The 15 Best British Detective TV Shows and Series
With the legacies of Agatha Christie and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle influencing much of Britain’s modern storytelling, how can we not make a list of some of the best British detective shows and series?
While the gentler cozy British murder mystery has become a staple of the detective genre, it’s the grittier, character-driven narratives that have dominated British television for years, from shows like Silent Witness to Vera to Endeavour. These are the shows that really get to the heart of a crime and a character’s psyche.
We’ve collated 15 of the best British detective shows to get your heart racing, mind thinking, and soul aching. Brace yourselves.
Scott & Bailey (2011-2016)
Created by award-winning writer Sally Wainwright (Gentlemen Jack, Happy Valley), Scott & Bailey follows the lives of two female detectives working with Manchester Police’s Major Incident Team. Excellent performances by Suranne Jones and Lesley Sharp bring the whole series together as their characters investigate brutal murders while trying to keep their personal lives intact. Scott & Bailey captures a gritty, realistic atmosphere, and the investigations are always tense enough to keep you on your toes. For those unfamiliar with the Mancunian accent, it might be worthwhile to put the subtitles on so that you can fully appreciate the superb dialogue, but this series is certainly worth your time. Scott & Bailey is available on ITVX in the U.K. and PBS and Britbox in the U.S.
Unforgotten sees DI Sunil “Sunny” Khan (Sanjeev Bhaskar) and his partner DCI Cassie Stuart (Nicola Walker), and later DCI Jess James (Sinéad Keenan) solve various harrowing cold cases amid the hustle and bustle of London. They don’t just investigate murderers, though, but disappearances as well, and the cases unfold in undeniably surprising yet always exciting ways. Each series, consisting of six episodes, introduces a new case with seemingly unconnected characters until the truth is finally brought to light. What makes this series so great is that it doesn’t just focus on the crime itself but the emotional fallout surrounding the case as well. Five seasons are available for you to watch on ITVX in the U.K. and PBS Masterpiece in the U.S.
DCI Banks (2010-2016)
Based on Peter Robinson’s Inspector Alan Banks novels, DCI Banks stars Stephen Tompkinson as the titular detective, a stubborn and tenacious man hellbent on unraveling every single gruesome murder mystery that comes his way. Though the show’s crimes are undeniably gripping, it’s Banks’ relationships with his team of detectives that will have you coming back for more, as he often collides with his equally headstrong and feisty DS, Annie Cabbot (Andrea Lowe). DCI Banks is available to stream on ITVX in the U.K. and Britbox and Amazon Prime Video in the U.S.
If you loved Nicola Walker’s performance in Unforgotten, you’ll surely love her performance in Annika as well. DI Annika Strandhed is the head of Glasgow’s Marine Homicide Unit, juggling various gruesome murder cases while trying to raise a headstrong teenage daughter at the same time. PBS Masterpiece has dubbed this a “police procedural with wit,” and it’s easy to see why. The performances are gripping yet charming, and the crimes are always intriguing. Annika is available on BBC iPlayer in the U.K. and PBS Masterpiece in the U.S.
Prime Suspect (1991-2006)
When you make a list of the best British detective dramas, you have to include Helen Mirren’s spellbinding performance in Prime Suspect. Mirren plays Detective Chief Inspector Jane Tennison, one of the first female DCIs in London’s Metropolitan Police Service. Slowly, despite having to constantly prove herself in a male-dominated world, she eventually rises through the ranks to become a Detective Superintendent as she solves dozens of emotionally devastating murder cases. Prime Suspect is a classic for a reason. You can find it on ITVX in the U.K. and Britbox in the U.S. Make sure you find the right one—as is often the case, the U.S. remake just couldn’t capture the same magic.
A period piece set in Oxford and its surroundings between the 1960s and 1970s, Endeavour is one of the most beautifully shot, well-written and performed shows on this list. A prequel to the long-running and ever-popular Inspector Morse, Endeavour follows the lives of Detective Endeavour Morse (Shaun Evans) and DI Fred Thursday (Roger Allam) as they juggle their personal lives and solve some of Oxford’s most tragic murders. Endeavour just finished its ninth and sadly final season on ITV in the U.K., but this show is well worth a watch. For those of you in the U.S., Endeavour can be found on Masterpiece PBS.
Vera follows DCI Vera Stanhope (Brenda Blethyn) and her team as they solve various harrowing murders across the stunning yet desolate Northumberland landscape. Vera‘s stories are soulful, touching, and memorable, intertwining well with Vera’s loneliness and workaholic nature. The series’ 90-minute runtime really allows the stories to go deeper into the crime, too. Vera is available in the U.K. on ITVX and on Amazon Video and BritBox in the U.S.
