Buried English TV Gems Worth Your Attention
Football/soccer, crisps/chips, jelly/jam debates aside—the UK and the USA relations are peachy when it comes to television and film, right? We may have our societal differences (despite not understanding the Superbowl until it gets to half-time and we see Beyoncé being a boss, and…gravy) but all’s good, all’s good! In terms of TV and film, we’ve had some excellent expats that you might have heard of, such as Hayley Atwell (Agent Carter), Tom Ellis (Lucifer), Ricky Whittle (The 100, soon-to-be American Gods), David Tennant (Jessica Jones) and film stars such as Carey Mulligan, Tom Hardy, Dames Judi Dench and Helen Mirren. Some shows have grown hugely popular across the pond such as Downton Abbey, Call the Midwife, Misfits, Doctor Who, and even US adaptations of British shows such as The Office, The Inbetweeners, and The Great British Bake Off (what would that be? The Great American Bake Off?). Most notably is the USA adaptation of ‘The Apprentice’, fronted by everyone’s devil of the moment, Mr. Donald Trump.
There is an acknowledgeable divide in British/USA humour and phrases. But with this article, we hope to bridge the gap in terms of television and encourage you to check out some genuinely amazing shows produced in Great Britain, that you may not have heard of or seen before—or perhaps you have, and that’s amazing!
Here’s a top-ten list (in no particular order) of shows that may be of interest to you lovely ladies and gentlemen, so grab a brew and let’s see if any of these are to your taste.
#1 LIFE ON MARS
Starring: John Simm, Philip Glenister, Liz White
John Simm may be a familiar face; if there are any Doctor Who fans here, you may recognize him as ‘The Master’ during David Tennant’s stint as the Doctor. And don’t worry: this is far better than the US version, in my humble opinion. It is in fact my favorite television series of all time. Simm stars as Sam Tyler, a modern-day detective who gets hit by a car and finds himself mysteriously transported back to the 1970’s in which he works—still as a detective—in a very different policing world. Glenister is Gene Hunt, the comedic foil of this series. In line with the period, he’s basically a disgusting character; he’s loud, disrespectful of his staff, unprofessional, a misogynist—but Sam and Gene develop a trust and bond with each other, and Liz White, who plays PC Annie, is gorgeously lovely and stands up for herself whenever Gene’s being a grade-A douche.
The main plot is for Sam to try and go home: throughout the entire two series, he’s wondering why and how he’s in the 1970’s, and how he can get back. Is this place even real? Is this some kind of purgatory? Answers come in trickles and droplets through the series as he works with Gene & co, and as he develops a sweet, tender romance with Annie. In the last episode, Sam seemingly finds these answers—and he’s got a choice to make now. Does he go back home where he belongs? Has that definition changed? But the endearing thing about this show is that it’s not just focused on Sam’s frantic search for answers: it also develops the characters he meets in the police force, and their relationships, along the way. We grow to love them, faults and Gene Hunt and all. It truly is a genius piece of work in my opinion, and by far my favorite on the list—so if you want a good giggle and some frankly side-splitting one-liners to boot, check this series out. It’s two seasons of eight episodes, so it’s densely-packed and you’ll have to keep an eye out for certain clues—but it’s so, so worth the journey.
#2 PEAKY BLINDERS
Starring: Cillian Murphy, Annabelle Wallis, Helen McCrory, Tom Hardy
Peaky Blinders is about the true gangster family set in post-WWI Birmingham in England—the 20’s era. These guys were the real deal—they were called Peaky Blinders because they sewed razor-blades into the peaks of their caps—and the series revolves around boss Tommy Shelby (Cillian Murphy), who is ambitious, dangerous and intent on moving up in the world. He also has a damn nice haircut, and his mother is played by Helen McCrory, who you may recognize as Narcissa Malfoy from the Harry Potter series.
The Peaky Blinders are being put under investigation by Chief Inspector Campbell (Sam Neill), a detective from Belfast, where he’d been previously cleaning the city of the IRA and other gangs and criminals. He wants to find a shipment of guns meant to be illegally shipped to Libya, and upon arriving in Birmingham, with his protégé Grace (Annabelle Wallis) he’s going to do everything in his power to do his job. The show is exciting, dark, sexy, impeccably-plotted and a feast for the eyes. It’s real history (dramatized a little, of course) unfolding before you, and it is genuinely clever story-telling. It’s received wide critical acclaim and fairly so. It’s one of the best series going on at the moment, an epic if anything—so if you have the time, get stuck in! And as a Brit, I can say: their Brummie accents are on-point—and it is single-handedly the most difficult accent to master in England, for sure!
