What have been the most successful BBC TV Drama Series of All Time?

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American dramas tend to receive all the attention, but British television has also produced a number of compelling dramas over the years, particularly the finest BBC dramas. The national broadcaster of the United Kingdom has been a bastion of high-quality drama for more than eight decades. The government-run network never holds back when it comes to presenting the most interesting and shocking fictional stories.

Crime dramas, sci-fi adventures, and literary adaptations are just a few of the many types of dramatic British television programs that are suitable for any viewer. The majority of these dramas are presently streaming on major platforms such as Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon, so viewers who have not yet viewed them do not need to ponder where to find them. Even BritBox and Acorn TV offer specialized streaming services for British exports.

If you’re looking for another great show to watch, we’ve compiled a list of the best BBC dramas so that your search will ideally be made easier!

1. A Very English Scandal

Hugh Grant plays party leader Jeremy Thorpe, who goes to desperate measures to cover up his affair with a less privileged man, played by Ben Whishaw, in A Very English Scandal, which is based on a real British political scandal from the 1970s. The writing of Russell T. Davies is at its finest in this three-part miniseries, which acknowledges both the absurdity and tragedy of the scandal.

Grant and Whishaw’s outstanding performances contributed to A Very English Scandal’s critical acclaim and numerous nominations for awards upon its release. Its short duration makes it simple to watch, and fans of documentaries like American Crime Story are encouraged to watch it.

Poster of the TV series ‘A Very English Scandal’

2. War and Peace

War and Peace may be the ultimate choice for those looking for a genuinely classic BBC drama. The series adapts Leo Tolstoy’s novel about Russian aristocracy seeking meaning during the Napoleonic Wars, and its 20 episodes make it the most comprehensive adaptation of the epic-length novel.

The series was one of the BBC’s most ambitious endeavors at the time, and it received widespread praise, particularly for Anthony Hopkins’ performance as Pierre Bezukhov. War and Peace is an excellent example of how the BBC has been home to high-quality drama for nearly a century, despite the visual style appearing dated to contemporary viewers.

3. Bleak House

The 2005 adaptation of Charles Dickens’ Bleak House, which won a Peabody, was nominated for multiple Emmys, and received near-universal acclaim from critics. It is one of BBC’s most acclaimed series ever. The series adapts Dickens’ serialized novel into the format of a contemporary soap opera, with all the quality and production expected from the BBC.

Bleak House is about a legal dispute over an estate that becomes entangled with romance and tragedy. The 2005 television series features renowned actors, including Gillian Anderson, Carey Mulligan, and Charles Dance.

Bleak House Title Card

4. The Split

In this tense divorce drama, we follow divorce attorney Hannah Stern and her companion Nathan (Stephen Mangan) as she navigates the complex world of high-end divorce in London.

In Abi Morgan’s program, Hannah’s personal relationship is also put to the test, despite the fact that her day job entails handling a multitude of complex cases. Nicola Walker, teasing the conclusion, said, “I don’t believe it will go where you might expect… it’s beautifully complicated, and [creator and writer] Abi Morgan doesn’t shy away from how messy this will get.

5. Happy Valley 

Life in Happy Valley is anything but joyful. This brilliantly dark drama by Sally Wainwright centers on a strong-willed police sergeant, Catherine Cawood (Sarah Lancashire), eight years after her adolescent daughter Becky was raped and murdered.

Tommy Lee Royce (James Norton), the man who raped Cawood’s daughter, is released from prison after serving time for drug charges, prompting Cawood to compulsively seek him out. 

6. Prime Suspect

When the program debuted in 1991, people could not stop talking about it. It was one of the first dramas to feature a female senior detective, which made it quite revolutionary. Dame Helen Mirren portrays the detective chief inspector of the Metropolitan Police, Jane Tennison. We see her contend with the weight of proving herself in a male-dominated police force, while of course doing what she does best: solving crimes.

With seven seasons, there is plenty to do for a considerable amount of time. The mysteries of each crime will leave you attempting to solve the riddles at home, if not to observe the masterful performance of Helen Mirren.7. You Don’t Know Me

This hard-hitting drama left us (in the best possible manner) scratching our heads throughout and will likely leave you questioning everything. 

Based on the best-selling novel by Imran Mahmood, the four-part drama follows Hero, a young man accused of homicide (portrayed by The Last Tree’s Samuel Adewunmi). It sounds like a fairly straightforward premise, right? Hero maintains his innocence despite the overwhelming evidence implicating him as the primary suspect. 

