All the best British cop/crime series: must watch!

By Caitlin Kelly

I’ve been bingeing of late on British crime and cop shows, so much so it sometimes feels like all-Nicola-Walker all the time.

I just finished the amazing 2015 series River, about a London policeman named John River — who has an unnerving habit of seeing dead people — which also starred Walker as his partner, Stevie. I then watched the final episode of Unforgotten, starring Walker as the lead investigator on a cold case of the murder of a young woman in a small town.

I like a few qualities of these shows: the focus on solutions and complications, rarely on endless gratuitous violence; little to no gun play and much more psychological story-telling than the usual cops/street chase drama and glimpses of beautiful British settings.

In every show, also unusual, the police are shown as human beings with their own complicated emotional lives — whether with their spouses, parents, siblings, children or co-workers.

Some of my favorites:



How can you resist anything with Olivia Colman? This series, initially set in Dorset, with the second season also shot in Somerset, Devon and Berkshire, stars Colman as detective Elie Miller with David Tennant as her partner. The settings are spectacular and the familial twists add to the tension.


This series stars Nicola Walker as DCI Cassie Stuart and her partner DCI Sunny Khan (Sanjeev Bhaskar.) The opening theme music is especially haunting. I’ve watched the second and third seasons; both involve complicated plots and multiple characters.


This one might be my favorite, now four years old. The premise, a partnership between an older man with some significant mental issues and no friends or family and his fellow detective partner, a younger woman (with a secret) from a crime-ridden family, is interesting enough. I loved Swedish actor, Stellan Skarsgard, 67, as the lead, an actor I haven’t seen much of since his super-terrifying role in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo — although he has appeared in many of the Avenger films.

Nicola Walker, 48, is surely one of Britain’s best-known and most-seen actresses on television — less so in film.

The Daily Telegraph critic raved “Creepy yet ultimately uplifting, River stands alongside London Spy, Humans and Wolf Hall as one of the year’s best home-grown TV dramas.”[21]



The windswept and isolated landscape alone made me want to hop into a very small airplane and go see it for myself. So much of the appeal of these shows, as someone living in an American suburban town, is the dense interplay of characters living in small towns in impossibly picturesque places.

The Bodyguard

From its terrifying opening episode, this one is full of twists and turns, following the life of bodyguard David Budd as he guards a politician whose values he loathes, played by Keeley Hawes.

The Tunnel

I would watch French actress Clemence Poesy read a recipe card. She’s amazing in this two-season series, (an adaptation of The Bridge), which involves detectives from France and England after a body — cut in half — is found lying at the exact midpoint of the Chunnel, forcing both nations to investigate and work together despite cultural and linguistic differences. Poesy plays a woman who is somewhat autistic, maybe even someone with Aspergers’, whose single-mindedness confounds many of her co-workers but helps her be a great cop.

Happy Valley

Starring Sarah Lancashire, (who, like Nicola Walker, also stars in Last Tango in Halifax), as a weather-beaten divorced small-town policewoman in the Calder Valley, West Yorkshire in northern England. Between the thick accents and speed of speech, you might need sub-titles! Her character, Catherine Cawood, lives with her sister Clare, a recovering alcoholic and heroin addict. Cawood’s adult daughter committed suicide after being raped and impregnated.

I know…this all sounds horribly grim! But Cawood is a great character and every scene is shot on location.



Edward Norton! Need I say more? He plays Sidney Chambers, a small-town minister helping local detective Geordie Keating, solve crimes. A much less grim and dark series, with lots of humor and domestic issues as well. Also set in 1953, so lots of period costume and details.



This is — of course — the detective’s first name, an Oxford drop-out. Set in 1968, 1969 and now 1970 for the latest season, it offers gorgeous glimpses of Oxford and surroundings. His partner’s name is Fred Thursday and they drive around in a stunning vintage Jaguar.



15 thoughts on “All the best British cop/crime series: must watch!

  1. Jan Jasper

    Thanks so much for sharing this – I love this stuff! The only one on your list that I’ve seen is Broadchurch, which I just loved. Are these on regular TV, or subscription services?
    I no longer have “Regular” TV, but I subscribe to Netflix and Acorn TV. All Acorn’s shows are made in the non-US English-speaking world: England, Scotland, Ireland, Wales, Australia, and New Zealand. They have comedies, but much of Acorn’s offerings are crime dramas, They usually have a strong psychological component. I’ve loved every Acorn series that I’ve watched. My favorite is “Line of Duty” – it’s riveting. The new season debuts tomorrow and I plan on binge watching.

  2. Thank you for this great list. I have watched Endeavor over and over on YouTube and was beginning to be very sad ’cause I could not find any more good detective shows. Some I’ve watched are too much, like “Wire in the Blood” or “Rebus” (even though I watched as many as I could. I think YouTube gets the older ones.

    1. The new season of Endeavour starts soon — and he has a moustache!

      I agree about violence. I had to stop watching The Wire and Peaky Blinders because they were just too much.

  3. Margaret

    I’m embarrassed to admit that I’ve seen ALL of these. I think this might explain why I am not getting more writing done.
    Great list though. I agree that River was quite weird but addictive, and I really enjoyed Endeavour, but my favourite has to be Line of Duty. The last series was truly nail-biting, edge of the seat stuff. The only other series I’ve got on my list to watch is Hinterland. Has anyone seen this?
    I started watching Luther but it was far too gory for my tastes, so I gave up watching that one. If you like good British drama, Humans is also excellent. Not a detective series but a very interesting concept about humanoids.

    1. Jan Jasper

      I enjoyed Luther but I, too, had to stop seeing it because of the violence. I wonder why writers and directors use so much violence?. I think they could make their points and explain the perpetrators’ characters etc. without going overboard with detailed depictions of violence.

  4. I’d recommend Doctor Who and Lucifer be added to this list, but sadly, one only moves through a British police box, and the other is an American show with a British lead, lol.
    BTW, have you watched the TV series based on the Cormoran Strike series? I haven’t seen it because I think it’s HBO, but I’ve heard good things.

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