A lot of you stick like glue to British TV. Fine, it has its merits. There’s energy, charm and joy to be found there. And some of you exist strictly on a on a diet of British crime dramas, of which there are more than Boris Johnson’s government has scandals.
Here’s a tasty batch of British titles, mostly miniseries that became available here in 2021. Some items might overlap with other year-end lists from this column and others are just hard-to-define gems that will appeal to lovers of British TV storytelling.
Ladhood (streams CBC Gem) – received high praise over there, even a comparison with Fleabag. It’s unique and plays with the wall between the action and viewer. The creation of Liam Williams, a comic, actor and writer noted for his dry, caustic approach, it puts the adult Williams inside his youth. That is, actors portray him, teenage friends and community, while the real adult Williams hovers nearby, offering commentary. His theme is “laddishness,” what Williams defines as “male recklessness and fecklessness.” There’s much wry, delicious humour.
The Pursuit of Love (streams Amazon Prime Video) – devastatingly funny viewing. Based on the novel by Nancy Mitford about the intertwined lives of two young women with different approaches to life and romance, it could have been a stately lament for the period. Instead, it’s a romp. In the 1920s, Fanny Logan (Emily Beecham), a quiet teenager, is sent to live in the mansion of her uncle Matthew Radlett (Dominic West) because her mother, known as “The Bolter,” has deserted her in order to pursue romance with unsuitable men. Dominic West is having the time of his life here.
Their Finest (streams Netflix) – a one-off BBC Film set during the Second World War, it’s adorable. Gemma Arterton plays a young woman sent to work at the Ministry of Information to help make content that will inspire people to support the war effort while entertaining them. Specifically, she’s hired to write “girls’ talk, women’s dialogue.” Bill Nighy plays a fading movie star wanting to steal every scene. Richard E. Grant plays a snippity bureaucrat and my heavens, this is charming, rib-tickling escapism.
The Nevers (streams Crave) – not totally British in origin, but still totally British. Created by Joss Whedon, it kicks off in London in 1896. An eclipse briefly darkens the city and, immediately after, it is clear that a group of women have emerged with strange new powers. The sub-theme is they simply have stamina, brains and inventiveness. Thus, men fear them. A glorious mess, a mash-up of fantasy, Victoriana and much period style, it’s a mad, witty tale.
The Sister (streams Crave) – strains credulity, but has spine-tingling atmosphere. An apparently ordinary chap, Nathan (Russell Tovey), is told, “They’re digging up the woods.” This terrifies him. Years before, Nathan had met Elise (Simone Ashley), a charming young woman. Something bad happened. Then Nathan married Elise’s sister, who is unaware that Nathan was one of the last people to see Elise alive. What happened?
Retribution (streams Netflix) – a miniseries, it starts with a murder and then becomes a twisted, intense story of family secrets and lies. We meet Adam and Grace at their wedding. They grew up on side-by-side family farms in Scotland. On return from their honeymoon, they’re both murdered. We see the killer, a drug-addled figure. He heads to where the victims’ families live. They find and cage him. Then the backstories emerge.
Us (streams CBC Gem) – a big favourite of many readers this year, BBC called it a “holiday family drama,” which it isn’t. That is, a family goes on holiday, but the drama is so lugubrious that its charms are very bittersweet it. Wife Connie (Saskia Reeves) tells her husband, Douglas (Tom Hollander), “I think our marriage might be over.” There is no furious argument or angst. There is a hitch, though. Connie and Douglas are about to embark on a trip around Europe with their teenage son before he goes off to university, and they decide to go forward with the trip.
The Pact (Super Channel on-demand, streams Amazon Prime Video’s Super Channel platform) – a nifty, down-to-earth thriller, set in Wales. Four women work at a brewery where their boss is an arrogant young misogynist with a cocaine habit. The women plonk him in nearby woods and take photos of him passed out, to humiliate him. Turns out, he’s now dead. They try to keep secret their involvement. There is no glamour, but much tension.
It’s a Sin (streams Amazon Prime Video) – already considered a classic. Both heartbreaking and joyous, the story is of a group of young men who arrived in London in the early 1980s and began living as openly gay, just before AIDS loomed over the community and anger and loss became dominant. To call it a rollercoaster of emotions is an understatement.
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