The best films and TV shows on BBC iPlayer (20th August 2017)
Ivan Radford | On 20, Aug 2017
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.)
For BBC Three recommendations, including Murdered for Being Different and Don’t Deport Me, I’m British, click here.
Pick of the Week: People Just Do Nothing: Season 4
The radio pirates of People Just Do Nothing have stubbornly refused to grow up throughout the first three seasons of BBC Three’s hilarious mockumentary. But now, as it returns for a fourth run just after winning a BAFTA, there’s a maturity in the air that sees the sitcom sailing to new heights. Drugs, rivalry, death and birth all show us just how far People Just Do Nothing has come: from sketches of silliness to supporting characters who are fleshed out in their own right, we’re now not only laughing at and with these people, and sharing in their minor downfalls, but we’re devastated by their failed relationships and shocked by their addictions. The show has always mixed heart and humour, but there’s an added gravity to this urban sitcom’s new run that only justifies the programme’s BAFTA win even more. The boys are back – and People Just Do Nothing is better than ever.
Pick of the Week: Quacks
Rory Kinnear stars in this comedy set in the days of the Victorian medical boom, a time of amputations with dirty instruments and guessing how much chloroform to use. Kinnear, who is one of Britain’s best character actors, relishes the chance to use his comic timing as the pompous surgeon Robert, who cuts legs off in 90 seconds, thanks to the liberal use of brandy. On himself. Supported by a depraved Tom Basden as a dodgy dentist and the charming Mathew Bayton (Bill) as a psychiatrist with a crush on Robert’s wife (Lydia Leonard), the result is a typical male-centric sitcom but with added blood-stained aprons. Over the course of the season, though, Leonard gets more and more chances to steal scenes from all of them, while guest turns from Andrew Scott (as a hilariously arrogant Charles Dickens) and Milly Thomas (as a delightfully pious Florence Nightingale) ensure that the laughs build as the six episodes continue – by the end, you’ll be ready for a repeat prescription. All episodes are available now on BBC iPlayer as a box set.
The Big Family Cooking Showdown
Despite all claims to the contrary, the BBC is clearly following its own Great British Bake Off recipe for this new cooking show, which sees Zoe Ball and Nadiya Hussain pit families against each other in the kitchen. From young people with parents to grandparents with their descendants, there’s a nice mix of ages, just like Bake Off. There are two judges – Michelin-starred chef Giorgio Locatelli and cookery teacher Rosemary Shrager – just like Bake Off. And there are multiple challenges they must each face to get through to the next round – just like Bake Off. Complete with its gentle piano soundtrack – just like Bake Off – the result is appetising enough, but it’s missing the sprinkling of honesty that made Bake Off’s frantic race to finish nail-biting as well as mouth-watering. Taken out of the tent for one of the challenges, you’d expect things to feel more raw, but the occasionally forced smiles and careful efforts not to snap at each other can’t help but seem a tad on the show-home side – not least because they cook dishes that most families would never attempt on a regular weeknight. A little rougher around the edges would give this perfectly harmless slice of entertainment a much-needed bit of spice.
