Maybe you’ve left your gift-buying to the last minute (again). Maybe you’re just looking for something to cozy up with as you keep yourself warm during the holiday lull. Either way, when it comes to quality screen time, there’s no beating the BBC. For decades, the British Broadcasting Corporation has created and aired some of the edgiest, funniest, and most envelope-pushing programming in the world — the best of which is available on US shores through BBC America.
Over the years, there have been a number of BBC series of such high quality that they begged to be collected in full, bringing their complete experiences into welcoming homes. After the jump, we round up the ten best of the best, along with info and the requisite video clips. But that’s not all: we also have copies of almost every one* of these BBC box sets available to win! To be in with a chance at one, leave us a comment telling us your personal favorite moment from British TV history. Be sure to use a valid email address when submitting, so we can contact you if you win. Bonus points if you catch the crossover cameos in our selected video clips — these UK stars have a habit of popping up in each other’s shows.
Rowan Atkinson may be best known stateside as Mr. Bean, but this brilliant series was the true launching pad for his fame. Set in multiple time periods, each series of Black Adder takes place in a different era, ranging from medieval times to World War II. In each, Atkison plays a variation on the Edmund Blackadder character, an often hapless individual who nonetheless remains entwined with the progression of history. Watch out for supporting roles by Stephen Fry, and better yet, a young Hugh Laurie.
John Cleese will forever be remembered for his role as a member of the Monty Python troupe, but by departing the Flying Circus early to move on to other projects, he ended up with one of the most popular British sitcoms of all time on his hands. Fawlty Towers is nothing short of a UK institution, despite consisting of a scant 12 episodes. As Basil Fawlty, Cleese runs one of the most mayhem-plagued hotels around, with his wife and staff splitting their time between controlling the chaos and making it worse.
Steve Coogan is a one-man British comedy institution, so it’s only fitting that he receive his very own box set. You might recognize him from his lead roles in 24 Hour Party People and Tristram Shandy, but it’s Coogan’s UK TV series that let his genius truly shine. His most high-profile character, Alan Partridge, is a man of questionable morals (and intelligence), but also disturbingly funny enough to feature in two separate series: Knowing Me, Knowing You and I’m Alan Partridge. Both are included here, along with pretty much everything else Coogan has done for British TV, collected on a whopping 13 discs.
If you’ve been paying attention to comedic cinema in the last few years, there’s no way to avoid Simon Pegg. Shaun of the Dead brought him (and partner-in-crime Nick Frost) to international audiences, while the subsequent release of films like Hot Fuzz and Run Fat Boy Run has kept him in the spotlight. It was inevitable, then, that the rest of the world would discover the turn-of-the-century series that started it all. Spaced tells the tale of two young people, Tim and Daisy, who pretend to be a married couple in order to get an apartment. And while the premise may sound simple, the execution is anything but. The show’s zany crew finds itself in increasingly bizarre situations, told via equally creative narrative devices. If there’s a 20th-century pop-culture touchstone close to your heart, chances are Spaced gives it more than a nod.
Sure, we all love Steve Carell (and Dwight), but if it wasn’t for Ricky Gervais, your whole Thursday night NBC fix would have a different taste. If you haven’t seen the original series that gave birth to the US version of The Office, you need to watch this immediately. The setup is very much the same, and many of the characters will feel more than a little familiar, but the slightly drier tone and Gervais’ flawless performance as regional manager David Brent give this one the edge up. Better yet, they knew when to call it quits, meaning that the entire series run never hit a down note. Gervais went on to star in Extras
after this, which you might also want to have on hand, for when you need just a little bit more.
This is the most recent series to make the list, as well as the only one that remains active. Noel Fielding and Julian Barratt are two of the most surreal comedians the UK has seen in, well, ever, and along with their cohorts, they are the Mighty Boosh. Their self-titled TV series has aired three seasons to date, and a fourth will be a while yet, so this collection features the whole caboodle so far. Internationally, the series has had the most exposure through the viral takeoff of the Mighty Boosh short “Old Gregg,” while a pickup from Adult Swim has further raised its profile. Watching too much of this at once will definitely make your head hurt, but you probably won’t mind.
There’s never been another show quite like The Young Ones. Taking a hippie, a psychotic punk, a wussy anarchist, and a self-styled ladies man and putting them all together in the same house, the series created some of the most over-the-top insanity of all-time. The laughs come so fast and from such unexpected quarters that repeated viewings are often essential just to figure out what the hell you just saw. Adding random musical performances from real bands like Madness and Motörhead within the storylines, along with fourth-wall breaking monologues and a boatload of non-sequiturs, this show marks the pinnacle of the ’80s for UK television.
Being a complete mess has never been as appealing as in the capable hands of Patsy and Edina, the ultimate walking disasters with a taste for the high life. Jennifer Saunders flipped the traditional script on its head with this immense show, playing the irresponsible parent to the down-to-earth, no-nonsense daughter. Along with Joanna Lumley, she brought the concept of human trainwreck to a new level — perhaps enough so to make people think twice before having those last six drinks. As you may know, Roseanne loved this show so much that she wanted to recreate it for a US audience; thankfully, this was one time everyone ended up being smart enough to leave perfection alone.
Okay, we admit it, this list skews pretty hard toward the funnier side of UK TV. But the BBC is also known for airing some truly groundbreaking and informative material, and this is the cream of the crop in that department. Chances are you’ve already seen some, if not all, of this series exploring the endless wonder of the cosmic sphere we call home, but no matter how many times you see it, it never ceases to amaze. These investigations into the myriad experiences of life on Earth are best experienced as big as possible, which makes it a no-brainer that this collection would also receive HD DVD
releases. Even on a small screen, though, this is huge stuff.
There’s no way around it. No list of this nature would be complete without Monty Python, and denying the legendary troupe the top slot would be nothing short of heresy. Together, Eric Idle, Michael Palin, Terry Jones, Graham Chapman, John Cleese, and Terry Gilliam set the bar for sketch comedy at a level that has yet to be topped in all the years since. There isn’t a troupe around that won’t pay tribute to their impact, or fail to cite them as an influence. And before the big-screen films that truly broke them on a global-level, their TV series, Monty Python’s Flying Circus, was subversively changing the way people would look at their television screens for generations to come. At 16 discs, this is the true elephant of the bunch, but also the most essential of all the essentials.
* Note: Giveaways include all of the above box sets, with the exception of Steve Coogan and Monty Python.