Ten Great TV Performances You’ve Never Seen

This is a tribute to ten truly great performances that most of the public have never seen or even heard of, written with the intention of spreading awesomeness.

10.Jonathan Rhys-Meyers – Gormenghast


The first (and the greatest) performance in an otherwise mediocre career, Jonathan Rhys-Meyers is menacingly and toweringly evil as kitchen boy turned master manipulator and serial murderer Steerpike, whose loneliness, anger and sexual frustration send him on a ruthless quest to rule the society that sees him as a bottom feeder. He alternates between black depression, pulsing scheming and screeching laughter. A psychological mess in a world of madmen, he takes an ecstatic, furious joy in the evil he commits that is both awful and delightful to watch.

9.Claire Foy – Little Dorrit


Claire Foy’s Amy Dorrit is an entirely convincing portrayal of a small person who loves to see other people happy, even at the cost of her own happiness. Having been a resident of the Marshalsea Debtors’ Prison since her birth, Amy harbours nothing but the greatest affection for a father, sister and brother who take shameless advantage of her and often ridicule her for not spending what little money she has on aspiring to their former, upper-class lifestyle. Outbursts of anger are infrequent, and she walks the streets of her cramped, miserable world with perfect contentment and fulfillment, loved by all who know her. Foy’s performance is masterfully realistic and believable, her face and voice the very image and sound of kindness, her enormous blue eyes intensely expressive and carrying the look and responsibility of a person twice her age.

8.Hattie Moran – Sense and Sensibility

A performance of enormous emotional maturity, Hattie Moran’s Eleanor Dashwood is forced to wear the pants and pretend not to do it when her father’s death seems to deprive her mother and one of her sisters of even the tiniest knowledge of the value of money, a knowledge which is all the more necessary after they are turned out of the house by an entail and plunged into a newfound poverty. Battling with both her family’s new situation and with her discovery that the man she loves has been engaged to someone else for the past five years, Eleanor wears a good-natured mask of contentment and optimism to spare the people closest to her from experiencing any pain on her account. While Emma Thompson’s earlier performance of the role only makes you annoyed at her stuffiness, Moran presents all this stubborn nobility and silence as something genuinely admirable and inspiring, her gorgeous deep voice somehow evoking both the timelessness of the character, and how quickly she has had to grow up.

7.Maxine Peake – Silk


Maxine Peake fits so snugly and so comfortably into the shoes of barrister Martha Costello that it is sometimes hard to believe she isn’t Martha 24/7. She’s a turning point in legal drama: a barrister who’s interesting without being an alcoholic and who is also a veritable tsunami wave in court while still maintaining an idealistic view of justice. Using her heart where most of her profession are content to only use their heads, she’s an unfailingly kind champion of the underdog (in all his miscellaneous forms) who believes in second (and third) chances, while still keeping us in no doubt that she’s not the remotest bit like a walkover. So intelligent that it shouldn’t be allowed, Peake carries all this complexity with a poise and meticulousness as characteristic as her blood red lipstick and embodies the spirited air of freshness that permeates the entire series.

6. Stuart Wilson – Anna Karenina (1977)

Stuart Wilson has everything a great Count Vronsky should have: charisma, good looks (regrettably, this is one role where looks are indispensable) and an enviable ability to convey to us Vronsky’s psychological complexity and development. At the beginning, he’s every inch the unredeeming and badly-behaved rake. His transformation, through his love for Anna, into someone capable of selflessness to the point of trying to take his own life, is one of the most difficult things to convince a modern audience of being possible, and Wilson carries it off with exemplary style that is deeply poignant and rather beautiful.

5. Sinead Cusack – North and South


With one of the most expressive faces in the business, Sinead Cusack’s Mrs. Thornton is one of many great performances in the BBC’s immortal adaptation of Elizabeth Gaskell’s North and South. The wife of a cotton mill owner who commits suicide following bankruptcy, the deep, hard iron in her ancient-seeming northern soul allows her to raise two children in abject poverty and eventually, to see their family name restored through her son John, who is able to regain their former prosperity and to repay her for years of hardship. Though we don’t see any of this in the series, the evidence of it runs through every line in Cusack’s face. Her powerful screen presence and sublime acting combined with those of co-star Richard Armitage make for one of the most charismatic mother-son teams in TV history. She’s a fiercely proud, protective mother and a brilliant businesswoman who is rather frightening and seemingly emotionless, but whose moments of affection are all the more rewarding for being rare.

