This year the BBC celebrates a century at the forefront of British broadcasting and media. Beginning with radio and then inaugurating the “world’s first regular high-definition public TV service” in 1936, the BBC has been a pioneer from its beginnings to today.

As the original British public service broadcaster, the BBC has strived to adhere to the core principles stated by its first director general, John Reith, to “inform, educate, entertain”, while also making (and breaking) its own rules. In celebration of this, we at the BFI have been considering those televisual turning points from the BBC that have helped to shape social attitudes, remake genres and transform television itself. In short, those programmes that were truly ‘gamechanging’.

So what constitutes a gamechanger?

These are the shows that revolutionised the broadcasting landscape by defining and developing entire genres; here is the creative talent that broke ground to represent diverse communities across the UK in new and meaningful ways; these are the programmes whose impact changed social attitudes by challenging the status quo; and the technological landmarks that shaped how we watch television today.

We considered TV that had a transformative impact, like the BBC’s natural history programming, which has enhanced our understanding of our world, and drama strands like The Wednesday Play whose Cathy Come Home influenced social attitudes to homelessness. We included technological landmarks like the outside broadcast of the Queen’s coronation in 1953, which heralded the arrival of television as the nation’s chosen medium. And we looked at the history of how underrepresented communities have been depicted on BBC TV through programmes like Empire Road, The Buddha of Suburbia and The Chinese Detective.

Guiding all of our thinking was the need to represent the remarkable range of the BBC’s programming. So, while landmark dramas such as I May Destroy You and Z Cars are included, so too are lifestyle programmes such as Gardeners’ World, entertainment such as Strictly Come Dancing, arts programmes like Monitor, music shows like Top of the Pops, pioneering current affairs programmes such as Panorama, and, of course, the BBC’s essential programming for children, from Sooty to Something Special.

This list has been shaped by contributors from across the BFI, who nominated titles for consideration to a core team of BFI curators and programmers, who then honed the list to the 100 programmes below. Contributors include curators, programmers, archivists, technical experts and many others – thanks to all of them for their passion and love of telly. We fiercely debated the importance of each title and, inevitably, had to lose some beloved favourites along the way.

But everything on this list has earned its place as a true television gamechanger and is a testament to the BBC’s vital output. Most of all, we’re excited to see how these gamechangers of the BBC’s first 100 years will influence and shape the programmes that come next.

– Lisa Kerrigan

1. Television Comes to London (1936)

The first British television documentary, showing the birth of television broadcasting at Alexandra Palace.

Television Comes to London (1936)
© BBC

How it changed TV

Here it is, the beginning of television in Britain! Though not strictly a programme, Television Comes to London is a newsreel which was made to document the construction of BBC television studios at Alexandra Palace and the opening night of BBC television in November 1936. It shows the rival Baird and Marconi-EMI broadcasting systems being trialled at the time, and a range of BBC staff installing equipment, testing cameras and preparing for transmission.

Few glimpses of early television survive, because programmes were broadcast live and there was no way of recording them. This newsreel, which was shot on film and later shown on television, provided a means of capturing the day for posterity as well as celebrating the opening of the television service. When the moment of live broadcast arrives in the documentary, actor Adele Dixon sings a song composed for the occasion extolling the “magic rays of light that bring television to you”. Television Comes to London reminds us that the ‘magic’ of TV was then, as it is now, a result of hard work behind the scenes. 

– Lisa Kerrigan

2. Ballet Negres (1946)

Excerpts from the repertoire of Europe’s first Black dance company, the Ballet Negres, presented with live music.

Ballet Negres (1946)
© BBC

How it changed TV

In between news reports and sports programmes, the mid-1940s BBC broadcast music and dance performances, some of which formed the emerging cutting-edge of British postwar art. This programme, broadcast before the Windrush period of migration from the Caribbean, features Europe’s first Black dance company.

The broadcast was gamechanging in more than one way: the BBC were giving a platform to new dance and also to young creatives. The pioneering dance company was founded by two young Jamaican dancers (Berto Pasuka and Richie Riley); the programme presenter was the performer, filmmaker and broadcaster, Trinidadian Edric Connor.

Behind the camera the programme gives us a window into the creative collaborations happening in postwar London. Composer Leonard Salzedo was known for working across the young UK dance scene. He was later principal conductor for the Scottish Ballet and even scored Hammer films. For him to score multiple Ballet Negres works, which portrayed scenes of African Caribbean folklore and traditions, demonstrates the cross-cultural possibilities for artists of the time. The musicians, the West African Rhythm Brothers, were in high demand in London’s nightclubs with their song in the Yoruba language, ‘Egbe Mi’.

For audiences, British ballet was still taking its early steps – from the first British ballet performances (Frederick Ashton’s ‘A Tragedy of Fashion’) in 1926 to becoming popular as a homefront entertainment in wartime – and there was still creative space for new types of movement in the homegrown ballet form. Ballet Negres’ repertory included scenes that feel modern. What we might now identify as contemporary movement, Pasuko, Riley and the BBC were comfortable badging as ballet.

– Arike Oke

3. BBC Proms (1947-)

A carnival of music made possible by BBC ingenuity.

BBC Proms (2013)
© BBC

How it changed TV

Henry Wood, the father of the Proms, wanted to “bring the greatest classical music to the widest possible audience” – a sentiment that chimed beautifully with Reithian values. The Henry Wood Promenade Concerts predate BBC broadcasting and made concert recitals popular by offering low-price tickets and allowing food and drink (and cigarettes) in to the Queen’s Hall where they took place. The Proms first joined forces with the BBC in the late 1920s; in 1941 they moved to the Royal Albert Hall after the blitz, and in 1947 the television broadcasts began. The BBC has always maintained the founding principles of the Proms (standing tickets for ‘Promenaders’ are still cheap), and their broadcasts have broadened the popularity of classical music in Britain.

The annual festival of classical music has provided the perfect test bed for innovations in broadcast technology. Stereo transmissions, HDTV, the digital terrestrial Red Button and binaural sound have all been tested at the Proms. But more than anything else, the television broadcasts have given the nation the chance to see world-class musicians, singers and conductors performing live in their living room, a feat that paved the way for everything from Live Aid to the BBC’s coverage of Glastonbury.

– Elinor Groom

4. The Coronation of Queen Elizabeth II (1953)

Epic and ambitious live coverage of the Queen’s coronation.

The Coronation of Queen Elizabeth II (1953)
© BBC

How it changed TV

A defining moment in the history of broadcasting. By far the most ambitious television outside-broadcast attempted up to this point, the coronation coverage marked a turning point in the attitude of people towards the medium of television, as it proved TV could relay a massive state occasion as competently as radio. The 1937 coronation had also been televised, but in less grand fashion and with no access to Westminster Abbey. This time, tellingly, cameras were allowed inside the abbey to capture the actual ancient ritual of the crowning itself.

Although only 2.3 million home sets were in operation at the time, it was estimated that 20 million people in the UK alone watched the broadcast, crowded around home sets or in public places. It was thought to be the first time the TV audience outnumbered the radio audience for any event. The near seven-hour broadcast was also relayed live to France, Holland and West Germany, and a copy was flown across the Atlantic the same day and broadcast immediately. The success of the technologically dazzling broadcast accelerated the sales of television sets across the nation. Almost overnight, television had come of age.

– Dick Fiddy

5. The Quatermass Experiment (1953)

Professor Quatermass’s experimental space rocket returns to Earth with two of its crew missing and the third infected by an alien organism.

The Quatermass Experiment (1953)

How it changed TV

There had been science fiction on British television before Quatermass – various stagings of Karel Capek’s robot comedy R.U.R. had been aired since the late 1930s, for example. But Nigel Kneale’s The Quatermass Experiment was the first to really hit the mark with viewers. Tales of streets emptying when it was broadcast have inevitably been oversold (there weren’t that many television sets around at the time, and the viewing figures were good but represented only a fraction of the population), but there was no denying the considerable impact the serial had on those who did see it.

This was grown-up sci-fi of a kind that had been seen in the early examples of the American sci-fi film boom of the 1950s, but which was rare on the small screen at the time. Intelligent, clever and popular enough to warrant a pair of sequels, it was the start of a whole new strain of British television drama, the effects of which would be felt in shows like Doctor Who, Out of the Unknown, Survivors and many more. And the big-screen adaptation in 1955 effectively launched Hammer Films down the road that would lead to their much-loved gothic horrors.

– Kevin Lyons

  • What’s left of The Quatermass Experiment (just two episodes of the live broadcast were recorded) are included with follow-ups Quatermass II (1955) and Quatermass and the Pit (1958) in a box set issued by 2Entertain in 2005.
  • Find out more

Where to begin with Nigel Kneale

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By Adam Scovell

Where to begin with Nigel Kneale

6. Panorama (1953-)

British television’s longest-running current affairs programme.

Panorama (1976)
© BBC

How it changed TV

Panorama started life as a magazine-style programme featuring different sections relating to news and current affairs, but over its first decade developed into a home for harder-edged investigative journalism. With the formidable Richard Dimbleby at the helm between 1955 and 1965, it became a trusted source for in-depth reporting.

Its thoughtful, even-handed approach sometimes attracted criticisms that it was staid and ‘worthy’ – especially when compared to the lively fast-paced new ITV current affairs programmes This Week and World in Action. But it transcended such criticisms and has become a rock in the schedules, delivering long-form documentary programmes week after week for nearly 70 years.

Controversy surrounded a 1995 edition featuring an interview with Princess Diana when – on the 25th anniversary of its broadcast – evidence of dubious practices surrounding the interview came to light. An independent review found that the interview was secured by deception and breached BBC rules. The series continued to break headline-making stories, with editions covering sex crimes at the Vatican, abuse in care homes, illegal dealings at FIFA and the Omagh bombings. We should also mention that, with its famous 1957 spoof report on the ‘spaghetti harvest’ failure in Italy, Panorama began the long tradition of TV April Fool jokes.

– Dick Fiddy

7. Zoo Quest (1954 to 1963)

A BBC team accompany experts from London Zoo as they travel in search of live specimens for the zoo.

Zoo Quest (1954)

How it changed TV

London Zoo’s suggestion of getting a BBC crew to record their trip in search of (initially) snakes inadvertently started a whole new genre of television. Equally importantly, the series introduced David Attenborough as a wildlife reporter. Up until that time, wild animals featured on television were brought into the studio from captivity – the idea of filming exotic species on location was considered impractical by the BBC because of the bulky nature of the 35mm cameras. Attenborough and his team asked their paymasters to let them use lightweight 16mm cameras, and despite misgivings that they produced inferior pictures, they eventually agreed.

The films they brought back proved hugely popular with the audience, neatly combining fascination with education. Over the ensuing years the team travelled to relatively lesser-seen locations such as Madagascar, New Guinea, Guiana and Borneo. By 1963, attitudes towards collecting animals for zoos had changed (there was a movement to only collect creatures in danger of extinction or with threatened habitats) and the series ended. But the genre it started continued to flourish, with subsequent David Attenborough-fronted BBC ventures – such as Life on Earth and The Blue Planet – globally acknowledged as the leaders in their field.

– Dick Fiddy

8. The Sooty Show (1955 to 1992)

A softly-spoken puppet bear wreaks naughty mischief on his master.

Sooty (1952)
© BBC

How it changed TV

In silly slapstick enjoyed by children and adults, glove puppet chums Sooty and Sweep provided a hilariously down-to-earth, near-subversive north-country antidote to the goody-two-shoes politeness of taut-stringed puppet programmes like Muffin the Mule. Bradford-born engineer Harry Corbett little knew how he’d change children’s television forever when he bought a puppet known as ‘Teddy’ on Blackpool Pier in rainy July 1948, to use in the magic act he did at kids’ parties around Leeds. Having got him a little box to wield his wand out of, he blacked in Teddy’s ears and copyrighted him ‘Sooty’. 

The naughty little bear caused a sensation on television, debuting on Talent Night (1952). Sooty delighted less in magic than in wreaking mute havoc upon long-suffering Mr Corbett; perhaps squirting him charmingly with a water pistol, or, more endearingly still, smacking him lovingly on the head with a hammer.

Harry’s brother Leslie operated silly Sweep, the squeaky, sad-eyed dog who arrived in 1957; Harry’s wife Marjorie handled breathy-voiced Soo, the girl-bear who appeared in 1964. By the time he reluctantly handed Sooty over to son Matthew, business-savvy Harry had developed a supremely successful British TV puppet franchise, still functioning today; and while Sooty’s violence diminished, the idiosyncratic cottage-industry eccentricity remained. The Queen was a fan: introduced in the 1950s to Harry and Sooty, she asked “has he bonked you on the head with his hammer this morning?”  

– Vic Pratt

9. A Man from the Sun (1956)

An early example of a largely Black cast reflecting the Windrush generation’s experience of arriving in Britain.

A Man from the Sun (1956)

How it changed TV

To see a single play on British television in 1956 that told a story of immigration from the point of view of the Windrush arrivals themselves was a truly gamechanging moment in broadcasting. 

Written by the highly-respected BBC producer and writer John Elliot, A Man from the Sun undoubtedly betrays some values that now seem patronising and undramatic, with a strong emphasis on the importance of education and integration into society. Nevertheless, actor Earl Cameron’s dignity and authority was put to good use as the moral centre of the piece, providing calm and trusted advice to his fellow immigrants. In calling for communities to be unsegregated and afforded dignity and respect in their own right, the play was remarkably progressive for the period. It didn’t shy away from painting a picture of a largely hostile white society that would test the resolve of Black communities. 

The play’s themes of respect for one another, of mutual tolerance and of the importance of education are all things to learn from even today. 

– Marcus Prince

10. ​​​​Hancock’s Half Hour / Hancock (1956 to 1960) 

A lauded radio show moves to television and defines the British sitcom.

Hancock’s Half Hour (1960)
© BBC

How it changed TV

Tony Hancock was the man who distinguished British scripted comedy from both the music hall variety act and the relatively toothless American-style sitcoms of the time. In Hancock’s Half Hour he starred as the pompous, underachieving comedian Anthony Aloysius Hancock, who lived alongside slippery chancer Sid (Sid James). The series charted their thwarted attempts to gain money and success. Hancock’s Half Hour also marked the growing prominence of television in British homes; it was a hit on BBC radio before transferring to screen as the ITV network began. The TV series took the stories from the radio and added visual gags and expressive eyebrows. There are few recordings that survive, but those that do feature razor-sharp writing and performances, and embody the chaotic energy of live comedy with improvised lines and corpsing from the cast.

The show’s writers, Ray Galton and Alan Simpson, perfected their piercing observations of class in Steptoe and Son (also rightfully on this list), but this was the pinnacle of Tony Hancock’s career. Hancock himself was ill at ease with his fame, growing depressed and antagonistic toward his co-stars (James was gone by the final series). Yet the mix of pathos and simmering frustration of Hancock’s Half Hour endures and echoes in almost every British sitcom since.

– Elinor Groom

11. The Eurovision Song Contest (1956-) 

Europe comes melodiously together in a good-natured multinational music contest – or does it?  

Eurovision Song Contest (1976)
© BBC

How it changed TV

Technologically ambitious and massively influential in style, staging and global reach, the Eurovision Song Contest ushered in a new era of co-operative international television. Organised by the European Broadcasting Union, this multi-lingual music contest is still held annually and invites each member state to submit an original song, to be performed live as part of a lengthy stage show, simulcast all over the world. The songs were subsequently awarded points, from ‘nul’ to ‘douze’, as decided by international juries and, latterly, televoters, with the winning nation to host the following year’s show. 

In theory, the event was to be a simple celebration of the power of song for a gracious global community that knows no borders; in practice, international politics and national temperament have inevitably played their part. The contest has often been perceived as a fix, wherein chummy nations unfairly award each other the coveted ‘douze points’, and can be construed as a forum for the oblique airing of international grievances (the UK, for example, has, in recent years, received barely more than ‘nul points’ from all and sundry).

It didn’t help, perhaps, that for donkeys’ years, dry-chuckling national-treasure and mickey-taker Terry Wogan hosted the programme on UK television, archly encouraging British viewers to take the contest less seriously than the EBU demanded. Often infuriating but also fun, sometimes cloying and frequently kitsch, of late it has also proved itself to be proudly provocative and diverse. Eurovision enjoys an enthusiastic, devoted following – especially among the LGBTQ+ community. It remains a sparkling, spectacular, thoroughly unstoppable annual treat.    

– Vic Pratt

12. The Sky at Night (1957-)

All the mysteries of the cosmos are brought to Earth in this pioneering astronomy lovefest.

