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With BBC iPlayer enjoying a record month a traffic in July – a time when its collection was at its most diverse and impressive – the catch-up service continues its crowd-pleasing run by bringing back the third season of Sherlock ahead of the Christmas special this year. Coupled with film classics such as Guys and Dolls, a Cillian Murphy-narrated nature documentary and, of course, The Great British Bake Off, even the premiere of the disappointing sitcom Mountain Goats (shot old-school-style in front of a live studio audience, but full of sadly old-fashioned jokes) can’t ruin the VOD service’s near-flawless recipe.
We review the best TV shows and films currently available on BBC iPlayer:
Sherlock: The Empty Hearse
Two years after falling from that rooftop, how did Sherlock do it? The opening of the BBC’s third season is as post-modern as ever, piping its script full of fan theories and sly nods, but it’s the relationship with Martin Freeman’s Watson that really proves most satisfying to have back, as the show sets in motion a character-driven trilogy of stories. The “Many Happy Returns” mini episode (7 minutes), which is available until 2nd September, is a bonus.
Available until: 17th August (10pm)
Photo: BBC/Hartswood Films
Atlantic: The Wildest Ocean on Earth
We’ve said it before and we’ve said it again: nobody does wildlife documentaries quite like the BBC. Here, the Beeb devotes an entire series to the Atlantic, from the people bobbing in the current of the Gulf Stream to – as the show continues – a more conventional slice of sea-faring wildlife. The only thing more beautiful than what’s on screen is the sound of Cillian Murphy narrating in your ears.
Available until: 7th September (Episode 1)
Photo: BBC/ Corinne Chevalier
The Great British Bake Off – Episode 2
The Bake Off continues its irresistibly tasty new run of amateur bakers competing to win over the taste buds of Mary Berry and Paul Hollywood. This week sees the gang whip up biscuits, from messy macaroons to stunning gingerbread boxes. Ugne’s green creations are worth the price of admission alone, but but the big questions revolve around Marie, who it turned out after the first episode had trained in Paris 30 years ago. Will it stop her winning Star Baker for a second week in a row? Six seasons in and the format still tastes as fresh as ever. And that’s even taking into account Mel and Sue’s jokes about people’s cracks (on their madeira cakes). Welcome back, Bake Off. We missed you.
Available until: 3rd September (Episode 1)
Sound of Song
“Songs. Some of my favourite things. Bet they’re some of yours too.” It’s the kind of cheesy opening line you might expect from an old music hall presenter in the early 1900s. If anyone can sell it today, it’s Neil Brand. The pianist and composer, whose accompaniment to silent movies is always a joy, is a charismatic presence on camera, balancing technical knowledge of chord progressions with a casual, accessible style. After his recent BBC series looking at film soundtracks, he returned again at the start of the year to trace the history of how songs were first recorded. From Edison’s wax cylinders to the arrival of vinyl, the revolution taking place in studios and living rooms defined and shaped what music sounded like. Brand lines up old equipment, classic recordings and – just as crucial to his style – sits at a piano to examine but also enjoy the role of music in our day-to-day lives. If you missed it the first time around, this chance to catch up with the three-part series is a welcome reprise. Here’s hoping he gets another encore soon.
Available until: 1st September (Episode 1)
Earth’s Natural Wonders: Living on the Edge – Extreme Wonders
Nobody does nature documentaries quite like the BBC. But while the shows usually focus on cute or dangerous animals in stunning locations, Earth’s Natural Wonders offers a welcome change of pace: the subject here are the people who live in such extreme environments. There are the “ice doctors” traversing crevasses on Mount Everest. The young boys undergoing the coming-of-age ritual of having their hands stung by bullet ants for 10 minutes. And even those working to save condors from lead poisoning in the Grand Canyon. Skipping quickly between six locations to keep things varied, the diverse landscapes are on show is as breathtaking as ever, but the human drama is what really snatches the oxygen from your lungs – helped no end by Olivia Colman’s narration. “If you fall, it’s instant death,” one cave climber hoping to reach a bird’s nest at the top tells us. If that seems incredible, wait until you how they handle marauding elephants on Kilimanjaro.
