The best films and TV shows on BBC iPlayer (19th February 2017)
Ivan Radford | On 19, Feb 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.)
“Saul calls it conclusive”, says Dar Adal of Iran supposedly starting up its nuclear programme. But we know they’re not – we saw the interrogation.
The Graham Norton Show
Late-night talk shows are everywhere these days. They’re on US TV, getting A-listers to do silly stunts. They’re on YouTube, using those stunts to go viral. They’re even on Netflix, thanks to Chelsea Handler. In a crowded market, it takes a lot to stand out – and while the UK doesn’t have much in the way of chat shows, full credit is due to Graham Norton, who repeatedly manages to draw something entertaining out of his weekly collection of guests while still relying on the good-old strategy of talking. His secret, apart from his own camp charm, is that he puts his guests all on the sofa together, allowing them to interact and join in the shared jokes. With the latest batch – Tom Hiddleston, Ruth Wilson, Ricky Gervais, Daniel Radcliffe, Joshua McGuire and Tinie Tempah – Norton manages to tease out everything from Radcliffe looking like old women in the past and Ruth Wilson’s mother’s plans for their old dog to the time Hiddleston and Eddie Redmayne were in a school play together. Tom played the elephant Eddie was sitting on. At only 45 minutes, the pleasant, brainless conversation never outstays its welcome.
Russia’s Hooligan Army
In 2018, Russia will host the FIFA World Cup. “For some, it will be a festival of football,” explains a masked man. “For some, it will be a festival of violence.” He’s very cheerful and upbeat about the whole thing. That’s the disturbing reality that the BBC’s This World uncovers, as it delves into the world of football firms and violent thugs. We see groups of them training in forests for the 2018 event, explaining how they’ll only recruit people with a “manly core”, who do not cover themselves up in the brutal rituals. The only thing more striking than Alex Stockley Von Statzer’s access to the whole fraternity is how happy they seem to be to appear on camera boasting of their violence – and, moreover, of how positive its force has been in their lives, whether for the adrenaline rush or something deeper. “Hooliganism has given me principles and courage,” argues one. “Some get it from sports, some from prison…” The programme doesn’t just settle with portraying the conflict that awaits football fans in Moscow, but also turns the camera back onto home turf, asking questions of the influence the UK has had. “British fans were a model,” reveals one grinning hooligan. “When English fans came to Moscow, it was always an honour to clash with them.” There is a disturbing reverence to the way they regard British supports as “forefathers” of hooliganism – and the fact that this respect will only make them more of a target makes this provocative, important reminder that people should be cautious when visiting the country next year.
The Lake District: A Wild Year
Nature documentaries are two-a-penny, especially on the BBC, but the broadcaster keeps managing to find new angles to bring to life the world around us. The latest is using time-lapse photography to profile 12 months in the Lake District. The result is a beautiful series of montages of snow thawing, the sun rising and the rain falling (a lot). And by compressing all of that into rapid sequences, we get more time to look at the impact these changes have for the people and the wildlife, from tourists and people struggling with flooding to lambs heading down mountains and men quietly rebuilding stone walls. The crinkly voiceover of Bernard Cribbins is the icing on the cake.
Photo: BBC / Peter Short
Terry Pratchett: Back in Black
“The journey was worth taking and I saw many wonderful things on the way, including you, my reliable friend. Shall we go?” “Madam, we’ve already gone.”
Terry Pratchett was one of the great British writers. The fact that he did it within the setting of fantasy world shaped like a disc riding the back of a giant space tortoise was neither here nor there, and frequently both. The idea of him being played by someone else on-screen so soon after his death is a troubling one – until you sit down to watch Back in Black. The ever-brilliant Paul Kaye is eerily perfect as Pratchett, from the twinkly wit and the beard to that unique voice. We get a glimpse of his fascinating life (for more of it, see his interview wit Mark Lawson here.) The biggest tragedy of Terry was that in his later years, Alzheimer’s meant that this master of words was losing his vocabulary. Contributions from his assistant, his daughter, his long-time Discworld cataloguer, Stephen Briggs, and friend (and collaborator) Neil Gaiman bring home the sadness of that decline, but using Pratchett’s words, Kaye gives us a chance to remember Terry firmly as he was: funny, charming, eternally unassuming and boiling with rage about the unfair things in the world. We see Gaiman’s moving memorial speech, in which he talks of being angry at the loss of his friend: “And I think ‘What would Terry do with this anger?'”, he adds. “Then I pick up my pen, and I start to write.” From the opening scene with his coffin, this is an imaginative, amusing and almost inappropriate tribute. You get the feeling Terry would’ve loved it.