Starring: Colin Morgan, Bradley James, Katie McGrath, Angel Coulby, Anthony Stewart Head
Merlin is sheer, camp, delightful fun. It’s brilliant. The first few seasons start off as a wonderful romp through the Merlin universe as a young Merlin (Colin Morgan, ‘The Fall’) discovers his power and his destiny to protect and serve King Uther’s (Anthony Stewart Head, Buffy’s very own Giles!) son, Arthur (Bradley James—you may recognize him from ‘iZombie’). Along the way, Arthur falls for handmaiden Gwen (Angel Coulby) and his sister Morgana (Katie McGrath) is mischievous and clearly up to no good. There are your typical BBC 7-8pm timeslot scenes such as Arthur trying to cook a chicken for a romantic dinner with Gwen and King Uther kissing a troll—a literal troll—but overall, the series is an absolute delight if you’re looking for something fun, not to be taken too seriously (I find that these days, TV is rampant with grim and miserable shows).
That being said, it does get darker in its last season as King Arthur’s legend unravels. Arthur follows his destiny, Merlin reveals who he truly is, Morgana’s path to evil is well and truly set; Merlin and Arthur have to band together to save the world from Morgana’s plotting. But it’s still as exciting, gripping and yes, still campy as heck, as ever. It’s joyous, exciting and yes, it’s still camp as heck—and that’s what makes BBC’s Merlin so brilliant and a classic for sure.
#4 THE I.T. CROWD
Starring: Chris O’Dowd, Richard Ayoade, Katherine Parkinson, Matt Berry
To say The I.T. Crowd is about a bunch of three disastrous human beings is an absolute understatement. In standard E4 comedy format, these episodes are only very short (about twenty five minutes) but oh boy they are twenty-five minutes of sheer hilarity from beginning ’til the very end. I cannot stress how hard you will laugh at this series, and I believe it’s free to watch on 4OD on YouTube if you are interested at all. It is a very basic premise: in the basement of a very successful industry lies the office of the IT department, starring the immensely socially awkward Moss (Ayoade), shrill Irishman Roy (O’Dowd) and the hapless department manager, Jen (Parkinson). You may recognize O’Dowd as Kristin Wiig’s love interest in the smash-hit comedy Bridesmaids, but for me, this is where O’Dowd’s comedy steel comes into play.
What’s so inherently charming about this program is that it’s nothing extraordinary; there is no fantasy element to it at all. In fact, it’s so normal that it’s ridiculous—and that’s why it’s so stupidly funny, because there are scenes from this show that will stick in my head forever. Lines, such as the exasperated “have you tried turning it on and off again?” that will stay with me forever (because very often, turning your PC on and off again does work…). It is essentially a series about a trio of ridiculously inept people getting themselves wound in ridiculous scenarios that should be easy-going. Nobody should make a trip to the theater an absolute disaster, but Roy, Moss and Jen will (in probably one of the most hilarious episodes ever). I would really recommend this series to anyone who just wants a proper belly-laugh—it’s not hard to binge, in the days of binge-TV now, because the episodes are so short and the series is so addictive you will click episode after episode. I dare you not to laugh at the episode in which Jen tries to dump her date because he looks like a magician. I dare you not to laugh even once. It’s completely ridiculous, but good grief, it is so worth your time.
