Best British TV Shows & Series: 1970s & 1980s

Did the 1970s have the best British comedies ever?

Hold on! That sounds like a question for the Q&A board rather than this article but the question bears further examination. 1970s British TV has a glut of comedy, some good, some not so good but some out and out great.

The comedy shows from the 1970s have shown that they have longevity.

There is a British TV channel called GOLD (Go On Laugh Daily) and it shows British comedy shows all day, every day. Its most popular shows though are its 1970s shows - 'The Good Life', 'To The Manor Born', 'Citizen Smith', 'Whatever Happened To The Likely Lads', 'Some Mothers Do 'Ave Em', 'Steptoe and Son' and 'Dad's Army' amongst others.

The 1970s is not a sharp change to the 1960s. In many respects, there is a lot of continuity with the same stars crossing over without any problems but the 1970s would prove itself to be a stellar decade in British comedy terms.

Best British Comedy Series: BBC versus ITV

Click thumbnail to view full-size
Wolfy - Cockney Communist with a comedy twist.  Robert Lindsay at his best.Barbara and Tom Good who leave their normal lives behind in pursuit of self-sufficiency.
Wolfy - Cockney Communist with a comedy twist.  Robert Lindsay at his best.
Wolfy - Cockney Communist with a comedy twist. Robert Lindsay at his best.
Barbara and Tom Good who leave their normal lives behind in pursuit of self-sufficiency.
Barbara and Tom Good who leave their normal lives behind in pursuit of self-sufficiency.

The 1970s is rich in comedy gold - as well as the sitcoms mentioned above, we had a few spill overs from the 60s like 'For The Love Of Ada', 'Til Dead Us Do Part', 'On The Buses' and 'Nearest and Dearest' as well as some sketch shows like 'The Benny Hill Show' and 'The Two Ronnies'.

The Two Ronnies

'The Two Ronnies' was a cleverly written 1970s sketch show; many of the sketches were written by Ronnie Barker and a then up and coming David Renwick (he later wrote' One Foot In The Grave').

The Benny Hill Show

'The Benny Hill Show' was taking advantage of more lax censorship on TV, making best use of some buxom, bikini and hot pants clad girls being chased by what now seems to be a bunch of dirty old men but Benny Hill could be very funny with his other humour.

Controversy and Comedy

We had controversial British comedy TV shows like 'Love Thy Neighbour' (openly racist, it was meant to be ironic but ironic doesn't work in a comedy in the 1970s) and 'Man About The House' (one guy, two girls, lots of sexual innuendo and the possibility of a menage et trois?). There was even a 1970s series set in prison, 'Porridge'.

BBC Shows Its Strength

The early 1970s started pretty briskly in the comedy stakes with ITV making the better shows but BBC making one of the best, Steptoe and Son.

The mid 1970s was the period during which the BBC started to make real inroads in the comedy viewing figures. 1975 was the first year that' Fawlty Towers' was shown and that show is arguably, Britain's greatest comedy. 'The Good Life' also made its debut in 1975 and was also on the BBC. Thereafter, the BBC went from strength to strength.

By the end of the decade, the BBC had taken over ITV's crown. ITV didn't really move with the times. Their last really successful year was 1978 when 'The Benny Hill Show', 'George and Mildred' and 'Rising Damp' were all still at the height of their success. Morecambe and Wise had switched over to ITV but were never as successful there.

In 1979, the BBC completely dominated British TV comedy with only Benny Hill still sustaining his viewing figures.

The comedy dominance would continue into the 1980s and beyond.

Best 1980s Comedy

Del Boy from Only Fools and Horses
Del Boy from Only Fools and Horses

The 1970s comedy shows have shown great longevity and the 1980s also had its fair share of good comedy.

In many respects, the 1980s was a lot more radical and out there in comedy terms than the 1970s.

Looking back on some of the comedy series, it is amazing that TV stations got away with some of it but we are so glad they did.

1980 - compare these two - 'Hi De-Hi', set in a Butlin's style holiday camp and 'Yes, Minister' set in the Houses of Parliament, both great BBC TV comedies, both very different.

1981 - Kenny Everett TV Show, Only Fools and Horses and Victoria Wood's first foray into screen comedy, 'Wood And Walters'.

