing characters that offer new insights into these bizarre ‘alien’ worlds, and gripping arcs often involving past histories and family ties, they have it all, and they tell rollicking good police case stories weekly to boot. Bullish, of-his-time DCI Gene Hunt, played by Phillip Glenister, has become an icon and rightly so, but it is John Simm and Keeley Hawes as our disorientated detectives that truly steal the show, backed by fantastic recurring casts.
Life on Mars is the critic’s choice, but Ashes to Ashes’ arcs, I find, are more daring and thus satisfying – who could forget that car bomb? Both series were unforgettable, finely-structured and above all, incredibly imaginative. It is the highest compliment to say that they are irreplaceable – utterly unique.
9. State of Play (BBC) (2003)
So everyone thought the days of intelligent, thought-provoking, slick delves into political undercurrents and back-stabbings were a thing of the (‘80s) past. Then came Paul Abbot – an astonishingly good writer – to prove us wrong.
The assistant and bit-on-the-side of an ascending MP (played by David Morrissey) is assassinated on the morning that a supposed thug from an estate is too. John Simm plays a journalist who catches hold of the story and won’t let go, unravelling it until it reaches startling revelations about the MP, his old friend, and the government, and the ethics of us as a society, and more. State of Play, even though it’s ten years old now, drips modernity, partially thanks to director David Yates, of Harry Potter fame. And there is beauty afoot; it’s not the big, noisy political scandals and sweeping shots of London skyline that grabs the audience, it’s the small touches. When the policeman who always has trouble with his laces is sprawled, dead, the camera lingers on his laces… still untied. No ‘best’ list would be complete without this demonstration of flawless drama. Plus – James McAvoy, Deborah Findley, Amelia Bullmore, Kelly MacDonald, Marc Warren and the mighty Bill Nighy. Need I say more.
8. Abigail’s Party (BBC) (1977)
Abigail’s Party would deserve a place on this list for Alison Steadman’s performance as Beverly alone. It is true that that is the main thing to love here (who can forget her utterly unique pronunciation of “Laurence!”), but there is a lot else of merit in Mike Leigh’s excellent play-turned-TV-play. It’s stunningly accurate depiction of middle class social life and clever comparisons of ‘parties’ come paired with memorable characters and naturalistic dialogue. Although it would be true to call it a cheat to list it here, as it is, in style and execution, a stageplay, we should just be grateful that it graced our screens as well. A genuine slice of social history as well as amazing television.
7. Talking Heads (BBC) (1988, 1998)
Even if the stories themselves had been poor, Talking Heads would deserve this place for innovation in the format alone. After the bang-bang-shoot-‘em-driven drama of the 1980s, Alan Bennett’s piece has a hint of the reactionary: it’s just characters, sat on stalls, talking to camera, and ultimately revealing more than they planned…
The cast are the biggest stars one could imagine – and rightfully so, not a single performance fails. Patricia Routledge, Julia Walters, Thora Hird, Maggie Smith and Bennett himself… Another of the series’ achievements is that the quality in no way dipped when it returned ten years later, contrary to sequel tradition. And everyone has their favourites, but who can say that A Chip in the Sugar, A Lady of Letters, Waiting for the Telegram and Walters’ Her Big Chance are not the crème de la crème? The way Walters’ character Lesley conveys to us everyone else’s opinion of her, her opinion of her, and her true opinion of her at the same time always astounds me. No one writes characters better, and no characters are better, than here. An essential watch.
6. The Second Coming (ITV) (2003)
Another Russell T Davies and Red Production entry, The Second Coming has one of those central concepts that just make you sit up and listen – or, more accurately, sit down at 9pm and watch. What if Jesus Christ returned? It was foretold. What would happen if that happened, if he was an ordinary man from Manchester, in this day and age?
What follows is two special episodes of brilliance, in which every facet of this tumultuous new world is explored. It is like a docudrama, and that is why it works so well. If it happened he would have to prove it on a massive scale. He would have dissenters and overzealous worshippers. It would lead to an internal crisis for his father. It would cause his would-be lover and him a world of problems – and it’s this strand that engages us the most, thanks to the acting powerhouses Christopher Eccleston and Lesley Sharp. The scene where he threatens to “stop” her “like that”, mid-tiff, is one of the best and most horrifying scenes ever broadcast. Stephen Baxter aka Jesus Christ implores the world to write a Third Testament, but it asks more questions than it answers. Ultimately his existence asks more questions than it answers, so something must be done.
The resolution of the story is a work of genius, particularly the stilted and ethereal epilogue in the supermarket car park. That is Davies’ greatest trick: to have the end of the world come at a plate of pasta. Long may he continue providing us with TV gold.
5. Bob & Rose (ITV) (2001)
From the theme music onwards, Bob & Rose, it’s fair to say, is not particularly innovative. But it is, by far, the best example of a drama of its kind. Heart-warming, hilarious, heart-breaking: Bob is gay, Bob meets Rose, Rose falls in love but… Bob does too!
