Best British TV Shows & Series - 1990s

1990s British TV - Lots of Comedy and Some Tragedy

The 1990s in the UK was a decade of change in a number of cultural areas - Britpop came to us in a big way in the middle of the decade with Oasis and Blur fighting it our as best band whilst in the wings bands like Travis gave us equally great music and made less fuss about it. TV Shows had come a long way since the 1970s & 1980s.

In British TV terms, the decade was marked by a major tragedy with the death of Diana, Princess of Wales on 31st August 1997. Her funeral on 6th September 1997 was watched by over 32 million people in the UK and was the most watched TV show in the UK that year.

Thankfully, it was one of the only black spots in the TV year!

Bob Mortimer and Vic Reeves
Bob Mortimer and Vic Reeves
The Smell of Reeves and Mortimer
The Smell of Reeves and Mortimer
Randall and Hopkirk revisited
Randall and Hopkirk revisited
Shooting Stars
Shooting Stars

1990s British Alternative Comedy, Vic Reeves Big Night Out

Comedies had already began to evolve on British TV, from the typical sitcoms so popular in the 60s and 70s to the more subversive, edgier comedies of the 1980s to the 1990s and something completely different - Vic Reeves Big Night Out.

Bob and Vic looked as if they did a lot of the act ad hoc, just riffing and bouncing comedy ideas off one another. For whatever reason, people loved it.

What Vic Reeves Big Night Out did do though was shake up British comedy TV Shows.

Channel 4, a relatively new channel had shown its hand and it the others had to follow - Channel 4 had shown they were not afraid to go out on a limb and take a chance with the public. Other channels had to follow just to keep up. Their 90s TV Shows were edgy and occasionally, deliberately subversive, would other follow suit?

Vic Reeves (actually Jim Moir) and Bob Mortimer went on to make Shooting Stars, The Smell of Reeves and Mortimer and Randall and Hopkirk; all were very popular British TV shows, they continue to write together to this day.

Drop the Dead Donkey Cast
Drop the Dead Donkey Cast
One Foot in The Grave with Richard Wilson and Annette Crosbie
One Foot in The Grave with Richard Wilson and Annette Crosbie

Victor Meldrew and 'Dog/Phone'

Other Great British TV comedy shows in the 1990s

As alluded to in the previous paragraph, Vic and Bob blazed a trail for 'new' British comedy TV shows but nothing is really ever 'new' and some of the shows which were enormously successful certainly owed something to British comedy shows of the past.

Satire got popular againin the 1990s after a bit of a lull in the 70s and 80s.

'Have I Got News for You' and 'Drop The Dead Donkey' gave us satirical shows about the news , the latter concentrated on a news station and the people who worked there - a dysfuctional bunch if ever there was one but the show was shot in the week the news was happening - radically different.

'One Foot in The Grave', David Renwick's TV comedy about two pensioners hit our screens in 1990 and remains an outstanding comedy show, largely thanks to the fearless characterisation of Victor Meldrew by actor, Richard Wilson, ably assisted by Annette Crosbie.

Mayall and Edmondson - Bottom
Mayall and Edmondson - Bottom
Father Ted cast.
Father Ted cast.
"A-ha", Alan Partridge, the brilliant Steve Coogan.
"A-ha", Alan Partridge, the brilliant Steve Coogan.
Father Ted's house on Craggy Island
Father Ted's house on Craggy Island | Source
League of Gentleman - Royston Vasey - You'll Never Leave!
League of Gentleman - Royston Vasey - You'll Never Leave! | Source

1990s Comedy Shows - Comedians Turned Writers


The Young Ones former pairing of Rik Mayall and Ade Edmondson brought us 'Bottom' which was really 'out there' in terms of its tastelessness but it had a huge sprinkling of slapstick and it worked brilliantly.

Absolutely Fabulous came to British TV screens in 1992 and was daring because it was very much 'of its time', 1990s Britain was still full of hedonistic 1980s folk getting all New Age on themselves, enter Eddie and Patsy to take the piss out of them.

'Knowing Me, Knowing You With Alan Partridge' brought us our second taste of Alan Partridge after his stint on the Chris Morris show, The Day Today as a sports reporter. It is a comedy chat show which, on the face of it, seems serious but the whole thing is a fake and it works really well, largely thanks to the comic genius of Steve Coogan.

