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10 of the best forgotten TV shows

In my new book, Don’t Let Him In, Rebecca Cole has to relive the events of her troubled past when her father is killed by the murderer he was trying to trap. Writing about the traumas of Rebecca’s youth and the formative moments from her teenage years for this book got me thinking about memory and the strange tricks it can play on us.

You only have to listen to the opening bars of an old song to be transported back to a different time. Half-forgotten people or places can be recalled in an instant from the sight of a familiar building, the sound of a similar accent, sometimes even the smell of food. Films and television shows can have the same effect.

Here are a few personal favourite TV series that always make me feel nostalgic for days gone by. They feature crime, espionage, police or political corruption and there is even a bit of classic British sci-fi, as well as one for Line Of Duty fans. You can find most of them online or in a box set. Feel free to add your favourite vintage TV series in the comments section below – but don’t forget to tell us why it makes you nostalgic.

10 of the best forgotten TV shows

Patrick McGoohan stars in Danger Man, one of the best forgotten TV shows

1. Danger Man (1960-62, 1964-66)

Most people have heard of The Prisoner but not all of them realise that Patrick McGoohan’s character only ends up in his Portmeirion prison because he tries to resign from his role as a secret agent in Danger Man, which concluded a year earlier, and ‘they’ won’t let him go. Before McGoohan went down the surreal route of so much late-sixties telly, he gave us some James-Bond-style excitement with this one. John Drake apparently works for NATO not MI6 but he is still a small screen Bond and Ian Fleming was involved in the early stages of development. Producer George Markstein, who worked on both Danger Man and The Prisoner, confirmed that Drake and ‘Number 6’ were one and the same character. Oh, and if you need another clue about its Bond influence, listen to the way in which the character introduces himself at the beginning of each episode.

‘A messy job? Well that’s when they usually call on me, or someone like me. Oh yes; my name is Drake. John Drake.’

Edward Woodward stars as David Callan in Callan, one of the best forgotten TV shows

2. Callan (1967-72)

For the generation before mine, this was much cherished TV. I watched repeats of this classic series later then picked up the DVD box set. David Callan was as deadly as James Bond but far less sure of himself or his government’s intentions. He was also cynical, troubled, and bitter, as well as more openly insubordinate. Edward Woodward’s Callan was an orphan, a former army corporal turned bank robber who served time, before being recruited by ‘Hunter’, the head of a shady department called the Section. He is deadly and deniable, the man they send when they want someone killed in an extrajudicial manner. Assisted by a small-time thief called ‘Lonely’ (Russell Hunter) and often at odds with upper class colleagues, Toby Meres and James Cross, played by Anthony Valentine and Patrick Mower respectively, Callan was a bit of an everyman figure – if every man carried a gun and could kill you with his bare hands.

‘I hit him and he died of it.’

The cast of The Sandbaggers, one of the best forgotten TV shows

3. The Sandbaggers (1978-80)

This one is nowhere near as well known as its spiritual counterpart, Callan, but it should be. The pace is a little slower, with less action but if you are looking for a cynical portrayal of the realities of the Cold War then The Sandbaggers fits the bill perfectly. Undermanned, underfunded and constantly stymied by politicians or civil servants, the members of the Special Operations Section are sent on perilous missions with a high mortality rate. Their world is a dirty and occasionally violent one. Ray Lonnen plays Willie Caine, Sandbagger Number One, an ever-present sounding board for his rule breaking boss Neil Burnside, ‘D-Ops’, played by Roy Marsden. A notable footnote is the mysterious disappearance of the creator of the series, Ian Mackintosh, who was rumoured to have worked in naval intelligence. He vanished, along with his girlfriend, when their light aircraft went down in the Pacific, leading to numerous conspiracy theories and the end of this intelligent, morally ambiguous series.

‘You thought I was KGB. I thought she was. Suspicious bunch, aren’t we?’

