Culture

VICE's 50 Best British TV Shows of the Century So Far: 50-41

Here are numbers 50 to 41 of the only TV ranking list that matters.

by VICE Staff; illustrated by Calum Heath
23 July 2019, 12:26pm

Lists. Lists are a bit old hat, aren't they? Bit dull. Bit prosaic. The kind of thing you make before a Big Shop. But what if I told you this particular list will open a gateway into no less than ten vastly different televisual worlds, including 1970s Yorkshire, time-travelling detective noir, working-class Manchester and mid-2000s drunk female shag-athons?

This, my friends, is numbers 50 to 41 of the greatest TV shows to emerge from this drizzly island this century. Britain doesn't get much sun, and its people aren't known for strange American concepts like "optimism" or what my old PE teacher called "PMA" ("positive mental attitude"). But what we do have is a lot of weird creativity, and from 2000 onwards there was no finer place to see this demonstrated than on our TV screens.

Read our editor's letter here to find out how we decided what ranked where, click here to read all of the articles from this series, and keep on reading to see what you came for.

Luther VICE 50 Best TV Shows
Photo: Prod DB © British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) / DR

50. 'Luther' (2010 – present, BBC One)

The show that made everyone's aunty fully commit to fancying Idris Elba. The BBC thriller details the dark and grisly dealings of DCI John Luther (Idris Elba) as he wades through London's seedy underbelly to solve the nightmarish crimes of its spree killers, cannibals and murderous fetishists. It's also a portrait of a man who's spectacularly failed at maintaining a healthy work-life balance, with Luther routinely entangling himself with criminals and hurting himself and his loved ones in the process.

The show's impeccable writing is one of the reasons for its now-iconic status in British TV. Writer Neil Cross mastered the art of suspense with Columbo-style setups, forcing audiences to watch his killers' every move before they struck, often through terrifying jump-scares. Luther's sharp mind and knack for piecing together a bloody puzzle made us root for him despite his flaws: an anguished detective heading up a lineup of complex and difficult characters that audiences both loved to hate and hated to love. – Christine Ochefu

Life on Mars VICE 50 Best British TV Shows
Photo: ITV / Shutterstock

49. 'Life on Mars' (2006 – 2007, BBC One)

In 2006, Detective Chief Inspector Sam Tyler is hit by a car. When he wakes up he's still a policeman, but finds himself demoted a rank, under the command of DCI Gene Hunt. Also, he's now in 1973.

This is the conceit of Life on Mars, the hit BBC show that ran for two near-perfect seasons from 2006. It's a brilliant blend of sci-fi, existentialism and a good, old-fashioned police procedural, and as a result became one of the most talked-about dramas of the 2000s (it was so popular it spawned a sequel series, Ashes to Ashes, starring Keeley Hawes.)

The show is probably best remembered for John Simm's turn as Tyler, and Philip Glenister's performance as the politically incorrect and morally ambiguous Hunt. The latter became a phenomenon in his own right, raising fascinating questions about what viewers were (and are) willing to accept; ideas around "UK values"; and whether we really are as progressive as we think. — Lauren O’Neill

1563528637050-48-Pulling
Photo: BBC

48. 'Pulling' (2006 – 2009, BBC Three)

Pulling tells the story of Donna (Sharon Horgan), a woman who has so much fun getting pissed on her hen night that she decides she doesn't want to give up the party lifestyle, and promptly jilts her husband. She moves into a grotty house-share with friends Karen (an alcoholic primary school teacher) and Claire (an obsessive weirdo), and is subjected to a relentless stream of bad sex, workplace humiliations and disastrous social interactions.

Pulling is about the struggle to reconcile the glamorous and exciting hopes you had for your life with the tawdry realities. Every time I apply for job, I’m reminded of a newly unemployed Donna’s indignant line, "Why can't I have a cool job? Everyone on telly's got one!" I also find myself thinking, sadly all too often, of Karen going to work on a comedown and bursting into tears while reading her class of five-year-olds a story about a lonely duck. In its unapologetic depiction of women shagging, getting pissed and doing embarrassing stuff, it's an obvious precursor to Fleabag. So if you enjoyed that, I'd give Pulling a try. — James Greig

Look Around You VICE 50 Best British TV Shows
Photo: BBC

47. 'Look Around You' (2002 – 2005, BBC Two)

I remember a maximum of five things about being ten years old. I remember liking yellow food, like pasta and cheese. I remember listening to Avril Lavigne a lot. I also remember appearing in an episode of this absurd, satirical cult comedy. I do not remember why I was on this show. I harboured no desire to be an actor, and didn't appear in anything like this before or afterwards. But there I am, aged ten, first as a girl on a quiz in their "Music" episode. And then again as a child running away from a man with a metal "face shackle" in their "Iron" episode.

