The Best of British TV


Happy Valley

Best may be a loaded term for a list such as this. Let’s say “best” given my own interests and predilections, which tend to run to the dark, weird, and slightly kooky, as opposed to more mainstream offerings. Because while my preference of UK over US shows is obvious, there are still travesties such as The Only Way Is Essex out there; the Brits can do trashy as well (or better) than the next guy. But because the seasons (or series, as they call them) tend to be short, and they’re usually not afraid to present a show as a 6-part series and have done with it, I find that UK shows tend to be able to do more in terms of pushing characters and developing plots.

To find this stuff you’ll have to make a bit of an effort. Some have made it to Netflix, some DVD, and some you’ll just have to break the law and download if you ever want to see it (seriously, I can’t wait for the day when we all abandon network TV and demand that everything be available on demand).


The Village 
2 seasons, S3 to be confirmed
Starring John Simm, Maxine Peake
Set in a small village in Yorkshire, beginning in WW1 (each series moves forward a decade or so), we watch the tension between a rich titled family and the local farmers and shopkeepers. Why you should watch it: fantastic acting, intense story lines and an honest view of early 20th century history. The working man’s Downton.

The Mill
2 seasons, S3 to be confirmed
Starring Kerrie Hayes, Matthew McNulty
It’s no secret that the British Empire was built on slavery and indentured servitude. The Mill shows what life was like for the children and teenagers who worked the cotton mills of northern England and the rise of workers to unionize and demand fair treatment and wages. Often dark (both in tone and cinematography), The Mill is based on records from an actual Yorkshire mill in the 1830s.

My Mad Fat Diary
2 seasons, 3rd pending
Starring Sharon Rooney, Nico Mirralegro
Based on the diary of writer Rae Earl, My Mad Fat Diary is the story of Rae, a fat girl inclined to self harm, and her struggle to fit in with a group of cool kids in 1990s England. While it includes some elements of typical teen dramas, the sub-plot of Rae’s mental health (dealing with her therapist, hiding her illness from her friends) makes this show occasionally intense and frequently a tear-jerker. Brilliant mid-90s soundtrack.

1 season, 2nd pending
Starring Nick Helm, Elliot Speller-Gillott
Comedian Nick Helm can rub some people the wrong way – his stand-up can be fairly obnoxious – but as the schlubby main character in Uncle, he manages to rein in the worst of his stage persona in an attempt to connect with a nephew he barely knows, all while trying to win back the love of his life. Why it’s awesome – the videos.

Series One is available on iTunes.

3 seasons
Starring Idris Elba, Ruth Wilson
So, if you haven’t seen Luther, you’ve probably been living in a cave, but I felt it needed to be on the list just because of the intensity and quality acting. The dynamic between the characters of Luther and Alice are what makes this different (and better) than your average cop show, and episodes without Ruth Wilson lack the necessary crackle, but the whole thing is brilliant and absolutely worth watching.

Series One, Two, and Three are available on iTunes.

Happy Valley
1 season, 2nd pending
Starring Sarah Lancashire, James Norton
If this has been popping up on your Netflix and you’ve wondered what it is, go watch it now. Lancashire plays a cop in northern England, Norton plays a convicted felon (who also happens to have raped and impregnated her daughter, who gave birth to his son and then offed herself). The plot can be challenging in its intensity and violence; Steve Pemberton’s (The League of Gentlemen) portrayal of a bumbling accountant with a scheme to get money out of his boss pulls it all together.

Last Tango In Halifax
2 seasons, 3rd pending, available in North America on PBS
Starring Derek Jacobi, Ann Reid, Sarah Lancashire
Two childhood sweethearts reconnect in their senior years and marry, intermingling their two families for this funny, witty, drama set in west Yorkshire. While it can occasionally get soapy and melodramatic, there is a dark thread woven within the storyline that creates additional – and serious – drama.

Both Series One and Series Two are available on iTunes.

This article originally appeared on Vermicious.