Monday, April 21, 2014

British Classic Television A to Z

A - The Avengers. Could there be a better way to start this list? This lighthearted spy series starred Patrick Macnee as the well-tailored, unflappable, and charming John Steed. He was the anchor of the series, even if his fermale co-stars grabbed the headlines: Honor Blackman, Diana Rigg, Linda Thorson, and Joanna Lumley (in The New Avengers). Of course, I suspect some of Ms. Lumley's fans might lobby for Absolutely Fabulous in this spot.

Rowan Atkinson as the Prince.
B - The Black Adder. "Black Adder, Black Adder, he rides a pitch black steed / Black Adder, Black Adder, he's very bad indeed." As these lyrics suggest, Prince Edmund the Black Adder was up to no good in this Medieval comedy series starring Rowan Atkinson as the man who wanted to be king. Atkinson played descendants of the original Black Adder in several follow-up specials.

C - Coronation Street. It's the longest-running soap opera currently on the airwaves anywhere in the world. Set in a fictional working class community, Coronation Street debuted in 1960 and quickly built a loyal fan base. A Christmas Day episode in 1987 was seen by over 28 million viewers!

McGoohan as John Drake.
D - Danger Man. It was broadcast in the U.S. as Secret Agent and Johnny Rivers scored a huge hit with his song "Secret Agent Man." But under any title, this first-rate spy show, starring Patrick McGoohan as the resourceful John Drake, was a welcome change from the gadget-laden James Bond clones. The show's fans still argue over whether John Drake was No. 6 in McGoohan's The Prisoner.

E - Elizabeth R. This 1971 six-part saga starring Glenda Jackson as Elizabeth I of England garnered plenty of awards. In fact, it was the first British TV program to win an Emmy for Best Dramatic Series. Jackson won an Oscar as Best Actress for Women in Love that same year.

F - The Forsyte Saga. I have relatives who would lobby for Fawlty Towers in this spot. However, it's hard to dismiss the first TV version of James Galsworthy’s three novels about the Forsytes, a nouveau riche Victorian family. When originally broadcast, this series was a huge hit in Britain and was picked up by local PBS stations in the U.S. In fact, its success in America is generally believed to have led to the creation of Masterpiece Theatre.

Grigson as Gideon.
G - Gideon's Way. John Grigson, a regular cast member in many Ealing comedies, played Commander George Gideon of Scotland Yard in this single-season series. It was shot in the same studio as Roger Moore's The Saint. John Creasey wrote 26 Gideon novels and Jack Hawkins portrayed the detective in the 1958 John Ford film Gideon's Day (aka Gideon of Scotland Yard).

H - The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. Douglas Adams' popular radio series and novel were transformed into a six-part television show in 1981. Simon Jones starred as Arthur Dent, who travels the universe after the end of the world. And remember, the answer is 42.

I - I, Claudius. Politics and devious plots (wait, am I being redundant?) made this tale of Roman rulers appointment television for millions of viewers on both sides of the Atlantic. However, it's best remembered for giving the marvelous Derek Jacobi one of his first leading roles.

J - The Jewel in the Crown. The final days of Britain's rule in India formed the basis of this engrossing 1984 miniseries based on the novels by Paul Scott. Peggy Ashcroft won the British Academy of Film & Television Arts award for best supporting actress. Interestingly, she won a Best Supporting Actress Oscar that same year for A Passage to India.

Hyacinth in a flower print dress.
K - Keeping Up AppearancesPatricia Routledge created one of British TV's most memorable characters in Hyacinth Bucket (that's pronounced "bouquet"!). The snobby Hyacinth tried very hard to climb the social ladder, but her challenges in doing so made this show a huge hit--it seems to play in perpetuity on local PBS stations in the U.S.

L - Lovejoy. Ian McShane played the charming title rogue, an antiques dealer with a talent for uncovering hidden treasures. Supporting cast members included Phyllis Logan (now best known as Mrs. Hughes on Downton Abbey). The series lasted for six years, although there was a big gap between the first and second seasons.

M - Monty Python's Flying Circus. The comedy troupe's groundbreaking sketch comedy series debuted in 1969. Forty-five episodes were broadcast over the next five years before the gang graduated to films (Monty Python and the Holy Grail) and other projects. Every fan has their favorite sketch; mine is "The Funniest Joke in the World."

Carmichael and Houston.
N - The Nine Tailors. Ian Carmichael starred in five adaptations of Dorothy L. Sayers' Lord Peter Wimsey mysteries. This one is the best, a clever puzzler about two connected crimes—involving the theft of an emerald necklace and a mutilated corpse—committed over a decade apart. As usual, Carmichael is fabulous as Wimsey and Glyn Houston a delight as his valet Bunter (though he has a smaller role in this outing).

O - The Omega Factor.
This short-lived 1979 science fiction series was about a journalist with psychic powers who became a member of the mysterious Department 7, a government agency that investigates paranormal activities.

P - Poldark. There are several fine choices for "P", such as The Prisoner, The Pallisers, and later Prime Suspect. However, we'll go with Winston Graham's addictive historical drama about two Cornish families in the 18th century. We're not picking Poldark just because Robin Ellis is the friend of the Cafe...we loved the show when we first watched it on Masterpiece Theatre in the 1970s.

