The best TV shows on All 4, from Shameless to Grand Designs
All 4 boasts a unique collection of British classics, modern hits and popular favourites, from groundbreaking dramas like This is England, cult comedies Brass Eye and Peep Show and soapy pleasures like ER to hard-hitting documentaries from the celebrated Dispatches series. This is our selection of the very best available to watch right now.
A Very British Coup
Genre: Drama Creators: Chris Mullin, Alan Plater Starring: Ray McAnally, Keith Allen, Bernard Kay Certificate: PG Series: 1 (1988)
In a nutshell: The rise of Jeremy Corbyn has lent an additional frisson to this pungent tale of far-left Labour MP Harry Perkins (Ray McAnally) rising to become Prime Minister and finding his policies – nuclear disarmament and open government among them – thwarted by the combined, conspiring forces of an establishment eager to protect its position. A political thriller of a very superior stripe.
Genre: Drama Creators: Lucy Kirkwood Starring: Hayley Squires, Siena Kelly, Kerry Godliman Certificate: 18 Series: 1 (2020)
In a nutshell: Mary Whitehouse, look away. Lucy Kirkwood's four-part drama was delayed several times – once, if rumour is to be believed, because it was deemed "too raunchy" for 10pm. Blimey. Hayley Squires stars as a seasoned adult film star bearing witness to a rapidly changing industry. Rupert Everett, Joe Dempsie and Kerry Godliman also star.
Read our review.
Genre: Comedy Creators: Simon Blackwell Starring: Robert Webb, David Mitchell, Penny Downie Certificate: 15 Series: 1 (2017)
In a nutshell: Even if you like your comedy dark, Back can still leave you reeling. The six-part series explores childhood trauma, jealousy, small-town anxiety and, above all, self-loathing. Fortunately, it is also very, very funny. Stephen (Mitchell) is all set to take over the reins of the family business after his father's death, but his plans are threatened with the entry of Andrew (Webb). A second series is also due on January 21.
Genre: Comedy Creators: Dylan Moran, Graham Linehan Starring: Dylan Moran, Tamsin Greig, Bill Bailey Certificate: 15 Series: 1-3 (2000-2004)
In a nutshell: The only time stand-up Dylan Moran’s unique brand of misanthropic whimsy has really been effectively captured on the small screen, this engagingly surreal sitcom pivots on the nihilistic rantings of bookshop owner Bernard Black (Moran), while Bill Bailey and Tamsin Greig provide charm of an innocent and manic kind respectively as Bernard’s assistant and oldest friend.
Genre: Comedy Creators: Chris Morris Starring: Chris Morris, Mark Heap, Kevin Eldon Certificate: 18 Series: 1-2 (1997-2001)
In a nutshell: Transplanting Chris Morris’s acerbic news anchor from The Day Today, Brass Eye’s rampantly, even-handed iconoclasm attacked establishment complacency, hypocrisy and smugness with ruthless efficiency. Its finest moments are still cited today, notably the debate over made-up drug cake in the Commons, while the 2001 paedophile special remains one of British television’s bravest, most wince-inducing and hilarious satires, an hour of non-stop chutzpah.
Genre: Comedy Creators: Michaela Coel Starring: Michaela Coel, Robert Lonsdale, Susan Wokoma, Tanya Franks Certificate: 15 Series: 2 (2015-17)
In a nutshell: Set on a London council estate, this brilliantly sharp comedy written by and starring Michaela Coel follows twenty something reluctant virgin and Beyoncé-obsessed Tracey as she learns about sex, race and self belief. Working class life is very much at the heart of this series; Tracey struggles to reconcile her sexuality with her religion amidst a rotating cast of oddballs and local celebrities. Race, religion and gender are all weaved in as part of the characters' lives, each treated with farcical wit and familiarity.
Read our review of series 2.
