Radio Times top 40 TV shows of 2011: from 30 to 21

The countdown continues - ten more of our critics' favourite programmes of the year...

30. Derren Brown: The Experiments Channel 4


The self-confessed master of magic, suggestion, psychology, misdirection and showmanship brought us four fascinating social experiments, demonstrating how human behaviour can be manipulated. These included a mild-mannered man being programmed to shoot national treasure Stephen Fry (thankfully for the producers of QI, the gun wasn’t loaded); the world’s nicest bloke being persuaded to confess to a murder he didn’t commit; and an entire West Yorkshire village being led to believe that touching a dog statue would bring good fortune. Improbable? Not with Brown pulling the strings. HH

29. United BBC2
The tragedy that claimed the lives of eight of Manchester United’s Busby Babes was hauntingly realised in this superior true-life drama. At its heart was Jimmy Murphy (David Tennant), the inspirational Welshman who put the team back together in the wake of the Munich Air Disaster. Amid the twisted metal and cruelly curtailed lives were canny observations about the way the culture of football has changed since that period: back in the 1950s, girls were thought to be reluctant to gamble on a man with a maximum wage of £15 a week and whose career was likely to be over by the time they were 40. But Tennant remained the key reason to watch, as he captured Murphy’s stoicism and grief. DBr

28. Our War BBC3
The conflict in Afghanistan produced a lot of shocking television this year. But for a TV experience that took us uncomfortably close to the moment-by-moment experience of a squaddie in Helmand, you couldn’t beat Our War’s extraordinary re-editing of helmet-cam footage alongside superb interviews with participants – those who were still alive. It was like looking at warfare for the first time. DBu

27. In Treatment Sky Atlantic
We seemed to wait for ages for a second series of the HBO drama and then two came along (almost) at once. The third season, currently airing on Sky Atlantic, continues to entertain – even with a cut in the number of episodes. But it was the “difficult second series” that really caught fire, featuring standout performances from Alison Pill as cancer patient April and Frasier’s John Mahoney as troubled CEO Walter. Through it all, Gabriel Byrne reigned supreme as the writers really put therapist Paul Weston through the emotional wringer. LP

26. Junior Doctors: Your Life in Their Hands BBC3
There were a number of decent medical documentaries in 2011, but this BBC3 series following seven junior doctors in their first years on the wards stood out for its intimate focus on the doctors themselves, and for its strong narratives – it even had its own story editor. The series stood or fell on the strength of its subjects, but Andy, Jon, Lucy, Katherine, Adam, Keir and Suzi were such an engaging bunch that watching their progression from nervous rookies to more assured medics was compulsive. Over a million kept tuning in each week, making it one of BBC3’s biggest ever ratings hits. DC

25. The Great British Bake Off BBC2
Just when we thought we couldn’t stomach yet another cookery show, back came this family favourite. Washing-up was forgotten, homework abandoned and bedtime stories postponed as the nation held its breath watching contestants wield their whisks and swish their spatulas to produce flawless loaves, fluffy meringues and melt-in-the-mouth macarons. Judges Mary Berry and Paul Hollywood made many a contender crumble with their criticism, leavened by lip-smacking quips from presenters Sue Perkins and Mel Giedroyc. How can amateur baking be so entertaining? CW

24. The Promise Channel 4
Seven years in the making and shot in real danger zones, this enlightening four-parter heaped controversy upon Peter Kosminsky – a rare film-maker, with a voice and something worth saying. Sullen British student Erin (Claire Foy) was brought up to speed – as were we – on the Israeli/Palestinian conflict when she spent the summer with a Jewish family in Tel Aviv. She read her grandfather’s diary about his time as a soldier 60 years earlier, living through the turmoil that gave birth to modern Israel. There were fine performances from Foy, and Christian Cooke as her grandfather, but none of the protagonists was especially likeable – which made them all the more credible. As the two timelines unspooled, we saw atrocities and acts of courage on all sides. PM

23. Exile BBC1
Over the years, John Simm has become a muse for producer Paul Abbott and here, Abbott created another quality role for him: a disgraced, coke-abusing writer called Tom who returned home to the North West to reconnect with his father (the peerless Jim Broadbent), who was suffering from Alzheimer’s. But the intensity of the father-son relationship was not the only thing that gave Danny Brocklehurst’s scripts their bite: alongside the prodigal redemption was a gripping story of journalistic integrity as Tom tried to get to the bottom of a mystery from his childhood that drove the pair apart. DBr

22. Appropriate Adult ITV1
Good on ITV1 for coming up with probably the most challenging, controversial drama of the year: the story of serial killer Fred West and his “appropriate adult”, the woman who sat in on hours and hours of harrowing police interviews. Dominic West WAS Fred West: the hair, the wonky smile, the cheery demeanour (hard to credit, but before his arrest he was a well-liked odd-job man around Gloucester) and the devil’s eyes. As 25 Cromwell Street yielded its appalling secrets, a catalogue of torture and brutality unfolded. There was, mercifully, no attempt at re-creation or reconstruction: Appropriate Adult dealt only with the aftermath. AG

21. The Slap BBC4
“Whose side are you on?” asked the promo poster for this dramatisation of Christos Tsiolkas’s polarising novel about parenting mores. And it was impossible not to have an opinion on these Melbourne suburbanites, whose lives were revealed in stark detail after one of their number – the self-made and repellent Harry – struck a child who was not his own at a barbecue. Over the course of eight brutal episodes, bad behaviour was presented as unforgivable but, on some level, understandable. Mature and thought-provoking, The Slap left us feeling not so alone with our weaknesses. DBr

Voted for and written by Radio Times and’s resident critics: Alison Graham (AG), David Butcher (DBu), Tim Glanfield (TG), Jack Seale (JS), David Brown (DBr), David Crawford (DC), Mark Braxton (MB), Gill Crawford (GC), Patrick Mulkern (PM), Claire Webb (CW), Paul Jones (PJ), Jacqueline Wheeler, William Gallagher, Laura Pledger (LP) and Tom Cole (TC); plus Radio Times editor Ben Preston and editor Helen Hackworthy (HH). Compiled by Jack Seale, assisted by Helen Lawson.

See Radio Times’s top 40 TV shows of 2011: from 40 to 31

See Radio Times’s top 40 TV shows of 2011: from 20 to 11


See Radio Times’s top 40 TV shows of 2011: the top ten