The 10 TV shows that defined Britain

Dominic Sandbrook says the sun never sets on Britain’s new empire of the imagination

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What are we British really good at? A century ago, answering that question would have been easy. In 1915, Britain was still the world’s greatest superpower, a political and economic giant whose might rested on its naval supremacy, its titanic manufacturing industries and its vast colonial empire. Today all that is gone. But we do still command a mighty empire: an empire of the imagination.

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It’s hardly surprising that TV has played a crucial role in our mission to entertain. But I would go further: I think that in the last 70 years, nothing – not fiction, not pop music, not video games, not even film – has come close to rivalling the sheer power of the box. Today we are one of the world’s greatest TV exporters: since 2011, we have sold six times more shows abroad than Germany, a country with a bigger population and bigger economy. Our cultural success is based partly on our penetration of the American market, where programmes from The Avengers to Downton Abbey have come to define not just Britain’s global brand but Britishness itself.

Choosing my top ten programmes was inevitably arbitrary. I was surprised how many of my choices were made before I was born. But that tells its own story. Perhaps there is no more tell-ing sign of TV’s power to shape our national life and define our national character than the fact that, even today, so many people can still recite sketches from Monty Python’s Flying Circus, a show that ended when I was only two months old.


10. The X Factor 2004—present

Elton John, himself one of the great global ambassadors for British culture in the last half-century, once remarked, “I’d rather have my c**k bitten off by an alsatian than watch The X Factor.” I agree with him.

But quite apart from the franchise’s vast overseas sales, Simon Cowell’s show is the most potent modern expression of Britain’s cult of individualism. It’s pure cultural Thatcherism.


9. Cathy Come Home 1966

It’s a myth that this gritty television play inspired the foundation of the homeless charity Shelter. But the drama documentary, which was directed by Ken Loach and follows a working-class couple into poverty, is a brilliant example of TV’s unrivalled power to touch the heart and awaken the conscience.

This is the kind of territory British TV has always done superlatively well. One in four people watched it when it first went out, and during the final heartbreaking scenes, it’s a safe bet that most of them had tears in their eyes.


8. Monty Python’s Flying Circus 1969-74

Surreal, madcap humour has long been a part of our popular culture, from the Victorian music hall to the Goons. But for the TV generation, nothing epitomised that better than Monty Python, the product of clever Oxbridge graduates whose establishment roots made their silliness appear all the more striking. The show became a cult hit in the United States.


7. That Was the Week That Was 1962-3

Fronted by David Frost, this satirical show didn’t just pave the way for Yes Minister and The Thick of It, it fundamentally changed our attitude to politicians. Where once it was shocking to suggest that MPs didn’t know what they were doing, now it would be shocking to suggest that they do.


6. The Avengers 1961-9

Its importance in reinventing Britain’s brand, especially in America, can hardly be overstated. The Avengers was one of the first British exports guaranteed a regular primetime slot on an American network, and by the late 60s it was watched by some 30 million people in 70 countries.

As head writer Brian Clemens remarked, it promoted “a never-never world… the England of ‘Is there honey still for tea?'”


5. Dixon of Dock Green 1955-76

For 21 years, George Dixon was one of the most beloved figures in the land. When the character, an idealised London bobby, was awarded a medal for gallantry in 1958, one viewer sent the actor, Jack Warner, the medal her late husband had won during the Blitz.


4. Brideshead Revisited 1981

Building on the success of earlier hits such as The Forsyte Saga, this ITV adaptation of Evelyn Waugh’s novel took four years to make and cost an estimated £11 million, making it then by far the most expensive British drama ever made. But this was the country-house drama to beat them all.

The newspapers called it “the drug of the middle classes”, and every week some ten million people were glued to Jeremy Irons and co. Without Brideshead, there would have been no Downton. Evelyn Waugh has a lot to answer for.


3. Dad’s Army 1968-77

What makes Dad’s Army such a wonderful symbol of modern Britain is not just the gentle comedy, unashamed patriotism or fixation with the Second World War.

It’s the quiet brilliance with which Jimmy Perry and David Croft’s much-loved sitcom analyses the relationships within an ordinary town, epitomised by one of the greatest double acts in all British culture: anxious bank manager Captain Mainwaring and suave Sergeant Wilson. There has simply never been a better expression of our fascination with social class

2. Doctor Who 1963-89, 1996, 2005—present

When I was growing up in the 1970s and 80s, most people regarded Doctor Who with a kind of amused contempt. I never imagined that one day my favourite programme would become a colossal international brand.

That’s testament to the brilliance of the basic idea, as well the skill with which it’s been updated for a new century. The Doctor has become one of the great fictional embodiments of Britishness, rivalled only by Sherlock Holmes and James Bond. And the show itself – at once sentimental and spine-chilling, childishly silly and painfully earnest, unashamedly clever and unrepentantly populist – could surely only have been made in Britain.


1. Coronation Street 1960—present

“Manchester,” the poet John Betjeman once said, “produces what to me is The Pickwick Papers. That is to say, Coronation Street. Mondays and Wednesdays, I live for them. Thank God, half past seven tonight and I shall be in paradise.” Millions agree.

For 55 years, this has simply been the most popular story that Britain has told about itself. Corrie presents an imagined working-class world of warm hearths, shrewd housewives and friendly neighbours – not Britain as it is, but as we would like it to be.

To order the hardback book of The Great British Dream Factory by Dominic Sandbrook for £22 including p&p (usually £25), call 01326 555752 or visit radiotimes.com/dreamfactory45 

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Let Us Entertain You begins on Wednesday 4th November at 9:00pm on BBC2