The Sky at Night (2014)
© BBC

How it changed TV

It’s astonishing how The Sky at Night took the most expansive subject and created the cosiest mainstay of BBC television schedules. For 65 years (and counting) viewers have been given a monthly glimpse into space, sharing the thrills of comets, meteor showers, satellites and manned space missions. When it launched, presenter Patrick Moore pitched himself not as a professional astronomer but an amateur enthusiast like the viewers at home, learning the science behind cosmic phenomena from his guests and friends, such as Professor Brian May. From the 2000s onwards, Pete Lawrence’s segment on practical stargazing has added a proactive DIY element that empowers all wannabe astronomers.

Since Moore’s death in 2012 the show has been fronted by a team of bonafide astrophysicists: Dr Lucie Green, Professor Chris Lintott and Dr Maggie Aderin-Pocock. While they have academic credentials, this trio have maintained the atmosphere of geeky glee so crucial to The Sky at Night’s appeal. That warm, empathetic approach is what makes The Sky at Night so enduringly accessible and loved, expressing the enthusiasm and wonder of the space age far beyond any other science programme.

– Elinor Groom

13. Monitor (1958 to 1965)

Landmark, innovative arts magazine programme edited and presented by Huw Wheldon.

Monitor (1962)
© BBC

How it changed TV

Driven with impassioned energy by Huw Wheldon, Monitor demonstrated that broadcasting about the arts could be both erudite and engaging for a wide audience. Formerly a producer in the BBC’s ‘Talks’ department, Wheldon became presenter then editor of Monitor upon its launch. He embraced the role with enormous zeal, presenting and narrating, as well as interviewing its subjects, who ranged from Henry Moore and Alfred Hitchcock to Spike Milligan and Robert Graves.

But though Wheldon was Monitor’s figurehead, he was also a visionary, if demanding, patron of new talent, and encouraged the likes of John Schlesinger, Ken Russell, Melvyn Bragg and producer Nancy Thomas to make segments that were often radical in their form. Pop Goes the Easel, Russell’s 1962 programme about four young British Pop artists, for instance, included a nightmarish dream sequence featuring artist Pauline Boty. Elgar, Russell’s film from the same year, mixed dramatic re-enactments and a dazzling interplay of image and music, and helped restore the reputation of the British composer. Wheldon stepped down as presenter in 1964, handing the reins to Jonathan Miller, and would subsequently go on to be director of BBC Television from 1968 to 1975. But Monitor remains one of his greatest achievements, setting the bar for later arts programmes such as Omnibus (1967 to 2003), Arena (1975-), The South Bank Show (ITV, 1978-) and Imagine (2003-).

– James Bell

14. Grandstand (1958 to 2007) 

A five-hour marathon of sport, broadcast live every week for just shy of half a century.

Grandstand (1965)
© BBC

How it changed TV

Grandstand was the all-encompassing behemoth of sport on television, making all major national and international sporting tournaments comprehensible and entertaining to viewers at home. It took the BBC’s coverage of sporting events and packaged it with authoritative and characterful commentary, most famously from the personable David Coleman. Remembered by some for his gaffes – or ‘Colemanballs’ – the truth is Coleman managed to navigate a bewildering amount of fast-changing sport (not to mention the reams of paper from the teleprinter live-faxing results on air) with ease and expertise.

Grandstand was the brainchild of producer Bryan Cowgill, who thought to link many disparate sporting events into the studio and augment them with commentary, analysis and novel technology. The format made sport fun and appealing to a much wider viewership. A few years later he would do the same for football with Match of the Day, cementing and broadening the love of the national sport.

While Grandstand did have competitors, nothing matched the comprehensive reach of the BBC’s flagship. By the time it ended in 2007 it had indelibly shaped sporting fandom, and left behind the segments Football Focus and Final Score that continue today.

– Elinor Groom

15. Blue Peter (1958-)

The world’s longest running children’s TV programme is now part of our cultural DNA.

Blue Peter (2005)
© BBC

How it changed TV

The Blue Peter of the popular imagination is one of incontinent elephants, Brownie bonfire conflagrations and the over-zealous use of sticky-backed plastic. The reality is rather more potent. The programme helped to change the relationship television had with its audiences and, through its campaigning, showed that children can help to change lives, too.

The famous and covetable Blue Peter badge made its first appearance in 1963. As a recognition of achievement, it was one of a number of innovations introduced by legendary producer/editor Biddy Baxter that enabled greater interaction between the programme and the children that watched it. The green badge, introduced in 1988, even encouraged children to champion green causes. Long before Children in Need, Baxter also implemented the programme’s annual charity appeal. From a ‘Stampede’ (to which children donated postage stamps to support famine relief in Ethiopia) to the world’s biggest bring-and-buy sale in 2009, Blue Peter appeals have raised money for important causes in the UK and abroad. Importantly, they enabled children across the country to come together to contribute, while raising their awareness of underprivileged lives and empowering them to see that they can make a difference.

– Robin Baker

16. Morning in the Streets (1959)

BBC documentary finds its poetic voice.

Morning in the Streets (1959)

How it changed TV

TV documentary not as journalism – but as poetry. By 1959, the BBC had proven that small-screen documentary could report current affairs. Now came a horse of a different colour: a work of observational impressionism, evoking a morning in an unnamed northern English city without presenter or narrator but with lyricism, melancholy, wit and grace (The film was shot mostly in Liverpool but partly in areas of Greater Manchester). 

Working at the BBC’s Northern Film Unit, co-directors Denis Mitchell (a radio veteran on his way to becoming a legend of TV doc) and the more obscure Roy Harris pictorially alternate spontaneity with poise, pausing for evocative visual details. Meanwhile, aurally, Mitchell drew on his radio experience to imaginatively counterpoint their footage with separate audio recordings of interview material. Nothing quite like this had been done before. 

– Patrick Russell

17. Face to Face (1959 to 1962)

Starkly filmed interview series in which John Freeman questions notable public figures about their lives.

Face to Face (1959)
© BBC

How it changed TV

In a stylistic break from previous interview series, the simple format of Face to Face, with its unflinching focus and a tone that veered from confrontational to confessional, showed the power and intimacy of the close-up on television. Sketches of the interviewee by Polish artist Feliks Topolski were shown in each title sequence, before a figure in an armchair appeared, his or her face illuminated by a spotlight. John Freeman, who had previously been an MP and a Panorama reporter, issued probing questions from the dark while the camera remained closely focused on the subject. 

And what fascinating subjects. Face to Face included figures from the worlds of art, politics, psychology, literature and entertainment – from Martin Luther King to Carl Jung. 

Freeman asked deeply personal questions, ranging from the interviewees’ childhoods to their religious beliefs, and the ‘as live’ nature of the interviews led to revealing results. It was occasionally felt that he pushed his guests too far, particularly in the emotional edition featuring TV presenter Gilbert Harding and the difficult questions posed to comedy star Tony Hancock. But, as Michael Parkinson put it, the series excelled because it “captured the flicker of expression that tells more than a thousand words”.

– Lisa Kerrigan

18. An Age of Kings (1960)

Uniquely ambitious serialisation of eight of Shakespeare’s history plays in 15 parts.

An Age of Kings (1960)
© BBC

How it changed TV

Shakespeare plays were regularly produced for television in the late 1950s, but with An Age of Kings producer Peter Dews had the innovative vision of presenting Shakespeare’s history plays – from Richard II through Henry IV, Henry V, Henry VI and Richard III – as a series, performed by a repertory cast and broadcast over several months. In presenting the plays chronologically, the series was able to show the development of different characters across the different plays, making An Age of Kings a project that truly realised the potential of adapting Shakespeare for a television audience.

Millions tuned in every fortnight from April to November 1960 to see the plays in hour long or 75-minute episodes, with a cast that included future stars such as Eileen Atkins, Judi Dench and Sean Connery. Robert Hardy’s performance as Prince Hal/Henry V was particularly well received. The episodes were performed live, initially from Riverside Studios and then from studios at the newly opened Television Centre. Tony Garnett, who was part of the cast, described the undertaking of staging the live drama as “utterly insane”. The BBC would go further in 1978 with the BBC Television Shakespeare, a project to produce all of Shakespeare’s plays for television, while The Hollow Crown (2012) would bring another vivid version of the Henriad to the BBC.

– Lisa Kerrigan

19. That Was the Week That Was (1962 to 1963) 

Biting satirical sketch show hosted by David Frost and featuring a new generation of comedians and commentators.

That Was the Week That Was (1962)
© BBC

How it changed TV

Television had previously steered clear of the controversy of satire, but this sharp and ‘live’ attack on those with power and influence brought the new wave of irreverent talents to the small screen. Part of a larger ‘satire boom’ that encompassed film, literature, revue and theatre, TW3 (as it became known) was not only revolutionary in its subject matter but also in its presentation style, which did away with artifice to feature the paraphernalia of the television studio in shot, including cameras, boom mikes, stagehands and scenery.

The series attracted many plaudits but also much criticism, especially from those in positions of authority, who were often the victims of the comic observations. It proved hugely popular with the viewing public, especially when the Profumo scandal provided the show with some of its most fertile ammunition. That Was the Week That Was ended abruptly at the end of 1963, as it was considered too incendiary to run during the election year of 1964, but its influence would continue through a slew of similar British programmes throughout the 1960s. It even reached the United States, with the launch of an American version on NBC (1964 to 1965), again hosted by Frost. 

– Dick Fiddy

20. Steptoe and Son (1962 to 1965, 1970 to 1974) 

Dialogue-driven sitcom following a widower father and son who live a hand-to-mouth existence running a rag-and-bone business.

Steptoe and Son (1962)
© BBC

How it changed TV

Writers Galton and Simpson had created one of the UK’s first successful television sitcoms when they transferred their radio hit Hancock’s Half-Hour to the small screen. After Hancock moved on to pursue new challenges, the BBC offered the writers the chance to create a series of unrelated half-hour projects, and one of these, The Offer, gave birth to Steptoe and Son. 

Previously, most successful sitcoms centred around established comedy talents playing characters (who often shared their names) engaged in gently amusing scenarios or wildly farcical situations. Steptoe and Son was different. For a start it featured ‘straight’ actors, not comedy stars, who were regularly antagonistic to each other, and engaged in heated arguments delivered with an intensity (and with fruity language) usually heard only in serious drama. Despite this, the dialogue was often painfully funny. 

This unusual combination proved immediately popular with the public, and the series quickly attracted huge viewing figures and no little controversy. Crucially, it heralded the birth of a more adult-oriented comedy genre that would go on to spawn such shows as Till Death Us Do Part and The Likely Lads. Equally importantly, it was the first UK sitcom to be format sold to the US (in 1965). Although that pilot failed, it paved the way for the successful transfer of Till Death Do Us Part (as All in the Family) and many other UK shows, including – eventually – a successful US version of Steptoe and Son (retitled in the US as Sandford and Son) 

– Dick Fiddy

21. Z Cars (1962 to 1978)

Social realism meets police procedural in this pivotal and disruptive northern drama series.

Z Cars (1962)

How it changed TV

Z Cars tore on to TV schedules in 1962, disrupting the BBC’s previously deferential and London-centric depiction of police work in Dixon of Dock Green. Set in Merseyside, it followed uniformed police officers on patrol in the fictional postwar town of Newtown (modelled on Kirkby), and found drama in the social issues of regional life. Z Cars struck a chord with its legions of viewers who appreciated the unflinching approach to police relations. The coppers weren’t all bent, but they were flawed; the iconic image of the troubled British detective was arguably originated by characters like Charlie Barlow (Stratford Johns), who fronted a sequence of spin-offs. 

Created by Troy Kennedy Martin, Z Cars was hugely influential in establishing the police drama as TV’s most hard-hitting and addictive genre, not least to Martin’s younger brother Ian who later created The Sweeney for the other channel. Series producer David Rose continued cultivating talent outside London as head of English Regional Drama in the 1970s, contributing striking productions for Play for Today and other programmes. While its legacy looms large, Z Cars stands on its own merit as a fast-paced, emotionally charged and ferociously entertaining police drama.

– Elinor Groom

22. Doctor Who (1963 to 1989, 2005-) 

The adventures of a human-like alien who travels through time and space.

Doctor Who (1963)
© BBC

How it changed TV

Beginning modestly in 1963 as a family-friendly tea-time adventure series, Doctor Who developed into the longest running TV sci-fi series in the world. The arrival of the Daleks – demonic deformed creatures encased in a mobile metal shell – heralded the future change of the production away from a history-based, semi-educational series, towards being a hard sci-fi creature-of-the-week show that combined fantasy adventure with philosophical ideas filtered through a peculiarly British lens. 

The massive success of that first Dalek adventure elevated the show to a new level, and provided a blueprint for the series for 40 years. But arguably the biggest gamechanging element of Doctor Who lies in how it inspired a generation of talents that followed, including Bill Bailey (who cites it as the reason he got interested in TV), Joseph Michael Straczynski (the US show-runner who names Terry Nation – creator of the Daleks – as one of his greatest inspirations), Grant Morrison (whose first writing job was for Doctor Who magazine) and writers Russell T Davies and Steven Moffat, who both became show runners on the show’s rebooted, 21st-century incarnation.

– Dick Fiddy

The 50 best Doctor Who moments

The 50 best Doctor Who moments

Tom Baker: the definitive Doctor Who?

By Kevin Lyons

Tom Baker: the definitive Doctor Who?

23. The Colony (1964)

Documentary showing the experiences of Caribbean immigrants living and working in Birmingham.

The Colony (1964)

How it changed TV

Billed as a portrayal of “a railwayman from St Kitts, a bus conductor from Jamaica, a family of singers from Trinidad and a nurse from Barbados”, The Colony stands apart as a documentary devoted to the voices and thoughts of recent Caribbean immigrants to Birmingham. Like Denis Mitchell (Morning in the Streets), director Philip Donnellan had a background in radio which led him to foreground the voices of his documentary subjects in favour of any kind of authoritative voiceover.

Crafting the documentary in this way meant that participants could speak at length about their experiences, their expectations and their disappointments. While current affairs programmes at this time regularly portrayed immigration as problematic in ways that could be sensationalist, Donnellan’s goal was simply to let people speak for themselves. The Colony is beautifully shot around Handsworth, and features songs from the Stewart family, who also appear in the documentary. Extracts from the programme would later be used by John Akomfrah in Handsworth Songs (1986).

– Lisa Kerrigan

24. The Great War (1964)

TV history becomes an art form.

Researching The Great War (1964)
© BBC

How it changed TV

History programmes have been a staple for so long, it’s easy to forget how they got there. The Great War was not the first TV history show, but it was a landmark for the genre in putting so much filmmaking prowess, historical scholarship and sheer resource into the telling. 

The BBC broadcast this First World War history 50 years after the beginning of that cataclysmic conflict, and the series would influence how it would thereafter be remembered. Highly debatable historiographically, it’s undeniably great telly. The scale astonishes: 26 episodes! So does the epic-yet-intricate filmic feel, which is missing from many modern presenter-led TV histories. 

A dense mosaic – woven of footage, stills, maps, interviews, narration and Wilfred Josephs’ inventive score – embroiders what is in essence an 11-hour prose-poem crafted for visceral impact. Often the editing echoes the ruthless rapidity of a machine gun. 

– Patrick Russell

25. The Wednesday Play (1964 to 1970)

Weekly drama strand that took the temperature of the nation and built a whole generation of talent.

Cathy Come Home (1966)
© BBC

How it changed TV

They’ve long since faded into history, but drama anthologies – offering a different ‘play’ every week (or month) – were once at the heart of Britain’s national conversation. TV plays drew massive audiences, hit the headlines and led political and social debates.

The Wednesday Play defiantly eschewed the familiar menu of classic drama and literary adaptations, with early producer James MacTaggart embracing his brief from BBC drama head Sydney Newman to produce plays rooted in the here and now.

The strand nurtured a wealth of emerging talent: producers Tony Garnett and Kenith Trodd, directors Ken Loach and Alan Clarke, writers Jim Allen and Dennis Potter. Many (though far from all) were working class, left wing and determined to open audiences’ eyes to urgent social problems.

Formally innovative as well as politically radical, their provocative use of documentary techniques and exploration of themes like sexuality, religion, the death penalty and backstreet abortion infuriated the rightwing press and moral campaigners. Anxious BBC bosses deemed Peter Watkins’ nuclear war drama The War Game (1966) “too horrifying for the medium of broadcasting” and pulled it before transmission. Most memorable of all was Ken Loach’s Cathy Come Home (1966), whose grim saga of a young couple driven to homelessness shocked the nation, and gave an early boost to the charity Shelter.

