Our favourite TV box sets
16 Mar 2020
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If you've got a bit of time to spare, take your pick from some much-loved shows of yesteryear.
The West Wing Box Set
Anyone who has seen Netflix’s US remake of House of Cards will tell you that politics, Stateside, is a murky business, peopled by cynical, ambitious, manipulative and ultimately murderous individuals. But anyone who ever watched the West Wing will tell you that the White House is populated by the most morally pure, decent, upstanding and goshdarned saintly people outside of the eye hospitals of Malawi.
The truth, of course, is likely to be somewhere in the middle, but I choose the optimism of The West Wing every time. Indeed – I should declare a certain bias here – it is possibly my favourite show of all time.
The series, which ran for seven years, followed the presidency of Jed Bartlet (a fabulously patrician Martin Sheen), and his senior White House staff, as they negotiated the problems that we all encounter (friendships, disagreements, romance, stress) and those that we’re less familiar with (global geo-politics, world security, nuclear proliferation).
Everyone walks and talks with great rapidity, and the whip-smart dialogue is almost too clever and funny at times, as if the White House was populated by stand-up comedians with philosophy PhDs, but the characters are beautifully well-drawn – flawed and magnificent in equal measures.
The series, which boasted a number of former senior White House staff as consultants, was praised for its realism, and counted Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton among its fans.
The brainchild of Aaron Sorkin, The West Wing won the Emmy for outstanding drama for its first four years, in which he wrote 85 of the 88 episodes – a staggering number in today’s multi-writer US model. And, more extraordinary still, every one is a gem.
All Creatures Great and Small Box Set
In its heyday in the mid-80s, All Creatures Great and Small drew audiences in excess of 20 million. With its charismatic blend of 1930s nostalgia, Yorkshire Dales, cuddly (and not-so-cuddly) animals and well-drawn, funny and believable characters, the show oozed warmth and humour.
And that theme tune. If you didn’t grow to love that theme tune, a part of your heart was missing. Incidentally, it is called The Piano Parchment, and was written by Johnny Pearson in 1968.
I scarcely need tell you that Christopher Timothy played the kindly James Herriot, Robert Hardy the gloriously cantankerous Siegfried Farnon, and Peter Davison the cheerfully irresponsible Tristan Farnon (Siegfried and Tristan? Were the parents sadists?), and the talented, late Lynda Bellingham succeeded Carol Drinkwater as Helen.
Big budget remake
I was reminded again of the show more recently, with the news that Channel 5 started filming a remake in autumn 2019, featuring Dame Diana Rigg and Samuel West, amongst others.
Fawlty Towers Box Set
In May 1970, the Monty Python team stayed at the Gleneagles Hotel in Torquay. Whilst there, John Cleese became fascinated by the owner, Donald Sinclair, who he described as “the rudest man I have ever come across in my life”.
Singularly ill-suited to a career in hospitality, Sinclair’s foibles included throwing a bus timetable at a guest who asked when the next bus to town would leave; placing Eric Idle’s briefcase behind a wall in case it contained a bomb (in spite of the fact that Idle was standing next to it); and berating Terry Gilliam’s ‘un-British’ table manners for switching his fork between hands while eating.
Cleese and wife Connie Booth stayed at the hotel after the others left, and studied Sinclair. The result was arguably the greatest TV show ever made. Certainly the BFI’s poll of industry professionals, in 2000, named it as the best British show of all time.
As with all tales of phenomenal success, there is a story of the man who turned it down. BBC exec Jimmy Gilbert rejected it, saying: “This is full of clichéd situations and stereotypical characters, and I cannot see it as being anything other than a disaster.” Hmm.
If you’ve been living in a remote corner of the planet Zog, with no TV reception and nobody to speak to for the last 40 years, Fawlty Towers is the story of a nondescript Torquay hotel run by an eccentric husband-and-wife team (him: downtrodden and furious at the world; her: overbearing and bossy), their chambermaid Polly, and a hapless Spanish waiter, Manuel.
But I’m willing to wager not a single person reading this will be unaware of all this, such is the show’s justifiably legendary status.
Famously, only 12 episodes were ever made (two series of six episodes), but they were filled with enough comic brilliance to sustain audiences for decades to come: the shows have been repeated regularly by the BBC ever since. And who can blame them.
7 Up, 56 Up and 63 Up Box Set
In the 1960s, an extraordinary experiment began. To be fair, I think a lot of people were experimenting in the 60s, but this one didn’t involve being naked, covered in mud, and making interesting soups with mushrooms. It was a TV experiment that led to one of the defining programmes in the history of British television.
7 Up was screened in 1964. The one-off documentary took a snapshot of the lives of 14 British children, from a variety of socioeconomic and regional backgrounds. The programme’s concept was based on an old Jesuit motto “Give me a child until he is seven and I will give you the man.”