Photo: BBC / Charlie Russell
Slavery is a word that conjures up all kinds of images and cliches. Roots brings them to life with fresh, harrowing horror. It did that for audiences decades ago in 1977, which might prompt some to question the need to remake it for the modern age, but A+E’s new series has the courage of its conviction – and the powerful clout to boot. In 2017, it’s more important than ever to remember the wrongs of the past, and the tale of Kunta Kinte, an African slave sold to English slave traders and taken to the US, is a vivid, cruel record of wrongs. We join him as he’s being trained as a Mandinka warrior, but a family feud leads to his kidnapping and sale, where he is bought by tobacco tycoon John Waller. James Purefoy is excellent as the Virginia baron, leading an impressive supporting cast that includes Matthew Goode (Dr. William Waller) and Forest Whitaker as the cautious Fiddler on their plantation, who mediates between the slaves and their owners. In the lead, Malachi Kirby is magnetic to watch as Kunta, from his barely contained anger, his howls of pain and his occasional flashes of a smile, which become rarer and rare as time goes on. His journey is as gripping as it is gruelling – Phillip Noyce directs a standout section on a ship, which sees the slaves use call-and-response singing to covertly coordinate an uprising, with a heart-stopping tension. The moment that sticks in your mind, though, is a whipping scene that pits the will of Kunta’s new owners against the force of his personal identity, as they try to get him to use his new name, “Toby”. This is a staggering piece of television, which draws out the cry of individuals from a collective history. As the drama charts that cry down through the generations, it can only get louder and more powerful.
“Whoever thought we’d get on the telly?” “I’d rather it wasn’t for this reason.”
So speak the Matthews family, as they find themselves the subject of national news, when daughter Shannon is kidnapped in 2008. The story, as the news soon told us, was actually a hoax, as Karen kidnapped her own nine-year-old and hid her in the base of a bed in her uncle’s house. Rather that focus on that shocking act, though, this BBC drama recreating those events unexpectedly centres in on Julie, who rallied the locals to help find Shannon. Sheridan Smith, as always, is magnificent, playing Julie with a chipper, genuine conviction, from swearing on telly to shouting at cops and journalists whenever necessary. Gemma Whelan as Karen perhaps has the more difficult task, but the programme’s empathy for the whole council estate benefits from highlighting some positive elements in communal strength rather than exploiting a story of one individual’s crime.
Photo: Stuart Wood/ITV
Tracey Ullman’s Show
Tracey Ullman returns for another slice of impeccable silliness. Her sketches this season focus more and more on Judi Dench, the delinquent actress who depends on her status as a national treasure to get away with petty crimes. It’s a wonderfully daft take on the Dame, but Ullman’s characters are so good because they have a surprising number of layers beneath the eerily convincing make-up, as Dench’s presumptuous confidence starts to crumble under scrutiny. Everything else – a police chief keen to apprehend errant delivery men, a Bond-like Nicola Sturgeon and, in a bravura, standout scene, a singing Angela Merkel – is a brilliant bonus.
Apple Tree Yard
If you’re missing your slice of sexy telly on a Sunday night, the BBC is here to help with another drama full of good people doing the naughty stuff. This time, it’s scientist Dr. Yvonne Carmichael (Emily Watson), who finds herself having an affair with civil servant Mark (Ben Chaplin), following a visit to parliament. What follows is an all-too-familiar story of secret encounters and domestic deception (Mark Bonnar’s husband is both sincere and convincing), given some frisson by the suggestion that Chaplin’s smooth operator may be some kind of spy. As events spiral into a particularly gruelling assault, you wonder whether we really do need another affair-based drama on our screens, but Emily Watson is on superb form in the lead – it’s hard to pass up on the opportunity to see one of Britain’s best actresses in full flight.
