The best films and TV shows on BBC iPlayer (22nd April 2018)
Ivan Radford | On 22, Apr 2018
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, click here.
Pick of the Week: Stephen: The Murder That Changed a Nation
The murder of Stephen Lawrence needs little introduction. Even now, 25 years on, the name conjures up tragedy, vital truths about racism and complacency within both the police and wider society. This three-part documentary delves back into his death, charting in detail the run-up to the killing and dissecting the police examination that followed, from the visit of Nelson Mandela to the campaigning of mother Doreen. Produced by Asif Kapadia and James Gay-Rees, this is important viewing, hugely moving, eye-opening, anger-inducing and sadly still relevant. Most important of all, though, it’s sincere, dignified and respectfully made.
Pick of the Week: Hospital: Season 3
The NHS is facing unprecedented times. If there were ever any doubt about the funding shortages and staffing challenges facing our health service, BBC Two’s documentary series Hospital is back for a third season. With extraordinary access to Nottingham’s Queen’s Medical Centre, the series gives us an on-the-ground look at the worst winter for the NHS on record, as a huge influx of patients during January and February 2018 leaves A&E departments at capacity. With dozens of people lying on trollies waiting to be admitted, NHS bosses advise hospitals across the country to cancel non-urgent operations, hoping to free up some beds. In Nottingham, that means a potential further wait for 12-year-old Keilan, who suffers from a severe spinal condition called scoliosis. But even then, there’s the problem of needing to get people out of the hospital at the other end of treatment as quickly as possible. The BBC’s series doesn’t flinch away from the personal, human cost that comes from such a stretched service, but it also gives us a look at the people behind the scenes at the hospital trying to manage the situation. Important viewing.
Pick of the Week: Cunk on Britain
With Brexit negotiations still ongoing, the future and nature of Britain as a country has never been so unclear. Destined not to help clear up matters in any way whatsoever, Philomena Cunk wades into these tempestuous waters with side-splitting precision – not that you’d know it. Diane Morgan’s character, who began on Charlie Brooker’s News Wipe, is astonishingly well defined, managing to be recognisably aware of everyday culture, but entirely oblivious to more complex matters. She can make a joke about Hull, but show her a historical artefact and she’s entirely flummoxed. “It’s just like being there, but in wool,” she says of the Bayeux Tapestry, one of many lines that will have you howling with laughter. It’s credit to her contributors (or, perhaps more aptly, victims) that they manage not to laugh at her, although Robert Peston takes things so seriously that he ends up looking even more foolish than our host. It’s all presented with an impeccable deadpan, and pieced together with a wry awareness of all the tweed-clad history documentary cliches. It may only be four months in to 2018, but Cunk on Britain is an early contender for the funniest thing you’ll see on TV this year.
Ordeal by Innocence
Sarah Phelps cements her position as TV’s pre-eminent adaptor of Agatha Christie with her third drama for BBC One – following the superbly atmospheric And Then There Were None and Witness for the Prosecution. Ordeal by Innocence is no different, as it introduces us to the Argyll family, who suffer the loss of heiress Rachel. 18 months after the murderer was arrested, though, a surprise visitor throws the whole thing into doubt. That’s Dr. Arthur Calgary (Luke Treadaway), who may have been a witness to prove the innocence of Jack (Anthony Boyle). Alas, he’s since died in prison, leaving the whole thing mired in history that the family stubbornly refuses to drag up. They include Rachel’s widower, Leo (an imperious Bill Nighy), and his new lover, Gwenda (a voluptuous Alice Eve), as well as children Hester (Ella Purnell), Tina (Crystal Clarke) and Mary (Eleanor Tomlinson). Matthew Goode is wonderfully foul as injured fighter pilot Philip, Mary’s husband, while Christian Cooke is quietly intimidating as Mickey, Rachel and Leo’s fourth child. Cooke, of course, stepped in for Ed Westwick, following some unsavoury allegations and a Christopher Plummer-style string of quick reshoots, and while the end result is seamless, you won’t even have time to notice, as you scrutinise each suspicious supporting character in turn. The icing on the cake is Anna Chancellor, who steals scenes as she appears in flashbacks throughout. Deliciously gripping crime drama.
The City and the City
David Morrissey is typically gruff and grimly believable in this superbly unusual sci-fi drama. He grounds China Miéville’s novel, which tells the story of the twin cities of Besźel and Ul Qoma, which exist on top of each other, but is fiercely policed to remain separate – citizens are conditioned to “unsee” the other one, lest the Breach (secret police) should manifest and whisk them away. Morrissey plays Inspector Borlu, who finds himself investigating the murder of a woman on the border of the two towns, opening up topical themes of migration, inclusion and totalitarianism, but also a gorgeously built world that begs to be explored in all its intriguing back-stories, unnerving tension and eerie style. Fortunately, the whole four-parter is now on BBC iPlayer as a box set. We’ll see you on the other side.
