As it moves online, I look back on the best of BBC Three. At times it has been awful, and at times groundbreaking, but what are my favourites?
Back in 2003, the BBC rebranded its digital BBC Choice channel as BBC Three, a channel to be more youth focused than its traditional, terrestrial channel. (Interestingly, BBC Four actually started broadcasting before BBC Three). Now, it is “moving online” after a 50% cut to its budget. The BBC has been dipping its toe into the online content pool over the last few years (check out my review of the iPlayer exclusive The Rack Pack, and there have been comedy pilots and shorts on the iPlayer for at least three years) but this is a big step.
BBC Three has made a huge contribution to British TV over the last decade. At a time when ITV2 and E4 (what would be regarded as its competitors) have filled their airwaves with American imports, BBC Three has 90% of its content from the UK, 70% of it original content. It has produced animations, hour long dramas, sitcoms, documentaries, everything. There have been hits and misses. There are shows that I have loved, and shows that I have hated. And there has been a whole bunch of shows I have never watched and never had any intention of watching. But most importantly, it has given a platform for young talent (writers, actors, producers, directors) that would not have been their without it.
So, what are my favourite shows to have been made for BBC Three? Of course, being youth orientated, as I’ve got older I have watched it less, so there are a few more modern comedies that have passed me by (The Fades is one I am ashamed to say I missed, and People Just Do Nothing looks really good). Having said that, here’s my list, after the logo.
NB: this is only shows that debuted on BBC Three, so some shows that were on BBC Choice are not included, most notably Sean Lock’s excellent 15 Storeys High.
Just missing out – Coverage of the Women’s World Cup (2015), the re-scoring of Drive (2014), being a home for Family Guy and American Dad, Cuckoo (2012-), Bad Education (2012-2014), Bodies (2004-2006), C-Bomb (2013), Murder In Successville (2015)
10. Torchwood (2006-2011)
Once upon a time, Russell T. Davies had an idea for a sci-fi/crime series, somewhere in the the Buffy The Vampire Slayer/Angel style, and after he successfully helmed the relaunch of Doctor Who in 2005, he was given the opportunity to create a more adult-orientated spin-off. Torchwood was the result. It was based around Captain Jack Harkness (John Barrowman) and his group of alien hunters working around a time rift in Cardiff, and the show used just Doctor Who mythology to keep it grounded whilst still having it’s own identity. I’ve ranked this at number 10 because only the first season debuted on BBC Three before moving to BBC Two and eventually BBC One (and changing format), but the violent and sexier content made those first two seasons special, with their “monster of the week” format reminding me of some of the best early X Files as well as the aforementioned Buffy and Angel. This was a huge ratings success for BBC Three, and led to some impressive sci-fi offerings later on.
9. Casanova (2005)
And another Russell T. Davies effort! This was a three-part series that told the story of Italian author and adventurer Giacomo Casanova. It definitely plays up the womanizing parts of his life, with Peter O’Toole – yes, Peter O’Toole in a BBC Three show – as the older Casanova on his deathbed. However, it was David Tennant who stole the show, with this and Blackpool setting him up to become the tenth Doctor a little later in 2005. In fact, the three episodes were broadcast as Doctor Who came back onto British TV, which was a nice bit of scheduling by the Beeb. After seeing this, no-one had any doubts Tennant could succeed. Casanova was a fun show, and showed that BBC Three could offer an alternative place for drama that wouldn’t quite fit into the schedules elsewhere, leading to various attempts at serious, one hour dramas, like Bodies.
8. Ideal (2005-2011)
The first comedy show to make it onto this list also showed the real niche that BBC Three carved out. The Johnny Vegas led sitcom would not have made it onto any other channel at the time – even now only maybe Dave or GOLD would be prepared to give it a chance, and even then 7 seasons seems unlikely. It was predominantly set in the tiny Salford flat of small-time cannabis dealer Moz (Vegas), with his weird and wonderful collection of strange customers bringing plenty of unwanted drama to Moz’s life. The show was so lowkey (in the tradition of the very early Royle Family episodes where nothing happens) and Vegas was never exactly a bankable star, but Ideal was funny, and that’s all that matters!
