By Will Barber Taylor
For a while now, I’ve been pondering making writing a new article, a completely frank and honest list of what I think are the best TV shows of all time. Going from the content of my blog the positions of some shows may come as a surprise. Simply because they are low in the list doesn’t mean I don’t love them. So here goes, my top 21 shows ever made. Why 21? It is because I like to go one step beyond.
21: Batman: The Animated Series (1992 – 1995)
The best TV series depiction of Batman that has ever been seen is rather fittingly an animated programme. Brooding, beautifully drawn, intelligently written and wonderfully acted (Kevin Conroy’s gravelly Batman is one of animation’s best performances) Batman: The Animated Series is not only a much watch for comic book fans but also for fans of genuine animation. Before the days of CGI and ping pong balls all animated art had to be drawn and this could take weeks. However, even with this in mind and accounting for the tight production schedule the series was put on, Batman: The Animated Series features some of the most stunning drawing you will ever see.
20: Stella (2012 – present)
Ruth Jones is famed, of course, for her and James Corden’s famous BBC One series, Gavin and Stacey. However, it is Jones’s Stella which is the writer/actors true magnum opus. Set in a provincial Welsh town the series charts the life and adventures of single mum, Stella and the assorted residents of the town. Not only is the series genuinely laugh out loud funny but it is also incredibly touching. It builds on a style developed by The League of Gentlemen of the sketchcom variety and manages to perfect the format. Stella is a must see whether you have Sky or not and is one of the best comedy dramas produced in recent years.
19: Sherlock (2010 – present)
Set in the back drop of modern day London, Sherlock follows the adapted adventures of Sherlock Holmes and Dr John Watson as the two confront blackmailers, serial killers and all sorts of other various baddies taken directly from the Doyle originals. With a quick pace, sparkling dialogue, usually great plots and some of the best acting BBC One has seen in recent years, Sherlock is a programme that oozes a sense of craftsmanship and genuine fun felt by everyone involved.
18: Doctor Who (1963 – 1989, 1996, 2005 – present)
The ultimate in science fiction action: Doctor Who. It is a show that can go anywhere and anywhen and uses this to great dramatic effect. Doctor Who’s mode is constantly evolving and rather like the title character’s ability to change his face, every so often the show undergoes a radical change. This ability to change keeps the show constantly fresh and also makes sure that it will last forever. Which I think is what makes it is so special.
17: A Bit of Fry and Laurie (1989 – 1995)
Bitingly satirical, madly bizarre and genuinely wonderful, A Bit of Fry and Laurie is like Monty Python only better put together. Full to exploding with wit and a sheer sense of mischief, A Bit of Fry and Laurie is almost a handbook to sketch comedy, proving what can be done, how it should be done and when it should be done. The series uses expert timing and wordplay to make the most of its two stars great talent. A must watch for fans of sketch comedy.
16: Granada Television’s Sherlock Holmes Series (1984 – 1994)
Sherlock Holmes is a character who has been played by over 80 actors on film and television since his conception. For many however, his greatest incarnation can be seen in ITV’s landmark adaptation of Sherlock Holmes starring the great Jeremy Brett and Sherlock. Brett was a one off in turns of acting and fully portrayed the character’s many sides in all his glory. As Tom Baker remarked, Brett did seem as though he ingested the same seven percent solutions as his famous character. Brett rather like Tom Baker in a way managed to make the character his own because he really did believe he was Sherlock Holmes. If you want the most faithful adaption of Holmes on screen then watch the Granada series.
15: The League of Gentlemen (1999 – 2002)
One of the definite classics of English television comedy, The League of Gentlemen was ground breaking in its use of messing sketches with a sitcom feel. The League’s genius was to almost trick the audience into either thinking they were watching a sketch show or a sitcom when in fact they were watching both. In addition, The League managed to make the audience care about the caricatures they had created for the series and also conjure up comedy that packs a punch.
14: Psychoville (2009 – 2011)
Twisted, bizarre and brilliantly funny, Psychoville follows directly on from where The League left off. Created, written and staring two of the power houses behind The League of Gentlemen Reece Shearsmith and Steve Pemberton, the series follows the former inmates of a mental hospital who after a horrific incident at the hospital separated and went their separate ways. The show once again makes us feel sorry for the caricatures we were initially presented with and also shows off the acting talent of the two leads who play most of the main cast. Add in a wonderful story arc that links both series together and you have a fantastic demonstration why it is not good to judge a book by its cover.
