BBC for a newbie
March 31, 2012 12:06 PM   Subscribe

Just moved to the UK. What TV should I watch?

I'm not really a big TV watcher but don't want to accidentally miss anything great. Are there any TV shows (or radio programs, for that matter) that I should know about? Female, left-leaning, mid-30s, childless professional. I like travel, philosophy, the outdoors, science... and let's be honest, sometimes a bit of mindless rubbish targeted at my demographic too. But no reality TV or manufactured celebrities please!
posted by superfish to Media & Arts (21 answers total) 16 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: BBC Four sounds like it might be up your alley.
posted by corvine at 12:10 PM on March 31, 2012 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Yeah seconding BBC4, some good documentaries/factual programming on there. Infinite Monkey Cage on Radio 4 is brilliant (not on at the moment but you can listen to past episodes on that link).
posted by EndsOfInvention at 12:15 PM on March 31, 2012

Best answer: BBC Two, BBC Four and Channel 4 would probably the best channels for you (the last one has some reality-type shows, but good news and documentary programmes).

Horizon is the BBC's flagship science programme. There are plenty of episodes available on iPlayer. In terms of entertaining TV, Twenty Twelve is quite funny.

For philosophy and science, you can't beat In Our Time on BBC Radio 4.

There's also a travel programme called Excess Baggage on Saturday mornings, and the current-affairs programmes From Our Own Correspondent and Crossing Continents might also be of interest too; there's also World Routes on BBC Radio 3 for world music.

For philosophy in more general terms, listen to: Thinking Allowed, Analysis, Moral Maze and Inside the Ethics Committee on Radio 4 and The Essay on BBC Radio 3.
posted by mattn at 12:41 PM on March 31, 2012

Best answer: I'm like you, in my 30's, no kids, professional. I don't watch much TV really, but the 2 shows I like to zone out to are "super size, super skinny" and "embarrassing bodies" on channel 4... "Take me out" and "Harry Hill's TV burp" also get laughs out of me and Mr. Pony (mindless rubbish!)
posted by misspony at 12:42 PM on March 31, 2012

Best answer: We have GREAT reality TV, it's some of the best quality programming coming out of our TV channels at the moment.

I'm in your demographic and some of the programs I like (when they are on) are:

Grand Designs
Kitchen Nightmares (our version is much better than the US version).
BBC talent shows (The Apprentice, and The Voice are both on now).
Mary Queen of Shops

I apologise in advance if you really really don't like reality TV and it's not just the US kind you disapprove of!

You may also like Great British Railway Journeys, The Sky at Night, and for mindless google box watching try Shameless.
posted by emilyw at 12:44 PM on March 31, 2012

Best answer: Thirding BBC Four, but also Sky Arts if you have a dish or cable. For "great outdoors", the popular nature/landscape stuff often goes on BBC One and Two -- Springwatch is going to be back in May, and it's best described as "reality TV, except the manufactured celebrities are badgers". Horizon, the BBC's long-running pop-science series (think NOVA if you're American) is also on BBC Two.

Time Team on C4 is nearing the end of its annual run, but you can catch up on 4oD.

Keep a look out for short-run flagship drama. The current one on BBC One is White Heat, though the reviews on that one are very mixed.

Michael Apted's 56 Up is set to be broadcast in May. It's a truly great project which dates from the first years of commercial television in the UK.

Definitely seek out radio -- Radio 4 is news, speech and the Shipping Forecast to send you to sleep at night; Radio 3 is mostly classical music but with highbrow drama, arts and culture stuff in the evenings; Radio 7 is archive drama. The World Service (digital radio or online) too. All with a very different sensibility to NPR/PRI/APM, and a circadian rhythm that works best when you're listening in the same timezone.

As a general rule, the British broadsheets will offer a daily or weekly preview/review for both TV and radio: here's the Guardian's archive of TV previews and radio reviews.
posted by holgate at 12:49 PM on March 31, 2012 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Argh. Modern episodes of Horizon are so, so, slow. You can normally fit the great reveal on the back of a business card too.

Anyway, QI is a fascinating cross between a Science / General Knowledge & entertainment show. Possibly a little blokey sometimes.

The most important news program in the UK is probably Today on Radio 4; it's not at all unusual for an irate member of the cabinet to phone in after a particular item & demand to put their oar in. I doubt it has the sheer numbers of the mainstream TV news programs, but pretty much the entire political class is likely to be listening to it.

Channel wise, you mostly want BBC2, BBC4, Channel 4 and the odd bit of some of the minor channels down the Freeview list. Dave for back episodes of QI for instance.