Cold Lazarus / Karaoke
Genre: Drama Creators: Dennis Potter Starring: Albert Finney, Keeley Hawes, Saffron Burrows, Henry Goodman Certificate: 15 Series: 1 (1996)
In a nutshell: Dennis Potter’s twin swansongs – unprecedentedly broadcast both on C4 and BBC One within days of each other – may not have been his finest work (see also Lipstick on Your Collar, also available on All 4), but any Potter is fascinating, and this acts as both a jaundiced view of Britain’s future and a self-reflexive analysis of the writer’s art. Albert Finney is in formidable form in the lead role.
Genre: Drama Creators: Daisy Coulam Starring: David Tennant, Cush Jumbo, Matthew McNulty, Anna Madeley Certificate: 12 Series: 1 (2020)
In a nutshell: An unspeakable crime is at the centre of this four-part murder mystery, when a woman and her three children are found dead in a house fire, with her husband the sole survivor. Daisy Coulam's sinuous, absorbing whodunit comes in the Broadchurch mould, this time with David Tennant as the chief suspect, exploring murder, family and coercive control in a small, tight-knit Scottish community. Only one thing seems certain: no matter where this story goes, it will put us through the emotional wringer.
Read our review.
Genre: Documentary Starring: Deborah Davies, Jon Snow, Jane Moore Series: assorted episodes from 30 series (1987-present)
In a nutshell: Very loosely representing C4’s version of Panorama, Dispatches has arguably overtaken its rival as television’s current-affairs series of note, racking up awards and controversy in its investigations of everything from MPs’ expenses and Islamic extremism to global warming and budget airlines. An honourable mention, too, for Unreported World (most episodes also on All 4), which does its designated job with tenacity and insight.
Drop the Dead Donkey
Genre: Comedy Creators: Andy Hamilton, Guy Jenkin Starring: Neil Pearson, Stephen Tompkinson, Victoria Wicks Certificate: 15 Series: 1-6 (1990-98)
In a nutshell: Something of a time capsule in the internet age, Andy Hamilton and Guy Jenkin’s (Outnumbered) sitcom was at its best breathlessly funny, with the frenetic atmosphere of Globelink’s newsroom entirely unmanufactured: episodes were usually written and filmed only a week before broadcast to ensure maximum topicality. Delighting and appalling those it lampooned, it doubles as a sort of Yes, Minster for hacks.
Genre: Documentary Creators: David Clews Starring: Stephen Drew, Jonny Mitchell Series: 1-4 (2011-15)
In a nutshell: Taking the "fixed rig" concept to new heights, this ongoing success story embeds cameras in secondary schools (to date, in Essex, Yorkshire, the East End, Cardiff and Greater Manchester) and watches the sparks fly. Yet not all the most compelling drama emerged from teacher-pupil conflict: the most memorable episode came in the Yorkshire iteration as young Musharaf is coached through overcoming his stammer, climaxing in a speech at assembly that leaves not a dry eye in the house.
Genre: Drama Creators: Michael Crichton Starring: Anthony Edwards, George Clooney, Sherry Stringfield, Noah Wyle Certificate: 12 Series: 15 (1994-2009)
In a nutshell: Set in the emergency room of Chicago's County General Hospital, this cult medical drama made a whole generation of American women fall in love with dreamy, scrubbed-up Doctor Doug Ross played by a fresh-faced (already greying) George Clooney. ER set the benchmark for soapy serial dramas with melodramatic plot-lines and unlikely character arcs that got the heart racing and the eyes rolling.
Genre: Comedy Creators: Graham Linehan, Arthur Matthews Starring: Dermot Morgan, Ardal O’Hanlon, Frank Kelly Certificate: 15 Series: 1-3 (1995-1998)
In a nutshell: When an anti-austerity protester was spotted carrying a placard saying “Down With This Sort of Thing”, the enduring influence of Graham Linehan and Arthur Mathews’s peerless comedy was confirmed. Replacing Irish jokes with Irish humour, it exiled three disgraced priests on an island and chased the ensuing laughs relentlessly. Mathews and Linehan’s ensuing collaboration, The IT Crowd, had to settle for being merely excellent in comparison.
