BBC iPlayer comes into its own this week, with the arrival of its Original Drama Shorts. They come hot on the heels of My Jihad, a rom-com miniseries based on a short from last year’s collection – and join a string of Muslim comedy shorts to provide both humour and insight into modern Britain.
There are bigger things on offer, from the muddled The Intercepton and the unfunny SunTrap to the powerful A Song for Jenny and the inspiring sight of Attenborough meeting Obama. And, for those who like their entertainment long and full of grunting, there’s a whole heap of Wimbledon to catch up with for weeks. A collection of Christopher Lee Hammer horrors, meanwhile, ensure that fans of the late legend will have their thirst for blood wonderfully satiated.
But with a new batch of BBC Three Comedy Feeds on the way this week, iPlayer’s versatile line-up is proof that the best things come in small packages.
We review the top titles currently available on BBC iPlayer:
As BBC iPlayer’s Original Drama Shorts return for another season, one of 2014’s best, My Jihad, returns as a miniseries of three 15-minute films. The first introduced us to Fahmida (Anjli Mohindra) and Nazir (Hamza Jeetooa), two single Muslims who crossed paths at an unsuccessful speed-dating night. Picking up events one month later, this is a universal exploration of love in modern Britain that packs in twice as much warmth and wit as most 30-minute shows do in a whole season.
BBC iPlayer continues to prove a platform for new talent with its latest bunch of shorts. From a moving demonstration of isolation and connection in an online age to a darkly funny – and unpredictable – story of female love and family loyalty, this is an impressively versatile collection of stories that are more than worth spending time with.
Broadcast by the BBC to mark the 10th anniversary of the 7/7 London bombings, A Song for Jenny is a heart-rending example of the cathartic power of TV. The film, adapted by Frank McGuinness from Julie Nicholson’s book, follows Julie as she tries to find out what happened to her daughter, Jenny, who was travelling in London that morning. It’s a horrifically honest performance from Emily Watson that brings to life exactly what Julie was going through, while the script keeps things sincere and straightfoward. The result is a rare insight into the raw anguish of loss. A decade after the terrorist attack, it brings a country together in a cry of bereavement, a prayer for grief and a hymn to a mother’s courage.
Available until: 4th August
David Attenborough Meets President Obama
“Americans really go in for birthdays,” says David Attenborough, in his delightfully humble way, after being flown to the White House for a meeting with President Barack Obama. Ostensibly an interview by Barack with the wildlife broadcasting legend, the 35-minute programme is a more casual chat, covering everything from David’s record-breaking dive on the Great Barrier Reef to the challenges facing the environment today. The greying Obama, who is on something of a roll at the moment, is as professorial as ever with his thoughtful questions, indicating that he is well aware of the need to raise awareness of global warming. The fact that this drew 2.5 million viewers when broadcast on BBC One is proof that he’s succeeded at that. Watching Sir David get a surprise birthday cake is a bonus.
(If this gets you in the mood for more Attenborough, BBC iPlayer is your friend: the service usually has at least one wildlife programme presented by the national treasure. At the moment, it’s Natural World.)
Available until: 28th July
Dara O Briain Meets Stephen Hawking
The BBC seems to be going through an official “X meets Y” season at the moment, but when the participants are this engaging, that’s no bad thing. Dara, who has always been hugely likeable as both a stand-up and an amateur scientist, is the perfect foil for the legendary professor, whose inspiring life story has propelled him from beloved boffin to national treasure. His sly sense of humour will come as no surprise, following his work with Monty Python and Comic Relief, but the glimpse of his daily life, from his stylist to his slow-paced conversations, is fascinating. The pauses between replies swiftly moves from awkward to engrossing.
Available until: 17th July
The BBC’s coverage of Wimbledon is almost unrivalled in the world of televised sport. With a full line-up of matches available to watch live through the BBC Tennis site, the fact that most of them make it to BBC iPlayer in either highlights form, or as catch-up chunks of the BBC One/BBC Two broadcast, is a treat. Just take care to avoid the early episodes of new show Wimbledon 2day, which sees Clare Balding attempting to serve up a Top Gear-style round-up of the day’s action – and mostly hitting the net.