1982 - 'Allo, Allo' at one end of the spectrum and The Young Ones at the other. After the Young Ones and its anarchic comedy, British comedy would never be the same again - a new door had been opened for those who dared to go through it. There would still be the old favourites (Only Fools & Horses, Eric Sykes, Dick Emery) but they would have to share airtime with' Kevin Turvy Behind The Green Door' and 'Comic Strip Presents'.

That momentum though didn't really keep rolling until later in the decade. Who knows why?

Perhaps the same people were in charge and there just wasn't a brave enough spirit to change things completely. 'Blackadder' makes its first appearance in 1983 and 'New Statesman' in 1984 but it still appears with the likes of 'Ever Decreasing Circles'.

The mid 1980s continues in this vein although there were a few stand out British TV shows amongst the pack. Some have not stood the test of time but that's probably because they were 'of their time', for example 'Watching' which was very funny, 'Rab C Nesbit' and 'Red Dwarf', 'One Foot In The Grave' and 'Birds of A Feather' all look like 1980s comedies.

'Red Dwarf' still has a huge sci-fi cult following and 'Birds of A Feather' is set to return soon.

Because there was nothing as anarchic as The Young Ones in the 1980s, it still stands out as one of the best sitcoms, a truly unique comedy and one whose script people of a certain age seem to like to memorise and repeat when an opportunity arises.

Best British Drama and Documentary in the 1970s and 1980s

Moore and Curtis - The Persuaders
Moore and Curtis - The Persuaders

'Callan' starring Edward Woodward had been on British TV since 1967 and continued its success early into the 1970s. It was an espionage drama with a bit of edge and written by James Mitchell who went on to write one of the 70s and 80s most popular dramas, 'When The Boat Comes In', a tale of a north-eastern English family making good after the second world war.

One of its stars, James Bolam had already been popular in 'Whatever Happened to The Likely Lads' and would also score a success with 'The Beidebecke Tapes' with Barbara Flynn.

In another degree of separation, Barbara Flynn had starred in 'A Family At War' a tale of a Liverpool family's experiences of love and loss during the second world war (and not a Scouse accent amongst them!). The early 1970s seems to have been quite a time for 'nostalgic' and wartime historical drama, 'Colditz' was a huge hit as was 'Dad's Army' a comedy about the British Home Guard.

What Britons weren't yet ready for in the sixties, they were more than ready for in the 1970s - perhaps time is a great healer.

'The Persuaders' saw Roger Moore return after his successful stint as 'The Saint' in The Persuaders; his co-star was Tony Curtis so some Hollywood glamour made this a huge success.

Two hugely successful cop shows took to the air in 1972 and 1973 with 'Special Branch' and 'Van der Valk' (the latter spawning a number one record with its theme tune). But neither of them had the grit of 'The Sweeney' starring John Thaw and Dennis Waterman.

1974 brought 'Within These Walls' a tale of the life inside if a fictional women's prison. It was the top Saturday night drama, appearing after' The Generation Game' so that was your Saturday night sorted out - entertainment all the way. 'Within These Walls' was copied later on by the Australian drama, 'Prisoner of Cell Block H'.

'Upstairs Downstairs' appeared for the first time in 1975 and is still, in my humble opinion, much, much better than the remake.

British 'One-Off' TV Drama

Some one-off dramas started to be made, among them 'Lillie' the story of the King's mistress, Lillie Langtry starring Francesca Annis. It held viewers captive for 13 episodes. This one-off format would be copies for most of the drama series of the 70s and 80s and is still used today. Secret Army, Angels and Shoestring all had a couple of years of success before being cancelled, 'Angels' in particular was initially very successful and was a welcome return to hospital based drama before its absolute pinnacle in the 1980s 'Casualty' (still on as Holby City now).

The 1970s had really carried on where the excellent 1960s dramas had left off with some outstanding drama series like 'Poldark', 'Onedin Line' and 'The Pallisters'. One off drama, whilst never reaching the fame of 'Cathy Come Home', nonetheless made their mark. Shows like 'Scum' and Dennis Potter's 'Blue Remembered Hills', 'Brimstone and Treacle', 'Singing Detective' and 'Pennies for Heaven'. TV started to make theatrical drama and it all worked to perfection.

