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Best British TV Shows 2012

Updated on August 14, 2017

Why Do The British Make Good TV Shows?

This article was written in response to SimeyC asking a great question in the answers section.

"What are the best shows on British TV. What makes them so good?"

Like most Western nations, when it comes to TV shows, Britain has a mixture of good and bad; TV in the UK at the moment is overrun with reality TV.

But there is still much to admire on British TV, we still make great TV shows but perhaps not often enough.

This hub, I hope, will answer SimeyC's question by giving examples of the best British TV shows and trying to suggest reasons for their success.

British TV shows are enjoying something of a renaissance of late with 2012 being one of the best years for some time - Sherlock, Downton Abbey, Upstairs Downstairs and Luther all kept British bottoms on seats and 2013 looks like being another great year for British TV.

Sherlock - the wonderful Benedict Cumberbatch
Sherlock - the wonderful Benedict Cumberbatch
The cast of Downton Abbey - Britain's most successful TV drama of 2011 ans 2012.
The cast of Downton Abbey - Britain's most successful TV drama of 2011 ans 2012.

Best British Drama

Sherlock (2011 & 2012)

Sherlock starring Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman is one of the most innovative TV dramas of recent years on British television.

The writers of the show took an enormous gamble when they decided to remake Sherlock Holmes again. Sherlock Holmes has an amazingly popular following and most of us know our Sherlock through actors like Basil Rathbone and Jeremy Brett, delivered in the correct timeframe.

The latest Sherlock TV incarnation though, made in 2011, brought Holmes up to date and had him solve his crimes using all of the tools at his disposal in the modern age.

It could have failed miserably but it didn't. It was a huge hit, winning many BAFTA Awards and also being a popular release when it came out on DVD.

Benedict Cumberbatch is perfect as Sherlock Holmes but he is made better by his wonderful sidekick, Martin Freeman as Dr. Watson. Freeman is all restraint to Cumberbatch's energetic, clever, charismatic Sherlock.

In its second series, shown in January 2012, the final TV episode, Reichenbach Falls was watched by 7.9 million viewers, that represented a third of all people watching TV that night, pretty good! In its three episodes, it never had less than 6.5 million viewers.

It is a well-written, well acted TV show which has all of Sherlock Holmes' best stories brought up to date, it shouldn't work but it does. I highly recommend it.

Which is your favourite?

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Best British Period Drama - Downton Abbey

Downton Abbey is written by Julian Fellowes. Julian won an Oscar for his period drama, Gosford Park and this should have shown us what he was capable of creating in this genre for the TV.

Downton Abbey has enjoyed huge success with its two TV series to date. Fellowes copies the same format as Upstairs Downstairs, with the 'help' downstairs and the landed gentry upstairs both leading separate but occasionally overlapping lives.

Surprisingly, it turns out that the downstairs segments are not filmed in the same place as the upstairs sectors so the upstairs and downstairs casts only see one another in scenes they are in together - I think this is a rather clever conceit because when you watch Downton Abbey, you are completely taken in with the idea that they're all together at the same time.

The period in which Downton Abbey is set is perfect too - the first series covers the period leading up to the First World War; Britain at peace and all is well with the family then it is all turned upside down in the second series, Britain at war, Ireland on the verge of independence, woman's emancipation is full flow and those below stairs begin to doubt their rather lowly place in the world.

Fellowes is an accomplished film and TV writer and his plot lines are wonderful.

Every week, viewers are tuning into more drama, above and below stairs. There are lots of cliffhanfgers and some great love stories.

The acting is great, the writing is great and the locations look fabulous.

Downton Abbey returned to British TV screens in September 2012 with Series 3; loyal viewers sent it to the top of the British TV ratings again thanks to great story lines and a real rear-jerker episode. No more on this subject because I would hate to spoil it for US and Canadian viewers.

Downton Abbey found itself in a pitched battle in Christmas 2012 with the BBC's runaway success show in 2012, Call the Midwife.

Originally scheduled to run at exactly the same time on ITV and BBC, they 2 TV channels have agreed to stagger them and not put them in direct competition with one another!

This is great news for fans of both of these wonderful TV shows - they can watch both!

I watched both TV shows during the Christmas break and think that Call the Midwife just edged it!

Malcolm Tucker - the 'Caledonian Mafia', don't get on his bad side!
Malcolm Tucker - the 'Caledonian Mafia', don't get on his bad side! | Source

British Comedy - Miranda

Miranda Hart is the star of the eponymous 'Miranda' a show which should not be a hit but it is. For many years, British TV sitcoms have tended not to have laughter tracks; the Royle Family really changes the way British comedy was made but Miranda bucks that trend.

Miranda is a big girl; she is tall and she is certainly not the slimmest lady on TV. She is somewhat clumsy and Miranda Hart has made this clumsy, oafish girl a hit because she plays her like a real person. We don't laugh at her, we laugh with her. The other characters in the show play stooges to the wonderful Miranda Hart. The laughs come out of her failures and minor successes. The farce is really good. You laugh out loud when you watch Miranda - it doesn't try to make the comedy clever, it is written just for the laughs and this has bucked the trend lately.

