Computers come to the for on BBC iPlayer this week, as the Beeb begins a digital-themed season of programmes, which range from smartypants Brian Cox hosting a new panel show to a movie about the creation of GTA. If that sounds cold and clinical, that’s more true of the latest offering in the BBC’s run of high-profile original dramas, The Go-Between. Failing to light the screen up as much as Lady Chatterley’s Lover or An Inspector Calls, even the shrewd casting of a young boy to match Jim Broadbent’s wide-eyed old man can’t bring warmth to the age-old story of social classes and shed-based rumpy pumpy.
Human interest, though, is in abundance across the rest of the Beeb’s catch-up content, from a BBC Four documentary about Ada Lovelace to a BBC Three show about teenage girls learning to code. With Orphan Black Season 3 premiering on Wednesday 23rd September to boot, plug in and switch your biological programme to “stream”.
We review the best TV shows and films currently available on BBC iPlayer:
Calculating Ada: The Countess of Computing
Who gave birth to the modern computer? This BBC documentary makes a convincing case for the daughter of Lord Byron, Ada Lovelace. Tracing her life and her friendship with computer daddy Charles Babbage, Dr. Hannah Fry proves a likeable presence, who never feels over-coached in presentation or bored by her well-researched subject matter. Shots of an early computer and its cog-based addition are hypnotic, while Lovelace’s later slide into a gambling problem provides a poignant contrast to her life’s underappreciated achievement.
6 Degrees of Separation
Professor Brian Cox takes time out from straddling volcanoes and gazing at the stars to try something new: hosting a panel show. Joined by Ben Miller and Hugh Dennis, the result is a bizarre combination of Mythbusters, QI and the annual Christmas lectures, as demonstrations and experiments join the usual question-and-answer rounds. In an age of Mock the Week and other inane comedy offerings, it’s an unexpected treat to see a game show trying to do something different. Especially when it involves custard, an egg and a cherry picker. Cox’s hair is, of course, immaculate.
Photo: BBC/Emilie Sandie
“Was Basil Brush busy? What exactly is this random, made up bollocks?” That’s the reaction of RockStar, makers of Grand Theft Auto, to this one-off BBC drama that continues the Beeb’s digital-themed season. Daniel Radcliffe stars as head designer Sam Houser, opposite Bill Paxton as an evangelical lawyer gunning for the violent video game’s head. Radcliffe is excellent, portraying his geek as part-Mark Zuckerberg revolutionary and part-misunderstood genius, but if the movie never reaches the depths of The Social Network, it does manage to capture some of the debate surrounding GTA’s contrversy: one sequence that sees a young man shoot up a police station is shot in the style of the game, a chilling piece of filmmaking that, despite RockStar’s claims of inaccuracy, stays with you.
Photo: BBC Scotland © 2015; Moonlighting NNN Productions (Pty) Limited: African Photographic C.C.
Girls Can Code
The title of BBC Three’s new show may well illicit a sigh or a murmur of surprise from unenlightened audiences, but this is a fantastic piece of telly that takes a bunch of young girls and proves to them that hell yes, they can. From a games studio in London to an electronic fashion designer, Radio 1’s Alice Levine presents proof that coding can be used in all kinds of situations, before – with the help of Hassle.com’s Alex Depledge – encouraging the youngsters to make their own computer game. The result is as delightfully immature and innovative as you could hope for. The fact that these talents are surrounded by successful female role models, the kind of people who never seem to appear on your living room screen, only adds to the value of a worthwhile 60 minutes. By the end, there’s only one possible response to the emphatic titles. Girls Can Code. Well, duh.
Photo: BBC/Nutshell TV/Dan Hall
Suranne Jones and Bertie Carvel? The cast list for Doctor Foster sounds like a match made in heaven. The show even opens with a corker of a sex scene, as see Doctor Foster and her husband in full marital flow. But there’s trouble in paradise – and, after finding some lip balm and a blonde hair on her hubbie’s coat, our normally rational brunette becomes increasingly besotted with the idea that he might be having an affair. Jones is superb as the determined amateur detective, just intense enough to make you doubt her reliability, while Carvel smiles with enough gloss to make you wonder whether he’s putting it on. Suspicions swing to and fro between the couple, leaving you uncertain who to believe or who to sympathise with. And that’s only after the first hour. The stage is set for a compelling drama. We prescribe that you watch all five episodes.