The Cult Next Door
You may recall the news story of several women who escaped from a flat in south London back in 2013, after being kept there for years. This documentary delves behind those headlines to reveal the full, bizarre, shocking story of what happened. It emerges that they were part of a strange cult, convinced that they were held captive by a man who the ruler of the world and that if they stepped outside, they would spontaneously combust. That’s only the start of the surprises, as we meet one of the women who is now in her 70s and had been part of leader Aravindan Balakrishnan’s group for decades. The result is disturbing, troubling and fascinating viewing that serves as a sympathetic insight into the victims’ mindset; every time they laugh at the details they’re admitting, we learn, it’s not because they’ve adjusted or find it funny, but because they’re ashamed and embarrassed.
Photo: BBC/Perry Images
British History’s Biggest Fibs With Lucy Worsley
Lucy Worsley once again throws herself into history with an enthusiasm that sits somewhere in the delightful limbo between irritating and charming. Her target this time are the inaccurate legends of Britain past, a myth-busting mission that starts with the Tudors. In an age of alt-facts and fake news, discussing whether Richard III really was deformed and other such rumours feels all too apt – and Worsley, of course, is in her element. Pointing swords at the camera and wearing fake crowns, her eagerness to make her subject matter less dry is simultaneously over-the-top and infectiously refreshing. And that’s no lie.
Trump: The Kremlin Candidate?
If you’re not sick of the sight of Donald Trump, this Panorama special examining his possible ties to Vladmir Putin is well worth a watch. Distilling the whole scandal into a brief 30 minutes, it explores the claims made by the leaked intelligence about the alleged connection between the world leaders, about Russia’s role in the election and the whole strategy of dismissing criticism in the press as ‘fake news’. John Sweeney doesn’t reveal a whole lot we don’t know, but what he does unearth is genuinely interesting, from the way that Russian media figures will avoid questions that don’t like to the fact that the country has a word for useful idiots who will help forward their agenda, even if they don’t realise it. The only question more troubling than the idea that Trump might unknowingly be a Kremlin ally is this: what would happen if these purported friends were to fall out?
Photo: BBC iPlayer
Sound of Musicals With Neil Brand
The irrepressible Neil Brand returns for another music series and, once again, hits all the right notes in exactly the right order. This time, he charts the history of the musical. From Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein’s Show Boat in the 1920s to Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe’s My Fair Lady, he’s a colourful tour guide who points out the racial themes, innovative use of songs to further narrative and borrowing from popular styles that marks out the best and most influential productions. But it’s the attention to detail that makes Brand’s work so satisfying, as he picks apart not just wordplay but chord sequences and wrong-footing melodies that have kept audiences surprised and singing signature tunes for decades. If only more music coverage was like this; expert and informative, but accessible and entertaining. That technical understanding only makes a stand-out performance of Ol’ Man River even more spine-tingling.
The NHS has been in the news in the last week, thanks to the Red Cross declaring that Britain’s health service is facing a humanitarian crisis. This BBC documentary series is almost perfectly timed to make it clear just how severe this crisis is. “We have never started winter with so little spare capacity,” says one of the senior management team at St Mary’s, Paddington, while people on the ground begin the day with a Red Code, meaning there are no beds available for new patients. So when two patients both urgently turn up in need of a bed – one to remove a tumour from his oesophagus; the other, to repair a ruptured aneurysm in her aorta – the pressure is on. The filmmakers manage to draw out the human drama of the staff and patients working under such conditions, but this is no episode of Casualty, and the cost of it all is all too real. There are five more episodes to go. Now imagine another episode every day for the next year.
It is 1814 and James Delaney reappears in London after 10 years in Africa to claim a mysterious legacy left to him by his father. He’s creepy. He wears a hat. And he looks like Tom Hardy. That’s pretty much all there is to Taboo, Steven “Peaky Blinders” Knight’s new BBC series. Devised by Tom and the brilliantly-named “Chips” Hardy, the eight-part drama follows the tussle between James and the East India Company over his inheritance. But wait, there’s more beneath the surface of this extremely intriguing period piece. And the surface is already very grimy, full of swearing, violence, talk of testicles and Tom Hardy looking like death warmed up. Within the first 50 minutes, we have hints of otherworldly goings-on, the suggestion of forces fighting back from beyond the grave – and that Delaney might even be one of them. Hardy is monstrously good, all bulging eyes and unspoken threats of doing very bad things to you. While the dialogue might be a tad clunky and the plot hard to fathom, there’s so much pleasure to be had in watching Tom Hardy being, well, Tom Hardy that there’s no point in complaining. Nobody leans across a table like Tom Hardy, every inch bringing you closer to probably being assaulted. Nobody wears a hat quite like Tom Hardy – and this is basically one hour of Tom Hardy wearing a hat and staring angrily at people. Any man who can do that, while still standing up to Jonathan Pryce and making incestuous advances on his now-half-sister (Oona Chaplin), can frankly do what he wants. We’ll still be watching.