Miranda surprised British audiences in 2012 with a 'serious' acting role as Chummy in Call The Midwife. She showed in that British drama that she is not a one-trick pony and went on to win a Best Supporting Actress Award at the TV Choice Awards.

British Stand-Up

Other good comedy on British TV lately has been provided by the many great stand up comedians we have - I would pick Sarah Millican and Jimmy Carr as amongst the best live.

Both Jimmy and Sarah have also made successful transitions to TV; Sarah has her own show and appears regularly on one of British TV's most popular daytime TV shows, Loose Women and Jimmy appears as a regular panellist on a variety of shows but also hosts the great comedy quiz show, 8 out of 10 Cats.

Celebrity Juice

And we excel at TV comedy panel shows - in 2011 and 12 there can be only one winner - Celebrity Juice, presented by a (fake) presenter, Keith Lemon. His script is very, very naughty and he gets away with a lot of dirty stuff, hidden in double entendres. He also recently starred in a movie.

Other popular and well-made panel shows include Loose Women (daytime TV), Have I Got News For You (political satire quiz show) and QI, with Stephen Fry in the hot seat as host as excellent and acerbic as ever.

The Thick of It

For me though, the absolute best comedy on British TV was 'The Thick of It', a political comedy which goes behind the scenes of the British government, giving us the really nasty and crazy stuff that politicians and spin doctors are involved in. It has THE best baddie in a comedy show, Malcolm Tucker - the man is an evil genius but boy can he curse!

I would have included a video but I dare not for fear of being banned by Hub Pages, you have never heard so much, no holds barred swearing. Malcolm Tucker is known by his colleagues as 'The Caledonian Mafia', a Scotsman with the foulest temper in history but a spin doctor and political genius par excellence. I heartily recommend a visit to You Tube to see him in full flow - please ensure your head phones are plugged in!

American TV recently made their own version of The Thick of It called VEEP, starring Julia Louis Dreyfus.

Best British Wildlife TV Shows

David Attenbrough continues to make amazing TV shows.

Among the best TV wildlife shows over the last two decades have been Life On Earth, The Living Planet and Trails of Life.

Attenbrough doesn't make the touchy feely stuff where every animal is cute enough to put in your basket and bring home. He shows the earth in its real form - sometimes beautiful, sometimes cruel but always fascinating.

Other great natural history TV shows include 'Coast' which concentrated on Britain's varied coastline but covers geography, geology, history and archaeology and Big Cat Diaries a fascinating TV show showing a month in the life of African lions and tigers.

The BBC put a huge amount of money from their budget into natural history TV shows and most of the best on TV are on the BBC's channels. Viewer numbers are always high.

Coronation Street
Coronation Street

Best British Soap Operas

In Britain, we do like our soap operas.

Eastenders, Coronation Street and Emmerdale are our three most popular TV soap operas.

Coronation Street has been on British TV screens since the early 1960s.

Emmerdale has been around since the early 70s (as Emmerdale Farm) and EastEnders is the new kid on the block; its first episode was shown in 1985.

We don't do soap operas like the USA - not for us the lives of the rich and famous, not for us Dallas or Dynasty.

For some strange reason we prefer our TV soap operas to be about people who seem, on the face of it, to be a bit like us - except of course, they're not like us at all; all of their neighbourhoods have murderers, shoplifters, drug users etc etc but they all still like a pint in the Old Vic or the Rovers Return or The Woolpack....just like the rest of us.

Soap Operas in Britian would probably seem a bit odd to people in other parts of the world but I think we find it easier to empathise with shows which try to model themselves on the public (good and bad) and that makes viewing a bit more addictive.

Historic British TV

Best BritishTV Period Drama - Adaptations of Classic Novels

Well, the British TV professionals are pretty good at adapting classic novels for TV and we spend a lot of money on them.

Whilst the movie version of Pride and Prejudice was a huge hit making many millions of dollars at the cinema, it was not a patch on the BBC adaptation of the same Jane Austen story by the BBC in 1995.

It starred Colin Firth and Jennifer Ehle as Mr Darcy and Elizabeth Bennett and was an enormous critical success which went on to sell many millions of copies on DVD and reappears, even now, on satellite TV.

There have been some cracking adaptations over the years. You can read about some of them on another of my hubs about Charles Dickens Books to Film.

Jane Austen has been a popular novelist when it comes to adaptations for TV. As well as Pride and Prejudice, we have also seen Emma, Persuasion , Northanger Abbey and Mansfield Park adapted to good effect for TV.

I think we're good at reproducing Britain in the past because we're British, simple as that and there always seems to be an audience for historical dramas.

Two of the most popular shows in recent years have been The Tudors, which whilst not based on a novel is certainly based on one of England's greatest soap opera families and Call The Midwife, set in the period immediately after WW2.

I will be back with more about great British TV soon - some stuff on the sixties and seventies and also the 1990s.

You can also read my individual sitcom articles by clicking on my profile.


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