4.Emilia Fox – Silent Witness

Often mentioned, but not praised half as much as it should be, Emilia Fox’s performance as forensic anthropologist Doctor Nikki Alexander is an existentialist room of mirrors. Possibly the loneliest character in modern TV, she leads a deafeningly silent life outside the lab, even declaring to/goading a half-mad university shooter that nobody would miss her if he decided to kill her. It’s through her work at the lab that we see more of the many sides of her: the ringing laughter, the dazzling wit and the intolerance of any kind of bullshit. She’s spectacularly complex and tragic, and hasn’t stopped developing for all seven seasons that we’ve known her. Consequently, she’s a tremendous acting challenge, and Emilia Fox’s ability to capture all the myriad dimensions of Nikki and make her so beautiful is a moving thrill that’s no doubt a major contributor to the series’ continued success.

3.Benedict Cumberbatch – Hawking

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Diagnosed with motor-neuron disease at the age of 20, doctoral student Stephen is forced to deal with the gradual, heart-rending collapse of his body and the enthralling potential for discovery in an infinitely large universe that he deeply loves…and that he might be forced to leave before he’s 25. A young (and unknown) Benedict Cumberbatch gives a titanic performance as one of the foremost geniuses of our time with all that greatness still ahead of him, his performance resonating with pathos; his character defined by an intrinsic sweetness that sometimes doesn’t notice the shadow of death, only the joy of life and the bitter horror of having to live it this way.

2. Kenneth Branagh – Wallander


Kenneth Branagh’s Kurt Wallander is like a whisper with a symphony in its depths. Living a somewhat toxic, unhealthy existence in Ystad, southern Sweden, he has a mountain of awful personal issues that should have landed him on the psychologist’s couch ages ago, including an ex-wife he’s still in love with, a hippie daughter with abandonment issues and a painter father dying of Alzheimer’s. He’s a detective genius, has chronic insomnia, doesn’t eat or wash for days when he’s working a case and lives his entire existence in an exhausted, semi-alcoholic haze. Branagh is mesmerizing, drawing on every mode of expression available to him without actually having to speak, his natural (and colossal, I might add) charisma leading us spellbound around the hues of his grey and blue inner world. It’s a masterpiece arthouse role for a very arthouse series.

1.Damian Lewis – The Forsyte Saga


Lewis plays Soames Forsyte, a despicably possessive and stiff-collared Victorian who makes the catastrophic mistake of thinking that his artistic and free-spirited wife is just another piece of property that he can command at will. When she proves to be a human being, he subjects her to the most painful psychological, and eventually, physical, torture in his attempts to punish her for not loving him, the consequences resonating further into the future than either of them could have imagined, and destroying lives left, right and center. All this plays out against an enormous backdrop of family feuds and intrigues; Soames’ story being but one half of a sprawling whole. Soames is a repulsive, sneering and utterly unlikeable individual who should inspire more hate than love, but Lewis blends the light and dark with such raw humanity that he inspires just as much pity as revulsion. His performance is a masterpiece that should be mentioned more often, but seems to be utterly unknown to many of his most ardent fans.


6 Comments Add yours

  1. I have seen Hawking. Benedict gave an amazing performance.


    1. ladygilraen says:

      I really wish more people would watch it. It’s on YouTube and everything.

  2. Astera says:

    I’d never heard of Damien Lewis until I saw him in the FS, but he blew me away. I couldn’t believe I was sympathizing with a character who raped his wife and misunderstood her on every level. Yet Lewis played him with such humanity? Sensitivity? I even dreamed about Soames, complete with Lewis’ red hair (Soames has dark hair in the book).

    Have you read the series? I was fascinated with the way Galsworthy developed Soames as he aged, allowing this most rigid character personal insights, and even, dare I say it, redemption. Am enjoying reading through your blog, but will avoid the posts on Game of Thrones 3 until I’m able to watch it.

    1. ladygilraen says:

      I love Lewis as Soames, I can’t believe so few people have heard of that role or how young he was when he did it (it was something ridiculous like 31). I have tried to read the books, but have not succeeded beyond ‘A Man of Property,’ as I have difficulty connecting with them. Thanks for your kind words!

  3. Andy says:

    I’ve seen everything on this list, but perhaps this is an American blog. I can’t tell. Most if not all of these were lauded and very popular in the UK. I particular remember receiving the VHS box set of Gormenghast for my 17th birthday.

    1. ladygilraen says:

      Hi! This is a South African blog, and when we get any TV that is not B grade American nonsense, it is a small miracle 😂

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