Shakespeare’s greatest play, Hamlet shows no signs of stopping its reign as the role most actors want to sink their teeth into to show off their chops. Andrew Scott is no exception, and the Sherlock actor makes the part his own, delivering his soliloquys with a sickly air and queasy vulnerability that’s as funny as it is tragic; while in most performers’ hands, the Dane is a righteous hero avenging his father, here, you find yourself questioning the mildly unhinged prince. Even better than Scott, though, is the Almeida Theatre’s production, with Robert Icke’s production (caught on camera by director Rhodri Huw) feeling truly cinematic. That’s partly thanks to its use of TV screens (the ghost appears on CCTV and the exposition is served up via BBC News), but mostly through its silent sequences that link each scene; almost like mini-montages, we see glimpses of Angus Wright’s Claudius and Juliet Stevenson’s Gertrude canoodling on the couch, which makes their relationship far more real and disturbingly convincing, and gives Jessica Brown Findlay, who wowed in 2011’s Albatross, a rare chance to really sell Ophelia’s own descent into madness. It’s hard to Hamlet justice, but even harder to make it feel new. This 2017 production succeeds.
Limmy’s Homemade Show
Scottish comedian Limmy (Brian Limond) relishes the chance to have a slot on BBC Two Scotland with this half-hour special – and you can tell because he spends most of it in a casual t-shirt, not bothering to change clothes, even when he plays different people. The result is a mix of sketches, ramblings and music, which plays like a concentrated shot of his inner stream-of-consciousness. It’s precisely the kind of thing that followers of him on Vine would expect, and it doesn’t disappoint in a bigger dose, jumping from observational humour to a completely random obsession with an odd tile in his bathroom and even bursts of horror. Best of all, perhaps, are the nursery rhymes he sets enthusiastically to techno, but it’s the more experimental stuff that really grabs you, as you see stop-motion bursts of himself climbing the stairs with that terrifyingly intense stare. What a strange, unique man he is – we wouldn’t have him any other way.
Ready or Not
In 2018, the idea of Candid Camera or You’ve Been Framed feels almost as tired as the notion of a Saturday night gameshow. Ready or Not, BBC One’s new Saturday teatime comedy, mashes them together to create mini-gameshows around the country, as pop-up sets are quickly constructed behind people’s unsuspecting backs and presenters with microphones start asking them questions in exchange for the offer of a tenner. It’s a hit-and-miss affair, but one that flies by in 30 minutes before the novelty can wear off. And when it scores, it comes up with inspiredly daft ideas, like a quiz show in a lift that covers the inside of an elevator with tin foil and shiny lights, then gets people with their weekly shopping guess which level of a multi-storey car park to go to, in case someone with a prize is waiting on the other side of the doors. Harmlessly entertaining fun.
The Generation Game
Nobody in the UK is crying for a reboot of The Generation Game, even as the country descends into the Brexit mentality of longing for the past. But if you’re going to bring back the staple of living rooms gone by, there’s nobody better to do it than Mel Giedroyc and Sue Perkins. They bring a charm to this old-school affair, complete with the kind of amusingly bad jokes that feel suitably dated.
Christopher Ecclestone is hugely compelling in this drama about Greg, a single father who is raising his kids without their mother, Marie. Reeling from that separation, and navigating a disastrous new love interest – his sandwich girl at work, Nancy (Joanne Crawford) – he’s a mess, and Ecclestone’s performance is vulnerable enough to make that whirlwind of damage sympathetic. But what caused Marie to walk out? And why does she act so nervous round him? The twists and turns that lie just underneath the surface of this domestic mystery will have you hooked by the jaw-dropping end of the first episode.
Box Set: And Then There Were None
Nothing says Christmas like a bit of murder – and nothing says murder on the telly like Agatha Christie. So it’s a treat this Easter to see the BBC’s 2015 festive three-parter back as a box set. With Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple adapted to death, often masterfully so, And Then There Were None looks to Scandinavia for its inspiration. Gone is the cosy country houses of old: this new take on the familiar story is blacker than Sarah Lund’s boot polish. Turning the cosy tale into a psychological horror, this is a stylish adaptation with a stellar cast – including Aidan Turner, who might as well be auditioning to play the next James Bond.