Anthony Minghella's 'Truly, Madly, Deeply' was first shown on BBC2 before it was released as a movie and 'My Beautiful Launderette' was a Channel 4 production which also crossed over to cinema with some success, whilst also making a star of Daniel Day-Lewis.

The fantastic 'Edge of Darkness' starring an intense Bob Peck kept British TV audiences gripped with its tales of nuclear theft. The co-star, Joe Don Baker was also amazing in the show, both actors gaining accolades for the series.

And also in the 1980s, with now not 3 but 4 terrestrial channels, we got more soap operas - Brookside from Channel 4 which ended in the 1990s and the more dramatic and still popular Eastenders.

Best Wildlife TV—Life On Earth

David Attenbrough had started his amazing programme making in the 1960s as controller of BBC2 but he has since admitted that he never really enjoyed office based jobs and went back to doing what he enjoyed best - as a naturalist, making fantastic wildlife programmes but a quick look at his achievements as controller of BBC2 is my first intention.

Attenborough certainly had an eye for a success. Amongst the shows he commissioned were 'Call My Bluff', for years a highly successful and very amusing quiz show. 'The Old Grey Whistle Test' and 'Monty Python's Flying Circus' are another two of his commissions. It is a shame he could not mix both jobs - we may have gotten more great shows.

However, I am so glad that he decided to go back to what he does best - making fantastic wildlife and sealife shows which get really close to the animals and which show his commitment to conservation.

So I leave you with Attenborough talking about his decision to make 'Life On Earth'.

I hope you have enjoyed this walk down memory lane in the 1970s and 1980s. I could have jammed in a lot more, as both decades certainly had quality TV.

Thanks for reading.

More by this Author

  • Best Legal TV Shows - TV Lawyers

    All about the best legal TV shows. Who were the best TV lawyers? What puts a legal TV show among the best? The best legal shows have great lawyers, cops and the best legal courtroom scenes.

Comments 34 comments

Sharpe79 profile image

Sharpe79 21 months ago from Whitehouse, Texas

Ronnie Barker - genius!!!

Jools99 profile image

Jools99 3 years ago from North-East UK Author

Amber, thanks for your comment. I used to love Tom Baker as Dr Who and I also loved him in the one episode of Blackadder that he appeared in. He mainly does voice over work now (he has a wonderfully distinctive voice). I never wore a scarf like his though (I'm only 5'2" so it would be long than me... a safety risk) :o)

Amber Vyn profile image

Amber Vyn 3 years ago

Wonderful hub. I grew up watching Fawlty Towers and Dr. Who (Tom Baker's iconic scarf!). Vyvyan was the most memorable of The Young Ones, but I was always partial to poor Neil.

gail641 profile image

gail641 3 years ago from Mason City

The Young Ones were really great. Vivian and Neil were really funny along with the rest of the cast. Your welcome. I remember some of their lines, which were pretty good.

Jools99 profile image

Jools99 3 years ago from North-East UK Author

Gail, thanks for your comment. We still have 'The Young Ones' on video, we need to buy the DVDs. My brother in law knows all of the scripts off by heart :o)

gail641 profile image

gail641 3 years ago from Mason City

I loved watching "The Young Ones"-the show was really funny. Monty Python's Flying Circus was really funny-I loved watching that one, too.

Jools99 profile image

Jools99 3 years ago from North-East UK Author

Pete, Filthy Rich and Catflap takes me back! I thought Nigel Planer was great in that, totally different to "Neil, Neil...Owange Peel"

Pete LeBeef profile image

Pete LeBeef 3 years ago from Cheshire, UK

Good work! The Young Ones, Filfhy Rich and Catflap were my favourite.

Jools99 profile image

Jools99 3 years ago from North-East UK Author

Yveske, many thanks for your comment - we are watching Red Dwarf X on Dave st the moment. Every bit as good as the older series. Thanks for the tip off about Dangerous Brothers, I will watch out for it!

Yveske 3 years ago

Great hub.

Dave recently started airing new Red Dwarf episodes after a mini-series in 2009.

