When TIME TV critic James Poniewozik published a list of his all-time top 100 TV series, he left out Fawlty Towers altogether. His credibility immediately took a downturn on this side of the Atlantic -- as did the veracity of any list that tries to do too much. In assessing the top 10 series of all time, this list concentrates on British productions and draws a little on the TIME list, somewhat on The Guardian's list of dramas but mostly on a desire to reprise quality entertainment.
Dr Who's first appearance in November 1963 gave few hints there would be another 10 of that name and the series would last nearly 50 years. However, the doctor must have known, being a time traveller in his trusty Tardis, a police telephone box. From the first doctor, William Hartnell, to Matt Smith, the 11th time lord, for such he is, the series has provided stimulating work for some of Britain's most talented actors, including Patrick Troughton, Jon Pertwee and Tom Baker, and many talented writers and directors.
Fawlty Towers knew that less is more. The inimitable spoof of British hotel life ran just 12 episodes, six in 1975 and six in 1979. It left the world wanting more and every episode, in the hands of writer/actors John Cleese and Connie Booth, became a classic. Cleese played hotel owner Basic Fawlty, the "middle-aged brilliantined stick insect" ( in the words of his wife Sybil played by Prunella Scales). Booth and Andrew Sachs were the waiting staff and the series included cameos from highly rated guest artists.
One of the most influential television series of all time, Monty Python's Flying Classic began in 1969 and soon gave the world a cult classic. From the Ministry of Silly Walks to the Cheese Shop and the Dead Parrot, the sketches are immortal, the films fantastic, even inspiring a musical, Spamalot. The talents of the original crew, John Cleese, Graham Chapman, Terry Gilliam, Eric Idle, Terry Jones and Michael Palin, spread in many directions after the show's end in 1974 -- for example, they kept making Python films through the 1970s, ending with The Meaning of Life in 1983.
Patrick McGoohan plays a secret agent who has resigned but finds himself abducted and taken to what seems like an idyllic village. He is addressed as "No. 6" and insists throughout he is not a number but a name -- and constantly tries to escape.The 17 episodes were largely filmed in the Welsh village of Portmeirion, which hosts re-enactments of the series. In examining the core issues of freedom and identity, as well as science and art, The Prisoner set a new direction for the genre.
Not so much a series, and not so much a soap, Granada TV's Coronation Street is a way of life -- one that no amount of character and direction change can alter. Its first episode was December 1960, introducing the fictional northern town of Weatherfield and The Rover's Return. Characters became household names, from the sniping, sharp-tongued Ena Sharples to the long-lasting Ken Barlow. Storylines reflected the times and twice a week the haunting opening clarinet notes were a siren call to revisit family favourites.
Helen Mirren's remarkable run as TV detective Jane Tennison in Prime Suspect began in 1992 and ended in 2006, having gained critical acclaim and awards on both sides of the Atlantic. PBS, which aired it in America, even claimed it transformed the crime series genre. International awards included Emmies for the series and for the actress. The show's encore appearance, "Prime Suspect 7: The Final Act" in late 2008, sees Tennison driving herself to solve one last case despite fighting age, death in the family, drink and the desire to retire.
Morecambe & Wise
Eric Morecambe and Ernie Wise are among the most loved British comedy duos of all time. Their double act was an already seasoned vaudeville staple when they first appeared on TV in 1954 but the 1968 appearance of The Morecambe and Wise Show shot them to stardom. The series ran until 1977 and produced such catchphrases as, "What do you think of it so far?" and "Tea, Ern?" Their talent, their theme song "Bring Me Sunshine" and their wide range of guest stars brought top ratings for a decade.
The Office's 2001 to 2003 run set the scene for a new direction in low-key, mockumentary style, laid-back and underplayed humour. Writer, director and actor Ricky Gervais struck a rich vein with the series that totalled 14 episodes, produced two Golden Globes, and has had spin-off in several countries, notably the USA. It began slowly, as audiences took a while to assimilate the genre, but rose above that to win great popular acclaim and give Gervais a BAFTA award for Best Comedy Performance in 2002 -- which he repeated the following year.
The 13-part series I,Claudius, based on the book by Robert Graves, appeared in 1976 and set a high standard of quality drama. With Derek Jacobi in the title role, it examines the aristocrat's ability to use his physical shortcomings, a limp and stutter, to downplay his threat to others and survive the bloodletting of life at the top of the Roman Empire. It begins about 23 BC and covers the reigns of Augustus Caesar, Tiberius and Caligula and Claudius' own difficult rule, but natural death in, 54 AD.
The third series of Downton Abbey is set to air in late 2012, continuing the lives of the Grantham household and servants that captured imaginations and awards from its first appearance in 2010. The setting borrows a little from the previous generation's "Upstairs Downstairs" but the writing and the characters bring a new pace and life to modern perception of the early 20th century. It opens with news of the sinking of the Titanic in 1912 and the loss of the estate's heir and season two ends with happiness ahead "upstairs" and some rocky roads ahead "downstairs."
- The Guardian: The Guardian's top 50 television dramas of all time
- TIME Entertainment: All-TIME 100 TV Shows
- EP Guides: Fawlty Towers
- BBC: Dr Who
- H2G2: Monty Python - a brief history
- IMDb: The Prisoner
- Daily Record: Corrie at 50
- PBS: Masterpiece; Prime Suspect
- IMDb:The Morecambe & Wise Show
- IMDb: The Office