In 1970, a fading Wednesday Play morphed into Play for Today, which carried the torch for groundbreaking, challenging drama for another 14 years.

– Mark Duguid

26. Vision On (1964 to 1976)

Programme for deaf and hearing children with striking visual elements. 

Vision On (1970)
© BBC

How it changed TV

To my eight-year-old eyes, the Vision On studio in the early 1970s appeared like a kind of friendly hippie commune, with the gentle, fatherly Tony Hart and his bearded and bell-bottomed friends spending all their time on creative pursuits. Each programme was themed around a shape or visual concept that was explored in innovative ways, showing how everyday household objects could be reimagined or repurposed as art. The programme was a lively mix of studio segments (often using sign language), mime, animation and filmed inserts, many set to a catchy modern soundtrack, the best-known being the jazzy ‘Gallery theme’, which has become an iconic piece of TV music. 

Segments ranged from simple stop-frame animation to state-of-the-art computer graphics and included some mesmerising, almost psychedelic visual experiments. Editing too was innovative, with contributors given freedom to produce captivating visuals. Obviously, the emphasis on the visual was implicit in its aim to engage a diverse audience, and kids TV has continued this visual, non-verbal approach in series such as Something Special and many others, making it inclusive not only of deaf children but of those for whom English is not their first language. 

– Josephine Botting

27. Play School (1964 to 1988)

Hugely influential children’s programme aimed at pre-schoolers.

Play School (1975)
© BBC

How it changed TV

Created by Joy Whitby, a producer whose long career at the BBC was devoted to children’s programming, and whose work also included the 1950s radio show Listen with Mother and Jackanory (1965), Play School was immediately recognised as being different to earlier BBC children’s programmes. Here were presenters who spoke directly to their (young) audience, with the aim of providing a nurturing, nursery-like space for children. Whitby consulted closely with teachers, writers and illustrators while devising the programme, and its daily Monday to Friday broadcast quickly became an integral part of the daily lives of millions of children (and parents). Owing to the blackout on BBC Two’s opening night, Play School also had the distinction of being the first full programme broadcast on the channel.

Play School’s format remained largely the same throughout its 24-year run. Learning-through-play was a key principle for the show, and its presenters encouraged participation with songs, games, poems and stories, as well as regular painting and craft activities. A section of each episode was a short film taking the young audiences on an excursion into the outside world through one of three windows – a key feature that went on to influence other pre-school children’s television programmes. From 1971 to 1984, Play School also had a sister programme called Play Away, which was aimed at slightly older children, while from 1988 Play School was replaced with Playbus, which eventually became Playdays.

The show also broke ground by featuring the first Black children’s presenter in Paul Danquah, and has had innumerable notable hosts over the decades, including Floella Benjamin, Brian Cant, actor Julie Stevens and TV personality Johnny Ball. The best children’s programming today, whether on CBeebies or similar spaces such as Channel 5’s Milkshake, owes Whitby’s pioneering work on Play School an immeasurable debt.

– Chantelle Lavel Boyea

BBC Two at 50: how the Beeb’s second channel survived its disastrous opening night

After a first night – in April 1964 – plagued by a power cut, BBC Two took a few years to find its feet before going on to golden years of innovative programming.

By Gosta Johansson

BBC Two at 50: how the Beeb’s second channel survived its disastrous opening night

28. Top of the Pops (1964 to 2006)

TOTP is the world’s longest-running music television show, featuring iconic performances from weekly best-selling recording music artists across many genres. 

Top of the Pops (1974)
© BBC

How it changed TV

Created in an era when it wasn’t easy to see your favourite music artists, TOTP revolutionised how the nation experienced music, with weekly transmissions featuring era-defining live performances and (later) music videos from the top singles-charting artists. 

Over the decades, TOTP primarily kept to its original format: only including artists in the top 20 (although in some years this was relaxed to include artists in the top 30 to 40 as “new entries”) and always ending with the number one record (the only record that could appear in consecutive weeks). The show’s producer Johnnie Stewart described it as “the simplest show in the world”. 

TOTP was an instant success from its first broadcast, fast becoming a significant part of pop culture. It attracted high numbers of viewers every week, who were eager to catch A-listers in extravagant costume, party-themed sets, fabulous dancers or even themselves in the studio crowd next to the presenter. Alongside formats sold across the globe, there are notable spin-offs, such as the Christmas and New Year specials and TOTP2 , which have plied nostalgia to become hits in their own right.  

– Chantelle Lavel Boyea 

29. Horizon (1964-)

Long-running and wide-ranging documentary series looking at the world of science.

Horizon (1971)
© BBC

How it changed TV

Science on TV stretches back to the pre-war Experiments in Science, and many series featured in the 1940s and 50s, including Science Review, Frontiers of Science and A Question of Science. When it debuted in 1964 though, Horizon quickly became the BBC’s flagship of the genre thanks to its policy of spotlighting vastly different branches of science, and its highly original mix of hard science with more general themes. 

Horizon started life with a magazine format, intentionally mirroring the style of the successful arts strand Monitor, but it developed into a series of single-themed episodes and added a distinctive storytelling element to its style. It also moved from having a reverent view of science and scientists to sometimes taking a more antagonistic view of its subject, resulting in some controversial programming.

Many of its editions were award-winning and some had a greater impact on the outside world. Following the 1972 programme ‘Whales, Dolphins and Men’, UK pet food companies stopped using whale meat in their products and the government introduced a blanket ban on whale meat imports. 1983’s ‘Killer in the Village’ reported on the spread of Aids in the US and widely increased the public’s awareness of the disease. 

– Dick Fiddy

30. Apna hi ghar samajhiye (Make Yourself at Home) (1965 to 1968)

The first television programme aimed at South Asian audiences.

Apna Hi Ghar Samajhiye (Make Yourself at Home) (1965 to 1970)
© BBC

How it changed TV

Inviting Indian and Pakistani viewers to make themselves at home in the UK, this landmark programme took important first steps in representing South Asian communities on British television. Apna hi ghar samajhiye, or Make Yourself at Home, was specifically created for the growing population of immigrant communities in 1960s Britain, with the aim of assisting integration into British life. Produced in Birmingham and broadcast on Sunday mornings and Wednesday afternoons, the show offered its viewers a balance of entertainment and useful information. Presenters Mahendra Kaul and Saleem Shahed spoke a mixture of Hindi and Urdu to directly address viewers. Guidance was given on the practical matters of living in the UK; health, news, debate and musical performances all featured regularly. A segment called ‘Look, Listen and Speak’ taught viewers basic English phrases.

Make Yourself at Home recognised a need to give a voice to South Asian people living in the UK. It started a dialogue with communities that might otherwise have only been viewed from afar in news programmes or dissected as subject matter in documentaries. Apna hi ghar samajhiye led the way for programmes including Nai zindagi naya jeevan (New Life, 1968 to 1982) and later the BBC Asian Network.

– Mandeep Kaur-Lakhan

31. Man Alive (1965 to 1982)

Vital documentary series exploring contemporary issues and young lives.

Man Alive co-editors Desmond Wilcox and Bill Morton
© BBC

How it changed TV

In the mid-60s, producers Bill Morton and Desmond Wilcox left ITV’s cutting-edge current affairs series This Week to start a documentary series on what was then the newest TV channel, BBC Two. Their ambition for Man Alive was to the capture the everyday struggles of contemporary life in Britain, and they did so through incorporating what to contemporaries felt like unprecedentedly intimate and revealing interviews with ordinary people. Some of the interviews featured in the series were seen as being unsettlingly candid by critics, but now appear to be harbingers of the intimate style used by Louis Theroux or BBC Three reporters Reggie Yates and Stacey Dooley.

Standout editions of Man Alive included two documentaries devoted to lesbians and gay men just before the introduction of the Sexual Offences Act in 1967. The programmes Consenting Adults: The Men and The Women shone a light on lives lived in the shadows under the threat of the law.

Producer Jenny Barraclough made several programmes for the series, the most celebrated being Gale Is Dead – a tragic portrait of how a girl who grew up in care and institutions became a drug addict. Critic Nancy Banks-Smith wrote that the series “consistently brightens the mind, and shakes the heart”.

– Lisa Kerrigan

32. Camberwick Green (1966)

Timeless stop-motion series that introduced Britain to Trumptonshire and helped cut the strings on the marionette era of pre-school television.

Camberwick Green (1966)

How it changed TV

The small village community of Camberwick Green didn’t kill off Andy Pandy and the Flowerpot Men, but they certainly pushed them closer to retirement. Marionettes were a feature of pre-school television programming in its early years, particularly in the BBC’s iconic ‘Watch with Mother’ slot. Gordon Murray was no stranger to strings, having led the BBC Television Puppet Theatre until it was wound up in 1964. He gambled on a new direction and produced the pilot for a new puppet series, filmed in colour and using the more time-intensive technique of stop-motion animation. 

Debuting on 3 January 1966, and repeated for decades to come, the 13 episodes of Camberwick Green presented a curious community built around a windmill, the soldiers of Pippin Fort and a village green where a top-hatted doctor could cross paths with a salesman in a helicopter. Stop-motion animation enabled each episode to play out with clockwork precision, from the music-box opening to the effortless manner in which Windy Miller evaded the blades of his mill. Freddie Phillips’ music and the voice of Play School favourite Brian Cant helped build a world that was bursting at the seams, leading to the follow-up series of Trumpton (1967) and Chigley (1969), and a wealth of merchandising that was a sign of things to come.

– Jez Stewart

33. Theatre 625: Talking to a Stranger (1966) 

Announcing the arrival of Judi Dench as a major screen talent, Talking to a Stranger elevated the suburban family drama to the intensity of Greek tragedy. 

Theatre 625: Talking to a Stranger (1966)
© BBC

How it changed TV

Talking to a Stranger was produced as part of the Theatre 625 strand (whose name refers to the then-new high-definition service available only on the new channel BBC Two; up to that point UK television had been transmitted only at 405 lines). Aside from its technical prowess, the new anthology strand (1964 to 1968) under producer Cedric Messina created some of the finest drama of the period. Many recognise Talking to a Stranger as its finest production and the masterpiece of writer John Hopkins. 

It was a gamechanger on many levels. It exploited a newfound confidence in the ability of television drama to use completely original narrative forms, to examine how one terrible family tragedy came into being. Over the course of four plays – each seen from a different family member’s perspective, and shifting across the present, the past and the deeper past – Hopkins brilliantly constructed the plays so that each one comments on the other and illuminates our understanding of the events we’re witnessing.

Nothing so breathtakingly audacious and clever had been attempted before, and certainly not on this scale. Combine this revolutionary structure with Christopher Morahan’s impeccable direction and the cast’s incredibly powerful performances, and the drama’s status is deservedly assured. As George Melly commented: “on the evidence of this work alone, the medium [of television] can be considered to have come of age”.

– Marcus Prince

34. The Forsyte Saga (1967)

A period drama based on the novels of John Galsworthy that achieved staggering viewing figures in excess of 18 million.

The Forsyte Saga (1967)
© BBC

How it changed TV

Cannily used by the BBC to drive people to switch to the newly created BBC Two, The Forsyte Saga followed the fortunes of the aristocratic Forsyte family from 1879 to 1926, over the course of what was then an epic 26 episodes. The Downton Abbey of its day, the show achieved a popularity and viewing figures with its repeat on BBC One not experienced for a period drama before.

Boasting a cast that included Eric Porter, Nyree Dawn Porter and Kenneth More, it made a star of the young Susan Hampshire, whose character Fleur rapidly achieved an iconic status. It also courted some notoriety and controversy when one episode concluded with the rape of Irene (Nyree Dawn Porter) by Soames (Eric Porter). This shocking episode stands as one of television’s greatest ever ‘water cooler’ moments, and newspapers were full of outrage and speculation the morning after it was broadcast.

Under the experienced BBC producer Donald B. Wilson, The Forsyte Saga’s scripts were perfectly honed to portray the interplay of the characters’ business and romantic trysts, elevating what could have been a soapy drama into something more nuanced, dark and complex. Costing the BBC a massive £10,000 per episode (a huge drama budget for the period), The Forsyte Saga sold around the world and did much to consolidate the BBC’s reputation as a producer of fine drama.

– Marcus Prince

35. The Morecambe and Wise Show (1968 to 1977)

Lively variety show combining comedy sketches with A-list guest stars.

Morecambe and Wise (1972)
© BBC

How it changed TV

Morecambe and Wise made their television debut on the BBC, but they became household names with their 1960s ITV show. When they returned to the BBC in the late 1960s, they not only confirmed their progress but elevated themselves to an even higher status, becoming national treasures and television royalty. Now working with scriptwriter Eddie Braben and producer John Ammonds, they developed a winning formula that made the show a favourite with the nation.

Under the new team, the relationship between the double-act matured; their interplay now reflecting the real-life affection between them. The kudos of working with them attracted big-name guest-stars, who were happy to play comic foils to the hosts. These were not solely from the field of entertainment, with newsreaders, presenters, sports people and others all willing to leave their comfort zones to join in the fun. The show wasn’t the the first example of such crossovers, but it’s certainly the most notable, and the approach continues to the present, especially with comedic panel shows. The series also pioneered the idea of the blockbuster Christmas special, with the pair’s seasonal shows attracting some of the biggest audiences ever seen in the UK.

– Dick Fiddy

36. Gardeners’ World (1968-)

Iconic horticultural hobbyist haven.

Gardeners’ World (2010s)
© BBC

How it changed TV

Genteel and affable, Gardeners’ World has gifted television viewers a sanctuary from the inside world since the 1960s. It offers a mix of practical gardening advice and inspiration, delivered by gardeners and for gardeners – no matter your level of skill or the size of your garden. The first gardening programme broadcast in full colour, Gardeners’ World brought sumptuous visuals. However, what made it truly innovative was the inspired decision to shoot the programme in the lead presenter’s own garden, beginning with the venerable Percy Thrower in 1969. Thrower was already known to viewers of Gardening Club (1955 to 1967), broadcast from the roof of the BBC studios in Lime Grove, but Gardeners’ World allowed a more personal relationship between presenter and viewer.

That friendly, encouraging tone continues today in the voice of Monty Don, who has been the figurehead of Gardeners’ World for nearly two decades (he’s had two stints as lead presenter). Don gives more than just gardening tips – opening up about his depression and demonstrating the healing powers of horticulture. When Don’s faithful canine co-presenter Nigel died at the beginning of lockdown in 2020 there was an outpouring of appreciation for Gardeners’ World and its presenter – a testament to the show’s impact on the wellbeing of its audience.

– Elinor Groom

37. Civilisation (1969) 

Kenneth Clark brilliantly exploited the new medium of colour television to bring an uncompromising, highly personal history of art to a mass audience. 

Civilisation (1969)
© BBC

How it changed TV

Art and culture had always been somewhat compromised on television by picture quality and black and white. BBC Two’s then-controller David Attenborough was quick to seize the opportunity that higher-definition colour television created, releasing the resources to make Civilisation on glorious 35mm colour film. Most significantly, in entrusting this epic history of the development of art and western culture to the renowned art historian Kenneth Clark, Attenborough ensured that it would be told with an incredible intellectual rigour and bravura. There is no dumbing down on display here – the audience was expected to keep up with Clark’s at times quite egocentric view of 2000 years of art and culture. But they were rewarded with an incredible richness and depth of knowledge, and gloriously shot visuals to match. 

Three years in the making, this was the show that set the benchmark for arts broadcasting for many years. In 2018, a new series called Civilisations – inspired by Clark’s original but with a stated aim to look beyond what many had criticised as Clark’s overly western-centric view of art history – was presented by Simon Schama, Mary Beard and David Olusoga. 

– Marcus Prince

38. Monty Python’s Flying Circus (1969 to 1974)

Surreal, scatological sketch show created and written by the cast.

Monty Python’s Flying Circus series three opening credits detail (1972)

How it changed TV

The first truly successful post-satire boom sketch show was created by five British Oxbridge graduates – plus an American, Terry Gilliam, whose grotesque animations helped give the show a unique identity. Monty Python’s Flying Circus was distinguished by smart writing that combined esoteric ideas with unexpected silliness, and by sketches that swung from brilliant verbal sparring to surreal slapstick. Gilliam’s animations not only linked disparate material but also freed up the writers from the burden of coming up with punchlines (often the weakest parts of a sketch) as each sketch linked into another.

The Pythons took to extremes the subverting of TV conventions that had been pioneered by absurdist comedian Spike Milligan (cited as a major influence on the troupe). Despite its overt ‘British-ness’, Python eventually become a global phenomenon and a big influence on US comedy – especially Saturday Night Live! The individual members of the gang all thrived in other areas of the media, and as a team toured successful stage shows and launched major film successes. Further proof of their enduring influence came in 2002 when the word Pythonesque was added to the Oxford English Dictionary.

