Updated: Nov 16, 2020
If you’re an English language learner, curious about British culture and the use of natural English or simply a nostalgic Brit or any type of anglophile, look no further than this list of classic British television programmes. Get the kettle on, throw another log on the fire (real or digital) and melt into a reverie of good old fashioned British indulgence. Behold! The classics of a quirky, windswept island…
BUT FIRST, a brief breakdown of what made British programming so enjoyable.
‘Back in the day’...a show was only as good as its intro. You’d hear desperate cries of “is it on??” emanating from the kitchen or upstairs as those familiar first notes fell out of the tiny box in the living room. Broadcasters used whole orchestras and a host of talents were involved in producing catchy, epic theme tunes that would be whistled in workplaces for years to come.
Take an audio stroll through this collection and let us know what is your favourite. Bullgogz picks include Doctor Who and Grange Hill which was recorded by the GREAT Alan Hawkshaw (originally titled ‘Chicken Man). Hawkshaw was one of many dedicated TV composers, although his career outside of television was remarkable, his TV hits include the Channel 4 news and Countdown. He was a pioneer in his numerous genres and has been sampled by DJ’s for decades, you may recognise his hit ‘The Champ’ with his group ‘The Mohawks’.
British TV theme tunes playlist
Character and family
Scamps and loveable rogues! The British love an underdog, that’s why we intentionally lose every international sporting event we take part in. We also like a cheeky protagonist, preferably fighting against external odds, who isn’t afraid to break the rules and maybe has the ‘gift of the gab’ to endear us towards them.
As well as this flawed protagonist, British TV moves around the table, the family table. A lot of British TV explores the relationships inside a family or within a community, often set in a Pub as the central meeting point. It’s not just because we like a drink, the Pub is the heart of a community like the Mead hall to the Vikings. A good pub replicates the living room of a home, because it is a home, away from home, where the normal rules of conversation don’t apply thanks to the application of libations.
A lot of programmes were set in regions of Britain or had protagonists from a specific area, for example, Bergerac was set in Jersey, Last of the Summer wine in Yorkshire, Bread in Liverpool, Byker Grove in Newcastle. Although Britain is a relatively small cluster of islands compared to the rest of the world, it does have a rich diversity in regional identity, to the point we often don’t understand each other from county to county. Programmes shot in regional locations introduced the nation to accents, phrases, traditions and beautiful countryside perhaps they had never heard or seen before.
Only Fools and Horses
A pair of market-selling wideboy brothers try desperately to become millionaires. Based in Peckham, London the Trotter brothers and their iconic yellow, three-wheeled Reliant Robin car whizz in and out of working class London trying to score big and getting in and out of all kinds of trouble. A much loved family comedy that portrayed something of the working class heart.
Set in West London and largely responsible for putting the word minder, meaning personal bodyguard, into the UK popular lexicon. Arthur Daley, a small-time conman, hires former boxer Terry McCann to be his minder, so Terry can protect him from other small-time crooks. While Terry is trying his hardest to satisfy his employer's demands, and putting his own life at risk, Arthur is busy exploiting Terry for all he is worth. For when other people hire Terry's services, through Arthur, Arthur usually keeps most of Terry's share of the money for himself.
The characters often drank at the local members-only Winchester Club, where owner and barman Dave Harris (Glynn Edwards) acted, often unwillingly, as a message service for Arthur, and turned a blind eye to his shady deals.
A comedy-drama mystery series, based on the picaresque novels by John Grant under the pen name Jonathan Gash. The show, which ran to 71 episodes over six series, was originally broadcast on BBC1 between 10 January 1986 and 4 December 1994.
The series concerns the adventures of the eponymous Lovejoy, played by Ian McShane, a roguish antiques dealer based in East Anglia. Within the trade, he has a reputation as a "divvy", a person with almost unnatural powers of recognising exceptional items as well as distinguishing genuine antiques from fakes or forgeries. The series was notable for its style and pacing. Lovejoy would frequently break the fourth wall, revealing his thoughts and motives by addressing the audience directly.
The adventures of the last human alive, Dave Lister, as he hurtles through space on the mining ship Red Dwarf, accompanied by a genetic mutation of his pet cat, the hologram of his dead 'friend' Rimmer, a service robot Kryten and the ships senile computer.
In France during World War II, Rene Artois a café owner in Nouvion and a reluctant member of the town's local French Resistance cell who operates under the codename of "Nighthawk" runs a cafe where Resistance fighters, Gestapo men, German Army officers and escaped Allied POWs interact daily, ignorant of one another's true identity or presence, exasperating Rene, played by Gordon Kaye.
Some very humorous takes on different European identities and language barriers, as well as pure sauciness.