We are all, in other words, defined by our first seven years – these early, formative experiences, combined with our social class, determine who and what we are and will become.
One of the researchers on the programme, tasked with finding the children to feature, was a young man called Michael Apted. Seven years later, he came back, as director, to film 14 Up. He has returned, every seven years since then, to film the same individuals, to track the course of their lives. Most recently, in 2019, he helmed 63 Up, and he asserts “I hope to do 84 Up when I’ll be 99.”
Triumphs and tragedies
It is an extraordinary project, showing the poetry and nobility of quiet, everyday existence, the mini triumphs and tragedies that form the tapestry of life.
The series is not without its faults – most glaringly, only four of the subjects are women, and only one is non-white – a fact that Apted has said he regrets, and a sign of a very different world in 1964. But this is television gold, at once a social history of Britain and an intimate look at individual lives. In 2005, Channel 4 named it first in a list of the 50 Greatest Documentaries. It’s not hard to see why.
Brideshead Revisited Box Set Box Set
The first TV series I can ever remember watching with my parents was Brideshead Revisited. It was 1981, and I was nine. I fear the detailed ruminations on the nature of religion and personal freedom were lost on me, as was the wistful sense of regret that permeated the series.
But I liked it for a few reasons. The first, and doubtless the most important, was that I was allowed to stay up late to watch it. (I imagine my parents thought Evelyn Waugh might be a rather civilising influence on me – I very much doubt they’d have let me stay up to watch something by Tom Clancy, for example).
The second was that Charles Ryder spent most of the first episode in an army uniform, convincing me that at any stage there would be a thrilling action sequence, and he’d reveal himself to be a master of karate, as well as a dab hand with a machine gun. By the time I realised this was not the case, that Waugh had no interest in war, I was already hooked.
Almost implausible grandeur
Other things made an impression – so much so, they have stuck with me over the years. The sun-dappled quads of Oxford University, peopled by gorgeously effete young men clutching teddy bears, cricket-sweaters draped around their necks, driving vintage cars and going on picnics. The stunning Castle Howard, used as Brideshead, with its almost implausible grandeur. The sumptuous score by Geoffrey Burgon, at times joyous, more often unbearably sad.
The story follows the life of Charles Ryder and his eager and tragic infatuation with a doomed Catholic aristocratic family, the Marchmains. And yes, it’s about as jolly as that sounds. But this was TV of majestic ambition – 11 episodes, 13 hours of star-studded, hugely intelligent, challenging television, set in multiple locations and filmed on an epic scale.
The cast included Laurence Olivier, John Gielgud, Diana Quick and Claire Bloom, and launched to careers of Anthony Andrews and Jeremy Irons on to a global stage. The series won multiple awards, and is today hailed as a classic.
In 2010, the Guardian rated it the second best TV drama ever made. It is difficult to argue. No other drama I can think of has had the confidence to build so slowly, to stay so true to its text, and to place such trust in its audience’s intelligence.
The first line’s an irritant, mind you. “Here, at the age of 39, I began to feel old.” Ruddy cheek!
The Morecambe and Wise Show Box Set
There is a strong case for calling Eric Morecambe and Ernie Wise the most popular personalities in the history of British television. In a public vote, taken in 2006, they finished second to David Jason. But back then, Jason was in his prime, appearing regularly as both Del Boy Trotter and Inspector Frost. Morecambe, on the other hand, had been dead for over 20 years.
To still loom so large in the public imagination, when around a third of the population were too young to have seen them, was truly remarkable.
But then, they were a remarkable duo. In spite of Morecambe’s tragically premature death at just 58, the pair clocked up 43 years together as a double act. For the last 23 years of that time, they were household names, with their own TV show.
Their TV careers were bookended at ITV, where they began and ended, but it was the ten year period at the BBC, from 1968-78, for which they are most remembered. They built a following of the type of magnitude which will never happen again in this multi-channel age. Their Christmas Special in 1977 gained an audience estimated at over 28 million, one of the highest in broadcasting history.
Over the years, some of their sketches have cheerfully sailed into the realms of national treasuredom. The Breakfast Stripper Sketch, Singin’ in the Rain, Andre Previn’s magnificent guest appearance, Angela Rippon’s legs, Glenda Jackson, Laurence Olivier, Sir John Mills, The Play Wot I Wrote.
The pair, although fond of elements of the surreal, took their inspiration from some classic comedians – their bed-sharing existence was based on a similar approach by Laurel and Hardy, and their famous departure dance was a copy of one performed by Groucho Marx in the film Horse Feathers. But they were nothing if not unique, and the nation loved them for it.
And if Morecambe was a bit more John Lennon to Wise’s straighter Paul McCartney, it worked a treat. They were, and still are, our Eric’n’Ernie.