Len Goodman’s Partners in Rhyme
There are some things in life you cannot unsee. Len Goodman’s Partners in Rhyme puts the Strictly Come Dancing into a new gameshow format, which requires contestants to identify rhyming phrases from pictures, videos and charades. Tom Hardy in a cardie. Danny Dyer on a high wire. Anton Du Beke with a really long neck. And so it continues for 30 excruciating minutes. Goodman, who was a perfectly fine judge on Strictly Come Dancing, is dreadful, like a granddad who shouldn’t be allowed out at parties, even busting out a “didn’t he do well?” that, in the wake of Sir Bruce Forsyth’s sad passing, only highlights how far he is from being king of peak teatime TV. The games, though, are worse, as Mr. Motivator pops up for one filmed segment between the badly Photoshopped animations. Even the parts where people mime out clues sees someone else read them aloud anyway. As for the answers, they don’t even make sense, like someone remade Catchphrase for stupid people. The more that Goodman tries to call it rapping and get down with one of the panellists, who can breakdance, the more awkward it gets – it’s the most compelling car crash since ITV’s diving show, Splash. “If you’ve got the time,” shouts Len. “We’ve got the rhyme!” chants the studio audience back, as if they’ve been brainwashed into some kind of post-apocalyptic cult and all they can do is keep laughing until society collapses in a cannibal free-for-all and the nuclear fallout causes everyone’s skin to fall off. The best of BBC iPlayer? Far from it. But if you’ve got sarcastic kids, or you’ve got your mates around on a Friday night with a bottle, stick this on and you’ll all enjoy shouting at the telly for 10 minutes. Don’t keep it on all night: it’s a load of ____.
Earlier this year, the casting of Jodie Whittaker as the new star of Doctor Who was met with criticism by a small group of male fans who were somehow scared of the Doctor becoming a woman. It’s even sillier when you consider how easily Whittaker’s nurse, Cath Hardacre, waltzes into a new job as a doctor without anyone so much as questioning whether she’s qualified. Of course, she isn’t, and therein lies the tension, as Cath steals a friend’s identity to escape her waste-of-a-space ex and glum life in favour of an opening in an Edinburgh A&E. It’s a decision that doesn’t quite hold up to scrutiny, but it’s testament to Whittaker’s compelling, engaging presence that you don’t really question it until the credits roll – and by that time, she’s fluked her way through surgical procedures, done the rounds while secretly reading an idiot’s guide to biology, and found a new romantic interest. Is it realistic? No. Does it make sense? Not at all. Does Whittaker sell it with sincerity, confidence and charisma? Absolutely. What a wonderful Doctor she’s going to be.
Last Chance: Top of the Lake: China Girl
Top of the Lake took viewers (this one included) by storm when it burst onto screens way back in 2013. A whiff of Twin Peaks – combined with the trademark washed-out beauty that bears Jane Campion’s hallmark – permeated the air on a mysterious yet stunning backdrop in rural New Zealand, where Detective Robin Griffin (Elisabeth Moss) rolled into town to investigate the disappearance of an underage pregnant girl. This season sees Robin back in Sydney – after a year soul-searching and apparently running into some trouble with her beau from the season before – and armed with fresh baggage. And, pretty quickly, a fresh case too, as a suitcase containing the body of a young woman washes up on Bondi Beach. Gwendoline Christie aside, there’s very little light about this show, even with sun-drenched Bondi as our backdrop. It’s dark, bleak, upsetting and very sad to watch. But it’s also incredibly well-crafted and boasts a host of female talent. It’s by no means an enjoyable season. But – just like the first – it’s utterly compulsive. The good news? All of it’s available now as a box set on BBC iPlayer. Read our full review
Last Chance: Queers
Mark Gatiss’ compendium of monologues marking the anniversary of the Sexual Offences Act is a remarkable little project, serving up 20-minute dramatic addresses directly to camera that are immediately moving and poignant. Written by everyone from Brian Fillis to Jackie Clune, what impresses is the shifts in tone, which vary from hilarious to naughty. Russell Tovey brings machismo and anger to the part of an actor struggling to get roles, but it’s Alan Cumming preparing a wedding speech who stands out, grinning broadly before reflecting seriously, as he anticipates the crowd-pleasing reaction to his words. “We gays can tell, out loud and proud, our stories,” he says, with heartwarming pride. “Me having the rights to get married doesn’t take anything away from anyone else,” he adds, with a pointed stare right at the audience. “It’s not like cake.” Savour each slice, one bit at a time – but next time, maybe some lesbian voices to go with the men?
Is It Safe to Be Gay in the UK?