– Dick Fiddy

Monty Python: the 10 funniest sketches

By Neil Mitchell

Monty Python: the 10 funniest sketches

Michael Palin revisits his early career: “When Monty Python came along, it was a bit special”

By Samuel Wigley

Michael Palin revisits his early career: “When Monty Python came along, it was a bit special”

39. Nationwide (1969 to 1983)

An early-evening weekday live magazine format on BBC One, anchored in London but incorporating roundups and features from right across the UK.

Nationwide (1969)
© BBC

How it changed TV

The sheer editorial ambition of Nationwide, which encompassed the whole gamut of UK life every weekday evening from the late 60s through to the early 80s, made for compelling viewing. Hot on the heels of the main early evening news bulletin, Nationwide packed in something for everyone through confident and always pacy delivery. Fronted by familiar and respected BBC heavyweights, counterbalanced by characterful journalists in guises ranging from the most seasoned of hacks through to up-and-coming stars, Nationwide spoke for and was watched by millions.

In a time of strictly analogue broadcasting, one way or another the dots got joined up; threading last-minute filmed leitmotifs (invariably still wet from the processing baths), musical interludes, consumer issues and live contributions from studios large and small across the entire BBC network. It’s testament to the craft and innovation at play half a century ago that all this was achieved without an iota of digital technology. It feels like a nod of respect is still paid each weekday evening on BBC One’s The One Show, where echoes of Nationwide’s fanfare-inspired signature tune herald the familiarities and assurances of public service broadcasting we have come to expect.

– Charles Fairall

40. The Liver Birds (1969 to 1979, 1996)

Groundbreaking female authorship by Carla Lane captured the spirit of emancipation of the 1960s and early 70s in a cheeky and highly entertaining way.

The Liver Birds (1971)
© BBC

How it changed TV

As British cinema had in the swinging 60s, with features like Darling (1965) and Smashing Time (1967), television of the era also began to realise that girls wanted to have fun. While the drama Take Three Girls (1969 to 1971) took a serious look at women’s independence, it proved an ideal subject for a sitcom, and the fact that Liverpool-set The Liver Birds ran for more than 10 years testifies to its huge popularity. Through series two to four, Sandra (Nerys Hughes) and Beryl (Polly James) became a much-loved television pairing. They were best of friends despite being chalk and cheese: Sandra a Protestant only-child brought up by a mother with pretensions; Beryl from a large Irish Catholic family on the poor side of the city.

The programme’s distinctive theme tune, penned by Liverpool band The Scaffold, heralded a half-hour of quirky, down-to-earth humour. Yet the jaunty opening belied the programme’s navigation of issues such as class, religion, parental separation and sex before marriage, as the flatmates supported each other through life’s ups and downs. Polly James was replaced in series five by Elizabeth Estensen, but was reunited with Hughes in 1996 for a one-off series that brought Sandra and Beryl back together in middle age.

– Josephine Botting

41. The Six Wives of Henry VIII (1970)

A series of six 90-minute plays, each featuring a different wife and seen through the eyes of a different writer.

The Six Wives of Henry VIII (1970)
© BBC

How it changed TV

Writer Maurice Cowan’s internationally acclaimed series, shot in colour and produced by Mark Shivas and Ronald Travers, heightened the reputation of the BBC as the leading creator of period drama. 

Keith Michell’s portrayal of Henry is remarkable in its complexity. His monarch transforms from a golden-haired renaissance youth, filled with romantic idealism, to an obese, paranoid tyrant raging at his lost sexual potency and convinced the getting of a legitimate male heir is justification for all his acts of cruelty and betrayal. But in spite of all the toxic masculinity and political intrigue at court, it’s the women and their stories that are in focus here. The wives are not just historical figures remembered by their fates alone (divorced, beheaded, died, divorced, beheaded, survived), but fully formed characters. Each episode is a fascinating portrait of a marriage doomed to failure. 

The production design by Peter Seddon is elegantly simple, giving a stage-like intimacy to the scenes. John Bloomfield’s costumes are opulent and authentic, despite being ingeniously crafted from inexpensive fabrics and embellishments. The acting from some of the cast might be considered ‘theatrical’ to modern television audiences, but Annette Crosbie (Catherine of Aragon) and Dorothy Tutin (Anne Boleyn) give skilful and nuanced performances in this intriguing drama.

– Carolyne Bevan

42. Play for Today (1970 to 1984)

Influential and arresting drama strand, which seeded a generation of talent.

Too Late to Talk to Billy (1982)

How it changed TV

Following on from the innovations of The Wednesday Play, Play for Today took up the challenge of carving out a space for unpredictable and challenging drama that dealt with contemporary issues and often grappled with social problems. But within this – and with the independence that the strand’s producers afforded writers and directors – there was ample room for experimentation; plays ranged from comedy to fantasy, and even horror had a place. The strand was a vital nurturing space for writers as varied as Trevor Griffiths, Dennis Potter, Jim Allen, Paula Milne and Peter McDougall, and directors including Alan Clarke, Mike Leigh, Horace Ové, Stephen Frears and Ken Loach. Even for the talent that went through it alone, Play for Today looms large in the history of British television. 

It’s also often overlooked how much Play for Today did to represent life from across the UK. For instance, amid the social and political dramas of the strand came a strong current of plays exploring facets of life in Northern Ireland that had rarely been seen on television. Graham Reid’s Billy plays from the early 1980s exemplified this, with Kenneth Branagh playing the eponymous Billy in three plays that detailed the antagonistic relationships in a Belfast family. This depiction of daily life beyond the headlines around the Troubles had a huge impact in Northern Ireland, and was revelatory for audiences elsewhere. Almost four decades on, the Billy plays remain a touchstone of Northern Irish drama.

– Lisa Kerrigan

Play for Today: the TV series at the heart of 1970s British filmmaking

By Robert Hanks

Play for Today: the TV series at the heart of 1970s British filmmaking

Play for Today: women’s work, on screen and off

By Katie Crosson

Play for Today: women’s work, on screen and off

TV that tackled the troubles: Play for Today and Northern Ireland

By Professor John Hill

TV that tackled the troubles: Play for Today and Northern Ireland

43. The Generation Game (1971 to 1982, 1990 to 2002)

Uniting the generations to tackle a variety of absurdly funny tasks, and helmed by experienced television host Bruce Forsyth, this gameshow became a national Saturday night institution. 

The Generation Game (1971)
© BBC

How it changed TV

Few television quiz shows can be said to have had the impact and intergenerational reach of The Generation Game. Pitting family against family across the generations, from grandma to grandson, in a variety of incredibly silly tasks, it was turned into comedic gold by Bruce Forsyth’s acerbic wit, wry comments and great warmth. 

Although he was an enormously talented variety entertainer, Forsyth’s success as a game show host on The Generation Game was so great that his role as a host largely became his public persona, and locked his career into a sequence of ratings-busting quiz shows. The strength of the show’s format, with its perfect opportunities for interaction between the family contestants and the show’s host, was further demonstrated when Larry Grayson took over in 1978 and again made a huge success of it through his own brand of arch camp humour. 

Largely remembered now for the cheapness of the BBC prizes on offer on the legendary conveyor belt (not to mention its absurdly patronising attitude towards its many glamorous female assistants), it’s perhaps hard in a multi-channel and streaming-media ecology to recall or imagine the power this show once had to unite the nation in sheer joy on a Saturday night.  

– Marcus Prince

44. Parkinson (1971 to 2004)

Long-running chat show that defined its era and its genre.

Parkinson (1975)
© BBC

How it changed TV

It’s no exaggeration to say that Michael Parkinson invented the television chat show in Britain. Originally commissioned for an eight-week run in a late-night slot in 1971, Parkinson became an institution, enduring for an astonishing 36 years.

He made it look easy, and clearly enjoyed the company of anyone with a story to tell: politicians or comedians, scientists or sportspeople, theatre knights or movie stars. A Yorkshire-born miner’s son, he brought a warm, relaxed charm and a rare gift for listening that put his guests at their ease. But he was far from shallow, and his gentle but smart questioning frequently yielded surprising revelations.

Parkinson arrived in a sweet spot when celebrities, even ‘A-listers’, were free and keen to talk, without an army of agents and publicists vetting every word. He interviewed everyone who was anyone: Hollywood legends Ingrid Bergman, Bette Davis and Orson Welles; pop stars David Bowie and Madonna; sports stars Muhammad Ali, George Best and David Beckham. Some became regulars: Ali appeared four times, Peter Ustinov eight, Billy Connolly 15. Parkinson estimated he’d hosted over 2,000 guests, naming only Frank Sinatra as “the one that got away. Otherwise I’ve met everyone I ever wanted to meet.” And thanks to him, so did millions of viewers at home.

– Mark Duguid

45. Open University (1971 to 2006)

A distanced-learning strand that used the democratic power of television to teach and award degrees to people all across the country.

Open University (1981)
© BBC

How it changed TV

Open University, or OU, operated around the hinterlands of the BBC’s schedules, appearing like some alternative universe of broadcast media in the early hours of the day. The audience was substantial and included mature and part-time students, as well as those in prison, the services and more. The Open University took over the original BBC offices at Alexander Palace in 1969 and in the first few years of broadcast had awarded 10,000 degrees, and had over 50,000 students in study.

Encompassing a huge range of specially made programmes on a wide variety of subjects, including space flight, electronic music, as well as traditional topics, it was a powerful contributor to the Reithian ideas of access, information and learning on which the BBC was founded. There were summer schools and a frequent focus on interesting, high-profile speakers, with on-camera visits to unusual places. Paving the way for other forms of distance learning (notably through the internet) and identifying different audiences when there were only a very limited number of channels, it showed how television and other forms of broadcast media could be literally life-changing, particularly when centred on access and education. The Open University continues to this day, now outside the remit of the BBC but still in partnership with it.

– William Fowler

46. Ways of Seeing (1972)

Iconoclastic series that questioned the links between classical painting and ideology, and the ways in which we experience art.

Ways of Seeing (1972)

How it changed TV

Moving drastically away from the model of the illustrated lecture, Ways of Seeing adopted a far more dynamic, subversive and genuinely exploratory approach to the arts documentary than had ever been seen on British television before. The first episode opened with the provocative, agenda-setting sequence of John Berger apparently taking a Stanley knife to the Botticelli painting Venus and Mars. Not so much a series about storytelling and art history, instead it was about the interrelationships between art and ideology, and how context impacts on meaning. It even dared to shine a light on the processes by which television itself was made and received at the time.

Fifty years on, the book derived from the series remains a staple of art and cultural studies courses. Those who only read this important, popular book, however, miss out on John Berger as he speaks directly to camera and emphatically dissects the ways in which how we experience classic painting changed with the advent of photography; or as he listens with great attention to children or a women’s feminist group as they debate their own personal views and perspectives on art and interpretation.

The four-part series identified the persisting presence of the male gaze across both painting and advertising; and it also illustrated how classical European art reflects and reinforces dominant class ideology. Made with long-term Berger collaborator producer and director Mike Dibb, who came up with the title and devised many of its creative interventions, it’s widely considered one of the most groundbreaking series about art ever made, partly because, even with its moments of appealing, playful iconoclasm, it dared to treat its audience as seriously as it took itself.

– William Fowler

Image lib: John Berger’s Ways of Seeing

Forty years ago John Berger’s BBC2 series challenged us to be wiser consumers of fine art. As BFI Southbank marks the anniversary, Jonathan Conlin asks if the series speaks to us today.

By Jonathan Conlin

Image lib: John Berger’s Ways of Seeing

47. Mastermind (1972-)

Long-running interrogation style television quiz show where contestants answer questions on general knowledge and their chosen specialist subject.

Mastermind (1972)
© BBC

How it changed TV

“I’ve started so I’ll finish”, goes the catchphrase first coined by long-serving presenter Magnus Magnusson. This iconic intellectual quiz programme still remains a thrilling format today with Clive Myrie as the show’s latest presenter. From the heartbeat-thudding ‘Approaching Menace’ theme tune to the imposing black leather chair lit by spotlight, tension winds its way through each episode’s 30-minute running time. Contestants take a solitary walk to the chair, isolated from the silent audience in the dark. They are alone, facing a barrage of relentless questioning from which they have no escape. With seconds ticking by, the camera traps them in a series of unflinching closeups to capture every word and gesture. Programme creator Bill Wright reportedly wanted Mastermind to emulate his experiences of interrogations during the Second World War.

While the format remains largely unchanged since 1972, the varied choice of specialist subjects gives a revealing insight into the changing interests and knowledge of the British public. Subjects have ranged from the English civil war and Shakespeare to Thunderbirds and beekeeping. The programme has inspired spinoffs and been subject to countless parodies, solidifying its place in British popular culture. Mastermind is an unapologetic celebration of specialist knowledge, an antidote to the flashy, dramatic pause-laden game shows that have gained popularity in recent years.

– Mandeep Kaur-Lakhan

48. Newsround (1972-)

A vital BBC service, bringing news for young people that never patronises its audience.

Newsround (1973)
© BBC

How it changed TV

Before John Craven’s Newsround launched in 1972 children were largely protected from news and current affairs on television. Commissioned by BBC Children’s, but made possible by the cooperation of BBC News, Newsround was part of creator Edward Barnes’ vision that children should have all the same services the BBC provided for adults. John Craven had only joined the BBC a few years beforehand but became one of the most recognisable faces on television. He anchored the programme for 17 years (after which time his name was removed from the title) with a style that was approachable and authoritative: sitting close to camera rather than behind the desk, announcing the headlines in his Leeds accent with warmth and care.

Although a BBC institution, Newsround has never been stuffy or dour; on the contrary it was and is vibrant in its reporting of issues most affecting children and young people. Its alumni of staff is an impressive list of reporters and newsreaders, who often cut their journalistic teeth on Newsround, including Helen Rollason, Krishnan Guru-Murthy, Lizo Mzimba and Matthew Price. But Newsround is no easy gig; news stories need to be comprehensively but succinctly contextualised for children without sacrificing editorial balance or – most of all – truth.

– Elinor Groom

49. The Family (1974)

The roots of reality TV? Maybe…

Paul Watson in the middle of two members of the Wilkins family
© BBC

How it changed TV

When and how does observational documentary-making morph first into docu-soap and then reality TV? The Family is exhibit A for anyone approaching these knotty questions historically. Over three months a BBC crew embedded themselves in the Reading home of the “ordinary working class” Wilkins family. Their 16mm shooting ratio, high for the time, is paltry compared to the output of today’s fixed-rig cameras, but recorded private lives on unprecedented scale, serving them up for broadcast to a rapt public.

Produced by Paul Watson, co-directing with Franc Roddam, the series became a national talking point, as did the family on which it visited 15 minutes’ fame. Some of those talking points were around issues of social change highlighted by the programme. Unmarried sex and parenting, and mixed-race relationships were, in 1974, enough to make the Wilkins family morally controversial. Some other discussion points involved media ethics, in ways still familiar. Is reality being observed or changed? How will the subjects be affected? Is this sociology or gimmickry?

Revisiting The Family now, it’s striking how much conscious artistry Watson and Roddam apply, announced by a beautifully crafted credits sequence. So is the extent to which issues of class, which have dogged British documentary since even before TV existed, rear their head. Questions asked of family members, on-mic but off screen, come from voices so much posher than those that answer them.

– Patrick Russell

50. Shoulder to Shoulder (1974)

A dramatisation of the fight for women’s suffrage in Britain and the role played by the Pankhurst family.

Shoulder to Shoulder (1974)
© BBC

How it changed TV

It’s not unusual now for actresses and female directors to produce their own stories for television, but that was certainly not the case in the 1970s, when filmmaker Midge Mackenzie and actress and singer Georgia Brown set out to make a series about the suffragette movement in England in the early 20th century. Mackenzie discovered that there was little public awareness of the history of the movement when she filmed the golden jubilee celebration of women’s suffrage in 1968, and felt she had to bring the story to a wider audience. Georgia Brown was a successful actress struggling to find interesting roles when she teamed up with Mackenzie to plan the series, with the key addition of legendary producer Verity Lambert.

A stellar team of writers was assembled to craft the personal stories of some of the leaders of the Women’s Social and Political Union, and an impressive cast including Siân Phillips as Emmeline Pankhurst, Patricia Quinn as Christabel Pankhurst and Georgia Brown as Annie Kenney brought them to life. Directors Moira Armstrong and Waris Hussein deftly balanced the mix of studio drama and exterior action scenes, and the series didn’t shy away from the brutality of the force-feeding endured by women while imprisoned. Critical reaction was mixed, but audiences adored it, and it was a revelation for many girls watching at home.

