Subscribe RSS
What’s influential? Apr 26

There have been articles from a number of media organisations recently attempting to list the most influential TV shows of all time. I can’t be bothered to look them up or link to them because, as we all know from people on Twitter, old media is dead.

But, in the olden days of blogging – and this dear, neglected blog of mine is nine years old this month – we liked to join in a conversation by writing our own posts and linking to someone else’s. So, since Laurie has compiled his top 10 most influential TV shows in the new media world of teh internets, I’m happy to link to and discuss it – and then, of course, put my money where my mouth is with my own stream of consciousness list.

The first question to consider, though, is what we really mean by “influential”? Are we talking television that changed the world? Does that mean we’re morally obliged to dig up Cathy Come Home – and lull comatose into our kitchen sinks? Is affecting the words people use in everyday life as significant as heralding shifts in public policy? (Probably not.) Or do we mean TV that influenced TV itself and shaped what subsequently reached our screens? I’m going to assume we mean influence on both the world and on television, although as a fan of good TV, my list will lean towards the latter. And, while good TV can certainly influence the mood of the audience, I’m going to assume that we don’t just mean “Was it good telly?”

These lists are subjective but I nevertheless take issue with a fair few entries in Laurie’s. The Office? Sure. Only Fools and Horses? Nah. Very successful in its own right and yes, it popularised certain words and phrases, but its lasting influence is minimal. I’m not sure what the case is for The Avengers either – a classic show but what’s the major influence? A string of half-baked and now largely forgotten ITC knock-offs? And I don’t agree either with Tenko, Blackadder or Secret Army. While the latter had the crucial effect of leading directly to ‘Allo Allo!, that doesn’t seem a strong enough reason to put it in a shortlist of the most influential shows.

Off the top of my head, then, here are my ten. Where I’ll also differ from Laurie in compiling my list is that I’m happy to include shows I haven’t seen or don’t like because it’s not a list of shows I’ve seen or like but about impact. I’m also going to cast the net wider than the UK – although measuring influence largely with respect to the UK – and beyond just drama. Like Laurie, I’ve differed from the lists that sparked this off as I haven’t limited myself to one pick per year but instead plumped for ten notable programmes.

These all probably have a good case for inclusion but bubbling outside my top 10 are shows like Newsnight, Blue Peter, Big Brother, World in Action, Brass Eye, Sesame Street, Spitting Image, EastEnders, Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?, Murder One, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Yes, (Prime) Minister, Brookside and Twin Peaks. I was tempted to include “the news” but have stuck to specific programmes.

My top ten most influential TV shows

Doctor Who

I was tempted to leave it out because as a fanboy I’m biased, but Doctor Who has at least three strong reasons in its favour. First, it’s drilled its way deep into the national consciousness. Getting into a large lift only today, one of my fellow passengers commented, “It’s like the TARDIS.” Secondly, its current, post-2005 incarnation revitalised Saturday night drama and telefantasy as suitable for British prime-time – without Doctor Who there would be no Merlin, no Primeval, no Demons, no Bonekickers… Maybe I should stop there. And thirdly, the show has played a big role in inspiring writers, directors, composers and other creative people to pursue their vocations.

Top of the Pops

Gone but enjoying a walking death on BBC Four, Top of the Pops was the definitive weekly music show. I always preferred ITV’s The Chart Show personally but there’s no doubting Top of the Pops’ influence on the charts and the number of live (or live-ish) performances by major artists captured in its aspic.

Coronation Street

I’d conservatively estimate that I have seen fewer than ten episodes of Coronation Street but I’m still happy to include it as the grandmother of all UK soap operas. While EastEnders might have gone for the more hard-hitting storylines and tackled issues that challenged public perceptions, EastEnders itself owes a lot to Corrie, which had laid the ground work of the evening community soap opera for more than 20 years before the BBC’s young upstart exploded onto the scene.

