Best British TV Shows of All Time


While streaming has largely led to people all over the world watching television regardless of nationality, British TV has its own flair beyond the accents of the characters, which makes it stand out from the rest — unique humor which differs from the world (especially that of Americans), shorter seasons of television, and dialogue, cinematography, and color palettes that give the audience a sense of Britishness, along with the general ways in which the characters conduct themselves and performances are crafted.


British television has been a favorite to Anglophiles and even casual fans for decades, and countless British shows have spawned massively successful American series, from The Office to Big Brother. Whether it be comedy, period drama, mystery, or dark thriller, each genre can reflect a facet of British society, especially in the best of these shows.

Though we already have lists of the best British comedy shows and some of Acorn’s best detective shows in the U.K., there is only room for so many series in a best-of list (and the following does not include news shows or the many funny British panel shows).

While there are several British miniseries that have also delighted audiences, amidst the vast litany of British TV, here are some favorites that are popular among audiences and critics.

Update December 16, 2023: Following Doctor Who‘s 60th anniversary special and the final season of The Crown dropping on Netflix, this list has been updated with more great British television series and where you can stream each title.


25 Derry Girls (2018 – 2022)

Derry Girls

Release Date
December 21, 2018

Cast
Saoirse-Monica Jackson , Louisa Harland , Tara Lynne O’Neill , Kathy Kiera Clarke , Tommy Tiernan

Derry Girls is a teen sitcom set during The Troubles. It follows the daily lives and juvenile misadventures of 16-year-old Erin Quinn and her weird but relatable friends, Michelle, Clare, Orla, and James, at a Catholic school in Derry, North Ireland. The bunch simply wants to live normal teen lives, but with a country being torn apart and under Sister Michael’s unforgiving gaze, they often end up in hilarious predicaments.

What Makes It Great?

One of the most underrated British TV shows of all time, Derry Girls paints an interesting picture of a dark time in history. It features flawed characters who are loyal and adorable. The witty one-liners, the distinct humor, and the sheer awkwardness of wanting to find your place in a world that is so senseless is what makes the show so relatable. The actors, like Jaime-Lee O’Donnell and Nicola Coughlan, are absolute gems who commit to their roles fully. Stream on Netflix

24 The Night Manager (2016)

Adapted from the 1993 novel of the same name by John le Carré, The Night Manager is an espionage thriller series that aired one season in 2016 and is currently rumored to have a surprise second season under development. The show stars Tom Hiddleston as Jonathan Pine, a former soldier brought back on the field by intelligence agent Angela Burr. He is tasked with working undercover at a lavish hotel in Zurich to get into the inner circle of an arms dealer and overthrow his powerful organization from within.

What Makes It Great?

Susanne Bier directs this incredibly immersive show. She does absolute justice to the moody and complex tone of Le Carré’s work. Hiddleston is already known to be a standard anti-hero, thanks to his MCU character Loki. In this outing, he commands the screen as a riveting soldier navigating the politics, alliances, betrayals, and seduction of his surroundings. From Morocco to Switzerland, the show transports you to several criminal empires and builds the kind of intrigue that is hard to get over. Stream on Prime Video

23 Sex Education (2019 – Present)

Sex Education

Sex Education is Netflix’s darling of a show that brings inclusivity, openness, and understanding to the table. The witty drama-comedy follows a 17-year-old, socially awkward high school student named Otis Milburn, whose sex therapist mother has often embarrassed him by being way too chill about discussing relationships and intimacy. Otis forms an alliance with the rebellious Maeve Wiley and decides to open an underground sex therapy clinic at school to earn some cash.

What Makes It Great?

Through its sensitive exploration of universal subjects, Sex Education brings joy, normalcy, and knowledge to the screen. Asa Butterfield and Emma Mackey lead the diverse ensemble of their well-written and empathetic classmates, played beautifully by Ncuti Gatwa, Connor Swindells, Mimi Keene, and Aimee Lou Wood. The best part of the series is its writing, which handles serious topics like consent, sexual fluidity, and self-pleasure with care and honesty. Overall, a big-hearted and uplifting coming-of-age drama. Stream on Netflix

22 Broadchurch (2013 – 2017)

Crime drama is a genre that has found a special spot in the heart and lives television lovers. Broadchurch feeds the same love by telling a complex yet intriguing story. The plot of the show is as follows – when a young boy is found dead on a beach in the titular coastal town, two detectives, Alec Hardy and Ellie Miller, are called upon to work together and uncover the truth.

What Makes It Great?

