From Fleabag to Monkey Dust: the 20 best BBC Three shows

In a bid to attract the young viewers who have long since deserted it for Netflix, the BBC is toying with the idea of doubling the budget of BBC Three and bringing it back as a regular TV channel. To commemorate what could be one of the greatest comebacks in television history, here’s a look at the best ever BBC Three shows.

A three-part Russell T Davies comedy drama based on the memoirs of Giacomo Casanova, this was originally supposed to be a vehicle for Peter O’Toole. However, even O’Toole was blasted off the screen by the sheer electric crackle of David Tennant. This show is basically the reason Tennant became Doctor Who.

A show from much simpler times, when people were content to watch docusoaps about relatively obnoxious bosses twonking about for the cameras while their beleaguered employees pull faces behind his back. This one was about a man named Nev who liked to sack people if they didn’t participate in his pre-shift company-wide singalong. Monstrous.

A BBC Three mainstay, simply for its horrible premise. Each week a bride-to-be detailed the wedding of her dreams, then handed financial control of the ceremony over to her groom, who inevitably ruined everything so much that the bride burst into tears.

A mockumentary about a pirate radio station operating out of Brentford, west London. What was most remarkable about People Just Do Nothing is how it took a niche sub-genre and turned it into a solidly classical sitcom. For a while, this was the new Only Fools and Horses.

It’s hard to believe that The Mighty Boosh ran for such a comparatively short time, because its legacy is so strong. In the course of three years, the show introduced a brand of violently aggressive whimsy that almost singlehandedly created an entire comedy movement.

More proof that BBC Three worked best as a comedy incubator. This was the channel that offered a chance to a nothingy little relationship sitcom by James Corden and Ruth Jones. It did well, then was promoted to BBC One. When it returned for a Christmas special in 2019, it was the most-watched scripted show of the entire year.

Possibly the worst-titled show in the history of the channel – because, really, it had almost no bearing whatsoever on the content itself – Snog Marry Avoid was basically a programme in which people with distinct looks were “made under” to look like functioning members of society. It had a weird undertone of “conform or die”, but in a way that just made it more interesting.

A politically angry prank show. Heydon Prowse and Jolyon Rubenstein attempted to expose societal hypocrisy by dressing up and infiltrating protests, or asking members of the public what they thought about issues. Perhaps a little heavy-handed in places but, when it worked, it was stunning.

It’s hard to remember that Little Britain began on BBC Three, or how deliberately edgy it initially was. Before all the merchandise, playground catchphrases and kids’ books, Little Britain was a riot of nudity and blackface and suicide jokes. It would all do very badly now, but at the time it was a sensation.

Exactly the sort of thing that BBC Three should have been producing from the online wilderness, Pls Like was a razor-sharp satire of influencer culture. Depressed, charisma-free host Liam Williams investigated various YouTube fads, only to discover that they were ultimately as empty as he was. Fantastic.

Before embarking on his career as a director of elliptical arthouse films, Ben Wheatley made this sketch show. Just six episodes long, with a vaguely linked narrative, The Wrong Door was both incredibly funny, visually beautiful and spectacularly well cast. This is such an overlooked gem of a thing.

Harry Thompson and Shaun Pye’s satirical animation was dark. Like, brutally dark. Suicide, bestiality, sexual degradation and terrorism were some of its regular targets. A girl returning her birthday presents so her dad could maintain his gambling addiction. A father killing himself because he could no longer identify with his children. Like I said, bleak. But funny, too. I promise. It did Four Lions before Chris Morris got there, too.

There is a very good chance that we’ll look back and see This Country as the pinnacle of the mockumentary. A near-perfect look at rural village life, it’s both incredibly depressing and very silly. Kerry and Kurtan have no real means of escape from their surroundings, but they fill their time by focusing hard on nothing at all. The best episode is about an argument over who gets to use a certain shelf on an oven. It’s majestic.

Although naturally more suited to comedy, BBC Three was also unafraid to find new dramatic voices. Perhaps its biggest success was Bodies, an unflinching drama about medical malpractice written by a former doctor named Jed Mercurio. This remains his best work, and I’m not only including it here for fear that he’ll have another Twitter tantrum if I don’t.

Russell Tovey and Sarah Solemani in a sitcom – any sitcom – together would have been a recipe for success. But this wasn’t any sitcom, it was Stefan Golaszewski’s gorgeously observed and intermittently filthy delve into the nitty gritty of twentysomething relationships. Golaszewski most recently wrote Mum, and you can see the seeds of that show being sown here.

If BBC Three does return to television, a lot of that will be down to the unstoppable international success of Fleabag. Everyone has already heard every possible opinion about the series, but it’s important to remember that its success was by no means guaranteed. Phoebe Waller-Bridge had already written one show (Channel 4’s Crashing) and it was basically mishandled to death. But Fleabag ended up with a channel that treated it with the care it deserved, and the rest is history.

The last show developed by Monkey Dust’s Thompson before his death in 2005, Sharon Horgan’s Pulling was a sitcom about three single female friends and their generally disastrous attitudes towards life. Pulling was funny and filthy and unflinching, and BBC Three’s decision to cancel it just as it was hitting its stride is perhaps its greatest ever mistake.

Unlike almost anything else Vic Reeves and Bob Mortimer have done (with the possible exception of Channel 4’s The Weekenders), Catterick was a six-episode sitcom written by the pair. It’s ostensibly about a man who returns to his home town to reunite with his brother in search of his long-lost son, but it really just lays a canvas for Vic and Bob’s trademark silliness. To date, it remains their greatest work.

It isn’t until you see a list like this that you realise exactly how dark comedy was in the middle of the 00s. And yet the darkest of all might have been Julia Davis’s Nighty Night, a sitcom about an opportunistic woman who uses her husband’s terminal illness as a chance to ascend the social ladder. It begins with her learning her husband’s diagnosis and uttering the line: “I mean, why me?”, then tears off into storylines that revolve around disability, torture, murder and paedophilia. But it was funny too, I promise.

A few weeks ago I wrote a list of overlooked comedy shows that were currently available to stream. Top of my wishlist was Sean Lock’s 15 Storeys High, but I had to omit it on the basis that it wasn’t streamable anywhere. This is an outrage. Not only was 15 Storeys High – a sitcom about a grumpy misanthrope in a tower block – the best ever BBC Three show, but it should have set Lock on a more celebrated path than the panel show circuit he has found himself on. It’s simultaneously very quiet and uproariously funny. People sorely deserve to have 15 Storeys High in their lives again.

Honourable mentions: I Believe in UFOs: Danny Dyer; Becoming Human; Sun, Sea and Suspicious Parents