7. In The Flesh (2013-2014)
The nature of BBC Three – it’s audience and budget – means that plenty of shows have been cancelled before their time. One of my honourable mentions on this list, Bodies (a medical drama with Max Beesley and Patrick Baladi) only had two seasons and should have ran for a lot longer. According to every single person I’ve asked about it, The Fades was another. In The Flesh was definitely a show that got short shrift, a third season being cancelled simply because of a lack of funds. It was set after a zombie outbreak (called The Rising) and the re-integration of rehabilitated Zombies back into normal society. The government refers to them as sufferers of Partial Deceased Syndrome, and a young man (played by Luke Newberry) has to move back to his small Lancashire hometown. The show uses “PDS sufferers” as an analogy for other marginalised groups in society (at times immigrants, homosexuals, recovering drug addicts, ex-convicts amongst others), but was never heavy handed. A second season grew the premise to include an increased role for the Undead Liberation Army and the search for a full cure. A very good show that seemingly has died an early death… but as rumours continue to swirl about another season, maybe it’s still only partial deceased.
6. Gavin & Stacey (2007-2010)
I can already hear my fellow Usher Dave complaining that this is only number 6. However, Gavin & Stacey quickly outgrew its BBC Three origins and was quickly moved to the terrestrial channels, ending up with more than ten millions viewers for it’s finale on BBC 1. Whereas Torchwood moved for budget reasons, this was definitely a case of bringing it to a bigger audience. The story of a boy from Billericay and a girl from Barry Island who fall in love, but this sitcom was so good because of the supporting characters. Gavin and Stacey were always a bit bland, but the rest of the cast (Smithy and Nessa, Uncle Bryn, right down to the smallest character) were all great. A great show, it’s just my preferences for darker comedy meant it only comes in at 6. And talking of dark comedy…
5. Nighty Night (2004-2005)
This might be a controversial choice, but as I always say, it’s my list! The darkest sitcom I’ve seen, Julia Davis wrote and starred as sociopath Jill whose husband (Kevin Eldon) is dying of cancer. Their new neighbours become her victims, as Rebecca Front plays the wheelchair bound Cathy and Angus Deyton her husband with a wandering eye. Even from that premise, the stories get darker and weirder – the second series has the neighbours move to a New Age retreat, and Jill killing and taking the identity of a therapist to follow them. Not exactly normal sitcom material! It followed on the early 2000 shows like Human Remains and Marion and Geoff, taking the dark themes to the extreme. A show that could only have been made on BBC Three.
4. Little Britain (2003-2007)
And another comedy show that could only have made it on BBC Three. Following in the time honoured tradition of radio shows that transition to TV, Matt Lucas and David Walliams’ creations were surely too bizarre to make it anywhere else. Planet Rock Profiles showed that they could be funny, but Little Britain proved so popular it launched the two of them to comedy superstardom. The first twelve episode of this show are some of the most inventive, bizarre, and just hilarious pieces of TV. Everyone remembers Vicky Pollard, Lou & Andy, and Marjorie Doors, but my favourites were both one-shot deals: Babysitter Boris (Meat!) and the guy who pitches board games (Scratch Wood Scratch and FIGHTING!). Then there were the first season characters like Mollie Sugden’s bridesmaid (what an obscure reference) and the YES! Scottish waiter, who were retired after the first run. I’m a huge fan of sketch comedy, and this did it well, although it did get a bit crude at times. Little Britain USA (directed by David Schwimmer) followed, as did Come Fly With Me, but it wasn’t quite the same. Little Britain caught lightening in a bottle.
3. Him & Her (2010-2013)
The ultimate BBC Three sitcom. Russell Tovey (who had a small role in Gavin & Stacey and makes one more appearance in this list a bit later on) and Sarah Solemani are Steve and Becky, two lazy, directionless twentysomethings who are besotted with each other, and just spend all their time together in their flat. That’s it really. There’s probably more idle-flicking through magazines in this show than anything else! Joe Wilkinson is brilliant as their neighbour (imagine if Kramer was just an incredibly dull man) and Becky’s sister and her fiance Paul are two of the worst human beings ever! But then Paul has a heartbreaking secret…
The fourth season actually focused on Paul and Laura’s wedding, so took the action out of the flat, but this only proved that the show was more than just that one gimmick. The funny thing is, you don’t want Paul and Laura to have a happy ending, but at the same time want Steve and Becky to make it, and the two couples are so tied together it leads to genuine tension. If you haven’t seen it, I recommend you start to watch it immediately, the two lead actors are just so good it will stay with you for a long time.
