A Guide To A Dreary Weekend, British Television, And You!

It’s a cold, wet, and miserable weekend, which means it’s time to pick a British drama serial to watch. But. But. But! There are rules.

No matter what you watch, there has to be a feeling that there’s no central heating working properly anywhere and there’s probably some black mold creeping up the side of the sets. Oddly, this rules out a lot of early black & white BBC serials because they just don’t feel damp enough. Once you get into 16mm film and early VT footage, though, you are golden. After 1992 or so the standard of VT footage gets good enough that things just don’t feel properly damp enough anymore. Early Taggart (especially the shot-on-VT pilot, Killer) gets Glasgow grime across very well. If you’re looking for a period piece instead, then the BBC’s adaptation of C.P. Snow’s Strangers And Brothers is worth a look.

Conspiracy thrillers make for a great Saturday night watch, provided you have no friends and you’d rather spend your time hunting down shifting YouTube channels finding obscure television rather than just opening Netflix. It’s great! Even better are the ones from the 1970s that envisage a dark future of government control set in the late 90s or…2020. They’ll make you forget about that Twitter account for a few hours at least.

Seek out: The Donati Conspiracy, a wonderful three-part 1973 BBC serial which had a follow-up three years later (State of Emergency), though that is sadly not on YouTube…or on DVD. 1990, which is everybody’s favourite “Labour Has Turned Us Into A Dictatorial State And Also Proto-Servalan” series. If you really want Servalan, Blake’s 7 fits here, though feel free to bail out at the end of Series B and just watch the last 5 minutes of the final episode for closure.

Oh! And Bird of Prey for the British take on WarGames. Instead of nuclear war and Matthew Broderick, you get civil servants and Richard Griffiths. GET IN!

Of course, you can always turn the old strands of yore. The BBC had Play For Today, Centre Play, Theatre 625_, The Wednesday Play, and eventually Screen One/Two, while ITV had Armchair Theatre and Playhouse. I’d avoid the black and whites due to lack of that proper claustrophobic dankness that you get in early colour, and well…depending on your mood, most of the Dennis Potter plays are probably going to be a bit heavy. Still, if you do want a good Potter, Double Dare is excellent, and Blade On The Feather is also decent if you’re after some Cambridge Five aftermath goodness. Which you almost certainly are! (but we’ll return to that later)

Other great choices here include a rare non-comedic performance from Dave Allen in One Fine Day, and appropriate enough for Hallowe’en, Pandas Fen!

(Oh, also, there are some fun episodes of Performance out there - here’s a dramatization of the Oz Trial, complete with Hugh Grant in a hilarious wig and Nigel Planer playing John Peel!_)

Okay, maybe you want a laugh. Or at least a chuckle. If you’re looking for a drama serial with a very light heart, then obviously there’s The Beiderbecke Affair (and its two sequels). “What’s wrong with being Geordie? Well, nothing, but it’s not Yorkshire, is it?”

Comedy that is both groundbreaking, fearless, and not something you’d want to watch with anybody else due to the horrific stereotypes often on display? Step up, Spike Milligan’s Q series. When it’s good, it’s amazing…other times it’s a difficult struggle.

As for sitcoms, well, there’s always Watching, for all your late-80s bird-watching romance requirements. Or, just skirting under our rules, 2point4children, the BBC’s forgotten answer to Roseanne. If you must go to ITV, I’d head for the first few series of Shelley, complete with the Thames Television Ident of all our childhoods.

Sometimes, you just want something quick and simple. Why not a classic gameshow? Because spending your night watching gameshows from 1983 is…okay, I’ll admit I’ve done it at least once.

First up, we have Bullseye. Obviously. If you’re going to watch Jim Bowen and assorted odd prizes, you should head for the earlier series which shows off the 1980s in a way that documentaries and received history can often miss. Solid working class misery. And that’s just the darts. Oho.

And then there’s 3-2-1, which I hesitate to recommend because it is…well, it’s hard to describe fully, and that’s why I end up thinking that if you haven’t seen it, you probably should sit through one episode to truly know the depths of despair. I forced my parents to watch this when I was little and here I apologize. Allo Allo I’ll stand by, but making them watch this and them not putting me up for adoption is how you know that parental love is a real thing. Part Saturday night variety show, part twisted gameshow from the very depths of Hell itself, 3-2-1 is a turgid hour of 70s entertainment dying for its last breath a decade later coupled with ‘clues’ that are…well, you have to experience one to really understand the full terror:

They are all like this. You can never win outside of random chance. For anybody that says all TV was better back in the 80s, just show them the visage of Dusty Bin.

Aside from Bully, Blankety Blank is also fun. I’m obviously talking about Les Dawson era, with all the gurning, mother-in-law jokes, and a general ‘can’t be arsed with this’ air that you could possibly need!

But they were wrong. A good set of Adam Curtis documentaries is always a decent selection; you can follow along and yell when he gets the science/theories wrong. Why not try The Way of All Flesh or 25 Million Pounds if you want your Curtis a little more obscure.

Otherwise, throwing “horizon+bbc+1980s”, “equinox+channel 4”, or “world in action” into YouTube is a great way to while away an evening. Gasp! As the APT train splutters into life! Shriek! As your favourite pop stars from the 1980s are revealed to be inflating their chart positions! Find out just how you’re going to die in a nuclear explosion! (Okay, that last one is Q.E.D.)

Or, providing it’s very cold and/or damp outside, forego any of these thoughts and just plump for Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy and Smiley’s People. Cold, damp, dark conspiracies, the British class system as an underlying theme, plus copious amounts of Cambridge Five allusions! And a very mute Patrick Stewart.

Don’t watch Threads if you plan on sleeping any time in the near future.


As it happens, I ended up spending Saturday night watching far too many UK commercials from the 1980s. I may need help.