55 Must-See British TV Shows to Add to Your Watch List
The UK has produced so many quality TV dramas, incredible documentaries, and classic comedies over the years that any "best of" list can barely scrape the surface. But if you've stumbled across a few British shows on Netflix, Amazon, Hulu, or any other streaming platform recently, and are looking for some new things to add to your list, allow me to help. As POPSUGAR's resident British "telly" addict, I've binged my way through my fair share of BBC drama, ITV comedy, and cult Channel 4 shows. This list combines some of the best modern shows and fellow editor recs, with a few of my personal favorite retro classics, to bring you 55 must-see shows from the UK archives. Whether you're looking for light entertainment, a dark drama, or an irreverent comedy, there will no doubt be something on this list to suit you!
— Additional reporting by Haley Lyndes, Amanda Prahl, and Gemma Cartwright
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.
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.
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.
A Very English Scandal
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.
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.
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.
Inside No. 9
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.
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.
RuPaul’s Drag Race UK
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!
Based on the bestselling book series by M.C. Beaton, Ashley Jensen stars in Agatha Raisin, a British mystery about a woman who retires early to the English countryside only to find herself entangled in a new career of solving murders within her small town.
Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell
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.
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.
A quartet of boys attempt to navigate teenage life with a minimum of embarrassment in this coming-of-age comedy. Unfortunately for them, they're unsuccessful more often than not.
Call the Midwife
Set in the 1950s and 1960s, the dramedy follows a group of nurse midwives in a London neighborhood. The lives of the midwives and the women and families they work with intersect and complement each other in unexpected ways.
If The Crown is an elegant, thought-provoking look at the British royal family, The Windsors are the crazy cousins. The comedy pokes fun at fictionalized versions of the royals, with storylines that parody real events.
In the early days of Camelot, a young warlock is forced to hide his magic when he becomes a manservant to the spoiled Prince Arthur. Over many years, the two men must grow into their destinies side by side to bring Camelot into its golden age.
It start out simply at first: a young man falls in love with a genius MI6 coder. But when tragedy strikes, he's swept into a conspiracy far beyond anything he expected as he tries to figure out who the man he loved really was.
The Last Kingdom
In the Middle Ages, a Saxon boy grows up as the ward of the Danish warlord who conquered his tribe. When that family is also slaughtered, the boy, now a grown warrior, embarks on a quest for revenge.
Queens of Mystery
Starring Olivia Vinall, Julie Graham, Siobhan Redmond, and Sarah Woodward, this murder mystery follows the adventures of a single detective and her three aunts as they solve murders in a small English town.
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.
Before Netflix scooped it up and gave it new life, Black Mirror was a cult hit on the UK's Channel 4. It's 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.
Phoebe Waller-Bridge (who you may have seen in Solo: a Star Wars Story) got her big break in this self-penned comedy, which takes a refreshingly real look at life as a single woman in London. Our heroine isn't just dealing with money issues, romantic issues, and family issues but grief, too.
The Great British Baking Show
The Great British Bake-Off (as it's known in the UK) became a national institution. There's hardly a shortage of cooking challenge shows on TV, but this just nails the format: the contestants are good at what they do; hosts Mel and Sue are just the right combination of funny, witty, and warm; and judge Mary Berry wins us over with her funny faces, old-fashioned know-how, and passion for loud floral jackets. The British public was up in arms when the show moved from the BBC to Channel 4 (only judge Paul Hollywood made the move), but so far, it's still going strong with a new cast that includes comedian Noel Fielding.
If you really want to get an idea of what makes great British "telly," dive into a few episodes of Doctor Who. A British television institution, this time travel epic has been on and off the air since the 1960s. The Doctor is a Time Lord, an alien who can travel through time and space. Across hundreds of episodes, the Doctor takes his ever-changing companions (mostly human, some alien) on adventures across the Universe. To give you an idea of their variety, episode titles include "Let's Kill Hitler" and "Dinosaurs on a Spaceship." The doctor can also regenerate into new forms if he's injured, and has been played by a number of very prominent actors (and actresses!).
If you think British University life is all about sprawling historic campuses and Harry Potter-esque dorm rooms, allow Fresh Meat to introduce you to the reality. A group of misfits (including a creepy hermit, a hot girl with a drinking problem, a posh kid, and that girl who's desperately trying to reinvent herself) are thrown together in a crappy house during their time at Manchester University. You know these kids, you went to college with them yourself. They just had different accents.
Probably my favorite TV show of the past decade, 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.
This is England
This is England actually began with a film (pictured). Director Shane Meadows brought together a cast of relative unknowns, many of whom had never acted before, to tell the story of a group of young skinheads in a Midlands town in the early 1980s who find their subculture slowly getting taken over by white nationalists . . . with many of the group going along for the ride. The film's success led to three spinoff TV series' reuniting the original cast: This is England '86, This is England '88, and This is England '90. All of them are gritty, compelling viewing.
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. Alas, no. Broadchurch is bleak. It takes you to uncomfortable places, exploring the effects of a major crime on a tight-knit community, as two detectives (played brilliantly by David Tennant and Olivia Colman) investigate the death of a local boy. A further two seasons widen the net, introducing other characters in the town (and new crimes).
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.
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.
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.
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. The second descends into melodrama far too quickly for my liking.
Gavin and Stacey
Before he hosted The Late Late Show, James Corden was a frequent face on British TV, and not only did he star in this comedy (which centers on a long-distance relationship), but he also cowrote it. Gavin and Stacey won people's hearts because it combined sweet lead characters you actually cared about with two of the best sidekicks of all time (Corden's Smithy, and Nessa, played by his writing partner Ruth Jones). In a period where most comedy was going down a darker path, Gavin and Stacey was refreshingly warm and brought families together.
