Top Ten British TV Dramas

The following is a guest post.

When Smitten by Britain put out the call for a British blogger to write about their favourite British TV dramas, I emailed her straight away to volunteer. While it didn’t take me long to comprise the list for this post, I was surprised by how many of my choices came from the 1970s! A real golden age of British drama.

Some of you may be surprised that I didn’t include dramas like Downton Abbey, Pride & Prejudice, and Casualty. But who wants to be predictable? Once you have read my choices, please leave a comment to tell us which programmes would make your list of favourite British TV dramas.

1. I, Claudius

The award winning series I, Claudius, based on the book by Robert Graves, had it all: intrigue, treachery, poisoning, sex and great actors, among them Derek Jacobi, Brian Blessed, John Hurt and Sian Phillips. It’s the story of an unlikely Roman Emperor, the stammering and bookish “idiot” Claudius (Derek Jacobi). We were all glued to our screens in 1976, and even now when I see that snake slither across the screen, I get a frisson of excitement. All the episodes are on Youtube so it’s a real treat if you haven’t seen it before.

2. A Bouquet of Barbed Wire

Another treat from 1976. We must have been spoiled that year! “Bouquet” was very scandalous at the time because of the unnatural obsession that Peter Manson (Frank Finlay) had for his daughter Prue (Susan Penhaligon). A story of recriminations, jealousy and revenge. It was recreated in 2010 with Trevor Eve and Hermione Norris, but was nowhere near as good as the original. You can’t find the entire original on Youtube but there is a taster below and you can buy it at Amazon.


I had to include this one for my husband, who adores this swashbuckling saga set in the Napoleonic Wars. The series ran on ITV between 1993 and 1997 with more episodes added in 2004. The hero, Richard Sharpe, the man promoted from the ranks by Wellington, was played by Sean Bean. It’s worth seeing how many famous actors you can identify. Pete Postlethwaite gets his teeth into a wonderfully over-the-top villain, Obadiah. Meanwhile one of Bean’s many loves in the series, Jane Gibbons (Abigail Cruttenden) became his third wife in real life.

Lots of Sharpe content on Youtube. This is episode 1:

4.The Brothers

This was a most unlikely TV hit centred on a family of hauliers. It was shown by the BBC between 1972 and 1976. When Robert Hammond dies, his eldest son Edward prepares to take over the business but finds his brothers Brian (a dull accountant) and David (a young graduate) have been left equal shares. Cue lots of plotting and arguing. What made The Brothers were not the somewhat boring brothers, but their wives and mistresses, among them Gabrielle Drake and Kate O’Mara. Plus Colin Baker, one of the Dr Who’s, made his name as villain Paul Merroney.

5. The Onedin Line

A Sunday treat from the BBC with the stirring and memorable theme song “Spartacus” by Khachaturian. It ran between 1971 and 1980. Set in Liverpool between 1860 to 1866, it deals with the rise of a shipping line headed by ambitious sea captain James Onedin (Peter Gilmore). To get his hands on a ship he enters into a business transaction to marry Anne Webster (Anne Stallybrass), some years his senior (although in real life, she was seven years younger than Peter Gilmore).

6. Mistresses

Changing tack with a more recent series, “Mistresses” was first shown on BBC 1 in 2008. It focuses on the lives of four women and their illicit and complex relationships. Two more series followed with the last shown in 2010. . The four women are the centre of the drama were played with great verve and style by Sarah Parish, Shelley Conn, Orla Brady and Sharon Small. Not be confused with a US series with the same name, made by ABC.

7. Call The Midwife

A surprise hit from the BBC, the second series has just aired on BBC 1 (March 2013) and will no doubt hit US screens soon courtesy of PBS. Call The Midwife is set in the East End of London, the poverty stricken area of Poplar, in the 1950s. Most babies were born at home and delivered by midwives. In the series, based on the wonderful memoirs of Jennifer Worth, the midwives Jenny, Chummy, Cynthia and Trixie share midwifery duties with the nuns of Nonnatus House. Call the Midwife delivers powerful social history and occasionally shocking storylines with warmth and poignancy.