Ever since its debut, Broadchurch has triumphed as one of the most consistently fine British crime dramas. As a psychological thriller, the show delivers several mind-bending plot twists, beloved detective tropes, refreshing character studies, and a complex web of mysteries. The two main members of the cast, Olivia Colman and David Tennant, excel in their roles as individuals going through personal trauma while digging into a society that is built on a lie. Overall, Broadchurch is a realistic and addictive TV show.Stream on The Roku Channel

21 Mr. Bean (1990)

With Rowan Atkinson taking the lead as Bean, this British sitcom has been an all-time favorite among comedy fans for decades. The show follows a childish protagonist who, due to his simplistic nature, tends to create unusual and needlessly difficult scenarios out of basic, everyday tasks. The popularity of Mr. Bean lies in the uncomplicated nature of the sitcom, which takes slapstick and silent-era comedy and updates it for a modern audience in a very simple but pure and delightful way.

Related: The Best British Television of the 2000s

What Makes It Great?

The daily life of Mr. Bean adds much-needed laughter to the viewer’s life. Even with almost no dialogue, the show gained fame across the globe. In more recent news, Rowan Atkinson has confessed that playing Mr. Bean is stressful and exhausting, and as such, his next Mr. Bean movie will likely be an animated feature. Meanwhile, fans can watch the actor flex his comedy chops once again after quite some time with Atkinson’s new series Man vs. Bee. Stream on Hulu

20 The Office UK (2001 – 2003)

The Office starring Ricky Gervais and Martin Freeman aired from 2001-2003 and inspired the immensely popular American remake starring Steve Carell. The synopsis of the British version is largely the same as that of its American counterpart (the latter of which essentially replicated its pilot), but it’s a tonally different show, with much more cynicism and cringe. Gervais plays the obnoxious and foolish manager of the Wernham Hogg paper company, David Brent, who has agreed to participate in an office documentary.

What Makes It Great?

Martin Freeman stars as Tim Canterbury, who shares the same will-they-or-wont-they tension with co-worker Dawn Tinsley (Lucy Davis) as the American version’s Jim and Pam. Despite its 14-episode run, the show was lauded with awards and praise, including two Golden Globes and a BAFTA. It not only helped launch the careers of several of its stars, but essentially redefined comedy for the 21st century, shifting the sitcom into more mockumentary styles. ​​​​​​​Stream on Hulu

19 Midsomer Murders (1997 – Present)

midsomer murders

Midsomer Murders

Release Date
March 22, 1998

Cast
Neil Dudgeon , Annette Badland

Airing in the UK since 1997, Midsomer Murders has been a longstanding favorite British TV show for fans of the crime drama genre. The series depicts the drama that unfolds in the fictional English county of Midsomer, where the fictitious Midsomer police force led by Detective Chief Inspector Barnaby investigates a slew of crimes, murders, and cases.

What Makes It Great?

The show is an adaptation of a crime novel series of books by author Caroline Graham of the same name and is perhaps known best for its mystery with a tinge of dark humor and an intriguing take on all the havoc that ensues in the thought-up English country. The show has been running for 23 seasons to date and is a British TV series known for its longevity that has innovated and stood the test of time making it a widely popular show in the UK that also draws a large audience returning to watch the drama that contrives to unfold. ​​​​​​​Stream on The Roku Channel

18 The Tudors (2007 – 2010)

Based primarily on the times during the reign of King Henry VIII, The Tudors created by Michael Hirst explores the Tudor family and the life and drama of their rule set in 16th-century England. The series depicts a dramatized portrayal of the Tudor family, and although critics suggested that it swapped the larger landscape and perspective of their rule for personal and selfish narratives.

What Makes It Great?

It still, however, remains one of the most-watched British TV shows of its era. Propelled by a Golden Globe-nominated performance by Jonathan Rhys Meyers and a slew of authentic renditions, the series echoes the boiling pot of mid-16th century England and the annals and storylines of the royals of that time in history, which makes for a worthwhile binge. ​Stream on Prime Video

17 Happy Valley (2014 – 2023)

Created by Sally Wainright, Happy Valley is a crime TV series centered around the region of Calder Valley, in West Yorkshire, England. The show follows the exploits of police officer Catherine Cawood (Sarah Lancashire) who is in the thick of the action in her job as a law enforcer in the region. The series explores how the central character Cawood manages to do her police duties extraordinarily well despite having to grapple with a turbulent personal life, dealing with divorce, and having to raise two children.

What Makes It Great?