Available until: 29th July
Photo: Ray Burmiston / BBC
“Runny nose, coughing, swollen glands, slight fever…” There’s something about hearing familiar symptoms said in a foreign language that makes them all the more unsettling. BBC Four’s latest import, then, makes for a mildly creepy watch, as we see a contagion spread quickly through Antwerp – only for the authorities to (ahem) cordon off a quarter of the city to contain it.
The opening episodes give us an introduction to the usual array of potential victims, from the immigrant who brings the disease into the port to the police and officials trying to battle the infection. The stand-outs, though, are strong-willed clever clogs Jana (Liesa Van deer Aa) and teacher Katja (Veerle Baetens), who takes her class for a fun day trip to the National Institute for Contagious Diseases. As you do. If patient zero turns out to be a metaphor for the dangers of illegal immigration, it’s impressively underplayed, while the location and language make for an effective change to the usual Scandi shows in this Saturday evening slot. You’ll be Google Translating your own common cold symptoms in no time.
Available until: 27th July (Episode 1)
The BBC’s adaptation of Douglas Adams’ holistic detective are a couple of years old now, but looking back at the pilot and the following two episodes makes you appreciate just how well they capture the author’s free-wheeling, offbeat tone – a laid-back approach that may not be hysterical but keeps you smiling. Stephen Mangan is a perfect fit for the eponymous sleuth, who finds himself faced with such enjoyably silly challenges as true horoscopes, stolen robots and, erm, a plate of biscuits. Goes down perfectly with a cup of tea.
“You gotta choose your words carefully,” says Amy Winehouse in this new documentary about the late singer.
Produced by Sasha Duncan, the film spans just 23 minutes, a runtime that seems almost as slight as the singer’s tragically short career, before her death at the young age of 27. But in the shadow of the looming feature-length film, Amy Winehouse In Her Own Words benefits from that small scale.
The title itself emphasises the project’s smart approach: with no talking heads to offer their version of events and no linear story, we simply get Winehouse’s take on her own situation, distilled into the brief times that she let her guard down. The film is threaded together from extracts of footage for the Jazz And Soul Britannia series on BBC Four, BBC One Sessions in 2007, Glastonbury 2004 and 2008, and the 2004 Mercury Music Prize, as well as intimate interviews. The result a short, but powerful piece of film-making that chooses its words carefully; less a biopic and more a moving, intimate portrayal of a supremely talented artist. Read our full review.
Available until: 21st July
Matt Berry Does… Father’s Day
Matt Berry proves once again that almost anything he says is funny, mostly because of the way he says it. After several excellent comedy shorts for BBC iPlayer, the IT Crowd and Garth Marenghi star now has his own series of short films titled “Matt Berry Does…”. After a profile of the Oxford vs. Cambridge boat race earlier in the year, he turns his anthropological gaze to Father’s Day, providing a history of parenthood that dates all the way back to our primate ancestors. Alongside the bizarre and silly turns this spoof documentary takes, not to mention the vaguely satirical swipes at the failed evolution of men, the highlight is simply Berry using the phrase “UK daddy”, something that he repeats over and over again. It doesn’t stop being funny. This is the second of six “Matt Berry Does…” specials. Roll on the other four.
Available until: June 2016
British Muslim Comedy (shorts)
BBC iPlayer’s original content has always thrived on giving a platform to talent that might otherwise not be seen on the TV. These five comedy shorts combine that knack for showcasing comedians with an insight into the highs and lows of Muslim life, particularly the struggles faced during Ramadan. Sadia Azmat’s to-the-camera rant about misperceptions from people in the street delivers a wonderfully surreal flourish, while Tez Ilyas’ inner monologue of a fasting Muslim in an office smartly swerves between endearingly timid and amusing arse. Prince Abdi’s account of trying to fast is the highlight, though: a sharp, four-minute blast of conflicting perspectives and childish adult behaviour.
