48. Changing Rooms (1996-2004)
Sometimes the simplest formats are the best, and this cheap and cheerful DIY show in which two families decorated each other's houses was surprisingly effective. Not only did it start a DIY craze (for a time, it seemed as if stencilling was a national obsession) and spawn numerous copycat shows, the concept was sold around the world.
47. Q (1969-1982)
Arriving more than six months before BBC One’s Monty Python’s Flying Circus, Spike Milligan’s surreal sketch show was a major influence on Pythons Terry Jones and Michael Palin. Milligan frequently broke the fourth wall, abandoned sketches and raced along at a pace that pre-empted another BBC Two sketch show hit, The Fast Show.
46. Who Do You Think You Are? (2004-present)
It is hard to remember how groundbreaking this long-running genealogy show (now on BBC One) was when it first aired. As celebrities trace their family histories, the results have often been shocking and deeply moving as anyone who saw newsreader Natasha Kaplinsky’s 2007 episode will testify.
45. Line of Duty (2012-present)
Martin Compston, Keeley Hawes and Vicky McClure in Line of Duty Photo: World Productions/Mark Bourdillon
Writer Jed Mercurio’s masterly police corruption thriller became the channel’s top-rated drama in a decade when it debuted in 2012. The second series, led by a standout performance by Keeley Hawes as the “did she or didn’t she?” prime suspect, was even better: stylish, tense and twisty. It has just been recommissioned for two more series.
44. The Nazis: A Warning from History (1997)
TV has squeezed every last possibility from the 20th century’s darkest chapter, but the thoroughness of Laurence Rees’s six-part history and the power of its first-hand testimonies (including those of former members of the Nazi party) has never been bettered.
43. Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit (1990)
This adaptation of Jeanette Winterson’s autobiographical novel caused quite a stir at the time due to its depiction of teenage lesbian love. While that aspect might seem tame today, it is nevertheless a brave and innovative piece featuring three astonishing performances from its trio of lead actresses – Geraldine McEwan, Charlotte Coleman and the-then seven-year-old Emily Aston who, in 1991, became the youngest actress ever to be nominated for a Bafta.
42. Not Only But Also (1964-1970)
Peter Cook and Dudley Moore had heralded Britain’s most socially turbulent decade as part of the Beyond the Fringe quartet. This show, though less bitingly satirical, still felt radical with Cook’s abrasive, sometimes surreal humour giving the series an edge that placed it way above the competition. It’s sad to think that only a third of the series still exists in the BBC archives.
41. Shooting Stars (1995-1997)
Really wanna see those fingers! He’s a baby! The dove from above! Ulrika-ka-ka! The show that launched a thousand catchphrases was a cult favourite and somehow captured the Britpop spirit of the time. Hosted by surreal double act Vic Reeves and Bob Mortimer, it revived Ulrika Jonsson’s career and launched Matt Lucas’s. It was held in such affection that its cancellation after three years caused an outcry. Uvavu indeed!
40. The Power of Nightmares (2004)
Osama bin Laden, Tony Blair and George Bush from The Power of Nightmares Photo: AP
The pinnacle of writer/producer Adam Curtis’s career came with this three-part documentary which compared the rise of the Neocon movement in the US with that of radical Islam. More problematically, it argued that the threat of al-Qaeda was a myth created by the west once dreams of a Utiopian ideal had failed. While Curtis's theories may not have stood the test of time, this was nevertheless a provocative, brilliantly assembled (via a constant stream of archive material) piece of documentary making.
39. This Life (1996-1997)
Amy Jenkins’s drama about a group of young lawyers in London captured the mood of Nineties Britain. But Britpop soundtrack aside, it was also gut-wrenchingly truthful and featured a career-peak performance from Daniela Nardini as toughie barrister Anna.
38. Newsnight (1980-)
Its reputation somewhat damaged in the light of the Jimmy Savile and Lord McAlpine scandals, the BBC’s flagship news review programme has steered a remarkably steady course through the choppy waters of news and politics for nigh on four decades. Peter Snow, Gavin Esler, Kirsty Wark and Emily Maitliss have all made their mark. But it is Jeremy Paxman who, since 1989, bestrides this show like an acid-tipped colossus, his 1997 interview with an evasive Michael Howard still the best remembered moment.
