38 Iconic British TV Shows From the Past Decade That Everyone Should Watch
Over the past decade, the UK has been spoiled as far as TV is concerned. From drama to comedy, there have been some truly iconic British series that have become international hits, from Sherlock to Fleabag. But along with those global big-hitters, the UK top talent has also produced a whole host of lesser-known shows that deserve a second look, like Save Me, Informer, and the wonderful Taskmaster.
As we wave goodbye to the 2010s, we're taking a look back at some of the very best shows that aired for the first time in the UK over the past decade. Some of them have become national institutions, while others flew under the radar but still gained some dedicated fans. Keep reading for 38 must-see shows, then get to thinking about which other favorites you would add to the list.
Happy Valley (2014-)
It's safe to say that in recent years, British TV has delivered when it comes to bleak police dramas. Often mentioned in the same breath as Broadchurch, Happy Valley also tackles crime in a small community, but this time it's a crime-ridden, rundown northern town. Sarah Lancashire is policewoman Catherine Cawood, who's dealing with some serious family issues on top of her tough job. James Norton plays the man at the root of all of her heartache, and he'll have you screaming at your TV as his actions gets increasingly evil and twisted.
The End of the F**ing World (2017-)
We know you love this show, another UK sleeper hit that became a global success when Netflix picked it up. A deeply dark comedy, it follows disturbed teenager James as he goes on a road trip with angsty Alyssa. The pair bond as they're thrown into a number of dangerous situations, but it's never that simple when the protagonist admits "I'm pretty sure I'm a psychopath." Season two introduced new drama in the form of Naomi Ackie's Bonnie, a woman on a (murder) mission.
Prequels don't always live up to their inspirations (as anyone who watched 2017's Prime Suspect 1973 will attest) but Inspector Morse spinoff Endeavour has been a huge hit for ITV, following a young DC Morse (Shaun Evans) working in Oxford during the 1960s. The show has spanned six seasons so far, with plans for at least eight.
Sex Education (2019-)
Netflix's funny, touching, and relevant teen dramedy has been an instant hit, thanks in no small part to the talented young cast that includes Asa Butterfield, Emma Mackey, and Ncuti Gatwa. An episode can easily swing from gross-out comedy to touching emotion in the span of minutes, and the stylized setting (a kind of "1970s retro now") makes it unique and memorable. The show returns for its second season in early 2020.
Peaky Blinders (2013-)
Peaky Blinders focuses on a gangster family living in Birmingham at the turn of the 20th century. Cillian Murphy is Tommy Shelby, head of the family and leader of the Peaky Blinders, a gang of dapper gents with razor blades hidden in their peaked caps. From the beautiful cinematography to the awesome soundtrack, Peaky Blinders nails it. And the cast just keeps getting better: from Tom Hardy to Adrien Brody, everyone wants a piece of this cool, stylish drama.
One of 2018's big hits, this drama features Richard "Robb Stark" Madden as an employee of the Royalty and Specialist Protection branch of the Metropolitan Police whose job it is to look after the home secretary (Keeley Hawes) during tense political times. It's written by Jed Mercurio, who's also the man behind Line of Duty, and it has all the same twists, turns, and unexpected moments of that show. Madden won a Golden Globe nomination for his brooding performance. A sequel has not yet been confirmed, but rumors are rife it's on its way.
Killing Eve (2018-)
Sandra Oh made history as the first Asian actor to be nominated for the Emmy for best actress in a drama for her work in Killing Eve, which should give you some indication as to how good this BBC drama is. She also won a Golden Globe for her performance. The first season was written by Phoebe Waller-Bridge (see Fleabag), and it's a stylish, entertaining, and surprising show that also features a standout performance from British actress Jodie Comer as Villanelle.
Taskmaster is one of the most wholesome, enjoyable, and genuinely funny shows of the decade, and watching it it won't fail to cheer you up. The premise is simple: under the watchful eye of the show's creator, Alex Horne, a group of celebrities (usually comedians) are given a series of silly tasks to perform for the "Taskmaster" (Greg Davies) who awards points in a relatively random way throughout. It doesn't sound entertaining, but trust me, it is. Channel 4 definitely thinks so: it's just poached the show from Dave, so perhaps we will finally get to see the likes of Richard Ayoade and David Mitchell take part?
