The 20 best TV shows on YouTube

Hornblower, I, Claudius and The Darling Buds of May are among the best shows available on YouTube
Hornblower, I, Claudius and The Darling Buds of May are among the best shows available on YouTube

From I, Claudius to Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy via Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip and 21 Jump Street, here are our pick of the top shows available to watch for free on YouTube. 

War and Peace

Genre: Historical drama

Creator: David Conroy

Starring: Anthony Hopkins, Morag Hood, Angela Down

Certificate: PG

Series: 1 (1972)

Anthony Hopkins as Pierre Bezhukov in War and Peace Credit: REX/REX

In a nutshell:With Andrew Davies's spectacular new War and Peace adaptation just concluded, what better time to revisit the BBC's earlier tilt at the Tolstoy epic? Admittedly, Davies, for one, is not a fan of the 20-part series ("like watching paint dry"). Sluggish pacing notwitstanding, it is arguably worth persevering with, if only for Anthony Hopkins's thoughtful turn as perpetually flustered hero Pierre Bezukhov.

The Darling Buds Of May

Genre: Comedy drama

Creator: David Nobbs 

Starring: David Jason, Catherine Zeta Jones

Certificate: PG

Series: 1-3 (1991-1993)

David Jason in the Darling Buds of May Credit: Rex

In a nutshell:The winsome rustic chuckle-fest that introduced the world to Catherine Zeta Jones. A mutton-chopped David Jason stars as the patriarch of a Kentish farming family who take a naive tax inspector under their wing, with Zeta Jones as the horse-loving daughter. The laughs are gentle rather than roll-around hilarious but the cast brings a nicely understated wryness. 

The Invaders

Genre: Science Fiction 

Creator: Larry Cohen

Starring: Roy Thinnes

Series: 1-2 (1967-1968)

Certificate: PG

Roy Thinnes in The Invaders Credit: ITV/Rex

In a nutshell: Brimming with Cold War paranoia, this cult Sixties series is regarded by science fiction buffs as a hugely influential forerunner of The X-Files. Thinnes plays an architect stumbling upon an extra-terrestrial invasion in progress. With many government figures already body-snatched by alien doppelgängers, our hero is constantly on the run as he tries (and inevitably fails) to convince the public little green men are taking over. 

Hornblower

Genre: High seas adventure

Creator: Andrew Grieve

Starring: Ioan Gruffudd, Robert Lindsay

Certificate: 15

Series: 1-4 (1999-2003)

Paul McGann and Ian Grufford in Hornblower Credit: ITV/Rex

In a nutshell: Against the backdrop of the French Revolution and Napoleonic Wars, dashing Royal Navy officer Horatio Hornblower pursues adventure on the high seas. Adapted, often loosely, from CS Forester's novels, Hornblower delivers boy's own derring-do in spades. The seafaring saga briefly threatened to make a star of lead Gruffudd. Alas, the best he could achieve upon seeking his fortune in Hollywood was a part in the terrible Fantastic Four movies of the early Noughties.

Project Greenlight 

Genre: Reality television 

Creators: Ben Affleck, Matt Damon

Starring: Ben Affleck, Matt Damon

Certificate: PG

Series: 1 (2001)

Matt Damon, Pete Jones and Ben Affleck in Project Greenlight Credit: Sky Media

In a nutshell:The X Factor meets Robert Altman's The Player in HBO's behind-the-curtain's peek at the dream factory. Movie bros Damon and Affleck are the moguls dangling before aspiring directors the opportunity to make their Hollywood ambitions reality. This being a fly-on-the-wall documentary, nothing goes quite to plan as a lucky unknown is placed at the helm of a low-budget feature and conflict and toe-curling misunderstandings ensue. 

The Green Hornet

Genre: Superhero

Creators: George W Trendle, Fran Striker

Starring: Van Williams, Bruce Lee

Certificate: U

Series: 1 (1967)

Bruce Lee and Van Williams in the Green Hornet Credit: Rex

In a nutshell:Worth watching for a young Bruce Lee as the Hornet's furious-fisted sidekick Kato. Dialogue is creaky, storylines often simplistic. But the hokey spirit of the original pulp serial comes through – and it's considerably more likeable than the ghastly Seth Rogen reboot from 2011.

Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip

Genre: Drama

Creator: Aaron Sorkin

Starring: Matthew Perry, Amanda Peet, Bradley Whitford

Certificate: 15

Series: 1 (2006)

The cast of Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip Credit: Rex

In a nutshell: Regarded as a disaster for West Wing creator Sorkin when it was cancelled after a single series, this behind-the-scenes account of a Saturday Night Live-esque sketch show has come to be regarded as an interesting misfire. Friends' Matthew Perry plays against type as hard-charging producer trying to breath new life into a sagging comedy institution. 

21 Jump Street

Genre: Police procedural

Creator: Patrick Hasburgh, Stephen J Cannell

Starring: Johnny Depp, Holly Robinson, Pete DeLuise

Certificate: PG

Series: 1-2 (1987-1988)

The cast of 21 Jump Street Credit: Rex

In a nutshell: The springboard that catapulted Johnny Depp onto the A-list, the late Eighties police procedural has held up surprisingly well. Grittier than the recent big-screen reboot of the franchise, it features the future Jack Sparrow as a pretty-boy undercover cop solving high school and campus crimes.

Children of the Stones

Genre: Children's drama

Creator: Jeremy Burnham, Trevor Ray

Starring: Iain Cuthbertson, Gareth Thomas, Freddie Jones

Certificate: 12

Series: 1 (1976)

Scientist Adam Brake and his son Matthew arrive in the sleepy English village of Milbury to find it under the grip of psychic powers unleashed by the sinister village squire, Hendrick Credit: Rex

In a nutshell:Children of the Stones is often cited as the most terrifying kids' drama of all time. A title sequence in which neolithic menhirs are shot at jarring angles as a choir shrieks and moans will certainly send the skittish diving behind the couch. Stick around and you will be treated to a baffling time-travel yarn as an astrophysicist father and his son are sucked into a slipstream universe of chanting druids and temporal anomalies in deepest Wiltshire.

This American Life

Genre: Documentary 

Creator: Ira Glass

Starring: Ira Glass

Certificate: PG

Series: 1-2 (2007-2009)

 Ira Glass's This American Life

In a nutshell:The cult radio series and podcast was briefly reimagined as a jittery television show. Idiosyncratic animations accompany host Ira Glass's distinctive voice-over, fleshing out the pathos and /or humour of the subject matter. The resulting grab-gab of true life stories celebrates the transcendent quirkiness of the human condition. 

Gunsmoke 

Genre: Western

Creators: John Meston, Norman Macdonnell

Starring: James Arness, Amanda Blake, Burt Reynolds

Certificate: U

Series: 1-15 (1955-1970)

Ricardo Montalban and James Arness in Gunsmoke Credit: Rex

In a nutshell: The longest-running American television drama of all time (it just about holds the record over Law & Order), Gunsmoke is a died-with-their-boots-on western of the sort they simply don't make any more. John Wayne introduced the first episode of a series that celebrates the cliché of the gunslinger sheriff (James Arness) bringing order to the lawless West.

The Critic

Genre: Animation

Creators: Al Jean, Mike Reiss

Starring: Jon Lovitz, Nancy Cartwright

Certificate: PG

Series: 2 (1994-1995)

In a nutshell: Simpsons showrunners Jean and Reiss were given carte blanche by the ABC network to create whatever series they wanted and the result was an odd mash-up of Beavis and Butt-Head and Siskel and Ebert at the Movies. The Critic revolved around the triumphs and reversals of movie journalist Jay Sherman, with the film industry a regular punching-bag. The Silence of the Lambs, Apocalypse Now, The Godfather and The Lion King were among the sacred cows skewered.

I, Claudius

Genre: Historical drama 

Creator: Martin Lisemore

Starring: Derek Jacobi, Sian Phillips, Brian Blessed, John Hurt

Certificate: PG

Series: 1 (1976)

Derek Jacobi, John Hurt and George Baker in I, Claudius Credit: Rex

In a nutshell: This lavish, deeply talky, historical romp was the original of the swords-and-sandal species. Tracing the rise and fall of Rome, the scope was appropriately sprawling, with Brian Blessed at his most gruffly charismatic as Emperor Augustus. Jacobi would make the part of dying narrator Claudius his own – no matter that the role was originally offered to Charlton Heston and, surreally, comedian Ronnie Barker

The Richard Pryor Show

Genre: Comedy

Creator: Richard Pryor

Starring: Richard Pryor

Certificate: 15 Series: 1 (1977)

The Richard Pryor show only ran for one series Credit: Rex

In a nutshell: Canned after just four episodes, Pryor's prime-time sketch show was nevertheless a stunning showcase for the comedian's anarchic humour. Where else on Seventies television would a parody of Star Wars be juxtaposed with a scene in which a woman is shown describing her first lesbian experience? Too frenetic and daring for its time, today it would surely be a cult smash. 

