Review: The 50 Greatest TV Dramas

In the UK: Saturday, C4, 9pm

There’s nothing quite like a list of “best anythings” to get people talking – or annoyed – as anyone who’s ever been on the new steam-powered InterWeb will tell you. But how about something as controversial as the “50 Greatest TV Dramas”?

Ooh aye? 50 greatest ever? Is that just shows that have been on British TV? Within recent memory? Who’s voting? And surely it’ll just be the most popular rather than the best that come out on top? And is it really possible to have a great debate about whether Fall of Eagles or Cold Warrior is better, when no bugger remembers either of them?

All valid criticisms of The 50 Greatest TV Dramas, which polled legions of the great and the good from British television history to compile said list. But, despite those criticisms, it was actually a pretty good list.

Ranging over the likes of the usual suspects, such as I, Claudius, Edge of Darkness, House of Cards, et al, there was still a pleasing selection of shows that most people had probably forgotten about or that don’t usually make such lists: Doctor Who, The Prisoner, Twin Peaks and others. It was also good to see a few non-English language shows make the list, including Das Boot and Heimat, although you could probably argue that if Edge of Darkness is in the top 50, the West German equivalent, Gambit, should have been in there, too.

But the show still had its deficiencies. There was more than a touch of pretension at times: Stephen Poliakoff’s plays were in way too often for normal human beings with taste and anything remotely un-dramatic (eg The Prisoner and Doctor Who) got the usual smirking treatment, filled with serious inaccuracies – David Tennant the eighth Doctor, hey? Getting Marina Hyde of The Guardian to comment on The Prisoner when she can barely remember it and claims things like “Number 2 got killed at the end of most episodes”? Oh dear. Not that the genre shows were the only ones to suffer from inaccuracies. Narrator Miriam MargoylesMargolyes pronounced Ioan Gruffudd’s name wrong, despite the fact my wife has altered his Wikipedia article to have the correct pronunciation. Bad Miriam.

Older shows or those lost from the archives also got short shrift. None of the Quatermass serials, not even Quatermass and the Pit, got in there. Some of the best Plays for Today? Nope.

All the same, if we accept order-quibbling is going to be mandatory with such a list, at least a good portion of the 50 deserved to be in there and celebrated, even if their exact order can be argued about. Even those that didn’t deserve to be there were worth mentioning. And it was good to see some halfway decent interviewees on the show, with Troy Kennedy Martin, Tim McInnerny and Joe Don Baker dredged out for Edge of Darkness, for example.

How much anyone might have learned from the show, I can’t say. A few random memories or comments about each programme doesn’t really do much except remind you it existed, go “Oh, it’s him! He was great! I’m glad he’s getting some credit,” and make you want to see more, if possible. This made it little more than an advert for DVDs and a cheap way to fill the schedules at worst, an exercise in nostalgia for those with ADHD at best (that would be me sorted then). Somewhere, a 50-hour documentary series on the best dramas ever made is waiting to happen, but I’m not sure the world is ready for it.

Still, it was a good way to start an argument. The Sopranos best drama ever? Seriously?


  • I’m Rob Buckley, a journalist who writes for UK media magazines that most people have never heard of although you might have heard me on the podcast Lockdown Land or Radio 5 Live’s Saturday Edition or Afternoon Edition. I’ve edited Dreamwatch, Sprocket and Cambridge Film Festival Daily; been technical editor for TV producers magazine Televisual; reviewed films for the short-lived newspaper Cambridge Insider; written features for the even shorter-lived newspaper Soho Independent; and was regularly sarcastic about television on the blink-and-you-missed-it “web site for urban hedonists” The Tribe. Since going freelance, I've contributed to the likes of Broadcast, Total Content + Media, Action TV, Off The Telly, Action Network, TV Scoop and The Custard TV.