My Mad Fat Diary (2013-2015)
Based on the memoir of Rae Earl, this teen show tackles teen depression and suicide with humor and pathos. We follow the fictional Rae as she battles her demons during her time at sixth form college (yep, that again). For anyone who lived through the '90s, it's also a nostalgic ride with a killer soundtrack that includes just about every great British song from the era. Also, a pre-Killing Eve Jodie Comer, stealing every scene she's in.
The Great British Bake Off (2010-)
What best of the decade list would be complete without the cooking show that's warmed our hearts on Tuesday nights for 10 years? The Great British Bake Off (or The Great British Baking Show, to our international friends) has become something of a British institution, with millions tuning in to see those signature bakes, showstoppers, and soggy bottoms. Delivered with just the right amount of knowing wit and innuendo, GBBO gives us a little old-fashioned light relief when times are tough. Even a move from BBC One to Channel 4 couldn't kill it, though we do miss Mel, Sue, and Bezza.
It may be described as a comedy, but Babylon tackles serious subject matter and is about a million miles away from the 30-minute laugh track-led sitcom you might be imagining. It follows the lives of various people working for the Metropolitan Police Service, including beat cops, senior management, and the public relations department. Slick and clever, it offers a unique, tongue-in-cheek look at what it takes to protect a city like London. Plus, you'll spot plenty of familiar faces, including a pre-BAFTA Daniel Kaluuya.
Top Boy (2011-)
Top Boy actually began its life almost a decade ago, when Channel 4 screened the first short series of the gritty-but-witty crime drama over four consecutive nights. A second series followed, but after being dropped by C4 in 2014, the show, which starred Ashley Walters and Kane Robinson, looked set to disappear. However, it was given a new lease of life toward the end of the decade, thanks to none other than Drake, who helped persuade Netflix to revive the show with the original cast, plus plenty of newcomers, like the much-loved Micheal Ward.
A Very English Scandal (2018)
Scooping a whole host of award nominations and wins for leads Hugh Grant and Ben Whishaw, A Very English Scandal was a dramatization of the events leading up to the Jeremy Thorpe scandal of 1979, which saw a politician accused of plotting the murder of an ex-lover in order to cover up his alleged homosexuality. Russell T. Davies, the man responsible for bringing Doctor Who back to our screens, wrote the script, while The Queen's Stephen Frears directed.
The Night Manager (2016)
Tom Hiddleston's bum wasn't the only great thing about this glossy adaptation of the John le Carré novel, though it is perhaps the show's most enduring legacy. A highly publicized drama from the BBC, Hiddleston stars alongside Hugh Laurie and Olivia Colman in a tale of double-crossing, deceit, and illegal arms dealing. Sweeping from Devon to Majorca via Cairo and Marrakech, it's a must-see TV event that scooped Golden Globes for all three of the key cast members.
Save Me (2018-)
Lennie James writes and stars in this London-set Sky original drama, which follows an estranged dad's desperate and increasingly dangerous attempts to locate his missing teenaged daughter. With a stellar cast including Stephen Graham, Jason Flemyng, and Suranne Jones, it's an intriguing and dark show with a strong premise and an interesting script. The language is almost poetic in places, and it stands out against the many similar three- or six-episode dramas that were released toward the end of the decade. A second season is said to be on its way.
The Fall (2013-2016)
If you've only seen Jamie Dornan getting kinky as Christian Grey, prepare yourself. The Fall, a British-Irish product, is yet another bleak drama, in which Gillian Anderson, putting her English accent to good use, goes on the hunt for a serial killer in Northern Ireland. No prizes for guessing who Dornan plays.
One of ITV's flagship dramas, Unforgotten tackles a new interwoven story of lies, deceit, and murder each season and brings some big names in British drama with it. Each series tackles a new case, with Nicola Walker's Cassie tasked with diving into the history of a community or group of friends who are somehow connected to a recently discovered dead body. Season 3, which involved the discovery of a teenage girl's body on the central reservation of a motorway, was a particularly memorable, and dark, tale. Season four is coming.
Woman of the moment Phoebe Waller-Bridge got her big break in this self-penned comedy, which takes a refreshingly real look at life as a single woman in London. It was described perfectly by The Guardian as "a hilarious sitcom about terrible people and broken lives." Our heroine isn't just dealing with money issues, romantic issues, and family issues, but grief, too. The second series was an even bigger hit than the first, thanks in no small part to Andrew Scott's famous "hot priest." We will never again be able to hear the word "kneel" in the same way again.
