Not for British eyes only: the best British shows
1. “Brideshead Revisited”
“Brideshead Revisited” is a lavish production based on Evelyn Waugh’s novel about interwar England. Charles Ryder (Jeremy Irons), a middle-class student at Oxford, befriends Sebastian Flyte (Anthony Andrews), an alcoholic aristocrat with a teddy bear. The Flytes, whose reputation and wealth has dwindled for years, struggle to preserve their traditions, like ardent Catholicism. Sebastian’s manias intensify, and the family seeks Charles’ aid. As Charles witnesses the intersection of Sebastian’s impulses and his own fascination with the family, he finds himself collapsing under a cross of friendship, love, art and social change. “Brideshead Revisited” features shots of one of the most beautiful homes in England and perfectly captures a nostalgia for the “languor of Youth.”
2. “I, Claudius”
As a general rule, Roman emperors were either mad or bad. No lesson in Roman history emphasizes this adage more than “I, Claudius.” Rooted in Robert Graves’ acclaimed novel, the series depicts the life of Tiberius Claudius Caesar Augustus Germanicus, a lame stammerer and democrat. Though Claudius occupies a lower branch of the Julio-Claudian dynasty, he is unwillingly crowned Caesar after conspiracies and tragedies prune his family tree to a stump. More importantly, “I, Claudius” is a pantheon of English acting. Derek Jacobi is brilliant as Claudius. Notable supporting roles include Patrick Stewart as Sejanus and John Rhys-Davies as Macro. John Hurt deserves every laurel for his portrayal of the insane emperor Caligula, who proclaimed himself an incarnation of Zeus, declared war on the sea, and devoured the fetus he conceived with his sister.
3. “Fawlty Towers”
Meet Basil Fawlty, the most unpleasant man in all of England. He manages a hotel—the eponymous Fawlty Towers—an occupation he despises. Basil lives in constant fear of his wife, whose laugh he describes as “somebody machine-gunning a seal.” Like “Seinfeld,” “Fawlty Towers” pinpoints the absurdity of everyday life and amplifies the comedy with outrageous personalities. In one case, Basil, recovering from a blow to the head, insults German guests by repeating their orders of prawn cocktail and pickled herring as Eva Braun and Herman Goering. John Cleese, of “Monty Python,” is Basil Fawlty, and “Fawlty Towers” is the finest product any Python produced after they dissolved. Every British comedian, from Ricky Gervais to Russell Brand, cites the show as an influence. It’s the best in British comedy.
4. “The Black Adder”
For a more irreverent take on history than “I, Claudius,” consider “The Black Adder.” The show depicts four critical periods of English history: the Wars of the Roses, the court of Queen Elizabeth, the Regency era, and World War I. In each, the protagonist, always named Edmund Blackadder, plots to improve his wealth and status. Rowan Atkinson, familiar to Americans as Mr. Bean, plays Blackadder in each generation of the family. His schemes almost always fail, usually due to the cloddishness of his companions. For example, Blackadder must rewrite Johnson’s “Dictionary of the English Language” in a single night after his servant burns the sole manuscript. In another case, Blackadder charters a vessel for the Cape of Good Hope to impress Queen Elizabeth, only to find the deranged captain cannot navigate even to France. “The Black Adder” is one of the funniest historical comedies ever produced.
5. “Doctor Who”
Arguably the most popular British show of all time, “Doctor Who” is the easiest show to jump into and the sole entry on this list still in production. The Doctor is an alien with a time machine, a fondness for humans and an out-of-this-world personality. He travels through time and space with a human companion, confronting various alien menaces and setting an example of tolerance and cool logic. Some of the best episodes are from the ’70s, like “Pyramids of Mars,” in which the Doctor grapples with a god of ancient Egypt, and “City of Death,” in which the Doctor discovers that an art thief actually intends to incinerate the Earth. The franchise is approaching its 50th anniversary but has yet to show its age.