You've listed mostly factual stuff up at the top. Any interest in drama / comedy?
posted by pharm at 1:58 PM on March 31, 2012

Best answer: I gave up on broadcast tv a while ago. Most of anything good on the main channels is streamed free (& legally) on the internet outlets of the channels (so iplayer for BBC, 4OD for Channel 4 etc) and is out on DVD while the telly is still cooling and you can get it through lovefilm on a subscription that also covers streaming. As a MeFite you will naturally be starting to read the Guardian immediately, I recommend you keep up with the tv review section so you are clued in to some of the more worthwhile stuff and can chase it up online as desired.
posted by biffa at 1:59 PM on March 31, 2012 [1 favorite]

Best answer: OK. Right now you should go to the BBC iPlayer website and download their desktop application. Then download all the episodes of The Tube. You need to act quickly, because they will be offline soon; if you download them they will stay up for (if I remember rightly) a month. I promise you will love them. They are the best introduction to British culture, ever. You might want to catch the last Dirk Gently episode while you're at it.

You should be aware of the channels and what they do:
BBC1 - this is the BBC channel with most viewers. A lot of the bigname stuff goes here. Also the news. Also a lot of pappy ratings-grabby stuff.
BBC2 - slightly stuffier than BBC1, supposedly vaguely more highbrow. Documentaries and quiz shows. Often a frustrating miasma of middlebrow dullness.
BBC3 - Young people things. Experimental new comedy that is sometimes brilliant and sometimes not even close to funny. Lower budget than the previous two channels
BBC4 - A wunderkammer of fabulous things: documentaries, longform drama, stuff like that. Has its own nerdy quiz show, Only Connect. Almost no budget, so they only broadcast for about half an hour every day and show a lot of repeats.
ITV - 'commercial' television. Largely crap but shows the very popular Downton Abbey.
Channel 4 - also commercial television. A real grab-bag: some crap, some camp men telling people to dress/cook/do things differently, some very, very good comedy.

It's a good idea to spend some time browsing around the iPlayer and 4od websites to get a feel for things and try some programmes out.

If you haven't already watched Peep Show, it is all on 4od.
Masterchef is awesome but Masterchef Professionals is 100,000x better.
The science on Horizon is often frustratingly terrible.

If you really want to feel like you're immersing yourself in the true jewels of British culture, listen to the Today programme every morning (while you have your toast and tea) and The Archers every evening (it's only fifteen minutes). The satisfaction will not be immediate, but after a few months you will start to feel like your life has a certain... rhythm to it. Something indescribable will happen. You will return to the States unrecognisable, a changed person.
posted by Acheman at 2:36 PM on March 31, 2012 [6 favorites]

Best answer: Nthing Radio Four and the Today programme. Have I Got News For You and Nevermind the Buzzcocks (panel shows) are funny and a good way of getting to understand English humour and popular culture.
posted by curious zoe at 3:22 PM on March 31, 2012

Best answer: If you're a Daily Show fan, try Channel 4's "10 O'Clock Live," weekly on Wednesday night, and the long-running panel game (with no fixed host, ever since the original host was busted for coke use) "Have I Got News For You."

Someone should feel free to correct me on the radio stations, but:

Radio 1: Music sorted into genre shows, request shows, etc.
Radio 2: same as above
Radio 3: non-pop music, arts and lectures, interviews
Radio 4: comedies, literature, shipping news (a coded weather report for mariners), mysteries, soaps-- don't miss "Just a Minute"
Radio 5: "Fivelive," is news, chat, and what the brits calle "chatback," that is, call-in shows. Don't miss "Wittertainment" from 4-6 on Fridays, a movie review podcast of exceptional quality and occasional ranty goodness. Also a good podcast. Hello to Jason Isaacs.
Radio 6: more music
Radio 7, AKA BBC 7-- DAB and online only-- classic comedy, mysteries, reruns along the lines of Radio 4. If you're bored at work, always go here. Not only are there some great sitcoms from radio past, but also sketchcoms ("I'm Sorry I'll Read that Again,") and ("I'm Sorry I Haven't A Clue," which calls itself "the antidote to panel games," 30 minutes of comedy that will leave you teary and incontinent.)

Also, for a look ahead, for schedules, reviews, etc.

Finally, I second "The Tube," a spectacular doco about the Underground and its many many employees and jobs.
posted by Sunburnt at 4:58 PM on March 31, 2012

Best answer: Modern episodes of Horizon are so, so, slow. You can normally fit the great reveal on the back of a business card too.

Agreed, and the cultural chauvinist in me thinks that they're made that way so that they're easier to sell on to the Americans; you can just about pick out where the commercials will fit in. I hope that when the archives finally get opened up, some of the 70s/80s episodes are included.

I doubt it has the sheer numbers of the mainstream TV news programs, but pretty much the entire political class is likely to be listening to it.

It has sheer numbers in terms of breakfast news, where radio dominates for obvious reasons. (Radio 2 and Radio 1's breakfast shows have slightly higher listener numbers, but they're music-based.) Today is explicitly about setting out the agenda for the day; it has its own institutional fiefdom separate from the other Radio 4 news programmes, and operates that way.
posted by holgate at 5:07 PM on March 31, 2012

Best answer: Okay, just something really random to think about if you're planning on staying long-term, or if you want to hit the right pop culture points when talking to coworkers/friends/people at the pub:

Any time there's a "I love [retro period]" or "Top 100 [something]" or anything like that, I recommend watching it, even if it's just in the background.

