Sharks are circling everywhere on BBC iPlayer this week, from the brilliantly named documentary series Shark – guess what that’s about – to the cut-throat world of US television, as Episodes returns for a fourth season.
As ever, the Beeb’s best catch-up content is in the little fishes swimming alongside the big catches, from the inspiring anthology of poetry (Women Who Spit) and the brief return of Sherlock (a treat with the next episodes so many months away) to the selection of films, which includes In the Loop and Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa.
Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell
This lavish production, based on Susanna Clarke’s novel, is an amusing and intriguing delight. The tale of two magicians in Georgian England boasts two excellent performances from Bertie Carvel (the arrogant, clumsy Strange) and Eddie Marsan (the reclusive, nervous Norrell) and a sharply condensed script from Peter Harness, which leans on period drama tropes to sell its parallel history of England. But the programme’s real power lies in its ability to build the extraordinary out of the ordinary. Director Toby Haynes presents a world that is wholly believable, grounding the story’s magic in practical, everyday objects; an approach that makes the incredible surprisingly credible. Read our full review.
Available until: 16th June (Episode 1)
Photo: BBC /Todd Antony
Episodes: Season 4
Sean and Beverly’s Hollywood career refuses to die as they are dragged back from London to make six more episodes of Pucks! The sight of everyone’s miserable faces – and Matt LeBlanc’s ever-amusing take on himself (especially after losing half of his money) – is more than enough to keep the return of this sitcom a pleasant treat. A depressingly believable take on the incompetency of the entertainment business, it makes for a perfect double-bill with W1A.
Available until: 10th June (Episode 1)
Photo: BBC / Hat Trick
Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa
North Norfolk’s finest radio DJ ends up in a siege in this feature-length outing. A big-screen adventure that keeps things decidedly small, Alpha Papa impresses not because of its laugh count but because of its surprisingly mature take on Steve Coogan’s ageing non-celebrity, which emerges as something tender as well as silly.
Available until: 15th June
“Think torpedo with teeth.”
If the title of the BBC’s new nature series – simply “Shark” – doesn’t grab you by the teeth, the fact that it’s narrated by Paul McGann will have you falling for it hook, line and sink. Typically beautiful and full of fun names to repeat to your friends, this is Jawsome stuff.
Available until: 9th June (Episode 1)
Photo: BBC / Morné Hardenberg / Atlantic Edge Films
Mary Berry’s Absolute Favourites
Everyone’s favourite floral bomber jacket wearer Mary Berry returns to our TV screens once again with this new cookery show. The recipes are inspired by her childhood memories – including one interlude showing how to make ice cream – but it’s her no-nonsense presenting that makes her so easy to watch. The odd candid shot of her attempting to lick the spoon between takes only cements her status as a national treasure.
Available until: 15th June (Episode 1)
Photo: BBC / Shine TV
Women Who Spit
“Your shabby, slipped-stitch mistakes make you miraculous,” spits Vanessa Kisuule in a short poem urging women to stop shrinking back and to take up space. It’s one of countless brilliant lines you’ll hear during this series of short films, which see female poets tackle topics facing young people today.
Cecilia Knapp’s explanation of why she writes is inspiring, Deanna Rodger’s look at those forced off the street is provocative, while Jemima Foxtrot’s double-performed examination of confidence and doubt is an entertaining and powerful reminder of the importance of self over surface. Each are excellent performers, leaving your tongue tripping back over syllables to savour their taste, but keep Megan Beech’s passionate cry for more women on our TV screens until last: after the previous four fantastic compositions, you’ll be hard pushed not to agree.
Important and urgent, this collection shows just how valuable BBC iPlayer can be as a platform to voices that should be heard more often.
Available until: 2nd June
Photo: BBC/Thomas Caron Delion
The C Word
“Being diagnosed with cancer is like being told you have 20 minutes to revise for an A Level in a language you’ve never learned.”
Sheridan Smith is as heartbreakingly brilliant as ever in this adaptation of Lisa Lynch’s candid book (based on her blog) about her fight with cancer. Following her diagnosis, Smith’s bolshy charisma is the perfect fit for Lynch’s positive approach to life: you’ll laugh as much as you cry, as she jokes with doctors and friends, while Paul Nicholls brings empathy to the role of her husband, Pete. Sensitively scripted and sincerely performed, this is an honest piece of TV that never once feels mawkish or contrived.