Available until: 18th July
Photo: BBC iPlayer
“This is the Earth, our home…” begins Michael Palin at the start of each episode of The Clangers. “A tiny, wet planet, lost and alone. Lost in the vast silence of space…”
It’s not the introduction that older viewers will be used to, but it’s immediately clear that the Beeb’s updated version of Oliver Postgate’s classic has no intention of rebooting the show for modern audiences. In a year where Gerry Anderson’s equally loved series was given a CGI makeover, new characters and a different back-story, The Clangers feels like the antithesis to ITV’s Thunderbirds.
Palin’s avuncular tones are the perfect fit for The Clanger’s reassuring voice-over, which rejoices in the small details of our creatures’ lives. The result is something that feels as timeless as ever, because it doesn’t alter what made The Clangers special in the first place: its ability to present imagination as the most natural thing in the universe. Read our full review.
Available until: 9th August (Episode 1)
Photo: BBC/Coolabi, Smallfilms and Peter Firmin
An Hour to Save Your Life: Season 2
Earlier this year, Sky 1 brought us Critical, a medical drama that borrowed 24’s real-time premise to follow a team of surgeons trying to save emergency patients in the “Golden Hour” following their admission to hospital. Now, the BBC has responded with a second season of its own one-hour documentary about the same thing. Interviews with the doctors post-event provide welcome explanations of the procedures we’re watching – reminding us of the harsh reality that more than makes up for the lack of gory, fictionalised injuries. Sky’s show is sensational and gripping. These cases actually happened.
Available until: 25th July (Episode 1)
Photo: BBC / Boundless
Women Who Spit
“Your shabby, slipped-stitch mistakes make you miraculous,” spits Vanessa Kisuule in a short poem urging women to stop shrinking back and to take up space. It’s one of countless brilliant lines you’ll hear during this series of short films, which see female poets tackle topics facing young people today.
Cecilia Knapp’s explanation of why she writes is inspiring, Deanna Rodger’s look at those forced off the street is provocative, while Jemima Foxtrot’s double-performed examination of confidence and doubt is an entertaining and powerful reminder of the importance of self over surface. Each are excellent performers, leaving your tongue tripping back over syllables to savour their taste, but keep Megan Beech’s passionate cry for more women on our TV screens until last: after the previous four fantastic compositions, you’ll be hard pushed not to agree.
Important and urgent, this collection shows just how valuable BBC iPlayer can be as a platform to voices that should be heard more often.
Available until: May 2016
Photo: BBC/Thomas Caron Delion
Murder in Successville
BBC Three’s improvised murder mystery comedy sees DI Sleet joined by a variety of celebrity guest stars to solve a crime. In Episode 1, it’s Made in Chelsea’s Jamie Laing, who has to work out who shot restauranteur Bruno Tonioli. He finds himself surrounded by other celebrities – Alan carr, Taylor Swift – but these are played by impressionists. And so the chaos begins, throwing the unsuspecting sidekick into scenarios that increasingly ridiculous.
The jokes are often on the disappointingly crude side, but as much fun as it is to see Tom Davis growl his way through over-the-top cliches, the real enjoyment lies in seeing Laing fail to keep a straight face. Is corpsing a mark of the hit-and-miss “script” failing or the production working? Either way, it’s absurdly high concept and unabashed silliness make this original idea exactly the kind of thing that BBC Three will hopefully continue to produce as it moves towards its online-only future. Call it Murder in Semi-Successville.
Available until: 19th July (Episode 1)
Photo: BBC/Tiger Aspect/Ollie Upton
The BBC has programmed a range of Christopher Lee movies to honour the late actor, beginning with the 1959 take on The Mummy, which sees the horror legend take on the role of The Mummy, who must avenge all those who desecrate the tomb of an Egyptian princess.
