Written by Louise MacGregor
So, you want to watch something new this weekend. You want to get your teeth into something good and meaty, but something that can be consumed (then, obviously, analysed to pieces over a glass of wine or six) over a weekend.
And, judging by the fact that you’re on this site, you’re probably looking for an amazing helping of retro tv to fill up your time.
Let’s take a look at the five best British TV shows from yesteryear that you should marathon this weekend (though not all at once!).
While I might be a bit more likely to stay up for days on end to finish a really good drama, I appreciate not everyone wants to sit up late into the night just to get one more episode in, so I’m sticking firmly to shows whose entire run clocks in at twelve episodes or less (toilet breaks not included).
5. Brideshead Revisited
This is one of those shows that everyone is aware of, but not everyone has seen - and if you fall into that latter category, don’t be put off by its lofty status.
It’s surprisingly accessible, with amazing performances from Anthony Andrews (who received a BAFTA for his work here) and Jeremy Irons, as well as the ever-reliable John Gielgud.
Told in flashback as Charles Ryder returns to the home he frequented as a young man, it’s pretty forward-thinking in terms of structure, and hasn’t aged too badly considering the fact that it was released over thirty years ago.
Evelyn Waugh’s source material is paid faithful homage with a great script, funnier and sharper than many of those worshipful reviews would have you believe.
Unpatronising and superbly well-directed, Brideshead Revisited (at just eleven episodes long) is an absorbing, intelligent look at social and political power in the 1920s.
4. Star Cops
Yes, the name does sound a little bit like a parody series from a Monty Python sketch, but Star Cops has plenty to recommend to it. As anyone who’s read anything I’ve written before knows, I’m partial to a bit of science-fiction, and Star Cops has it in spades.
Following the exploits of the International Space Police Force (nicknamed the star cops) as they attempt to bring law and order to the quickly expanding borders of the intergalactic colonies, this is a show for sci-fi purists. It’s a seriously science-fictiony affair, with most of the crimes revolving around the way new technology has been adapted and used for nefarious purposes.
A strong lead performance from the appropriately imposing David Calder as the head of the team anchors the whole thing, and, while it wasn’t particularly well-received at the time (cancelled after nine episodes, with a pitiful amount of viewers), a modern viewer can see that it was really a forward-thinking slice of hardcore science fiction that was, if anything, a little bit ahead of it’s time.
3. Pathfinders in Space
Technically a spin-off to the now-lost Project Luna series, Pathfinders in Space acted as a kind of cultivating ground for Sydney Newman, who would later go on to create the seminal original Doctor Who series.
It’s a simple idea that’s spun out into a successfully tense seven episodes - a new spaceship is launched, but when it’s journey hits a bump, a group of scientists set out to try and make sure that it’s occupants get home safely. Once they catch up with the ship and arrive at their destination, they soon figure out that everything is not as it seems.
It’s ponderous and thoughtful, using the science fiction elements as a backdrop to explore bigger ideas as all great sci-fi does. Released over fifty years ago, it’s a fantastic example of how British television was hitting all the big sci-fi ideas long before anyone else got there.
Add to that a handful of solid performances and a great script, and you’ll be happy to overlook the slightly ropey special effects in this unmissable serving of retro TV.
2. The Day of the Triffids
We jump forward now to 1981, with the seminal and superb adaptation of John Wyndham’s horror/science-fiction classic.
After a dazzling meteor shower leaves most of the world blind, the few people left sighted are forced to struggle to rebuild society - oh, and there are a bunch of carnivorous plants on the loose, too.
Sure, it sounds pretty ridiculous and pulpy, but it manages to pull back from being too tongue-in-cheek and instead focuses on the practical implications of such an event.
A strong, thoughtful script that does justice to Wyndham’s fantastic novel is balanced with solid real effects on the giant triffids and convincing performances (especially from star John Duttine) that put this head and shoulders above most over-the-top horror serials.
Focusing on the exchange and importance of power and sight, The Day of the Triffids manages to cram plenty of food for thought into it’s six episode running time.
1. I, Claudius
How do I love thee, I, Claudius? Let me count the ways (and there are many).
It could be because of the sensational performances- whether it’s Brian Blessed’s jovial but occasionally sinister Augustus (remember when he was a serious actor as opposed to a walking megaphone?), Derek Jacobi’s neurotic but wise Claudius, or Sian Philips as the scheming and sour Livia, they’re fantastic across the board (let us not forget, either, John Hurt, as the effete but bone-chilling Caligula).
Maybe it’s the production values, which are puny, forcing the focus to be on scintillating scripts and character moments to distract from the fact the coliseum only has about twelve people in it and marble pillars wobble leaned on.
Or maybe it’s the fact that this show, at twelve episodes long, tells an ambitious tale - spanning the reign of five Roman emperors - and relies on nothing but great pacing, award-winning performances, and Robert Graves’ superb source material to hold your attention. No special effects, no action scenes, just a great story told by people who know how to tell it.
A real, grown-up drama, it's one of those British TV shows that remind you they just don’t make them like this anymore.
You can catch up on more of Louise's enquiring mind at The Three Penny Guignol