– Lisa Kerrigan

51. Pobol y Cwm (1974-)

The longest-running television soap opera produced by the BBC, the groundbreaking Welsh-language drama remains vital to Welsh culture and emerging talent.

Pobol y Cwm (1974)
© BBC

How it changed TV

Every entry in this list has made a significant contribution to British TV, but how many are as inextricably linked to the vitality of a language as Pobol y Cwm? The launch of Pobol y Cwm on BBC Wales in 1974 was a gamechanging event in itself. Created by Gwenlyn Parry, one of the most creative drama writers in the Welsh language, and John Hefin, an influential figure in film and television, this was the first committed attempt at a Welsh-language soap opera, and arrived at a time when direct action was being taken by pressure groups such as Cymdeithas yr Iaith to establish a strong and representative Welsh-language media. 

Sianel Pedwar Cymru, or S4C, began broadcasting in 1982, with Pobol y Cwm’s success on the BBC a key factor in the backing for the new station. Pobol y Cwm immediately took pride of place in the schedule, a position it has held for 40 years, making it the longest-running television soap opera produced by the BBC. With its charm and humour, the show remains popular with viewers, and has launched the careers of a number of leading actors, including Ioan Gruffudd, Alexandra Roach and Iwan Rheon. Not bad for a series that was originally intended to run for 10 episodes. 

– Mike Williams

52. Arena (1975-)

Influential arts documentary strand that has explored idiosyncratic subjects in equally idiosyncratic ways.

Arena (1975-)
© BBC

How it changed TV

A glass bottle bobs in moonlit water, the word ‘Arena’ illuminated in pink neon inside it, as the unmistakeable thrum of Brian Eno’s ‘Another Green World’ plays in the background. From its opening titles onwards, everything about the BBC’s arts documentary strand Arena has been distinctively left of the mainstream. Founded in 1975 as a ‘magazine’ arts show in the mould of forerunners like Monitor, in 1979 it was relaunched under the editorship of Alan Yentob, working closely with directors Anthony Wall and Nigel Finch (who took over as series editors in 1985), and broke away from such norms to focus on single-subject films that eschewed the conventional.

The subjects themselves have been wonderfully idiosyncratic: take Finch and Wall’s brilliantly original exploration of a single song, My Way (1979), or Finch’s floor-by-floor look at the bohemian denizens of New York’s storied Chelsea Hotel (1981); or the witty, Alexei Sayle-fronted The Private Life of the Ford Contina (1982, also by Finch), about the eponymous car and those who drive it; or James Marsh’s grimly fascinating The Burger and the King: The Life and Cuisine of Elvis Presley (1996), to pick just a handful.

Post-2000, the series has continued to produce high-profile documentaries – often as co-productions, such as Martin Scorsese’s Dylan film No Direction Home (2005) – while not losing its offbeat edge. The real measure of Arena’s gamechanging impact, though, is to be found in any number of contemporary arts documentaries, the best of which all betray its influence.   

– James Bell

53. I, Claudius (1976) 

Serialised adaptation of Robert Graves’ acclaimed historical novels, depicting the vile machinations and sordid family drama behind the highest seat of power in the Roman Empire. 

I, Claudius (1976)
© BBC

How it changed TV

“They say a snake bit her once… and died.” It’s testament to Siân Phillips’ memorably wicked performance that this early evaluation of her brazenly duplicitous character Livia – by her own on-screen son no less – does not seem entirely far-fetched. Director Herbert Wise encouraged her to “just be evil”, and her unapologetically malevolent presence looms over this epic tale of sex, death and insanity spanning almost 80 years. The performances elsewhere are similarly bold, with Brian Blessed, George Baker, John Hurt, Derek Jacobi and Christopher Biggins, often acting through ageing latex effects and makeup, forming an increasingly unhinged, grotesque parade of emperors.

It’s more family drama than historical re-enactment, and the focus here is intrigue over action, so the studio-bound nature of the series was to become a great asset, with the beautifully opulent sets winning a BAFTA and an Emmy. Phillips and Jacobi also received BAFTAs and the series was an international success. It was a partial inspiration for the 1980s US soap Dynasty, which substituted emperors for oil tycoons and became known for its calculating, powerful women. Some of I, Claudius’s diabolical DNA can also be found in House of Cards, Game of Thrones, Breaking Bad and Succession.

– Peter Stanley

54. Multi-Coloured Swap Shop (1976 to 1982)

Nearly three hours straight of live kids’ television.

Multi-Coloured Swap Shop (1976)
© BBC

How it changed TV

No more would 1970s Saturday mornings be spent with repeats of Mr Benn or ancient Laurel and Hardy comedies. Here instead was three spanking-new hours of studio-centric live kids’ programming (although re-runs did still pad out the live bits), with the immediacy of viewer phone-ins – for the first time in UK kids’ television – outweighing the time-delay of letters. Hugely successful over a six-year run, Swap Shop was drily hosted from behind an immense cream-coloured multimedia desk by carefully-coiffed DJ Noel Edmonds – bestowing many a sly wink to studio staff behind the cameras. Edmonds was flanked by stuffed-toy dinosaur co-host Posh Paws, with the supposedly more serious assistance of Newsround host John Craven and, later, Maggie Philbin.

Startlingly, celebrity guests in attendance would receive interview questions from kids ‘direct’ by telephone, live in the studio. Meanwhile, the Outside Broadcast Unit, fronted by ‘Roving Swapman’ chirpy Keith Chegwin, would check in periodically from a muddy field somewhere, to report on the swarms of over-excited kids attempting to organise ‘swaps’: perhaps an unwanted Etch-A-Sketch for a desperately-desired Spirograph, or an awful Emu for a wonderful Womble. Nothing as edgy, exciting and unexpected as all this had been done on national television before (raucous Tiswas, on ITV, had pioneered the Saturday-morning-live format in 1974, but only regionally). Swap Shop’s influence can be sensed, if not always seen, in every slightly uncertain live-and-dangerous Saturday morning kids’ series that has come since.   

– Vic Pratt

55. Pennies from Heaven (1978)

In the 1930s, a travelling sheet-music salesman escapes his stagnant marriage via the romantic whimsy of the songs he sells.

Pennies from Heaven (1978)

How it changed TV

By the time he unleashed Pennies from Heaven, Dennis Potter had already established himself as one of a handful of TV writers (Harold Pinter, Alan Bennett, Jack Rosenthal) who were star names recognisable to the home audience. But Pennies would elevate his reputation still further. Back in 1966, John Hopkins’ Talking to a Stranger had proved the potential of long-form dramas written especially for television, and Potter had already experimented with the format with his Casanova (1971), but Pennies was a quantum leap forward. Potter had explored the “rich potency of cheap music” with Moonlight on the Highway (for ITV’s Saturday Night Theatre series in 1969), but this 6 x 75-minute series provided the space for him to perfect the mix of a gritty and grim storyline juxtaposed with the flighty optimism of original 1930s songs.

The protagonist Arthur Parker (Bob Hoskins) desperately tries to make a living in depression-era Britain, and manages to escape from the misery of his situation by entering a fantasy scenario where he appears to mime to the original 1930s song recordings. The songs were meticulously chosen to reflect aspects of the plot, and served to bring drops of joy into Arthur’s sad life, falling like ‘pennies from heaven’. This was a true television original, and created a subgenre to which Potter himself returned (The Singing Detective, Lipstick on Your Collar) and others explored (Peter Bowker’s 2004 series Blackpool, Steven Bochco’s 1990 series Cop Rock) .

– Dick Fiddy

56. Empire Road (1978 to 1979)

Britain’s first serious attempt at a ‘Black’ soap centred on the lives of the West Indian, East Indian and South Asian community living in the heart of multi-cultural Birmingham. 

Empire Road (1978) paperback tie-in

How it changed TV

Empire Road was the first British television series to be written, acted and directed predominantly by Black artists, and gave an insight into the day-to-day life of a racially diverse community. Writer Michael Abbensetts combined comedy, drama and tragedy to explore social concerns of the time: race issues, family issues and interracial relationships. The series was made at BBC Pebble Mill, with location work in the Handsworth area of Birmingham. It advanced the careers of some of the leading Black actors of the time: Corinne Skinner-Carter, Norman Beaton, Rudolph Walker, Joseph Marcell and Wayne Laryea. The acclaimed Horace Ové directed four episodes.

Empire Road went on to influence many other television programmes that have explored Britain’s expanding post-Second World War multicultural population. Exploiting the familiar tropes of the television soap and applying it to underrepresented groups in society, Empire Road did much to normalise the representation of the Black community on UK television. 

– Chantelle Lavel Boyea

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In the early years of British television, it wasn’t easy for Black writers to find work, but there were some outstanding exceptions...

By Stephen Bourne

6 Black writers who blazed a trail in British TV drama

57. Grange Hill (1978 to 2008)

Pioneering children’s drama series set in a fictional comprehensive school, Grange Hill, reflecting the emotional lives of its young and diverse audience.

Grange Hill (1982)
© BBC

How it changed TV

By showing that children have “the same emotions and fears, aspirations and phobias as everybody else”, Grange Hill was revolutionary. It was the first and most enduring creation of Brookside and Hollyoaks producer Phil Redmond. During the show’s 30-year tenure, stories were shot and told from young people’s viewpoints, voicing their concerns and mirroring viewers’ experiences across the country. Generations consumed its hearty diet of serious issue-led drama and mischievous playground banter.

Headline-grabbing storylines like Zammo’s heroin addiction had a transformative effect on society, increasing empathy and understanding. Scripted by future film director Anthony Minghella, the Zammo story resonated nationally – with the hit single ‘Just Say No’ – and globally, with cast members being invited to the White House. It won four BAFTAs, including one jointly awarded to its original commissioner, Anna Home, and director Colin Cant. The show’s naturalism is part of its abiding appeal, and Cant was instrumental in increasing diverse and working-class representation, casting talented young actors who spoke in their own accents.

Did this groundbreaking programme have an influence on the likes of Skins and Sex Education? Its legacy continues, regularly referenced in popular culture, despite being cancelled over a decade ago.

– Rebecca Vick

58. Life on Earth (1979)

Epic 13-part series tracing the origins of life on earth

Life on Earth (1979)
© BBC

How it changed TV

As controller of BBC Two in the 1960s and 1970s, David Attenborough commissioned landmark series such as Civilisation (1969) and Ascent of Man (1973) on the evolution of art and science respectively. It was a natural step, perhaps, to make a similar 13-part series on his area of interest, natural history. The result, Life on Earth, is universally acknowledged as setting the highest of bars for the ‘blue chip’ quality of British wildlife series to come.

The hugely ambitious series was structured along broadly evolutionary lines, focusing on categories of animals – from the earliest single-celled creatures found in fossils, to marine invertebrates, insects and flowering plants, to fish, reptiles and birds, and on ‘up’ to primates and man. It looked at habitat, behaviours such as hunting and reproduction, and how evolving animal groups adapted to specific environments, whether sea, land, forest or air, with a segue from one episode to the next – so demonstrating the interconnectedness of life on the planet.

The instructions to the individual filmmakers in the field were to capture footage never seen before, and the results were stunning – most famously, perhaps, the short sequence of Attenborough being groomed by a female mountain gorilla with her young, which, according to Channel 4’s 1999 100 Greatest TV Moments list, ranked ahead of the wedding of Charles and Diana.

– Bryony Dixon

59. A Change of Sex (1979 to 1999)

Groundbreaking series following a transgender woman’s journey to reclaim her true identity.

A Change of Sex (1979)
© BBC

How it changed TV

Re-emerging at a time when transgender rights are under renewed attack, this landmark series was British television’s first attempt to follow the process of one woman’s transition. Assigned male at birth, the formidable Julia Grant placed extraordinary trust in producer-director David Pearson over a period of two decades: original Inside Story documentary George was seized upon by muck-raking tabloids even before its broadcast in 1979, yet public reaction was overwhelmingly supportive. Interest in Julia’s life was such that the original film was repeated with two follow-ups in 1980 under the series title A Change of Sex; further updates in 1994 and 1999 saw Julia reflecting on the earlier films’ impact, her uneasy role as a spokesperson for the trans community, and her rollercoaster personal life.

Most astonishing is Julia’s dogged determination and resilience in the face of societal ignorance and violent transphobia, and her appalling treatment by a contemptuous NHS psychiatrist. But we also glimpse moments of compassion from friends, family and strangers, and much-needed solidarity from the gay community. Like other early landmarks in on-screen LGBTQ+ representation, A Change of Sex has its critics, with some trans viewers objecting to its focus on a medicalised transition and the binaries of male and female. Understanding of gender identity has evolved greatly since the late 1970s, but this was nonetheless a watershed moment for trans visibility. After Julia’s death in 2019, her story was given a new lease of life by Adam Curtis in his 2021 series Can’t Get You out of My Head.

– Simon McCallum

Revisiting pioneering transgender documentary A Change of Sex 40 years on

The series, tracking Julia Grant’s transition in 1980s Britain was most recently featured in Adam Curtis’s Can’t Get You out of My Head. How does it hold up after 40 years?

By Rachel Pronger

Revisiting pioneering transgender documentary A Change of Sex 40 years on

60. The Chinese Detective (1981 to 1982)

Riveting detective series that tackled race and identity in 1980s Britain.

The Chinese Detective (1981 to 1982)
© BBC

How it changed TV

Created by Ian Kennedy Martin (famed for The Sweeney), The Chinese Detective is notable for having the first British East Asian lead in a British television drama. It’s just a shame it took so long, and that British East and South East Asian representation on TV remains so scant 40 years later. David Yip’s central performance as Detective Sergeant John Ho, a man dedicated to his career despite racist abuse and sabotage from his corrupt colleagues, is pensive and affecting. Like Martin’s other work, The Chinese Detective is a mood piece, steeped in the brooding atmosphere and lingo of its East End locations. And when the violence strikes, it’s sharp and piercing.

Reading the reviews from the time, it is clear that 1980s Britain was a cruel place to be: even while praising the series for its thrills and pace, critics fell over themselves to make racist jokes about Chinese people. What is striking, then, is that The Chinese Detective itself largely avoids the tropes while addressing racial injustice squarely. The prejudice Ho encounters is all directed at his character rather than embodied in the characterisation, as was more typical with Chinese roles at the time.

– Elinor Groom

61. 40 Minutes (1981 to 1994)

Entertaining and hard-hitting documentary series telling stories about ‘the way we live now’.

40 Minutes: Heart of the Angel (1989)

How it changed TV

From heart transplants to prize-winning leeks, this series covered a varied range of topics. It gave leading documentarian Molly Dineen her first television airing, when her NFTS graduation film Home from the Hill (1987) was broadcast, having been rigorously edited down from just under an hour to fit into the 40 Minutes slot. It tells the striking story of the retired – and debonair and witty – Colonel Hilary Hook, and his struggles on his return to Britain after his privileged life as an ex-pat in Kenya. Hook became a celebrity as a result of the warmth and humour of the programme – distinctive qualities of Dineen’s work throughout her career. She went on to further programmes in the series, including the much-loved Heart of the Angel (1989).

Roger Mills, the series’ first editor, and Will Wyatt, head of documentary features, both believed that most documentaries were too long, and cut the running time from the then-traditional 50 minutes to 40, as well as removing on-screen reporters and most commentaries. Edward Mirzoeff picked up the editor’s mantle in 1985 and reinstated commentaries, which remain an often-divisive feature of documentaries. The series ran for 324 episodes.

– Ros Cranston

62. Boys from the Blackstuff (1982) 

A drama that captures perfectly the anger, frustration and waste felt by working-class men unable to find the dignity of work in Thatcher’s Britain. 

Boys from the Blackstuff (1982)
© BBC

How it changed TV

Every so often a television drama comes along that captures the mood of a nation and accurately reflects it back to itself. Such was the case with writer Alan Bleasdale’s brilliant series.

Developed out of a single Play for Today drama (broadcast in 1980), the longer-form series allowed Bleasdale to return to his characters and detail the pain and lack of dignity they experienced in trying to lift themselves out of poverty in a Liverpool decimated by recession and unemployment. As factories deemed uncompetitive were closed across the north, Bleasdale showed us the human cost of such policies through a deep and sincere understanding of working-class culture and the effects on individuals and their families. His natural ear for dialogue allowed for some incredible performances, notably from Bernard Hill’s character Yosser Hughes – a desperate man teetering on the edge psychologically.

The series was also gamechanging in the way it was produced, being one of the first drama series to be shot entirely on video tape on location. Under Philip Saville’s remarkable direction, this achieved the fluidity of film and left the viewer with some truly unforgettable images. 