Available until: 3rd September (Episode 1)
Ripper Street: Season 3
“It is a battle that has no end, but is worth the blood.” That was Detective Inspector Reid (Matthew Macfadyen) to his sidekick, Drake (Jerome Flynn), in Season 1 of Ripper Street. Set in 1880s Whitechapel, the show saw the newly appointed Reid attempting to lead the police force out of the shadow of Jack the Ripper.
We begin four years after the events of Ripper Street Season 2 – a break that gives ample room for backstory to reward former viewers, but also means newcomers can pick it up straight off.
All of our characters have gone their own ways. Drake has moved to Manchester. Reid has retreated into his own den of case histories, a loner assembling a library of felonies and felons. And Captain Jackson is a playboy once more. But as a train crash brings them all back together, the stand-out improvement here is the women: often restricted by Richard Warlow’s scripts, now Rose is set for a complex rags-to-riches-to-rags arc, while Long Susan (the excellent MyAnna Buring) is leading a social movement that is spreading across London – but needs funds to keep growing.
“The abyss isn’t within us or without us,” Reid tells Drake in one of his more sombre moments, when discussing the state of London and humanity. “We are the abyss.”
It’s the polar opposite of his mantra in Season 1 – and as Reid stalks the streets of Whitechapel, his long coat fading into the darkness of the back streets, that transformation is as stunning as it is thrilling. Ripper Street is back. And it’s better than ever. Read our full review.
Available until: 30th August
Photo: BBC/Tiger Aspect/Bernard Walsh
Partners in Crime
David Walliams dials down his usual schtick to play Tommy Beresford, who gets caught up into a web of espionage with his wife, Tuppence, after a chance encounter with a mysterious woman on the train. Based on Agatha Christie’s novel, The Secret Adversary – the debut of her innocent double-act detective – Walliams and Jessica Raine are convincing enough as a borderline stale married couple that it’s impossible not to be swept up in their Sunday night shenanigans. Driven by Tuppence’s curiosity, the plot’s a tad outlandish but the period setting (with all its hats, suits and vehicles) adds to the charming escapism of the romp.
Available until: 25th August
Photo: BBC Pictures/Endor Productions
Wanted: A Very Personal Assistant
BBC Three continues to break down barriers between myths and disabled people with this excellent series following the attempts of some of the 300,000 young disabled people in the UK who need carers for their daily needs to hire the right helper. Could the country’s population of young, unemployed people be the solution? The clash between brain-damaged Josh, whose rude humour has led him to a fledgling stand-up career, and his more wholesome trial candidate sparks both laughs and sincere sympathy, while Jasmine (a 21-year old with spinal muscular atrophy) finds it tough to tackle the balance between a boozy best friend and a sensible personal carer; the fact that she has a partner and her new potential helper doesn’t only emphasises the complex intricacies of the patient-carer bond.
From toilet malfunctions to nights out on the town, the result humanises a relationship that can often seem distant or professional – and that honesty, aside from making for compelling and moving TV, could well inspire younger viewers to consider a new career. More like this please, BBC Three.
Available until: 26th August
Life in Squares
Who exactly were the Bloomsbury Set? Imagine a bunch of Tinder users in the early 20th entry, comprising of EM Forster, Virginia Woolf and more. Virginia (Lydia Leonard) and her older sister, Vanessa (Phoebe Fox), are the centre focus of this drama following their sexual and artistic exploits. While Vanessa finds herself tangled with Clive Bell – whose flirtatious repertoire includes such gems as “only two more days and it’ll be the opening of trout fishing season…” – Ed Birch’s Lytton Strachey and James Norton’s Duncan Grant bring homosexual tension to the screen. The result is a steamy and speedy drama that blows people as much as it does the cobwebs away from period drama tropes. Trout fishing has never seemed so appealing.