13: Vexed (2010 – 2012)
Cruelly overlooked by brain dead, pandering, right wing reviewers, Vexed is a fantastically funny look at what happens when you put a loveable dick in charge of enforcing the law. The central character of Jack, played with true gusto by Toby Stephen is ironically a perfect parody of the type of reviews who hated Vexed. I wonder if there is some connection between these two things? Stephens manages to bounce off brilliantly with his other officers, played excellently by Lucy Punch and Miranda Raison respectively, and also with everyone else who comes into his view. Throwing his opinions around like a Daily Mail commentator, he gets shocked when not everyone agrees with his warped view of the world. Shame it got indefinitely put on hold due to bad scheduling and people who just didn’t get the joke.
12: Dirk Gently (2010 – 2012)
Another victim of bad scheduling and ultimately penny pinching (which lead to the author of this piece being quoted in The Daily Telegraph as “some fans”) Dirk Gently followed the adventures of Douglas Adam’s holistic detective and his sidekick McDuff as they attempted to discover the interconnectedness of all things and use this principal to solve crimes. Like Vexed, a show that was wonderfully scripted, acted and directed and that showed an alternative to the now well-trodden idea that all detectives shows have to be like Midsummer Murders. I still think they should bring it back.
11: Not The Nine O’Clock News (1979 -1982)
At the time that it was made Not The Nine O’Clock News was the equivalent of a kick up the groin to comedy. Compared with the then rather tame Two Ronnies and Morecombe and Wise, Not The Nine O’Clock News used biting satire to demonstrate what was really happening across late 70s and early 80s Britain. Featuring the four funniest comedians of their generation with writing from some of the best sketch writers of the late 20th Century, Not The Nine O’Clock News is still as fresh then as it is now. Indeed, the show seems even more relevant now seeing as the situation the country is in now is very similar to the time when the show was made.
10: The Prisoner (1967 – 1968)
“I’m not a number, I’m a free man!”
A line that echoed throughout history and help plant The Prisoner as one of the best shows ever made. Staring the incredible Patrick McGoohan as the titular Prisoner, the series charts the attempts of a former secret agent to escape a hellish Village ruled over by Number 2, a role which changes every week. As Number 2 and the rest of the prisoners attempt to extract information from The Prisoner (referred to throughout the series as Number 6). The series ends in one of the best and most disturbing finales in TV history which forced McGoohan to leave the country due to the outcry over the ending. The Prisoner is a show that might baffle you but it will also thrill you at the same time, just like the best television.
9: Blackadder (1983 – 1989)
The greatest British sitcom of all time, Blackadder is magnificent. Starring Rowan Atkinson as the dark, double crossing Blackadder, the series follows the descendants of the original Blackadder from the 1480s up until the middle of the First World War. The writing, cast and direction are all superb. The series is still as bang on with its satire and its slapstick comedy moving between both effortlessly. If you haven’t seen Blackadder, you haven’t lived.
8: Dancing On The Edge (2013)
After many years away from our screens, the master of writing Stephen Poliokoff returned in 2013 to BBC 2 with his best work yet, Dancing on The Edge. Starring Chiwetel Ejiofor (rightly tipped for an Oscar due to his stunning performance in 12 Years A Slave) the series follows a group of black musicians trying to break into the music industry in the 1920s. They are helped on their journey by an up and coming journalist (played to perfection by Matthew Goode) but things soon get a nasty turn when one of the singers is murdered. If you missed this fantastic series last year I would suggest that you buy it now on DVD.
7: Rumpole of The Bailey (1975 – 1992)
Beginning in the mid-70s and lasting till the early 1990s, Rumpole of The Bailey followed the adventures of the central character of Horace Rumpole as he embarks on various cases. Rumpole, because of his love of the criminal courts is the oldest junior barrister going. The great late Leo McKern (Number 2 in The Prisoner) plays the role with gusto truly becoming the character. When Rumpole put his whole heart into something you believe him utterly. The show is also fascinating from a legal point of view with Rumpole only taking defence work and normally only defending those in real need of his services. Brash, brilliant and bursting with energy, Rumpole of The Bailey is the best legal drama you will ever see. Or so says “She who must be obeyed”.
6: Campion (1989 – 1990)
Based on the novels by the author Margery Allingham, Campion follows the adventures of an aristocratic gentlemen adventurer simply known as Albert Campion (an assumed alias) and his butler, Lugg. Both characters are played to perfection by the unique duo of Peter Davison and Brian Glover as Campion and Lugg respectively. Campion was written by during the golden age of crime fiction, the time when toffs like Lord Peter Wimsey were immediately let into a crime scene if a murder had been committed. However, unlike Wimsey, Campion stands out both in the series and the novels as being far more interesting. Unlike Wimsey he is younger and thus far more energetic. Unlike Wimsey and rather like Holmes, he lives in a flat next to a police station. Again like Holmes he was an enigma, we don’t even know his real name. What makes Campion also stand out is its comedic elements, Davison and Glover bounce off each other wonderfully and have a great chemistry. For loves of crime and the 1920s, Campion is a must see.