Like Our Friends in the North some 14 years later, Boys from the Blackstuff rates as one of the most important ‘state of the nation’ dramas the BBC has ever produced.

– Marcus Prince

63. Madhur Jaffrey’s Indian Cookery (1982)

Eight-part series designed to introduce viewers to a variety of Indian food and encourage them to cook the dishes at home.

Madhur Jaffrey’s Indian Cookery (1982)
© BBC

How it changed TV

Acclaimed actor Madhur Jaffrey had starred in films prior to fronting this series, but she had also written a celebrated cookbook, An Invitation to Indian Cooking. Meanwhile, producer Jenny Stevens, after working on the successful series Delia Smith’s Cookery Course (1978), was looking to make a new cookery series devoted to Indian cooking, and Jaffrey was the ideal choice.

Cookery on television is as old as the medium itself, and has influenced tastes and trends for decades, but this series marked a new chapter in engaging audiences with international cuisine. The series was not the first appearance of Indian cookery on the BBC – most notably Lalita Ahmed had presented Indian cookery as part of Pebble Mill at One, and produced an accompanying book. But Madhur Jaffrey’s Indian Cookery marked a move to the early evening slot, making a new frontier of flavour accessible to a much wider audience. Introducing viewers to ingredients that are now commonplace, Jaffrey describes ginger as looking like “a potato that went a bit haywire” and advises on what to do with coriander. For many viewers this encouragement led them to expand the range of their home cooking; it changed tastes for a generation. As producer Jenny Stevens put it, “through its stomach, Britain became a little more multi-cultural”.

– Lisa Kerrigan

64. Police (1982)

The documentary that changed British policing.

How it changed TV

Police was a groundbreaking exercise in documenting the inner workings of UK policing, but its third episode, ‘A Complaint of Rape’, was yet more than that, a cause célèbre that changed policing itself. Series head Roger Graef, who died this year, was an American-born criminologist who became Britain’s pre-eminent exponent of ‘Direct Cinema’ – but on this side of the Atlantic, this observational documentary form flourished not in cinema but on TV

Across the 1970s, Graef pioneered bringing 16mm cameras and sound equipment inside multiple institutions. Now he and director-cameraman Charles Stewart rocked up at Thames Valley Police. This edition showed a woman reporting her rape and being interrogated by three male cops – callously and dismissively. Going viral, 1982-style, it was cited in parliament, gained extensive media coverage, and prompted police forces to introduce more thoughtful processes, including greater involvement by female officers. 

– Patrick Russell

65. The Young Ones (1982 to 1984)

Modern comedy starts here.

The Young Ones (1982)
© BBC

How it changed TV

Spanning just 12 half-hour episodes, this anarchic sitcom came as close as anything to being Gen-X’s rock-n-roll: a cultural product that was theirs and that mystified their elders. Co-written by Ben Elton, Lise Mayer and Rik Mayall, and starring Mayall, Adrian Edmondson, Nigel Planer, Alexei Sayle and Christopher Ryan, it was set in a dingy student flat occupied by archetypes: annoying hippie, annoying anarchist, annoying cool guy, psychopathic punk… 

The humour was by turns satirical, surreal, scatological and silly. Along with Channel 4’s The Comic Strip, which debuted just seven days earlier, The Young Ones vomited the ‘alternative comedy’ of London’s Comedy Store upon an unsuspecting British public. Across the later 1980s and 90s this ‘alternative’ first challenged the mainstream then supplanted it as establishment. Truly, modern TV comedy started in November 1982. 

– Patrick Russell

66. Threads (1984)

The effects of a devastating global nuclear war are felt by two working-class families in Sheffield.

Threads (1984)

How it changed TV

Peter Watkins had tried to portray the after-effects of a nuclear attack with The War Game (1966) and promptly saw his efforts banned by a nervous BBC. The American The Day After (1983) tried too but ended up swamped by its soapier elements. Threads, however, pulled no punches. This was nuclear war as we all feared it probably would be. The attack itself is terrifying enough, but writer Barry Hines and director Mick Jackson take us where no drama had taken us before, plunging us far past the immediate after-effects and into a horrific future set years after the nuclear winter, exposing the fragility of the ‘threads’ that hold modern societies together.

There’s no attempt at impartiality here, because there’s simply no room for it. This is an unapologetic cry for sanity in a world that had come dangerously close to the real thing as recently as November 1983. Threads offers an unblinking stare into the abyss that scared and scarred a generation. It changed forever the way that the horrors of nuclear war would be presented in drama, bringing home to the viewing public the must unpalatable truth of them all – that in a nuclear war, there would be no winners.

– Kevin Lyons

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67. The Lenny Henry Show (1984 to 2005)

Lenny Henry’s pioneering comedy stand-up sketch show featuring a mix of musical parodies, skits and spoofs. 

The Lenny Henry Show (1987)
© BBC

How it changed TV

Lenny Henry was already a hugely successful comedian when he was granted his own primetime series – the first Black comedian to achieve this in British television. Produced and directed by Geoff Posner, The Lenny Henry Show was one of the first to feature recurring Black comedy characters in mainstream television – most played by Lenny Henry himself and showcasing his talent for singing as well as comedy acting. Although the show didn’t immediately open the floodgates for further excursions into minority comedy, it did serve to demonstrate the commercial viability of such voices.

The Lenny Henry Show has seen multiple revivals and format changes over the years, most recently in the form of a radio show for BBC Radio 4. From 1987 to 1988 the show took on a sitcom style for two seasons, featuring Henry’s popular character Delbert Wilkins, a well-meaning but prone-to-trouble pirate radio DJ. The series established Henry as a household name in British television, a position he used to set up the charity and prominent televisual annual event Comic Relief in partnership with the BBC and comedy scriptwriter Richard Curtis, using humour to raise money to help people in the UK and around the world.

– Chantelle Lavel Boyea

68. Edge of Darkness (1985)

Gripping six-part nuclear-threat drama that set the template for the modern conspiracy thriller series.

Edge of Darkness (1985)
© BBC

How it changed TV

By the mid-1980s the model of the single television drama established by The Wednesday Play and Play for Today strands was changing. On the one hand, the BBC was moving, via its Screen Two strand, to follow the example set by the newly-founded Channel 4, and producing TV films with the prospect of a theatrical release. But at the same time Troy Kennedy Martin’s six-part, hit thriller Edge of Darkness pointed – alongside Dennis Potter’s Pennies from Heaven and The Singing Detective – to a future in which longer-form, big-budget serials would come to dominate schedules and critical acclaim. First broadcast on BBC Two in November 1985, Edge of Darkness captured the zeitgeist and was an immediate hit with audiences. It was repeated on BBC One just days after its initial run ended, where it had even higher audiences of 8 million per episode.

Bob Peck stars as CID detective Ronald Craven, who witnesses the murder of his nuclear campaigner daughter (Joanne Whalley), and through his own investigations is led into a labyrinthine netherworld of environmental politics and state corruption – aided in his search for her killers by CIA man Darius Jedburgh (played in magnificent, scene-stealing fashion by Texan Joe Don Baker).

Kennedy Martin, whose earlier BBC series Z Cars had helped establish the gritty TV police genre, here did the same for the big-budget conspiracy thriller serial, and Edge of Darkness’s DNA can be felt in such high-profile successors as State of Play (2003), The Shadow Line (2011) and Utopia (2013).

– James Bell

69. Live Aid (1985)

The most ambitious live broadcast ever staged: rockin’ all over the world to end world hunger.

Live Aid (1985)

How it changed TV

In 1984 a BBC news report by Michael Buerk on starvation in Ethiopia inspired Bob Geldof to mount the most audacious charity fundraiser imaginable. Together with Midge Ure he wrote the single ‘Do They Know It’s Christmas?’ and recorded it with Band Aid – a one-off collective of over 40 artists – breaking sales records.

Geldof, in a preview programme broadcast on the eve of Live Aid, said that what he feared the most was “compassion fatigue” setting in after the record sales died down. That fear prompted the BBC to work with Geldof to create Live Aid, a one-day rock festival and charity telethon to be broadcast live from Wembley Stadium (with another concert under the same banner from JFK Stadium in Philadelphia) on 13 July 1985. Live Aid featured a dizzying line-up of mega-stars, including Queen, U2 and The Who. The scale and technical challenge of the broadcast were unprecedented, and the BBC had to manage the outside broadcast from London and link to the broadcast from the States (organised in the main by ABC). While the legacy of Live Aid is sometimes contentious, with a global audience of 1.9 billion and around £150 million estimated to have been raised, it’s undoubtedly an epochal event in the BBC’s history.

– Elinor Groom

70. Real Lives: At the Edge of the Union (1985)

Documentary following the lives of Republican Martin McGuinness and Unionist Gregory Campbell, which ignited a battle over press freedom and government interference in the BBC

Real Lives: At the Edge of the Union (1985)

How it changed TV

After Thatcher announced that all terrorists should be starved of “the oxygen of publicity”, a documentary that featured Martin McGuinness (who was alleged to be the IRA’s chief of staff) was always going to spark fury from Thatcher’s government. Citing concerns that McGuinness was given legitimacy to air his views by the documentary, then home secretary Leon Brittan lent on the BBC board not to transmit the programme. When the board capitulated, BBC journalists perceived this to be a huge threat to the editorial independence of the organisation. The result was a 24-hour strike that took all BBC TV and radio services off the air. 

The fact that the then BBC director general, Alastair Milne, backed the journalists and decided to transmit the programme with minor changes, against the wishes of the government, was said to have been a factor in his dismissal some 18 months later. And some have argued this opened the way for the appointment of key BBC personnel who were more compliant with the government’s views. In many respects, this single documentary did much to change the relationship between the BBC and the government, and to define issues surrounding the editorial independence of the BBC that are still extremely relevant today. 

– Marcus Prince

71. Victoria Wood: As Seen on TV (1985 to 1987)

“We’d like to apologise to our viewers in the north – it must be awful for them.” 

Victoria Wood: As Seen on TV (1985)
© BBC

How it changed TV

Let’s do it! When Victoria Wood set up shop at the BBC she brought everything she had, a triple threat in writing, performance and song. Wood broke ground as a northern woman comic commanding a primetime slot on the BBC (after a successful run-up on ITV), but it’s the sheer comic excellence of her show that has earned her this spot. Her satirical songs, observational stand-up and hilarious sketches were all pitch perfect, performed by Wood and her stellar ensemble including Julie Waters, Celia Imrie, Patricia Routledge and Duncan Preston.  

Wood was a comic who loved television, and her writing managed an impressive balance: poking fun at British popular culture while also embodying what made it popular in the first place. She had a particular nose for spoofing TV itself, with satires of po-faced documentaries, hyperactive adverts and snobby continuity announcements memorably delivered by Susie Blake. The sweetly shambolic soap opera Acorn Antiques is fondly remembered, as are the songs – particularly the raucous paean to marital desire, ‘The Ballad of Barry and Freda’. Not meekly, not bleakly, Victoria Wood: As Seen on TV cemented a loyal and loving fanbase who miss her deeply.

– Elinor Groom

72. EastEnders (1985-)

Soap opera revolving around the gritty drama, love affairs and day-to-day lives of Walford’s residents.

Eastenders (1985)
© BBC

How it changed TV

Through hard-hitting storylines and surprising plot twists, EastEnders took the soap opera to a new level by combining dark drama with social realism. When the series opened in 1985 with the shocking discovery of a murder victim, it aired to 13 million viewers. EastEnders has since continued to hit headlines and cause controversy through its progressive representation of social issues, including AIDS, mental health, hate crime and sexual assault. Co-creator Julia Smith said: “We don’t make life, we reflect it … Above all, we wanted realism.” The soap has worked alongside organisations and charities to sensitively portray a variety of issues to its mass audience, bringing education alongside entertainment.

The series has found innovative ways to engage audiences over the years, including a celebration of two of its anniversaries through ‘live’ episodes. Key episodes have become historic moments of British television, and its long-serving characters have become emblematic of British culture.

– Jade Evans

73. Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit (1990)

Jeanette Winterson’s semi-autobiographical drama remains a moving and innovative portrayal of queer teenage life.

Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit (1990)
© BBC

How it changed TV

Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit first burst on to our screens in 1990, at a time when lesbian characters were rarely, if ever, shown. It was a brave, original and innovative depiction of queer teenage love.

Adapting it from her own semi-autobiographical novel, Jeanette Winterson said she wanted to challenge “the virtues of the home, the power of the church and the supposed normality of heterosexuality”. The ways in which Jess’s (Charlotte Coleman) overbearing and fanatically religious mother (Geraldine McEwan) restricts her life are abysmal, though they occasionally slip into the absurd and darkly humorous. The fairground is depicted as the ultimate place of joy and hedonism, contrasted with the cold and bleak hearth of Jess’s familial home, where even so much as a smile is banned. But it’s the happiness Jess discovers in love and friendship, and the gentleness of her self-acceptance, that make this series an enduring classic.

Geraldine McEwan won a BAFTA for her role as Jess’s authoritarian mother and the series won best drama and film sound. The novel was also adapted into a two-part radio play for BBC Radio 4 in 2016.

– Storm Patterson

74. The Real McCoy (1991 to 1996)

Sketch comedy show written and performed by a diverse host of British talent, which tackled issues around race and ethnicity head on.

The Real McCoy (1991)
© BBC

How it changed TV

It’s hard to overstate the impact of this sketch show for those who saw it and saw themselves authentically and hilariously represented in a primetime slot on BBC Two. The Real McCoy delivered what Leo Muhammad calls “edutainment”, comedy with a serious message, tackling issues of race, British, Caribbean and South Asian culture. While this may sound demanding for a comedy, the series was perfectly balanced: as brilliantly funny as it was insightful. Comparisons can be made with popular US shows that followed in a similar vein much later, such as Chappelle’s Show and Key and Peele.

The series proved to be a hit with audiences and ran for five series, but aside from a 12-month return to BBC iPlayer in 2020, it has all but disappeared from our screens. Even so, its legacy is strong. Meera Syal, Sanjeev Bhaskar and Kulvinder Ghir went on to the similarly styled classic Goodness Gracious Me, and recent BBC Three sketch comedy Famalam draws major inspiration from The Real McCoy. Now that some of the performers are sadly no longer with us, and none of them are on our screens enough, their groundbreaking work on this show deserves to be seen and cherished.

– Peter Stanley

“She knocked the brown right out of me!” Heritage, big-screen comedy and Two Dosas

Cinema will lag behind TV in telling mixed heritage stories for as long as it’s the gatekeeper executives deciding what authentic is, says Ian Mantgani.

By Ian Mantgani

“She knocked the brown right out of me!” Heritage, big-screen comedy and Two Dosas

75. Ghostwatch (1992)

This controversial ‘live’ haunting reinvented the language of TV drama, terrifying and inspiring a generation of viewers, writers and filmmakers.

Ghostwatch (1992)
© BBC

How it changed TV

Trailed in the run-up to Halloween night 1992 as a live broadcast from an ordinary north London house – haunted, it turns out, by a malevolent spirit nicknamed ‘Pipes’ – Ghostwatch was in fact a scripted drama by Stephen Volk. Fronted by familiar personalities playing themselves (Michael Parkinson, Sarah Greene, Mike Smith and Craig Charles) and filmed some months before for the Screen One slot, it was inspired in part by the real-life Enfield Poltergeist case of the late 1970s. Many of its 11 million viewers failed to clock the cast list printed in the Radio Times or Volk’s on-screen writing credit; many were terrified long after realising it was an elaborate fiction. Ghostwatch lulls the viewer into a false sense of security by drawing on the mundane tropes of live TV, director Lesley Manning dispensing with Screen One’s usual 16mm film format by shooting on videotape and using the latest technology, including infra red cameras.

Complaints flooded in, and sections of the press whipped itself into such a frenzy at the BBC’s ‘deception’ that comparisons were drawn with Orson Welles’ infamous 1938 War of the Worlds radio broadcast. As a result, the programme has yet to receive a repeat broadcast, and in the decade between its original transmission and the BFI’s DVD release in 2002 a veritable Ghostwatch cult sprang up, its influence extending as far as horror cinema’s ‘found footage’ subgenre. Volk’s “massive séance” is a perfect metaphor for the shared experience of television at its most powerful.

Simon McCallum

  • Ghostwatch is available to view free in the BFI Southbank Mediatheque alongside feature-length documentary Ghostwatch: Behind the Curtains (2012)
  • Ghostwatch was re-released on DVD in 2019
  • Find out more

76. Absolutely Fabulous (1992 to 2012)

Iconic women behaving badly, Edina Monsoon and Patsy Stone were unleashed on the world in this hit comedy series. 