Genre: Comedy-drama Creators: Mae Martin, Joe Hampson Starring: Mae Martin, Charlotte Ritchie, Lisa Kudrow Certificate: 15 Series: 1 (2020)
In a nutshell: Stand-up Mae Martin's semi-autobiographical comedy is a witty, tender love story with sharp edges and strong performances from Martin and Charlotte Ritchie as a millennial same-sex couple negotiating the start of their relationship. Mae (Martin) falls hard for the previously straight George (Ritchie), only for the coup de foudre to expose cracks in her recovery from addiction. Lisa Kudrow comes close to stealing the show as Mae's self-absorbed mother.
Genre: Comedy-drama Creators: Will Sharpe Starring: Olivia Colman, Julian Barratt, Daniel Rigby Certificate: 12 Series: 2 (2016-18)
In a nutshell: Created by Will Sharpe, this beguiling series is another addition to the recent trend for queasy English pastoral. Too dark to be treated as a comedy, yet too madcap in its execution to stay within the confines of conventional drama, it is a strange and troubling piece about an eccentric family in the sticks whose spectacular freefall could barely be contained by the wide acres that surrounded them. It is also very, very good. The excellent cast is led by Olivia Colman as Deborah Flowers – her kind, sunflower of a face contorted into desperation and selfishness as she becomes increasingly suspicious of her author husband.
Genre: Drama Creators: Alan Bleasdale Starring: Robert Lindsay, Michael Palin, Julie Walters Certificate: 15 Series: 1 (1991)
In a nutshell: Supposedly based on the rise and fall of militant Liverpool council firebrand Derek Hatton, Alan Bleasdale’s taut and deeply principled drama pits corrupt, charismatic councillor Robert Lindsay against Michael Palin’s meek, upright teacher in a battle that neatly reflected the wars being waged in the Labour party at the time. The performances, in particular, are astounding. Jake’s Progress, again by Bleasdale and starring Lindsay, is also available on All 4.
Genre: Documentary Creators: Kevin McCloud Starring: Kevin McCloud Certificate: U Series: 1-16 (1999-2015)
In a nutshell: Riding the property booms and busts with aplomb, Kevin McCloud’s long-running series has maintained its appeal by keeping the formula largely unchanged: impossible architectural dream meets harsh reality, with the results usually an aesthetically and narratively satisfying compromise. After this, the likes of Changing Rooms looked hopelessly low rent.
Hill Street Blues
Genre: Drama Creators: Steven Bochco, Michael Kozoli Starring: Daniel J Travanti, Michael Warren, Betty Thomas Certificate: 15 Series: 1-7 (1981-1987)
In a nutshell: 98 Emmy nominations, enormously influential and with one of the great theme tunes, one of television’s archetypal cop shows was a crucial staging post on the way from the basic procedural to The Wire: a little tougher, a little smarter and a little funnier than what had gone before. See also St Elsewhere – all 137 episodes of which are also on All 4 – which did much the same for the medical drama.
Genre: Drama Creators: Paul Abbott Starring: Joanna Scanlan, Elaine Cassidy, Alexandra Roach Certificate: 12 Series: 3 (2015-18)
In a nutshell: The final series of Paul Abbott's dark, offbeat police procedural series features an assassination attempt on a controversial female politician. A courageous police officer saving her life. An investigation which uncovered a tangled conspiracy. A shock death. Ring any bells? If No Offence and the BBC's Bodyguard hadn't been in production at the same time, cynics might suspect one of plagiarising the other. By turns tear-jerking and pulse-pounding as well as pertinent, No Offence is easily the match of its more widely known counterpart, tackling such topics as Islamophobia, social media trolling and outsourced public services, while Deering remains one of the most colourfully compelling characters on TV.
One Born Every Minute
Genre: Documentary Creators: Magnus Temple, Nick Curwin, Peter Moore, Sanjay Singhal Series: 1-8 (2010-15)
In a nutshell: A genuine trailblazer, One Born Every Minute set the trend for Channel 4’s "fixed rig" documentary series, ditching voiceovers and editorial intrusion for more organic storytelling, courtesy of cameras fixed around a maternity ward. The results offered unprecedented access and unusual intimacy, and were often deeply moving. After this came 24 Hours in A&E, 24 Hours in Police Custody and many more.
