The best British TV of 2023, as picked by BFI curators

From The Reckoning to The Enfield Poltergeist: BFI curators select their TV-watching highlights of the year.

Culprits (2023–)

When we were compiling this year’s list of the best new series and programmes on British TV or streaming, our team of curators found we collectively had a much sharper memory for what occurred on screen due to off-screen behaviour. Throughout the year, British television’s biggest moments were captured in the 24-hour news cycle, with the revelations around Huw Edwards, Phillip Schofield and Russell Brand. Conduct came sharply into focus, and, within an increasingly competitive attention economy, television fashioned itself around these big moments.

Public broadcasters play multiple roles as such live events unfold. They can report the event, at times enable a controversy and then offer a space of reconciliation for those at the heart of the scandal. It’s a unique form of access and narrative control. This year we’ve seen programmes capitalising on these controversies – dramas like Partygate and docuseries like State of Chaos have thrown us inside events. ITV’s Nolly examined the relationship between television and how its stars are treated. Meanwhile, politicians have continued their self-flagellating escapades on our screens in shows such as Celebrity SAS and the latest iteration of I’m a Celebrity.

Across the year, as streaming services shelved some of their high-end projects to retain tax incentives and reduce marketing costs, the guaranteed audiences attracted to docuseries proved less economically risky. At the same time, the upscale veneer of streaming companies has attracted celebrities who want control over their images and mete out access for influence. An emerging marker of celebrity status is the celebrity docuseries, which has gone into overdrive with That Peter Crouch Film, Beckham and Lewis Capaldi: How I’m Feeling Now.

It’s worth noting that some of the year’s most broad, imaginative and boundary-pushing television emerged through Black British productions, with Dreaming Whilst Black offering a meta instructive in how to make it in TV. Champion and Grime Kids captured the power and vibrancy of music scenes past and present. Hopefully this will continue over the coming year. We’re eager to see an emergent lane for new Black voices in non-fiction and documentary.

This year’s list highlights how British broadcasters define themselves in this crowded environment, relying increasingly on platforming productions about broadcast culture, where they hold advantageous access: looking inward to their own stories and controversies. Elsewhere, working with streamers abroad, British production companies have looked more outwardly, building a global image of our celebrities, stories and culture.

– Xavier Pillai

The Reckoning (BBC)

Creators: Dan Davies and Neil McKay

The Reckoning (2023)

Having dramatised the lives of some of Britain’s most evil figures, including Ian Brady and Fred West, Neil McKay took on perhaps his toughest challenge: depicting prolific sexual predator Jimmy Savile. His way into this once saintly seeming, now monstrous figure is through his ostensibly devout Catholicism, creating a tension between his fear of discovery and his creeping dread as he approaches the final reckoning with ‘the Big Man’. Steve Coogan is superb – what other actor could, or would, attempt this role – and the fictionalised relationship with his biographer-turned-confessor (Mark Stanley) anchors the flashback structure. The successful, flamboyant public figure is exposed as sleazy, manipulative and devoid of humanity, and we are left in little doubt that when he finally went to meet his maker, the pearly gates remained firmly barred.

– Josephine Botting

Based in part on the book In Plain Sight: The Life and Lies of Jimmy Savile by Dan Davies, The Reckoning is a clever mix of factual archive, re-enacted drama and documentary insight where survivors share their accounts and thoughts. Four years after its conception and after some delays in bringing the series to air, it has not been without its critics, with some seeing the BBC’s programme as an act of exploitation rather than contrition from an establishment that embraced and shielded Savile for so many years. But the results are the richest account yet of this real-life British horror story, with Coogan carefully and sensitively handling his responsibility in this role on set and in conversation afterwards.

– Steven Foxon

Bodies (Netflix)

Creator: Paul Tomalin

Bodies (2023)

Adapted by Paul Tomalin from the work of the late British comic book and TV writer Si Spencer, this Netflix drama masterfully elucidates the role of creating fear in accumulating power. It’s a time-travelling crime series, which uniquely reflects London’s changing communities and local history within an electric story of cults, political power and corruption. The scale of the ambition is impressively matched by the intricacy of the storytelling, all anchored by impressive turns from Stephen Graham (always a sign of quality TV), Amaka Okafor and Jacob Fortune-Lloyd. The deeply layered and intricate tale begins in London in 1890 and spans three centuries, four timezones and four investigations.