#5 THE INBETWEENERS
Starring: Simon Bird, Joe Thomas, James Buckley, Blake Harrison
The Inbetweeners focuses on the lives of four teenagers in high school: Will McKenzie (Simon Bird), a grade-A dork and “briefcase wanker”; Simon Cooper (Joe Thomas) who is perpetually hopeless at romance; Jay (James Buckley), your typical English ‘lad’ who thinks he’s big with all the ladies and finally Neil (Blake Harrison) who is dim-witted, good-natured and perhaps the only one of the four who can actually get girls. Their misfortunes aren’t all focused around girls, but they are hopeless. The first time Will has sex, it is atrocious and cringingly hilarious to watch—it’s so awkward—and when Simon has sex…I can’t even describe how much I laughed at that scene. The Inbetweeners exudes a kind of slapstick, ridiculous, idiotic humour—but it’s embarrassingly relatable. We all know that one kind who soiled their pants during an exam because of excessive consumption of energy drinks. We were all kids once who thought skiving off school was the coolest thing ever, as was the underage purchase of alcohol (a hysterically tragic scene in itself). The writers of the show have even said they’d taken their own experiences, or their friends’ experiences, and incorporated it into the show. If you watch it, you’ll understand what I mean. Despite how much of a disaster these four boys are, their circumstances have definitely happened to us at least once before.
What’s lovely about The Inbetweeners is that despite their fights, arguments and mockery of each other, they do remain the best of friends. They’re four utterly different people, but together they are comedy gold, and the series finale is heart-warming. It’s spurred two successful films and even a remake in the USA, but I’d implore you to watch the UK version first. It’s utter, laugh-out-loud hilarity and so, so relatable. Which makes idiots of all of us, huh?
Starring: Ricky Gervais, Ashley Jensen, a whole host of famous faces
Ricky Gervais may be known for The Office, or even Derek, or his—er—somewhat misconstrued attempt at hosting the Oscars, but perhaps an underrated series across the pond from Mr. Gervais is ‘Extras’. Extras focuses on an up-and-coming (well, not so much) actor attempting to navigate his way through the television and film industry. Along the way, he encounters many famous faces (perhaps one of the most memorable episodes was when Daniel Radcliffe guest-starred) and it is a typical, dry-humored jibe at the Hollywood industry in general, Gervais fashion. Maybe the most relevant and recent comparison I can make is ‘Episodes’, starring Matt LeBlanc—as himself.
It’s comedy, but as said before, it’s typical Mr. Gervais dry-humor comedy. It’s not slapstick humor on the same level as The Inbetweeners or The IT Crowd, but if you’re a fan of Ricky Gervais I would definitely recommend Extras. Out of the three he’s starred in, Extras is by far my favorite. There is a kind of subtlety to his humor and wit to the script that is somewhat of a gem, and as per typical British series fashion, there aren’t that many episodes/series to catch up on—so it’s very binge-worthy!
#7 ROBIN HOOD
Starring: Jonas Armstrong, Lucy Griffiths, Richard Armitage, Harry Lloyd
Robin Hood, as you may have guessed, revolves around the famous legend of Nottingham. Once a Crusader serving King Richard I, Robin of Locksley, a nobleman, and his right-hand man Much, return to find Nottingham cowering under the tyranny of the evil Sheriff (Keith Allen) and his henchman in leather (Richard Armitage). He also finds that his first and only love, Marion, detached from him and his heroics during the Crusades—in fact, the first meeting they have involves Marion wielding a longbow at him.
Like Merlin, its successor for the timeslot, it is every bit as camp and a genuinely jolly ride through the legend as we know it—much like Doctor Who’s humour. Some parts are hilariously unbelievable, some (most) parts just plain anachronistic but what I love about this series is that it has true heart. It’s nothing to be taken too seriously: it’s tuning in weekly to watch the hero save the day, struggle with winning his true love’s heart back, and the ever-plotting Sheriff coming up with grander schemes of evil. What’ll win you over are surely the characters. They are played so charmingly, especially Lady Marion (Lucy Griffiths) who had me hooked from her very first scene—let it be said: Marion can defend herself. It’s not groundbreaking or award-winning television, but it’s definitely worth your time—especially if you’re a sucker for the stereotypical English legend.
Starring: …The British population
I had to include a trashy one here. I had to. This show is literally a show that films families watching…television shows. That’s it. That’s the premise. It’s stupid and ridiculous but actually, it’s hilarious. Some of the comments the watchers burst out with is insanely hilarious, and you’d never think that a show in which you watch someone watch a show is actually entertaining but it’s got a whole host of characters, including a diverse family, two hilarious black ladies, two very sassy gay men and my favorite—the constant alcoholic duo of man and wife.