Irish comedian Sharon Horgan and American comic Rob Delaney write and star in this hilarious and often moving show from Channel 4. The premise is simple: the couple are thrown together after she becomes pregnant after a one night stand. Horgan and Delaney are funny, relatable, and flawed, while the supporting cast (including the late, great Carrie Fisher) offer up even more comic brilliance. What really makes it stand out is its ability to tackle difficult topics with both humor and sensitivity, and it ends on an optimistic, if ambiguous, note.
Love Island (2015-)
You may laugh, but few TV shows get the country talking the way Love Island does. Every Summer, a bunch of ridiculously good-looking single 20-somethings move into a villa on the island of Mallorca, and half the country becomes obsessed with their (love) lives as they share beds, swap partners, and battle out to be the winning couple. Love Island is like Big Brother with more bikinis, and though it may not be highbrow, it is truly compelling viewing. In 2020, the show will debut a new Winter series, filmed in South Africa.
Derry Girls (2018-)
Funny, touching, and chock-full of the kind of irreverence you'd expect from a modern British comedy, Derry Girls is a true gem that follow the lives of a group of teenage girls living through The Troubles in Northern Ireland, dealing with all the usual teen angst and drama along the way. The cast is adorable, and the plots are just the right side of ridiculous.
Line of Duty (2012-)
A dark fictionalization of the world of "bent coppers," this smart police drama goes places other shows are scared to go . . . so it's no surprise the show has been able to pull in big names like Westworld's Thandie Newton. It follows the staff of AC-12, the police's anticorruption unit, and the various members of the force they're investigating. The show has more twists than a bag of fusilli pasta, but that's exactly what'll suck you in immediately. Few shows get people talking the next day the way this does.
Inside No. 9 (2014-)
If you thought it couldn't get weirder than The League of Gentlemen or Psychoville, step inside the dark minds of Reece Shearsmith and Steve Pemberton once again. Inside No. 9 is an anthology series that delivers a creepy and unexpected tale each week, each starring big name British actors in guest roles. The number 9 is the only connection, so each week you never know what you're going to get, though you can be guaranteed it'll be dark. From gothic horror to black comedy, it's a pick 'n' mix bag of everything these writers and performers are best known for.
Downton Abbey (2010-2015)
Nobody does period dramas quite like the Brits, and I'd wager if you've gotten this far through the list, you're already well-acquainted with the Grantham family and their staff. The Emmy-winning Downton Abbey tells the story of the inhabitants — above and below stairs — of a stately home in the early 1900s and is apparently the most successful British costume drama series since the '80s. No wonder it got its own film revival in 2019.
Steven Moffatt and Mark Gatiss's modern reimagining of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes mysteries has been huge hit globally, having won three Emmys and been broadcast in 180 territories. Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman star as Holmes and Watson, and many of the famous characters from the books appear across the four (depressingly short) seasons. Ironically, the show's success and that of its leads means it's virtually impossible to get them together to film more episodes, though it may happen if we're lucky.
The Crown (2016-)
If you still haven't watched Netflix's sweeping drama about the British royal family, what have you been doing? According to Princess Eugenie, even the queen watches. Claire Foy and Matt Smith star as Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip in the first two seasons, which cover events of the 1950s and '60s. The third season, which began streaming in 2019, sees Olivia Colman and Tobias Menzies take over the roles.
Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell (2015)
Adapting Susanna Clarke's winding and fantastical novel was never going to be an easy task, and there were definitely mixed views on the BBC's big-budget take on the magical, gothic fantasy. Overall, though, the smart casting and clever cinematography meant this BAFTA-nominated period-drama-with-a-twist was a success. Eddie Marsan and Bertie Carvel led a star-studded cast, with Marc Warren putting in a eerie turn as the gentleman with the thistledown hair. It was no doubt the success of this led the BBC to finally tackle another of literature's most beloved, but impossible, creations: His Dark Materials, which is only missing from this list because it began so late in 2019 that season one was not complete at time of writing.
This Is England '86 (2010), This Is England '88 (2011), and This Is England '90 (2015)
Director Shane Meadows brought together a cast of relative unknowns for 2005's film This Is England (pictured), many of whom had never acted before. By the time three spinoff TV shows reunited the original cast, they'd become some of the UK's most talented young actors. This Is England '86, This Is England '88, and This Is England '90 continued the story of Shaun, Lol, Woody, and friends and made for gritty, compelling viewing, especially the final scenes of the first series. It's no surprise this show made stars of the likes of Vicky McClure and Joe Gilgun.
