Culture

VICE's 50 Best British TV Shows of the Century So Far: 10-1

Inject this top ten of the greatest television series ever made into my veins, please.

by VICE Staff; illustrated by Calum Heath
23 July 2019, 12:45pm

This is it. The top ten greatest TV shows the UK has made since the turn of the century.

This list was highly contested and viciously argued over (also: democratically voted on). Taken together, these ten shows are a portrait of the UK that we recognise; maybe one that we'd be (whisper it) happy to celebrate. Unhinged female-fronted absurdist comedy, groundbreaking eco-documentary, weirdly prophetic political satire, beloved take-the-piss chat show – Britain in all its seriousness, stupidity and strangeness.

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

50-41: Here we go...

40-31: Enjoying the ride?

30-21: Things are heating up.

20-11: Time to get serious.

Top Boy VICE 50 Best British TV Shows
Photo: Channel 4

10. 'Top Boy' (2011 – 2013, Channel 4; upcoming in 2019, Netflix)

Top Boy wasn't without controversy. A merry-go-round of drugs and gangs and police set on a fictional east London housing estate, there was worry from Hackney residents of how the so-called British answer to The Wire presented their lives to the outside world. But they obviously needn't have been concerned: the show was a measured, nuanced look into the lives of young people trying to get by with all the odds stacked against them.

Fronted by musicians Asher D and Kano, and with a third season coming to Netflix after the show was revived by Drake when his in the midst of his UK beg-friending, Top Boy frequently zoomed in on the lives of its cast, offering microscopic insights into life on an estate and into issues such as depression, single-parent families and the tempting allure of street crime.

With its return later this year featuring new cast members Little Simz and Dave, it looks set to continue its reign as perhaps the best TV show set in the ends. — Ryan Bassil

Read our oral history of the show's first iteration here.

When Louis Met VICE 50 Best British TV Shows
Photo by Trinity Mirror / Mirrorpix / Alamy Stock Photo

9. 'When Louis Met…' (2000 – 2002, BBC Two)

"Louis. How do you do?" Theroux will offer, with disarming politeness. Every interaction in his documentaries is a lesson in the art of interviewing. He leaves room for interviewees to answer, rarely coming down with judgment or condemnation – the kind of thing the current crop of woke BBC Three presenters seemingly can't resist – and leaving his subjects to unpick their own questionable practices and morality. His When Louis Met… series examined idiosyncratic British figures, and was the first step towards his later, more serious human issue documentaries.

Dropping the geeky enthusiasm he hammed up in the 90s' Weird Weekends, he began to show how his short, simple questions allow something in the person to crack open, exposing a slither of their vulnerability. Not without its missteps, this series will be remembered for Theroux getting fairly close to Jimmy Savile – while also asking him about the rumours of his paedophilia – and even having something of a friendship with him after filming wrapped.

This aside, each episode turned out as such a revealing portrait of its subject that Theroux had to give up on making a third series for the lack of willing participants. Since then, though, he's obviously continued doing great things, cementing his reputation as the king of the British documentary. — Hannah Ewens

We've had plenty of chats with Louis Theroux. Read the last one here.

Nighty Night VICE 50 Best British TV Shows
Photo: Babycow Productions

8. 'Nighty Night' (2004 – 2005; BBC Three and BBC Two)

Julia Davis' black comedy Nighty Night opens with a cancer diagnosis. Davis' character, Jill, is sitting in a doctor's office with her husband Terry, played by Kevin Eldon, and she's crying. "I mean, why?!" she sobs in despair, "Why me?!" Terry pats her hand comfortingly. "Jill... let’s keep it in perspective. It’s me that's got the cancer."

It's this sort of darkness that underpins the entirety of Nighty Night, which ran for two seasons from 2004 to 2006 and quickly propelled Davis from a comedy actor (Human Remains, Nathan Barley) to a cult figure in her own right. In it, she plays a comically unhinged, sociopathic figure who behaves in such awful ways that you feel constantly disturbed and delighted while watching.