Available until: 26th August
Photo: BBC/Ecosse Films/Robert Viglasky
Music Box with Guy Garvey
The Elbow’s likeable frontman throws the curtains wide on a new music series exclusive to iPlayer, which sees Garvey share and discuss artists that he is most excited about. The series will run every other week for six episodes, with the first living up to its promise of introducing audiences to new music through its focus on Here We Go Magic. The exclusive premiere of the video for Falling – from their new album Be Small – is an apt coup, with Garvey providing the kind of amusing and insightful commentary that listeners to his Radio 6 Music show will be familiar with. Space for archive music from Radiohead brings diversity to the line-up, while the sub-30-minute runtime makes this an easy fit into your commute. Most impressive, though, is the BBC’s Playlister, which enables you to add tracks to a music playlist – a feature that, while not always relevant to the Beeb’s catch-up TV content, really comes into its own. Much like YouTube’s links to purchase audio from its videos, it’s the kind of innovative touch the BBC is good at – and could signal a strong future for IPlayer in the music VOD world. One day like this a fortnight will see us right.
Available until: June 2016
Photo: BBC / Dean Chalkley
Matt Berry Does… Summer Holidays
Matt Berry’s series of topical shorts continue to make us chuckle, even as the subject matter becomes more and more arbitrary. His response to the topic is to deliver his most surreal voice over and footage combo yet – but even if the topic and its follow-through feel more haphazard than in the past, there’s something undeniably hilarious about Matt Berry’s voice over the top of screaming fish. Long may that stay true.
Available until: June 2016
Photo: BBC iPlayer
The Ugly Face of Disability Hate Crime
You may not have heard of Adam Pearson, but you’ll recognise him. He has one of those faces. That’s partly because he starred in Under the Skin as one of Scarlett Johansson’s victims. And partly because he suffers from neurofibromatosis type 1. If you haven’t heard of that either, you’ll certainly recognise the conditions effects: his facial disfigurement turns even the most well-assuming stranger into a demonstration of prejudice. Some people avoid him on buses, but others joke about setting him on fire. Every year, there are estimated to be over 50 thousand hate crimes against disabled people in the UK. But why are only around 1,000 reported? Taking to the streets for revealing vox pops and trying to track down someone at Google to clamp down on online bullying, his campaign to raise awareness of “disabilism” (prejudice against people with any form of disability) is funny, provocative and hugely uplifting. Like its important subject matter, this is a piece of television that shouldn’t go under-reported.
Available until: 22nd August
Photo: BBC/Betty TV/Mark Johnson
London Anniversary Games
It’s been three years since the London 2012 Olympics, but the Anniversary Games held every summer still conjure up warm feelings of nostalgia and national pride. With Jessica Ennis-Hill, Mo Farah and Usain Bolt all on the cards for the 2015 competition, though, there’s also sporting entertainment galore.
Available until: 23rd August
Photo: BBC/Andrew Hayes-Watkins
The Sky at Night: Pluto Revealed
NASA’s New Horizons mission is yet another reminder of mankind’s scientific achievements: the first time any probe has visited the dwarf planet. How did we get those images in such stunning close-up detail? Maggie Aderin-Pocock and Chris Lintott present the inside story of the groundbreaking trip across the solar system in the 750th episode of the Beeb’s long-running astronomy programme.
Available until: 19th August
Photo: BBC/Victoria Weaver
Storyville: Circus Elephant Rampage
In 1973, a baby elephant was captured from the wild and trained to perform in the circus. He was named Tyke. “20 years later…” begins Storyville’s Circus Elephant Rampage ominously, as we are told of how the animal went on a rampage in Honolulu in 1994. Interviews and footage of trainers explaining their process build up to the event in a detail that recalls the recent Blackfish – and the final footage, shot first-hand by onlookers – is as shocking as that documentary.
Available until: 21st August
Photo: BBC/Jumping Dog Productions Pty Ltd/The Altoona Mirror
The BBC’s latest season of comedy pilots has arrived and it’s a consistently hilarious batch. Highlights include warped game show spoof Funz and Gamez, complete with depressed host and a production team that breaks into their contestants’ homes to steal prizes, and sketch show People Like Us, which just might be the best ensemble sketch programme since Big Train. Elsewhere, the return of a wayward daughter from university to her rural home is a delightfully original piece of comedy in an age where many sitcoms have become bland and familiar. These feeds should come with a warning – because they’ll leave you hungry for more. (Read our full review).
