We review the best TV shows and films currently available on BBC iPlayer. (Click here to skip to our reviews of the best movies on BBC iPlayer.)
The People vs OJ Simpson
It’s all too easy to dub something as the next Making a Murderer, but this classy US drama retelling the story of OJ Simpson’s trial might genuinely be it. What possible new angle could this programme have on one of the most high-profile murder cases in history? Firstly, Cuba Gooding Jr., who acts the heck out his lead role, erupting with panic and shock as the charges are brought again him. Is it guilt? Is it sadness? Is it anger? He’s fascinatingly hard to read, but also genuinely emotional – and it’s that ability to make you engage with such a familiar historical case that marks out The People vs OJ Simpson as a success. Cuba’s joined by an equally fantastic cast, from an unrecognisable John Travolta as defence attorney Robert Shapiro, an understated David Schwimmer as defence attorney Robert Kardashian and Sarah Paulson as determined prosecutor Marcia Clark. Shot with style and paced with flair, this is gripping, must-see television.
Available until: 19th March
Photo: BBC / Fox
If you’re already looking forward to the return of Robot Wars, CBBC’s Airmageddon – which sees kids battle drones against each other – is something to investigate. The tasks themselves are laughably bad, even when they finally introduce lasers at the climax, but there’s a trashy fun to the whole affair, not least because the presenters seem barely able to keep a straight face while hosting. As a commentator desperately tries to be Jonathan Pearce – and inevitably fails – the result isn’t exactly good (you could find more thrills bashing two toasters together in your back garden), but it certainly makes you appreciate Robot Wars all the more.
Photo: BBC / DHX Media
How to Die: Simon’s Choice
This feature-length telling of the story of one man choosing whether to end his life at a suicide clinic following his diagnosis of motor neurone disease manages to explore not just its central dilemma, but its impact upon loved ones. Combined with Simon’s remarkable sense of humour throughout the whole thing, this is powerful, moving viewing.
Available until: 11th March
Photo: BBC / Minnow Films/ Graham Smith
Harry Potter’s Katie Leung stars in this BBC drama about a young girl, Mei, left at an orphanage by her moth as a baby – a victim of China’s now-defunct population-controlling one-child policy. Raised by an British American couple, she is startled to receive a message from an earnest stranger with something to tell her. No, not that she’s a wizard, but that she only weeks to save her biological brother, who faces a death sentence in China. It’s far-fetched and often heavy-handed in its Important Themes, but it’s a treat to see Leung delivering a fine performance in something about as different to Hogwarts as it gets. There’s potential here.
Available until: 18th March
Photo: BBC / Ed Miller
Camila’s Kids Company: The Inside Story
Charting the implosion of one of Britain’s best-known charities last year, Lynn Alleway’s portrait of Camila Batmanghelidjh, founder of the charity Kids Company, is simply astonishing. Offering an unexpected glimpse behind the scenes as the charity was brought under the public spotlight, surrounded by allegations of sexual abuse and financial misconduct, the result is never cruel, but nonetheless cuts through the good work performed by the organisation with a scalpel. “I never break the law,” gushes Camila, with the kind of forthright charisma that won her support from politicians and wealthy donators. “I just stretch it.” As chauffeurs, swimming pools and extravagant propertise are all paraded in front of the camera, you don’t doubt Camila’s commitment to the cause – but you seriously wonder how on earth she was allowed to run it for so long. This is painful, engrossing car crash television. Watch it immediately.
Available until: 4th March
Photo: BBC/Century Films Ltd/Camilla Greenwell
Back in Time for the Weekend
A modern family trying to live like it’s the 1950s might not sound like the most entertaining or even informative programme, but the BBC manages to make it both. The Ashby Hawkins are our subjects, agreeing to put their iPads and TVs away in favour of pianos and teatime card games. Dad Rob learning to assemble a table is cute enough, but it’s the growing appreciation of freedom by daughter Daisy and mum Steph that really strikes home. One kept to the confines of the kitchen and the other only able to learn ballroom dancing to escape, witnessing the dramatic transformation in womens’ lots in society is worth tuning in for alone.
Available until: 6th March
Photo: BBC/Wall to Wall/Duncan Stingemore
Rise of the Superstar Vloggers
YouTube veteran Jim Chapman presents this documentary about the rise of vlogging as a phenomenon. Teaming up with Alfie Deyes – of Zoe and Alfie fame – the result is a wonderfully intimate insight into the new age of celebrity, from his surprise at being in Madame Tussauds to his joy at beeing recognised by people in the street. For anyone familiar with the YouTube community, there is little here that they will not already know – but for those who don’t know their Tyler Oakleys from their Tanya Burrs, this is essential, engaging viewing.
