12 Underrated & Overlooked British TV Shows to Binge

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Last Updated on April 2, 2024 by Stefanie Hutson

In British TV circles, it seems like 90% of the focus is always on the most recent releases and a handful of classics (think Midsomer Murders or Keeping Up Appearances). Though understandable, it means a lot of wonderful shows end up overlooked – especially those that came out before streaming made widespread international distribution standard. 

12 Underrated British TV Shows to Binge

Cadfael

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Cadfael (1994-1998)

If you enjoy shows like Father Brown and Grantchester for their mix of mystery and religious contemplation, Cadfael is a classic you won't want to miss. It's one of the first British TV shows I consistently watched, tuning in late in the evening on a tiny 6″ black and white TV embedded in a boom box, usually when I was supposed to be doing homework or going to bed.

Sir Derek Jacobi stars as Brother Cadfael, a medieval monk living at the Benedictine Abbey in Shrewsbury. The series is based on the Cadfael Chronicles novels by Ellis Peters, and it sees Cadfael almost constantly interrupting his normal routine to investigate murders. 

Though popular during its time, few new British TV fans have seen it. Even if you don't love older shows, it's fun to watch both for the stories and the early sightings of many actors who would go on to be very well known (including Hugh Bonneville, Jonny Lee Miller, Jamie Glover, Toby Jones, and Anna Friel). 

At Home with the Braithwaites

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At Home With the Braithwaites

This classic early-2000s British TV show was written by Sally Wainwright (Last Tango in Halifax, Scott & Bailey) and features a host of familiar faces – Amanda Redman, Peter Davison, and Julie Graham, among others. The show begins shortly after the main character, Alison Braithwaite, wins the lottery and hides the news from her family. Rather than splashing out on cars and mansions, she sets up a foundation to help those in need.

Of course, nobody can keep a secret forever – so most of the show deals with the fallout of her family finding out and their change in circumstance. It's a fun dramedy that gets a bit ridiculous at times, but it's great escapism.

The Prisoner

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The Prisoner

Though now more than *50* years old, this British sci-fi classic is every bit as relevant today as it was then. Written, created, and directed by star Patrick McGoohan, the series follows an unnamed man who resigns from his government job and attempts to make a hasty departure. Before he can get away, he's captured and taken to a strange coastal village that acts as a prison for people who know too much. All the residents are assigned numbers, and those who attempt to escape are recaptured or destroyed.

The series was shot on location in the beautiful Welsh village of Portmeirion.

The Worst Week of My Life

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The Worst Week of My Life 

Ben Miller (Death in Paradise) stars alongside Sarah Alexander (Coupling) and Alison Steadman (Gavin & Stacey) in this fun comedy about a well-meaning man who's plagued by bad luck and general awkwardness. The first series is laugh-out-loud funny, and while the following seasons aren't quite as funny due to a repetitious feeling, they're still totally worth watching if you need something light. 

Crashing

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Crashing is a particularly fun British comedy on Netflix

Before she was Fleabag, Phoebe Waller-Bridge wrote and starred in Crashing, a six-part comedy about a group of young people living together in an abandoned hospital and acting as property guardians. Though a bit crude at times, it's a cute show with a number of familiar faces (including Louise Ford of The Windsors and Adrian Scarborough of Miranda). 

For those not aware, property guardianship is a real thing in the UK, allowing renters to get bargain prices in exchange for unusual dwelling spaces and very few rights (sometimes, they're asked to leave with no more than a day or two of notice). On the landowner end of things, it can be appealing because it allows them to cheaply secure disused buildings, and in some cases, get tax benefits.

Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell

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Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell

In 1806 England, real, practical magic has all but disappeared – until one man, Mr. Norrell, seeks to re-ignite it. In the course of his efforts, he creates a fierce rivalry between himself and another young magician, Jonathan Strange. 

If you haven't already seen it, this series is fun, imaginative, and just right for a day-long binge. It's based on the book of the same name by Susanna Clarke. It's also worth noting that it's one of the few shows with some of the action set in the city of York. 

