Blockbuster British TV: the shows that shook the small screen

We look back at the British TV shows that broke the mould...

It’s sometimes easy to believe the lie that “proper” TV started with The Wire and The Sopranos – landmark American shows that made the small screen look big and started tipping scales away from Hollywood cinema. But we all know that’s not true. Britain has been breaking the mould with television drama for decades, and a handful of high-concept, critically-acclaimed shows have done more for the medium than anything else across the pond.

Sean Bean stars in a new boundary-pushing Sky original production due to air on Sky One in 2019: Curfew. With a unique story set in the world of street-racing, an impressive cast featuring Bean, Billy Zane and Miranda Richardson, and a meaty script about ordinary people racing for their own survival, it’s exactly the sort of water-cooler show that dares to stick its neck out like the best of British TV.

We recently got our hands on the exciting first trailer for Curfew (which you can watch below), and took a deep dive into some of its key moments to see what we can expect from the series.

In anticipation of Curfew’s release, here’s a look back at some of the British TV shows that shook the small screen. America might have Tony Soprano, but we’ve got Time Lords, real queens and Steven Moffat…

Doctor Who (1963-present)

After 55 years, 36 seasons, 13 Doctors and 840 episodes (and counting), it’s still hard to measure the cultural impact of Doctor Who. Something more than a British institution, beyond its place as an ongoing sci-fi landmark, the show has cemented itself in the global consciousness as a uniquely British export that proves just how original and creative genre TV can be. Doctor Who is a testament to just how funny, scary, moving and addictive good TV can be when it’s made with real heart and soul.

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Sherlock (2010-present)

Take a walk along London’s Baker Street and you won’t be able to move for the tourists. People come from all over the world to see where Sherlock Holmes came from but they’re not there for Arthur Conan Doyle – all queuing up in the gift shop to buy mugs with Benedict Cumberbatch’s face on them. Steven Moffat’s modern-day Holmes reboot is a masterstroke of reinvention, and the show’s popularity owes as much to the pitch-perfect writing, casting, acting and directing as it does to Cumberbatch’s mug.

Black Mirror (2011-present)

Charlie Brooker didn’t invent the sci-fi anthology series, but he made it better. More importantly, he made it work. Bringing The Twilight Zone into the 21st Century with razor-sharp writing and more than a little humour, each season of Black Mirror attracted the best talent around to form a collection of short sci-fi movies that frightened, entertained and challenged in equal measure. Season four was arguably the best (with episodes like USS Callister really breaking the mould), which makes expectations for season five even higher.

Prime Suspect (1991-2006)

Back in the early 90s, the only actors who made TV shows were the ones who couldn’t get a film career. That’s not true, of course, but the current era of A-list led blockbuster TV was still a long way off in 1991 when Helen Mirren first took the lead in Prime Suspect – bringing some serious pedigree to the complex role of Jane Tennison. Spaced out over seven mini-seasons that ran for 15 years, every one of Tennison’s cases became a landmark event at home and abroad.

Spooks (2002-2011)

When Spooks first launched in 2002, it was written off as a British attempt to make 24. At the time, Jack Bauer was only one season into his own show, and the idea of making a counter-terrorism series felt fresh. As Jack’s adventures got sillier, MI5’s got bigger, better and more stylish – quickly carving its own niche and brushing off any comparisons to anything but Bond, Bourne and the best spy fiction.

Luther (2010-present)

Like Cracker before it, Luther stands and falls on its antihero – with Idris Elba playing the obsessive, violent, driven lead detective like someone out of a Shakespearean tragedy. Mixing Columbo and Sherlock Holmes, the show gave Elba plenty to sink his teeth into – arguably doing his best work since The Wire. Handfuls of Golden Globe, Emmy and BAFTA nods later, season 5 is set to be major international event when it lands later this year.

Cracker (1993-2006)

Cracker is best known for giving the world Robbie Coltrane – leading the show as forensic psychologist Eddie “Fitz” Fitzgerald – but more than a decade after its last film-length special in 2006, the show’s legacy is much more far reaching. Proving at the time that Britain could out-Columbo Columbo with a serious, character-driven detective show, Cracker also helped to pioneer the idea of a show led by a seriously flawed hero. Fitz was a bit of a jerk, but we loved him anyway.

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The Prisoner (1967-68)

Let’s face it, The Prisoner was weird. Long before Lost started making no sense, and a decades before Maniac started being a bit odd, Patrick McGoohan’s surreal sci-fi showed the world that TV doesn’t always have to explain itself – at least not straight away. David Lynch gets a lot of credit for walking his own line in Twin Peaks, but McGoohan was brave enough to do it first.

Line Of Duty (2012-2017)

Cop shows have been a staple of TV pretty much since the medium was first invented, so it takes something quite special to pick up a reputation as the one of the best police procedurals of all time. Leaving the character studies to Luther and the super-sleuthing to Sherlock, Line Of Duty went where other detective shows feared to tread – right into the intricate, gritty details of real police work. A patchwork of plots, following the series actually required paying attention, but the payoff in expertly written, subtly performed drama was always worth it.

Downton Abbey (2010-2015)

Downton has had an odder journey than most – starting off as the kernal of an idea in Julian Fellowes Oscar-winning 2001 film, Gosford Park, before growing into an entirely original TV show (that’s now prepping a feature length film of its own). Essentially an evolution of the period social dramas that Britain has been perfecting since the 70s (from Upstairs, Downstairs to Brideshead Revisited), Downton Abbey added gloss, depth and some seriously fine writing to elevate the genre into something that felt definitive.

Broadchurch (2013-2017)

Every few years, a show comes along that everyone watches. The kind of show you have to see the night it’s actually on, unless you want to spend all the next day at work with your headphones in, Broadchurch (specifically the last season) was all anyone could talk about last year. The masterstroke of the show was to let the audience act as the detective – keeping us guessing right up until the final episode about who the culprit was, with David Tennant and Olivia Colman’s characters knowing as much as we did.

Threads (1984)

“It wasn’t until I saw Threads that I found that something on screen could make me break out in a cold, shivering sweat and keep me in that condition for 20 minutes, followed by weeks of depression and anxiety,” admits The Guardian’s Peter Bradshaw, naming Mick Jackson’s nuclear war drama as the scariest thing he’s ever seen. Breaking new ground for real world horror, post-apocalyptic sci-fi and for what you were allowed to show on TV, any show that’s ever scared you in the last 30 years owes plenty to Threads.

The Crown (2016-present)

We’re currently between seasons in the lifespan of The Crown, and the wait for season 3 is getting slightly painful already. Spanning 20 hours of achingly beautiful period drama, the first chapter of The Crown played like a royal Godfather – taking us behind the plush seat of power to find the real people inside Buckingham Palace. Claire Foy, Matt Smith, Vanessa Kirby, Jared Harris and John Lithgow all gave career-best performances in seasons 1 and 2, and all eyes are now on Olivia Colman, Tobias Menzies and Helena Bonham Carter to see where (and when) they take the Windsors next.

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Bodyguard (2018)

When we think back to 2018 in years to come, we’ll remember the royal wedding, that time we almost won the World Cup, and those few weeks when everyone got a bit obsessed with Richard Madden. All Bodyguard really did was tell a great story – but it managed to tell it in a way that hinged around cliffhangers so tense that it made the whole country break out in a collective sweat. A throwback to an age when we had to whole week to watch the next episode (madness), Bodyguard proved the power of patience like nothing else.

All eight episodes of Curfew are available to watch now via Sky and NOW TV