Available until: 2nd March
World War Three: Inside the War Room
War games are a ritual that have been carried out by politicians for years, imagining the worst possible global scenarios behind closed doors. This hour-long drama captures the apocalyptic debate with an absorbing, low-key approach, as Russia, Latvia and all the buzz words you could imagine come into play. The discussion of ethics, invasion, military tactics and peaceful negotiations is undercut with a scarily believable pettiness from the men and women sitting around the table, while archive news footage adds a realistic sheen to events. It’s not real, of course, but plausible? Therein lies the unspoken terror.
Available until: 4th March
The Great Sport Relief Bake Off
Cakes. Mary Berry. An uplifting tone that inspires and encourages anyone to bake. It’s hard to imagine how GBBO could get better. The Great Sport Relief Bake Off, though, found an answer: add David James. The former England national goalkeeper, to put it simply, is not the world’s best baker – but he’s one of the best bakers to watch in action. Pausing, staring at things with a confused expression, throwing chicken into an oven with casual abandon. It’s a masterclass in how not to behave in a kitchen. He’s joined by other celebrities of varying degrees of incompetence, a mix that means, for once, almost everyone is making mistakes: the technical round involving choux pastry is a 10-minute car crash in a tent, with Berry and Hollywood having to eat the results proving excruciatingly hilarious. But Mel’s gentle hosting and the show’s relentlessly kind tone means that the laughter never feels X Factor-like cruel. The result is possibly the best episode of Bake Off ever.
Samantha Cameron, meanwhile, glides through with consistent competence, but cancels out the impressive skill with an absence of any personality. James, though, has an abundance of character. His solution for cooking a cake in the middle is either genius or dumb – can someone give him his own cookery show now please?
Available until: 29th February (Episode 1)
Photo: BBC/Love Productions
Murder Games: The Life and Death of Breck Bednar
This docudrama tells the true story of a 14-year-old schoolboy who was lured to death by a stranger he met online while gaming. The programme blends animated reenactments and live action interviews in an attempt to highlight the boundary between real life and the dangers of the virtual world. It’s a technique that doesn’t always work, but there is no doubt that this is an important story to share, particularly in families with younger viewers – and the subject is handled with sensitivity and respect.
Available until: 27th February
Photo: Rare Day Ltd
The Real Marigold Hotel
A bunch of celebrities travel to India, inspired by The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel? It’s hard to imagine a worst premise for a programme, but against all the odds, The Real Marigold Hotel emerges as a likeable piece of telly. The secret is in the group of participants, from Roy Walker to Sylvester McCoy and Miriam Margolyes, who find themselves both shocked by inequality and charmed by other aspects of the lifestyle they encounter. “It’s like a war zone,” says one, as they hunt for a public toilet – but the editing is sure to keep the joke on their behalf, while the majority spend the time genuinely exploring the foreign culture rather than complaining. Forget any presumptions: if you liked the film, or you really love Catchphrase this is worth checking in with.
Available until: 29th February (Episode 1)
The Brain with David Eagleman
How do our brains work? We would explain, but this insightful BBC documentary series makes it clear that everything we understand about the world around us is entirely subjective, filtered by the myriad nerves, synapses and hormones connected to our grey matter. Eagleman presents the barrage of mind-blowing facts with a nifty line in animated diagrams and an enthusiastic demeanour that makes him sound like a magician, liable to draw a rabbit out of a hat any second. Well, we say rabbit. And we say hat. Depending on how your head’s wired, they could be anything.
Available until: 23rd February (Episode 1)
Adam Pearson: Freak Show
After last year’s excellent The Ugly Face of Disability Hate Crime, Adam Pearson returns once again for a film that explores society, prejudice and outsiders. To what extent is it exploitative to use a medical condition to make money or entertain? Pearson tackles the subject with passion, empathy, smarts and a witty sense of humour that makes him one of the most distinctive presenters in modern TV – and not because of his appearance. (For him in serious acting mode, check out Under the Skin.) The result is funny, provocative and unique; exactly the kind of thing that BBC Three is marvellous at. More please. In fact, just more Adam Pearson in general.