I think perhaps this is straying into the territory of us enjoying everybody else’s privacy a little too much. The premise is quite bland—why on earth would you want to watch a show that’s essentially somebody else’s reaction…to a show? To a show you’ve likely watched as well? But with the rampaging success of reaction videos on YouTube, I do think Gogglebox is rather topical, and for some reason, horrendously addictive. I’m not entirely sure why I enjoy their (often idiotic) commentary on television shows I rarely watch, but it has captured the British population, and it may do the same to your attention, too. It may also shatter any viewpoints of the British folk being all proper and Queen-like. Gogglebox will prove you horrendously wrong!
#9 LOST IN AUSTEN
Starring: Jemima Rooper, Alex Kingston, Elliot Cowan, Gemma Arterton, Tom Mison
I adored Lost in Austen and was lured into this charming four-parter by my love of Jane Austen’s ‘Pride and Prejudice’. The plot, essentially, is that Amanda Price (Jemima Rooper), a keen fan of the book too, swaps places through a secret doorway with Elizabeth Bennet (Gemma Arterton) who is curious to explore the future, whilst Amanda is ecstatic to live her fantasy world of Pride and Prejudice. What unfolds is hilarious. Amanda doesn’t know the customs of the nineteenth century, doesn’t know how to curtsey properly, can’t play the pianoforte, and just really doesn’t know how to act as a ‘proper lady’ of the time. During the infamous ball scene, she even knees Mr. Collins in the gonads and gets consequentially kicked out. It is a charming story of fitting into a world that’s clearly not your own, and getting used to it. Mr. Darcy (Elliot Cowan), who is the dream man every woman wants, is initially an absolute douchebag to her—and Amanda loathes him. The charm of this is watching Amanda wreck pretty much every storyline in the original book she loves so much, unwittingly. Mr. Bingley (Sleepy Hollow’s Tom Mison) even falls for her—but she rejects him, knowing Jane Bennet (Morvie Christie) loves him, by claiming more or less that she’s a lesbian. This leads Mr. Bingley to adorably utter perhaps the phrase of the series: “You mean… there really are ladies who… steer the punt from the Cambridge end?”
It’s a hilarious contrast of modern day versus nineteenth century conventions. For example, when Jane is sick in the books due to her walking to Mr. Bingley’s estate, Amanda visits her and nurses her to better health with paracetamol—’or acetaminophen’ to you folks—(Bingley: “Ms. Price must stay here—she’s the best possible nurse! She has palacaitomols!”). But essentially, it is an all-consuming love-story, and it’s a funny, heart-warming, sometimes heart-breaking, facepalm-worthy journey Amanda takes as she wonders whether her heart belongs here, or whether she should return to modern-day Hammersmith. It is ultimately the most stereotypically English thing you might ever watch, and it is only four episodes, but those four episodes, I guarantee, will bring joy into your hearts.
#10 THE THICK OF IT
Starring: Peter Capaldi, Chris Langham, Rebecca Front, Chris Addison
Before ‘Veep’ came there was ‘The Thick of It’, a political, dark-comedy centered around the inner-workings of 10 Downing Street (that’s the Prime Minister’s residence in England). It did inspire a film spinoff called ‘In The Loop’ before writer Armando Iannucci went to write for ‘Veep’. Peter Capaldi, quite unlike the Doctor you may know him as, plays the foul-mouthed, f-bomb dropping, vicious Malcolm Tucker, the ‘enforcer’ of Number 10. All the political parties involved are fictional, but it’s hilariously easy to pinpoint which party represents who.
It’s had four impeccably hilarious seasons, with tight writing and excellent plotting—but more than that, it’s so, so topical—especially if you are keen on the political side of things in terms of the UK. It highlights real issues within the government that are translatable transatlantically, but in a humorous and uproarious manner. In many interviews, there were suggestions that the terror figure that is Malcom Tucker does indeed exist within governments, so there’s one to watch out for…
I do understand now with Netflix that British shows are more accessible than ever before, and I hope you have maybe seen some from this list and enjoyed them, or maybe be intrigued by some of these shows and want to check them out. If you have any questions or would simply like to spend your time YouTubing ‘Tom Mison Mr. Bingley’ (do it) then by all means, go for it! What d’you think? Any shows I have missed out? I’m calling an honourable mention for Call the Midwife but if anyone shouts TOWIE at me, I’m out.