5: Frasier (1993 – 2004)
Frasier is sitcom taken to a whole new level. Starring Kesley Grammer as the radio psychiatrist Dr Frasier Crane, the series follows Frasier’s various attempts to help people while combatting his father, Martin, whom Frasier sees as uncouth, Martin’s psychical therapist Daphne and his younger brother Niles. Flawless in its realism and writing, Frasier unlike a great deal of sitcoms, made you care about the characters. In a way it wasn’t really a sitcom but more of drama with chunks of sitcomness in the middle. Truly the best thing American TV has produced to date and one of the best series of all time that managed to keep fresh after an astoundingly long run.
4: Parade’s End (2012)
Based on the novel series by Ford Madox Ford and adapted by the one and only Sir Tom Stoppard, Parade’s End tells the story of a young gentlemen at the beginning of the 20th Century called Christopher Tietjens (Benedict Cumberbatch) who is seduced into marriage by Sylvia (played fantastically by Rebbeca Halls). He is also soon swept up into the world of feminist Valentine Wannop (brilliantly played by Adelaide Clemmens). Tietjens is forced to choose between the beautiful yet manipulative Sylvia or the adoring Valentine.
Parade’s End not only shows of a masterclass in acting from Benedict Cumberbatch, Rebecca Hall and Adelaide Clemmens but also tells a beautiful story. As each episode waltzes by you get a real sense of atmosphere and power that a lot of modern TV shows don’t possess. Stoppard’s adaptation brings the book series to life wonderfully and you have a true sense that while watching the programme you are in the early 1900s through to just after the end of the First World War. Genuinely brilliant programing.
3: City of Vice (2008)
Once upon a time the police didn’t exist. This programme is about the birth of the police force before Sir Robert Peel introduced them as the police. These constables were headed by Henry Fielding, author of Tom Jones and his blind brother John, both of them magistrates of Westminster.
Forget Cranford, Call The Midwife or anything else. This is real, dark, dirty, violent, destructive history at its best. Meshing real crimes with fiction, City of Vice is bold. In the first episode for instance, we discover about institutional paedophilia in the 18th Century and how the Bow Street Runners destroyed part of it.
The final episode is the best though. Containing one of the best pieces of TV drama you will ever see, Henry is kidnapped by an Irish Terrorist named Tom Jones (whom they put in prison in the previous episode). The episode centres on the Runners attempts to get Henry back safely and re capture Jones. Throughout the episode, we are made to question good and evil, democracy and chance, life and death. If you haven’t watched it I say you should go and buy the DVD right now.
Why the series never saw more episodes produced is beyond me. Once again because the series was of high quality, well written and wasn’t for “the general public” it got axed. Why, Channel Four did you get rid of your best TV show? It was a lot better than most of the crap you produce now.
2: Murder Rooms: The Dark Beginnings of Sherlock Holmes (2000 – 2001)
Everyone knows the stories of Sherlock Holmes, but what about the story of how he came to be? Murder Rooms: The Dark Beginnings of Sherlock Holmes shows a fictional origin for the character. Imagining the adventures of Dr Joseph Bell (one of the inspirations for Holmes and Doyle’s teacher in medical school) and Doyle, the series captivates us and takes us on a wonderful series of historical adventures. Richardson as Bell is phenomenal and gives a truly nuanced performance. Though, like a couple of series on this list, it was axed even though it was rather popular. I’d suggest you get the DVD of Murder Rooms and then weep quietly that none more were made.
Before we reach Number One, I’d like to make a few honourable mentions as to shows I love but that aren’t on the list. They are; Spitting Image (The President’s Brain Is Missing and the ones with Thatcher particularly), House of Cards (original series with Richardson as opposed to Spacey remake), The Quatermass Experiment (Both the 2005 adaptation and the original as superb), Paul Merton The Series (My school days were the happiest days of my life; which should give you some indication of the misery I’ve endured over the past twenty-five years. Need I say more?), Brass (The show that the North understood and the south didn’t), Endeavour (A show I’ve already written a full article about saying how good it is) and Casanova (Tennant and O’Toole shine in that as do the rest of the cast).
1: Cracker (1993 – 1995, 1996, 2006)
Cracker is without doubt not only regarded as one of the best crime series ever made but also I feel the best TV show ever made. Every episode feels unique and thrilling not just down to the great writing but everything else. The cast is flawless in their portrayal of the characters; the direction is beyond brilliant, the lighting is superb. Everything about it is carefully done and wonderfully put together. The crux of the series is, of course, like with many series its main star: Robbie Coltraine. Coltraine’s Fitz is akin to a TV Hamlet. The character is brooding, self-loathing, egotistical, withdrawn and generally depressed. Though Coltraine is most known for his work on the Harry Potter films if you want to see him really act then watch Cracker as he gives the best performance of his career and shows us the dark recesses of the human soul like no other person does.