Q - The Quatermass Experiment. The first of Nigel Kneale's four science fiction miniseries about Professor Bernard Quatermass made quite a splash in 1953. In Halliwell's Television Companion, film critic Leslie Halliwell wrote that "the Quatermass Experiment became the first TV serial to have the whole country (or such parts as could receive television) agog." Hammer Films made feature film versions of three of Kneale's miniseries, starting with 1955's The Quatermass Experiment.

Rumpole at the Bailey.
R - Rumpole of the Bailey. British barrister and author John Mortimer wrote Rumpole of the Bailey as an original play for the BBC anthology series Play for Today in 1975. It was popular enough to warrant discussion of a series, but it wasn't until 1978 that the Rumpole of the Bailey TV series appeared on Thames Television (and later in the U.S. on Mystery!). Leo McKern played the gruff, middle-aged Rumpole and perfectly captures the character's complexities, from his willingness to defend anybody (“I never plead guilty”) to his relationship with his wife (whom Rumpole referred to as “she who must be obeyed”).

S - Sapphire & Steel.  Although originally intended as a kid's sci fi show (think Doctor Who), this saga of two time-traveling agents (David McCallum and Joanna Lumley) morphed into something totally different. Using a small budget to its advantage, this slowly-paced series was sometimes baffling, sometimes disturbing, but always interesting.

T - Till Death Do Us Part. This 1965-75 sitcom chronicled the working-class Garnett family and its bigoted patriarch Alf (Warren Mitchell). If the premise sounds familiar, that's because it was adapted for U.S. television as the equally successful All in the Family.

The Upstairs cast.
U - Upstairs, Downstairs. There might not be a Downton Abbey if not for this impeccable period drama about the upper-class Bellamy family and their servants at 165 Eaton Place in London. Excellent writing and acting made it a hit in Britain and the U.S., but it was also noted for weaving history into its storylines. The characters' lives were impacted by real-life events such as World War I, the suffragette movement, and the sinking of the Titanic.

V - A Very Pecular Practice. Peter Davison (Doctor Who, All Creatures Great and Small) starred as an idealistic physician working with a group of misfits at a university medical center. This sporadic series, which aired 15 episodes between 1986 and 1992, was created by Andrew Davies (best known for adapting the Pride & Prejudice miniseries with Colin Firth and Jennifer Ehle).

W - Whoops Apocalypse. A pending apocalypse provides the background for this offbeat 1982 cult series that poked fun at world politics. To provide a sample of its humor: The Soviet Premier is actually a series of clones--as each clone dies, it has to be replaced by another. The series, which was just six episodes, was later adapted into a 1986 film with Loretta Swit and Peter Cook.

X - The XYY Man. William "Spider" Scott is an ex-con who can't leave his cat burglar past behind. Part of the reason is that he possesses an extra "Y" chromosome which predisposes him toward criminal activity. Stephen Yardley played the title character for all 13 episodes.

Y - Yes Minister. This immensely popular political comedy followed the career of the Right Honourable Jim Hacker (Paul Eddington) in the fictitious Department of Administrative Affairs. Its fans included Margaret Thatcher. The first three seasons were broadcast over 1980-84. Yes, Prime Minister, a sequel series with the same cast, ran from 1986 to 1988.

Z - Z Cars. This long-running drama chronicled the exploits of uniformed police officers who patrolled in Ford Zephyrs (then considered rapid response vehicles) in a Lancashire town. The series produced an amazing 803 episodes over a 16-year period. The cast changed over the years with the exception of James Ellis as Sergeant Lynch.


  1. No Doctor Who? I don't know what else to say.

    1. Agreed. I love both Doctor Who and Danger Man, so I vote that we move Danger Man to "S" for Secret Agent, and put Doctor Who under "D".

  2. That settles it. I'm dusting off my John Mortimer books for my springtime reading.

    Gee, I'd love to see "Gideon's Way". Enjoyed the books years ago and simply adore John Gregson.

  3. I struggled with whether to include DOCTOR WHO, because we devoted a previous post solely to that classic series ( I tried to highlight series we haven't covered much, but, in some cases, I couldn't think of another series for a specific letter ( like "A" for AVENGERS)!

  4. Rick, I truly enjoyed your list of Classic British TV. I have enjoyed many of these series and you have intrigued me to want to sample more. I have a favorite that would compete with your "A" selection and that is All Creatures Great and Small. But I am also a true fan of The Avengers, especially with Mrs. Peel. You did a great job and I enjoyed this tribute.

    1. Toto, ALL CREATURES would have been an excellent pick for "A" (especially since THE AVENGERS gets far more coverage).

  5. No BRIDESHEAD REVISITED - I don't know what else to say.

    1. Yes, Teddy must be disappointed! On the plus side, I did include BRIDESHEAD in a post I wrote tonight for a future date.

  6. The Good Life , Last of the Summer Wine , Only Fools and Horses and Dads Army....the list goes on and on.

  7. Love the list! Must have been hard to choose between many series. Glad to see the magnificent Elizabeth R included, sorry Are You Being Served? isn't on the list but The Avengers is a worthy holder of the A spot.