Hotel owner Basil Fawlty's incompetence, short fuse, and arrogance form a combination that ensures accidents and trouble are never far away. Written by John Cleese and Connie Booth, the series set in a fictional hotel in the seaside town of Torquay centred around the tense, rude and put-upon owner Basil Fawlty (Cleese), his bossy wife Sybil (Prunella Scales), the sensible chambermaid Polly (Booth) who often is the peacemaker and voice of reason, and the hapless and English-challenged Spanish waiter Manuel (Andrew Sachs).
With its iconic title introduction, showing the Nazi push into England accompanied by the theme tune 'Who do you think you are kidding Mr Hitler?' this sitcom is British cultural gem. Based on the exploits of the Home Guard, the special military unit comprised of local men unable to serve on the frontlines due to age (hence the title Dad's army) or being in a necessary profession, preparing for a possible Nazi invasion. The show ran on the BBC from 1968 to 1977 for nine series and 80 episodes in total. The series has influenced British popular culture, with its catchphrases and characters being well known. The Radio Times magazine listed Captain Mainwaring’s “You stupid boy!" among the 25 greatest put-downs on TV.
The theme tune was written by Jimmy Perry, the producer and is a pastiche of the wartime songs. Perry persuaded one of his childhood idols, wartime entertainer Bud Flanagan, to sing the theme.
Keeping up appearances
Hyacinth Bucket (Patricia Routledge) is an eccentric and snobbish lower middle-class social climber, who insists that her surname is pronounced "Bouquet".
The sitcom follows Hyacinth in her attempts to prove her social superiority and to gain standing with those she considers upper class. Her attempts are constantly hampered by her lower-class extended family, whom she is desperate to hide. Much of the humour comes from the conflict between Hyacinth's vision of herself and the reality of her underclass background. In each episode, she lands in a farcical situation as she battles to protect her social credibility.
A pseudohistorical sitcom starring Rowan Atkinson (later known for his character Mr Bean) as the antihero Edmund Blackadder and Tony Robinson as Blackadder's dogsbody, Baldrick. Each series was set in a different historical period, with the two protagonists accompanied by different characters, though several reappear in one series or another, e.g., Melchett (Stephen Fry) Hugh Laure (later known for his character House) and Lord Flashheart (Rik Mayall, known for Bottom, the Young Ones, Drop dead Fred and just being generally a top bloke).
It is implied in each series that the Blackadder character is a descendant of the previous one. In series one, Edmund Blackadder is not particularly bright and is much the intellectual inferior of his servant, Baldrick. However, in subsequent series the positions are reversed: Blackadder is clever, shrewd, scheming and manipulative while Baldrick is extremely dim. Each incarnation of Blackadder and Baldrick is also saddled with tolerating the presence of a dimwitted aristocrat.
The final episode ends with one of the most moving scenes in a British sitcom and has become an iconic commemoration of the fallen soldiers of World War II.
One foot in the grave
The exploits and mishaps of irascible early retiree Victor Meldrew, who after being made redundant from his job as a security guard, finds himself at war with the world and everything in it. Meldrew, cursed with misfortune and always complaining, is married to long-suffering wife Margaret, who is often left exasperated by his many misfortunes.
Amongst other witnesses to Victor's wrath are tactless family friend Jean Warboys and next-door couple Patrick (Victor's nemesis) and Pippa Trench. Patrick often discovers Victor in inexplicably bizarre or compromising situations, leading him to believe that he is insane. The Meldrews' neighbour on the other side, overly cheery charity worker Nick Swainey, also adds to Victor's frustration.
The Brittas Empire
Gordon Brittas (played by Chris Barrie) is the well-meaning but incompetent manager of Whitbury New Town Leisure Centre. Completely tactless, totally annoying and forever coming up with 'half-baked' ideas (and oblivious to all of his aforementioned faults), Brittas frequently upsets his staff, public, and his frazzled wife Helen, often bringing confusion and chaos into their lives. Helen Brittas (Pippa Haywood) finds it increasingly difficult to cope with Gordon, and often turns to medication and affairs with other men to maintain her sanity.
Set principally in the private office of a British Cabinet minister in the fictional Department of Administrative Affairs in Whitehall, Yes Minister follows the ministerial career of Jim Hacker, played by Paul Eddington. His various struggles to formulate and enact policy or affect departmental changes are opposed by the British Civil Service. The sequel, Yes, Prime Minister, continued with the same cast and followed Jim Hacker after his unexpected elevation to Number 10 upon the resignation of the previous Prime Minister.
The series received several BAFTAs and in 2004 was voted sixth in the Britain's Best Sitcom poll. It was the favourite television programme of the then Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, Margaret Thatcher.