32 of the most controversial moments in British TV

We revisit the most complained about and controversial moments from the small-screen

L-R: Charles Ingram and wife Diana; Big Brother's Nasty Nick; Prince Harry and Meghan Markle
(Image credit: Getty Images)

British television has a knack for being controversial, often pushing boundaries and sparking debate. From shocking plot twists and provocative remarks to daring sketches and live broadcast blunders, the small screen has seen it all.

Here, we dive into 32 of the most controversial, and complained about, moments in British TV history, whether they caused outrage or left a lasting impact on the cultural landscape - or both. Eastenders cliffhangers, beloved children’s shows and even a Jerry Springer-themed musical feature in this list of the most shocking British TV moments. 

Most controversial moments in British TV

Teletubbies: the Lion and the Bear

The teletubbies.

(Image credit: Alamo)

While it may seem surprising, the much-loved children’s TV show Teletubbies has been the source of a few controversies. In the late 90s, viewers complained about Tinky Winky’s supposed homosexuality, with the character later featuring in pride parades. But in 1997, an even bigger controversy erupted over the episode “See-Saw”, which featured an unnerving scene of a cut-out lion (voiced by comedian Eric Sykes) chasing a cut-out bear (voiced by acting icon Penelope Keith). The scene was later edited out after some channels banned the episode due to terrified children.

The Jade Goody and Shilpa Shetty racism scandal

Jade Goody.

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The Big Brother 2007 racism scandal between the late Jade Goody and fellow contestant Shilpa Shetty is one of the most notorious and shocking examples of controversial British TV. Following an argument over stock cubes, Goody’s comments towards Shetty became increasingly racist, with other contestants such as Danielle Lloyd and Jo O’Meara joining in with the offensive jokes.

Following the controversial episode, Goody was evicted from the house after receiving over 80% of the votes (Shetty later won the season). Upon leaving the house, Goody was shown footage of the incident’s aftermath - featured on the news and even in the houses of Parliament - by host Davina McCall. The moment now has one of the highest numbers of complaints made to Ofcom, at almost 45,000.

Christina Aguilera and Rihanna’s X Factor performance

Rihanna on X Factor.

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Wearing a bra and shorts partly adorned in a British flag pattern, Rihanna’s pre-watershed performance on the X Factor in 2010 sparked a lot of controversy. After Rihanna performed, Christina Aguilera took to the stage with several dancers dressed in burlesque-style clothes, causing even more complaints to Ofcom. 

Dani Dyer on Love Island

Dani Dyer and Jack Fincham.

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British reality show Love Island has been the source of various complaints over the years, including in season four of the show. During the Casa Amor episodes, Dani’s boyfriend Jack, along with the rest of the boys, were sent to a separate villa, where they had to complete challenges and games with new, female contestants. Showing footage from Casa Amor to the girls left in the main villa, Love Island producers encouraged Dani to believe that her partner had been unfaithful, resulting in 2,644 complaints made to Ofcom about the unnecessary distress put on Dani.

Oprah, Meghan and Harry

Meghan Markle and Prince Harry.

(Image credit: Getty Images)

A year on from publicly announcing their official departure from the Royal Family as senior royals, Prince Harry and Meghan Markle spoke to television icon Oprah Winfrey in a broadcast watched by around 17 million people. In the explosive interview, aired on CBS and ITV, the royal couple made several claims which shocked both nations, including that there had been conversations around how dark their son Archie’s skin would be. Ofcom received over 6,000 complaints about the broadcast.

Piers Morgan’s 2021 comments about Meghan Markle

Piers Morgan.

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One of the most controversial British TV moments - with almost the highest recorded number of complaints - was the reaction of Piers Morgan to comments made by Meghan Markle during her interview with Oprah Winfrey. Stating that he didn’t believe Markle’s claim that she had suffered from suicidal thoughts, Morgan later doubled down on his comments, even walking out of a discussion with his colleague about the incident on live TV. Piers Morgan’s comments caused over 57,000 complaints to Ofcom, and he later left his position on Good Morning Britain.

Jerry Springer: the opera

Jerry Springer: The Opera.

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One of the highest number of complaints ever received for a British TV broadcast is for a show most people probably haven’t even heard of. In 2005, BBC2 aired Jerry Springer: The Opera, a satirical musical about British-born TV talk show icon Jerry Springer. Springer was played by late Starsky and Hutch actor David Soul in this spoof of the talk show, which featured supposed blasphemy as well as over 170 swear words. Ofcom received over 55,000 complaints. 