Box Set: The Witness for the Prosecution
A cat walks across the screen. Bloody paw prints appear behind it on the white carpet. Its owner, Emily French (Kim Cattrall), lays to one side, bludgeoned to death. That striking, nasty image appears early on in The Witness for the Prosecution, the BBC’s latest Agatha Christie adaptation, and it never quite leaves your mind. This, the drama makes clear, isn’t your mum’s Miss Marple. This is murder at its most horrid. The Witness for the Prosecution is far simpler than And Then There Were None, also adapted by Sarah Phelps, but it’s no less intense; what it lacks in complexity it makes up for in atmosphere and depth. Like the hazy, lethal smog that pervades the production, it seeps into your nervous system with spine-chilling precision.
Box Set: Barracuda
Nothing says “feel-good” like the words “sporting drama”. Unless, that is, you’re talking about Barracuda. The Australian swimming series follows a young prodigy in the pool, who’s destined for great things – but it soon becomes apparent that he’s destined to make a splash in all the wrong kind of ways. Eddie the Eagle, this ain’t.
That, in itself, is reason to dip your toes into Barracuda’s depths – this mini-series swims against the current to navigate fresh oceans. Danny (Elias Anton) is a poor kid, from a background worlds away from the prestigious Blackstone College, to where he’s won a scholarship on the back of his strokes. And so he finds himself the subject of abuse from the rest of the team, led by Martin Taylor (Ben Kindon), the team captain and his closest rival. Danny’s nickname, “Barracuda”, on account of how fast he moves, feels like a big deal in Episode 1. His friendship with Martin, meanwhile, blossoms, as Elias Anton and Ben Kindon’s chemistry sparks a subtle, loyal bond. But Danny’s college days soon fade away – a shift in scale that elevates Christos Tsiolkas’ story to something deeper and more profound than your run-of-the-mill school programme. Each episode is another chapter in Danny’s life, taking us from 1996 to 2000. That lends events a suitably novelistic tone, one that’s more akin to a four-hour movie than a TV series. Over this epic journey, Danny’s blinkered approach to his swimming contrasts with the show’s gradual zooming out to show us the relationships around him being impacted by, and impacting upon, his unwavering focus. The result is superb study of desire, both personal and professional, creating an immersive world of submerged passion. Dive right in – and don’t come up for breath.
Box Set: Murder in Successville: Season 3
BBC Three’s improvised murder mystery comedy sees DI Sleet joined by a variety of celebrity guest stars to solve a crime – a blend between immersive theatre and improv class. That’s the real joy of the series: watching these guests attempt (and fail) to keep a straight face. By dumping them out of their comfort zone, Murder in Successville manages to show us the real person behind the celeb persona. Can they play along? Can they control they chuckles? With no direction and increasingly ridiculous scenarios facing them, we get to see what people are really like. This is one of the most unique things on TV at the moment.
Box Set: The Bridge: Season 1
Swedish and Danish police investigate jointly after a woman is found murdered in the middle of a bridge on the border between the two countries. Inspiring the British remake The Tunnel, this Scandinavian crime drama series is one of the best foreign-language shows of recent years – don’t miss the chance to catch up from the beginning.
The Assassination of Gianni Versace – American Crime Story
If you thought The People v OJ Simpson was a one-off hit, prepare to be stylishly corrected. Ryan Murphy (king of anthologising such shows as American Horror Story) has done it again with this new true crime drama, which tells the events of The Assassination of Gianni Versace. We’re slickly sashayed back to 1997, when the pink dressing gown-wearing fashion designer was gunned down in Miami. It was a murder that happened at the height of gaudy fame and sunbathed glitz, and Murphy’s series gorgeously wallows in the vibrance of it all, filling the frame with vivid colours, delicious costumes and super-slick camera moves. There’s no mystery, of course, as to who the assassin was: that’s Andrew Cunanan, played by Glee’s Darren Criss with a magnetic presence – almost as if he’s staking claim to the screen before Penelope Cruz can walk on set and try to steal it as Versace’s sister, Donatella. Between the two, Edgar Ramirez is almost understated as Gianni, as we fly back to see the first meeting between him and his eventual killer in a nightclub. It’s an electrifying encounter, one made more so by Criss’ compelling portrayal of a man who can’t seem to stop lying, almost as if he’s read The Talented Mr. Ripley one too many times (or just pretended to). This is flashy crime drama at its most soap operatic, and when it’s this well done, it’s hard not to get sucked into its whirlwind of fame, greed, jealousy and Ricky Martin. Welcome back, American Crime Story. This is killer telly.