Genre: Comedy Creators: Sam Bain, Jesse Armstrong Starring: Robert Webb, David Mitchell, Olivia Colman Certificate: 18 Series: 1-9 (2003-2015)
In a nutshell: The longest-running comedy in C4’s history retained its high standards of low comedy right to the end. Flat-sharing protagonists awkward Mark (David Mitchell) and feckless Jeremy (Robert Webb) evolved scarcely a jot, remaining fundamentally awful yet oddly sympathetic. The conceit of using POV cameras and voicing internal monologues was so successful that it’s no surprise few have attempted to imitate it.
Genre: Comedy Creators: Tom Sharpe, Malcolm Bradbury Starring: David Jason, Ian Richardson, John Sessions Certificate: 15 Series: 1 (1987)
In a nutshell: Malcolm Bradbury adapting Tom Sharpe: what could possibly go wrong? Nothing at all in the event, as David Jason’s conservative Cambridge porter and Ian Richardson’s reforming Master wrestle for the soul of Porterhouse College through the mediums of canteens, contraceptive machines and female students. Merciless, grotesque and utterly riveting, they don’t make ’em like this any more.
Queer as Folk
Genre: Drama Creators: Russell T Davies Starring: Aidan Gillen, Craig Kelly, Charlie Hunnam Certificate: U Series: 1–2 (1999–2000)
In a nutshell: Queer as Folk certainly isn’t subtle. It is explicit, inclusive, warm and ferociously funny, however, and one of British television’s first series to celebrate rather than defend or apologise for its subject matter, as the lives of super-confident Stuart (Aidan Gillen), wallflower Vince (Craig Kelly) and neophyte Nathan (Charlie Hunnam) collide on Manchester’s gay hub, Canal Street. Davies reprised and updated some of the themes with his Banana/Cucumber/Tofu triptych, all also available on All 4, and his new drama It's a Sin – about the Eighties Aids crisis – arrives on January 22.
Genre: Drama Creators: Paul Abbott Starring: David Threlfall, Rebecca Atkinson, Tina Malone Certificate: 15 Series: 1-11 (2004-2013)
In a nutshell: In all honesty, you could probably leave it after series three, after which it rapidly descended into soap opera self-parody. But the first few visits to Manchester’s chaotic Chatsworth Estate were among the most invigorating depictions of British working-class culture in recent years, launching the careers (and marriage) of Anne-Marie Duff and James McAvoy in the process.
Smack the Pony
Genre: Comedy Creators: Doon Mackichan, Sally Phillips, Fiona Allen Starring: Doon Mackichan, Sally Phillips, Fiona Allen Certificate: 15 Series: 1-2 (1999-2000)
In a nutshell: Still, slightly dismally, a relative novelty as a sketch show written by and starring women, Smack the Pony rendered such pat pigeon-holing irrelevant by simply being very funny. Avoiding reliance on catchphrases, there were few recurring characters. Instead, sketches ranged from the surreal to satirical. After a less successful third series, many of the same team went on to make Green Wing (also available on All 4).
Genre: Comedy Creators: Jessica Hynes, Simon Pegg, Edgar Wright Starring: Jessica Hynes, Simon Pegg, Nick Frost Certificate: 15 Series: 12 (1999-2001)
In a nutshell: Establishing its leading lights as geek savants par excellence, Spaced was on the surface a simple flatshare sitcom. Yet the adventures of Tim (Simon Pegg) and Daisy (Jessica Hynes) flouted the form’s convention with glee, drenching episodes in surrealism and packing in more pop-culture references than a Wayans brothers film (and with both far greater sophistication and many, many more laughs). Repeat viewing essential.
Genre: Drama Creators: Jimmy McGovern Starring: Christopher Eccleston, Ciaran McMenamin, Eva Birthistle Certificate: 15 Series: N/A (2002)
In a nutshell: Beaten to the punch by Paul Greengrass’s Bloody Sunday film for ITV, Jimmy McGovern’s version of events on 30 January 1972 nevertheless has much going for it. Fearsome commitment and polemical power, naturally, but also the viewpoints of those on the ground (the focus on women is especially welcome) and scenes filmed where the events themselves took place.