Absolutely Fabulous (1992 to 2012)
© BBC

How it changed TV

Spawned by a 1990 French and Saunders sketch, Absolutely Fabulous saw female-driven British comedy break through to a global audience thanks to the unforgettable comic pairing of heroically immature PR exec Edina Monsoon (played by creator Jennifer Saunders) and vodka-soaked fash-mag editor Patsy Stone (Joanna Lumley). Eddie’s prim daughter Saffron (Julia Sawalha), kleptomaniac mother (June Whitfield) and space-cadet PA Bubble (Jane Horrocks) are on hand to up the ante. Revelling in camp and doused in acerbic one-liners, Ab Fab sends up the fripperies of the fashion world, and the media luvvies and swinging-60s has-beens who haunt west London’s ritzier enclaves, while making a genuine point in its (anti-)heroines’ refusal to go quietly into middle age.

Spanning five series, multiple spin-off specials plus a 2016 movie, the endlessly quotable show was beloved for its cameo appearances by assorted fashion legends and pop culture icons (“Champagne for Lulu!”) and has become a canonical text for queer viewers. Saunders’ genius for physical comedy coupled with Lumley’s gleeful subversion of her soigné star persona embedded the characters – and the first three series in particular – in our cultural landscape. Ab Fab’s success arguably paved the way for BBC Three’s platforming of such iconoclastic funny women as Julia Davis (Nighty Night, 2004), Sharon Horgan (Pulling, 2006) and Phoebe Waller-Bridge (Fleabag, 2016).

– Simon McCallum

Jennifer Saunders on a career in comedy

The writer, star and co-creator of The Comic Strip, French and Saunders and Absolutely Fabulous visits BFI Southbank to talk about her career in film and TV comedy.

Jennifer Saunders on a career in comedy

77. The Buddha of Suburbia (1993)

Comic drama about the coming of age of teenager Karim in 1970s Bromley, based on Hanif Kureishi’s novel.

The Buddha of Suburbia (1993)
© BBC

How it changed TV

Adapting his own autobiographical 1990 novel into a four-part series directed by Roger Michell, Hanif Kureishi’s The Buddha of Suburbia caused a sensation on its first broadcast in 1993. It follows Karim (Naveen Andrews), a 17-year-old living in 1970s Bromley, whose father (Roshan Seth) styles himself as the eponymous ‘buddha’, bringing spiritual enlightenment into the lives of his white suburban neighbours.

Like all young people, Karim is wrestling with questions about his identity, and as in Kureishi’s screenwriting debut, the Channel 4-funded film My Beautiful Laundrette (1985), The Buddha of Suburbia was celebrated for portraying British society, and the second-generation British South Asian experience in particular, with both insight and scathing wit. It was entirely appropriate too that David Bowie provided the series’ title song: not only is Karim from the same London suburb as his idol, but as Kureishi has said: “Like Bowie, Karim was eager to find an identity, throw it away, and start again next day with another one, brand new.”

The series caused outrage in some sections of the press over its boundary-pushing explicitness, as bisexual Karim has numerous liaisons with both men and women, and sexually frank, if comical, conversations with his frustrated friend Changez. Indeed, in its portrayal of the experience-chasing of youth, The Buddha of Suburbia opened the space for such 1990s series as This Life, just as much as it did such British South Asian films as East Is East (1999).

– James Bell

78. Cardiac Arrest (1994 to 1996)

Written by a young medic – one Jed Mercurio – this hard-hitting, irreverent insider’s view of the NHS changed the medical drama. 

Cardiac Arrest (1994)
© BBC

How it changed TV

Jeremy Brock and Paul Unwin’s Casualty (1986-) had dealt with tough social issues and lack of resources in the NHS across its first very dark couple of series, but it was not until Cardiac Arrest that the medical drama was given real edge and reinvented for a younger demographic. Doctor Jed Mercurio used his direct experiences of working under extreme pressure, within an NHS system on the verge of collapse, to show the effects on junior doctors training within this very hierarchical system. Focusing on the lives of the younger doctors, Mercurio showed how they used very dark humour as a coping mechanism. 

Peppered with smart one-liners, the series highlighted the moral dilemmas faced when working for a severely under-resourced institution, and the harsh realities of the life-and-death decisions doctors have to make. Gone were the medical heroes of previous medical drama series, to be replaced by deeply fallible human beings – often forced into serious errors by a system that exploited junior doctors through cripplingly long hours and a deference to consultants that made truth the first casualty. 

Produced by the great Tony Garnett (Cathy Come Home), Cardiac Arrest took the medical drama to the next level, paving the way for Bodies and This Is Going to Hurt. 

– Marcus Prince

79. Video Nation (1994 to 2001)

A frank and revealing video diary series featuring British people talking in their own words about everyday life. 

Video Nation (1994 to 2001)

How it changed TV

Call it the YouTube of its day. Video Nation championed the voices of ordinary people, giving them a chance to speak in their own words publicly on television, and about subjects that were important to them. A wide range of contributors from many backgrounds were trained to use camcorders and asked to film aspects of everyday life over the period of one year. Taking the form of video diaries, people discussed politics, education and culture, as well as more personal subjects, including mental health, age, race and disability. Many people shared very personal responses and experiences, giving a fascinating cross-section of the British public in a way never seen before, and giving TV viewers a chance to see themselves, their lives and the lives of others reflected back at them in a multitude of meaningful ways. 

The show was originally broadcast before BBC Two’s Newsnight, and became hugely popular in its time. Even after Video Nation ended in 2001, many people carried on contributing video diaries to the website that was subsequently set up by the BBC. The website gives online access to many video diaries from the original TV series, as well as later contributions, which run up to 2011.

– Rosie Taylor

80. The Death of Yugoslavia (1995)

An Eastern European state implodes. Its peoples suffer. TV tells us how and why, and makes us cry.

The Death of Yugoslavia (1995)

How it changed TV

This stunning series about then very-recent history speaks to the BBC’s unique capacity for funding programme-making with the power simultaneously to embrace intricate, cerebral geopolitical analysis and emotionally devastating epic tragedy. Taking us from the early 1980s, as the Soviet empire declines, to near-genocidal events occurring mere months before its broadcast, it marshals an array of content, from acres of library footage to hours of interviews. Interviewees include such infamously key players as Slobodan Milošević and Radovan Karadžić

A product of the outsourcing of BBC production to independent production companies that had kicked in in the 1980s, much of the vision and craft of the series comes from producers Brian Lapping Associates. Nobody who watched it at the time will ever forget seeing this series. Some interviews were used in war crimes prosecutions. 

– Patrick Russell

81. This Life (1996 to 1997)

Sex, drugs and five trainee lawyers in one south London house.

This Life (1997)
© BBC

How it changed TV

This Life burst on to screens in 1996, with stylish kinetic camerawork that seemed to be rushing to keep up with the lives of its five twentysomething protagonists: Miles, Milly, Egg, Warren and Anna. The series was sometimes viewed as a boozy and bawdy British riposte to Friends, but its roots lay more deeply in the tradition of social realism pioneered on television by executive producer Tony Garnett. Commissioned by the BBC to produce a serial drama for younger audiences, Garnett brought writer Amy Jenkins on board to create the series, and the result was a show that, for many, summed up the hedonistic and cynical 1990s.

Chock-full of drug use, simmering sexual tension and crackling dialogue, This Life was a zeitgeist drama, and though it was aimed at twentysomethings like the protagonists, it appealed to a wide range of viewers from teens onwards. With its candid portrayal of sex – both gay and straight – the series paved the way for other dramas like Russell T. Davies’ landmark Queer as Folk.

– Lisa Kerrigan

This Life creator Amy Jenkins and producer Tony Garnett

Writer-creator Amy Jenkins and producer Tony Garnett talk about making This Life, one of the great British shows of the 1990s, which smashed taboos by focusing on the casual sex and drug-taking that went on in a dysfunctional house-share occupied by a group of twenty-something law graduates.

This Life creator Amy Jenkins and producer Tony Garnett

82. The Royle Family (1998 to 2000, specials 2006 to 2012)

Single-camera sitcom observing the everyday trials and tribulations of a working-class northern family.

The Royle Family (1998)
© BBC

How it changed TV

Starting without fanfare on BBC Two, this sitcom would eventually establish itself as a massive ratings smash and a reliable format for hugely watched Christmas specials. The series struck a chord with its relatively slow-paced, real-time storytelling, naturalistic performances and mundane but relatable dialogue. Devoid of smart plot twists or obvious jokes, it could nonetheless be hysterically funny, with comedic vignettes that were beautifully observed. Above all, The Royle Family depicted a believable warmth between the family members, which seemed a refreshing change from the harder-edged more cynical comedy that was prevalent at the time. The simple premise of observing the family as they chewed over the events of their life while half-watching the constantly-on TV, strangely, seemed revolutionary, and the series heralded a swing towards a warmer kind of comedy in the new millennium that likewise mixed racy dialogue with moments of true poignancy (such as Gavin and Stacey, 2007 to 2010).

But The Royle Family’s greatest influence was to inspire the entertaining reality strand Gogglebox (Channel 4, 2013-), which acknowledged the debt it owed to The Royle Family by using its writer/creator/stars, Caroline Ahearne and Craig Cash, as the mood-setting narrators.

– Dick Fiddy

83. Our Friends in the North (1996) 

Making stars of Christopher Eccleston, Daniel Craig, Mark Strong and Gina McKee, Peter Flannery’s extraordinary drama followed lives across three decades.  

Our Friends in the North (1996)
© BBC

How it changed TV

One of the finest ‘state of the nation’ dramas ever produced, Flannery’s brilliant concept began life as a play for the RSC in 1982. A television commission provided him with the opportunity to expand the themes and bring it up to date, following the fortunes of our four main protagonists from the early idealism of youth in the 1960s through to disillusionment and estrangement in the 1990s. 

Encompassing the radical politics of the left, the miners’ strike, local government corruption and the swing to the right in British politics, the series achieved a Shakespearean power to define a period and a country. As each episode honed in on the key events of the decade and their impact on this group of friends and their lives in the north-east, a perfect balance is achieved between the personal and the political – the mark of truly great writing. 

As touching in its perception of how friendships are changed and altered by the course of time as it is powerful in its ability to make us question ourselves as a nation, Our Friends in the North remains one of the benchmarks by which all such television series are judged. In defining a whole era, it redefined what television drama could achieve. 

– Marcus Prince

84. Teletubbies (1997-)

“Over the hills and far away, Teletubbies come to play!”

Teletubbies (1997-)

How it changed TV

With televisions in their stomachs and aerials atop their heads, the Teletubbies took the very youngest viewers into a bright, repetitive world full of hugs, games and silliness. It’s difficult to imagine now what the controversy could be, but in 1997 there were loud concerns that the language of Teletubbies (“Eh-oh!”) could be harmful to children and was not in keeping with the educational standards expected from BBC children’s programming.

Visionary co-creators Anne Wood and Andrew Davenport were quick to point out that the programme had been conceived following months of research with small children and with speech development in mind. Beyond that, the delirious world of the Teletubbies hit the zeitgeist and became a crossover hit, regularly pulling in mixed-age audiences of 2 million and carving out a presence in dance culture. Where Teletubbies changed children’s television was in its imaginative appeal to tiny viewers and its big-budget formatting and design. A global commercial success airing in 120 countries and 45 languages, Teletubbies showed that pre-school programming could be created on an epic scale. Davenport and Wood would go on to create another, even more beautiful world with In the Night Garden.

– Lisa Kerrigan

85. I’m Alan Partridge (1997 to 2002)

Sitcom starring Steve Coogan as Alan Partridge, a failed television presenter and DJ, reduced to the graveyard shift on local radio and living in a motel after being kicked out by his wife.

I’m Alan Partridge (1997)
© BBC

How it changed TV

Frequently proclaimed as one of Britain’s best sitcoms, I’m Alan Partridge, co-written by Coogan, Peter Baynham and Armando Iannucci, takes a close look at Partridge’s life and desperate attempts at reviving his TV career. The show ingeniously weaves mockumentary-style segments and performance in front of a live studio audience. This was achieved through a staging technique devised by Iannucci, in which the cast and crew worked on sets away from the audience, who watched on monitors – allowing for smooth transitions between scenes and benefiting from the audible (yet unseen) audience feedback throughout.

Performing the perfect balance of awkwardness and smugness for over three decades, Coogan has gained immense success in taking Alan Partridge on a career journey that real-life TV personalities can only dream of. He was first introduced as a sports correspondent on the spoof current affairs radio show On the Hour (1991 to 1992) for BBC Radio 4, and has since had numerous notable spin-offs to add to his resume, including the spoof chat show series Knowing Me, Knowing You (1994) and most recently This Time with Alan Partridge (2019-), alongside a British digital radio show and a feature film, Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa (2013). 

– Chantelle Lavel Boyea 

86. Goodness Gracious Me (1998 to 2001)

A British sketch comedy using pitch-perfect musical parodies and skits satirising British-Asian culture and integration.

Goodness Gracious Me (1996)
© BBC

How it changed TV

“Kiss my chuddies!” became an iconic catchphrase coined by the show’s characters ‘the Bhangra Muffins’, and is one of many examples of Goodness Gracious Me’s influence on the English language. The show was among the first to feature British-Asian slang in the primetime slot, influencing the addition of many phrases to the Oxford English Dictionary, while more generally offering a fresh perspective on British-Asian life. 

Created by Sanjeev Bhaskar, Meera Syal and Anil Gupta, Goodness Gracious Me started out on BBC Radio 4 before being televised. Bhaskar and Syal star as part of the ensemble cast alongside Kulvinder Ghir and Nina Wadia, who all took on a variety of hilarious characters in unforgettable sketches, many (‘The English Restaurant’, ‘Brief Encounter at an Indian Railway Station’) simple comedic reversals. The show ran for four series and has had a number of specials, anchoring it in the nation’s hearts with its timeless comedy and on-point observations about integration and British-Asian culture. 

– Chantelle Lavel Boyea 

87. Chewin’ the Fat (1999 to 2005)

Massively popular character-packed Scottish sketch show.

Chewin’ the Fat (2000)
© BBC

How it changed TV

The long-running sketch show Scotch and Wry (1978 to 1992) – a ratings giant in Scotland but virtually unknown and unseen elsewhere in Britain – had proved conclusively the viability of locally produced, regionally-aimed television comedy. Chewin’ the Fat, featuring a winning mix of traditional sketch themes and brilliantly drawn regular characters, trod a similar path but had a wider influence, with its bridging of old and new styles of comedy.

It’s one of the flagships shows from The Comedy Unit, which had begun life within the confines of the BBC but had spun-off to become a successful and influential independent company responsible for a raft of programming born in Scotland but often with a wider appeal beyond the border. Beginning life on radio, Chewin’ the Fat was also notable because two of its most popular recurring characters, Jack Jarvis and Victor McDade, later graduated to their own sitcom, the Glasgow-based monster hit Still Game (2002 to 2019).

Scotland wasn’t unique in pioneering regionally produced comedy programming that remained nationally obscure but locally venerated. Other examples are Give My Head Peace (BBC Northern Ireland from 1995) and Ryan and Ronnie (BBC Wales, 1971 to 1973).

– Dick Fiddy

88. The Blue Planet (2001)

The grandeur and wonder of life in the world’s oceans, as never captured before.

The Blue Planet (2001)

How it changed TV

“The first ever comprehensive investigation into the planet’s oceans,” as The Blue Planet was described, was an award-winning ‘blue chip’ series made by the BBC Natural History Unit, produced in association with the Discovery Channel and Warners. Stunning footage of orcas picking seals off a beach or relentlessly pursuing grey whales, swirling bait-balls of sardines corralled by dolphins, and the weirder and weirder creatures of the deeps (to name just a few memorable examples), were patiently filmed over five years.

Aerial and underwater camerawork – shot in nearly 200 different locations – revealed animals, migration routes and behaviours never seen before. Many a night’s sleep will have been disturbed by the image of the terrifying hagfish waiting for rotten scraps floating down to bottom of the ocean. Produced by Alastair Fothergill and the Bristol NHU and narrated by David Attenborough, The Blue Planet inaugurated a new strand running alongside Attenborough’s own ‘Life’ series. The many spinoffs of the series included a feature film (Deep Blue, 2003), a documentary about the filming of the series (Making Waves, 2001), and the programme Deep Trouble (2001), a warning about the ecological dangers of over-fishing.

– Bryony Dixon

David Attenborough: 10 landmark nature series

We celebrate a man who has changed the way we see the natural world: British wildlife presenter Sir David Attenborough.