Photo: FX Networks
Let It Shine
With The Voice starting over on ITV, BBC One strikes back this weekend with the launch of its new music talent contest: Let It Shine. But while it might look like a rival to the poached singing show, this is actually another beast entirely: it’s effectively a sequel to How Do You Solve a Problem Like Maria?, the West End audition show from Andrew Lloyd-Webber over 10 years ago. The plan this time? To find boys to play the leads in a new theatre show based on the music of Take That. It’s a distinctly less starry prize than The Voice’s record label deal, but the main difference between the two lies in that Graham Norton-hosted Maria competition: Let It Shine is a little bit dated, a little bit knowingly cheesy and, most of all, exceedingly nice. The four judges are Danni Minoque, who’s nice, Glee’s Amber Riley, who’s nice, and Martin Kemp, who displays a hitherto unknown sense of humour about himself, and is also, yes, nice. Leading them is Gary Barlow, who is very nice too, apart from that time he didn’t pay all his taxes a few years ago. Norton, tellingly, is back in the hosting role, alongside Great British Bake Off’s Mel Giedroyc. And what follows is a nice demonstration of how nice people can be when faced with nice singers – and, to the programme’s credit, it does find some fantastic crooners, from one teen with a deceptively deep voice to former Pop Idol contender Jason Brock. There’s a solid format worked out involving the stage design and the judges’ secret voting, but out-of-studio segments and the sight of Mark Owen and the other one from Take That trying to be funny behind-the-scenes are more awkward than enjoyable. Still, the bravura opening number proves that Barlow and a team of producers know how to put on the old razzle-dazzle – and at a pleasant 85 minutes, this is one show that understands it mustn’t go on for too long. Nice isn’t always a bad thing.
Photo: BBC/Matt Holyoak
Alan Bennett’s Diaries
The author, playwright and beloved British wit delves back into his old diaries for some delightfully droll viewing. Self-deprecating, smart and always up for an anecdote, what a national treasure this man is.
QI: Series N
Sandi Toksvig steps into Stephen Fry’s shoes for the new season of QI and it’s as if she’s been doing it for years. Of course, she has, over on Radio 4’s The News Quiz and that experience has kept her witty banter as sharp as ever. Given a more diverse panel than older seasons of QI might have offered to play with – Episode 1 features Cariad Lloyd, Romesh Ranganathan, Phill Jupitus and Alan Davies – Toksvig is in her element among intelligent people and silliness, able to make catty remarks without being cruel, dispense knowledge without being pretentious and, best of all, laugh genuinely at everyone else’s jokes. A fantastic choice for Fry’s replacement, she brings a charming, generous, understated new energy to a format that had previously become a little too familiar. QI just became quite interesting again.
Photo: BBC/Brian Ritchie/Talkback
Panorama: Living with Dementia: Chris’ Story
“It’s really confusing when you get lost in your own house, it looks really different at night time.” This documentary, filmed over two years, follows a 55-year-old man, as he and his family come to terms with his Alzheimer’s. The result is a surprisingly candid, movingly intimate account of the disease’s advancement, caught in simple, everyday moments (sometimes from CCTV-like footage) that make the hour-long film tragically relatable and all the more powerful. This is essential viewing.
Photo: BBC/Iolo Penri
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
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 2017
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 2017
Notes on Blindness
Directed by first-timers James Spinney and Pete Middleton, this British documentary is based on the work of John M Hull, an Australian-born theologian at the University of Birmingham, whose sight rapidly deteriorated in 1983, when he was in his mid-forties. As a coping strategy, Hull began recording his thoughts, feelings, experiences and observations on audio cassette. This skilfully made, profoundly moving film explores and illuminates the experience of blindness. The result is one of the best films of the last year. (The audio described version is also available.) (Read our full review.)
