The best films and TV shows on BBC iPlayer (22nd October 2017)
Ivan Radford | On 22, Oct 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: Gunpowder
If you ever worried that history wasn’t bloody and violent enough to entertain a modern audience, Gunpowder is here to reassure you. The BBC’s new dramatisation of the famous attack on Parliament arrives just in time for Bonfire Night, and it’s full of treason and plot – and a whole lot of gore. Richard Madden, veteran of Game of Thrones, is perfectly cast in the midst of this grimy, gruesome London of the 1600s, a time when Protestant England persecutes Catholics ruthlessly. We see that persecution close-up, from women crushed under weights in full public view to searches through people’s homes for concealed ‘traitors’. It’s this nailbiting hunt that opens the show and Gunpowder doesn’t let up, whisking us through a world that includes Peter Mullan as Father Garnet and Liv Tyler as Anne, the cousin of Harington’s Robert Catesby. Taken to the brink of financial and social ruin, he’s the eventual architect of the titular plan – and Harington sells his personal, painful conviction with aplomb, just enough to make us sympathise with the outlaw. He’s the perfect contrast to a steely, sinister Mark Gatiss, who’s enjoying himself as Lord Robert Cecil, spearheading the hunt for Catholics. And what of Guy Fawkes? He appears briefly, as a thug who becomes involved in the scheme. We only see him for a few seconds in the first episode. Fittingly enough, he’s stabbing someone.
Pick of the Week: Chris Packham: Asperger’s and Me
Chris Packham is a familiar face on TV screens, but one thing you didn’t know about the broadcaster is that he’s autistic. He opens up in this admirably intimate, candid documentary, which gives him a fantastic, moving opportunity to speak about living with Asperger’s Syndrome – and also allows his partner, Charlotte, to talk about how it affects their relationship. From heightened senses to caring more about animals than people or friends, this is a brilliantly honest portrait of a “high-functioning” autistic, investigating some of the scientific research currently going into whether autism can be “cured”, but mostly just asking viewers to understand, cope and empathise.
Michelle Keegan, former resident of Coronation Street, once again reprises her role of Georgie Lane, Britain’s own military medic. In fact, it’s a role that once belonged to Lacey Turner, former resident of Albert Square, and it’s testament to just how good Keegan is that you’ve probably already forgotten that. Now in its third season, the show has swapped out the usual army scenario for a slightly different backdrop: Nepal, where the troops have been sent to help with the rescue, repair and restoration of order following a catastrophic earthquake. It’s a shift in context that highlights the weaker points of the increasingly familiar formula, from the attractive local man with a heart of gold who is wealthy enough to sponsor villages but too decent not to be getting stuck in with his hands, to Georgie’s handsome, calm superior officer. The weakest link is Private Maisie, who is solely there to talk back to our heroine and be disrespectful. But all of these only highlight how charming Keegan is in the lead, as she brings far more nuance to the character of Lane that one could reasonably expect. Aye, that’s Our Girl. Tuning in for more is always worth it.
Pick of the Week: Louis Theroux
Louis Theroux once again proves he’s king of the interviewers with his return to BBC Two. From his awkward demeanour to his untrendy jumpers, he’s a natural at disarming anyone just enough to make them divulge their innermost thoughts. While that can often feel borderline cruel, and regularly becomes amusing, this new season begins with something that’s neither, as he talks to heroin addicts in Huntingdon, West Virginia. With 1 in 10 babies in the city born dependent on opiates, he talks to everyone from young women to absent fathers, and where they might normally lie to their family and friends about their addiction, they open up to him with a devastating honesty. In anyone else’s hands, this could feel exploitative, but in Louis Theroux’s hands, it’s just a poignant tragedy.
Boyz N the Hood director John Singleton turns his hand to TV for this cocaine-addled drama. Snowfall may lack the gritty, low-key realism of that seminal cinematic classic, but the 10-part series is unafraid to go for the other extreme, with a stylish soundtrack and a gorgeously, Day-Glo sheen. The setting? Los Angeles in the 1980s, just as crack is beginning to hit the streets. Caught up in that rising trade is a Mexican wrestler who has become a courier and a CIA agent running a secret drug ring. There’s intrigue in both plot strands – including a party featuring a woman blowing powder up someone’s bottom (yes, really) – but the most involving is Franklin (an excellent Damson Idris), whose own greed draws him into the illicit business, from swimming pools to guns. Could you have had his story just as its own mini-series? Perhaps, but if Snowfall often drifts across colourful surfaces rather than dive into deeper substance, it’s never less than fun.
Performance Live: Missing Episode
Performance Live is an initiative between the BBC, Arts Council England and Battersea Arts Centre to showcase some of the most exciting artists working in performance today. And judging but this episode, the scheme is a resounding success.