The Office

The mockumentary style had been tried before – People Like Us springs to mind – as had the comedy of awkwardness – look no further than Fawlty Towers – but The Office jumped up and down on the corpse of studio sitcom (now, thankfully, resuscitated by shows like Not Going Out and Miranda) and influenced the style and approach of many of the shows that followed in both the UK and US.

That Was the Week That Was

I’m not going to pretend to have watched much of it but TW3‘s legacy is widely recognised. It chipped away at the political establishment that had previously been treated with reverence and genuflection. It paved the way for other satirical shows, including Spitting Image and Brass Eye – both mentioned above as candidates for the list – and with its transition to American TV, there’s an argument that its influence even stretches to The Daily Show with Jon Stewart and The Colbert Report. It attacked apartheid, helped to bring down Profumo in 1963 and attracted complaints from the people it lampooned – always a good sign. It also boosted the careers of Frankie Howerd, John Cleese and Graham Chapman, Willie Rushton and Peter Cook, as well as making David Frost a household name. Frost’s profile led to both The Frost Report – which thrust Cleese and the Two Ronnies onto Britain’s TV screens – and, perhaps most importantly, Through the Keyhole.

Fawlty Towers

While I’m trying not to treat quality as a major factor, the sheer brilliance of Fawlty Towers in both scripting and execution means that it remains the yardstick by which other sitcoms will measure their success (a hiding to nothing really). That so many writers and producers respect it and would give their right arm to emulate it is a sign of its influence nearly 40 years (blimey) since the first episode was broadcast.

The Simpsons

A noble spirit embiggens the smallest show – and The Simpsons is certainly not small. While early cartoons like The Flintstones pushed animation into the realms of sitcom, it was Matt Groening’s creation that showed that animation wasn’t just for kids, and with huge success. King of the Hill, American Dad, Family Guy, Archer – once The Simpsons had broken through the celluloid ceiling, a new genre was born. It affected sitcom more widely, popularising visual gags and an approach focused on maximising the laugh rate. And as for the show itself, its influence on American life can be seen in the words of George H.W. Bush in 1992: “We’re going to keep trying to strengthen the American family. To make them more like the Waltons and less like the Simpsons.” And no, I’m not including The Waltons in this list.

The Killing

It’s hard to predict its long term influence and it’s not as if there weren’t already bleak crime shows from Scandinavia (Wallander) or elsewhere (Spiral), but The Killing caught the imagination enough to coalesce around itself a whole genre of Nordic Noir. That opened the gates for series like Borgen and The Bridge to break through outside Scandinavia, and it also influenced the style of new dramas in the UK and US – most recently ITV’s murder mystery serial Broadchurch.


Two shows that dominate the schedules and the public consciousness now are Britain’s Got Talent and The X-Factor. But before them came Pop Idol (and its chum across the Atlantic American Idol), and before those came the show that launched Hear’Say, Pop Stars. These series launched the careers of Girls Aloud, Will Young, Leona Lewis, Olly Murs and many more, including assorted Eurovision entrants and everyone’s favourite boy band, One True Voice. But they also reinforced a cultural shift towards the desirability of celebrity and “being famous” as an unachievable aspiration for thousands of young people. Prime-time talent shows have spread like the plague and Popstars was Typhoid Mary.


This one has sneaked in as I was disinclined to put another sitcom on the list but, on reflection, I think Friends justifies its inclusion. Its longevity and endless repetition has made it one of the best known sitcoms of the last twenty years. Like The Simpsons, it encouraged the genre to push for a high laugh rate, but – in common with many of its American predecessors – its characters and their relationships were a key part of the story, with Ross and Rachel possibly the ultimate will-they-won’t-they TV couple. It inspired a haircut, spawned a spin-off and did for studio comedy what The Office did for single camera.

So there you go. Ten shows, off the top of my head. Anything major I’ve missed? Or anything you think doesn’t deserve its place?

Comments are closed.