5 British Shows That Will Please the "Downton Abbey"-Loving Old Lady Within You
My love of British TV developed based on whatever was on PBS -- mostly mysteries, early-mid '80s comedies and literary mini-series. The advent of BBC America and, more recently, the availability of many British shows on Netflix has expanded my repertoire and revealed the extent to which my viewing choices mirror those of an elderly British woman.
The following is a list of my favorite recent feel-good shows, all suitable for watching on a Sunday evening while drinking tea, crocheting, and cackling like Terry Jones as a Pepperpot.
Doc Martin -- The ultimate old woman's Sunday evening programme. Martin Ellingham (Martin Clunes) is a famous surgeon who develops a crippling fear of blood during surgery one day. Unable to maintain his high-level position, he takes a job as General Practitioner in Port Wenn, the tiny Cornwall town where he spent happy summers with his Aunt as a child. Unfortunately, Doc's parents were rigid and horrible, and he has something akin to Asperger's syndrome -- his lack of bedside manner or appreciation for the rhythms and culture of small-town life causes all sorts of hi-jinks, misunderstandings and drama.
The show is filmed in the preternaturally gorgeous village of Port Isaac, on the Cornwall coast, and is peopled with a seemingly endless supply of heavily accented and non-threateningly eccentric characters, each of whom invariably develops associated, unusual and often charming medical problems. The main character was an expansion of a "fish out of water" big-city to small-town doctor character in the film "Saving Grace"; this version of the Doc has significant psychological limitations, and each season provides an opportunity to further plumb the depths of the Doc's emotional challenges and to root for his nascent growth and development. The rural nature of the practice means that a bit too much time is spent waiting for ambulances from the hospital far away, but thanks to the Doctor's advanced training, he can usually salvage even the goriest tractor accident; an ongoing love interest provides a great series-long story arc as well. (Five seasons; 1-4 on Netflix; 6th season to begin filming in Spring 2012.)
The Vicar of Dibley -- This show chronicles the trials and triumphs of an overweight female Vicar who has been posted to a small town full of addled and silly residents, most of whom are not happy about the changes in the Anglican church that authorized the ordination of women. Even with Richard Curtis (Love, Actually, Four Weddings and a Funeral; other stammering mash-note to middle-class romance movies) at the helm, I can't imagine this kind of a show could ever make it anywhere near network TV in the U.S., but it ran for three series and a number of specials between 1994-2007 and came in 3rd in the BBC's Britain's Best Sitcom competition. The unusual setting is a great vehicle for Dawn French (a seasoned, brilliant British comedian) who creates a lovable, fallible, wonderful character in Geraldine Granger. (Available on DVD.)
Kingdom -- The setting is essentially "Doc Martin" - Medicine & Cornwall + Law & Norfolk. Market Shipborough is another fictional, lovely place full of quirky townsfolk and bizarre yet often sweet "cases," and while the show suffers from some very uneven plotting, and an untimely cancellation, it boasts an impressive cast, anchored by the irrepressible Stephen Fry. As Peter Kingdom, Fry embodies a wise lawyer-about-town who is rarely required to actually practice law yet manages to sort out every problem with his sound advice and deep kindness. Suspend disbelief (and ignore the show's early confusion about whether to be a mystery) and enjoy. With Phyllida Law (Emma Thompson's mother) as the posh, foul-mouthed aunt, and Celia Imrie (one of the naked ladies in Calendar Girls) as the devoted office manager. (Three seasons, all on Netflix.)
Monarch of the Glen -- A decidedly guilty pleasure, this evening soap opera tells the story of Archie, a reluctant Laird (that's allegedly Scottish for "Lord") who has returned to his ancestral home to grapple with his birthright -- and its looming insolvency -- amid the purple highland hills, large stags and crystal lochs. The obligatory cast of wacky family members and colorful locals provide any number of fun diversions, including Julian Fellowes (lately of "Downton Abbey" fame) as Kilwillie, the mischievous owner of the abutting estate. In some sense this might be appreciated as a modern analogue to "Downton," but be warned: The series went on for seven years, which is at least three years after it had become totally ridiculous and unwatchable. I enjoyed the first two seasons and found the third problematic; after that, you're on notice to quit as soon as you want to throw something at the TV. It really doesn't get better. (Available on DVD.)
Rosemary and Thyme -- Literally old-lady TV, this may be the least accessible show to anyone outside the target demographic. Laura Thyme and Rosemary Boxer are late-middle-aged horticulturalists who come together to run a landscaping business; each job leads them to a murder mystery of some sort, which they solve with their knowledge of plants and human behavior. Sweet, silly and in its own way, thoughtful. The premise is far-fetched enough that this is best watched one episode at a time. (Season one available on Netflix.)