The BBC’s first soap opera proper is still the best, combining relevant issues, shocking storylines, and a wide cast of Dickensian characters. Life in Albert Square may be easier than it was 30 years ago, but the show still kicks it when it wants to and, indeed, delivers drama of one-to-one at best. a quality that would not seem out of place in a play today.
Play For Today (BBC, 1970-1984; currently unavailable)
Throughout the seventies and into the eighties, the Play For Today component meant unique and original high quality TV shows. This treasure includes groundbreaking works by Dennis Potter (the long-banned Brimstone & Treacle), Ingmar Bergman (disturbing marital drama The Lie), Alan Bennett (the gem of the seaside retreat Sunset Across the Bay) and Mike Leigh (comedy camping Nuts In May and the classic social climbing Abigail’s Party).
Walking with Dinosaurs (BBC One, 1999; currently unavailable)
Perhaps the best part of the BBC Natural History Unit came with this incredibly sophisticated looking show that told the story of dinosaurs as if they were the subject of a contemporary wildlife documentary. Incredibly detailed in his research, never before has something so alien been designed so realistically.
The Family (BBC One, 1974; currently unavailable)
Resurrected in 2008 by C4 to some extent, Paul Watson’s 12-part series inadvertently opened the door to reality TV, but we won’t blame it. The original documentary, with its groundbreaking approach to Truth on the Wall, followed the working-class Wilkins family of Reading in their daily lives for three months. The daily breaking of taboos, from foul language to Métis relationships, proved controversial, but The Family was so successful that the marriage of one of Wilkins’ daughters was overrun with fans and paparazzi.
Talking to a Stranger (BBC Two, 1966; currently unavailable)
The John Hopkins cycle of plays, recounting the events of a tragic weekend through the eyes of four different members of a dysfunctional suburban family, is considered the first dramatic masterpiece on British television and proof that the genre could compete with the theater for sharp observations and stimulating themes. Judi Dench won his first TV Bafta for his role as daughter Terri.
Jackanory (BBC One, 1965-96; CBBC 2006; currently unavailable)
In this era of multi-screen media bombardment, it’s almost impossible to imagine children delighted by nothing more than a famous face reading a story to them. Yet for thirty years they were treated to memorable tricks from Kenneth Williams, Rik Mayall and Judi Dench, as the Prince of Wales showed up to plug in his own children’s book, The Old Man of Lochnagar. . Dave’s adult storytime hit Crackanory has since exploited the nostalgic format to considerable success.
The Power of Nightmares (BBC Two, 2004; available on BBC iPlayer)
The pinnacle of writer / producer Adam Curtis’ career came with this three-part documentary that compared the rise of the Neocon movement in the United States with that of radical Islam. More problematically, he argued that the threat of al Qaeda was a myth created by the West once dreams of a utopian ideal had failed. While Curtis’ theories may not have stood the test of time, and his recycling of the format dulled its impact, it was nonetheless a provocative and brilliantly put together documentary (via a constant flow of archival documents).
40 minutes (BBC Two, 1981-1994; available on BBC iPlayer)
More digestible and parochial, less esoteric than the same channel’s Arena, this documentary strand covered topics ranging from Britons competing in a sumo tournament and the upper class adrift in a post-colonial era to cherub arsonist Michael ‘Mini’ Cooper and a Day in the Life of Angel Tube Station. There have been many imitators (notably BBC Two’s sporadically excellent Wonderland series), but few equal.