Alec Guinness and Terence Rigby in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, one of the best forgotten TV shows

4. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (1979)

Okay, this is not a completely overlooked TV adaptation but I had to remind everyone of its superiority over the much-lauded film adaptation from 2011. Thomas Alfredson gave us a beautiful, stylised version of John le Carre’s classic novel but he only had two hours, not seven episodes. He also had the brilliant Gary Oldman but not Alec Guiness, who is the definitive George Smiley. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is a gripping and complex tale of betrayal. Control, Smiley’s boss at ‘the Circus’, spent his final days trying to unmask a mole in the British Secret Service who was betraying secrets to Karla, a brutal KGB spymaster at Moscow Centre. He narrows it down to four suspects, telling Smiley ‘There are three of them and Alleline’, then dies before he can complete the task. Smiley is brought out of retirement by senior civil servant, Oliver Lacon, to finish the job. Possibly le Carre’s best book, this superb adaptation has a fine cast, including Ian Richardson, Michael Jayston, Bernard Hepton, Ian Bannen, Hywel Bennett and Beryl Reid, who clearly had a wonderful time bringing it to the screen. You can see why. The dialogue is an actor’s dream.

‘It’s the oldest question of all, George. Who can spy on the spies?’

John Duttine and Emma Relph star in The Day of the Triffids, one of the best forgotten TV series

5. The Day of the Triffids (1981)

Based on the classic 1951 novel by king of British sci-fi John Wyndham, this is the 1981 adaptation starring John Duttine, not the 2009 version with Dougray Scott. Bill Masen wakes to find that society has broken down overnight, as most of the population has gone blind after watching a meteor shower he missed thanks to an eye injury sustained by a poisonous Triffid plant. If that were not chilling enough, the plants are now loose. They are mobile, deadly, carnivorous and possibly even vengeful against humans who have been cultivating them for their oil. The Triffids come after everyone, blind or not. This is one of those thrilling post-apocalyptic stories we have grown used to by now but they were much rarer back then and even more so when Wyndham wrote his novel in the fifties. The plants look a bit rubbery now but when this was first broadcast, it was hide-behind-the-sofa-TV.

‘If it were a choice of survival between a blind man and a Triffid, I know which I’d put my money on.’

Nicholas Day and Ray Lonnen star in Harry's Game, one of the best forgotten TV shows

6. Harry’s Game (1982)

Ray Lonnen must have caught someone’s approving eye in The Sandbaggers, because he was snapped up for another hard man role in this superior thriller, based on the book by Gerald Seymour. Harry’s Game was surely Lonnen’s finest hour. It tells the story of an undercover agent sent to Belfast at the height of the Troubles, to track down and kill an IRA assassin, played by The Long Good Friday’s Derek Thompson. He murdered a government minister in front of his family and now the British want revenge – but how does an undercover agent move safely through streets where everyone knows everybody and outsiders face torture and death?

‘The Brits have put a man in to find you.’

Ian Richardson stars in House of Cards, one of the best forgotten TV shows

7. House Of Cards (1990)

Not the US version from David Fincher in 2013, which featured the brilliant but now utterly disgraced Kevin Spacey in the lead role – this is the much earlier UK adaptation of Michael Dobbs’ novel. Unscrupulous politician Frances Urquhart’s ruthless rise to the top is at the expense of anyone who is in his way. Ian Richardson – Bill Hayden in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy – modelled his brilliant portrayal on Shakespeare’s Richard III, but his wife, Elizabeth, played by Diane Fletcher, is pure Lady Macbeth. They will do anything to get Frances into Number 10 – even murder. That includes corrupting young journalist Mattie Storin (Susannah Harker) by handing her stories that reflect badly on his rivals, while seducing her into the bargain, and all with his wife’s blessing. We get to see Frances Urquhart’s true Machiavellian side in a series of Shakespearian-style soliloquys spoken directly to us, straight into the camera. Since Dobbs was a long-time advisor to the Tory government, you can’t help but wonder who the hell he modelled Frances Urquhart on.

‘You might think that. I couldn’t possibly comment.’