37. The Apprentice (2005-)
Part high-stakes gameshow, part reality TV the format came from America where comb-over king Donald Trump had a minor hit toying with wannabe tycoons. But it is fair to say the then Sir Alan, now Lord, Sugar made the UK version totally his own, his abrasive but fair-minded style perfect for the role of playing God with a gang of over-confident, ultra-competitive and often staggeringly dim-witted young entreprenuers determined to win a six-figure salary. After two massively popular series it was simply too big a phenomenon, and was moved to BBC One.
36. Ireland: A Television History (1980)
A superb 13-parter, in which the late Robert Kee attempted to separate calm truth from fractious fiction in the tangled history of this island’s relationship with its near neighbour. At a time when Northern Ireland’s Troubles were at their peak, and the IRA was extending its bombing campaign to mainland Britain, Kee’s cool analysis of 800 years of subjugation and resentment offered the ordinary viewer, an objective analysis of Ireland’s history, north and south, unfettered by competing myths of loyalism and republicanism, imperialism and nationalism.
35. The Royle Family (1998-2000)
The cast from The Royle Family
It’s a testament to the writing of Caroline Aherne and Craig Cash that this sitcom, about a TV-addicted Manchester family, rarely moved out of the living room, and that the scripts were driven by dialogue rather than action. Fans of Channel 4’s current hit Gogglebox (narrated by Aherne) will see fictional similarities.
34. Timewatch (1982-)
Since its inception in the early Eighties, this prestigious strand has provided an umbrella for high quality (and frequently award-winning) one-off documentaries covering an enormous range of historical subjects – from The Windsors’ War in 1982 to Myths of the Titanic in 2012 via everything from Typhoid Mary and The Spanish Inquisition to The Black Pharoahs and The Secret History of Genghis Khan. In theory the strand remains alive athough mostly via repeats on BBC Four these days, the last original work having been produced in 2012. According to the BBC, Timewatch’s’s current status is "fallow rather than defunct”.
33. Middlemarch (1994)
Costume drama is a mainstay of British TV schedules, but Andrew Davies’s adaptation of George Eliot’s state-of-the-nation novel reinvigorated what was then a dying genre. Watch a Dickens or an Austen from the previous decade and you feel like you are watching a local repertory company merely reciting their lines in a pretty fashion. But Davies hollowed out his source text and discovered modern resonances and emotional truths. Middlemarch no doubt paved the way for the universally successful Pride and Prejudice a year later.
32. Ways of Seeing (1972)
In perhaps the most influential art series ever produced by the BBC, John Berger refused to stand still and tell us how to admire art. In the opening shot he took a penknife to cut out the head of Botticelli’s Venus, demonstrating very simply how modern man is used to seeing images cut up and taken out of context - and how damaging and even violent that process can be. His argument continued in this very direct way, with absolute clarity and urgency. His message? Don't just admire. Think. Not a word was wasted. His ideas may have dated but his style is there in all the best art shows today.
31. Absolutely Fabulous (1992-1996/2001-2004/2011-2012)
Or Ab Fab as it was better known. Jennifer Saunders caught the mood of the brand obsessed Nineties perfectly with the surreally comic characters of neurotic, outrageously egocentric PR guru Edina Moone and her drug-addled, professional hanger-on best mate Patsy Stone (Joanna Lumley). Originally drawn from a French and Saunders sketch, the first series proved such a massive hit it was rapidly moved to BBC One therafter. A creature of its time, the series later revivals and special editions never hit quite the same comic heights, although Saunders insists a movie version is currently in the works.
30. I’m Alan Partridge (1997-2002)
Steve Coogan as Alan Partridge in 'I'm Alan Partridge' Photo: Rex
Steve Coogan’s most enduring character – the conceited, tactless and talentless sports reporter cum chat show host – was invented by Coogan and others for Radio 4’s On the Hour and first seen on television in The Day Today and the hugely popular spoof chatshow Knowing Me Knowing You. This was Partridge’s first appearance in sitcom form, a behind the scenes glimpse of his failing career when he’s reduced to local radio in Norwich following the axing of his chat show. A cringe-making comedy giant, whose recent movie outing proved he still has legs.
29. Victoria Wood… As Seen On TV (1985-1987)
Comedian Wood has created many fine TV shows over the years but never has her trademark combination of silly songs, ribald stand-up and deathly accurate parody been fused together to such great effect. Years later, bad soap Acorn Antiques still seems as funny, even though the show it was parodying (Crossroads) has long gone.