Available until: 2nd June
Photo: BBC/Stuart Wood
Murder in Successville
BBC Three’s improvised murder mystery comedy sees DI Sleet joined by a variety of celebrity guest stars to solve a crime. In Episode 1, it’s Made in Chelsea’s Jamie Laing, who has to work out who shot restauranteur Bruno Tonioli. He finds himself surrounded by other celebrities – Alan carr, Taylor Swift – but these are played by impressionists. And so the chaos begins, throwing the unsuspecting sidekick into scenarios that increasingly ridiculous.
The jokes are often on the disappointingly crude side, but as much fun as it is to see Tom Davis growl his way through over-the-top cliches, the real enjoyment lies in seeing Laing fail to keep a straight face. Is corpsing a mark of the hit-and-miss “script” failing or the production working? Either way, it’s absurdly high concept and unabashed silliness make this original idea exactly the kind of thing that BBC Three will hopefully continue to produce as it moves towards its online-only future. Call it Murder in Semi-Successville.
Available until: 25th June (Episode 1)
Photo: BBC/Tiger Aspect/Ollie Upton
There are two requirements to be a spy: 1. You have to look good in a coat with the collar turned up. 2. When something dangerous happens involving a new recruit or innocent bystander, you have to turn to them and say: “Welcome to MI5.”
Tom Hughes as Joe Lambe nails both in the opening episode of this period thriller.
Set in 1972, The Game is full of Cold War fun, from nasty Russians and executed former lovers to people hiding in cupboards. Brian Cox brings gruff edge to the secret service’s “Daddy”, but it’s Lambe who proves the most fascinating, as Toby Whithouse’s script jumps back and forth to question whether he’s all he appears to be. The low-key on-foot chases are shot with the expected style by Niall MacCormick. It’s all by-the-numbers stuff – and leaves you longing for The Hour – but Hughes’ enigmatic face keeps you glued to the screen.
Available until: 30th May
Photo: BBC/Des Willie
BBC Four’s Go Slow
BBC Four’s Go Slow season celebrates TV that moves at a snail’s pace. While it might frustrate those more used to Game of Thrones or House of Cards, that’s precisely the point: this is serene programming to counter the rise of rapid binge-viewing and rushed lives. They don’t even come with voice over narration.
Does it make for good viewing? That depends, perhaps, on what you pick. Handmade: Glass (followed by Handmade: Steel) is a 30-minute look at Michael Ruh creating a simple glass jug. Cutting between hidden vantage points in his steamy workshop, there is something admirable and oddly hypnotic in the repetitive motions of the intricate process, like being given a private tour on a holiday in the Isle of Wight.
All Aboard! The Canal Trip is a longer affair, taking a two-hour, uninterrupted cruise on a barge down the Kennet and Avon Canal. The fixed camera is offset by trivia titles that appear overlaid on bridges and water (boats were once charged by the ton as well as by the mile, fact fans) but without much interesting scenery to take in, you find your attention levels sinking.
More successful is Dawn Chorus: The Sounds of Spring, which captures birdsong in three locations as the sun rises. The changing environments help to mix things up, but the pretty noise of nature (combined with a bit of text-aided bird-watching) is the star of the show: this is the kind of thing you can leave to play on a tablet while you doze in bed, recovering from the trauma of the latest wedding in Westeros.
Available until: 4th June
“That’s all good, then,” says Ian Fletcher, Head of Values at the BBC after another unproductive group discussion. For anyone who watched mockumentary Twenty Twelve – or saw Season 1 of this Beeb-themed follow-up – Hugh Bonneville’s defeated catchphrase will fall on familiar ears. What it actually means: absolutely nothing’s good at all.
Fletcher rushes about New Broadcasting House at the start of Season 2, as the team prepare for a visit from Prince Charles and try to deal with a Jeremy Clarkson scandal, 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.
