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10 TV Programs That Show What British Life Is Actually Like

by Elliot Emery
fact checked by Darci Heikkinen

Country estates, castles, and afternoon tea. In recent years there have been several British TV programs that have taken the world by storm and given viewers “insight” into British life.

A prime example is the popular Downton Abbey which first aired in 2010. Reaching a total of 120 million viewers worldwide, the show was sold to over 220 territories and broke numerous records. The period drama focuses on the lives of a wealthy aristocratic family in early 20th Century England. Many were swept away by the tradition and opulence of this family’s life.

As entertaining as they might be, these programs do not accurately portray British life. Here are ten TV programs that show what British life is actually like.

Related: 10 Awesome Fan Theories About Extremely Popular Series

10 The Inbetweeners

The Inbetweeners | A Night Out in London | S02 E04 | All Brit

With an average of 459,000 viewers per series, The Inbetweeners has been one of the most popular British sitcoms in recent years. Spanning three series, the opening episode of its final series attracted 2.2 million viewers, the highest ever audience for an original commission for the British digital TV channel, E4. Known for graphic language and lewd behavior, the series is a million miles away from Downton Abbey.

The program centers on Jay, Will, Simon, and Neil, four teenage boys at a British state school. The series follows the awkward group as they try to navigate secondary school. In stark contrast to Downton Abbey, the series includes projectile vomiting, buying shoes off a homeless person to get into a nightclub, and much more. It may sound extreme, but its display of the mundanity, inanity, and routine humiliation of teenage life has been described as “painfully accurate.” The success of the series spawned two movies, the first of which drew in more than three million UK viewers.[1]

9 Peep Show

Peep Show S4 E1 Sophie’s Parents

Another all too realistic British sitcom is Peep Show, which aired from 2003 to 2015. Enormously popular, Peep Show became the longest-running comedy in Channel 4 history. The show also won numerous awards, including Baftas. Set in Croydon (London), the program follows the main characters, Mark and Jez. The program is unique in that each character speaks directly to the camera.

Like many Londoners, Mark and Jez are forced to live together to save money. However, Mark, a responsible and uptight man, and Jez, irresponsible and often unemployed, make an ill-suited pair. Both men are hopeless in their own way, and the series follows their misadventures and relatable, albeit exaggerated, gaffes. One of the most notorious episodes is when Mark, on the way to his own wedding, spots an attractive woman reading a book about Winston Churchill and decides that she is his perfect woman. The episode culminates in Jez wetting himself in church and Mark’s wife-to-be fleeing in tears.[2]

8 Gogglebox

Reacting to AWKWARD First Dates | Gogglebox

Watching other people watch TV? This is the bizarre concept behind Gogglebox. Released in 2013, Gogglebox has become a national obsession and has won numerous awards, including a Bafta. Although the concept seems odd, the program has been praised as “surprisingly great entertainment” and “proof that TV brings people together.” Its comparison to the highly acclaimed The Royle Family (see number 7) is a testament to its success.

In each episode, families and friends from all around Britain are recorded as they watch and critique the latest shows. Now on its eighteenth series, the cast has inevitably changed over the years. However, stand-out characters who continue to feature on the show include the Malone family (since 2014), best friends Jenny and Lee (also since 2014), as well as the Siddiqui family, who have appeared on the show since the beginning. Those looking for an accurate picture of British life need look no further than this show which offers an “intimate look inside Britain’s living rooms.”[3]

7 The Royle Family

Royle Family roger my arse

The Royle Family is an all-time favorite British series. Despite only running for three seasons, the show was hugely popular and placed 31st in the British Film Institute’s list of 100 greatest British television programs. Following its conclusion, the cast reunited for several Christmas specials, the most popular of which (“The Golden Eggcup”) attracted 11.74 million viewers.

The show centers on Jim Royle and his wife Barbara, their daughter Denise and her fiancé (and later, husband) Dave, as well as Jim and Barbara’s teenage son Antony. The Royle family is a working-class family whose only leisure activity consists of watching TV. Crammed on the sofa, the family joke and bicker as the TV blares in the background. Alongside the hilarious scenes are genuinely touching moments such as the death of beloved “Nana.” Despite its sometimes crude moments (such as Jim’s trademark phrase “My arse”), the show has been praised for its “sympathetic and warm portrayal of working-class family life.”[4]

6 Coronation Street

First airing in 1960, Coronation Street has amassed 10,230 episodes, each of which draws in around 6 million viewers. The show has won numerous awards, including “best soap” at the Inside Soap Awards. Episodes include: leather-glove-wearing murderers, sons who push their mothers down the stairs, and fistfights. As such, Coronation Street might not sound like the most accurate portrayal of British life.