– Xavier Pillai

Gregg Wallace: The British Miracle Meat (C4)

Creator: Matt Edmonds

Gregg Wallace: The British Miracle Meat (2023)

Gregg Wallace and Michelle Ackerley investigate cutting-edge food tech: lab-growing meat sourced from… humans. Is this real? During the live broadcast, it was clear from social media that viewers took their time to clock that this was a mock-doc, perhaps because the strange fiction exaggerates an uncomfortable truth: that the cost-of-living crisis has driven many of us to desperate measures, facilitated by callous business interests.

The film follows in the footsteps of such manufactured media moments as Orson Welles’ radio War of the Worlds and the BBC’s Ghostwatch (1992), adding a dash of the savagely humane satire of Jonathan Swift. Swift’s A Modest Proposal, wherein the Anglo-Irish clergyman conveyed compassion for the Irish poor by sardonically suggesting they sell their kids for food, was an avowed influence on writer Matt Edmonds. The programme doesn’t explore another theme inherent in the allegory: the ethics of meat itself. An implicit argument for veganism might have complicated its satirical humanism, or conflicted with Wallace’s persona as an omnivorous MasterChef host.

– Patrick Russell

Culprits (Disney+)

Creator: J Blakeson

Culprits (2023–)

A gang of the best criminal masterminds are brought together to break into a vault, steal £30 million from corporate fat cats and disappear into new lives after that. The show weaves and whips across continents and three timelines: before, during and after the heist. We meet our protagonist, Muscle, in the present, three years on from the heist. Played brilliantly by Nathan Stewart-Jarrett (Misfits, Utopia), he’s a stepdad living in Oregon with his partner and trying to open a bistro. His old life comes back to haunt him, threatening his American dream, after he witnesses a late-night hit-and-run accident that sets off a series of unfortunate events.

Mysterious assassinations force some of the gang back together to fend for their lives as they learn that a professional killer is hunting them down. Culprits is thrillingly fast-paced and cinematic, taking place across a range of international locations.

– Chantelle Boyea

The Lovers (Sky/Now TV)

Creator: David Ireland

The Lovers (2023-2024)

Opposites attract in this refreshingly low-concept original romantic comedy from Sky. In his first original series for television, acclaimed playwright David Ireland introduces us to the titular lovers, who meet in improbable circumstances and find that they can’t quite let each other go. Johnny Flynn plays Seamus, a London-based political broadcaster, who discovers that his new interview series will be produced in Belfast, and a clash with local culture leads him into a fateful meeting with Janet (Roisin Gallagher).

As in many Northern Irish stories, comedy masks hidden depths, which must eventually surface. Flynn has form with romantic TV comedies from Netflix’s Lovesick, and his preening neurotic character is great fun to watch against Gallagher’s sweary, playful and destructive Janet. There is comedy, too, around the story of television executives attempting to make less London-centric programming, and the contrast between Belfast and London is made clear.

– Lisa Kerrigan

Earth (BBC)

Earth (2023)

Covering the history of the last 4.5 billion years of planet Earth in five episodes is pretty ambitious. As presenter Chris Packham says, “One might argue that it’s the greatest story ever told.” Whether the story is told in the greatest way is more debatable. It has annoying, over-the-top music, and the grand subject matter encourages hyperbolic commentary that wouldn’t pass the Attenborough standard.

That said, the series is well conceived, with a stripped-back aesthetic: just us, alone on our planet with Chris P and some excellent CGI. We are shown the significant moments of evolution as the Earth burns, freezes, develops an atmosphere and warms and cools again, constantly threatening to wipe out the fragile lifeforms trying to establish a toehold. The final episode is about us, which, despite postulating the self-destruction of humanity, is moving and strangely uplifting. The Earth will survive if we don’t.

– Bryony Dixon

At Home with the Furys (Netflix)

At Home with the Furys (2023–)

Celeb-fronted documentary series have been all the rage this year. Lewis Capaldi, Ed Sheeran, Robbie Williams and the Beckhams have all been at it. But it’s the Gypsy King Tyson Fury that won my full attention; in fact, I watched all nine episodes in one sitting. It offered a rare insight into the life of a boxing champion in semi-retirement, in his case living with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and bipolar disorder. Yet poignant moments of reflection and laughter abound, as we shared in some of the most intimate moments of his family life: getting to know his wife, her relationship with Tyson and how she manages a rather large and lavish household, including six children.