But Russell T Davies’ six-parter is not a story of the turmoil of a gay, it’s a celebration of romance of any form. Special mention goes to Alan Davies and Lesley Sharp, our leads, but also to Nicola Shindler, who is Davies’ right-hand woman – to a degree, an unsung hero. Penelope Wilton shines the brightest here, however: the end of episode 4, in which Wilton’s character rallies onlookers to “STOP THAT BUS!” is the uncontested greatest moment in television drama. And I mean that. Anyone who doesn’t cry is heartless (or perhaps homophobic) and anyone that hasn’t seen it needs to right away! It is just one sequence in a fantastic love story but by God, it is smashing.
4. Doctor Who (BBC) (1963-1989, 1996, 2005-)
It’s one of the longest-running and most successful dramas of all time, but because of its toe-dipping in an almost niche genre (come on, it’s not proper sci-fi!) it is sometimes overlooked in ‘serious’ lists like these. Doctor Who has all of time and space with which to play – perhaps the most innovative format of all these shows – and at its best it can be thrilling, funny, scary and heartbreaking within one scene. The iconic moments stack up: The Daleks barking “Exterminate!” The one with the giant slugs. Sarah Jane Smith with a spider on her back. The one where all the Doctors came together. Daleks going up the stairs! Daleks versus Cybermen. “Don’t blink!” Rose and the Doctor, other sides of a wall. That stunning fiftieth anniversary special. The list goes on.
It must be said the quality of the drama really rocketed up since its revival, with arcs, with new-found honesty and emotional integrity when exploring the lives of companions, particularly under the stewardship of Russell T Davies. His name we may yet see again in this list…
Celebrate the Doctor’s 50th year with loads of special articles, reviews and countdowns here: https://grahameveleigh.wordpress.com/category/doctor-who/
3. The Singing Detective (BBC) (1986)
Its name is practically short-hand for “best drama”, and rightly so. Considered Dennis Potter’s masterpiece – although not my favourite of his work as you’ll see – this is the story of writer Phillip Marlow, who is hospitalised with a serious skin condition, and experiences flashbacks to his childhood but also drifts into his fantasy world: the detective novel that made his name, The Singing Detective.
Michael Gambon, to me, is initially actually the weakest link here, but then his character is supposed to grate. Maybe that is just a huge compliment to every other part of the production, that they outshine such an esteemed actor. This drama is disorientating, it’s woozy, it’s devilishly clever, highly sexualised and effortlessly classy. We glide among three separate strands and slowly tie them up, but never obviously, never gauchely. Best of all, The Singing Detective establishes a whole new way of drama:
“All solutions and no clues. That’s what the dumbheads want… I’d rather it was the other way round. All clues, no solutions. That’s the way things really are.”
2. Brimstone & Treacle (BBC/C4) (1976/1987)
Missing out on the top spot by an absolute whisker is fitting for Brimstone & Treacle as it almost missed being broadcast by a whisker too. Considered too violent by the BBC, its transmission was held off for over a decade. A one-off play by, again, the superlative Dennis Potter, it tells the story of a girl who has been paralysed in an accident, a family in turmoil because of their fractious relationships as much as the situation, and a demon-like-God (yes that makes sense) who comes knocking on their door…
This drama is not for the faint-hearted, it is true, but there is reason behind its strong, stomach-turning plotting. Michael Kitchen as Martin Taylor, the visitor at the homestead, is impishly camp and childishly devious, and a lot of what is great here is that he is very charming, and he does pull you in. In fact I’d go as far as to say it wouldn’t work if he was too supernatural – his extraordinary aptitude for human persuasion is far more damning and daring. For the most shattering depiction of humanity and morality, look here. For the true extent of what drama can do, look here.
If not, look away.
1. Queer as Folk (C4) (1999-2000)
Russell T Davies’ award-winning, break-out series about three gay men in Manchester trumps them all.
To be fair to our other contenders, it has in its favour the fact it was doing something new – finally representing gay men on television in leading roles – but that is not to say there is little merit in the show itself. With the most honest dialogue ever uttered on television, a perfectly honed tone in which cheap gags and real pathos are both expected and allowed, and truly engaging characters, these half-hour episodes will have you begging for more.
Thankfully, more was granted, and Stuart and Vince’s touching unrequited love story, the story of Stuart’s hedonism and lack of consequences, and naïve Nathan’s flying the nest are all rounded off in the wonderful conclusion Queer as Folk 2. Denise Black… the joke about Jill Dando… the funeral episode… the courteous nod to ‘gay issues’ and then going, ‘actually, we don’t have issues’… those beautiful, glistening shots of Canal Street…
Euphorically good – and that’s what I want from television.
Luther, Brimstone & Treacle, Doctor Who and Queer as Folk are all analysed in my article on violence in TV drama. Take a look? https://grahameveleigh.wordpress.com/2013/07/29/is-there-too-much-violence-in-british-television-drama/