“No” is the short answer to that sad question, and this BBC documentary is an eye-opening reminder that not only does homophobia still exist, but also homophobic violence. Some dramatic reconstructions are used to explore the impact that such violence has upon people’s lives, as victims unconsciously change their behaviour to be less overtly homosexual – but for the most part, the series keeps the focus simple and based around the powerful sight of talking heads relating their experiences. Important viewing and a blow to any complacency in the wake of the 50th anniversary of homosexuality’s decriminilisation.
Man in an Orange Shirt
This drama tells the story of Michael (Oliver Jackson-Cohen) and Thomas (James McArdie), two men who fall in love during World War II. One a soldier, the other an artist sketching the men to boost their morale – “My morale’s been elevated!” jokes one of the men, with his top off – their romance is heartfelt and engaging, thanks to Jackson-Cohen and McArdie’s gentle, a natural chemistry. Back home years later, seeing them both have to conceal that spark, as Michael is now married and a father, is heartbreaking. Add in a flashback structure involving Vanessa Redgrave and you’ve got yourself a powerful two-parter.
Last Chance: Against the Law
A drama cut together with talking heads might sound incredibly dated, but the BBC’s docudrama Against the Law manages to combine the two to moving, lasting effect. Daniel Mays once again transforms completely to play Peter Wildeblood, whose love affair with Edward McNally in 1952 lead to him being found guilty of homosexual offences and thrown in prison. Public outcry over the journalist’s imprisonment led to a committee inquiry into the legalisation of homosexuality – and that process, while it might sound straightforward, took a decade to become law. Mays’ remarkable performance brings home the toll that battle, and those draconian laws, had upon so many men’s lives at the time, from chemical aversion therapy to jail conditions and prejudice assaults. His quiet determination, underneath his outer layer of timid, quiet fear, is hugely moving – and the vox pop testimonies from people in the present day remind us now only how widespread the impact of Wildeblood’s case was, but also how recent this history really is.
Gripping, well-written and packed with ethical dilemmas, Ill Behaviours is a box set well worth your time. Read our full review of Sam Bain’s new comedy, all of which is on BBC iPlayer before airing on BBC Two.
Queer as Art
As Britain marks 50 years since the decriminalisation of homosexuality, this documentary celebrates the contribution of the LGBTQ’s community to the British arts over the last half a century. The talking heads are impressive, erudite and entertaining, ranging from Sandi Toksvig to Stephen Fry, and they provide an insightful guide to the milestones of influence and acceptance that have been charted since the 1960s, from David Bowie’s asexual persona inspiring audiences to Russell T Davies’ Queer As Folk bringing them sex as they’d not seen before in the mainstream. It’s perhaps Will Young, though, who leaves the most heartwarming impression, as his refusal to go back in the closet after winning Pop Idol put an end to the notion that being a homosexual would somehow alienate fans or stop record sales. “If anything, they loved him more,” reflects one. Another laments the fact that being gay has, if anything, become boring and middle-of-the-road – that, in itself, really is something worth celebrating.
Last Chance: Imagine: Mapplethorpe
“Look at the pictures,” cries Senator Jesse Helms, as he condemns photographer Robert Mapplethorpe. You’ll struggle not to, when you watch HBO’s documentary about the artist. A self-portrait with a whip in his rear end. Genitalia upon genitalia. Leather. Skin. Fists. You’ve never seen so many rude images in such a concentrated burst. Just, well, look at them. But unlike the outraged Helms, if you can see past the pictures, there’s some intriguing context to go with the controversy. The result is an insight into a boundary-pushing photographer that dares to take sex seriously.
Last Chance: The Mash Report
Does satire have a place in a post-Donald Trump world? Of course it does. Now stop watching Have I Got News for You and remind yourself what a good topical comedy show looks like. Introducing The Mash Report, a desk-and-correspondents affair that tackles everything from Brexit to Doctor Who (which has just unveiled its scariest monster ever: a woman). So far, so The Daily Show, but this BBC series has two tricks up its sleeve.
