Some of the most entertaining programs I've seen from Britain in the past few years weren't intended for adult audiences at all, but instead were produced by the children's television units of the BBC and ITV. Like literally miniaturized version of their "adult" counterparts, children are feed a constant diet of live action series, everything from historical adventures, to science fiction and realistic social dramas. And much of it is too good just for kids.
With budgets (and agendas) far ahead of anything in the United States, the quantity and quality of children's programming in Britain is staggering. Without being dependent on advertisers and freed of market concerns, the BBC can specifically target different youth audiences and interests without having to be worried about ratings or selling toys. ITV, even though advertiser supported, also produces many worthwhile programs that aren't merely tie-ins to merchandising campaigns or for lowest-common denominator tastes. Nor is children's television viewed as some sort of ghetto for writers or actors who couldn't get work elsewhere. Tony Robinson (best known for playing Baldrick in Black Adder) wrote and starred in a brilliant Robin Hood parody, Maid Marion and Her Merry Men (along with Red Dwarf's Danny John-Jules) for several years recently. Jackanory (from the verse, "Jackanory, tell me a story.") also has many big names reading and acting out famous stories and fairytales.
Children's literature (both modern and classic) is mined constantly for quality adaptations, with the BBC putting its trademark eye for historical accuracy into period dramas. The Psammaed, and its sequel The Phoenix and the Carpet (featuring the voice of David Suchet (Poirot)), feature a family of turn-of-the-century siblings who have incredible fantasy adventures, produced with state-of-the-art creature and special effects. More contemporary fantasy such as Dianna Wynne Jones's Archer's Goon, take place in a town run by a related family of aliens and their relationship with one boy's father who has to write 2000 words to keep them happy. Each of these series are presented as straight-forward stories that just happen to feature children and fantastic elements.
More down-to-earth dramas like the long-running Grange Hill (17 seasons and counting), Press Gang (starring Absolutely Fabulous's Julia Sawalha), and Byker Grove aren't afraid to tackle urban issues such as teenage crime, drug addiction, single parenting, racism, and gay relationships. It would be difficult to find most of these topics on an adult series in America, and never in a series intended for kids. But in Britain there is a level of realism and matter-of-factness that is nearly completely absent on US television. Their shows never talk to down to viewers, but instead make the assumption that children are mature and clever enough to absorb the material presented to them as long as it's not done in an exploitive fashion.
Some of my other favorite series in the past few years have included The Ink Thief, a musical fantasy starring Richard O'Brien (The Rocky Horror Picture Show); Aquila, about two boys who discover an incredible small ship in Roman ruins that can literally go anywhere; The Demon Headmaster, featuring a villain with mind-control powers who is opposed by a genius girl and her friends; and Knights of God, a post-apocalyptic retelling of the King Arthur story with former Doctor Who Patrick Troughton.
I should probably make mention too of the most famous British children's import, ITV's The Tomorrow People. For eight seasons in the 1970s (with groovy fashions to boot!) the Tomorrow People, a group of higher-evolved kids with special powers, had fantastic adventures both here on earth and in space. Recently Nickelodeon and Australian televison teamed up for a updated revival. (And in case you were wondering, Doctor Who, although always intended as a children's series, was always made under the auspices of the drama department of the BBC, not the children's department.)
Though American television now isn't the "vast wasteland" for children's shows it was until recently (mostly thanks to efforts on Nickelodeon and Fox Kids), it has a lot of catching up to do if it wants to reach the constant level of quality offered on a nearly daily basis to kids in Britain. It's a shame most of the British series aren't imported over here, either on PBS or on cable. Are they considered too sophisticated for American tastes? Are they afraid kids won't understand the British accents? Is it the content? Meanwhile, do yourself a favor: if you find yourself in Britain, don't be afraid to turn on the telly around 4:30 in the afternoon and check out some of what they are producing. You might be pleasantly surprised.