Within the first 10 minutes of Informer, it's clear that Nabhaan Rizwan is going to be a huge star. The newcomer carries this stylish drama about police informants and counterterrorism, which was somewhat overshadowed in the ratings by similar shows released at a similar time, like Bodyguard and Collateral, but absolutely deserves to be mentioned in the same breath. Also starring the ever-reliable Paddy Considine, it's compelling viewing that also acts as an ironic love letter to East London.
The Hour (2011-2012)
Stylish, well-written, and chock-full of brilliant performances, The Hour followed the lives of a group of reporters and producers working on a (fictional) current affairs show on the BBC in the 1950s. Ben Whishaw and Romola Garai lead a cast that's lousy with famous British faces, including a return to UK drama for The Wire's Dominic West. It's a travesty this didn't last more than two seasons.
Fresh Meat (2011-2016)
Filling the gap left by The Inbetweeners and featuring one of its stars, Fresh Meat focused on a group of misfits (including a creepy hermit, a hot girl with a drinking problem, a hipster wannabe, and that girl who's desperately trying to reinvent herself) who are thrown together in a crappy house during their time at Manchester University. Zawe Ashton steals every scene as Vod, but she's got competition from Jack Whitehall as insufferable posh boy JP.
When you hear that this murder mystery is set in a sleepy seaside town, you may be picturing a gentle British detective series along the lines of Midsomer Murders. But Broadchurch is bleak. It takes you to uncomfortable places, exploring the effects of a major crime on a tight-knit community, as two detectives (David Tennant and Olivia Colman) investigate the death of a local boy. A further two seasons widened the net, introducing other characters in the town (and new crimes).
RuPaul’s Drag Race UK (2019-)
We've waited a very long time for Drag Race UK, but it was definitely worth the wait. In fact, one might say it was "much betta" then the original show. Dumping the flawless RuPaul into the world of British drag, with all its innuendo and gutter humor, was a sight to behold, and the show definitely made big stars of its already-beloved queens. Who can forget The Vivienne's turn as Donald Trump in Snatch Game, or the chart-busting trio Frock Destroyers killing it with their version of "Break Up Bye Bye"? Roll on, season two!
The BBC first adapted Winston Graham's novels about a Cornish land owner back in the '70s, but even fans of that original series were won over by the remake, mostly due to Aidan Turner's brooding turn as the (seriously problematic) Ross Poldark. Ratings varied across its seasons, but it remained a Sunday night stalwart for half a decade, with the show eventually ending in 2019 after five seasons. As well as being a gripping drama, this show is like one long advert for the Cornish tourist board, with sweeping shots of the county's dramatic cliffs and wide, sandy beaches in every episode.
Yes, another dark crime drama makes the list, because we clearly know what we like in the UK! With the charismatic Idris Elba in the title role, Luther gave British drama a Hollywood edge, and Ruth Wilson definitely helped with her horrifying portrayal of psychopath Alice Morgan. The show has won a clutch of awards, including a Golden Globe for Elba, and has spanned five seasons so far.
Death in Paradise (2011-)
If the bleakness of a show like Broadchurch isn't for you, give this lighthearted BBC procedural a go instead. Set on the fictional Caribbean island of Saint Marie, it follows a fish-out-of-water detective on secondment from London as he solves the seemingly endless number of confusing murders that take place, assisted by a handful of local police. Now onto its ninth season, Death in Paradise is escapism at its best, right down to the unintentionally hilarious cold open to each episode, where the dramatic discovery of a dead body is immediately followed by the jarringly upbeat reggae tones of the show's opening theme.
Doctor Foster (2015-)
This slow burning tale set in a Midlands town twists its way to a dramatic conclusion. Suranne Jones stars as the titular character, a woman who seemingly has it all, until she begins to suspect her perfect husband of cheating. She slowly descends into paranoia, and the audience goes right along for the ride. There are two seasons, but you may wish to do yourself a favor and stop at the end of the first.
Black Mirror (2011-)
Before Netflix scooped it up and gave it new life, Black Mirror was a cult hit on Channel 4; a sci-fi anthology series that explores how technology has taken hold of society (and how that may evolve in the years to come). The first-ever episode, "The National Anthem," sets the tone spectacularly. Black Mirror is as dark and foreboding as it is funny, and as affecting as it is entertaining.