It begins, as most things in life do, with EastEnders. Specifically, the episode on 7th October 1997. The caff radio was playing Angel of Mine by Eternal. Carol was wearing her aggressive earrings. And Ross Sutherland was missing the episode because he was in the car with a friend, who crashed into a sign. Nobody was hurt, but the trauma of missing that episode lives on today, and so Ross turns that pain into a poem. It’s an inspired choice of subject: soap operas are designed to become part of our day-to-day existence, watched in tandem with our real life dramas and never repeated. Going back to rewatch a chapter of something deliberately crafted to never end, then, is fantastically subversive in such a seemingly trivial way (the fact that EastEnders dominates the iPlayer chart every month is already profoundly perverse), and that act brings with it all the Pavlovian responses and forgotten associations you’d expect.
Sutherland expresses those with real wit and a delightful knack for mundane observations, as he delves into the half-hour episode with the forensic attention to detail of Making a Murderer and recounts the anecdote of that fateful day with the wry tragedy of Alan Bennett – of Alan Bennett had been locked up for 20 years in an airing cupboard with the RadioTimes. Shots are looped to form a visual and acoustic rhythm, while meaningless background details become absurdly over-important, and all the while, Sutherland just keeps talking, waxing lyrical like wax is going out of business. He’s a charismatic presence, aided by subtle music from Jonnie Common and filmed by Charlie Lyne – a director who’s no stranger to experimental reworking of existing material – seemingly in one long take, with gloriously naff 90s curtains in the background. The result is a hilarious, engrossing, original deconstruction of a mainstay of our TV culture. By the time the credits roll, you’ll never want to miss an episode of EastEnders again. Or, more accurately, maybe you will.
The Last Post
On the scale of 1 to BBC Drama, Sunday night’s latest entry, The Last Post, falls short of anything near the high standards set by the Beeb. Written by Peter Moffat and based on his own life experiences, the military drama follows Captain Joe Martin, who arrives in Aden (today known as Yemen) with his wife, Honor, to replace the outgoing and much-loved Captain Nick Page of the Royal Military Police. It’s the usual trick of using an outsider POV to introduce us to a complex political situation, but The Last Post’s problem is that things seem a little too simplified, from the veteran office who wants to understand the locals to Jessica Raine as his alcoholic wife, who hangs a bra up to dry outside – shock, horror. Compared to A United Kingdom, the series’ attempt to examine Britain’s past attitudes towards the colonies can’t quite juggle the need to be accessible and entertaining while still retaining the nuance and depth required for a such a prickly subject. The cast (led by Jeremy Neumark Jones and Jessie Buckley), though, acquire themselves well and the location work is convincing – it just needs a better screenplay to match. With five episodes to go, it’s possible this may yet improve to be worthy of its Sunday night slot.
The Child in Time
“She was there. She was just there.” That’s the cry of Stephen (Benedict Cumberbatch), who loses her young daughter, Kate, in a supermarket. It’s a harrowing disappearance, a moment of casual oversight that happens so quickly – and it’s devastating impact is felt agonisingly slowly. Several years later, Stephen is still reeling, and Cumberbatch’s subtly physical performance visibly carries the weight of his grief through his day-to-day life, as the children’s author attempts to write a new book. Kelly Macdonald is equally heartbreaking as her mother, who lives a separate, rural life, but can’t help but cross her path with Stephen’s as they hurt and heal together. Adapted from Ian McEwan’s novel by Stephen Butchard, this 90-minute drama does away with a lot of the original book’s additional material, or significantly simplifies it: political commentary briefly comes in the form of a government push to dumb down literacy in schools, while a subplot involving Stephen’s friend, Charles, who regresses to a state of childish innocence is convincing thematically, if not narratively. But the fragment of the physics-inflected plot that does remain is, if you can go with it, a rewarding dose of positivity to offset the heart-wrenching loss, a reminder that hope, an ever-fixed point that exists independent of time, can be found even in a brief glance through a pub window.
The BBC’s most scathing, or most self-indulgent (depending on your point of view), sitcom returns for a third season, and it’s still hilariously stupid, as it dives into the corridors of Broadcasting House and points out just how much bureaucracy sits at the heart of the public service broadcaster. At a time when the Beeb is under increasing pressure from the government, the time is ripe for a satirical swipe at the cost-cutting culture sweeping the corporation. “Finding what we do best, but doing less of it better” is the remit of the More or Less Committee, the new post Ian (the wonderfully flappable Huge Bonneville) has been assigned. Throw in a cross-dressing footballer who wants to be on Match of the Day but is denied (purely because he’s really, really boring), and you have some hot button topics all set for the show’s signature treatment.