Available until: Friday 9th October (Episode 1)
Photo: Drama Republic/Des Willie
An Inspector Calls
The BBC continues its run of literary adaptations with this take on JB Priestley’s play, an oldie but a goodie that would surely creak under the weight of its own age and familiarity. But dusted down by the Beeb in an age of austerity, housing shortages and ever-expanding food banks, the socialist fury of the titular detective implicating a rich family (led by the repulsively snooty Ken Stott and Miranda Richardson) in the death of a poor girl (sympathetic waif Sophie Rundle) feels like it could have been written yesterday. Those familiar with the text – it’s taught widely at GCSE level – may feel like they’re being lectured, but this is a speech worth hearing. Delivered with panache by a fantastically steely David Thewlis, the result is so rousing it could easily have starred Jeremy Corbyn.
Available until: Tuesday 13th October
Photo: BBC Pictures/Drama Republic
“You look haggard.” “Thanks.” That’s Martin Beck, your new favourite Scandinavian detective. A haggard Scandinavian detective? It’s par for the course for Nordic noir, but so is high quality – and this series of standalone dramas, based on the Swedish books, confidently exceeds an already high standard. Peter Haber, who was memorably creepy in the original The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo film, plays the gruff cop, who is first faced with a person being buried alive – the kind of horrific crime that doesn’t need subtitles to be effective. Mikael Persbrandt as his unapologetically confrontational colleague, Gunvald Larsson, is the icing on the kladdkaka.
Available until: Monday 12th October (Episode 1)
Photo: BBC/Nordisk Film Production AB & Filmlance International AB/Bengt Wanselius
Boy Meets Girl
The first UK sitcom to feature a transgender character, Boy Meets Girl is the kind of show that could – and arguably should – be trumpeted as welcome game-changer. The show, though, is actually quite old-fashioned in its approach, not to sexuality but to humour: jokes range from the well observed “I was born with a penis” revelation during a romantic dinner to overly familiar older relatives delivering cosy, if tired, gags. But if that leaves this far from on par with Amazon’s Transparent, there’s pleasure to be found in its earthy, comfortable attitude to its subject: the moment where Rebecca Root’s Judy explains to Harry Hepple’s Leo that she was born in the wrong body is an unexpectedly tender piece of TV.
Available until: Monday 5th October (Episode 1)
Danny and the Human Zoo
“You may have seen these impressions before, but not in colour,” says young Danny Fearon, as he takes to the stage in Dudley. Written by Lenny Henry, the loosely autobiographical story of a young black comedian growing up in the 1970s might sound like a self-indulgent piece of nostaglia. But while Danny Baker’s similar effort, Cradle to Grave (also on iPlayer), was satisfactory, if shallow, Danny and the Human Zoo emerges as a tender, moving tale.
Kascion Franklin is fantastic as the impersonator, who makes his name only by mimicking famous white people, and Cecilia Noble is wonderful as his passionate, protective mum. But Henry quietly steals the show as his serious dad, who looks upon everything from infidelity to his adopted son performing on a stage surrounded by minstreals, and manages a grumpy, reluctant smile. It’s a wonderful display of restraint during a time only a few decades ago, when prejudice among white people didn’t know the meaning of the word.
Available until: Wednesday 30th September
Photo: BBC/Red Productions/Adrian Rogers
Lady Chatterley’s Lover
Jed Mercurio’s take on DH Lawrence’s steamy novel is a surprisingly chaste affair, as Holliday Grainger’s haughty Lady C gets off with groundskeeper Oliver Mellors. Game of Thrones’ Richard Madden tones down the language (“bottom” is the word of the day, rather than anything rude, thank you very much), just one of many changes to the text that left some fans fuming online at the lack of rumpy-pumpy. The biggest crime of passion is the dialogue, which, thanks to some colourful accents, leaves you closer to titters than titillated. The strength of Mercurio’s script, though, lies in its down-to-earth tone, complete with James Norton as the surprisingly sympathetic, disabled Sir Clifford Chatterley. “It is the living together day to day not the sleeping together” that defines love, he argues at one point. This TV drama makes a good case for it.
Available until: Tuesday 6th October
Main Photo: BBC PICTURES/HARTSWOOD FILMS
Goodness Gracious Me
Goodness gracious me is something you wouldn’t be blamed for crying, as the British-Asian sketch show from years ago returns out of the blue for an Indian-themed special. There are some misses in among the hits – gags such as Brownton Abbey and Brownadder don’t always work as well on camera as they do on paper – but there’s wit and silliness aplenty, as Meera Syal, Sanjeev Bhaskar, Nina Wadia, Kulvinder Ghir and Dave Lamb skewer the BBC’s approach to diversity and even find time to send up stereotypes with the Indian Space Programme. You might be surprised by the troupe’s sudden reunion, but what’s most impressive is that after all these years, the gang have still got it. Goodness gracious, indeed.