– Chantelle Boyea

Parole (BBC)

Parole (2023)

“You can’t just keep people banged up… because there’s no hope. And that’s when people become dangerous.” This is the perspective of Colin, imprisoned for murder 25 years ago and soon to face the parole board.

This BBC series grippingly draws viewers into the largely hidden process carried out by wide-ranging members of parole boards to assess how far a prisoner “has gone down the route of remorse” and whether they remain a threat to the public. The two male, middle-aged prisoners featured in the first episode are strikingly different. Plain-spoken Colin committed a violent murder as a young man, while loquacious David has been convicted of multiple cases of fraud, usually against women. David is blithely confident of release and practices his persuasion skills on the female board members, in marked contrast to Colin’s blunt answers. Both declare that they are now changed men. What would you decide?

– Ros Cranston

Nolly (ITV)

Creator: Russell T Davies

Nolly (2023)

“All good things must come to an end” are the words that turn one woman’s world upside down.

Once known as the ‘Queen of the Midlands’, legend of ATV (Associated Television) Noele ‘Nolly’ Gordon is blindsided when she’s sacked from her long-running role as Meg Mortimer on the soap Crossroads in 1981. Nolly follows the aftermath and Gordon’s attempts to make sense of a world she now finds unrecognisable. She’s brilliantly played by Helena Bonham Carter. Whether or not you’re familiar with Nolly’s career, at its heart this is a story about a woman painfully facing the realities of a system rigged against her.

Written by Russell T Davies, it’s full of his trademark ability to breathe warmth and humanity into every character, no matter how small. Nolly is a love letter to the woman herself, television soaps in general and everyone who watches them.

– Mandeep Kaur-Lakhan

Mixmups (Channel 5)

Mixmups (2023–)

Funded via the BFI’s Young Audiences Content Fund, Mixmups is a stop-motion animation series for preschool children broadcast on Channel 5’s Milkshake. Each episode is set in Mixington Valley, where the Mixmups – friends Pockets (blue), Spin (red) and Giggle (yellow), assisted by the Lucky Loover Bird – mix up ingredients in a box for magical adventures. All are learning that there’s always another way of doing things.

It’s a charming, fun series where the three friends, each with a disability, enjoy imaginative play together. This is a breakthrough programme in the representation of disability in children’s television, voiced by disabled children and made by a production team with lived experience of disability.

- Kathleen Luckey

Fifteen-Love (Amazon Prime)

Creator: Hania Elkington

Fifteen-Love (2023–)

The world of professional tennis is the setting for Hania Elkington’s thriller, which explores the troubled relationship between a coach (Aidan Turner) and his one-time protégée (Ella Lily Hyland). Once at the threshold of tennis stardom, Justine Pearce (Hyland) suffered an injury which ended her career, while her coach, Glenn Lapthorn (Turner), went on to international success and fortune. But what’s the truth behind their broken bond?

There have been relatively few drama series on British television that have attempted to broach #MeToo or explore themes of abuse outside of factual dramas based on real cases. Reminiscent of recent novels such as I Have Some Questions for You and My Dark Vanessa, Fifteen-Love is a pacy thriller that’s most effective in developing a complex and layered leading character in Justine, played with convincing nuance by Hyland.

– Lisa Kerrigan

The Enfield Poltergeist (Apple TV+)

Creator: Jerry Rothwell

The Enfield Poltergeist (2023)

The terrifying events that befell a struggling family in a modest north London semi between 1977 and 1979 became the best-documented case of poltergeist phenomena ever recorded. Yet this disturbing and multi-faceted story has never been given the time and space to breathe – until now. Apple’s four-part docudrama ingeniously melds a studio sound stage recreation of 284 Green Street with actors lip-syncing from among hundreds of hours of audio recordings, plus new interviews with all the surviving protagonists – some speaking publicly for the first time – and excellent archive footage evoking 1970s Britain-in-crisis alongside original TV news reports.

Enfield obsessives will revel in the attention to detail; for those new to the case – sceptic or believer – this is undoubtedly the definitive account. There are chilling moments aplenty in troubled young Janet Hodgson’s violent ‘possession’ by resident spirit ‘Bill’; yet the star of the show is not foul-mouthed Bill but kindly inventor Maurice Grosse, then a fledgling member of the Society for Psychical Research, who investigated the case – and tried to look out for the poor Hodgson family – with the same dogged determination and loving care that has gone into creating this extraordinary series.

– Simon McCallum

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