Available until: 24th February
Photo: BBC/Betty TV
Attenborough and the Giant Dinosaur
There’s nothing like David Attenborough standing in front of a pack of wild animals talking serenely about their lives and habitat. When it comes to dinosaurs, though, that’s not really possible. The result is an old man standing in front of a CGI titanosaur (the largest animal ever to walk the earth), pretending to see something and looking amazed. Fortunately, that bizarre sight – akin to your clueless uncle trying to work a VCR – only occurs rarely in this fascinating programme, which sees old Dave turn his attentions more to fossils than live species. Instead, the series gives other people the chance to be the expert on-screen explaining things to him – another reversal of the usual Attenborough format, which reveals just how good a presenter Attenborough really is, and just how much he (and his younger self) loves dinosaurs. It’s an infectious sentiment.
Available until: 25th February
Photo: BBC/Graphics by Hello Charlie
Mary Berry’s Foolproof Cooking
Lobster. Spiralised veg. It’s endearing to see what Mary Berry thinks are the foodstuffs people use to impress friends in 2016, but if the menu for this new cookery show is a little outdated, that’s precisely Mary’s charm: delivering everything with the gentle enthusiasm of everyone’s favourite grandma, she trills through recipes without ever taking herself too seriously or forgetting that ingredients can sometimes be expensive. Compared to any other chef on telly today, she’s a refreshing palette cleanser – and her food, including the lobster, looks gorgeous to boot.
Available until: 26th February
Photo: BBC/Shine TV
James May’s Cars of the People
With Top Gear no more – unless you’re an Amazon Prime Video customer – it would be easy to write off James May as an also-ran of the famed BBC trio, but returning for a second season of his solo series, he proves just how likeable he is. Chatting to us about the cars that turned post-war Germany and Japan into motoring powerhouses, he’s experienced enough to know how to recite facts without them being boring, but more than that, he’s also an adept interviewer, spending several minutes humiliating the designer of the Austin Allegro without it ever feeling cruel. Jeremy Clarkson would never have been able to do that.
Available until: 25th February
Photo: BBC/Will Churchill
Matt Berry Does…
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 six iPlayer short films titled “Matt Berry Does…”. Father’s Day and Summer Holidays are the kind of arbitrary topics that get the absurdist treatment from him and Bob Mortimer – there’s something undeniably hilarious about Matt Berry’s voice playing on top of screaming fish – while Matt Berry Does… Ghosts, is another testament to how effective Berry’s silliness is when distilled down to one brief, concentrated dose. Especially if you like learning about ghosts called Kenneth. The final in the series is now available, Matt Berry Does… New Year.
Available until: June 2016
Photo: BBC iPlayer
Frank Skinner On Demand with…
BBC iPlayer’s latest original series sees Frank Skinner and an array of celebrity guests discuss – yes – iPlayer. Talking through their favourite things they’ve been watching recently, the result is like a 15-minute podcast presenting highlights from the catch-up service. A bit like our weekly column, but less comprehensive and with more famous people. Worth watching just to hear them discuss iPlayer’s original feature film Fear Itself and horror movies in general.
Available until: New episodes arrive every Friday – available for 7 days
Photo: BBC iPlayer
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
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
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 Rack Pack
BBC iPlayer’s first scripted original drama follows the rise of snooker in the 1980s, as a young Steve Davis faces a heated rivalry with Alex “Hurricane” Higgins. Snooker may not be the most exciting or mainstream sport, but the film understands that it’s about people as much as potting – and Will Merrick as Davis and Luke Treadaway as Higgins are uncannily good, one hilariously awkward and the other tragically self-destructive. Together with business guru Barry Hearn (a brilliant Kevin Bishop) crafting a new, professional era for the sport, The Rack Pack is a moving tribute to a bygone sporting age and a legend who simply wouldn’t exist today. The result is something everyone should go snooker loopy over, whether they’re fans of the sport or not. Read our full review.
Photo: BBC / Zeppotron / Keiron McCarron
Drama about an independent woman who marries in the belief she wants a normal life and that marriage will change her, but who becomes increasingly stifled by her circumstances.
Available until: 22nd February
The Fear of 13
In 1982, Nick Yarris was convicted of the rape and murder of a woman. He maintained that he was innocent. How often have you heard a TV show or film begin like that? In today’s true-crime-obsessed age, tales of wrongly-jailed suspects have become sadly familiar, from Making a Murderer to Serial. The Fear of 13, though, is something entirely unique. Consisting almost entirely of Nick talking to camera, this documentary is storytelling distilled into its simplest, and more powerful, form. A gripping and fascinating watch. Read our full review.
Available until: 1st March