Genre: Comedy Creators: Alex Horne Starring: Alex Horne, Greg Davies Certificate: 12 Series: 11 (2015-21)
In a nutshell: Put seven competitive comedians in a studio together and they're bound to be a hoot. Taskmaster brings the silliness to our living rooms with the contestants – a lively blend of old-timers and upstarts – challenged to attempt low-budget and unashamedly silly "tasks" for points (eg hide a full pineapple on their person or impress the mayor of Chesham). The uncompromising Greg Davies offers great value as the "taskmaster" sneering over the action in his opulent throne room, with sidekick Alex Horne trying his best to keep things comprehensible.
The Adam and Joe Show
Genre: Comedy Creators: Adam Buxton, Joe Cornish Starring: Adam Buxton, Joe Cornish, Nigel Buxton Certificate: 15 Series: 1-4 (1996-2001)
In a nutshell: The very essence of cult viewing, this bedsit-set comedy saw Messrs Buxton and Cornish recreate TV shows with Star Wars figures, shame musicians for their record collections and ask Buxton’s dad to review music videos. Suffused with a sense of innocent mischief, it’s a charmingly amateur affair that laid the groundwork for the pair’s diverging subsequent careers in Hollywood (Cornish) and on the comedy circuit (Buxton).
The Armando Iannucci Shows
Genre: Comedy Creators: Armando Iannucci, Kevin Cecil, Andy Rily Starring: Armando Iannucci, Hugh Cecil, Karen Ascoe Certificate: 15 Series: 1 (2001)
In a nutshell: Often cited by its creator as his proudest achievement, this short-lived series was largely ignored at the time but has grown in stature since. Each episode very loosely addressed a single subject (work, time, morality) through Iannucci’s anchoring monologue, while an assortment of sketches and beautifully edited montages allowed him to extemporise at will. As adept a balance of incisive wit and pure nonsense as has been assembled in recent years.
The Boy Whose Skin Fell Off
Genre: Documentary Creators: Patrick Collerton Starring: Jonny Kennedy, Edna Kennedy, Nell McAndrew (2004)
In a nutshell: This deeply moving film tracked the final months in the life of Jonny Kennedy, a laconic spiritualist suffering from dystrophic epdiermolysis bullosa, causing his skin to be extremely fragile. The irresistibly uplifting tone was summed up by Kennedy’s favourite song, played at his funeral (he dies during the making of the documentary): Don’t Stop Me Now.
The Camomile Lawn
Genre: Drama Creators: Mary Wesley, Ken Taylor Starring: Felicity Kendal, Jennifer Ehle, Claire Bloom Certificate: 15 Series: 1 (1992)
In a nutshell: Causing a stir at the time for scenes of raunch and romping that now look decidedly tame, Peter Hall directs a wonderful pan-generational cast (also including Paul Eddington, Toby Stephens and Hall’s daughter, Rebecca) in a faithful adaptation of Mary Wesley’s wartime saga from Ken Taylor who adapted The Jewel in the Crown for ITV eight years earlier. Cornwall looks as glorious as some of the characters (one storyline tackles rape and child abuse) are unsavoury.
Genre: Drama Creators: Peter Morgan, James Naughtie Starring: Michael Sheen, David Morrissey, Dexter Fletcher Certificate: 12 (2003)
In a nutshell: Peter Morgan’s reimagining of the notorious Granita agreement exposed the poison at the heart of the New Labour project. This remarkably candid film, superbly directed by Stephen Frears, launched Michael Sheen’s chameleonic career (David Morrissey is no less remarkable) and reflected the caricatures of Brown and Blair that persist to this day.