Richard Madeley ripping up an anti-vaccination flyer

Richard Madeley and Susanna Reid.

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During the Coronavirus pandemic, when emotions were undoubtedly running high amongst the public, Richard Madeley and Susanna Reid spoke to Dr Hilary Jones on Good Morning Britain about vaccinations. Jones brought the presenters’ attention to an anti-vaccination flyer, which he claimed was dangerous misinformation. Madeley promptly ripped the flyer into two for the cameras, which some viewers believed was a controversial and divisive decision.

Celebrity Big Brother: ‘punch gate’

Roxanne Pallett.

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During the 2018 season of Celebrity Big Brother, Emmerdale’s Roxanne Pallet accused Coronation Street’s Ryan Thomas of assaulting her, calling him a “woman beater”. Though the play-fighting moment between the two had been filmed and shown live, Roxanne later tearfully told the Diary Room that she had been attacked. Ofcom received over 25,000 complaints after Ryan was given a formal warning by the producers, and Roxanne left the show, apologising for the incident.

The death of the Duke of Edinburgh

Prince Philip.

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According to the Channel 5 documentary TV’s 30 Most Complained About Moments, the highest number of complaints recorded by Ofcom for a British TV broadcast - at almost 111,000 - was due to the mass coverage of the death of the Duke of Edinburgh in April 2021. Complainers were unhappy about the cancelling of BBC shows such as Eastenders and Masterchef in order to air special programming about Prince Philip.

Brass Eye: "Peaedogeddon!"

Brass Eye DVD.

(Image credit: Alamy)

The "Brass Eye" episode "Paedogeddon!" sparked over 3,000 complaints due to its satirical treatment of the highly sensitive issue of paedophilia. Many viewers found it inappropriate and offensive, feeling it trivialized child sexual abuse and disrespected victims. The involvement of well-known celebrities and the fact that the episode aired during a period of heightened public concern about paedophilia contributed to the outrage, leading to widespread controversy.

Anne Robinson on pharmacists

Anne Robinson.

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In 2005, Anne Robinson sparked outrage when she disparaged pharmacists on the BBC's quiz show The Weakest Link, questioning why they needed university education for what she perceived as simply dispensing medicine. Her comments were widely condemned by professional bodies, including the Royal Pharmaceutical Society, which emphasised the critical role pharmacists play in healthcare. The incident led to around 60 complaints to Ofcom.

UKIP: The First 100 Days

Nigel Farage.

(Image credit: Getty Images)

In 2015, the one-off mockumentary UKIP: The First 100 Days sparked over 6,000 complaints from viewers, who claimed it was “biased” and “misleading.” However, The Guardian later reported that many of these complaints were actually copy-and-pasted from an email campaign by the far-right group Britain First. The mockumentary imagines a world where political party UKIP wins a General Election and rise to power, portrayed through the eyes of a fictional MP.

Danyl Johnson being 'outed' on The X Factor

Danyl Johnson.

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In 2009, popular X Factor contestant Danyl xx sang a well-known ballad from Dreamgirls, originally sung by Jennifer Hudson. Danyl changed the pronoun in the chorus to change the subject of his song to a woman, but after singing, Danni Minogue stated “If we’re to believe everything we hear in the news, maybe you didn’t need to change the gender reference in the song”, making a controversial comment about Danyl’s sexuality. The audience was stunned silent, and Danni later apologised for the comment.

Russell Brand and Jonathan Ross’s prank calls

Johnathan Ross and Russell Brand.

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The careers of two popular British comedians, Jonathan Ross and Russell Brand, were briefly stalled in 2008 when a show was aired where the two left several voicemails on Fawlty Towers actor Andrew Sachs’ phone. The voicemails contained offensive references to Sachs’ granddaughter Georgina Baillie, and resulted in over 30,000 complaints to Ofcom, who fined the BBC £150,000. Both comedians were suspended, and it became one of the most complained-about moments in British TV history.

Danielle’s death, Eastenders

Samantha Janus.

(Image credit: Getty Images)

In 2009, a teenage Danielle Jones found out that Ronnie Mitchell was actually her mum. Ronnie refused to believe Danielle at first, believing her child had died years ago, but moments after realising the truth, she shockingly watches her daughter hit by a car by Janine Butcher and die. The tragic moment was one of the most controversial in the show’s history, despite being known for its shocking storylines.