The cast of Between the Lies, one of the best forgotten TV shows

8. Between The Lines (1992-94)

Before Line Of Duty went after bent coppers and no one had ever heard of ‘H’ or ‘the wee donkey’, there was Between The Lines. Even their titles sound a bit similar, but this one was made almost thirty years ago now. Between The Lines starred Neil Pearson, as Detective Superintendent Tony Clark from the Met’s CIB (Complaints Investigation Bureau), a forerunner of the fictional AC-12 in LOD. The first episode has a terrific supporting cast including Lesley Vickerage, Siobhan Redmond, Ciaran Hinds, Ben Chaplin and Tony Doyle. Though it won the 1994 BAFTA for Best Drama series, it seems to have largely dropped off people’s radar now but deserves to be rediscovered, especially by Line Of Duty fans left bereft by the end of Britain’s most watched TV drama since records began. They can console themselves with some of Between The Lines‘ plot twists while muttering ‘Mother of God’ to themselves.

‘Nobody’s fireproof are they, sir?’

The cast of Our Friends in the North, one of the best forgotten TV shows

9. Our Friends in the North (1996)

Our Friends in the North features a quartet of hugely famous lead actors, none of whom were well known at the time this aired. Christopher Eccleston went on to play Doctor Who, Mark Strong has a CV filled with Hollywood movies, Gina McKee won a BAFTA for OFITN and you may have heard of the other fella who plays ‘Geordie’ here but is perhaps slightly better known these days as James Bond – Daniel Craig. Set in the north east of England and London, Peter Flannery’s masterpiece spans a thirty-year period and each episode is set in a general election year. With a backdrop of urban regeneration, organised crime, police corruption, the miner’s strike and a catalogue of political wrongdoing, there are terrific performances from an impressive supporting cast too, as well as some wonderful dialogue. Most importantly, the four leads all nail the Geordie accent, for once. The complex main characters can be hard to like at times but you still root for them all, as they live out their daily lives, while major events that shaped our country unfold in the background.

‘Let me give you some advice. Don’t give up your day job.’

Mark Strong stars in The Long Firm, one of the best forgotten TV shows

10. The Long Firm (2004)

Mark Strong is on cracking form again here, as a fictionalised Ronnie Kray-esque character in a series adapted from Jake Arnott’s bestselling book. Occasionally charming, always thoughtful but capable of extreme brutality, Harry Starks interacts with several characters based on recognisably real people in sixties London. Strong didn’t realise it at the time but he was auditioning to play virtually every villain in Hollywood for the next decade or so (see Sherlock Holmes, Robin Hood, Kickass). This is a clever take on a sixties gangster story loosely based on actual events. Lena Headey and Derek Jacobi are both excellent as always but it is Strong that dominates every scene he is in.

‘I just want you to reassure him, talk to him, make him see the error of his ways. Then I’ll hit him.’

What’s your favourite forgotten TV show? Let us know which crime dramas make you feel nostalgic in the comments below…

Don't Let Him In

Howard Linskey

Howard Linskey, author of Don't Let Him In
Howard Linskey, author of Don't Let Him In
Howard Linskey

Howard Linskey is the author of a series of crime novels set in the North-East, featuring detective Ian Bradshaw and journalists Tom Carney and Helen Norton. Most recently, he has written standalone thrillers including Alice Teale is Missing and Don’t Let Him In. Originally from Ferryhill in County Durham, Howard now lives in Hertfordshire with his wife and daughter.

Follow Howard on Twitter.

6 Comments

    There’s some cracking good shows in that line up. You can watch all episodes of Between the Lines on YouTube

    There was a BBC series in the mid1970s called Quiller. It featured Michael Jayston in the title role working as an undercover agent. I think it only ran for one series. I’ve never seen it broadcast anywhere since, not even on YouTube. Would like to see this again

    Excellent choices. Callan was superb: gritty, dark and the true anti Bond (there was a film too). Harry’s Game was a classic, worthy of the novel. Sandbaggers looks a lot of fun.

    I always enjoyed ” Man in a suitcase” with Richard Bradford as McGill , an ex American intelligence operative working in England as a PI.

    Remember Resnick with Tom Wilkinson.Great use of Nottingham locations

    I watched them all except The Long Game. Loved The Sandbaggers and Between the Lines.

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