28. The Great British Bake Off (2010-)
Possibly the most unlikely TV pehenomenon of the last decade. Who could have predicted the people of Britain would take a low-budget baking competition so firmly to its heart. A perfectly conceived recipe, much lot of the show’s success is down to the bogglingly complex baking challenges, and plucky contestants’ creativity and ambition. But judges Mary Berry and Paul Hollywood bring a nail-biting level of professional rigour to the proceedings, complemented perfectly by Sue Perkins and Mel Giedroyc’s madcap presentation style.
27. The Young Ones (1982-84)
The definitive student comedy of the early Eighties, life with faux anarchist Rick (Rik Mayall), punk Vyvyan (Adrian Edmondson), hippy Neil (Nigel Planer) and smooth Mike (Christopher Ryan) brought together a blend of iconoclasm and infantilism never before seen in a sitcom. Aggressive, chaotic and in your face, it chimed perfectly with the Alternative Comedy movement and kicked off numerous comedy careers, most notably Mayall, Edmondson and Alexi Sayle's, that of co-writer Ben Elton. Like Fawlty Towers only 12 episodes were made but its influence still echoes down the decades.
26. Play School (1964-1988)
First broadcast the day after BBC Two launched, this programme for pre-schoolers brilliantly combined fun and games with an educational remit. It was a simple and effective model and the format was copied in several other countries. Its social impact must be stressed, too. Speaking on Radio 4 in 2011, presenter Floella Benjamin recalled how she had letters from children growing up in care who regarded her as a mother figure because she talked through the camera "as if she loved them".
25. Match of the Day (1964-)
The football show kicked off in 1964, showing highlights of one match per week. Several clubs tried to block it, fearing it could lead to a fall in attendances. They needn’t have worried: instead it launched the sport into the stratosphere, becoming a Saturday night fixture for the next half-century. It was promoted to BBC One the following season and four years later, went full-colour.
24. Arena (1975- )
Possibly the most influential arts strand in the history of television. From Laurence Olivier to Bob Dylan, Dennis Potter to Salvador Dalí, Martin Scorsese to Norman Parkinson, the Everley Brothers to Sister Wendy - the 39-year list of Arena's subjects and directors is a roll call of the most interesting (and sometimes just plain odd) figures working in the arts in the late 20th and early 21st centuries. A move to BBC Four some years back did little to diminish its strength or popularity and it's still going strong with subjects in the current season ranging from Spitting Image to the National Theatre.
23. The Fast Show (1994-1997)
Simon Day and John Thompson on The Fast Show Photo: Television Stills
Brilliant! With its rapid-fire sketches, running gags, unforgettable catch-phrases and gift for sparkling characterisation The Fast Show became the most successful comedy of the mid-Nineties. Co-creators Charlie Higson and Paul Whitehouse assembled a huge pool of up-and-coming writers and actors to revitalise the sketch show format to sparkling effect. Their Ted and Ralph, Swiss Toni, Ron Manager and 13th Duke of Wymbourne were among a glorious outflow of memorable comic characters including Simon Day’s Competitive Dad, John Thomson’s jazz show host and Mark Williams’s fashion tipster (“This week, I be mostly wearin’…”) bumpkin, Jesse.
22. Not the Nine O’Clock News (1979-1982)
Pre-empting the alternative comedy of the Eighties, this frenetic satirical sketch show launched the careers of Rowan Atkinson, Griff Rhys Jones, Mel Smith and Pamela Stephenson. No topic was considered taboo and the writers tackled such controversial topics as institutionalised racism in the police force. Not all of it has aged well, but sketches such as Gerald the Gorilla and I Like Trucking are some of the finest ever seen on British TV. For its sheer ambition, it should be regarded as one of the most important TV comedies of all time.
21. Man Alive (1965-1981)
This documentary series, which tackled a range of political and social issues, has been rather forgotten and that’s a shame because much of its output pushed the boundaries, investigating such subjects as sex, class and religion which were then seen as taboo. Highlights included Gale is Dead (1970), the harrowing tale of a drug addict who had been brought up in 14 different institutions, and convinced herself that her life was of no consequence to anyone.
20. Alistair Cooke’s America (1972-1973)
Cooke’s Letters From America was a highlight of the radio schedules for decades, but when he brought his imposing presence to TV the result was equally successful. Cook's personal account of his beloved adopted nation could at times be incredibly moving, as anyone who has seen his meditation on slavery will testify.
19. Edge of Darkness (1985)
Writer Troy Kennedy Martin created one of British TV’s milestone series with this cinematic quality, six-hour conspiracy eco-thriller. Heavily influenced by James Lovelock’s Gaia theory and the secrecy surrounding the nuclear industry, the innovative 1985 drama won half-a-dozen Baftas and was such a hit on BBC Two that it was immediately screened in double bills on BBC One, becoming the fastest show ever to get a repeat.
