How do you like your heroes? Lantern-jawed and silent? Quick-witted and cunning? Do you like the cerebral, professorial type, or someone running around in lycra, showing off their abs and wearing their pants outside of their trousers? Whatever your type, the idea of the hero is central to narrative drama, whether on the big or small screen, or in those funny little book things full of words. These are the characters who inspire us, who show us a better version of ourselves, the people we could be if we were just a bit braver/stronger/less inclined to sit on the couch eating Jaffa Cakes.
This list of the greatest TV Heroes of all time is, of course, ridiculously subjective, not least because (whisper it) I haven’t seen every television programme ever made. I’ve also tried to steer a course between gun-toting action types and something a little more refined. The result is a list of five Brits, four Americans and one heroic hound. Here we go…
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10. George Dixon, Dixon of Dock Green
Ah, but the world was a gentler place, once. At least, on TV it was. Before shows like The Sweeney swaggered onto the screens with a screech of tires and a combination of kipper ties and flying fists, TV policing was the preserve of George Dixon, a gentle bobby on the beat whose homespun approach to his job belied a steely core of bravery and public service.
His was an inauspicious start – he was shot dead in the film The Blue Lamp, before being revived for a TV series which ran from 1955-1976. Jack Warner played him in every episode, and clearly touched a nerve with viewers. When Dixon was shot in one episode, the BBC received 4000 letters of concern, and had to make a public announcement on TV as to his welfare.
Dixon of Dock Green complete series 1-3 is available now on DVD
9. Jack Bauer, 24
If Dixon is at one end of the law enforcement spectrum, Kiefer Sutherland’s Bauer is very definitely at the other. Counter-terrorism’s strongest weapon, there was nothing he couldn’t do. A lethal shot, firearms expert, explosives whizz, decorated soldier and hand-to-hand combat specialist, he could also fly helicopters, planes, speak Spanish, German, Russian, Arabic and Serbian, had a degree in criminology and even one in English literature. He was also tortured for two years by the Chinese and uttered not a squeak. For such a gifted genius, he never seemed to wonder why all of his adventures lasted precisely 24 hours…
24 complete series 1-9 is available now on DVD
8. Emma Peel, The Avengers
Like Bauer, Emma Peel was something of a polymath. A spy, adventurer, fencer, martial artist, chemist, industrialist and fashion icon, there was seemingly nothing Peel couldn’t do. For the 1960s, this was enlightened stuff, and she became something of a feminist icon.
Yet it could all have been so different. Initially Elizabeth Shepherd was given the role until, two episodes in, they decided they’d made a mistake and reshot the lot with Diana Rigg. Peel was only in three series, but her character started a revolution in the way women behaved onscreen. No longer were women just there as helpless objects of lust. Although there was that cat suit…
The Avengers series 1-6 is available now on DVD
7. Inspector Morse, Inspector Morse
Morse never wore a cat suit (can you imagine that episode???) and was more into opera and real ale than martial arts. But he was no less a hero for that. The British version of Columbo, he used his intellect to solve crimes (and cryptic crosswords), and only ever broke into a run if the pub was about to shut. Grumpy, philosophical, and sometimes heart-breakingly sad, he was a genuinely well-drawn, three-dimensional character.
When he died, in the last ever episode, The Remorseful Day, a nation went into mourning. By the end, actor John Thaw was all but indistinguishable from Morse, having played him in 33 feature-length episodes. The series spanned two spin offs, one of which is going strong to this day.
Inspector Morse complete series 1-12 is available now on DVD
6. Arthur Fonzarelli, Happy Days
Like Emma Peel, it could all have been so very different. Micky Dolenz was the original choice to play the Fonz – an unthinkable choice to a generation who grew up idolizing Henry Winkler’s version.
So why was a middle aged high school drop-out who hung out with a bunch of nerdy kids such a hero? Because Fonz wrote the book on cool. Not just the kind of cool that meant he could switch on a jukebox by clicking his fingers, but the kind of cool that saw him treating others with respect, sticking up for the downtrodden, respecting the disabled, combating racism and doing his civic duty. The Fonz made it cool to be kind, and it doesn’t get much more heroic than that.
Happy Days complete series 1-4 is available now on DVD
The rough collie who stole the world’s heart, Lassie’s TV debut came in 1954, in a series that ran for 19 years and spawned spin offs and TV specials that continue to this day. The original Lassie was played by Pal, and every Lassie since has been played by one of Pal’s descendants. Whether she was on a farm, working with the forest rangers, or living on an orphanage, Lassie had a nose for trouble. Nobody could find a small boy trapped down a well quite like Lassie, and nobody could communicate a need for her human masters to follow her with quite such eloquent urgency. Today, she is one of three animals to have a star on Hollywood’s Walk of Fame.
Lassie triple box set of films 1-3 is available now on DVD
4. DI Jane Tennyson, Prime Suspect
Helen Mirren’s mesmeric performance as Tennyson was perhaps the apogee of a glittering career. This dark, troubling and utterly riveting police procedural drama was as much about the troubled Tennyson as it was about crime. She was a welter of contradictions – strong but vulnerable, compassionate but hard-nosed, courageous but increasingly dependent on the bottle, Tennyson had to tackle institutional sexism, ageism (against women) as well as deeply entrenched racism and homophobia. Across seven series spanning 21 years, she held viewers in thrall, shining a light into some of the darkest recesses of our society.
Prime Suspect complete series 1 - 7 is available now
3. The Doctor, Dr Who
Since 1963, every generation has had their own version of the iconic creation (apart from those of age in the unhappy hiatus between 1989 and 2005). It is no small irony that a two-hearted, regenerating alien from distant Gallifrey embodies everything that is best about humanity. Funny, eccentric, mysterious, kind, nonviolent, complex and more than a little geeky, the Doctor shows that it isn’t just the Alpha Males of this world who can save the Universe. A fact that will be further reinforced by the welcome arrival of the Doctor’s first female incarnation, played by the excellent Jodie Whittaker, this autumn.
2. Benjamin ‘Hawkeye’ Pierce, MASH
For 11 glorious seasons, this irreverent and profound sitcom set during the Korean War rhapsodised on the futility and grotesque waste of conflict. At its heart was the towering figure of Hawkeye Pierce, surgeon, prankster, womaniser, drinker, pacifist, liberal, and something of a mess. No fan of the military, he was nevertheless prone to some truly heroic actions, from driving a tank out of the camp under fire to operating on a wounded soldier with an unexploded grenade in his abdomen. The show – and in particular Hawkeye – captured the hearts and minds of America, and when it finished with a two-hour special, viewing figures were shattered, with 120 million tuning in, making it the most watched television episode in history.
MASH the complete series 1-11 is available now on DVD
1. President Josiah 'Jed' Bartlet, The West Wing
Has any character ever made a better entrance in TV history. In the opening episode, the President comes crashing into a meeting with some odious religious extremists who are debating the first commandment. “’I am the Lord your God, thou shalt worship no other God before me.’ Those were the days, huh?” Martin Sheen’s career-defining performance as the Democratic President was the high-point of a simply wonderful TV series. Initially, Bartlet was meant to be a minor character in a show about White House staffers, but such was Sheen’s impact that they built the show around him. President Bartlet was sharp, funny, compassionate, brave, honourable, dignified and presidential. For some reason, just now those characteristics seem more important, and elusive, than ever.
West Wing Complete Seasons 1-7 is available now on DVD