And if you are a The Young Ones fan. For sure also check out Dangerous Brothers.

Jools99 profile image

Jools99 4 years ago from North-East UK Author

Thanks so much for your comment Sue, glad you liked this article. The Two Ronnies still gets shown on British TV to this day - good comedy writing doesn't age, does it? The new Upstairs, Downstairs isn't a patch on the old 1970s one and of course we now have Downton Abbey which is far superior to Upstairs Downstairs, though follows a similar theme.

Sueswan 4 years ago

Hi Jools

I really enjoyed reading this hub. The Two Ronnies is one of my favourite British comedies. I also liked Are you being served? For dramas, it is Upstairs, Downstairs.

Voted up and awesome

Take care :)

Jools99 profile image

Jools99 4 years ago from North-East UK Author

Keith - I think the reason you have not seen any is probably just an age related thing. Of the ones I mention in this hub, Benny Hill is well worth seeking out and also Prime Suspect or Cracker (though they are series). Benny Hill - you could just watch separate episodes of that, they don't follow on.

KDuBarry03 4 years ago

I have never watched British comedy before, sadly; but these shows do look great! Hopefully they're on Netflix or On Demand so I could check them out...

Great Hub, Jools :)

Jools99 profile image

Jools99 4 years ago from North-East UK Author

Rich, many thanks for your comment - I was less of a Python fan - I got some of the humour and the rest went over my head but I was only about 9 when they were first on TV. I have watched them as an adult though and enjoyed some of their sketches (but still not all). Benny Hill's humour is more universal in nature and I like it that he was self-deprecating. When I see them on satellite TV now, I still find myself laughing out loud at some of his stuff. He also had a brilliant regular cast, some of them very funny in their own right.

rcrumple profile image

rcrumple 4 years ago from Kentucky

In the 70's, one in the states had to adjust the tin foil on the rabbit ears to pick up the weak signals of the PBS stations for any type of British television. Monty Python's Flying Circus was my first exposure to this type of humor, and I loved it! Then, Benny Hill became available and could not be missed. Over the years, many have been viewed, but those two will forever be the favorites in my heart.

Great Hub! A lot of happy memories here!

Jools99 profile image

Jools99 4 years ago from North-East UK Author

Mary, another Benny Hill fan eh? He certainly did seem to have the knack of knowing what made people laugh. Many thanks for your comment.

Jools99 profile image

Jools99 4 years ago from North-East UK Author

Mary, Many thanks for your comment. we never missed Benny Hill when he was on TV - the show was an absolute hoot. Benny was a very clever writer. It was all a bit saucy and silly but he balanced this, as you say, by being able to laugh at himself. I

mary615 profile image

mary615 4 years ago from Florida

I have never been fond of "comedy shows" but I made an exception with Benny Hill. I've never heard of most the shows you mention. Oh shoot, who was the funny guy with the big buggy eyes? Can't remember his name, but I think he was British.

Anyway, I enjoyed reading about these shows.

tillsontitan profile image

tillsontitan 4 years ago from New York

All good shows Jooels but from this side of the ocean I have to say Benny Hill was my favorite! Watched it all the time and loved that he laughed at his own sense of humor. Voted up and awesome.

Jools99 profile image

Jools99 4 years ago from North-East UK Author

Daisydayz, me too, I'm still watching The Good Life when it's on GOLD, oldies but goodies!

daisydayz profile image

daisydayz 4 years ago from Cardiff

70's and 80's comedy is my weakness!! I adore all the old fashion british comedy series. Faulty Towers, To the Manor Born, The Good Life, Butterflies, Bread and Are you Being Served! Love them!

Jools99 profile image

Jools99 4 years ago from North-East UK Author

Lesley, the 70s and 80s both had their share of class...and trash! There's not as much sitcom around nowadays which is a shame.

Thanks for commenting.

Jools99 profile image

Jools99 4 years ago from North-East UK Author

Rob, Thanks for dropping by and leaving your comment - you certainly know your British comedy. I agree with you about Red Dwarf, first six years were brilliant - last two, pretty 'smeg'.