The End of the F**ing World
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".
Teen drama Skins follows a group of friends in Bristol during the two years of sixth form (junior and senior year) and was acclaimed for tackling difficult issues in a smart, realistic way. Series one introduced us to a whole host of familiar faces, including Dev Patel, Daniel Kaluuya, and Game of Thrones stars Hannah Murray and Joe Dempsie. Nicholas Hoult, who got his break in About a Boy, stars as main protagonist Tony, the charming, dangerous, popular "leader" of the group.
The entire primary cast of Skins changed every two years, as the older kids moved on to work and college and a new group took over. Later casts introduced us to even more rising stars, including Jack O'Connell, Sean Teale, and Dakota Blue Richards.
The BBC first adapted Winston Graham's novels about a Cornish land owner back in the '70s, but even fans of that original series seem to have been won over by the remake, mostly due to Aidan Turner's brooding turn as (the seriously problematic) Ross Poldark. 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.
Line of Duty
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 pack of Twizzlers, and it'll suck you in immediately.
Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss's modern reimagining of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes mysteries has been a huge hit globally. It's won nine Emmys and has 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.
My Mad Fat Diary
Based on the memoir of Rae Earl, this teen show tackles teen depression and suicide with humor and pathos, as 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.
Before Dunder Mifflin, there was Wernham Hogg. Mockumentary sitcom The Office was a huge hit in the UK and launched the career of writer and star Ricky Gervais, so it's no surprise it got its own US version. Most of the American characters had their own UK counterparts, and trust me, you ain't seen nothin' until you're introduced to Gareth Keenan. If you've never checked out the OG British series, do yourself a favor and hunt it down.
The brainchild of Simon Pegg, Jessica Stevenson, and Edgar Wright, Spaced is a nerdy comedy that follows the lives of Tim (a budding comic artist) and Daisy (a struggling journalist) and their oddball bunch of friends. Much like Wright and Pegg's later films (Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz, and Thex World's End), it plays on geek culture, particularly video games, sci-fi movies, and comic books while also giving a surprisingly realistic look at what it's like share a crappy flat in London in your 20s.
The Thick of It
If you love Veep, allow us to introduce you to the louder, angrier UK version. The Thick of It is the brainchild of Armando Iannucci, a Scottish satirist and writer who went on to create Veep. It opens the book on the world of UK politics, from spin doctor Malcolm Tucker (Peter Capaldi, on top form) to the civil servants working behind the scenes.
Events in the show echoed political events in the UK, so when new parties came into power, the story and cast would shift accordingly. If you love this semifictional political world, the movie In the Loop offers the missing link.
Want to take a look deep inside the mind of a British man? Watch Peep Show, but don't say you haven't been warned. Filmed from the POV of the main characters, this comedy follows flatmates Mark (an awkward, repressed curmudgeon) and Jez (an irresponsible man-child) as they attempt to navigate adult life. It's cringeworthy to say the least, but you won't be able to look away.
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's also up for a Golden Globe for her performance. Written by Phoebe Waller-Bridge (see Fleabag, later in this list), this stylish, entertaining, and surprising show also features a standout performance from British actress Jodie Comer as Villanelle.
Pride and Prejudice
If you've only ever watched the 2005 movie adaptation of Jane Austen's classic (with Keira Knightley), you must, must give the BBC's TV adaptation from 1995 a go, too. Considered by many to be the consummate British period drama, it made Colin Firth a star, thanks in most part to one particular scene involving a white shirt and a lake. Jennifer Ehle is also perfect as Elizabeth Bennet, and David Bamber's Mr. Collins will genuinely make your skin crawl, just as he did Lizzy's.
Jennifer Saunders penned this comedy about the "sweetie, darling" world of media and public relations (prerecession, naturally). Saunders stars as Edina Monsoon, a high-flying PR with a passion for Moschino clothing, bohemian jewelry, and Stolichnaya vodka. Joanna Lumley is her scene-stealing best friend Patsy Stone, a chain-smoking, Champagne-quaffing fashion writer with an ever-growing beehive and a husky voice. In each episode, Patsy and Eddie get into increasingly elaborate scrapes, much to the dismay of Saffie, Eddie's straight-laced teenaged daughter. The show's aged surprisingly well (and even became a movie).
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 (a stalwart of British TV) 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.
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.
Death in Paradise
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 British detective as he solves the seemingly endless number of confusing murders that take place, assisted by local police. Now on 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.
Irreverent comedy at its finest, Black Books is a sitcom that centers on Bernard Black (Dylan Moran), the bad-tempered owner of a bookshop who has very strong feelings about his customers. Tamsin Greig and Bill Bailey provide the perfect foils in his friend Fran and assistant Manny.
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.
Black Mirror fans, this one is for you. Before Charlie Brooker was tackling the world of dangerous tech, he wrote this horror-drama, which is essentially Big Brother with zombies. It explores what happens when the housemates, who're cut off from the outside world, realize that the world beyond is experiencing a zombie apocalypse. Bonus: it stars a young Riz Ahmed!
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 as that show. Madden won a Golden Globe nomination for his brooding performance.
Though Bodyguard may have been 2019's big ratings success, this drama, which aired just a few weeks later, was arguably even better. Diving into the seedy world of police informants, Informer featured a brilliant debut from young actor Nabhaan Rizwan as Raza, a young man who finds himself out of his depth when he's recruited by troubled cop Gabe (Paddy Considine).
Netflix's teen "dramedy" about a group of sex-obsessed British teens combines funny scenes with more emotionally charged moments, all wrapped up in a stylized setting that's heavy on the John Hughes nostalgia. Oh, and Gillian Anderson is in it, which is never a bad thing.