It's a difficult balance to pull off – maybe only Julia Davis has managed it quite like this – and that’s why Nighty Night is so singular, so genius, such an absurd piece of work. She's written and starred in plenty of comedies since (Hunderby, Camping), but Nighty Night broke the mould, and remains one of her greatest. — Daisy Jones

Read our profile of Julia Davis here.

People Just Do Nothing VICE 50 Best British TV Shows
Photo: BBC Three

7. 'People Just Do Nothing' (2014 – 2018, BBC Three and BBC Two)

Just as the mockumentary was starting to look like a thing of the past, the Brentford-based crew of Alan "Seapa" Mustafa, Hugo Chegwin, Steve Stamp and Asim Chaudhry popped up with a hilarious and moving show about a failing pirate radio station and the power of UK garage.

Starting as a web-series before moving to BBC3, People Just Do Nothing was essentially The Office for millennials, with Mustafa's Grindah as the David Brent character – if Brent used too much hair gel and had once been banged up for a "two-stretch" (two weeks). As well as being generally able to coax belly laughs out of you, one of the things the show did best was highlight the difficult bits of its characters' lives. That meant everything from Chabuddy G living out of a van to Grindah and Miche's estate becoming gentrified. Sadly, it's now departed – though fans are still holding out hope for a reunion down at Chabuddy's Champagne Steam Rooms. — Hannah J Davies

Read about our visit to the 'People Just Do Nothing' set here.

Popworld VICE 50 Best British TV Shows
Photo: Channel 4

6. 'Popworld' (2001 – 2007, Channel 4 and E4)

Popworld was essentially Smash Hits on TV, with even less regard for pop stars' egos. The magic combo of hosts Simon Amstell and Miquita Oliver shot the show from early-morning filler to must-watch TV. They interviewed a paper bag-wearing Natalie Imbruglia because she was too beautiful to sit next to, asked questions that made you instinctively cringe and sent Lemar to the other side of a carpark with a megaphone simply because a "Lemar From Afar" feature was too good to pass up.

Eventually, Amstell felt he was too old to be partaking in space-hopper races with McFly, and floated the idea of leaving. Oliver wouldn’t continue without him, and the two hosts left in 2006. But for that one glorious moment, Popworld was the best thing on TV pre-watershed, and perhaps even after. — Kate Solomon

Read Miquita Oliver, 'Popworld' writer Dan Swimer and pop star Will Young reminiscing about the show here.

Fleabag VICE 50 Best British TV Shows
Photo: BBC

5. 'Fleabag' (2016 – 2019, BBC Three, Two and One)

What's left to say about the most talked-about show of 2019? Director, scriptwriter and lead Phoebe Waller-Bridge came out of nowhere to stun the shag-nots with her pin-sharp portrait of a sexually promiscuous and spiritually ravaged young woman who delighted in masturbating over Obama speeches. Waller-Bridge won a BAFTA for best female comedy performance for Fleabag, but the show is more than straightforward gags – it's also one of the most incisive portraits of grief, loneliness and desire committed to television.

The first series ended with a gut-punch revelation that explained Fleabag's slightly unhinged, winner-takes-all approach to life, but the second series was what truly turned the show into a phenomenon, sparking a billion water-cooler conversations about her will-they-won't-they romance with Andrew Scott's unnamed priest, and gifting millennials their "Colin Firth as Darcy emerging out of the fountain" moment: the "kneel" confession booth scene. — Zing Tsjeng

Read VICE's round-table send-off to 'Fleabag' here.

The Blue Planet VICE 50 Best British TV Shows
Photo: BBC

4. 'The Blue Planet' (2001, BBC One)

Very few TV shows can claim to have discovered new species and, in turn, been so influential that they had a new species named after them. Step forward The Blue Planet, captivating enough to launch an entire franchise of spin-offs, including TV sequels and a touring theatrical production (Blue Planet II, Blue Planet Live, The Blue Planet Live!), and provide the inspiration behind the name of a plankton discovered in 2018 (Syracosphaera azureaplaneta, for the heads).