Firstly, it’s from the people behind The Daily Mash, which means it has spoof news in it as much as real commentary, including Jeremy Corbyn vandalising a bus stop to connect with the British youth to an inspired video segment that follows people claiming Donald Trump is the Messiah. These are all presented by a host of comedians that, wonderfully, you haven’t seen on your screen 50 times before – this is a showcase for funny people who are their purely on merit and keen to make their mark.
Secondly, it’s hosted by Nish Kumar. As anyone who heard him on Radio 4 Xtra’s Newsjack will know, he’s a dab hand at hosting, juggling guests, audiences and an autocue with charisma, wit and a brilliant brashness. Him interacting with Geoff Norcott, a Tory-and-proud stand-up comedian, is worth tuning in for alone. “Who cares if the news is real or fake,” argues Nish, “as long as it’s shouted at you loudly enough?” Open your ears and expect something far better than ITV’s The Nightly Show.
Nadiya’s British Food Adventure
Breakout star of Bake Off Nadiya Hussain gets another solo series this summer, and the recipe for her charm is fully intact: a sincere, earnest enthusiasm, an upbringing that combines knowing how to fry garlic with name-dropping Blue Peter, and a constant onslaught of gorgeous-looking food. Her new show sees her meet people behind the produce behind Britain’s most popular dishes, a quest that goes from scones to racing carts across an asparagus farm. Every time it threatens to become too daytime TV, the sheer force of Nadiya’s personality shines through. As she continues to get commissions for comforting and cute cooking shows like these, Nadiya’s British Food Adventure confirms her rise from Bake Off contestant to national kitchen treasure. Say hello to the next Delia Smith.
Last Chance: Inside the Factory
Gregg Wallace is simultaneously the best and worst thing about Gregg Wallace. Who else can wander through a massive plant churning out supermarket-packaged goods and be simultaneously egregious and down-to-earth? There’s a strange alchemy to the Masterchef presenter’s on-screen presence, which makes him annoying but oddly likeable, as happy shouting about cereal to camera as he is high-fiving someone for making a cup of tea. Britain drinks 165 million cups of tea every day, we’re told – 3 a day on average per person. It’s that combination of pointless yet relatable statistics and in-person insight into how things work that makes Inside the Factory a strangely compelling piece of TV. Cherry Healey discovery the scientific tips for a perfect brew gives her a hook that makes her contributions feel more relevant, while historian Ruth Goodman’s look back at tea during the war is a nice piece of light documentary filmmaking.
Last Chance: I Know Who You Are
A man wakes up to find he’s been in a car accident. He’s bleeding. His niece is missing. And he can’t remember anything that’s happened. It turns out he’s a flash lawyer, called Juan Elias, and he’s hitched to a flash judge, named Alicia. Their marriage, though, isn’t a happy one, and as he starts to pick apart what happened to his niece, he also begins to learn that he’s not the nice hero you might expect from this story. Family drama, plus a mysterious disappearance and a dose of memory loss? I Know Who You Are ticks all the cliche boxed, but the cast are great (led by Francesc Garrido) and the series is stylish yet understated. Walter Presents may be king of foreign TV in the UK, but BBC Four’s Saturday night slot has done it again.
Last Chance: In the Dark
There should be a rule for the maximum number of cliches a crime series can feature before it’s automatically cast into TV’s great Recycle Bin in the sky. In the Dark, the BBC’s new drama, sets a new record in just one hour. MyAnna Buring is DI Helen Weeks, who returns to her home town to solve the mystery disappearance of two girls. The suspect? The husband of her old best friend, Linda. Linda, though, has Dark Secrets that she’s waiting to reveal, as we discover that Helen was the class bully and not very nice to her. Helen’s husband, Paul, is also a police officer, but that doesn’t stop Helen have to face sexism in the workplace. Oh, and did we mention she’s pregnant? All of those unlikely strands combine to create something so unlikely that even William Hill wouldn’t take odds on it. But MyAnna Buring is always watchable, and the script, adapted from Mark Billingham’s novels, zips along at just enough of a pace to make the tangled web of absurd cliches intriguing enough to unpick – if only to see what more tropes come tumbling out. The appearance of Ashley Walters, formerly of So Solid Crew, as a local copper, and a scene featuring Helen and Paul in the pub being quizzed about their involvement with a kidnapped pig are a bonus. Did we mention that the baby might not be his?