The show has specifically drawn positive receptions for its realism and inventive depictions of what would otherwise be regular police investigative procedures. Happy Valley has on average about 8.2 million viewers from the UK and is a largely popular show that most fans from the UK rate highly. ​​​​​​​Stream on AMC+

16 Only Fools and Horses (1981 – 2003)

David Jason and Nicholas Lyndhurst star as South London trader brothers Derek “Del Boy” and Rodney Trotter in the hilarious sitcom Only Fools and Horses, in which the mismatched duo attempt to become powerful millionaires through various get-rich-quick schemes that always go comically awry. The series debuted in 1981 and though it initially was met with little fanfare, eventually went on to become ratings gold and amassed a passionate fan following, spawning seven universally lauded seasons.

What Makes It Great?

The celebrated program went on to set the record for the highest UK audience for a sitcom episode in 1996, attracting a whopping 24.3 million viewers for its Christmas special. Only Fools and Horses also had a profound impact on British pop culture, with many of Del Boy’s sidesplitting catchphrases becoming go-to expressions within the English language. In a 2004 BBC poll, the comedy was voted Britain’s Best Sitcom and remains a beloved hit.​​​​​​​ Stream on Britbox.

15 Skins (2007 – 2013)

Skins

Skins

Release Date
January 25, 2007

Skins is a gritty teen drama with an infusion of comedy that became quite popular across the globe, with MTV coming up with an American remake of this British show. What gave Skins worldwide recognition is the show’s ability to display typical and otherwise banal teenage problems in a comical but realistic manner.

What Makes It Great?

This show was a game changer for teen dramas, laying the foundation for many TV series that presented the controversial but honest topics which many teenagers face, the ones adults have always felt too awkward to address. Thus, Skins remains an all-time favorite amongst viewers who grew up and learned with it. ​​​​​​​Stream on Hulu

14 Misfits (2009 – 2013)

misfits

misfits

Release Date
November 12, 2009

Cast
Karla Crome , Shaun Dooley

Misfits is yet another unconventional TV show about youth that made its way to the U.S. However, Misfits was broadcast on Logo in its original form in the States rather than a remake, to the delight of many fans. The story follows a group of young convicts who gain supernatural powers whilst they were serving their sentence.

What Makes It Great?

What makes Misfits stand out from the famous American superhero shows of its time (Heroes, Arrow, Smallville) is its incorporation of humor by making the superpowers comical. In this way, the show was truly ahead of its time; currently, satirical superhero titles (The Boys, Deadpool, Peacemaker) are pretty commonplace. Regardless of its influence, Misfits remained an incredibly exciting and fun show throughout the entirety of its run. Stream on Hulu

13 The Crown (2016 – 2023)

Created by Peter Morgan, The Crown is a historical drama piece that gained much popularity on Netflix. The show follows the whole reign of the current monarch of the United Kingdom, Queen Elizabeth II, while giving the viewers an idea of what goes on behind the closed gates of the palace. The inclusion of some award-winning stars like Olivia Colman, Helena Bonham Carter, Claire Foy, and Gillian Anderson alongside more novice actors like Emma Corrin makes the drama exceptional, with these actors serving some of the best performances.

What Makes It Great?

It doesn’t get more quintessentially British than the monarchic power structures of royalty, and The Crown is unique in how it chronicles multiple generations of the royal family, employing different actors along the way. Humayan Saeed stars in season five of The Crown playing Princess Diana’s companion, Dr. Hasnat Khan. Considering the tabloid scandals and intense drama of this period in Queen Elizabeth II’s life, the fifth season is incredibly gripping. The series recently wrapped up it’s incredible six season run. ​​​​​​​Stream on Netflix

12 Spaced (1999 – 2001)

Spaced

Spaced

Release Date
September 1, 1999

Back when comic books were relegated to the realm of nerds, before various mediums of geekiness (video games, superhero movies, manga) became mainstream, common, and successful, and before Simon Pegg, Nick Frost, and Edgar Wright introduced the world to Shaun of the Dead and other films, there was Spaced.

What Makes It Great?

Extremely ahead of its time, Wright directs this fast-paced, hyperactive, hilarious blend of genres, incorporating horror, sci-fi, and romance cliches into what’s essentially a working-class sitcom about two people (Simon Pegg and Jessica Stevenson) and their friends (British comedy royalty Nick Frost, Mark Heap, Julia Deakin). Spaced gave these people a start, and though short-lived, remains one of the funniest, coolest, and most original TV shows of all time. Stream on The Roku Channel

11 Utopia (2013 – 2014)

utopia

utopia

Release Date
September 7, 2014

Main Genre
Reality TV

Arguably one of the most underrated television series of all time, Utopia is a paranoid conspiracy thriller about a shady government agency hunting down a rare graphic novel that may contain incriminating evidence and scientific codes, and the die-hard fans who stumble across the comics and get involved in a massive, dangerous conspiracy. The two-season show is simultaneously dark and morbid as hell but also visually vibrant and bright, with incredible cinematography and music.