But it’s not the topical plots that make W1A so funny to watch: it’s the constant barrage of double-speak. “Yep, OK,” they all say over each other, never letting anyone actually make progress. The words may change – “Cool,” says clueless intern Will (the hilarious, scarf-wearing Hugh Skinner) – but the message is the same. Every time anyone speaks, they say nothing. Every time a meeting happens, it achieves nothing. And the more people speak – and the longer the meetings run – the less anything is actually said or done. It’s like watching a sitcom by Pinter or Beckett. It’s a shame that PR guru Siobhan Sharpe (Jessica Hynes) is starting to lose her comedy novelty, as the show tries to craft a whole new subplot involving a takeover of her PR company, but everything else is on typically laugh-out-loud form.
A Ben Elton comedy set in Elizabethan times, complete with ruffs, dead bodies and cunning plans? It’s easy to dismiss Upstart Crow, the writer’s new comedy about Shakespeare, as a budget Blackadder – or spend the whole time comparing it to that legendary comedy. Doing so, though, would miss out on what makes the show really quite good. With one season under its belt, David Mitchell remains, as you’d expect, suitably scathing as the wannabe playwright. The detail’s the thing, though, as the series’ broad strokes conceal tiny touches, from the smarts of his would-be actress maid, Kate (Game of Thrones’ Gemma Whelan), to the snooty dismissal of Mark Heap’s master of the revels, Robert Greene. Those two characters have become more central to the series, with Heap’s snivelling villain boosting the sympathetic underdog qualities of Bill the bard, while also seizing the chance to start imitating Iago in one episode that niftily parodies Othello. It’s that blend of contrived sitcom pay-off and literary references that keeps Upstart Crow working. It’s far from Blackadder and hardly Tom Stoppard, but there’s enough to Shakespeare in Like here.
Make a note of the names Jack and Harry Williams. Partly because they’ve just returned to our screens after giving us The Missing with a new high-concept series. And partly because they’ve also got their other new drama coincidentally screening at exactly the same time on ITV every Monday. You’ll need those names just to help track down the second programme in a month’s time. Rellik, as the title so pointedly suggests, is a show that unfolds in reverse, as we watch a team of coppers trying to track down a serial killer. In between each scene, we see things zoom backwards at high speed, from window cleaners and cigarettes to bullets and doors. Combined with an intrusive, sombre soundtrack, it’s all a bit too heavy-handed to work. Thank goodness, then, for Richard Dormer, who plays DCI Gabriel Markham (a man with facial scars from an acid attack) with enough pain, grit and suppressed anger to anchor through a plot that’s been carefully plotted and wittily structured, if a little over-presented.
Doctor Foster: Season 2
Two years after she dramatically exposed her husband Simon’s betrayals, forcing him to leave town, we catch up with Doctor Foster once again. Living with her son, Tom, she’s getting on with her life – until her husband, Simon, returns to town with Kate, providing just how little she’s moved on. There’s some nuanced exploration of the way that past relationships linger on in the present, as Suranne Jones and Bertie Carvel sell their fractious reunion scenes with wonderfully convincing chemistry, but after Season 1’s hysterical finale, we all know that Doctor Foster’s strength lies in stepping just over the line into absurd melodrama and getting away with it. And so the second run’s opening episode gives us everything from an awkward welcome party and steamy arguments to breaking and entering, death threats, and an ominous glass of acid. “Hopefully it will be peace and quiet from now on,” says Kate. Not blooming likely. And with Suranne Jones on brilliantly fiery form, practically plotting aloud how she can destroy her ex-husband’s shiny new car, house and life, we can’t wait to see what havoc she wreaks.
“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
Julian Assange. The reaction you have to that name alone says a lot about how polarising the man has become. The founder of Wikileaks back in 2006, his dedication to transparency in the public interest won him legions of fans around the world, only for that reputation to become clouded by both sexual assault allegations and the complexities of national security and hacking in their own right. It’s hard to think of anyone who has gone from hero to persona non grata so quickly. After her film Citizenfour, director Laura Poitras hangs with Assange in his hidden home, creating a revealing portrait of seeping compromise.
Leave to Remain
Anything with Toby Jones in is always worth watching – something that indie drama proves beyond doubt. He plays a well-intentioned officer who helps refugees obtain citizenship in the UK, just as an Afghan teenager finds his case interrupted by the arrival of a boy from back home. The soundtrack by alt-J is a bonus.
Ben Stiller, Chris Rock, Jada Pinkett Smith and David Schwimmer voice four pampered animals who escape New York Central Zoo and wind up in the wilds of Africa. There are slapsticks and one-liners aplenty in this likeable animated comedy, but the real reason to tune in is Sacha Baron Cohen as King Julien, the scene-stealing leader of a tribe of lemurs.
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.)