Last Chance: Poldark
Poldark’s back – and it’s as good as ever, as the BBC’s costume drama gallops along the coastlines of Cornwall at a confident pace. Now in its third season, the literary adaptation knows exactly what its fans want: some star-crossed romance, as Ross and Elizabeth continue to shoot glances at each other, even though she’s now married to the loathsome George Warleggan; some salt-of-the-earth affection, as good and honest Demelza tries to rebuild her marriage to Ross; some pretty shots of the sun-dappled cliffs; and a bit with Aidan Turner’s top off.
Almost of them are on the cards in this opening episode, with George ordering his stepson, Geoffrey (child of Francis and Elizabeth), and family to stay away from the Poldarks, just as his new governess (Elizabeth’s cousin, Morwenna – Ellise Chappell) finds herself swooning over Demelza’s brother, Drake (Harry Richardson). More star-crossed romance and mining in the British countryside? Yes please. The only thing missing is Aidan Turner getting his top off, but we all know that’s only a matter of time.
London Tower Fire: Britain’s Shame (Panorama)
If you’re not already traumatised enough by the horrible footage and mortifying updates on the news, this 30-minute investigation into the tragic fire in Grenfell Tower is an eye-opening, informative watch, as it traces the fire’s cause back to a faulty fridge – and captures the reactions from the firemen the ground, as the unsafe cladding on the building led to one of the most disastrous fires the country has seen. With no evident help from the authorities, the footage of the community coming together in the days that followed is, at least, a source of inspiration and strength. Containing some upsetting scenes, this is hardly an easy watch to recommend, but that doesn’t make remembering the events of that terrible night any less important.
Clique (Box Set)
BBC Three’s new, much-touted campus-set drama has finally begun, and it’s as glossy and OTT as promised. Having been compared to everything from Gossip Girl to Skins, which its writer Jess Brittain also worked on, it’s full of beautiful young things, and set in an Edinburgh of bright lights, affluence, and glamour, although it also has a pitch-black underside.
Holly (played by newcomer Synnove Karlsen) and Georgia (The Fall’s obsessed babysitter, Aisling Franciosi) are childhood friends and first year students who find themselves sharing dorms and classes. After going to a lecture given by economics professor Jude McDermid (Sherlock’s Louise Brealey), in what appears to be the bowels of a futuristic spaceship, they are introduced to a dubious feminist ideology and encouraged to apply for a mysterious internship.
Next thing you know, the pair are being driven around by a chauffeur, snorting class As, and attending glamorous parties in fancy houses with swimming pools in the basement. But there’s a sinister element to the whole enterprise, and the stakes are high. This isn’t student life depicted with anything resembling realism; it’s more of a psychological thriller, which uses campus life as a backdrop. Clique promises to examine the nature of female friendship, with its rivalries, jealousies, and competitiveness. Judging by this first episode, it will doubtless be a huge hit.