Photo: BBC/Des Willie
Available until: 24th September
This sitcom about Croydon’s worst fried chicken shop (Seriously Fried Chicken) takes full flight after being commissioned on the basis of its Comedy Feeds pilot last year. The strength of the show remains the store’s incompetent manager, Mary, a part played with endearing desperation by the excellent Katy Wix. She takes centre stage, as she goes undercover to find out who’s been complaining about her to head office. There are deep fried laughs in the reaction of her colleagues to her ineffective costume, building to a strong final gag, but with a disappointingly familiar romantic subplot and an uneven role for the token rowdy sidekick (amusing when in his mascot costume, less so when left to deliver stock rude statements), a lot of this first episode rests on how funny you find a woman wearing a fake moustache. Give this time to flap its wings: there are promising nuggets to be found.
Available until: 26th September (Episode 1)
Photo: BBC / Two Brothers Pictures Limited / Bwark Productions Limited
This tenderly observed portrait of five men as they undergo transformation into women marks the welcome growth of a spotlight the TV world is shining on trans people in the wake of such shows as Orange Is the New Black and Amazon’s Transparent. There is a real diversity on show, from 17-year-old Bee, who is supported by her blokey dad, to Glady, a 70-something who belts out karaoke numbers in the local boozer with pride. But one thing these all have in common is a genuine desire to understand – and spread understanding of – their journeys, the beginning of a process that will, hopefully, lead to the normalisation of such tales in our mainstream media. “She’ll always be one of the lads,” says the co-worker of Anne, a soldier-turned-bus-driver who has just come out, without hesitating to accept her.
Available until: 23rd September
Photo: Peachtree Films/BBC Scotland
“Nobody messes with the McCrane family,” warns cockney crime boss Harry McCrane to his newly assembled henchmen. A hand goes up. “Yes, Sandra?” He’s just taken over an ice cream factory. The problem? They were already making a lot of money with the ice cream. Drugs, on the other hand, are a lot of hassle.
It’s exactly the kind of villain you can expect to encounter Top Coppers, BBC Three’s new comedy series. Created by Andy Kinnear and Cein McGillicuddy (also on directing duties), the show spoofs 1970s cop thrillers like it’s going out of fashion.
In many ways, of course, it is: comedies these days don’t do slapstick and silliness in the quite the same way. But the cast are more than up for it; Steen Raskopoulous is hilariously gormless as star cop John Mahogany and John Kearns is even more so as his sidekick, Mitch Rust. Both are dim, good at deadpan delivery and even more ginger than their names suggest. Their policing of Justice City, led by an amusingly over-the-top chief – the lover of another brother’s mother – recalls Police Squad! with its rapid-fire punchlines and constant undermining of every plot point. It’s not quite on a par with Frank Drebin, but three decades on, this wears the comparison on its sleeve with impressive attitude.
Available until: 22nd September
Photo: BBC PICTURES/Rough Cut
The Great British Bake Off
Pudding trumps bread any day of the week and Bake Off doesn’t disappoint, with an array of mouth-watering cheesecakes (cream soda, anyone?), entertaining meringue dilemmas and some creme brûlée catastrophes. Paul Hollywood is scathingly blunt as he and Mary wobble over the custardy, creamy chaos. All that and there’s still the question of whether Ian can win Star Baker for the third week in a row. Six seasons in and this format is still as sweet as ever.
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.
Photo: BBC/Tiger Aspect/Bernard Walsh
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 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.
Read our full review.
Available until: 2016
Original Drama Shorts
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.
Read our full review.
Available until: June 2016
BBC Proms 2015
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
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.
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
A Brighton mob family try to smoke out the informant responsible for putting their son in the slammer. As the stakes are raised and the walls start closing in, it’s only a matter of time before they turn on their own. Wheatley’s debut film is a micro-budget marvel about domestic gangsterism in middle England. Filmed in a matter of days for the cost of a packet of fags, Down Terrace does so much with very little. It’s the Argos Sopranos. Bad decisions and the banality of violence given a Pound Shop twist. Read our full review.
Available until: 27th September
Jennifer Lawrence delivers a star-making performance in this mystery, which sees a determined Ozark Mountain girl go on a dangerous search for her drug-dealing father, who has skipped bail. Cold and bleak, with a cracking supporting turn from John Hawkes, this is a frostbitten pleasure.
Available until: 26th September
Wallace and Gromit: A Close Shave
A romance with a wool shop owner and a dog framed for sheep-rustling? Aardman’s small-screen outings for its claymation duo have never been bigger or better.
Available until: 30th September
Wallace and Gromit: The Wrong Trousers
Jewellery heists. Robotic pants. Mysterious penguins. The Wrong Trousers has it all – including a stunning stop-motion chase sequence involving a toy train set.
Available until 30th 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.
Available until: 2016