The Great British Bake Off
Genre: Entertainment Starring: Sandi Toksvig, Noel Fielding, Matt Lucas, Paul Hollywood, Prue Leith Certificate: PG Series: 4 (2017-20)
In a nutshell: This Great British success story has gone from strength to strength since moving from the BBC to Channel 4 in 2017, helped in no small part by a shrewdly picked presenting line-up. Noel Fielding and Sandi Toksvig struck up a brilliant partnership almost immediately, and the addition of Matt Lucas following Toksvig's departure in 2019 has proved equally successful. When life seems bleak, there's no better tonic than watching a mismatch bunch of jolly bakers rustle up some treats in a sun-drenched pastoral setting.
Genre: Drama Creators: Shane Meadows, Jack Thorne Starring: Stephen Graham, Niamh Algar, Helen Behan Certificate: 12 Series: 1 (2019)
In a nutshell: Writer-director Shane Meadows's unflinching, unforgettable four-parter about the consequences of sexual abuse was a deeply moving depiction of silent suffering. In actor Stephen Graham, Meadows has found his muse. As self-destructive alcoholic Joseph, travelling to Ireland in search of answers about his repressed memories, Graham is raw, vulnerable and quietly shattering. A masterpiece of everyday courage and hard-won redemption.
This is England 86/88/90
Genre: Drama Creators: Shane Meadows Starring: Vicky McClure, Thomas Turgoose, Joseph Gilgun, Stephen Graham Certificate: 18 Series: 1-3 (2010-15)
In a nutshell: Spinning off from the 1983-set film, Shane Meadows broadened and deepened the storytelling to embrace fringe characters and, in the process, forge some of the most indelibly affecting (and often heavily improvised) scenes in recent years of British television. The blend of comedy and tragedy wasn’t always seamless, but when it worked it packed a punch like little else.
This Way Up
Genre: Comedy Creators: Aisling Bea Starring: Aisling Bea, Sharon Horgan, Tobias Menzies, Aasif Mandvi Certificate: 12 Series: 1 (2019)
In a nutshell: Usually Sharon Horgan is only in things because she's written them. She is customarily brilliant in This Way Up – and, as usual, is great at feisty verbal jousting underpinned by real heart – but this sitcom was written by the stand-up comedian Aisling Bea. Horgan and Bea play Shona and Aine, Irish sisters living in London, both fluent at sparring and banter but otherwise quite unequal. It skilfully explores the complexities of modern life and mental health, deftly preying on your fears and pricking your sympathies, with a gratifyingly high gag rate.
Genre: Drama Creators: Simon Moore Starring: Bill Paterson, Lindsay Duncan, Jamal Shah Certificate: 15 Series: 1 (1989)
In a nutshell: Steven Soderbergh’s 2000 remake may have snaffled the Oscars, but this six-part series delves far more deeply and rewardingly into the emotional and political realities of the heroin trade. Simon Moore knits together its three stories – the travails of anti-drugs campaigner and MP Bill Paterson and his addict daughter Julia Ormond, the hunt for German dealer George Kakura and the Pakistani poppy farmers exploited by crooks and politicians alike – with uncanny skill.
Vic Reeves’ Big Night Out
Genre: Comedy Creators: Vic Reeves, Bob Mortimer Starring: Vic Reeves, Bob Mortimer, Fred Aylward Certificate: 15 Series: 1-2 (1991-92)
In a nutshell: Incredibly influential, Big Night Out gave the ailing alternative comedy scene a shot in the arm with its warm embrace of the surreal and absurd, giving traditional variety humour a postmodern twist. Even Reeves and Mortimer themselves wouldn’t let it lie, reviving many of the characters and skits for their ongoing arena tour. Yet one burning question remains: whatever happened to Les?
Whose Line Is It Anyway?
Genre: Comedy Creators: Mark Leveson, Dan Patterson Starring: Clive Anderson, Ryan Stiles, Paul Merton Certificate: 15 Series: 1-10 (1988-1998)
In a nutshell: Offering many their first taste of improvised comedy, this frequently chaotic series should have been the embodiment of hit and miss, yet the recruitment of the cream of British (and occasionally Canadian) improv, along with the wry chairmanship of Clive Anderson, ensured the quality endured for the entirety of its decade-long run. Early series featured memorable appearances from Peter Cook, Jonathan Pryce and assorted Pythons, among others.