After Henry 

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After Henry

After Henry is one of those delightful British comedies that's obviously older, but still totally charming. The series follows a group of women – mother, daughter, and grandmother – who all live together sometime after the death of the beloved husband and father of the family. With three generations of woman under one roof, it's never boring. 

The talented Prunella Scales (Fawlty Towers) stars as Sarah France, with Joan Sanderson playing her mother Eleanor and Janine Wood as her daughter Clare. Jonathan Newth plays her presumably gay boss at the used bookstore where she works, and while they danced around the subject a bit, it was an unusual example of LGB representation for its time. 

The Paradise

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The Paradise

If you enjoyed Mr. Selfridge, there's a good chance you'll also enjoy The Paradise. This BBC period drama is an adaptation of Emile Zola's Au Bonheur des Dames, relocated to Northeastern England. 

When a young woman is made homeless by the death of her father, she relocates to the nearest big city to work in a glamorous department store. As an innocent girl from the country, it's not long before the city's bright lights and charms have her enchanted. Sadly, the show lasted just two seasons, largely because Mr. Selfridge was also running at the same time and doing quite well. Personally, I thought The Paradise was the superior show.

Watching

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Watching

This is the only show on this list you can't actually stream in the US (at least not by any method that doesn't involve someone stealing footage and uploading it to a sharing site) – but we have good reason for including it. Virtually unheard of in the US, this late 80s to early 90s series is totally charming.

The show follows awkward, bird-watching Malcolm as he gets closer to loud-mouthed, immature Brenda. Though it doesn't necessarily seem like a great or original concept, it grows on you quickly. Give it two or three episodes and you'll be hooked for the full 56 episodes over 7 series.

My only real caution is that if you're not accustomed to some of the stronger British accents, you may find the lack of subtitles challenging (since it's only available on DVD and they didn't include subtitles). The show is set in and around Liverpool, and the Scouse accent can be hard to get used to. Luckily, there's a dedicated fan group on Facebook, and I can't imagine too many questions they wouldn't be able to answer.

Jonathan Creek

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Jonathan Creek

This is another one of those wonderful but slightly older shows that gets overlooked by a lot of newer British TV fans. It stars Alan Davies (QI) as a magic trick designer for a stage magician. The same skills that make him good at illusions also give him a unique talent for teasing apart the details of seemingly inexplicable murders (especially locked room mysteries, which feature heavily in the series). He also lives in a windmill, which is just fun.

The early seasons are best, and see Caroline Quentin playing his investigative partner. She's a pushy investigative journalist who drives him nuts, though the two work pretty well together. In later seasons and specials, Davies is joined by Julia Sawalha as TV presenter Carla Borrego, Sheridan Smith as paranormal investigator Joey Ross, and Sarah Alexander as Polly Creek. 

Intruders

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Intruders

John Simm (Life on Mars) stars in this 2014 series about a secret society that chases immortality by hiding out in the bodies of others. The series is part British, part American, and produced by the BBC.

Based on the 2007 Michael Marshall Smith novel of the same name, it's made up of 8 episodes and it premiered on BBC America and BBC Two. Sadly, it was cancelled after one season.

McMafia

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McMafia streams on Sundance Now

You'd be forgiven if you thought “McMafia” sounded like some kind of Scottish version of Sopranos (though in fairness, they'd probably spell it MacMafia). In reality, it's a dramatic thriller about the English-raised son of a Russian mafia exile. Though he's built a great life with a legitimate career in finance, he finds himself unintentionally pulled into his family's dark, criminal past. 

The title, McMafia, refers to the way the modern day mafia operations are managed – sort of like McDonald's meets the mafia. James Norton stars in a part that falls somewhere in between his tortured vicar (Grantchester) and demented killer (Happy Valley) roles. For years there have been rumours of a second season on the way, but in 2022, insiders leaked that it had been cancelled in light of the war in Ukraine. We're not holding out much hope of ever seeing it, but the first season was very good.

 

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Criminally Underrated British TV Shows

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