18. Have I Got News For You (1990-)
Starring Private Eye editor Ian Hislop and deadpan surrealist Paul Merton (plus the occasional tub of lard), the satirical quiz launched in 1990 and for its first decade, lived on BBC Two. It spawned countless imitators and led the trend for TV panel shows, which is a mixed blessing, but 24 years and 47 series later, HIGNFY remains reliably sharp and watchably witty. Allegedly.
17. The Day Today (1994)
Meganews! Factgasm! The wincingly accurate news parody aired for just six episodes in 1994 but became hugely influential – both on comedy and current affairs coverage. Morris went on to make Brass Eye, co-creator Armando Iannucci created The Thick Of It, Steve Coogan’s sports reporter Alan Partridge became a cult hero and TV news could never be brash or bombastic again without being accused of “going a bit Day Today”.
16. Top Gear (1978present)
Richard Hammond, Jeremy Clarkson and James May on Top Gear Photo: BBC
Love it or loathe it, in terms of global reach the motor-mouth motoring magazine is the BBC’s most successful show (an estimated 350 million viewers a week in 170 countries) of recent years, a pugnacious mix of testosterone and petrol fumes delivered with an unerring feel for the essentially adolescent, and aspirational, nature of car love. Hard to credit that as recently as 2001 the BBC axed it, until Jeremy Clarkson and producer Andy Wilman pitched the more entertainment-based format we know now – with its challenges, road trips, star in a reasonably priced car and the Stig – hosted by Clarkson, Richard Hammond and James May.
15. Horizon (1964-present)
The Emmy-and-Bafta-winning science strand is as old as BBC Two itself, making its debut in 1964 with a film about inventor Richard Buckminster Fuller. Over 1100 episodes have since aired, all fulfilling the series’ mission statement: “To provide a platform from which the world's greatest scientists and philosophers can communicate their curiosity, observations and reflections, infusing into our common knowledge their changing views of the universe.”
14. Our Friends in the North (1996)
In 1996, Royal Shakespeare Company writer Peter Flannery adapted his own stage play into this epic nine-parter, charting the course of the lives of four Geordie friends from youth to middle age. The ambitious series took a decade to get to the screen and ate up half of BBC Two’s drama budget for the year but boy, was it worth it. It also launched the careers of its four stars, including the next Doctor Who (Christopher Eccleston) and James Bond (Daniel Craig).
13. Talking to a Stranger (1966)
John Hopkins’s cycle of plays, recounting events over one tragic weekend through the eyes of four different members of a dysfunctional suburban family, is seen as the first dramatic masterpiece on British television and proof that the genre could rival theatre for acute observations and challenging themes. Judi Dench won her first TV Bafta for her role as daughter Terri.
12. Boys from the Blackstuff (1982)
Alan Bleasdale’s comi-tragic look at unemployment in the north west was not only a polemic against Thatcherite politics but also a journey into the psyche of the white working-class male. It spoke volumes about the time and Bernard Hill’s "Gizza Job" howl of despair became a catchphrase up and down the land.
11. I, Claudius (1976)
This epic adaptation of Robert Graves’s novels about the ruling dynasty of ancient Rome may appear stagy to modern viewers but it wowed Seventies audiences with its combination of Grand Guignol horror and meaty emotional truth. Derek Jacobi in the title role of the stuttering underdog won hearts and prizes.
10. The Old Grey Whistle Test (1971-1987)
Chick Corea on The Old Grey Whistle Test Photo: Rex
Running between 1971 and 1987, Whistle Test was the anti-Top Of The Pops: a stripped-back, glitz-free, live late-night show for serious rock fans, covering non-chart music. It hosted the British TV debuts of seminal acts including Bob Marley, Lynryd Skynyrd, Billy Joel and the New York Dolls. Its chin-stroking mantle has since been inherited by Later and BBC Four.
9. Threads (1984)
The nuclear war docu-drama that gave a generation nightmares. In 1984, this harrowing film – inspired by Sixties equivalent The War Game, which had been deemed too disturbing to air – examined the devastating effects of a one megaton warhead on the city of Sheffield. It was watched by 7m viewers, who sat in stunned, terrified silence when the credits rolled two hours later. Apart from the horrors of nuclear war, Threads should be remembered for raising concerns about economic stability and the possibility of social collapse.