Heading even further north, Shetland takes place on the remote Shetland islands above Scotland and follows DI Jimmy Perez (Douglas Henshall) and his team as they investigate various crimes and murders across the islands. Given Shetland takes place within a small island community, the stakes are always high and personal—it’s often the case that Perez and his colleagues are forced to investigate people they’ve known their entire lives, making for incredibly compelling drama and character work. Shetland season 8, however, has introduced a new Detective Inspector after Henshall officially made his exit in the season 7 finale. DI Ruth Calder (Ashley Jensen) has joined the team now. Make sure to watch the new episodes to find out how she’s fitting in.
Shetland is available on BBC iPlayer and ITVX in the U.K. and available to buy or rent on various streaming services in the U.S.
Vienna Blood (2019-present)
One of the newest shows on this list, Vienna Blood is a darkly interesting period piece set in early 1900s Vienna and follows Dr. Max Liebermann (Matthew Beard) and Detective Oskar Rheinhardt (Juergen Maurer) as they solve various crimes throughout the city. The twist here is the psychological profiling of the killers, with Liebermann’s particular skills as a professional psychoanalyst playing a major role in every story. Vienna Blood is based on the Liebermann novels by English author Frank Tallis.
Though this is the only show on this list that doesn’t take place in the U.K., it is produced by the BBC (and thus available on BBC iPlayer). It felt like a necessary addition to this list, a break from the norm while still encapsulating the darker, character-driven work of all the other shows we name here. Vienna Blood is available to buy or rent on various streaming services in the U.S. such as Amazon Prime and Google Play. It is also available on PBS. Vienna Blood season 4 is being filmed now, so keep an eye out for new episodes in 2024.
Waking the Dead (2000-2011)
One of the darker, faster-paced shows on this list, Waking the Dead follows a team of detectives, psychologists, and forensic scientists as they uncover various London-based cold cases and try to solve previously unsolved murders using modern methods and technology. The acting is top notch and the stories are always intense and gripping, making Waking the Dead one to put on the watch list, for sure. Waking the Dead can be found on BBC iPlayer in the U.K. and on BritBox, Amazon, and Apple TV+ in the U.S.
Inspector George Gently (2007-2017)
Another period piece, Inspector George Gently follows DCI George Gently (Martin Shaw) and DS John Bacchus (Lee Ingleby) in the 1960s in the north of England. Shaw delivers a compelling performance as the titular character, as the show not only features a new murder mystery every episode, but also deals with the murder of his wife. George Gently ran for 8 seasons in total and can be found on UKTV play in the U.K., as well as Amazon Prime Video in both the U.K. and the U.S.
Foyle’s War (2002-2015)
The final period piece on this list, Foyle’s War follows DCS Christopher Foyle (Michael Kitchen) as he investigates various crimes and murders on the southern coast of England during World War II, with later series following Foyle as a retired detective turned MI5 agent in the aftermath of the war. Honeysuckle Weeks plays his assistant/driver Samantha Stewart with the utmost sincerity, lending some levity to stories that deal with the darkness of the looming conflict and the pain of various crimes. Foyle’s War can be found to buy or rent on various streaming services and Acorn TV in both the U.S. and the U.K.
Silent Witness (1996-present)
The longest-running show on this list, Silent Witness recently finished airings its 26th season and has no intention of slowing down any time soon. Though it’s had a rotating cast of characters, Silent Witness‘ core premise has always remained the same, following the forensic investigations of pathologists and scientists based in London. Silent Witness‘ stories are always intricate, clever, intense, and sometimes downright creepy, making this one of the most popular British shows on TV to this day. Silent Witness is available on BBC iPlayer in the U.K. and it is available to buy or rent on various streaming platforms like Amazon, iTunes, and Google Play in the U.S.
Broadchurch contains a wealth of talent including David Tennant, Olivia Colman, and Jodie Whittaker, captivating everyone when it first aired on ITV in the U.K. Instead of introducing and solving a new crime in every episode, Broadchurch featured a new investigation per season, each one as harrowing and devastating as the next. Broadchurch is widely considered one of ITV’s best dramas, and if you missed it the first time around, definitely give it a try now. It can be found on ITVX in the U.K. and is available to buy or rent on various streaming services in the U.S.
The Fall (2013-2016)
The final and perhaps creepiest option on this list, The Fall stars acting heavyweights Gillian Anderson and Jamie Dornan in this procedural which follows DSU Stella Gibson as she tries to track down a serial killer in Belfast, Northern Ireland. The Fall is tense and haunting and will stick with you long after you’ve finished, but is certainly worth the watch. The Fall can be found on BBC iPlayer in the U.K. and on Amazon, Google Play, NBC, Pluto, Tubi, and Peacock in the U.S. A subscription may be required for some of those services.
Additional shout-outs for shows like Luther, Line of Duty, and Happy Valley, all of which are equally captivating and brilliant in their own ways, but are more recent and widely known. Enjoy being emotionally compromised and somewhat terrified!
(featured image: ITV/BBC)
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