Pride and Prejudice Box Set
I wouldn’t swear to it, but I think sometime around the turn of the millennium it became technically illegal to write a column about TV favourites from the past and not reference the sumptuous BBC adaptation of Pride and Prejudice from 1995. You remember it, right? No? Doesn’t ring any bells? Jennifer Ehle? No? Alison Steadman? Julia Sawalha? Nothing? Colin Firth in a wet shirt? Yep, that’s the one.
The 1990s were a time of such unadulterated Austen-mania that you couldn’t switch on the TV or go to the cinema without seeing some long-coated, knickerbockered buffoon dancing like a twerp and almost collapsing with emotional constipation.
Indeed, many of those who grew up in the '90s did so labouring under the misapprehension that Jane Austen is a woman who has made a fortune writing book adaptations of popular TV series.
Not that riding on someone else’s creative coat-tails is bad mind you (says the man who makes a living writing about programmes other people have made…), especially when you’re as good at adapting the original work as Andrew Davies, whose brilliant script was the cornerstone of this six-part series.
A strong cast and BAFTA winner
While the show made Colin Firth a star – and an uncomfortable sex symbol – it was Jennifer Ehle who won the BAFTA, as the strong- willed and astute Elizabeth Bennet. A strong cast included Susannah Harker, Julia Sawalha, Anna Chancellor and Emilia Fox.
If you don’t know the story, it involves a bounty hunter trying to escape from a space station where he is being held prisoner by an evil race of lizard-people. No. No, it doesn’t. But then you quite clearly do know what it’s about.
Everyone in Britain has either watched it on the telly, or on VHS or DVD in the 20 years since it went out. And why not? It was named, in 2003, as one of the Radio Times’ 40 Greatest TV Programmes Ever Made. It’s brilliance is, in short, a truth universally acknowledged.
Monty Python’s Flying Circus Box Set
Looking back at the best series from the past available on box set, it is inevitably a matter of time before one stumbles into the surreal and anarchic world of Monty Python. Monty Python’s Flying Circus marked the first time the whole group had worked together. John Cleese and Graham Chapman were already collaborators, as were Michael Palin, Terry Jones and Eric Idle. The two groups joined together, Palin suggested the addition of Terry Gilliam, and the rest is TV folklore.
Ploughing its own bonkers furrow
Right from the word go, the series tore up the rule book, eschewing the familiar and the recognised comedy tropes and ploughing its own utterly bonkers furrow. Sketches would finish without a punchline, but instead with a large cartoon foot stamping on someone, or a posh man behind a desk announcing the next sketch.
The opening titles would sometimes appear halfway through an episode. On one occasion, the closing credits immediately followed them.
Sketches ranged from the intellectual (the Philosopher Footballers) to the slapstick (Ministry of Silly Walks) to the satirical (Four Yorkshiremen, Upper Class Twit of the Year). As often as not, they involved a bunch of grown men cross dressing, with rollers and headscarves, speaking in falsetto voices.
Although the word Pythonesque is now a byword for eccentric comedy, the group’s name was so nearly very different. They toyed with (among others) Owl Stretching Time; The Toad Elevating Moment; A Horse, a Spoon and a Bucket; and Gwen Dibley’s Flying Circus.
Legend has it that the group were only persuaded to stick with their eventual title when the BBC told them it had gone to press with Flying Circus in its schedules and wouldn’t change it. And so a legend was born.
The World at War Box Set
In the winter of 1973 and spring of 1974, British television showed what is indisputably the definitive documentary series about the most significant and cataclysmic event in human history. The World at War, a 26-part series, was made with care bordering on reverence, as befitting the subject matter.
Jeremy Isaacs, the producer, who would go on to be Channel 4’s first CEO, asked Noble Frankland, the director of the Imperial War Museum, to name the 15 most significant campaigns of the war. He then made a programme about each one.
The remainder were dedicated to subjects including the rise of the Third Reich, wartime life in Britain, and in Germany, life under occupation in Holland and, of course, the unspeakable genocide of the Holocaust. This latter programme was shown without adverts.
Yes, adverts. I’d always assumed the World at War was a BBC production, but it turns out that it was made by ITV. What price today the broadcaster investing in a 26-part factual series that didn’t feature Bear Grylls or someone from Corrie.
The most important documentary series ever made
The World at War took four years to make, and at the time was the most expensive TV series ever made, clocking in at a then-whopping £900,000. In today’s terms, that’s around £14 million..
The series boasted exceptional archive footage, portentous and sombre music, and the sonorous tones of Laurence Olivier narrating with appropriate gravitas. But what really stands out is the quality of interviewee of the programme.
They included Albert Speer, Karl Dönitz, JB Priestley, Arthur “Bomber” Harris, Anthony Eden, Lord Mountbatten, Michael Foot, Vera Lynn and the actor Jimmy Stewart (a hugely-decorated pilot).
While in no way revolutionary or particularly ground-breaking, in many ways, the World at War is the most significant and important documentary series ever made.
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