Available until: June 2016.
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.
The Proms are a fantastic additional to the cultural calendar every year, with the Beeb’s increasingly diverse range of programming – this year, instead of the semi-traditional Doctor Who Prom, there is a David Attenborough-themed event and one based around Sherlock – helping to make classical music as accessible as it is affordable. For those unable to make it to the Royal Albert Hall, the televised coverage is second to none, with a large proportion of Proms broadcast live and subsequently available to stream. Composers from Beethoven and Handel to Britten and Holst, plus performers such as Yo-Yo Ma, whenever you want to watch or listen to them? Play on, BBC. Play on.
Photo: BBC / Chris Christodoulou
Available until: 17th August (First Night of the Proms)
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
“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: 20th August (Episode 1)
Photo: BBC/Coolabi, Smallfilms and Peter Firmin
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
The fantastic Burn Gorman gets a welcome chance to take the lead role in this likeable downbeat comedy about a guy who deals with the administrative side of the afterlife. The script struggles to stretch out its premise for 88 minutes, but it benefits from a strong sense of location: a sea of grey concrete and forgotten local seafront. By the end of the film, you take it as written that this is what purgatory looks like. Croydon.
Available until: 16th August (12.35am)
Guys and Dolls
Frank Sinatra and Jean Simmons crackle with charisma in this film version of the classic Broadway musical, which sees gambler Nathan Detroit bet Sky Masterson (Marlon Brando) that he can woo Sarah, a women who works at the Save a Soul Mission. With songs that sound as good as the characters’ names, anyone who doesn’t find themselves tapping their toes along should sit down and stop rocking the boat.
Available until: 22nd August (12.55am)
Shall We Dance
Fred and Ginger do their thing in this musical about a famous ballet dancer and revue artist who find themselves mistaken for being married while on a boat to New York. An odd couple? Stellar dance numbers? Music by George and Ira Gershwin? This is toe-tapping stuff.
Available until: 24th August
Before Empire and The Paperboy came Lee Daniels’ Precious, a weighty drama that stars an excellent Gabourey Sidibe as a pregnant teen who enrols in an alternative school in an attempt to improve her life. Based on the novel Push by Sapphire.
Available until: 22nd August (1.15am)
David Bowie: Five Years
This 90-minute documentary charts five important years in David Bowie’s career. It may not tell you anything new about the music icon, but any chance to see archive performances and interviews with the man himself should never be passed up.
Available until: 17th August
This classic children’s animation tells the story of Sophie, an orphan who goes on a magical journey with a big friendly giant, creating wonderful dreams along the way. Magical stuff.
Available until: 23rd August
Plan B’s gritty drama follows a drug dealer who is dragged into a multi-stranded tableau of London misery. Mobile phones, guns and babies all collide in something that feels like EastEnders, but – thanks to its effective use of music – has a sound all of its own.
Available until: 1st September
Douglas Fairbanks Jr. and Cary Grant in the same film at the same time? If that line-up doesn’t have you swooning already, the two-hour runtime of this 1939 epic – which sees three British Army officers and their eponymous water carrier fighting a band of religious fanatics in India – soon will.
Available until: 5th September
The superb Keira Knightley is only outshone by the costumes in this lavish drama about the Duchess of Devonshire, who found herself trapped in a failed marriage during the 18th century.
Available until: 6th September
The sequel to the hugely enjoyable 2010 dance flick drops its main characters for a new troupe of competitors. The dance sequences remain impressive, but the brains have all but tangoed out of the room: for a few brave minutes, directors Max Giwa, Dania Pasquini leave romantic interest Eva (Sofia Boutella) to dance alone in silence, venting her anger and sadness. That’s what the dancing in these films should be: an expression of character to match a musical’s use of song. The problem? Most of the time there are no characters to express.
Available until: 7th September
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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