The BBC has been creating great mystery series since the days when it was only a radio station (older Brits still talk excitedly about The Man in Black and Dick Barton—Special Agent ) and that continued when televisions started to become a feature of British homes.
The BBC broadcast the first TV adaptation of Sherlock Holmes in 1951 and of Inspector Maigret in 1959. Crime series became a staple of the scheduling in the 1960s and the theme tunes from shows such as Z Cars (which clocked up over 800 episodes between 1962and 1978) and Dixon of Dock Green (which ran from 1955 until 1976) are as familiar to British baby boomers as the music of The Beatles.
The BBC has continued to make great small-screen versions of classic mystery books while also commissioning original work from a talented pool of writers. Here’s a small selection of the best of both.
Shetland (2013– )
The BBC’s main domestic rival ITV snapped up best-selling UK mystery writer Anne Cleeves’ stories about obsessive female cop Vera Stanhope. The BBC beat them to the same author’s Jimmy Perez novels with the series Shetland. So far they've filmed six series (also known as seasons in the U.S.), all starring the excellent Douglas Henshall as the brooding Scottish detective inspector. Set, as you may guess, on the Shetland Isles, way off Scotland’s northern coast, the series has the dark, moody edge of Scandi-Noir dramas such as Trapped.
The bleakly beautiful scenery is as much a character as any of the cast, and there’s an authentic sense of the problems of solving crimes amongst a close-knit and isolated community where secrets and hatreds run long and deep.
Perhaps mindful of the fact nobody could top ITV’s Jeremy Brett/Edward Hardwicke Sherlock and Watson series that ran from 1984 to 1994, the BBC opted for something a little different with Sherlock.
Creative geniuses Mark Gattis and Steven Moffat moved the great consulting detective to modern-day London, intertwined a series of classic Conan Doyle storylines, and stirred a lot of clever TV trickery into the mix. Benedict Cumberbatch is typically charismatic as the “high functioning sociopath” Holmes, while Martin Freeman shines as a long-suffering and frequently exasperated Dr. Watson. The pair are ably supported by British Swinging Sixties legend Una Stubbs as Mrs. Hudson and Louise Brealey as a love-struck pathologist, Molly Hooper. Gattis and Moffat’s update is as smart as a Savile Row suit and brought a whole new, and younger audience to these great mystery tales.
Happy Valley (2014–2022)
Gritty, sharp, and filled with emotional twists, Sally Wainwright’s superb crime drama set in a rough part of West Yorkshire is not for the faint-hearted. Sarah Lancashire is at her formidable best as Catherine Cawood, the local police sergeant. Cawood is divorced, raising her dead daughter’s son, and helping her sister with a drug dependency while all the while battling crime both nasty and petty.
Lancashire’s performance combines gruff, gallows humor, rage, and despair in equal measures, and she’s well supported by an excellent cast that includes James Norton as an all-too-believable small-town sociopath. The main storylines in the first two series involve the kidnapping of a wealthy businessman’s daughter and modern slavery. A third season is slated to start shooting this year.
State of Play (2003)
Paul Abbott’s classic conspiracy thriller from 2003 stars John Simm as a cynical and seedy investigative journalist digging into the apparently accidental death of a female parliamentary researcher.
With the ever-reliable David Morrissey as a morally ambiguous government minister with ties to the security services and a stellar supporting cast (Kelly McDonald, Bill Nighy, James McAvoy), the six-part series has more twists than a bowl of spaghetti and dialogue that’s as sharp as a poisoned needle. State of Play was made into a decent movie starring Russell Crowe, but the original is way better.
Hamish Macbeth (1995–1997)
Scots actor Robert Carlyle is best known for his portrayal of the terrifying psychopath Begbie in Trainspotting. He’s on altogether more laidback form in this delightful mystery series filmed from 1995–97 around the Kyle of Lochalsh in the Scottish Highlands. Carlyle is the title character, an unambitious, easy-going local cop tasked with sorting out low-key rural crime (one episode centers on the theft of salt from a village grocery store) and generally doing his best to avoid anything that might earn him a promotion to a job in the city. With its beautiful scenery, light comic touch, and a winning performance from Macbeth’s West Highland terrier “Wee Jock”, this is a perfect piece of quality comfort TV, as cozy as an old sofa.
Miss Marple (1984–1992)
Agatha Christie was generally unhappy with cinematic adaptations of her work and had no time whatsoever for television, but you suspect even the Queen of Crime might have given a small nod of approval to Joan Hickson’s portrayal of her beady-eyed senior sleuth Jane Marple. Between 1984 and 1992 Hickson starred in adaptations of all twelve of the Miss Marple novels and her performance is superb—few actors could convey so much of a character’s thought process with a single glance.
The BBC scriptwriters stuck more faithfully to the original material than others have done before or since and even the theme tune sticks in your mind long after you’ve switched off. Queen Elizabeth II was a huge fan of the series, and awarded Hickson an OBE in 1987 telling her “You were just as I imagined Miss Marple would be”.
A Dorothy L Sayers Mystery (1987)
Dorothy L. Sayer’s upper-crust, monocle-sporting sleuth Lord Peter Wimsey has often been portrayed on the small screen as the detective equivalent of PG Wodehouse’s posh nitwit Bertie Wooster. He gets a more nuanced and subtle interpretation from actor Edward Petherbridge in this excellent 10-part 1987 adaptation. The BBC traditionally does costume drama well and there are plenty of vintage automobiles, country house interiors, and 1920s dresses for viewers to enjoy in a series of classic, cozy mysteries, which feature the always entertaining. Emmy award-winner Harriett Walter as Wimsey’s quick-witted and feisty partner, Harriet Vane.
Bleak House (2005)
Featuring the world’s first police detective, the ploddingly dogged Inspector Bucket (wonderfully played here by Alun Armstrong), Charles Dickens's great novel about the London legal profession centers around a blackmail plot against the wife of an aristocratic landowner.
Andrew Davies’ wonderfully murky 2005 adaptation features Charles Dance in superbly villainous form as the loathsomely reptilian lawyer Tulkinghorn and Gillian Anderson as the brittle and haunted Lady Honoria Dedlock, the wife with the shady past. There’s intrigue, romance, dollops of humor, and a surprising incident of spontaneous human combustion.