It's hard to understate how truly groundbreaking the series was for viewers, soothing thousands of hangovers on repeat viewings while teaching first-time audiences about dolphins and sharks swarming to take bites out of roiling fish "bait balls", or a whale descending to 1,000 feet below the surface of the ocean to feast on little-known creatures on the seabed. In an age of global extinction and climate change, the David Attenborough-narrated series is one of the few on our list that makes an argument for the beauty – and precarity – of our Earth. — Zing Tsjeng

The Thick of It VICE 50 Best British TV Shows
Photo: Andy Paradise © BBC via Everett Collection Inc / Alamy Stock Photo

3. 'The Thick of It' (2005 – 2012, BBC Four and BBC Two)

Time and again, The Thick Of It led, and reality fell in behind. It says something that its strongest character is the man in charge of taming the press. This is a show about the impossibility of getting any idea implemented in the sniper's alley of rolling news.

It's a world in which the true antagonist isn’t the Opposition or even your own side. It’s the shrieking, gibbering journalist just out of sight, pointing and laughing for no other reason than the fact he has a hole in the paper to fill. The Thick Of It didn’t invent modern politics, but it gave us a perfect language to describe it. It updated our world view on what politics was. — Gavin Haynes

Read about how 'The Thick of It' gave us today's political language here.

Peep Show VICE 50 Best British TV Shows
Photo: Everett Collection Inc / Alamy Stock Photo

2. 'Peep Show' (2003 – 2015, Channel 4)

Who'd have thought that two sad men living in a drab flat in Croydon could define the comic sensibilities of millions?

Over nine seasons, Peep Show managed what many of the shows in this list didn't. Its first-person perspective – while slightly jarring at first – was a radical and original method of story-telling, and is solely responsible for some of the show's best moments ("Suck the finger? Do I suck mummy's finger?"). Its quotability is unparalleled, as is it's bingeability. The production, while not exactly HBO level, did exactly what it needed to: transporting the viewer to the Rainbow Rhythms class, or into a claustrophobic toilet cubicle as Super Hans sweats out the four grams of coke he'd taken "to relax". Its longevity, too, is looking good – particularly given the fact that millennials have adopted lines from the show as a dating lingua franca.

More than anything, though, it taps into a very British hideousness. That portrayal of how hopeless and conniving we can all be is more relatable than anything depicted in any of the other shows on this list, and for that it must be celebrated. — Hannah Ewens

Read the actors who played Gerard, Big Suze and Elena talk about the brilliance of 'Peep Show' here.

Come Dine With Me VICE 50 Best British TV Shows
Photo via ITV / Shutterstock

1. Come Dine with Me (2005 – present, Channel 4)

Here we are: our number one. Come Dine with Me – the greatest piece of British television released since the dawn of the millennium.

You might argue that it didn't exactly hit every one of the criteria on our judging list. It's hard to see what "social good" it's done, besides gently taking the hands of millions of hungover people and nursing them back to life. Equally, it's not really acted as a launchpad for the careers of any of its stars, unless you count all the memes about that red-faced lad who fucking lost it when he didn't win, and accused the winner – Jane – of having a "sad little life".

But for bingeability, longevity, cultural impact and recognition, it scored tens across the board. While lesser shows of this genre – Four in a Bed, Chaos at the Chateau – give viewers a brief glimpse into the lives and psyches of the people who make up this great nation, Come Dine with Me holds a full-length mirror up to the UK and shows us everyone we went to school with, have the displeasure of working with, being related to or watching from afar on public transport as they scream, all petulant and weird and pink, to "MOVE DOWN PLEASE".

Also, it's just fucking great, isn't it?

Over a whopping 34 seasons and counting, we've seen a snake shit on a table, real footage of a man consensually mouth-fucking a whisk and a guy turn up to dinner dressed, pretty accurately, as Fiona from Shrek. Everyone has such horrible carpets! No one likes the vegetarian! The old guy always gets a belly dancer in for his entertainment and everyone shifts uncomfortably in their seats as she "performs"!

It is a wonderful, simple premise, and that combined with the comic narration of Dave Lamb makes for a reliably almost perfect reality TV show. Come Dine with Me is the gift that keeps on giving, and because of that it will forever wear the crown of the Best British TV Show since 2000. — Ruby Lott-Lavigna and Jamie Clifton

Read our interview with Dave Lamb about his favourite 'Come Dine with Me' moments here.

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

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