Yet, in addition to murders and adultery, this soap opera keeps its finger on the pulse of British society, with episodes regularly tackling emotive national debates. In 2014, Coronation Street dealt with the controversial issue of euthanasia when one of its most-loved characters took her own life rather than endure the final stages of cancer. At the time, the legalization of euthanasia was being debated in the UK, and the episode was praised for the “balance” of opinions it displayed.[5]

5 Derek

Channel 4 – Derek – Season 1 Highlights

One of the most heart-warming and sensitive British series in recent years is Ricky Gervais’s Derek. Set in a UK care home, the series follows the life of a vulnerable, middle-aged man who works in a care home for the elderly. Despite only lasting for two seasons, episodes managed to attract up to two million people. Ricky Gervais was even nominated for an Emmy in both 2014 and 2015 as an Outstanding Lead Actor in the series.

The series turns the spotlight on the plight of some of Britain’s most vulnerable members of society. Many years later, the care of the elderly in these homes remains a topic of national debate, with a recent survey finding that care homes have 30% less staff than needed. Derek, at many points, is touching and sensitively deals with the issues faced by UK care homes, such as budget cuts and inadequate resources. Derek, like much of Gervais’s work, is not without its controversy, with some arguing that the lead character mocks learning disabilities.[6]

4 The Office

David Brent: Motivational Speaker | The Office | BBC

Described as “the smartest, warmest and funniest sitcom in British TV history,” it is difficult to find a more iconic British series than The Office. Despite only running for two seasons, the show became a huge success and spawned 10 international versions, including winning numerous accolades such as the Baftas and Golden Globes. A record-breaking 6.5 million people tuned in to watch The Office Christmas special in 2003.

The mockumentary centers around David Brent, an office manager at a paper factory in Slough, near London. Brent is the epitome of the socially awkward manager everyone can relate to, a man who, in a desperate attempt to be liked, makes inappropriate jokes, shares his latest catchphrases, and even inflicts the occasional shoulder massage. However, a closer look reveals the lengths the show went to replicate the painful monotony of the average British working day. From the churning photocopier and awkward office romance to the soulless strip lights, everything is designed to be as authentic as possible.[7]

3 Shameless

Paying A Bar Tab Frank Gallagher Style | Shameless

Petty crime, social security fraud, alcohol, drugs, sex, and parties, the British TV series Shameless has it all. Set on the Chatsworth estate in Manchester, the show focuses on the perennially unemployed and drunk Frank Gallagher, his family, and the surrounding community. Despite criticisms that the show outstayed its welcome, the final episode drew in 1.3 million viewers. At its peak, episodes drew in 3.5 million viewers.

While some of the stories were outlandish, Shameless has been praised for “its refreshingly honest depictions of life on the British breadline.” Frank is a useless single parent and is always driven by his hunt for the next free drink or drug. At first sight, it might sound like Shameless is an attack on Britain’s working class. However, aside from the scandals, Shameless ultimately portrays a close-knit community looking out for each other in difficult circumstances. An exaggerated depiction of Britain’s working class, the show’s demise was blamed on hostility toward the alleged “benefits culture.”[8]

2 Car Share

BBC Peter Kay’s Car Share Series 1 Episode 1

What could be more ordinary than watching two colleagues share a commute to work? Peter Kay’s Car Share is a British sitcom that follows supermarket assistant manager John and his colleague Kayleigh as they commute to work together via their company’s car-sharing scheme. Despite its simplicity, Car Share has been praised as “one of the highest achievements of 21st century TV comedy,” with the finale pulling in 6.4 million viewers.

Director, Peter Kay, is one of Britain’s most loved comedians, well known for his witty and astute societal observations. Car Share is the culmination of these observations and brings an “everyday situation to such rich life.” As expected, there are moments that make you laugh out loud (such as when Kayleigh spills urine on John), but it’s the subtle moments such as facial expressions, heart-warming conversations, and background spoof radio ads that really make this show.[9]

1 Two Doors Down

Two Doors Down Series 1 Episode 1

Last but not least is the popular Scottish TV series Two Doors Down. Set in a Glasgow suburb, Two Doors Down follows the lives of the Baird family and their “crazy” neighbors. The show became one of the BBC’s top-performing comedies and won the Best Comedy award at the 2017 Royal Television Society Scotland Awards. The show performs particularly well in Scotland, attracting 400,000 viewers per episode.

Similar to The Royle Family, scenes are mainly filmed in the living room of Eric and Beth Baird. Their house appears to have a revolving door, with neighbors regularly dropping by unexpectedly. There are “the show-offs” (Colin and Cathy), “the complainer” (Christine), and Beth and Eric’s son, Gordon. The premise of the show is that we all know a “Cathy” or a “Christine.” This, and the fact that we are given an intimate look into the family’s living room, makes the show feel familial and familiar. The stories and scandals may be exaggerated, but the characters and setting feel authentic.[10]

fact checked by Darci Heikkinen