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British dramas that changed television

British dramas that changed television


British drama is famed worldwide for its high production values, talented and diverse actors, and unparalleled range from historical recreations and wartime serials, to modern original crime and psychological thrillers.

A great British drama series is true event television – you only have to look at the social networks when a new episode is broadcast for proof of that.

In an age of on-demand programming and box sets, these are the shows that people still plan their day around, getting the whole family together in time for the opening credits so they can talk about the latest episode at school or work on Monday morning without the risk of spoilers.

Downton Abbey

Downton Abbey started in September 2010 and was shown in the USA from early 2011, and was deliberately designed to work on an epic scale, showing the lives of the very rich and of their servants in the early 20th century and through the First World War.

The last TV series ended with the 2015 Christmas Day Special, but it is testament to the enduring popularity of the show that there are ongoing rumours of a big-screen film adaptation.

A hugely talented ensemble cast and a backdrop of some of the biggest historical events – from World War I to the sinking of the Titanic – are just some of the reasons why the show resonated so strongly around the world, and why a cinematic version would be likely to draw the crowds too.

Wolf Hall

Some of the best British dramas are literary adaptations, and this brings its own challenges and benefits, as it often means the show is strictly limited to a single series or short serial, unless the book itself had a sequel.

In the case of 2015’s Wolf Hall, broadcast on BBC Two, the novels Wolf Hall and Bring Up The Bodies, both by Hilary Mantel, were transformed into a six-episode event miniseries starring globally recognised names like Damian Lewis, Claire Foy and Bernard Hill.

The show was a critical and ratings success, and went on to win three BAFTAs – Best Drama Series, Best Actor for male lead Mark Rylance, and Best Sound – and a Golden Globe for Best Miniseries or Television Film.

Doctor Who

Doctor Who is well over 50 years old now, dating back to 1963, but while the series refers back to The Doctor’s earlier incarnations, its ten series since 2005 have been a hit with audiences in the UK, Canada and the USA, where some episodes were filmed on location for the first time in the show’s modern era.

Christopher Eccleston, David Tennant, Matt Smith and Peter Capaldi have piloted the TARDIS through this time, with a brief appearance by John Hurt as The War Doctor, proving that this is by no means a throwaway Saturday sci-fi show, but a major drama production and a flagship show for the BBC in the UK and abroad.

In recent years, Doctor Who has featured bisexual and pansexual characters, transgender actors and, in Series 10, its first openly lesbian permanent companion in the form of Bill – continuing to break new ground as it moves towards a change of showrunner and The Doctor’s next regeneration at the end of the current series.

Line of Duty

Moving from historical (and futuristic) dramas into the perennial ratings-pullers of crime, Line of Duty has been thrilling and surprising viewers since 2012, and has dominated BBC Two’s viewing figures in the past five years.

The first series had over four million viewers, the best performing BBC Two drama series in a decade, with the fourth series starting on BBC One on March 26th 2017.

Unusually, the production team were unable to get cooperation from the police in order to ensure accuracy, which means Line of Duty is based on advice from retired police officers, anonymous serving officers and even anonymous blogs written by officers – a truly modern source of information for a show set in a contemporary and true-to-life world.


Broadchurch first aired on March 4th 2013 and the series three finale – likely to be the last ever episode, according to reports – went out on April 17th 2017.

The pairing of David Tennant and Olivia Colman as detectives Alec Hardy and Ellie Miller will undoubtedly remain one of the all-time great ‘cop show’ double acts, effortlessly alternating between empathy and edginess.

And the iconic coastal setting of Bridport in Dorset was more than just good location planning – series creator Chris Chibnall was directly inspired by the Jurassic Coast to write a crime drama based there.

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