In Depth

Top ten BBC programmes of all time

The Week looks at the broadcaster’s finest achievements over the past 96 years

Today marks the 96th anniversary of the founding of the BBC, the first national broadcasting corporation ever launched and still the largest broadcaster by workforce in the world.

But the numbers are only half the story. The BBC has been host to some of the most critically acclaimed TV programmes in history, ranging from groundbreaking news coverage to heartfelt dramas and raucous comedies, spanning across 26 domestic and international TV channels and 56 national and local radio stations.

So on Auntie’s 96th birthday, we take a look back at the ten best TV shows ever broadcast on the BBC.

Planet Earth I & II

Upon the initial launch of its first series in 2006, it was clear that Planet Earth wouldn’t be just another nature documentary. Narrated by national treasure David Attenborough, the show used revolutionary filming techniques and cutting-edge technology - along with remarkable patience from the camera operators - to capture some of the most breathtaking footage ever taken of the animal kingdom.

As The Daily Telegraph notes, it was “at the time the most expensive nature programme the BBC had ever made. It was worth it.”

Doctor Who

What list of the greatest British TV shows of all time would be complete without the longest-running sci-fi show in history? This flagship show, first aired in 1963, has maintained its magic over the decades, with hoardes of fans across the world.

After more than 840 episodes and more than a dozen Time Lord actors, Doctor Who remains a “science-fiction yarn that keeps thriving through the years”, says Rolling Stone.

Yes, Minister/Yes, Prime Minister

As brilliantly biting today as it was upon first broadcast in the 1970s, Yes, Minister is described by Den of Geek as “a pure joy from start to finish” as “one of the finest and most intelligent sitcoms ever made”. The wry comedy pokes fun at the complex relationship between a cabinet minister and his sharp-tongued permanent secretary.

Its quality, too, is evident in its celebrity devotees. Despite it being a direct lampooning of their spin-drenched political style, David Cameron, Tony Blair and even Margaret Thatcher are said to have been fans of the show and, perhaps more worryingly, “attested to its authenticity”, says the Financial Times.

War and Peace

The BBC’s 2016 adaptation of Leo Tolstoy’s iconic 1869 novel of the same name was met with sweeping critical acclaim when it hit our small screens.

Roping in big names including Paul Dano and Lily James, the show was bold and powerful, with Ben Lawrence writing in the Telegraph: “I can’t remember the last time I was so seduced by the storytelling or sublime visual power of a TV drama.” He added that “it is safe to say that this is the greatest TV costume drama of the past decade and has raised the bar in a genre for which we are already renowned all over the world.”

The Office

Although Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant didn’t create the modern mockumentary, The Office gives the writing/directing duo considerable reason to claim they perfected it. Hilarious, awkward, relatable and often achingly sad, The Office is a tour-de-force of modern comedy-drama paving the way for a number of other shows to run with the fake documentary format, including a highly successful US remake. 

“I think when Gervais and Stephen Merchant sat down in a broom cupboard at the BBC all those years ago, they might have grazed genius – big time,” writes Edward Tew in The Guardian.

Panorama

With Panorama, the BBC’s investigative journalism arm is given free rein to flex its considerable muscle, and although it started as something of a light-hearted magazine programme in 1953, over the decades it has “focused on building and cementing a reputation for breaking big stories”, the Telegraph says. 

“Panorama has caused trouble for FIFA (by focusing on alleged corruption), for the Kennel Club (by broadcasting a film about cruel selective breeding) and for care homes (by reporting on abuse of vulnerable residents),” the newspaper adds, demonstrating the show’s penchant for uncovering essential and often underreported stories.

Although some may see broadcast investigative journalism somewhat dry, the show has never failed to draw a crowd - Martin Bashir's 1995 interview with Princess Diana for the show, where she discussed Prince Charles's extra-marital affairs, remains the most-watched interview in British TV history, and the fifth-most watched of any TV broadcast.

Monty Python’s Flying Circus

The dead parrot. The Ministry of Silly Walks. The four Yorkshiremen. Monty Python are responsible for some of the most memorable - and quotable - moments in comedy history. And it all started at the BBC.

Monty Python’s Flying Circus, first broadcast in 1969, was a sketch show collaboration between six writer-performers – John Cleese, Terry Jones, Michael Palin, Graham Chapman, Eric Idle and American cartoonist Terry Gilliam – which reset the paradigms of surrealist comedy in the mainstream and, altered television comedy forever.

The Day Today

As a satire of everything from politics to news broadcasts to tabloid-fuelled moral panic, writer-comedian Chris Morris’s sensational The Day Today sets the bar pretty high.

A subversive, scathing and remarkably silly parody of sensationalist late-night news, the show only ran for one blistering series, but its legacy remains surprisingly relevant as the real world “resemble the Chris Morris comedies” more and more with each passing year, iNews writes.

I, Claudius

First broadcast in 1976, this epic adaptation of Robert Graves’ 1930s novels I, Claudius and Claudius the God stunned audiences with graphic (for the time) depictions of sex, murder and torture.

But beyond the shock factor lay a brilliant, austere and brutal TV stage play covering the entire early history of the Roman Empire, anchored by mesmerising performances from Derek Jacobi, Sian Phillips and a youthful John Hurt. In 2007 it was listed as one of Time magazine’s 100 greatest TV shows ever created.

Match of the Day

More than just a mere football highlights show, Match of the Day forms an essential part of the English football experience, with its highlights, graphics and pundit format having barely changed at all since its debut 54 years ago. And perhaps most importantly, it remains one of the only advertiser-free zones of money-drenched modern football.

“In an era when you can know about every Premier League goal within seconds of it being scored - either by watching an afternoon-long live-stream of them, app notifications pushed to your phone, successful bets coming in or illegal .GIFS being immediately tweeted and retweeted – it’s quite soothing to know that somewhere, without narratives and storyline, a neutral slop of football fandom is waiting for us, regular as clockwork, 10.20pm on a Saturday night, and probably will be for the rest of our lives,” writes Vice.

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