8. Colditz

Colditz was screened by the BBC between 1972 and 1974. The series deals with Allied prisoners of war imprisoned at the supposedly escape-proof Colditz Castle and their many attempts to escape captivity, as well as the relationships formed between the various nationalities and their German captors. Colditz was created by Brian Degas working with the producer Gerard Glaister, who went on to devise another successful BBC series dealing with the Second World War — Secret Army.

9. Upstairs, Downstairs

Another gem from the 1970s, long before the days of Downton Abbey, although covering the same period (1903 to 1930). It ran on ITV between 1971 and 1975 and told the story of the characters “upstairs” and their servants “downstairs.” It made stars of Jean Marsh (Rose) and Colin Jackson (butler Hudson). Upstairs Downstairs was less spectacular than Downton in terms of setting and costumes, but stronger on characterisations. Don’t bother with the recent revival shown by the BBC.

10. The Life and Loves of a She Devil

Mary Fisher (Patricia Hodge) is a glamorous novelist living in a spectacular former lighthouse. Ruth, an abnormally tall and plain housewife, (Julie T Wallace) decides to seek terrible revenge after her husband Bobbo (Dennis Waterman) leaves her for the writer. She eventually becomes rich, has surgery to transform her appearance and moves into Fisher’s house when the writer wastes away from grief. The series was based on a book by feminist writer Fay Weldon who says it is about envy, not revenge. It was shown by the BBC in 1986. A US film version starring Meryl Streep and Roseanne Barr was made in 1989.

Gail Hanlon lives in London, UK and describes herself as a blogger, balletomane, gardener and collector of curious facts. Visit her blog here.


  1. Julie Skentelbery says

    I’d add Edge of Darkness with Bob Peck. Classic paranoia thriller with environmental edge.

  2. Miriam says

    Glad to see I Claudius head your list- it is an often forgotten Gem with not only good drama but some very amusing moments and most of all a Cast of some of the Best of Best in British acting.
    here is my top ten in no peticulate order

    1. I Claudivus-Epic story Epic Cast!

    2. Upstairs Downstairs (original- I agree the reboot was very disappointing)

    The lives of the masters & servents of 165 Eaton Place London ( on my first trip to london I had a bemused cab driver take me there in 1979 just to take a photo of the famous address)
    I still have all the novels based on the show & of course the full dvd set.
    I laughed/ I cried and I went running to the library ( I was a teen!) to the Edwardian history section to learn more!

    3. Poldark-I just finished the secord series on dvd and I still love it. The romance/the humor/ the drama and the wonderful Cornish Scenery makes it special ( notice My misspelling of demelza in my email adddress!)

    4. Brideshead Revisited ( Not the movie)- I was a bit too young & native when I first watched it but I was still caught up in the world of oxford & charles & sebastian. ( and yes I have visited Castle Howard on a uk visit)

    5. Jewel In the Crown-unforgettable story and scenery of the end of the British rule in India- stellar cast

    6.The Lord Peter Wimsey Mysteries- I have equal fondness for both the actors who played the lead- each brought their own stamp on the role and D.Sayers wrote some Jolly Good Mysteries.

    7.A Town Like Alice- a special love story that spans a brutal WWII march and post war Austrailia.

    8.Call the Mid Wife-great characters & actors and not your ordinary setting/stories-rarely do we see post wwII britiain on our usa tv.

    9. Sherlock- I had my doubts about this lastest update but it won me over by the end of the first episode.

    10. Shoulder to Shoulder-the true story of the UK Suffragette Movement
    what a wonderful cast of Women lead by Sian Phillips
    ( sadly not on dvd- not even in the uk!)

    Honorable mentions to: A Horseman Riding By/Flambards/Foyle’s War/Danger UXB/Pallisers

  3. Melissa says

    Thank you for such an interesting list. I had added a number of them to my watch queue.

  4. B SAUNDERS says

    While in “pedant” mode I thought that I’d better point out that the butler in “Upstairs, Downstairs” was Gordon Jackson rather than Colin.

    Agree with “Edge of Darkness” as being a great series, though!