Banner Image Credit: Kathy Hutchins / Shutterstock.com
It’s hard to put a finger on just what it is about British programming that we love so much. Is it the green vistas of the English countryside? The romance of the Scottish moors? Maybe it’s that unique lilt of an Irish accent, or the “Keep Calm and Carry On” spirit that comforts us in a crisis.
It could be the majestic manor houses and estates of the gentry or the gritty determination of the working class, but whatever it is, there is a world of TV out there for your enjoyment. Here we take you beyond what you’ve already seen (thank you very much, Downton Abbey, The Crown and Dr. Who) and give you an opportunity to binge a few new selections.
Here are 21 of the best British shows to add to your queue.
British humor has its own unique tone and tenor, sometimes silly, often irreverent, and always entertaining.
Vexed is a light-hearted police show starring Toby Stephens and his detective partner Lucy Punch in the first series and Miranda Raison in the second. It’s fun and endearing, with entertaining supporting characters. Watch on Netflix or Amazon Prime Video.
Catastrophe is a brilliantly written sitcom created, written by and starring Sharon Horgan and Rob Delaney. Set in London, Sharon, an Irish schoolteacher meets Rob, an American advertising executive. After six days of a casual affair, they unexpectedly become a couple. Four series are available on Amazon Prime Video. A special treat includes Carrie Fisher as Rob’s mother in seasons 1-3, her last television appearance.
Durrells in Corfu is an inspired comedy-drama based on three autobiographical books by Gerald Durrell, which describe the family life of a struggling widow and her four children, ages 11-21, adjusting to life on the Greek island of Corfu, a nature lover’s paradise with no electricity. Starring Keeley Hawes as the young widow, each season explores one year in Corfu, from 1935 to 1939. Originally a Masterpiece PBS series, watch now on Amazon Prime Video.
Mysteries and Crime
British crime shows are especially riveting due to the complex detectives and investigators that reveal themselves over the course of the series.
Broadchurch is darkly satisfying, primarily due to the slow resolution of the crime and its aftermath, along with stellar performances by David Tennant and Oliva Coleman. The series is set in a fictional coastal town in Dorset, and the cinematography is inspired. Three seasons are available on Netflix.
Happy Valley stars Sarah Lancashire as police sergeant Catherine Cahill in West Yorkshire in northern England. Siobhan Finnerman plays her recovering alcohol and drug-addicted sister, Clare. The series was written and created by Sally Wainwright and deftly shows the impact of drug-fueled crimes on a community and its police. Two seasons are available on Netflix. A third season is planned but has not been filmed.
Marcella is a British drama written by Swedish screenwriter Hans Rosenfeldt. Marcella echoes the “Nordic-noir” style of “The Bridge,” also by Rosenfeldt, by exposing flawed characters, exploring interwoven storylines and mental illness. Anna Friel stars as a harried soon-to-be single mom returning to work as a London police detective. Two complete seasons are available on Netflix, and a third season has just been released.
Endeavor, starring Shaun Evans, is a prequel to the long-running Inspector Morse series. Set in the 1960s and ‘70s, the show features the early career of the quiet and solitary Endeavor Morse in Oxford, England, and his senior partner DI Fred Thursday played by Roger Allam. Originally a Masterpiece PBS series, watch 7 seasons on Amazon Prime Video.
Hinterland is set on the west coast of Wales, starring Richard Harrington as DCI Tom Mathias who has left London to escape his troubled past by living in a derelict caravan on the outskirts of Aberystwyth. For American viewers, the show is a rare look at Welsh life and its haunting scenery. Three seasons are available on Netflix.
Luther stars Idris Elba as DCI John Luther, a London detective known for his dedicated approach to solving crimes that often takes a self-destructive and obsessive turn. The psychological crime drama includes Ruth Wilson as Alice Morgan who has an unexpected and complicated relationship with DCI Luther. Five seasons are available on Amazon Prime Video.
Scott and Bailey is another Sally Wainwright creation, assuring that the show will explore both the professional and personal lives of its strong female characters, detectives Janet Scott and Rachel Bailey, played by Lesley Sharp and Suranne Jones, respectively. The show takes place in Manchester, England, where the detectives serve on the Major Incident Team under DCI Gill Murray, played with great style and common sense authority by Amelia Bullmore. There are five seasons available on Amazon Prime Video.
When you are hungry for history and want an escape from current times, there is nothing better than a period drama where you can lose yourself in the past.
Poldark is a lavish and layered drama based on the novels of Winston Graham about a Cornwall gentleman, Captain Ross Poldark and his family, set after the American Revolutionary War. Originally a Masterpiece series made in the 1970s, the new version stars Aidan Turner as the handsome captain and Eleanor Tomlinson as Demelza Carne, a scullery maid who becomes Mrs. Poldark. Five seasons are available on Amazon Prime Video.