Catch Me If Your Can
Steven Spielberg’s tale of a real life con man sees Leonardo DiCaprio on funny, charming form and Tom Hanks chasing him down. An underrated gem of a caper.
How to Train Your Dragon
Free Willy with dragons? Any excuse to relive this charming story of friendship and flying is one to grab with both wings.
The Eichmann Show
This drama about the efforts to broadcast the 1961 trial of Adolf Eichmann in Israel is a moving, gripping reminder of the banality of evil – and the importance of telling what happened to new generations. (Read our full review.)
Up in the Air
George Clooney plays a detached businessman who fires people for a living in Jason Reitman’s moving, witty drama. While his gradual thawing provides us with the familiar emotional arc, though, it’s the supporting cast of Anna Kendrick and Vera Farmiga, one a naive youth, the other a perfectly hardened match for him, that gives Up in the Air its real punch. Commitment, comedy and a cool relevance to an age full of redundancies and unemployment? This is always a flight worth taking.
The Great Literary Scandal: The JT LeRoy Story
Jeff Feuerzeig directs this astonishing account of how San Francisco punk rocker Laura Albert created a literary persona called JT LeRoy that duped celebrities and the literary world. Told by her, what emerges is a sensitive study of stories and storytellers – a look at someone who claims that all she wanted was to be a normal human being. It’s perhaps revealing that she compares her plight halfway through to The Prince and the Pauper, rather than any real life incident, but Feuerzeig’s film resists the urge to psychoanalyse its subject, letting her speak for herself. You’ll be hooked on every word. Read our interview with the director here, and our full review here.
Maisie Williams stars in The Falling, a paranormal mystery, a coming-of-age drama, a black comedy and a school musical all in one. If that makes Carol Morley’s mesmerising movie (about a mysterious fainting plague that sweeps through a school) seem difficult to pin down, it’s intentional. It’s also exceptionally good. (Read our full review.)
Asghar Farhadi’s follow-up to his Oscar-winning triumph, A Separation, stars Bérénice Bejo (from The Artist) as Marie, who drags her estranged husband, Ahmad (Mosaffa), from Tehran to finalise their divorce – but why now? As Ahmad comes home, he finds he has to live not only with his ex, but her two daughters from old relationships, her new fella Samir (Tahar Rahim, from A Prophet) and his son.
Testament of Youth
The always-excellent Alicia Vikander stars in this moving film based on the memoir of Vera Brittain, which depicts her fight to carry on living amid a seemingly endless wave of loss, as her brother and friends go off to fight in World War I.
The White Ribbon
Michael Haneke’s Palme d’Or winner is a stark, disturbing monochrome drama set in a morally upright German village, where residents are shocked by a series of mysterious, vicious acts in the run-up to WWI.
How to Train Your Dragon 2
Hiccup and Toothless return for another animated adventure, which sees the young Viking face the prospect of one day taking over from his dad as chief of the tribe, as well as the threat of an alpha dragon master with his own flame-breathing army. Loyalty, parenthood and kick-ass flying sequences combine to make a mature and moving family story. Who said sequels had to be rubbish?
Errol Morris’ film follows former Wyoming beauty queen Joyce McKinney as she kidnaps a mormon she’s in love with and, according to him, does bad things. Picked up by the British media, the sordid true story soon became a spectacle, covering everything from brainwashed religions to – yes – the clonong of Joyce’s dog. This is a tale of love, abduction, scheming newspapers, silly disguises, an evil cult and magic underwear. It’s also a documentary.
Queen of Versailles (Storyville)
Kill them with kindness. That’s the old adage for dealing with not very nice people. Director Lauren Greenfield seems to take it to heart for The Queen of Versailles, a documentary that depicts the lavish lifestyle of David and Jackie Siegel. The property mogul and his wife are at the pinnacle of the housing boom, his timeshare business never better. Their plan? To build a home. Not just any home: the biggest home in the US, modelled after none other than the Palace of Versailles.
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.
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
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.)
Main photo: Des Willie / BBC