8. The Forsyte Saga (1967)
This 26-part dramatisation of John Galsworthy’s stories about an upper-middle class family from the late nineteenth century to the Twenties was an unexpected hit and, following its BBC Two airing, was repeated on BBC One (at the time BBC Two wasn't available nationwide). It was the last major British drama to be made in black and white and is still a masterclass in shaping a rather unwieldy set of novels into something gripping.
7. Fawlty Towers (1975-1979)
Basil! Often voted the best British sitcom of all time, John Cleese and Connie Booth’s Seventies Torquay hotel farce still stands up to repeated viewings. Back in 1975, Clive James wrote that it had him “retching with laughter” and 25 years later, “Farty Towels” was voted the best British TV series of all time in a BFI poll. Just 12 episodes were made but they’re near-perfect and left us wanting more. Just don’t mention the war. Que?
6. The Ascent of Man (1973)
Commissioned by controller David Attenborough as a sequel, of sorts, to Kenneth Clark’s Civilisation, this 13-part epic series by the mathematician, historian and all-round renaissance man Jacob Bronowski brilliantly did for science what its precdecessor did for the arts. Offering the mass television audience a thorough survey of human evolution through the lens of rational and technological advances, it brought a holistic view reason’s achievements into the living room for the first time, and is credited with inspiring many a subsequent glittering career in the sciences.
5. Yes Minister/Yes, Prime Minister (1980-1982/1986-1988)
Political insiders Antony Jay and Jonathan Lynn wrote this hilararious and unerringly acute spoof of the dark arts of government in the pre-spin days when Westminster was ruled by the mandarins of Whitehall. Paul Eddington created a lovable blend of gullibility and native ambition in Jim Hacker, the minister for paperclips ultimately elevated to PM thanks in large part to the machinations of his ingeniously Machavellian permanent secretary Sir Humphrey (Nigel Hawthorne). Here was proof that comedy could be smart, sophisticated and very, very funny.
4. Civilisation (1969)
Landmark documentary is an over-used term but Kenneth Clark’s series really was, giving audiences a thorough, erudite (if rather patrician to modern eyes) series of lectures on the history of western art, architecture and philosophy. Before transmission it was seen by some within the BBC as an expensive folly, but viewers and critics were soon in raptures. The essential idea of Civilisation, that humanity can be explained through art, remains extraordinarily powerful.
3. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (1979)
Alec Guinness’s performance as the seemingly shambolic George Smiley is one of several high points in this adaptation of John le Carre’s most famous novel. Arthur Hopcraft's adaptation got to the core of le Carre's complex work and succeeded in creating an entire world. This was high-budget stuff and marked a sea change, away from the more theatrical feel of BBC Two’s drama output.
2. The Office (2001-2003)
Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant’s subtle 2001 series set in a Slough paper merchants was the sleeper hit that conquered the planet. In vain, needy manager David Brent, it created a modern-day Basil Fawlty and like Fawlty Towers, it bowed out early with just 14 episodes made. It’s been exported and remade worldwide, while spawning a whole genre of copycat mockumentaries and awkward social comedies. And we didn’t even mention that dance.
1. Life on Earth (1979)
Sir David Attenborough with mountain gorillas in Rwanda, 1978 Photo: Televison Stills
Who could forget David Attenborough whispering the perfect piece to camera surrounded by gorillas in the forests of Rwanda, in the original – and some might say still best – epic natural history documentary. Like Civilisation and The Ascent of Man a 13-parter in which Attenborough, with the help of the BBC Natural History Unit, attempted to chart the development of life across our planet. The most ambitious nature documentary undertaken (3,500 years, 30 countries, over a million feet of film) it received global acclaim and spawned numerous sequels. It is thanks to the success of Life on Earth and the subsequent development of the BBC's Natural History Unit that we remain world leaders in the wildlife documentary.
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Note on the top 50 list.
Readers may be puzzled by some omissions so here are some clarifications. We have only included shows that premiered on the channel originally which is why you won't find University Challenge here or indeed Jed Mercurio's Bodies which launched on BBC Three. However, we have included programmes such as Match of the Day, The Royle Family and Absolutely Fabulous which swifly moved to BBC One. We have also omitted imports such as The X Files and 24 which were first seen in Britain on BBC Two. During research, we found that the memory plays funny tricks and it took three goes to confirm that Dennis Potter's 1978 work, Pennies From Heaven, did in fact make its debut on BBC One.
READ: WHAT NEXT FOR BBC TWO?