This gives you a crash course in all the pop culture references people around you will make. From sitcoms to major historical moments to commercials to whatever.

They're stupid, and you'll go "Seriously. Seriously. Black and White Minstrel Show what the fuck." but it helps. It seriously does.
posted by Katemonkey at 6:01 PM on March 31, 2012 [1 favorite]

Best answer: We lived in the UK for a year and found that there was a lot of excellent television, but that most of it did not take the format of ongoing series or sitcoms, like in the US. Usually, the stuff we really loved tended to be short mini-series, like Downton Abbey, Sherlock, or Wonders of the Solar System with Brian Cox. The Victorian Farm series with Ruth Goodman was superb. For regular programming, QI is very enjoyable, and Harry Hill's TV Burp, if that is still running, is a great way to get quickly familiar with the latest TV tropes and a better grasp of British humour (the first time you watch it, it will seem patently absurd, but you pick up the humour after a couple of episodes). We loved the IT Crowd and Gavin & Stacy (though I don't think these are still running). Hated all the reality programming (all the cooking, talent, and property search stuff). Re-runs of Poirot and Sherlock Holmes with Jeremy Brett are always fun. And it may seem silly, but we got hooked on Heartbeat, a show that ran on ITV for 18 years and has pretty regular reruns. It's set in Yorkshire in the 1960's, and I think the reason we liked it so much was because it felt like an education on British culture and mores (not to mention northern accents). I'm sure it's more interesting to a foreign viewer than to a native in that sense.
posted by amusebuche at 1:33 AM on April 1, 2012

Best answer: Have I got news for you. It's entertaining and may help / stimulate you to get a sense of the biggest UK news stories.
posted by rjs at 5:45 AM on April 1, 2012

Response by poster: You guys are better than amazing. Thank you all so much.
posted by superfish at 12:33 PM on April 1, 2012

My all time favorite program in England is Question Time, a current events show which is on every Thursday night on BBC 1. I mourn the fact that America does not have anything similar.

I also loved panel shows such as the previously mentioned QI and Have I Got News For You. Mock the Week is also very funny and it looks as though they're in the middle of a series right now.

I also love Masterchef and if you like cooking shows Saturday Kitchen (on Saturday mornings) is always good.

I love Peep Show as mentioned above and I also think Benidorm is pretty funny.
posted by triggerfinger at 4:49 PM on April 1, 2012

My all time favorite program in England is Question Time, a current events show which is on every Thursday night on BBC 1.

And on Twitter at #bbqt -- lots of viewers seem to want to tweet their reactions to QT in real time. (Radio 4's equivalent is Any Questions? on a Friday night, hosted by the other Dimbleby.)

Eurovision's at the end of May. I will say no more.
posted by holgate at 4:54 PM on April 1, 2012

If you watch Question Time, you should also follow @DIMBLEBOT on twitter. Trust me on this one.
posted by corvine at 6:22 AM on April 2, 2012 [1 favorite]

The British version of The Apprentice is currently on and infinitely better than the US version - of course it's edited to the point where it's virtually fictitious, but on a good week it's as gripping as a drama full of self-aggrandizing people. (In fact, a popular British archetype in comedy shows is the arrogant fool, so maybe this is why it's funny.) There isn;t the over-explanation/re-capping which makes US reality shows unwatchable for me.

Radio 7 is now Radio 4 Extra. I love this station. They repeat, between 10 and 12 each night, contemporary radio comedy shows, and they play classic older stuff like Hancock's Half Hour and Round The Horne in the morning. I can particularly recommend Ed Reardon's Week and the topical quiz show The News Quiz. (I like Count Arthur Strong but I don't know how it would come across to a non-British person.)

You wouldn't do too badly starting by looking at BBC I Player or 4 On Demand and seeing what catches your eye. At the moment, I like a C4 show called Get Your House In Order, which is a fairly mindless but interesting show about making hoarders sell off their stuff to fund a home makeover. BBC4, as others have said, has wonderful things on almost any night of the week, and is probably the most intellectual channel - it also has repeats of 1970s Top Of The Pops showing at the moment.

Programmes which are 'water-cooler' TV at the moment - Take Me Out, Jeremy Kyle (a talk show). The Only Way is Essex (also known as TOWIE and a similar idea to Jersey Shore). All of them are awful in their own special way, but it might be worth catching an episode or two just so you know what they are.
posted by mippy at 4:17 AM on April 18, 2012

Sorry - forgot to say that in general, our Apprentice is a very nicely shot and soundtracked programme which makes it fun to watch.
posted by mippy at 4:18 AM on April 18, 2012

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