Our choices for the best British TV dramas you can watch online
Welcome to our list of best British TV dramas! This list includes action shows, drama, and there’s even a bonus section for reality TV. For our picks of the best British TV comedies online, check here.
If the last few years in the entertainment world have taught us anything, it’s that a good TV show can be far more compelling than most films. We’re in the midst of something of a renaissance for TV, with programs pushing boundaries people never even knew existed.
As a result, people are looking to consume more shows that challenge them, that break from the norm. People want shows that can entertain while offering something wholly original. If you fall into that category, and if you are looking for some exceptional programming with an original twist, we have a list for you.
Below are our choices for the best British dramas available online right now. As we noted in the Best British comedies post, all “best of” lists are inherently biased. They are opinions, and we don’t claim to be any different on that front.
The choices range the gamut and the years. There are spy shows, action series, and more. We initially mixed in a few reality-based shows, but there were too many good ones, so we added a section at the bottom just for those. To British TV viewers, many of the choices on this list will seem obvious. To anyone else though, there are some incredible programs just waiting to be re-discovered.
Given the ever changing nature of online streaming licenses, we can’t tell you where these shows can be found. To make your search easier though, check out our guide on how to watch region-specific streaming videos from anywhere on the world. If the American Netflix doesn’t have a show you want, maybe the British one will.
Anthology series have mostly disappeared from the American airwaves with a few exceptions. It’s a hard sell for networks to present a show that has very little to build on other than the quality of the show itself. You can’t promote the stars or the storyline, since both change episode to episode. So for an anthology to succeed, it needs to really succeed.
Black Mirror has only aired 7 episodes, and yet they stand out. One of those episodes on its own, “The Entire History of You,” was even optioned as its own Hollywood film. Defining the show is difficult, which could make the recently proposed American remake difficult to gain any traction. It is satirical, bold, sometimes funny, and occasionally profound.
This is an obvious pick, maybe even too obvious. There are several other British shows that also focus on the British society shifting away from the dominance of the aristocracy and upper class, but Downton Abbey has reached a level of success that few others have touched. It is one of the most popular shows in the world, with good reason.
The show has become a phenomenon, and launched more than one career. It is currently working on its sixth and final season, which will air in the UK later in 2015. An American release will follow soon after, but given the popularity of the show, don’t be surprised if a whole lot of people in America learn how to navigate the far corners of the Internet to get a hold of the final season early.
Life on Mars
The David Bowie song “Life on Mars” was strange and surreal, so it shouldn’t surprise anyone to hear that a police procedural show loosely based on it is equally strange – at least in concept. It features a modern day police detective that suffers a severe trauma, sending him into a coma. He then wakes up in 1973, where he is expected to continue his work.
It goes beyond a standard police drama and borders on sci-fi, but only in the broadest sense. It is more about the way the world has changed. It went on to spawn a sequel of sorts in the series Ashes to Ashes that ran a season longer than its predecessor, but few shows could measure up.
At its core, the show is a procedural crime drama following a detective that skirts the edge of morality. He is a good cop, but frequently does things that are illegal while in the pursuit of justice. There are other shows like it, but none that offer the powerful performance of Elba. A fourth season with two episodes is planned for release in 2015.
If you think American procedural dramas are dark and gritty, Prime Suspect may not be for you. It confronts sexism, alcoholism, and demons galore, and it does so as the background to a series of seven, brutal criminal investigations. It makes most American shows look tame by comparison.
The show ran for seven seasons airing over 15 years, each season containing its own mystery. The glue that held the show together was Helen Mirren, appearing as one of the first high ranking female police officers in London. At times Prime Suspect was not an easy series to watch, which is the sign often a sign of quality. An American remake tried to tone things down, which missed the point entirely and led that remake to an early cancellation.
This one is probably going to be the most obscure choice to make it onto this list, but that’s alright. As noted, all “best of lists” are inherently opinionated to a degree. The only exception is lists that focus entirely on things like ratings, and even those have their own biases. Sandbaggers may also be the toughest show on this list to find, but it is far from impossible.
The show took place over three seasons from 1978 through 1980, and focused on the unglamorous lives of the British Secret Service as they held the wall against the Soviet Union during the Cold War – and against their own politicians trying to manipulate the service for their own gains. It would have run at least one more season, but its creator Ian Mackintosh – himself an intelligence officer – mysteriously disappeared.
You could make a solid argument that this show belongs in the comedy genre rather than drama, but many of the best shows have a touch of several genres thrown in. Shameless follows the Gallagher family, at least at first. Over the course of its 11 seasons, characters came and went, but the tone remained the same.
As with any show that runs as long as Shameless ran, there were good and bad moments. But when it was good, it was very good. It challenged convention, and showed no fear in attacking controversial issues. It then added a sly joke or insane situation to smooth it out. Not many series can find that balance, especially not for 11 seasons.
Sherlock propelled Benedict Cumberbatch into an international star, and solidified Martin Freeman’s ascent to the world stage. It happened almost immediately too. The show debuted in Great Britain, and within months, even without “official” distribution, it was an hit in America. Naturally the well known character helped to gain the show attention, but it was the interest take on it, and the clever stories that turned it into a hit.
The show is a smart and original twist on the overcrowded procedural show style, yet Sherlock stands out. It also manages to introduce a mystery while still building the characters up to be compelling.