Matt Hancock on I’m a Celebrity

Matt Hancock.

(Image credit: Getty Images)

The inclusion of Conservative MP Matt Hancock on I’m a Celebrity… Get Me Out of Here! in 2022 sparked over 1,000 complaints to Ofcom, after he was forced to resign as health secretary in 2021. Ofcom declined to take the complaints any further, stating that there was no ban on “any particular person taking part in programmes”. Despite the controversy, Hancock's appearance on the reality show reignited debates about the ethics of politicians participating in entertainment programmes.

Jon Snow's comments on a Brexit rally

Jon Snow.

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Esteemed presenter Jon Snow was the recipient of 2,717 complaints to Ofcom when he reported from a pro-Brexit rally in 2019. Standing outside Downing Street, Snow reported that he’d “never seen so many white people in one place”, sparking controversy that Snow refused to apologise for, before Ofcom decided that the comment didn’t violate any of their guidelines.

Britain’s Got Talent: Diversity's 2020 dance

Ashley Banjo.

(Image credit: Getty Images)

Dance troupe Diversity, who won Britain’s Got Talent in 2009, performed on the British talent show again in 2020, following the death of George Floyd and the worldwide protests which were happening against racism. Unfortunately, the performance received over 25,000 complaints, some of which concerned that the show was broadcast before the 9pm watershed. Diversity later won a BAFTA for the groundbreaking performance. 

“The Germans”, Fawlty Towers

John Cleese as Basil Fawlty.

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British actor and comedian John Cleese is no stranger to controversy, and it was no surprise that the infamous episode of the sitcom Fawlty Towers, “The Germans”, would cause a stir. In the episode, Cleese’s eccentric hotel owner Basil Fawlty becomes increasingly erratic over the fact that a group of Germans are staying in his hotel. Though widely regarded as one of the best episodes of the show and one of the best episodes in British TV, “The Germans” has also become a controversial and sometimes banned or edited episode.

The Crown

Elizabeth Debicki in The Crown.

(Image credit: Getty Images)

Netflix show The Crown is no stranger to controversy: arguments over how true the show is to real life, whether it’s disrespectful to depict still-living or recently deceased royals, and if the writers should speculate on private conversations, have been around since its first season in 2016. Seasons five and six especially, in which Princess Diana’s untimely and tragic death, and her subsequent ‘interactions’ with Charles as a ghostly figure, caused quite a stir among viewers.

Spooks' "fryer" moment

Matthew MacFayden in Spooks.

(Image credit: Alamy)

The British television series Spooks (sometimes known as MI-5) showed a particularly harrowing scene in Series 2, Episode 1, which aired in 2003 and garnered hundreds of complaints. The episode features the brutal interrogation and torture of a character named Helen Flynn, which became one of the most infamous and shocking moments in the series: at one point Helen's hand, and then face, is forced into a deep fat fryer. The intensity and graphic nature of this scene sparked controversy and discussions about the depiction of violence on television, contributing to Spooks' reputation for gritty and realistic storytelling.

Celebrities: What’s Happened to Your Face?

Charlotte Crosby.

(Image credit: Getty Images)

The Channel 5 documentary "Celebrities: What’s Happened to Your Face?", featuring public figures like Simon Cowell and Charlotte Crosby, received numerous complaints - over 7,000 - due to its perceived insensitivity and harshness in mocking celebrities' appearances, particularly those who had undergone plastic surgery or shown signs of ageing. Viewers criticised the show for invading privacy, promoting body shaming, and lacking sensitivity. 

'Nasty Nick'

'Nasty' Nick Bateman.

(Image credit: Alamy)

When Big Brother was first broadcast in 2001, it became an instant hit and revolutionised reality television. During its first season, controversy arose around Nasty Nick Bateman, who frequently manipulated his fellow housemates in order to cause drama and turn them against each other. Despite being the only contestant in his series not to get a single eviction nomination, he was asked to leave after a month by the show’s producers, who had been tipped off by his housemates.

The coughing scandal

Charles Ingram and wife Diana.

(Image credit: Getty Images)

In 2001, Charles Ingram was at the centre of one of the biggest controversies in British TV when he was found to have cheated on the popular quiz show Who Wants to be a Millionaire? Ingram became the third contestant in the show’s history to answer the million-pound question but was denied his winnings due to a lengthy trial that found him and his wife Diana guilty of deception. The former British Army major was found to have cheated by having waiting contestant Tecwen Whittock, and on one occasion his wife Diana, cough when the correct answer was read out.