By David Parkinson

David Attenborough: 10 landmark nature series

89. The Office (2001 to 2003)

Spoof fly-on-the-wall documentary eavesdropping on the Slough branch of paper merchants Wernham Hogg.

The Office (2001)
© BBC

How it changed TV

Starting life as a BBC director’s course training project for Stephen Merchant, The Office would go on to be a global phenomenon and to influence TV comedy worldwide. Central to the show’s success was the spot-on performance of co-creator Ricky Gervais as office manager David Brent, a truly original character. Brent is painfully aware of the camera’s presence, determined to come across as an efficient, likeable boss who is au fait with current social concerns: a perfect everyman. Trouble is he’s nothing of the sort and his desperation to fit the role leads him into ridiculous and excruciatingly embarrassing situations.

The mock documentary format for comedy wasn’t new, but The Office proved wonderfully timely and certainly hit the zeitgeist of the period, depicting the struggles of certain men to seem ‘cool’ in an environment that was changing rapidly from the one they grew up in. That observation gave the show international appeal, not only in its original version but with the slew of foreign remakes, which all made an impact on their home audience. The US version of The Office was particularly successful and soon the US schedules were peppered with similar-themed mockumentary comedies (Modern Family, Parks and Recreation, What We Do in the Shadows etc).

– Dick Fiddy

90. Something Special (2003-)

Justin Fletcher and his comic alter ego Mr Tumble invite children to laugh and learn Makaton.

Something Special (2004)
© BBC

How it changed TV

Created by former special educational needs teacher Allan Johnston, and built around the familiar presence of presenter Justin Fletcher and his alter ego, children’s comedy icon Mr Tumble (as well as many other members of the extended Tumble family, all also played by Fletcher), Something Special has become a much-loved, important mainstay in the CBeebies schedules. The series employs Makaton and teaches viewers new signs in every episode via a variety of activities and songs. Designed particularly with children with communication difficulties in mind, it’s now beloved by a wide range of viewers and has made itself a vitally inclusive space on television for children with disabilities.

The programme format has shifted over time. Initial episodes featured Fletcher in a simple white studio set, but its popularity led to a number of schools requesting that Fletcher visit to talk to their children, and the show responded by changing its format from the studio to location shooting, enabling a larger number of children to be part of the show. Something Special has also imaginatively recognised the changing role of technology in children’s lives, and has incorporated this into the show with the ‘Tumble Tap’ and spinoff games and apps. The series is currently the longest-running programme on CBeebies, and Justin Fletcher one of the most beloved and recognisable figures in contemporary children’s broadcasting, starring in two other inventive and entertaining shows on the channel, Justin’s House and Gigglebiz, as well as regularly selling out national theatre tours featuring a variety of his characters. He was awarded an MBE in 2008 for his work.

– Lisa Kerrigan

91. Strictly Come Dancing (2004-)

Glittering Saturday-night entertainment that became an unlikely worldwide hit franchise.

Strictly Come Dancing (2021)
© BBC

How it changed TV

Strictly Come Dancing was a hell of a premise: reviving the BBC’s long-running amateur ballroom dancing competition Come Dancing (1949 to 1998), but this time making it a celebrity reality TV contest, to be hosted by BBC veteran Bruce Forsyth. That was sure to entertain the kids. And yet, here we are. Strictly is now the worldwide franchise Dancing with the Stars (other nations have no idea about Come Dancing). Every year without fail, generations come together to delight and cringe as the celebrities and their professional dancing partners waltz, salsa and Charleston their way to the glitterball trophy.

Strictly Come Dancing is a delightful cocktail of showmanship and inspiration – and of course gossip about which of the dancing couples are hooking up romantically. The performances are often genuinely staggering, and the professional dancers are now often bigger celebrities than the competitors. Moreover, everyone seems to have so much fun on the show, it’s easy to see why so many presenters, soap actors, athletes and comedians lobby the BBC to take part (even when they know they haven’t a hope in hell of winning). But it is also clear that competing on Strictly takes determination, hard graft and respect for the art of ballroom dancing, and that is what makes it perennially entertaining.

– Elinor Groom

92. The Thick of It (2005 to 2012)

Satirical political comedy that seemed to get uncomfortably close to the truth and has inflected the world of British politics ever since.

The Thick of It (2005)
© BBC

How it changed TV

The Thick of It was hailed for its razor-sharp, acerbic dialogue and steady stream of innovative obscenities. However, it was the depiction of political foibles that really cut close to the bone. It was so closely attuned to the chaotic power struggles of British politics that it was frequently quipped that the show served as a documentary – indeed, to such an extent that some current affairs programmes had to explicitly ration the use of clips from The Thick of It to introduce political items.

The brutally foul-mouthed political fixer Malcom Tucker, played by Peter Capaldi, served as the explosive comedic anchor to the endless internal squabbles and PR cock-ups. By employing familiar improvisational techniques in an abrasive new form, the series was the work of a team of writers – including chief writer Armando Iannucci, former Labour researcher Jesse Armstrong (now best known for Succession) and special ‘swearing consultant’ Ian Martin. The idea for the show emerged when Iannucci was researching Yes Minister for the BBC’s Britain’s Best Sitcom campaign and he realised there was a gap in the market for a riff on contemporary political farce.

There was a feature film spin-off, In the Loop, in 2009, and Iannucci went on to create the American adaption for HBO, Veep (2012 to 2019).

Storm Patterson

93. Horrible Histories (2009-)

Comedy sketch show based on the popular series of books.

Horrible Histories (2009-)

How it changed TV

In the tradition of 1066 and All That, Monty Python and Blackadder, the multi-award-winning CBBC series Horrible Histories has, since 2009, delighted children and their parents with its irreverent, gruesome and scatological humour. Each sketch-based episode focuses on an era of history, from the Rotten Romans to the Terrible Tudors and Vile Victorians, with recurring and guest performers, a rat narrator (Rattus Rattus) and humorous songs (‘Death’s Favourite Things’ and ‘Charles II: King of Bling’ – the latter in the style of Eminem – to name but two popular examples). Over the years, it’s attracted some of the best historians and comedy writers in TV.

Based on a series of books by Terry Deary, and now franchised for films, video games, magazines and live stage productions, it’s a comedy show based on history rather than a history show with comic bits. It’s not intended as a history education programme but to excite children and familiarise them with historical eras and characters at entry level. One episode, 2019’s ‘Queen Vic’s Home Vids’, even tackled the early film industry.

The cast and writers have become a regular troupe, expanding their comedy to other series, including Yonderland (2013 to 2016), Ghosts (2019-) and a feature film about Shakespeare, Bill (2015).

– Bryony Dixon

94. The Great British Bake Off (2010 to 2016)

The baking competition that captivated the nation with sugary showstoppers and star bakers.

The Great British Bake Off (2010 to 2016)

How it changed TV

Television in 2010 was no stranger to competition formats, but popular series at the time thrived on pressure and tension, often with the addition of a snarky judge for entertainment value. Then came The Great British Bake Off. Hosts Mel Giedroyc and Sue Perkins brought gentle humour and a steady stream of double entendres to proceedings while judges Mary Berry and Paul Hollywood presided in a firm but fair manner. Winners could expect a handshake and a nice trophy rather than a huge cash prize, and the result was a competition in which contestants of all ages and backgrounds bonded over tricky technical challenges and dreaded ‘soggy bottoms’.

The show’s BBC Two audience grew as steadily as a well-risen loaf, and it was moved to BBC One to gain an even wider platform. The programme took off as a successful international format as well. Each series gave a huge boost to home baking as supermarkets reported the power of the ‘Bake Off effect’, and a raft of former contestants became professional food writers and presenters. None has been more successful than Nadiya Hussain, the champion of the 2015 series, whose emotional winning speech was seen by over 15 million viewers. A surprising departure from the BBC in 2016 was a testament to the series’ success, and though a host of craft-related competition shows have followed, none have had the charm of the original – with the notable exception of Junior Bake Off.

– Lisa Kerrigan

95. Call the Midwife (2012-)

Powerful popular drama following the midwives, nurses and nuns of Poplar in the 1950s and 1960s.

Call the Midwife (2012-)

How it changed TV

Call the Midwife appeared in the guise of a cosy Sunday night drama about nuns cuddling babies but revealed itself to be a hard-hitting insight into the realities of reproduction in the 1950s and 1960s – yet it still resonates heavily in the present day. With Jennifer Worth’s memoir as a source, creator, writer and producer Heidi Thomas has developed the stories and characters of Nonnatus House for 11 series and a host of Christmas specials. Through the years, the series has explored a host of issues, including stillbirth, backstreet abortion, child bereavement, genetic disorders and female genital mutilation, as well as winning plaudits for its portrayal of the impact of thalidomide. While early series focused exclusively on white nurses and midwives, Call the Midwife belatedly added the character of Lucille, a Jamaican nurse, in recognition of the role West Indian nurses played in the NHS.

The series combines loving portrayals of female friendship with these medically-oriented storylines to create a cathartic space for the audience in which we can reflect on personal traumas both historical and contemporary. Nowhere else on television devotes such care to the complexities of pregnancy, birth and parenthood – it’s not just drama, it’s the stuff of life.

– Lisa Kerrigan

96. People Just Do Nothing (2014 to 2018) 

A mockumentary giving behind-the-scenes access to a pirate radio station in London called Kurupt FM, run by MC Grindah and DJ Beats.

People Just Do Nothing (2014)

How it changed TV

“How the fuck did this get on the telly?!” – Allan Mustafa. The creator-performers of this multi-award-winning comedy series, Allan Mustafa, Steve Stamp, Asim Chaudhry and Hugo Chegwin, launched a ‘fake garage’ show on a real pirate radio station before realising they were sitting on comedy gold. They put skits out on YouTube in 2010, which led to a BBC commission and five series, followed by a movie in 2021 (People Just Do Nothing: Big in Japan), an album release (featuring Craig David), a podcast and multiple gigs at music festivals worldwide. 

This unprecedented success story across multiple platforms is due, in part, to the brilliant chemistry between the leads, the hopelessness and delusions of the characters and the relatable struggle to raise yourself up by doing what you love; meaning the show has universal appeal beyond youth culture and the UK garage scene. The creators of the show have proved that they are truly people that do everything – entrepreneurs who write, act and perform, and pioneers of a show and a brand that will long live on in audience’s hearts.

– Nadia Attia

97. Exodus: Our Journey to Europe (2016)

Three-part documentary following refugees and migrants as they make dangerous journeys across Europe in the hope of starting new lives.

Exodus: Our Journey to Europe (2016)

How it changed TV

In 2015, as the refugee and migrant crisis dominated news headlines, Keo Films produced this astonishingly moving series for BBC Two following a handful of individuals as they embarked on the perilous journeys from their homes to Europe. Isra’a, 11, and her Syrian family live in Turkey while they plan how to make the crossing to Greece. Ahmad, also from Aleppo, has the ultimate goal of getting to the UK so he can apply to be reunited with his young children in a safe country.

Where the series is groundbreaking is in its approach to tracing these journeys. It was impossible for a film crew to follow people on these treacherous attempts to cross borders, and so the subjects film part of their journeys themselves on camera phones. This is how Hassan Akkad, from Damascus, films a terrifying journey in a sinking dinghy off the coast of Turkey. Series director James Bluemel has gone on to make the equally remarkable series Once upon a Time in Iraq. Akkad is now a filmmaker and activist living in the UK, and in 2020 he made a viral video that led to a government U-turn in policy towards NHS workers.

– Lisa Kerrigan

98. Bitesize Daily (2020)

A whole education for children and parents in extraordinary times.

Biteszie Daily (2020)

How it changed TV

The BBC has long provided services to support schools, but nothing could have prepared the organisation for the needs of schoolchildren after the pandemic lockdown began in 2020. Less than a month after the government ordered the nation to stay home, the BBC began airing daily educational programmes for all age groups covering all subjects typically taught in schools. Bitesize Daily lessons were available on BBC iPlayer, on TV via the Red Button and online, giving not just vital education but a sense of normalcy for kids and, frankly, a respite for their parents and carers: “come on, you’ll be fine, we gotcha,” said CBBC presenter Karim Zeroual in the first programme.

The BBC Bitesize service was first launched in 1998 as an online repository of resources to help primary and secondary aged pupils with their lessons, homework and exams. It built on decades of BBC schools services, particularly the 1980s Computer Literacy Project that begat The Computer Programme as well as the BBC Micro itself. Bitesize Daily was a whole new level of learning with a bewildering turnaround (running for 12 weeks initially and recommencing with subsequent lockdowns) made possible by a groundswell of talent from across the BBC.

– Elinor Groom

Inside broadcast: how TV has risen to the challenge of lockdown

Extraordinary times have called for extraordinary creativity on the part of TV broadcasters, who have found inventive ways of keeping us entertained and informed as we’re all stuck indoors.

By Lisa Kerrigan

Inside broadcast: how TV has risen to the challenge of lockdown

99. I May Destroy You (2020)

Inspired by true events, Michaela Coel’s uncompromising drama series skilfully explored London millennial life, race, sex and consent. 

I May Destroy You (2020)

How it changed TV

This mighty 12-episode series by writer-actor-director-producer Michaela Coel followed Arabella (Coel), a bestselling author struggling to finish the first draft of her follow-up book, who discovers after a night out that she has been drugged and raped. The show focuses on the aftermath of Arabella’s assault as she pieces together what happened and faces obstacles in her pursuit of justice. Arabella is supported by her friends, among them aspiring actor Terry (played by Weruche Opia) and aerobics instructor Kwame (played by Paapa Essiedu), who have each suffered their own forms of sexual exploitation, allowing Coel to examine issues around consent on a wider canvass. 

Unflinching and insightful, IMDY not only interrogated the realities of modern-day ‘hook-up’ culture and predatory behaviour, it also addressed the difficulties of navigating such experiences as a Black woman working in the creative industries. Daring and brave, IMDY broke boundaries with its awareness of issues rarely explored in television drama – such as ‘stealthing’ (the practice of non-consensually removing a condom during sex), dysfunctional relationships with social media, false allyship, Euro-centric beauty standards and the commodification of Black pain. This is a series that unapologetically and uniquely played with the televisual form and audience expectations, setting the way forward for what is possible in television drama when artists are supported to tell deeply personal and painful stories with complete creative freedom. 

– Chantelle Lavel Boyea 

I May Destroy You review: Michaela Coel rewrites the rules of the game

By Kate Stables

I May Destroy You review: Michaela Coel rewrites the rules of the game

A survivor’s take on I May Destroy You

By Winnie M Li

A survivor’s take on I May Destroy You

A year of lockdown: the screen culture that got us through it

By Henry Barnes

A year of lockdown: the screen culture that got us through it

100. Small Axe (2020)

An ambitious anthology of five films inspired by true events and anchored in the experiences of London’s West Indian community.

Mangrove (2020)

How it changed TV

Directed by acclaimed filmmaker Steve McQueen and written in collaboration with Courttia Newland and Alastair Siddons, Small Axe is McQueen’s love letter to Black resilience, triumph, hope, music, joy and love as well as to friendship and family (not forgetting the food!). 

The films of Small Axe: Mangrove, Lovers Rock, Red, White and Blue, Alex Wheatle and Education are five powerful stories of hard-won victories in the face of racism, and resonated powerfully with audiences around the globe for their truth, honesty and authenticity. 

From the epic scale of courtroom drama Mangrove to the intimate dance-party mood piece Lovers Rock, Small Axe delivers a uniquely intricate look into West-Indian British life that has rarely been explored in British historical drama. Authentic details such as the use of varied accents of the West-Indian diaspora, characters with hot-combed pressed hair frizzing up throughout the night of partying, and mixing English with Patois, proclaim McQueen’s intimate knowledge of the communities he portrays. His skilful use of a variety of formats (including 16mm and 35mm film) creates a truly cinematic televisual experience. 

In so brilliantly capturing the Black experience in the UK and the issues faced by so many over the decades, Small Axe rightfully lays claim to being among the most important productions of our time.

– Chantelle Lavel Boyea 

“These are the untold stories that make up our nation”: Steve McQueen on Small Axe

By David Olusoga

“These are the untold stories that make up our nation”: Steve McQueen on Small Axe

“The manifesto was: let’s trust our heritage, our talent and each other”: Shabier Kirchner on shooting Small Axe

By Aaron E. Hunt

“The manifesto was: let’s trust our heritage, our talent and each other”: Shabier Kirchner on shooting Small Axe

Lovers Rock finds a sanctuary for Black love

By Nadine Deller

Lovers Rock finds a sanctuary for Black love