2. The Mighty Boosh (2004-2007)
Yeah… I’m a huge fan of the Mighty Boosh. I drove all the way down to a farm in Kent for their Festival in 2008, and saw Jarvis Cocker, Har-Mar Superstar, Gary Numan, and The Charlatans before The Mighty Boosh Band played a near 2 hour set of comedy songs. Look, here’s a picture my sister took!
So yeah, maybe this is too high, but I love Julian Barrett and Noel Fielding. The perfect combination that produces surreal – rather than just bizarre – comedy. The first season was set in a zoo, the second season they live in Naboo’s flat, and the third has them working in Naboo’s shop, but this was only ever a starting point for some crazy adventures with truly outlandish characters – usually played by Fielding or Barrett. Bob Fossil (Rich Fulcher) is a great comedy creation, and any appearances by Richard Ayoade and Matt Berry are always welcome.
There has been talk of the Boosh getting back together pretty much since the last episode aired, and while Noel Fielding’s Luxury Comedy is good, anyone watching can see it is missing something: a mustachioed jazz obsessive with a Leeds accent.
(If you can find the radio show they did, it’s definitely worth a listen. Parts of it were recycled into the first season of the TV show, but it’s very good)
1. Being Human (2008-2013)
So, my favourite show in BBC Three history is one that I was actually never thought I would watch. If anyone remembers the original adverts, they focused on animals being afraid of a group of three young people, before Mitchell (Aiden Turner) and George (Russel Tovey) bicker at the door as Annie (Lenora Crichlow) rolls her eyes. In fact, a bit of Google-fu brings up…
For some reason, stating the premise like this just put me off. And honestly, it was only when I caught an episode halfway through the first series that I realised what I was missing. I immediately went back and watched from the beginning, and have been a huge fan ever since. A werewolves, a vampire, and a ghost all live in a house together, and the weird, dependent relationship that they develop absolutely drew me in. The show was always had a humourous streak, but dealt with some very heavy, tragic issues.
Also, the (human) imperfections of the characters made the show even better. Although it undoubtedly made a star of Aiden Turner (Poldark is just another step towards superstardom, and he made an elf fall in love with him in The Hobbit!), my favourite character was Russell Tovey’s werewolf George. But that’s not to say Lenora Crichlow as Annie, the ghost, was not just as impressive, just maybe I saw more of myself in the nervous, quiet George, who eventually found romance with Nina (Sinead Keenan), and for once actually managed to make it stick.
One day, Being Human creator Toby Whithouse will run Doctor Who, and that show will be better than ever. His creation Being Human was the perfect mix of supernatural, comedy and drama. The show combined season-long story arcs with interesting single episode stories, using guest stars brilliantly (Donald Sumpter, Robson Green, Mark Gatiss are just three famous names that stick out, as well as the fantastic Phil Davis in the last season) . He also knew how to stretch a budget to get the most for his money. He also manage to survive all three of his main characters leaving for bigger and better things, and created three more excellent characters. There were similarities, but Damien Morley as Hal, Michael Socha as Tom, and Kate Bracken as Alex were three interesting, full rounded characters who carried on the show, keeping the original spirit but never repeating previous ideas.
For me, Being Human is the best show ever to be made for BBC Three.
Well that’s my list. Agree? Disagree? What have I missed, and what have I massively overrated? Let me know! As I mentioned, at times BBC Three was terrible, but when it was good, it was very, very good. I’m sure that the BBC can still nourish young talent, but I hope that there is still an audience (and budget) for it to take chances on things like Being Human.
I guess we will see.
PS As a special treat for reading all the way to the end, here’s the Godfather of the South Yorkshire dubstep scene – C-Bomb:
I wish that had got a full series. Check out the pilot if you can… but be careful searching for c-bomb, kids.