Top Gear: Season 25
Jeremy who? The BBC’s rebooted Top Gear has firmly found its groove for this third lap under its new line-up. The focus is firmly on the cars, even when the stunts are at their most ridiculous, with this season kicking off with V8 road trip across America’s Wild West and the new sport of reverse camera racing. And that’s entirely down to the presenters, who have grown into a perfectly oiled machine: Chris Harris is amusingly pedantic and grumpy, only for his complaints to disappear when he finds a vehicle he likes; Rory Reid is infectiously enthusiastic about everything, talking through engineering specifics with an accessible, hilarious energy; and Matt LeBlanc balances the pair with just the right amount of sarcasm and sincere encouragement. They‘re relaxed enough to feel sincere in their banter, but professional enough to keep things right – even making sure that the Star in the Reasonably Fast Car segment is refreshingly brief.
It’s been five decades since Kenneth Clark’s 1960s series Civilisation was first broadcast – you can catch up with the whole thing from the archives on BBC iPlayer. Now, BBC Two is rebooting the programme, and the extra ‘s’ on the end of the title is hugely promising stuff. From its opening hour, Simon Schama is thinking as big as it gets, trying to pin down the rise of creativity across the globe, from the first signs of scratches on pots for decorative purposes to paint swilled in mouths and blown out against cave walls. It may not have the fantastic beasts of Blue Planet II, but this is stunning stuff, with visuals that match the epic scope of what the Beeb is attempting to achieve. Whether there’s too much packed into an hour or not, the good news is that the show is available on BBC iPlayer for over a year for everyone to catch up with.
Troy: Fall of a City
The Night Manager’s David Farr turns his talents to something more ancient with this retelling of the famous siege of Troy. We begin long before any gigantic wooden horses can be buitl, with Paris (Louis Hunter), a sheep herder who challenges nearby Trojan warriors to a fight, only to be unmasked as the missing Prince Alexander of Troy. It’s a fresh insight into a familiar legend, but you’d rather see things from Helen’s perspective than follow young Paris’ journey to settle in among unexpected royalty. Fortunately, Bella Dayne sinks her teeth into what screentime she does have in this opening episode, giving us – along with her daughter, intended for marriage to Paris – a sense of fiery frustration within the restrictive court of Sparta. By the time she’s trying to sneak off with her new lover, there’s enough political intrigue and violence to explain Troy’s label as a Game of Thrones imitator, although it’ll need to do something more unique with its remaining episodes to earn it.
Eve Myles almost quit acting before getting the script for this new drama, so the story goes, and you can immediately see the appeal, as she plays Faith Howells, a lawyer, wife and mother who finds herself having to hold down all three forts, when her husband disappears. As the rest of the community takes an interest, she finds herself trying to get back into the routine of work while facing new relevations about the man she thought she knew. There’s risk of melodrama at every turn, and the soundtrack ties too hard to dial up the emotion, but Myles herself is reason enough to tune in; tough, vulnerable, funny and kind, she’s rarely been better.
“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 2020
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.)
Adapted from the novel by Rumor Godden and filmed in Technicolor, Powell and Pressburger’s stunning melodrama, starring Deborah Kerr (and shot by deserving Oscar winner DoP Jack Cardiff), follows a group of nuns who open a convent in the Himalayas – and find trouble with the locals, the terrain and their own demons.
Two Days, One Night
The Dardennes are at the top of their game in this powerful drama set in a small Belgian town, which stars Marion Cotillard as Sandra, a working class mother of two, whose extended sick leave prompts her boss to decide that the factory can manage without her. He asks her co-workers to choose, via a show of hands, between keeping Sandra on and receiving an annual bonus of €1,000 each, albeit with extra hours involved. Read our review
Bringing Up Baby
Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn are on iconic form in this classic comedy about a madcap heiress who makes a shambles of an absent-minded palaeontologist’s life when she arrives on the scene with her pet leopard.
Jimi: All Is By My Side
“I should be able to take any song and do it in a way you haven’t heard before.” That’s Jimi Hendrix in Jimi: All Is By My Side, a film about the musician that, famously, doesn’t have his music in it. But that bizarre shortcoming turns out to be the movie’s biggest blessing.
Gwyneth Paltrow and John Hannah are on irresistably charming form in one of the 90s’ best rom-coms. The fact that it involves parallel universes is a bonus.
Spooks: The Greater Good
This big-screen outing for the BBC spy series isn’t afraid to keep things refreshingly low-key, as Kit Harington plays an old protege of Harry Pearce (Peter Firth), who finds himself back in the espionage fold to uncover a possible mole in MI5.
Shaun the Sheep the Movie
The rebellious sheep Shaun, who always seems to get in trouble, decides to take a trip to the big city in Aardman’s charming feature-length comedy.
David Oyelowo is unrecognisable as Martin Luther King in this stirring, powerful drama following his historic march for voting rights in Alabama in 1965.
Lara Croft: Tomb Raider
With the franchise reboot out now in cinemas, go back to the original two video game adaptations, starring Angelina Jolie as the eponymous adventurer.
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.)