Peaky Blinders is a drama about a crime family in 1919 Birmingham, England, led by Thomas Shelby, played by the mesmerizing Cillian Murphy. Shelby has extreme ambition, and he leverages the economic upheaval of the post-war period to his family’s advantage and at the same time seeks respectability and legitimacy at almost any cost. Watch five seasons on Netflix.
Bletchley Circle is only seven episodes over two seasons, but it is a worthy glimpse into the lives of four women who worked as code-breakers for the British military. The show takes place in the early ‘50s after the women have returned to conventional lives and were obligated to keep their wartime efforts completely secret. Intrigued by a pattern apparent in a series of murders, one of the women reaches out to her former co-workers to help solve the crimes after the local police are unwilling to follow up on her theory about the crimes. The four women are played by Anna Maxwell Martin, Rachael Stirling, Sophie Rundle and Julie Graham. Watch on Amazon Prime Video.
Foyle’s War is a detective show set during World War II in Hastings, Sussex, England. It stars Michael Kitchen as Detective Chief Superintendent Christopher Foyle, a quiet, honest and often underestimated detective. The show is known for its scrupulous attention to WWII historical detail, and the use of war events to drive the plot. Most episodes are self-contained, with each season having only two to four episodes. Watch on Amazon Prime Video.
Spy Stories and Terrorism
Ever since we watched a James Bond movie, British spy thrillers have appealed to American audiences.
The Night Manager is an award-winning show based on the John le Carre novel of the same name, starring Tom Hiddleston, Hugh Laurie and Olivia Coleman. Hiddleston plays a former British soldier who is serving as the night manager at a luxury hotel in Cairo. He is recruited for espionage work to infiltrate an illegal arms sales organization. There are only six episodes in this thriller, although a second season has been promised. Watch on Amazon Prime Video.
Killing Eve is based on the Villanelle novel series by Luke Jennings. The show is a black comedy-drama spy thriller starring Sandra Oh as British Intelligence investigator Eve Polastri who is seeking the psychopathic assassin and occasional fashionista, Villanelle, played by Jodie Comer. As they learn more about each other, Eve and Villanelle become obsessed with each other. There are three seasons of eight episodes each, with a fourth season expected. Each season has had a different female head writer, the first one being Fleabag’s Phoebe Waller-Bridge. Watch on BBC America.
Bodyguard is a political thriller starring Richard Madden as PS David Budd, a dedicated personal protection officer assigned to Home Secretary and Member of Parliament, Julie Montague, played by Keeley Hawes. Budd, a Scottish veteran of the Afghanistan War, suffers from PTSD and is opposed to the politics that Montague espouses. The series is six episodes and is found on Netflix.
London Spy, written by British novelist Tom Rob Smith, is based on the true story of the death of Gareth Williams, an MI6 agent found dead under mysterious circumstances. Danny, a gregarious partier, played by Ben Whishaw, meets and falls in love with the serious loner Alex, played by Edward Holcroft. Alex is found dead and Danny begins to discover that the little he knew about Alex was untrue. He becomes determined to discover the true circumstances of his lover’s demise. Season one has five episodes on Netflix.
It might be the wigs or the way the accused sits up in that glass box, but British courtroom drama is definitely worth watching, especially for a glimpse into the differences and similarities between our courtroom procedures.
The Jury is a two season British courtroom series that focuses not only on the cases (one for each season) but the motivations, character and behavior of the jurists. With a large ensemble cast, season one features Gerard Butler as a recovering alcoholic and season two stars Julie Walters as counsel for the defense. The two seasons were made 9 years apart and are unrelated to each other, however both deal with themes of jury tampering and manipulation. Watch on Amazon Prime Video.
Silk is a legal drama that will have you familiar with the difference between a barrister and a solicitor and a “QC” in no time. There are three seasons for a total of 18 episodes that follow the career and personal life of Martha Costello of Shoe Lane Chambers, played by Maxine Peake. Created and written by Peter Moffat, he drew from his own experiences at the Bar to create a realistic drama rife with the politics, pressure and ethical dilemmas faced by barristers. Watch on Hulu or Amazon Prime Video.
With this incredible variety to choose from, you can be forgiven if you spend part of your summer perfecting a cup of tea, eating scones, and practicing the difference between Scottish, British and Irish accents.
Once you’ve exhausted the contemporary offerings, make sure you check out a few of the original British classics that were popular back in the day, such as Prime Suspect (Helen Mirren) and Upstairs, Downstairs (Downton Abbey before there was Downton Abbey).
Click on your favorite streaming service and enjoy your trip across the pond!
You might also be interested in: The Top 10 Mystery Subscription Boxes Like Hunt A Killer For Master Sleuths