8 Obscure Yet Totally Awesome British Shows

By Chris Cummins in Daily Lists, TV
Thursday, June 24, 2010 at 8:04 am
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Ahh, the British. They've given us so many things, from the unnecessary 'u' in colour to the giggle-inducing desert treat known as the Spotted Dick. More than that though, our friends in England have enriched our pop culture landscape with countless TV shows: Doctor Who, The Avengers, The Prisoner, Monty Python's Flying Circus, Fawlty Towers, Red Dwarf, Spaced, The Office, Black Books and that soap opera with the trashy people in Albert Square amongst them. All of these programs have gained a sizable audience on these shores thanks to Region 1 DVD releases and/or airings on PBS and BBC America. Still, thanks to factors ranging from esoteric subject matter to good old-fashioned obscurity there remain plenty of superb British shows that haven't gotten much love from folks here in these United States. For the most part, the entries on this list don't have the luxury of having ravenous cult followings. They are also largely unavailable on DVD domestically and somewhat difficult to track down. That doesn't mean that they aren't worth you obsessing over someday finding them though. So read on and give these obscure-yet-awesome shows a shot. You may just discover your new favorite telly show ever. Hail Britannia!

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8) Ghostwatch

Although unknown in America, Ghostwatch ranks amongst the most infamous programs ever shown on the BBC. Originally airing on Halloween in 1992, the special chronicled the investigation of a haunted house in London by a number of UK TV personalities, including Michael Parkinson and Craig Charles -- Lister on Red Dwarf. As the show progressed, poltergeist activity (which alternated between menacing and silly) increased and carefully scripted chaos ensued. The trouble was that Ghostwatch was presented as a live TV event. Many viewers ignored the fact that it aired during a timeslot reserved strictly for dramatic productions and assumed that the events depicted were happening for real. Interestingly enough, the same situation occurred 54 years earlier to the day when Orson Welles' radio broadcast of The War of the Worlds caused listeners on this side of the pond to lose their fucking minds. In the aftermath of the show, the BBC was overrun with complaints from annoyed viewers who felt duped and parents whose kids were traumatized by the show. The shitstorm culminated in the suicide of a troubled teen who believed that his home may have a ghost similar the one featured on the show. As a result of the death and the public outcry, the show fell victim to a decade-long ban from being re-aired on the Beeb. In these post-Blair Witch/Ghost Hunters times, Ghostwatch now seems like an enjoyably creepy relic from a simpler age. If you can somehow get your hands on the out-of-print UK DVD, it's likely that the show will become an annual part of your Halloween viewing.

7) Snuff Box

Regular Topless Robot readers may recall the BBC series Snuff Box from the Christopher Lee porno sketch featured on the site last year. Given that the show regularly featured hangings, impromptu musical numbers, gratuitous nudity and endless profanity, its little wonder that it aired for just one season before fading into obscurity. Fans of The Mighty Boosh (which also featured stars Matt Berry and Rich Fulcher) and general insanity will definitely enjoy Snuff Box's random sketches and slow burn recurring gags. As for everyone else, your mileage may vary.

6) The Increasingly Poor Decisions of Todd Margaret
Arrested Development fans take note: The Increasingly Poor Decisions of Todd Margaret reunites David Cross and Will Arnett. That on-screen pairing should be reason enough to check it out. Cross stars as a loutish American who gets promoted by smarmy boss Arnett -- in full Gob mode -- to relocate to the UK and sell a new energy drink with the help of his one man staff (Being Human's Russell Tovey). The pilot episode that aired in the UK last year showed a great deal of potential, but initially there was no word on if it would go to series or ever screen in America. Then in a bit of good fortune the likes of which the Bluth family never experienced, Channel 4 picked up the show and the IFC signed a distribution deal to air the series starting in the fall. What this means to you is that The Increasingly Poor Decisions of Todd Margaret is the only entry on this list that you won't have to jump through hoops to see. Unless you don't get the IFC, in which case you are still quite fucked. Whoops. Sorry.

5) Misfits

In this stylish Channel 4 series, five teenage delinquents sentenced to community service become caught up in a mysterious lightning storm that leaves them each with a superpower. The show has rightfully been referred to as "The Breakfast Club meets Heroes," but beyond the high-concept premise resides a series that offers up some smart insight into teen angst. This is best exemplified by Simon, the outsider of the group who is able to render himself invisible. Using this power to eavesdrop on others, he begins to empower himself as the season progresses...with deadly results (how the characters fail at attempting to integrate their new abilities into their troubled lives is the most interesting aspect of the series). As you'd expect of a show that mixes elements of comedy, Skins-type drama and horror, Misfits is a bit of a mess tonally. For the record, I'm in the camp that believes the show's schizophrenic identity perfectly reflects the internal conflicts of the characters. While there's no U.S. DVD release planned yet, it's a fairly safe bet that this will hit some American channel sooner rather than later.

4) Asylum
Asylum has historical significance for comedy nerds as it marked the first creative collaboration between Simon Pegg, Jessica Stevenson and Edgar Wright (who co-wrote with Little Britain's David Walliams). Adding to its comedic pedigree are appearances by Bill Bailey, Red Dwarf's Norman Lovett and a pre-Mighty Boosh Julian Barratt. The series itself uses the setting of a mental institution as the jumping off point for bizarre sketches and an overall plot that involves a pizza deliveryman, the nature of sanity and Britpop. Despite the talent involved, no DVD has seen an official release on either side of the Atlantic. That in itself is quite insane.

3) Bring Back...
This series hosted by the cherubic Justin Lee Collins aired sporadically on UK's Channel Four from 2005 to 2009. It featured Collins tracking down the stars of his favorite films and TV shows with hopes of getting them to recreate their most famous roles (think Bands Reunited with British slang). Over the years, Bring Back... dedicated installments to The A-Team, Fame and Star Trek. Without a doubt, the series' best moment was its Star Wars episode. Highlights included a self-deprecating interview with Carrie Fisher and the revelation that Kenny Baker loathed Anthony Daniels and frequently referred to him as "Goldenballs." Good luck getting those kinds of behind-the-scenes tidbits from Lucasfilm's PR machine.

2) The Max Headroom Show
Not to be confused with the sci-fi series set 20 minutes into the future, The Max Headroom Show marked the debut of the character in 1985. A mix of snark and music videos, it helped launch Max into the 1980s pop culture zeitgeist. The fact that it is all but forgotten now, to paraphrase Max himself, b-b-b-blows. Music rights would make an official release of this a nightmare, so Matt Frewer completists are probably going to have to turn to the dark corners of the Internet if they want to see it again.

1) Out of the Trees
In 1976, Douglas Adams teamed with Monty Python's Graham Chapman for this BBC sketch comedy pilot that featured appearances from future Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy cast members Simon Jones and Mark Wing-Davey. Many Python and Adams fans became obsessed with the program after the above clip was featured in 1993's The Making of the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy documentary. The finished product likely gives insight into the pair's notoriously difficult working relationship. Or at least I'm assuming it does, as obtaining a babel fish in Infocom's Hitchhiker's old computer game is an easier task than finding this. For years the program was feared lost forever, until a complete version was found and screened publicly in the UK four years ago. Yet a DVD version remains as elusive as a kindly Vogon. In these enlightened times when damn near everything is available for online viewing, the continued obscurity of Out of the Trees seems frustrating and needless.

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