Space: 1999

Genre: Science fiction

Creators: Gerry and Sylvia Anderson

Starring: Martin Landau, Barbara Bain

Certificate: PG

Series: 1-2 (1975-1977)

Martin Landau (left) in Space Credit: REX/REX

In a nutshell: A rare foray into live action television by Thunderbirds creator Anderson. As the sun sets on the 20th century, a freak nuclear accident sends the moon spiralling into deep space. Stranded on Moonbase Alpha is a ragtag of astronauts and scientists, led by Landau's John Koenig and Dr Helena Russell (played by Landau's wife Barbara Bain). The most expensive British television series ever on its debut, Space 1999 has been thoroughly outshone by Star Trek, Dr Who et al. Impressive special effects and some brain-bending story-lines make it worth rediscovering. 

The Cold War

Genre: Documentary

  Creators: Pat Mitchell, Jeremy Isaacs

  Starring: Kenneth Branagh (narration) 

Series: 1 (1998)

Certificate: G

Kenneth Brannagh narrates documentary series Cold War Credit: Rex

In a nutshell: The definitive chronicling of the Cold War and humanity's 40-year flirtation with nuclear annihilation, from the producers of the landmark Seventies series World at War.  Like Laurence Oliver's narration on that documentary, Kenneth Branagh's voice-over here is self-consciously understated. Interviewees include Mikhael Gorbachev, George HW Bush and Egon Krenz, final communist leader of East Germany.

The Prisoner 

Genre: Sci-fi drama

Creator: Patrick McGoohan, George Markstein

Starring: Patrick McGoohan

Series: 1 (1967)

Certificate: PG

Patrick McGoohan in The Prisoner Credit: Rex

In a nutshell:Cult psychedelic mystery starring McGoohan as a secret agent held prisoner in a surreal "Village". Gleefully bonkers, the show's eerie ambience would set the tone for subsequent generations of science fiction and horror (you can bet David Lynch was a fan). McGoohan's stoic performance grounds a drama that otherwise might teeter towards slight and silly.

The Adventures of Young Indiana Jones

Genre: Adventure

Creator: George Lucas

Starring: Sean Patrick Flanery, Corey Carrier

Certificate: U

Series: 1-3 (1992-1993)

Sean Patrick Flannery as the young Indiana Jones Credit: Rex

In a nutshell:Erase memories of the heretically terrible Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull with Lucas's pulpy account of the swashbuckling archaeologist's teenage adventures in the 1910s. Unusually, the show was shot on location around the world each episode costing an eye-watering $1.5 million. Young Indiana Jones was stuffed with historical cameos, the fresh-faced hero making the acquaintance of Al Capone, Winston Churchill and Sigmund Freud and waging a romantic rivalry against Ernest Hemingway.

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

Genre: Spy drama

Creator: Jonathan Powell

Starring: Alec Guinness, Michael Jayston, Anthony Bate

Certificate: PG

Series: 1 (1979)

Alec Guinness, left, as George Smilie in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

In a nutshell: Considered the definitive John Le Carré adaptation, this 1979 mini-series was distinguished by a career best performance by Alec Guinness as angst-ridden spy George Smiley, enmeshed in a conspiracy stretching from London to Moscow. A Soviet mole is seemingly loose within MI6 – but who is to be trusted and who closely observed? James Bond meets Samuel Beckett in a seven-part drama that reveals the life of the average spook to be 90 per cent suburban tedium, 10 per cent sweltering danger. 

The Great War

Genre: Documentary

Creator: John Terraine, Corelli Barnett

Starring: Michael Redgrave

Certificate: PG

Series: 1 (1964)

Documentary on The Great War Credit: Rex

In a nutshell: Overshadowed today by the seminal World at War, this BBC documentary marked the 50th anniversary of the outbreak of conflict in 1914. Indeed, its footage of soldiers charging over the top and frankness about the squalor of the trenches were regarded as hugely significant in rekindling consciousness of the Great War. Watched today, it's the interviews with the veterans – robust, plain-spoken men in their sixties and seventies – that resonate. 

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