Robwrite profile image

Robwrite 4 years ago from Bay Ridge Brooklyn NY

Hi Jools; "Fawlty Towers" was consistantly hilarious. Rowan Atkinson said it was the standard for all sit-coms. Atkinson's "Blackadder" series was also a work of brilliance. Shows like this and "Yes Minister" prove that sit-coms can be intellectual. Unlike most American sitoms, these shows worked on the assumption that the audience was smart.

Of course, "Monty Python's Flying Circus" is the peek of television comedy ever. You just can't get any funnier than that.

I enjoyed "Red Dwarf" a lot, even though the last two seasons were a big disappointment. The first six years were very clever and probably the best mix of sci-fi and comedy you'll ever find.

Fun hub. Keep 'em coming.


Movie Master profile image

Movie Master 4 years ago from United Kingdom

Hi Jools, we had some great series in the 70's, I'd rather watch them on 'gold' than the rubbish nowadays!

Some great memories, thank you and voted up!

Jools99 profile image

Jools99 4 years ago from North-East UK Author

Steve, thanks for your comment. More and more I think we must be the same, or nearly the same age. I didn't include a lot of stuff I watched myself, Catweasel -never missed it. I remember Father Dear Father but wasn't fussed. There were hundreds of sitcoms over both decades that just came and went, could be a hub in itself! The One Hit Wonders of British Comedy.

Jools99 profile image

Jools99 4 years ago from North-East UK Author

Flora, thanks as always for your comments. I am always interested to know what crosses over to Canada - I think I make an assumption, right or wrong, that Canadians 'get' British humour. I hated The Persuaders, I am not a fan of Roger Moore. David Jason has perfect comic timing though we see him in less ans less nowadays.

Flora Breen Robison 4 years ago

Fawlty Towers I loved but got me frustrated because Basil always lost. Until the final episode and he got to be a guest in the hotel. Hooray!I was in the same room with Cleese once although I never spoke to him. My family went to see Victor Borge an The Orpheum Theatre in Vancouver and I was able to see the aisle from above. I'm not sure why he was in Vancouver, but after everyone else was seated, he came in and sat in the very front row on the end. It was clear through the show that Borge was one of his heroes. He laughed at everything.

I hated Benny Hill, but liked The Two Ronnies. I prefer comedy with words more than the silly bathroom humor that Hill did.

Till Death Do Us Part because an American comedy.

I'm just getting used to watching Only Fools and Horse sand reminding myself that David Jason was not always a dramatic actor.

I loved Jeeves and Wooster, Blackadder, and Mr. Bean.

I've yet to see The Persuaders although I know The Saint very well.

and I've seen a lot of David Attenborough documentary programs.

Steve Lensman profile image

Steve Lensman 4 years ago from London, England

Another great hub Jools, I remember some of these shows! Love thy Neighbour, was a daring show about a racist and his black neighbors but I don't think the 'N' word was ever used. They weren't that brave. :)

I remember Bless This House with Sid James, Father dear Father? Colditz? was that British? Some Mothers do 'ave 'em was a hit show. Memories come flooding back now, hey you forgot The Goodies! :) Catweazle. Timeslip. I watched all of these when I was a wee lad.

Loved Fawlty Towers and Blackadder as you know. Hilarious shows.

Voted Up and Interesting.

Jools99 profile image

Jools99 4 years ago from North-East UK Author

GoldenTVMemories, thanks very much for your comment, great profile name by the way :o)

Goldentvmemories profile image

Goldentvmemories 4 years ago from London.

My favourite time period for UK tv. Are You Being Served and The Good Life were top of my list at the time. Thanks for bringing back some fab memories.

Jools99 profile image

Jools99 4 years ago from North-East UK Author

Judi, thanks for your comment! We have Bottom on DVD, we used to watch it all the time - it may make an appearance in my 1990s-2000s hub when it's written.

Judi Bee profile image

Judi Bee 4 years ago from UK

I still love Porridge (and Open All Hours), The Young Ones was ground breaking (I like Bottom too, which I think was '90s?), Red Dwarf was fab. Thanks for reminding me!

    Sign in or sign up and post using a HubPages Network account.

    0 of 8192 characters used
    Post Comment

    No HTML is allowed in comments, but URLs will be hyperlinked. Comments are not for promoting your articles or other sites.

    Click to Rate This Article