Photo: BBC / Sophie Mutevelian
“I have written and directed a film about veganism,” says Simon Amstell. “I’m sorry.” If you laughed at that, you’ll love this. Set in 2067, when the human race has apparently converted entirely to veganism – an alternate universe to rival The Man in the High Castle and SS-GB for unnerving chills – Amstell’s mockumentary looks back at the years when people slowly began to realise the horror of consuming meat, eggs and other produce sourced or derived from animals. The film purports to explore the strange, alien idea that humans and animals aren’t equal, aiming to break the taboo surrounding Britain’s carnivorous past. It’s a neat way to tackle an oft-derided concept, by deliberately presenting what’s considered normal as the absurd – but Amstell, crucially, doesn’t lose sight of the ridiculousness of his own concept. The result is simultaneously laugh-out-loud funny and unsettling – and, most of unsettling of all, is the knowledge that, deep down, you may even feel yourself being won over by Amstell’s viewpoint. A thought-provoking, rib-tickling, stomach-churning satire. Read our full review.
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: June 2018
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 2018
The Lady in the Van
BBC iPlayer is having a Bennett double-bill this summer, with this charming take on the true story of Miss Shepherd, an eccentric woman of uncertain origins, who ‘temporarily’ parked her broken-down van in the writer’s London driveway for 15 years. Maggie Smith is on imperiously rude form, but Alex Jennings is uncanny in his performance as the national Northern treasure.
Kenneth Branagh’s Oscar-winning adaptation of Shakespeare’s play telling the story of the courageous king’s invasion of France and the historic Battle of Agincourt.
Lesbians and gays support the miners in this heartwarming take on a true story, which sees one group of social outcasts stand side-by-side with another during the 1984 miners strike. Simply lovely.
Ben Whishaw gives his most subtle performance to date as a young man struggling to come to terms with the death of Kai, his boyfriend. He ends up befriending Kai’s Chinese-speaking mother, Junn, who lives a mundane existence in a nearby nursing home. This debut feature from director Hong Khaou is a magnificent sigh of a movie.
The Incredible Adventures of Professor Branestawm
Harry Hill stars as the titular mad inventor in this special based on Norman Hunter’s children’s books. The impressive cast includes Ben Miller, Miranda Richardson and David Mitchell.
Lake Bell and Simon Pegg bring an easy chemistry to this breakneck romantic comedy. Funny and charming and confined to one night in London, it’s pretty much ideal.
Stephen Fry is the natural choice to star in this poignant dramatisation of the life of Oscar Wilde, leading up to the sensational trial that resulted in his ultimate downfall.
Citizen Jane: Battle for the City
This accessible, engaging documentary about Jane Jacobs, an activist who fought for the rethinking of New York’s future, takes the beating heart of our cities and puts it on screen. Read our full review
The History Boys
Alan Bennett’s superb stage play is turned into an equally excellent film, with the inimitable Richard Griffiths as Hector, a history teacher trying to coach a class of 1980s Yorkshire lads into successful Oxbridge candidates. If the clash of backgrounds recalls Dead Poets Society, it is no bad thing, as Bennett takes the sentiment of carpe diem out of the present and into a uniquely British and altogether moving future: sometimes all you can do is pass it on.
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
Adam Curtis’ latest documentary is perfectly at home on BBC iPlayer, freed from broadcasting constraints to ramble through the last three decades of global history to try and work out how we got to today’s world of Donald Trump and Brexit. The result is typically simplified and willfully obtuse, but there are thought-provoking flashes of inspiration amid the experimental mash-up of polemic and pop culture. Clocking in at almost three hours, no one else is making documentaries like this, and that’s something to be celebrated.
BBC iPlayer’s second original feature is the follow-up to teen documentary Beyond Clueless. Young director Charlie Lyne and the Beeb’s streaming platform prove a scarily perfect match, the lack of constraints giving him the chance to fully embrace the experimental nature of his film essay. The documentary stitches together clips from existing horror movies to explore how and why they scare us, but instead of an explanatory voice-over critiquing and giving context, we’re given a whispered narration from an anonymous woman who is working through her own fears. Contrasting cuts and eerie echoes arise during the hypnotic 80-minute montage, quietly raising questions while offering a fresh insight into films that have, in some cases, become all too familiar. As interesting as it is creepy. (Read our full review.)