What Makes It Great?

Its narrative twists and turns are brilliant, as are its performances, especially Fiona O’Shaughnessy as the mysterious butt-kicking loner Jessica Hyde, Adeel Akhtar as the off-the-grid conspiracy theory believer Wilson Wilson, and the great Neil Maskell as Arby, the intimidating, mentally disturbed assassin. This is yet another British series that Americans have tried to remake, but even Gone Girl‘s Gillian Flynn and HBO couldn’t make it work; the original 2013 Utopia is a true masterpiece. ​​​​​​​Stream on Prime Video

10 Killing Eve (2018 – 2022)

Killing Eve is a devilishly entertaining British spy drama about an MI6 agent on the hunt for a maniacal yet surprisingly likable assassin called Villanelle. Jodie Comer is brilliant in the role of the sociopathic Villanelle, giving her an endearing quality that viewers can’t help but root for. Sandra Oh is dryly funny but quietly intense as always in her role as MI5 agent Eve Polastri, whose personal life falls to shambles when she begins to obsess over catching the elusive assassin.

What Makes It Great?

Despite Villanelle and Eve’s toxic relationship, the two lead actresses still managed to captivate audiences with their undeniable chemistry, winning every TV award imaginable. Killing Eve quickly rose to become one of the BBC’s most popular shows, and as it aired on BBC America, became arguably the biggest British show in the States of the past several years. Killing Eve’s fourth and final season was released on the BBC in February 2022. ​​​​​​​Stream on AMC+

9 Downton Abbey (2010 – 2015)

Another historical drama series that is set in a massive estate, Downton Abbey has received many accolades throughout its long run, gaining the title of the “highest critical review ratings for a TV show” at the time in the Guinness World Records. The show details the lives of an entitled family and follows their relationships as they encounter significant historical events like the sinking of the Titanic and World War I.

What Makes It Great?

Putting well-written fiction within historical realities has become a favorite way of depicting culture and historical moments (especially very English ones), and Downton Abbey does it better than almost any other show. The inclusion of Dame Maggie Smith is always a definite plus point, too. ​​​​​​​Stream on Prime Video

8 Blackadder (1982 – 1983)

Co-created by Richard Curtis (the Love Actually and Notting Hill director who had his hand in several of the best UK comedy shows, including Not the Nine O’Clock News, The Vicar of Dibley, and Spitting Image) and Rowan Atkinson (Mr. Bean, The Thin Blue Line), Blackadder is rightfully considered to be an important TV masterpiece. The series was split into multiple period pieces, following the titular scoundrel Edmund Blackadder through different parts of history.

What Makes It Great?

Maintaining the same characteristics, each season places him in a different ridiculous context (the British Middle Ages of the 15th century, the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, the Regency Era, World War I) and follows his scheming, arrogant ways. It’s an immensely clever historical show and one of the first great British comedies. ​​​​​​​Stream on Hulu

7 The Thick of It (2005 – 2012)

One of the most important television series of the 21st century, The Thick of It fundamentally transformed political comedy and introduced the world to some major talent; its creator (the great Armando Iannucci) and writers would go on to garner even more success with the very similar American series Veep, and its breakout star, Peter Capaldi, would go on to become Doctor Who.

What Makes It Great?

The hilariously profane The Thick of It essentially follows the misadventures and mistakes of various government agencies and political spin doctors as their miscommunications and screw-ups lead them down the road to disaster and ultimately illegal activities. The Thick of It was infamous for its extremely imaginative and inventive (and constant) use of curse words and developed its ensemble cast of characters wonderfully towards a gripping conclusion that was surprisingly dramatic and profound for a comedy series.

6 Planet Earth (2006)

Planet Earth

Planet Earth

Release Date
March 5, 2006

Cast
David Attenborough

Main Genre
Family

Legendary broadcaster and historian David Attenborough narrated the breathtaking 2006 nature documentary series Planet Earth, which provides audiences with stunning images of the various biomes that make up the world, treating them to close-up footage of places like the Sahara desert, Amazon rainforest and Baltoro Glacier and all the diverse creatures that dwell within them. Viewers were able to be transported to these wondrous habitats from the comfort of their couches, listening along as Attenborough discusses each in fantastic detail.

What Makes It Great?

Planet Earth was a massive hit with both audiences and critics and went on to win numerous prestigious accolades including a Peabody Award and four Emmys, as well as the Science and History award from the Royal Television Society Programme. The series spawned multiple spin-offs and sequels like Planet Earth Part II and Frozen Planet, with The Guardian placing it on their list of the 100 Best TV Shows of the 21st Century. ​​​​​​​Stream on Max



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