BritBox: Broadchurch and Downton to Boys from the Blackstuff - Our pick of the must-watch classic drama series box sets

BritBox is stuffed with classic British drama series. With epic period dramas, forgotten gems and modern classics to choose from, we round up the best and latest shows to watch.

By Alex Fletcher Published: 17 September 2020 - 12.35pm
ITV

BritBox has got something for everyone in its mammoth collection of drama box sets.

Whether you want stunning period dramas such as Downton Abbey and Brideshead Revisited, biting politics like Boys from the Blackstuff and the original House of Cards, or gritty crime in the shape of Cracker, Broadchurch and Happy Valley, BritBox has got you covered.

We’ve rounded up the classic dramas we recommend watching on BritBox - whether it’s for the first time, or all over again.

Broadchurch

David Tennant and Olivia Colman in Broadchurch ITV

In 2013 it felt like the whole country was only asking one question – whodunit on Broadchurch? David Tennant and Olivia Colman formed an unforgettable partnership as detectives Alec Hardy and Ellie Miller, the Dorset coast provided an epic backdrop and for three series we were gripped by the numerous twists and turns. Broadchurch has been imitated by many crime dramas since, but never bettered.

Boys from the Blackstuff

Boys from the Blackstuff BBC

Alan Bleasdale’s blistering attack on Margaret Thatcher’s Britain through the stories of five unemployed men in Liverpool remains the gold standard for British TV drama. By exploring the personal stories of characters such as Yosser Hughes (Bernard Hill), the series, first broadcast in 1982, brought home the wretchedness of unemployment and the desperate impact of the recession and ‘managed decline’ on the working classes.

House of Cards

This 1990 political thriller which inspired two sequels as well as the long-running US adaptation had a Shakespearian quality as Michael Dobbs' antihero, fictional Conservative politician Francis Urquhart, was brought to sneering life by Ian Richardson.

Brimming with power battles and corruption and introducing us to a man willing to do whatever it takes to get the keys to Number 10, the series feels as relevant today as it did 30 years ago.

Cracker

Robbie Coltrane won the Leading Actor Bafta three years in a row for his portrayal of Dr Edward ‘Fitz’ Fitzgerald, a troubled, chain-smoking criminal psychologist created by Jimmy McGovern.

All three series and subsequent specials, which include incredible performances from Christopher Eccleston, Ricky Tomlinson and Geraldine Somerville, pushed the boundaries of British crime drama by exploring the dark psychology of criminals - and those trying to catch them.

This Life

At the height of Cool Britannia and Britpop, six 20-something law graduates - Egg, Anna, Miles, Milly, Warren and Ferdy - became as much a part of 90s culture as Blur, Oasis, TFI Friday and the Spice Girls.

Paving the way for a new generation of British TV dramas, the show’s dizzying camerawork, banging soundtrack and honest portrayal of the young professionals' drug-taking and bed-hopping was truly groundbreaking when it first aired in 1996.

Our Friends in the North

Our Friends in the North BBC

Another trailblazing series from the 90s boasted what seems today to be a frankly astonishing cast as a young Christopher Eccleston, Daniel Craig, Gina McKee and Mark Strong came together to create an ambitious story of four friends across four decades.

With the backdrop of general elections and the miners’ strike, the series explored the political and personal within a story set in Newcastle upon Tyne. It resonated with millions and catapulted the careers of a future James Bond and Doctor Who to the next level.

Humans

Humans on Channel 4 Channel 4

This science fiction drama from Channel 4 is one of the most underrated series of the last decade.

An ambitious, endlessly creative production with an incredible cast including Gemma Chan, William Hurt and Katherine Parkinson, the story of human-like android Synths explored very modern concerns about artificial intelligence and robotics with a fresh and dynamic twist.

A Confession

A Confession - Martin Freeman as Steve Fulcher ITV

An original take on the true crime drama genre, writer Jeff Pope switched the attention away from glorifying the murderer and playing on the horrors of the victims to zoom in on the decision-makers, technicalities and finer details of the detectives making the crucial decisions in the case.

Based on the real events and murders of Becky Godden and Sian O'Callaghan, A Confession was a sensitive and eye-opening and featured memorable performances across the board.

Call the Midwife

Call the Midwife BBC

Often mistaken as a cosy Sunday night period drama, there is much more going on in this smash-hit BBC series than nuns eating cake and babies being born.

Filled with biting political and social commentary, heartbreaking and inspiring stories, feminism and diversity, Call the Midwife is unrivalled as a period drama which really has something to shout about.

Happy Valley

Sally Wainwright’s gritty crime drama, set in the Calder Valley, grabbed Baftas, critical acclaim and millions of viewers for its first two series (a long-awaited third is in development).

Sarah Lancashire played Sgt Catherin Cawood, an officer dealing with the suicide of her teenager daughter Becky, while James Norton shot to fame as the chilling Tommy Lee Royce, the man who raped and impregnated Becky before her death.

The central storyline may be bleak, but Sally Wainwright delivers the devastating drama with such humanity that it’s unmissable TV.

Downton Abbey

Downton Abbey ITV

Julian Fellowes' much-missed lavish period drama chronicling the lives and loves of the aristocratic Crawley family upstairs and their servants downstairs ran for six seasons and picked up Emmys and Golden Globes galore.

Starring Hugh Bonneville, Elizabeth McGovern, Michelle Dockery, Maggie Smith, Dan Stevens and Laura Carmichael and exquisitely shot inside and out, Downton is pure, unadulterated comfort viewing.

Life on Mars

Life on Mars and its time-hopping sequel Ashes to Ashes are both on BritBox, and both the John Simm original and Keeley Hawes follow-up remain essential viewing.

A police procedural in a 1970s period setting with a supernatural twist, the show is best remembered for giving the world DCI Gene Hunt (Philip Glenister), the politically incorrect, no-nonsense copper we all fell in love with.