'Jo Brand - Through the Cakehole' gave us the hilarious, sarcastic Jo Brand in her own show (and about time!) and 1994 gave us 'The Vicar of Dibley' with Dawn French at her best as the Reverend Geraldine Grainger. Both Brand and French were stand-up comediennes, Brand wrote her show, French did not but is an expert at comic timing and also a good actress, both contributory factors in her casting in the show.

It is worth nothing that whilst there was in general, an edgier note to most of the 1990s comedy, there were also a few more typical sitcoms, like 'As Time Goes By', 'Waiting For God' and 'Last of the Summer Wine' which continued to pull in huge audiences - perhaps a sign that with an ageing population, there is a more diverse demographic for comedy and therefore, something for everyone, the Mrs Merton Show in 1995 was a young person pretending to be an older one and being hilarious doing it, Caroline Aherne at her best.

We also had 'Father Ted' Grahan Linehan's Irish religious comedy which had the briefest of moments in the sun and was not remade after the sudden death of lead man, Dermot Morgan.

1998 saw The Royle Family hit our screens and everything changed again. It shared its debut with Dinner Ladies, written by Victoria Wood, much more a sitcom in the normal mode but Royle Family changed comedy in the UK for many years to come, no laughter track, comedy characters seen close up, good and bad, they were like real people and the old way of doing things would never be the same again.

1999 introduced the equally radical 'League of Gentlemen' , full on black comedy set in a fictitious village full of weird people, a hero's journey with a difference.

In the 1990s, TV producers got braver in choosing comedians who wrote their own comedy to make shows for television. This wasn't a new idea but it was never more prevalent than during this decade. TV stations were learning to complete with one another for a a burgeoning comedy audience.

Helen Mirren as Jane Tennison, she dulled down for the role - inasmuch as Mirren can ever look dull.
Helen Mirren as Jane Tennison, she dulled down for the role - inasmuch as Mirren can ever look dull.

1990s British TV Drama Shows - Top 5

1990s drama was also going through a golden period on TV and, coincidentally (?) on stage too and there were some good shows on offer for the discerning viewer.

I would like to concentrate on 5 of the best from that decade.

Prime Suspect starred the always fantastic, Helen Mirren as Detective Superintendant Jane Tennison, put in charge of a team to track down a murderer. The team still hold true to their old boss and Tennison has a hard job getting the team behind her. At home,we were all rooting for her because she had chutzpah and the balls to get the job done.

It had perfect pacing and Mirren was outstanding in the role. I think the initial shock of getting a mainly theatre and movie actress in the main role gave ITV the momentum to follow it up over the next few years with equal success. For me, the first and second series stood out from all the others, Lynda LaPlante's script for the first one had tension but also humour and you were on the edge of your seat the whole time.

Maria Bello has recently reprised the role of Tennison on U.S. TV with some success.

Robbie Coltrane as Cracker
Robbie Coltrane as Cracker

1990s British TV Cop Favourites, Cracker - 1993

Another cop show got our attention in 1993, the wonderful 'Cracker' starring Robbie Coltrane, fresh from his success in Tootie Fruity.

Cracker was probably the first TV show of its kind in that it was about a criminal psychologist, a man who gets inside the heads of criminals and tries to guess on their next move to enable crimes to be solved.

Cracker, Eddie 'Fitz' Fitzgerald is a flawed genius, just the kind we like.

As he described himself " I drink too much, I smoke too much, I gamble too much, I am too much."

Other characters in the show are there to support him at work and at home. His long-suffering wife still adores him but has began to consider self-preservation. Other people become enablers along the way but Cracker, much like 'House' is not a man to take at face value, one minute he loves you, the next, who knows?

Cracker had lots of cliff-hangers and also lots of Cracker interviewing criminals and getting inside of their heads for our amusement - he strung us all along and we let him!

1990s British TV Drama - Pride and Prejudice - 1995

This TV series version of Pride and Prejudice is still considered to be THE best period drama ever made on British TV. You would find few who will argue with that because it has such quality.

Based on Jane Austen's Regency period novel, it was shot with huge attention to detail, using English villages which still have Regency buildings and features and also featured beautiful stately homes and pretty rural locations in Hampshire and the Peak District.

Add to this landscape some good actors - Jennifer Ehle, an American (with a British actress mother, Rosemary Harris) as Elizabeth Bennett, Colin Firth, a very sexy Mr D'arcy, Alison Steadman as Mrs Bennett and Benjamin Whitrow as the brow beaten father, Mr Bennett.

The series was shot in 6 episodes of 55 minutes each and was perfectly paced, each episode leaving us on a cliffhanger.