If those descriptions sound odd, that's because they are. Look Around You is one of the oddest shows to have been broadcast on the BBC, and I'm surprised it was. It's also ingenious. Written by Robert Popper and Peter Serafinowicz, the show essentially satirises early 1980s educational films – the kind they'd play on VHS on a huge TV wheeled into science class. Except everything they tell you on Look Around You is nonsense. On the "Iron" episode, they show pigs manufacturing iron and claim they're hoping to organise a trade union. All of this is expressed in such a deadpan, faux educational way that, if you came across an episode by accident, you'd probably think it was real.

Since the show aired over ten years ago, people seem to have fallen into two camps: those who have never heard of Look Around You (most people), and those who are completely obsessed with it. You're more likely to see people nerding out about it on a Reddit thread, for instance, than a celebratory Time Out retrospective. Even so, it's some of the greatest UK TV since the turn of the millennium, and no I am not at all biased. — Daisy Jones

Shameless VICE 50 Best British TV Shows
Photo: AF archive / Alamy Stock Photo

46. 'Shameless' (2004 – 2013, Channel 4)

Depictions of working class culture in British comedies tend to fall into two camps. For every empathetically written Del Boy or Brian Potter, there are reductive caricatures and regrettable Little Britain catchphrases.

Shameless – the black comedy set on a Manchester council estate – sampled both over its sprawling 11-season run. When veering towards the latter it gave us boozed-up, morally bankrupt stereotypes, with even creator Paul Abbott admitting that the show became "too hysterical" towards the end. But when it hit upon the former, it resulted in some of the decade's most iconic comedy episodes.

Centring on alcoholic father-of-six Frank Gallagher and his relationships with various family members, neighbours, lovers and bailiffs, Shameless' first two series saw breakout roles from James McAvoy and Anne-Marie Duff, while a bleach-blonde Maxine Peake played gobby best mate Veronica Ball. Later seasons seemed to lose the humanity of these early characters, but for a time Shameless had all the chaotic elements of a great party. And in the immortal words of Frank Gallagher, that is the most vital necessity in this life. — Phoebe Hurst

Hinterland VICE 50 Best British TV Shows
Photo: BBC

45. 'Hinterland' (2013 – 2016, S4C in Welsh; BBC Four in English and Welsh)

S4C is the only Welsh language channel accessible on television. Its most well-known show is probably the soap opera Pobol y Cwm, but after a 39-year run it was finally unseated in 2013 by noir police drama Y Gwyll (The Dusk).

Dubbed "Celtic noir" for its similarities to so-called Scandi noirs like The Killing and The Bridge, which aired around the same time and featured similarly dark themes, Y Gwyll fed into the UK's fresh appetite for psychologically unsettling crime dramas in a rural setting. Its immediate success took it to BBC One Wales, where it was aired bilingually under the name Hinterland and became the first BBC drama to feature dialogue in both English and Welsh. It was also aired in Welsh by broadcasters in Denmark, Norway, Sweden and Slovenia, before being picked up by Netflix and served to US audiences.

Hinterland producers recorded each scene twice – once in Welsh, once in English – and although the two versions are identical, Welsh speakers have differing views on which has more impact when it comes to representing Welsh culture, i.e. lots believe it shouldn't have "pandered" to English-speaking audiences, and only been released in Welsh. Ultimately, though, it was the first in what would be a long line of Welsh-language dramas – paving the way for more stories to be told in Wales, about Wales, quite literally in our own words. — Georgina Jones

Read what Welsh people think about the importance of 'Hinterland' here.

Stewart Lee's Comedy Vehicle VICE 50 Best British TV Shows
Photo: Julie Edwards / Alamy Stock Photo

44. 'Stewart Lee's Comedy Vehicle' (2009 – 2016, BBC Two)

Its shady comedy-club setting, the unspooling nature of Lee's standup, the dark extended skits that often provoked a number of reactions besides laughter: Stewart Lee’s Comedy Vehicle was a show that thrived on the promise of a different sort of funny.

