Best ever political dramas ranked: From House of Cards and The West Wing to Borgen

As Covid chronicle This England, starring Kenneth Branagh as Boris Johnson, streams on Sky Atlantic with NOW, we look back at the greatest political dramas and satires of all time.

By Alex Fletcher Published: 28 September 2022 - 2.10pm
Kenneth Branagh as Boris Johnson in This England

Stream every episode of This England on Wednesday, 28 September on Sky Atlantic with NOW

Hot on the heels of his exit from Downing Street, Boris Johnson is the centre of new political drama This England.

Every episode is released on Sky Atlantic with NOW on 28 September and the series focuses on how Johnson’s government dealt with Covid as well as the pandemic's impact on ordinary people's lives across the country.

Michael Winterbottom’s series interweaves emotional stories from the NHS and care services frontline with decisions in being made inside No.10, and explores the personal and national impact of the health crisis.

If you love this sort of political drama - fact-based, fictional or a bit of both - there are plenty of TV classics that take you behind the scenes and into the corridors of power to poke fun at our often hapless leaders.

We’ve ranked 9 of the best ever political TV dramas and comedies you can stream now…

9. The Crown 

Although Netflix series The Crown is technically a dramatised history of the reign of Queen Elizabeth II, the show works simultaneously as a look back at Britain’s modern Prime Ministers.

The Crown's creator, Peter Morgan, had previously written the award-winning stage play The Audience, which centres on the Queen's weekly meetings with her succession of PMs and which is credited as the inspiration behind a number of episodes of the Netflix show.

From John Lithgow’s Winston Churchill to Gillian Anderson’s Margaret Thatcher via Jason Watkins’ Harold Wilson, some of the show’s most fascinating moments have been the insights it has provided into our political leaders.

Exploring the varying power dynamics between the PMs and the former monarch, the show touches upon some of the biggest political scandals and upheavals in modern British history.

Where to watch it

Every season is available on Netflix

The Crown: 10 must-watch episodes from seasons 1-4

8. A Very English Scandal

With Russell T Davies and Stephen Frears behind the camera and Hugh Grant and Ben Whishaw on screen, A Very English Scandal blends humour and satire into this stranger-than-fiction political scandal.

Hugh Grant plays the former Liberal Party leader Jeremy Thorpe, whose political career came to an end when allegations arose that Thorpe had conspired to murder a man named Norman Scott, with whom he had had an affair. Few TV shows have captured the appalling nature of political power as well as this.

Where to watch it

A Very English Scandal is available to buy on Prime Video

7. Veep

British politicians like to talk of the country's 'special relationship' with America, so it seems appropriate that one of the most successful take-downs of US political culture stemmed from a transatlantic collaboration.

Veep - coming from the initials of the Vice President's title - was created by Scottish writer and producer Armando Iannucci after an attempted remake of his Westminster satire The Thick of It failed to get past the pilot stage. 

Iannucci and his all-British Thick of It writing team including Jesse Armstrong (who went on to create Succession) wrote the first four seasons before Iannucci handed over to former Seinfeld producer David Mandel. 

Julia Louis-Dreyfus gave a comedy masterclass as Vice President Selina Meyer, who continued to fail spectacularly for seven seasons as her advisors, assistants and crew backstabbed and jostled for power around her.

Where to watch it

Veep is available to buy on Prime Video

6. State of Play

David Morrissey and John Simm in State of Play BBC

This 2003 political thriller from writer Paul Abbott remains essential viewing nearly 20 years after it was first aired.

Starring David Morrissey, John Simm, Kelly Macdonald, Polly Walker, Bill Nighy and James McAvoy (quite the cast!), the series follows an investigation into what appears to be a drug-related killing which suddenly becomes something much more dangerous as connections to an MP and the oil industry suddenly turn the events into a much larger conspiracy.

Where to watch it

State of Play is available to buy on Prime Video

5. Borgen

Proving that the Danes could do far more than Nordic Noir detective series, Borgen brought the machinations of Danish politics to a wider world.

In season one, Birgitte Nybody (Sidse Babett Knudsen) becomes Denmark’s first woman prime minister and across four seasons the show brilliantly moulded together political realism and personal dramas and tackled big topics such as feminism and the media at the same time.

A perfectly crafted study of power.

Where to watch it

Every season of Borgen is available to stream on Netflix

4. House of Cards

Ian Richardson in House of Cards BBC

The BBC’s 1990 political thriller might be less well known that the Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright Netflix remake, but the British original and its two sequels remain absolute TV classics.

Ian Richardson stars as the unforgettable anti-hero Francis Urquhart, the manipulative and Machiavellian Chief Whip who pulls off a grand scheme to become the Prime Minister.

Richardson is brilliantly cast as the Shakespearian lead who is corrupted by power in Andrew Davies' four-part adaptation of Michael Dobbs' novel. In the best-remembered scenes, the villanous Urquhart frequently breaks the fourth wall to talk let the audience in on his schemes.

Unmissable political drama? You might very well think that; I couldn't possibly comment...

Where to watch it

House of Cards, To Play the King and The Final Cut are all available to stream on BritBox

3. Yes Minister / Yes, Prime Minister

Running from 1980 to 1988, Yes Minister and Yes, Prime Minister still remain as well loved and worryingly accurate 40 years after they first aired.

Clips and quotes from the British sitcom are still shared on social media today  as the truths about the goings on within the British political system and civil service remain the same today as they ever did.

Paul Eddington’s Jim Hacker and the double team of civil servants, Sir Humphrey Appleby and Bernard Woolley, played by Nigel Hawthorne and Derek Fowlds, are one of Britain’s greatest ever sitcom teams.

Where to watch it

Every season of Yes Minister and Yes, Prime Minister is streaming on BritBox

2. The Thick of It

Armando Iannucci’s deliciously foul-mouthed and skewering political satire delivered four seasons of hilarity as it dissected the world of modern political spin and increasingly inept politicians.

Peter Capaldi’s one-man quote machine Malcolm Tucker was the breakout star of the show, constantly creating ever more outlandish ways of telling people that they are idiots. One of his terms - the omnishambles - even made it into the Oxford English Dictionary in 2013.

However, there was far more to the series than Tucker's imaginative use of swear words. Just like Yes Minister, it was the worrying truths about the egos and buffoons running the country that was at the heart of the show, making it feel timeless regardless of which party was in government.

Where to watch it

Every season of The Thick Of It is streaming now on BritBox

1. The West Wing

The West Wing might feel a lot more distant from the reality of American politics than it used to, but that shouldn’t dampen the joy and magic of Aaron Sorkin’s classic series.

A contender in any decent list of the greatest TV shows of all time, Sorkin gave the world an idealistic view of the White House and its inner workings.

With Martin Sheen as President Bartlet and a cast included Allison Janney, Richard Schiff and Rob Lowe, the series remains the definitive political drama and a hugely influential TV show.

Where to watch it

All seven seasons of The West Wing are streaming now on All 4 and Amazon Freevee

Stream every episode of This England on Wednesday, 28 September on Sky Atlantic with NOW.