When I was an impressionable 12-year old, I saw something on Channel 13 that changed my life. A lecherous older man was surrounded by dozens of lovely girls, all of whom had very charming British accents and very short skirts. The man was Benny Hill, of course, and from that moment on I’ve been a devoted aficionado of British TV. Now, thousands of videos, DVDs and PBS shows later, I feel uniquely qualified to tell you what to watch.
Are You ‘Avin a Laugh?
When it comes to comedy, the entire Monty Python oeuvre – the original as well as offshoots like John Cleese’s Fawlty Towers and Michael Palin’s Ripping Yarns – is a must. Blackadder, starring Rowan Atkinson, is also top shelf, mixing witty dialogue with a novel concept (the same characters inhabit different time periods, ranging from the 1600s to World War I). If you only know Atkinson as the mostly silent Mr. Bean, the wicked verbosity of his Blackadder character is sure to surprise. The show also features the future Dr. House (Hugh Laurie) as well as his pal Stephen Fry, a modern-day Oscar Wilde. The duo later worked together on two great comedies: Jeeves & Wooster, based on the much-loved P.G. Wodehouse stories, and A Bit of Fry & Laurie, a highbrow take on Python-style humor.
But the most creative comedy of all appeared in the late 1990s. The bizarre and macabre League of Gentlemen is set in a small village populated with murderous “local shop” owners, cross-dressing taxi drivers and other loonies. The show improved each year, culminating in a final season that devoted each episode to one character (a sad-sack businessman trying to be a stand-up comic, an amateur masseuse who realizes he enjoys the “happy endings” he gives to blindfolded male clients, and more). It was followed by a show very similar in style and content: Little Britain. This extremely funny series features recurring characters such as Daffyd, “the only gay in the village” and Vicky Pollard, the “yes, but no but” girl. All characters are played by the two stars: Matt Lucas, who is gay, Jewish and bald, and David Walliams, who is none of those things.
Also recommended: The Office (BBC version), Extras, Spaced, Peep Show, The Thin Blue Line and Yes, Minister.
The Ever-Popular Murder Mystery
The Brits love their murder mysteries, and can kill off an impressive number of victims in an hour. The best of these is Cracker, starring the very large Robbie Coltrane (Hagrid of Harry Potter fame). He plays Fitz, an alcoholic chain-smoking gambler and brilliant criminal psychologist. The episodes are intense, thought-provoking and gripping … and, at 90 minutes each, they’re more like movies than TV shows. The juxtaposition of Fitz’s disastrous personal life and his amazing insight into other people’s provides excellent drama as well as a few laughs. Other top crime dramas include Touching Evil (featuring the ubiquitous Robson Green), the intense Prime Suspect, the gory Wire in the Blood (with Robson Green; see, I told you he was ubiquitous) and the charming Midsomer Murders, in which an insanely disproportionate number of murders occurs in an idyllic set of country towns.
Also recommended: The Sweeney (watch cops beat the crap out of cockney upstarts), Hetty Wainthropp Investigates, Inspector Morse, Foyle’s War and Rumpole of the Bailey.
And Don’t Forget:
- Bad Girls – set in a women’s prison!
- Grafters – another with Robson Green
- Lovejoy – Deadwood’s Ian McShane with mullet instead of mustache
- House of Cards – political drama more entertaining than the Dem/Rep bailout fights
- Tipping the Velvet – for all lovers of 19th century lesbians
Now it’s time to open a can of good British ale, pop in a DVD and get transported to a land of spotted dick, upper class twits, insane shop owners, full frontal nudity and overweight Welsh gays who dress in red plastic and hang out in the local pub. You’ll be glad you did.
Postscript: I’m not a big sci-fi fan, but I love the new Dr. Who, which stars the luscious and lovable Billie Piper. (See video below.) The show is smart, fun and entertaining for adults and kids alike. While you’re ogling yummy Ms. Piper, your offspring can lap up the disgusting monsters and fantastic special effects.