The cast deliver this intelligently stupid anti-language with wonderfully deadpan performances. Queen of it all is Jessica Hynes as PR guru Siobhan Sharpe, who agrees with every statement that comes out of anyone’s mouth. “Don’t think, just say things!” she enthuses, during one brainstorming session to help re-brand the BBC’s tennis coverage (the word “WINbledon” comes up). As things descend into talk of monkeys and butter, and events climax in an inspired dash through the corridors between New and Old Broadcasting House, W1A announces its return with a superbly conceived piece of verbal and physical farce. That’s all good, then.
Available until: 27th May (Episode 1)
Photo: BBC/Jack Barnes
Peter Kay fans will be pleased with the comedian’s debut show on the BBC, which sees his well-meaning supermarket employee drive to work every day with a colleague. The humour between the odd couple is nothing new, but the affection between the pair is endearing enough. For all its banal, middle-of-the-road familiarity, though, there’s an innovative web series hidden in here somewhere. Read our full review
Available until: 31st May (Episode 1)
Frankie Boyle’s Election Autopsy
“Conservative voters you have ruined this country… with your dreams of swimming with dolphins, who at best will only feel indifferent towards you.” Frankie Boyle takes to BBC iPlayer once again after his Scottish Referendum special to dissect the result’s of this year’s general election. The online-only approach is a great fit for Frankie, who launches into a scathing tirade about Tories and Tory voters with the enjoyable air of someone deemed too hot for TV. Away from the edited constraints of something like Mock the Week, his wit really comes to the fore, not to mention his braying laugh, which only enforces the feeling that he’s really enjoying himself. The fact that his guest comedians – Sara Pascoe and Katherine Ryan – are all women (apart from two young boys who play guess-the-politician and poet Akala) only makes this 45 minutes even more impressive. Here’s hoping the Beeb bring out Boyle for all major events.
Available until: 16th June
Photo: BBC / Endemol Shine UK / Brian Ritchie
In the Loop
Armando Iannucci’s scathing political satire leaps from the small screen to the big with the hysterical tale of how a bumbling British MP (a never better Tom Hollander) accidentally becomes involved in launching international war with the USA. Peter Capaldi’s dark lord of profanity Malcolm Tucker is reason alone to tune in, but the supporting cast (including the late James Gandolfini) match him every sweary step of the way.
Available until: 15th June
Two young employees of an insurance company discover that their company is heading towards disaster in this tense financial drama. The cast boasts everyone from Kevin Spacey and Demi Moore to Paul Bettany and Stanley Tucci, but the film’s seemingly perpetual pertinence is what make it so important to watch.
Available until: 12th June
Snooker: World Championship Final
The chances are that you already know the outcome of Shaun Murphy and Stuart Bingham’s showdown, but this is one of the tensest snooker matches in recent memory. Line up 240 minutes of your time and sink it like John Virgo on Big Break.
Available until: 3rd June
Sherlock: The Blind Banker
A mysterious cipher is being scrawled on walls around London in the second ever episode of the BBC’s Sherlock reboot. It’s simple in its solution, but this underrated outing – which gives Martin Freeman’s Watson a first taste of romance – is as satisfying and entertaining as you could wish.
Available until: 18th May
Sherlock: The Empty Hearse
Two years after falling from that rooftop, how did Sherlock do it? The opening of the BBC’s third season is as post-modern as ever, piping its script full of fan theories and sly nods, but it’s the relationship with Martin Freeman’s Watson that really proves most satisfying to have back, as the show sets in motion a character-driven trilogy of stories.
Available until: 17th May
Adam Curtis’ bizarre, surreal, brilliant provocative documentary deconstructs the media’s presentation of politics and history with a dizzying complexity and a dark sense of humour. At over two hours, it’s a daunting watch, but an important one – not least because it showcases the potential for BBC iPlayer as a platform for bold, experimental work. (Read our full review)
Available until: 2016
Wallace and Gromit: The Wrong Trousers
Aardman’s man-and-dog duo have been a splendid source of stop-motion silliness over the years. While all of their outings are now on BBC iPlayer, it’s The Wrong Trousers that really excels, from its inspired premise (an evil penguin committing a jewellery heist) to breathtakingly imaginative action sequence, which sees Gromit piecing together a train set mid-chase.
Available until: 3rd June