Skins is another British show that features several actors and actresses that would go on to carve out their own successful careers, even though the cast completely changed more than once. It also spawned an American remake that was rife with controversy from people that didn’t want to see teenagers depicted as using drugs and having sex. Because that never happens…
What makes Skins so brilliant and so divisive is that it is hard to watch. The portrayal of the high school-aged kids seen on the show is positively brutal at times. It is also fairly pessimistic. Unlike most high school dramas, the focus isn’t on romantic entanglements, but the wild and sometimes vicious lifestyles of kids. If you can get passed that, the show is emotional and relevant.
Spooks (MI5 in America)
Spooks has been described as a British version of 24, and that is only partly fair. It insinuates that the show in part owes its existence to the American action show about terrorism, when in reality the truth is far simpler. Spooks, like 24, is a reaction to the world immediately after the 9/11 attacks. Sure, the attacks were targeted against America, but the effects were felt around the world, and Spooks exists because of that.
The show ran for 10 seasons, spawned spin-offs, and even a movie that continues the show, which is in production. Like 24, it delves into the world of violence and terrorism, but on a different stage. If you want to catch up, now is the time.
Best British reality shows
Consider this a bonus round of shows to watch. One thing the British do very well, and very often, is reality programming. That can mean stunning documentaries, one-of-a-kind niche shows, or even trashy series with people who are train wrecks waiting to happen. Don’t let the accent fool you into thinking British TV is always sophisticated. Many of the most popular American reality shows like American Idol (originally Pop Idol) were created in Great Britain.
[Editors Note: We originally, incorrectly stated that Big Brother was a UK show. Although there are several versions of that show on the air in Britain, Big Brother was originally Dutch. Thanks to our reader Rachel for the correction!]
With that in mind, we have a few selections for the best reality-based shows for you to watch, that you can stream online. You won’t find Jersey Shore-like shows on this list (although there are plenty like that if you want to dig around), but they are all real. Well, real-ish. Even the best “reality” has a bit of fiction in it.
An Idiot Abroad
If you can get over the idea of Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant basically torturing an idiot named Karl Pikington for their amusement, the travel comedy show, An Idiot Abroad, is absorbing TV. Pilkington wants nothing to do with exploring foreign lands, and his benefactors/tormentors know it. So instead of sending him to the places most travel shows go, they force him into places that no one wants to go.
Pilkington’s discomfort is our gain, as he reluctantly shows us a side of life in far off lands that you won’t typically see broadcast on TV. It makes for a funny series, but also a surprisingly poignant look at life outside most of our comfort zones.
Long Way Round/Long Way Down
Long Way Round begins as something of a vanity project for Ewan McGregor and his friend and fellow actor, Charley Boorman, but it becomes something so much more. The idea is for the duo to ride expensive motorcycles east around the world, beginning in London, and ending in New York (with a few short boat trips mixed in). But right from the start as they are forced to train in how to avoid being kidnapped, you realize it is something more.
Long Way Round and the sequel Long Way Down, which begins in Scotland and ends in South Africa, go places few have been before. It shows children living in heating ducts in Mongolia, and desolate Siberian roads made partly of bones. It also shows incredibly kindness from strangers, and scenery only a few have ever seen, and it’s all narrated by the charismatic MacGregor and Boorman.
While there isn’t technically a show called “Michael Palin,” the former Monty Python member’s name is attached to several shows featuring incredible trips around the world. And while the names and locations change, the idea remains the same. Palin travels somewhere off the beaten path, charms the locals, and ends up with unbelievable true stories.
The cast of Monty Python are known and beloved around the world, and Palin is among the most likable of the bunch. That opens doors to everyone from world leaders to war survivors, and they are generally willing to help Palin paint a picture of life in those countries, rather than just give us a tourists view.
Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmares
This entry may surprise you if your only exposure to Chef Gordon Ramsay is his American TV persona, which is dialed up to 11 on a scale of one to eight. On American TV, Ramsay is loud, vulgar, short tempered, and frequently an ass. On his British shows, he is still all of those things, but he is also funny, charming, and one of the best in the world at what he does.
The British version of Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmare is almost nothing like the American counterpart, which also stars Ramsay, but goes by the name Kitchen Nightmares. The American version is designed to be a train wreck from the start. Ramsay is really never expected to help the hapless, frequently delusional American restaurant owners. The show isn’t about helping them, it is about spectacle. Int he British version, you actually root for the restaurants. There are a few hopeless cases, but it is typically an amazing rebirth thanks to Gordon’s intelligent way of looking at the industry, and his willingness to share his experience. He is their guardian angel rather than their personal devil. It also shows us a look behind the curtain of an industry most of us don’t get to so.
You don’t need to be a gearhead to like Top Gear. In fact you can know nothing about cars and still enjoy most of the series – it takes no knowledge of a Robin Renault to enjoy watching the cast attempt to launch it into space. There are some episodes that are more concerned with cars than stunts, and those do tend to favor people that can appreciate a 0-60 time. But when the show steps out of its comfort zone, especially during the now frequent specials, there’s really nothing else like it.
If you’re looking for a place to start, try the Polar Special, where the three hosts break into two teams and race for the North Pole. One group goes with an experienced dog sledder, while the other two take a sophisticated truck. It starts out amusing and ends up remarkable, as the cast and crew undergo a wild journey. Watching some of these shows, you wonder how and when at least one of the hosts will die.
What did we miss?
Is there an obvious pick for best British TV dramas we overlooked? Sound off in the comments below!