Top TV shows and films on BBC iPlayer (7th May 2015)
Ivan Radford | On 07, May 2015
If you’ve ever wondered why we pay the Licence Fee, take a look at BBC iPlayer’s current line-up.
The Beeb’s catch-up catalogue is arguably the best it’s ever been, with serious election coverage, topical comedy (including satire of the BBC itself), a horde of old and new films, plus original content, such as Adam Curtis’ Bitter Lake, and a collection of poems spitting about issues affecting women today.
All that and a two-hour, uninterrupted, real-time journey along a canal? iPlayer has come into its own as a platform for experimental, unique and public service broadcasting alike. Where else could you find feminist poetry shoulder to shoulder with Wallace and Gromit?
We review the best TV shows and films currently on BBC iPlayer:
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
Charlie Brooker’s Election Wipe
Philomena Cunk should be elected Prime Minister.
Diane Morgan’s hilariously portrayed dimwit proved it beyond all doubt in Charlie Brooker’s Election Wipe, as she navigated a virtual studio of potential results (“a sort of PlayStation House of Commons”) before interviewing an expert to discover what democracy actually is. “What would happen if we voted to end democracy?” she asks, looking intelligent. “How would we do that?” comes the flummoxed reply. “With a vote,” comes the simple reply. The rest of the topical hour’s typically acerbic look back over the 2015 general election campaign is equally amusing, including an insight into the decline of political interviews in the media and a scathing take-down of Russel Brand’s repeated calls for an anarchic revolution, but it’s Cunk who ultimately wins your vote.
Available until: 13th May
Photo: BBC/Endemol/Kieron McCarron
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.
“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: 20th 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 middle of the road familiarity, though, there’s an innovative web series hidden in here somewhere. Read our full review
Available until: 28th April
The Leader Interviews
Newsnight’s Evan Davis interviews the leaders of each political party in turn – for more information, see our General Election VOD TV Guide.
Available until: 11 months
Photo: BBC/Colin Hutton
BBC Three presents a string of live shows that see figures from each political party face an audience of 100 young voters for an unscripted hour of questions.
Available until: 7th May
Jack Dee’s Election Helpdesk
If the idea of watching politician’s slug it out for two hours behind podiums doesn’t appeal, try this comedy series instead. Jack Dee and a panel of four guests help a live studio audience by shedding light on their dilemmas relating to the general election. At only 30 minutes, it’s political, topical and easy on the attention span.
Available until: 3rd May
Photo: BBC/Open Mike/Ellis O’Brien
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: A Study in Pink
The opening episode of the BBC’s whip-smart reboot is back on iPlayer for a short window. Any excuse to enjoy the chemistry of Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman – not to mention the sinister reveal of Mark Gatiss’ brother – should be embraced without any deduction required.
Available until: 11th May
Perfume: The Story of a Murderer
Ben Whishaw is wonderful in this unsettling thriller based on the novel by Patrick Suskind. He plays Grenouille, a perfumer born with a super sense of smell, who travels 18th century France in the search for the ultimate scent. It was dismissed by sniffy (ahem) critics at the time as “big nose cinema”, thanks to its constant close-ups of Whishaw’s nostrils, but Tom Tykwer’s adaptation manages that rare thing of capturing smell on screen. Inhale slowly to savour the effect.
Available until: 10th May
Bruno Ganz’ turn as Adolf Hitler in the final days of WWII have been parodied so many times now that you’d expect Downfall to have lost all impact. The fact that it hasn’t is testimony to Oliver Hirschbiegel’s riveting production and Ganz’ intense performance.
Available until: 7th May (12.25am)
Frederick Wiseman’s three-hour tour of the National Gallery may not sound like a thrilling watch, with no narration or narrative to speak of, but its quiet, natural look at how the gallery works makes for absorbing and revealing viewing – a sound companion to the BBC Four “Go Slow” season.
Available until: 10th 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
Un Prophete’s Tahar Rahim stars in this 2011 drama about a young Algerian in 1941 Paris, who is asked to spy on a mosque during the Nazi occupation. The performances, music and shades of grey make for a compelling watch.
Available until: 11th May
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: 10th May
Inside No. 9 – Episode 5
Nana’s Birthday arrives Inside No. 9 this week – and, as you’d expect, celebrations don’t go smoothly. Family secrets and drinking habits all come to the surface, while someone waits quietly underneath a pretend cake waiting to burst out. Eavesdropping and awkward truths make this recognisable gathering a gleefully painful watch, one that’s full of nasty emotions more than gruesome murders. If Reece Shearsmith and Steve Pemberton hit mature heights with their second episode of this second season, this penultimate entry emphasises it, with a conclusion that is shocking in its delicate, restrained tragedy.
Available until: 22nd May
Synecdoche, New York
Meet Caden Cotard (Hoffman). Caden is a theatre director. Living up to his surname, he genuinely thinks he’s dying – obscure diseases, skin infections, brain malfunctions, he’s got them all. Miserably married to successful artist Adele (Keener), Caden’s life is a perpetual chain of failure, loss and illness; while his production of Death of a Salesman goes well, his family falls to pieces. “I fantasise about him dying,” admits his wife in therapy. Awfully funny though it is, the truth is that so does he.
Can Caden achieve anything of worth with his life? Can art ever represent the true nature of reality? After his wife leaves for Berlin, taking with her his daughter Olive, Caden gets the chance to find out. He receives the ‘genius grant’, an unlimited amount of money to fund an artist’s production of something big and meaningful. For Caden, this project is a simulacrum of his own life spanning an entire warehouse; a synecdoche of New York and of himself. He’s helped along by his assistant, Hazel (Morton), who lives in a house that is perpetually burning down. Together, they construct an artistic anti-reality, or a dramatised hyper-reality, in which everyone Caden knows or has met is a character acted by an actor, including himself.
David Lynch-like in its ambition, Synecdoche New York is an arc without a narrative, a poignant project which leaves your brain buzzing and your heart throbbing. It’s flawed. But isn’t everything in life?
Available until: 17th May