Andrew Davies script was perfection itself, borrowing sometimes word for word from Austen's novel but with a huge dash of humour.

We start off disliking the proud, arrogant D'Arcy but you can't stay angry at Colin Firth for long and eventually, (spoiler alert...), Elizabeth gets her man! But she's quite a catch as well.

Pride and Prejudice has set the standard for other period dramas to follow, so far, it remains unmatched.

Cast of 'This Life'
Cast of 'This Life'

1990s British Drama - This Life - 1996

'This Life' was a show about young people sharing a flat together in the mid-90s.

It lasted for only two massively successful series and because of that, it is considered a classic.

To make another series would have ruined the whole thing - it is as self-contained a 'story' in its 32 episodes.

The 2nd series ended with a For Sale sign up outside of the house and the idea was that a new bunch of young people would move in and the third series would concentrate on them. However, even with a script in place, it was decided to end the show on a high and it was never remade, other than a one-off episode in 2006 to catch up with the 5 main characters 10 years on.

'This Life' was about solicitors (lawyers) and had 'dull' written all over it but it was actually about a bunch of over-sexed twenty somethings living it large in North London. Along the way, there were drugs, homosexuality, AIDS, STDs, you name it, they encountered it.

Stand out performances came from a number of actors who have gone on to bigger and better roles, Andrew Lincoln played the lovely, kind but gullible Egg.

Jack Davenport played Miles, sometimes disliked for his homophobia but then pities for his problems with his disaffected girlfriend. Jack has enjoyed a successful movie career and can be seen in the US musical drama, Smash.

Daniela Nardini played the lovelorn and feisty Anna. Daniela has appeared in many very good roles on British TV and continues to appear in the theatre.

Chris Ecclestone, Gina McKee, Mark Strong and Daniel Craig.  In the background, the iconic Tyne Bridge.
Chris Ecclestone, Gina McKee, Mark Strong and Daniel Craig. In the background, the iconic Tyne Bridge.

1990s British Drama, Our Friends in The North - 1996

And finally, to the last of my top 5 1990s drama shows - 'Our Friends in the North'.

'Our Friends in the North' was set in my part of the country, north-east England, it had the tagline, 'Three decades, four friends and the world that shaped their lives'.

It was certainly an ambitious series, covering, as it did, 1964 to 1995.

We got to see the events in the UK and the world through the eyes of the four main characters Geordie, Tosker, Nicky and Mary.

All manner of political events were covered including the Miners' Strike, various UK elections, the US civil rights movement and Britain's great 1987 storm (the worst hurricane in our history).

It was originally written as a play and performed by the Royal Shakespeare Company but its transition to screen had always proved difficult because of the political references, some of them not that old.

The stars of 'Our Friends In The North' have all gone on to have tremendous stage and screen careers - Gina McKee, the only true native of North-East England (born in Peterlee, Durham) starred in Notting Hill as Bella, Hugh Grants disabled sister. Gina won three major awards for her portrayal as Mary in Our Friends in The North, including the BAFTA. She is an actress with amazing poise and has a quiet intensity; she also used this to good effect when playing Irene Forsyte in the Forsyte Saga.

Mark Strong continues to make a name for himself as a stage actor of some distinction and also regularly appears in Hollywood movies, Most recently he plated a baddie in 'John Carter'.

Christopher Eccleston played Nicky in 'Our Friends In The North' and is probably most well known in the UK for playing Dr Who. He also starred in the Dany Boyle movie, Shallow Grave.

The most well-known of the four main characters is Daniel Craig, now most famous as James Bond but also well known for his recent role in 'Girl With The Dragon Tattoo'.

'Our Friends In The North' was written by Peter Flannery. It covered three decades and was seen as an ambitious piece, especially as a play. Flannery wanted to portray Britain through the eyes of ordinary people caught up in political and social events and he did so by using a part of the UK badly affected by recent political decision-making. He himself hails from Jarrow, very close to Newcastle upon Tyne where 'Our Friends in The North' is set.

In 2000, 'Our Friends In The North' was voted at #25 as one of the Top 100 TV Shows ever made in the United Kingdom. Only right then, that I include it here.

I hope you have enjoyed this look at the Best of British TV Shows in the 1990s. It's turned out to be a bit more 'epic' than I expected.

Thanks so much for reading.