Performing to a live audience, each episode used a different subject – from "toilet books" to "Islamophobia" – as a launchpad for excoriating, tangential tirades or bizarre non-sequiturs. Picking targets as diverse as James Corden and UKIP, every bit and skit was layered with condemnation and self-loathing in equal measure. Yes, there was always the danger that the show could veer into smug superiority, but in the face of increasingly bland comedic offerings and insurgent right-wing tabloids, its confrontational approach almost always felt necessary.

Perhaps fittingly for a series that spent its lifespan testing the limits of likeability, Lee announced in May of 2016 that the BBC had declined to make any further series. It left a vacuum in its place for comedy that was unashamedly anti-populist. — Angus Harrison

Gavin and Stacey VICE 50 Best British TV Shows
Photo: Everett Collection Inc / Alamy Stock Photo

43. 'Gavin and Stacey' (2007 – 2010, BBC Three and BBC One)

When Gavin Shipman and Stacey West get talking on the phone at their respective jobs in Essex, England, and Barry Island, Wales, they fancy each other and decide to meet up. When they fall in love and get married, their families have to meet too, resulting in some of the best TV comedy of the past 20 years.

While Mat Horne and Joanna Page as Gavin and Stacey provide the relationship that anchors the show, it's the supporting characters who elevate Gavin and Stacey into the pantheon of great British family sitcoms. There is Alison Steadman as Gavin's drama-loving, fake vegetarian mother Pam, and Rob Brydon continuing his streak as the quiet GOAT of British comedy as Stacey's wholesomely sexually ambiguous uncle Bryn. There is Gwen the neighbour, who refuses to let old age get in the way of a cracking shag; Dave Coaches (first name Dave, last name Coaches); and the actually quite dark vibe of Dawn and Pete.

All of these characters came from the brains of James Corden and the great Ruth Jones – whose genius, batshit Nessa character is worthy of about 8,000 additional words. If Corden had stuck with her for longer, perhaps his comic reputation these days wouldn't be so reliant on four-wheeled sycophancy. — Lauren O'Neill

Babyfather VICE 50 Best British TV Shows
Photo: BBC Two

42. 'Babyfather' (BBC Two, 2001-2002)

When Babyfather debuted in 2001, reviewers lazily dubbed it the "black male version of Sex and the City". Granted, it was the first time a British television drama had cast four black actors in lead roles, but what set it apart from SATC was its exploration of universal themes from points of view often ignored by the mainstream.

Adapted from Patrick Augustus' book series Baby Father, viewers were introduced to a group of 30-something guys pursuing their careers, navigating sexual politics and stepping into fatherhood in early-2000s London. Plenty of teeth kissing and Caribbean slang added to Babyfather's lighter moments and authenticity. Watching it as a 14-year-old yet to encounter British society's treatment of black men, it was powerful to see a homegrown drama portray aspiration over aggression, despite its characters being at the mercy of the authorities.

The BBC never released Babyfather on DVD, but it has lived on in the minds of those who watched it. Almost 15 years would pass before two black actors were cast in a British drama series in which their ethnicity was not central to the plot. Looking back, Babyfather was a watershed moment – for pioneering new screen narratives and the careers of talented actors like David Harewood – and we haven't seen anything like it since. It's a sad reality that, in 2019, four black guys probably couldn't get into a nightclub, let alone onto primetime television. — David Woode

Red Riding VICE 50 Best British TV Shows
Photo: AF archive / Alamy Stock Photo

41. 'Red Riding' (2009, Channel 4)

You know what: fair play to Andrew Garfield for this role. It cast him as a harried and persistent young journalist Eddie Dunford, trying to dig up dirt on a trail of murder and corruption linking real estate developers, the police and local councillors in 1970s Yorkshire. Adapted from David Peace’s Red Riding Quartet, the three-part show dropped viewers into a tangle of stories in 1974 (Garfield), 1980 (Paddy Considine as cop-watching cop Peter Hunter) and 1983 (capping off with a truly distressed David Morrissey as detective Maurice Jobson).

Setting aside the tired "sorry, gay person has to die" and "women on-screen must be love interests or at least faintly shaggable!" tropes, the series used feature-length storytelling (shot on film analogous to the decade in question) to literally create the sub-genre of Yorkshire Noir. If you missed it at the time, revisit this one to enjoy a pre-Hollywood Garfield. — Tshepo Mokoena

40-31: Enjoying the ride?

30-21: Things are heating up.

20-11: Time to get serious.

10-1: The Champions League.

Click here to read all of the articles from this series.

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Television