An Interview with HRH The Princess of Wales

Princess Diana.

(Image credit: Getty Images)

Following her separation from her husband, then-Prince Charles, Diana Spencer appeared on a special Panorama episode in 1995 called “An Interview with HRH The Princess of Wales”. In the interview, Diana told journalist Martin Bashir that “there were three of us in this marriage, so it was a bit crowded”, words that would become world-famous and solidified in popular culture. 

Almost 23 million people watched the interview in the UK, and the National Grid reported a 1,000 MW surge in demand for power after the programme (presumably when everyone got up to make a cuppa). In 2020, following the 25th anniversary of the interview, it was found that Bashir had used forged documents to manipulate Diana into speaking with him.

Jeremy Clarkson on The One Show

Jeremy Clarkson.

(Image credit: Getty Images)

Controversial presenter Jeremy Clarkson was invited onto BBC’s The One Show to comment on worker strikes in 2011. Presenters Matt Baker and Alex Jones seemed to immediately regret this decision when Clarkson stated, in a supposedly satirical tone, that he would “execute [strikers] in front of their families”. The broadcast, unsurprisingly, received over 30,000 complaints. Clarkson expressed regret for any offence caused and clarified that he did not mean the comment seriously.

Kim Woodburn and Coleen Nolan on Loose Women

Kim Woodburn.

(Image credit: Getty Images)

British TV icon Kim Woodburn publicly fell out with Loose Women star Coleen Nolan when they both starred on Celebrity Big Brother in 2017. A year later, Kim came onto Loose Women to supposedly make amends, with Janet Street-Porter sitting between them in a judge’s outfit. The reconciliation couldn’t have gone much worse, and the shouting match that followed saw Ofcom receive over 8,000 complaints.

I’m a Celebrity 2020

Ant and Dec.

(Image credit: Getty Images)

During the COVID-19 pandemic, for obvious reasons, I’m a Celebrity… Get Me Out of Here! could not take place in its usual home of Australia, so the series was filmed in a castle in Wales. Despite the change of location, the infamous bushtucker trials were just as horrifying to watch, with exotic animals usually found in Australia supposedly brought over to the UK. Viewers were concerned that taking animals from their native environment could cause major issues.

Ghostwatch, 1992

Children watching television.

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Though Ghostwatch was a fictional depiction of paranormal activity, the widely complained about show felt very real to the children and adults watching. On Halloween 1992, ‘found footage’ of children being terrorised by ghosts in a Middlesex house was supposedly reported by presenter Michael Parkinson, with the fact that the footage was depicted as ‘real’ adding to the horror of the broadcast. The exact number of complaints the show received is unclear, but apparently one complaint came from Parkinson’s own mother.

Eastenders' baby-swap storyline

Jessie Wallace.

(Image credit: Getty Images)

In 2011, Ronnie Mitchell suffered another tragedy through her Eastenders storylines, after losing her first long-lost daughter, Danielle. On New Year’s Eve, Ronnie finds out that her two-day-old son has died. While grieving for him, she hears Kat Slater’s own child crying and decides to swap the children. Viewers were shocked by the graphic depiction of cot death along with Ronnie’s subsequent behaviour, and Ofcom received over 13,000 complaints.

Grange Hill's drug addiction storyline

Cast of Grange Hill.

(Image credit: Getty Images)

British drama Grange Hill often represented difficult moments in young people’s lives, but one storyline from the 1980s was thought to be taken slightly too far. Popular character Zammo struggled with heroin addiction and was shown overdosing, which ended up on the nightly news after receiving complaints from families. BBC did not release the exact figures of the complaints, but the moment ended up being so impactful that actors from Grange Hill were invited to the US to speak with First Lady Nancy Reagan about her ‘Just Say No’ anti-drugs campaign.

Hannah Holway
Shopping writer

Hannah is the UK Shopping Writer for woman&home. As a shopping writer, Hannah has written on everything from period pants to wine subscriptions, and is especially interested in sustainable alternatives to well-known products, as well as books and homeware accessories. 

Before she joined the team at woman&home Hannah headed up the social media accounts for Wonderland in 2019, where she was also a Contributing Editor for the magazine’s sister titles. During the COVID-19 pandemic, Hannah also explored evolving shopping trends at New York Magazine’s The Strategist UK, researching everything from face masks to status candles and even pens.