While it can be a bit of a slow burner in sections, we still aren’t quite over that finale. It will leave you stunned and desiring more.

8. Z Cars

The series was drastically different from previous police procedurals. With its uncommon Northern England setting, it added a new element of severe realism to the police’s image, which some found objectionable. The concept for Z Cars came to creator Troy Kennedy Martin while he was sick in bed with measles and listening to police broadcasts on the radio. It was set in the fictitious Newtown, which was loosely based on the real-world modern suburb of Kirkby, one of the many housing estates that had sprung up in post-war Britain, and its aging neighbor Seaport.

The accounts focus on pairs of patrolling officers during that week. Z Cars gained popularity due to its social realism and intriguing plots, which capitalized on shifting social attitudes and television. It was initially unpopular with the actual police force, who detested the oftentimes unsympathetic portrayal of officers. Z Cars had a regional flavor because it was based in Northern England, whereas most BBC dramas were set in Southern England. It posed a direct challenge to the BBC’s established police drama Dixon of Dock Green, which had been airing for seven years but was considered by some to be “cozy”.

Bert Lynch, portrayed by James Ellis, was the only recurring character (though not in every episode) throughout the entire duration of the series. Z-Cars consisted of 801 episodes.

9. The Wednesday Play

The British television series The Wednesday Play ran for six seasons on BBC between October 1964 and May 1970. The plays were typically original works written specifically for television, although dramatic adaptations of fiction and sporadic stage plays also appeared. The series acquired a reputation for presenting contemporary social dramas and bringing issues that would not have been discussed on television to the attention of a large audience.

Director of Television Kenneth Adam suggested the series to the BBC’s Head of Drama, Sydney Newman, after canceling the two previous single-play series. Newman was persuaded to join the BBC by the success of Armchair Theatre, a comparable program he had produced as Head of Drama at ABC Weekend TV from 1958 to 1962. Armchair Theatre had dealt with a variety of difficult and socially pertinent topics in the then-popular ‘kitchen sink’ style, and still attracted a large audience on the ITV network. Newman wished to create a program that would be able to deal with similar issues. Newman also desired to distance the BBC from its reputation for producing secure and unchallenging dramas in order to produce something with more bite and vigor, which he termed “agitational contemporaneity.”

BBC’s Head of Drama Sydney Newman

10. Pride and Prejudice 

Pride and Prejudice is a 1995 British six-part television adaptation of Jane Austen’s 1813 novel of the same name, adapted by Andrew Davies. Jennifer Ehle and Colin Firth portrayed, respectively, Elizabeth Bennet and Fitzwilliam Darcy. Sue Birtwistle and Simon Langton produced and directed the BBC series, which received additional funding from the American A&E Network. The 55-minute episodes were originally transmitted by BBC1 from September 24 to October 29, 1995. Beginning on January 14, 1996, A&E aired the series in double episodes on three consecutive evenings.

Pride and Prejudice received multiple accolades, including a BAFTA Television Award for “Best Actress” for Jennifer Ehle and an Emmy for “Outstanding Individual Achievement in Costume Design for a Miniseries or Special.” The part of Mr. Darcy propelled Colin Firth to fame. A scene depicting Firth wearing a wet shirt was deemed “one of the most memorable moments in British television history.” The New York Times described the adaptation as “a witty mix of love stories and social conniving, cleverly wrapped in the ambitions and illusions of a provincial gentry”. Helen Fielding was inspired by the series to write the popular Bridget Jones novels, and Colin Firth portrayed Bridget’s love interest, Mark Darcy, in the film adaptations.

Pride and Prejudice TV Poster

To summarize

Even prior to the establishment of the BBC’s television broadcasting network in the United Kingdom, the corporation has produced and aired television dramas. As with any major broadcast network, drama is a significant portion of the BBC’s schedule, with many of its highest-rated shows falling into this category.

From the 1950s to the 1980s, the BBC received acclaim for the breadth and depth of its drama productions, producing series, serials, and plays across a variety of genres, from soap opera to science fiction to costume drama, with the 1970s being regarded as a critical and cultural high point in terms of the quality of dramas produced. In the 1990s, a time of change in the British television industry, the department endured much internal confusion and external criticism. However, since the beginning of the 21st century, the department has begun to return to form with a string of critical and popular successes, despite accusations that the drama output and the BBC in general are becoming less intellectual.

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