Available until: 18th July
Hammer’s Dracula sees Lee don the cape of the iconic count, who is charming and polite to his guest, Mr. Harker, but terrifying and camp once his fangs are out. A sublime turn by the actor, supported by the typically excellent Peter Cushing as Van Helsing, Terence Fisher’s enjoyably cheesy version of Bram Stoker’s novel is one of the most faithful film adaptations, it not the definitive one.
Available until: 18th July
The Curse of Frankenstein
The BBC’s trio of Christopher Lee horrors concludes with 1957’s The Curse of Frankenstein. Also helmed by Terence Fisher, this marked the first colour production for Hammer and – with its tale of Victor (Peter Cushing) in prison blaming a series of deaths upon his creature (Lee) – established the studio as genre force to be reckoned with.
Available until: 18th July
Far from the Madding Crowd
Hot on the heels of the latest Hardy adaptation in cinemas, this 1967 take on tale of Bathsheba – an heiress who attracts the attention of three man – finds Julie Christie in her finest, most dazzling form.
Available until: 12th July (12.40am)
Martin Compton stars in Ken Loach’s modern British classic, which follows teenager Liam’s attempts to raise money to buy a home, after his mother gets out of prison.
Available until: 14th July
Bruce Willis stars in this enjoyably duff modern update of Frederick Forsyth’s 1971 novel. Willis plays the titular hit man, who is hired to kill someone in the US government – only for Richard Gere to try and stop him. Worth watching just to see what wigs he ends up wearing. “Master of disguise”, indeed.
Available until: 2nd August
Paul Bettany plays Charles Darwin in this drama that follows the completion and publication of his theory of evolution – one that contravened his wife’s religious beliefs. Bettany is great, while his chemistry with an excellent Jennifer Connelly turns Darwin’s public controversy into a source of private conflict. An absorbing watch.
Available until: 16th July
It’s always worth catching a Hitchcock when it’s on TV and Suspicion is no exception. The thriller, which stars Joan Fontaine and Cary Grant as an heiress who is convinced her husband is trying to kill her was famously re-written for its leading man – an insight into not just Hollywood’s inherent sexism, but also the fact that Hitch was, despite his reputation, a director with a fondness of female characters to root for.
Available until: 13th July
“Sometimes we can mistake anger for caring.” That’s sensible policeman Robert (Mark Strong) to worked-up copper Joe (Paul Bettany). And who can blame Joe for being tetchy? He’s got a lot to be worked up about. His father (Brian Cox) was a ball-busting police chief and now has Alzheimer’s. His younger brother, Chrissie (Stephen Graham), keeps cheating on his partner. And they’ve got a killer to find after a 12 year old girl is brutally murdered.
If Blood sounds like a TV drama, that’s because it is – the script is based on 2004 series Conviction – but Paul Bettany easily fills up the screen’s extra inches. His gradually imploding man is one of the most intense roles of his career, a small-scale chance to tackle the big issues. By sticking with his perspective, Nicky Murphy’s low-key thriller makes for a gripping examination of morals and police procedurals rather than a mere ITV clone.
Available until: 21st July
The Lost Squadron
War films following aerial antics are a familiar site, but this 1932 movie, starring Richard Dix, Mary Astor, and Robert Armstrong, takes the unusual route of following WWI pilots, once they’re grounded after the war. Their career of choice? Stuntmen for a mad film director.
Available until: 26th July
Salmon Fishing in the Yemen
Ewan McGregor and Emily Blunt bring a surprising amount of charm to this whimsical, flimsy tale of an advisor at the Department of Fisheries, who is hired by the assistant to a wealthy Yemeni client to create a salmon fishing paradise in his home country – something that he deems nigh impossible.
Available until: 8th June
Adam Curtis’ bizarre, surreal, brilliant provocative documentary deconstructs the media’s presentation of politics and history with a dizzying complexity and a dark sense of humour. At over two hours, it’s a daunting watch, but an important one – not least because it showcases the potential for BBC iPlayer as a platform for bold, experimental work. (Read our full review)
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