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Comments 19 comments

Jools99 profile image

Jools99 4 years ago from North-East UK Author

Michael, many thanks for your comment - yes, Our Friends In The North had quite a few stars in it before they were well known, it was a really good show.


michael ely profile image

michael ely 4 years ago from Scotland

Really good. A lot of shows i remember and really liked. Our friends in the north was really good an dyes i remember it when the actors were mostly unknowns rather than fairly big stars. Voted up.


Jools99 profile image

Jools99 4 years ago from North-East UK Author

logos831, many thanks for stopping by and leaving your kind comment - I appreciate it. Hope you get a chance to see some of these shows on You Tube or PBS.


Logos831 profile image

Logos831 4 years ago from somewhere, ca

I love Ab Fab and Prime Suspect is my favorite detective series of all time! I tried to watch the U.S. one but it's completely different. I just can't get into the U.S.'s crime shows, the British definitely have an up on us in that area. The writing and character development is far superior. I'm really interested in checking out the other shows you described too. Thanks for all your movie and tv show hubs, they are fun to read!


teej 4 years ago

The 'This Life' house was in Sarf London, innit!


Jools99 profile image

Jools99 4 years ago from North-East UK Author

Rosemay, thanks for your comment. Yes, the Diana video is quite moving.


Rosemay50 profile image

Rosemay50 4 years ago from Hawkes Bay - NewZealand

British comedy is the best. I have enjoyed most of the programs you have mentioned here.

It was nice to watch the Diana video and remember too.

Thank you


Jools99 profile image

Jools99 4 years ago from North-East UK Author

I am a big comedy fan full stop. I also love American comedies like Cheers, Frasier, Friends and more recently Mike and Molly and Cougar Town. The quality of the writing in U.S. comedies is sometimes lacking in UK comedies; they don't have the staying power of some US comedies.


AudreyHowitt profile image

AudreyHowitt 4 years ago from California

I love British comedy--it is so funny and so over the top!


Jools99 profile image

Jools99 4 years ago from North-East UK Author

Jackie, thanks for the comment. 'As Time Goes By' is still shown regularly on GOLD channel here; Judy Dench is great at comedy.


Jackie Lynnley profile image

Jackie Lynnley 4 years ago from The Beautiful South

Had to stop for the Diana part. Who wouldn't like Diana? I can't imagine.

The only English shows I watch are on PBS every Sat night. I love "As Time Goes by" with Judith Dench.


Jools99 profile image

Jools99 4 years ago from North-East UK Author

It's weird you mention Cold Feet because I was going to include it. I watched every episode and I also own it on video (showing my age!) so instead, I am going to write a hub just about Cold Feet.

Thanks for your comment.


daisydayz profile image

daisydayz 4 years ago from Cardiff

Ab Fab! Whoop! What about Cold Feet too, that was a great series, not sure it was 90's though.

I'm a fan of the old comedy series though, one foot in the grave, last of the summer wine, waiting for god, as time goes by! All brilliant.


Jools99 profile image

Jools99 4 years ago from North-East UK Author

Rob, thanks as always for your comment! I quite liked 'As Time Goes By', mainly because the scripts were consistently good.


Robwrite profile image

Robwrite 4 years ago from Bay Ridge Brooklyn NY

Hi Jools; I liked "One foot in the Grave" although the last episode surprised me. My favorite Brit-com of the 90s was "As Time Goes By". Great cast.

Nice work,

Rob


Jools99 profile image

Jools99 4 years ago from North-East UK Author

Flora, lovely to hear from you and thanks for your comment - the first 2 series of Prime Suspect were brilliant and Helen Mirren was great as Jane Tennison. I haven't seen the American version yet, though I do like Maria Bello so I think it will be pretty good.


Flora Breen Robison 4 years ago

I am a big fan of Absolutely Fabulous, Prime Suspect (Helen Mirren dull? No...), and Pride and Prejudice.

I remember watching Princess Diana 's funeral in the wee hours of the morning here. There was no way I was going to miss it.


Jools99 profile image

Jools99 4 years ago from North-East UK Author

Copywriter, thanks for the comment. It's a shame that you only get the BBC, Channel 4 and ITV have both made some great shows too over the years. However the BBC always seem to do drama and wildlife shows really well.


copywriter31 profile image

copywriter31 4 years ago from Port Neches

Not sure when EastEnders began production, but that series, "Are You Being Served" and "Masterpiece Theater" are 3 of my favorites. Unfortunately, our local PBS channel only provides limited programming from the BBC. I honestly believe Americans would take to the full-blown British BBC Network programming line-up.

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