The best films and TV shows on BBC iPlayer (10th January 2016)
Staff Reporter | On 10, Jan 2016Reading time: 21 mins
Christmas is over – and BBC iPlayer continues to prove a perfect way to mop up the leftovers from the stuffed Christmas TV schedule. But the Beeb is kicking off 2016 in style with a lavish adaptation of War and Peace. With a bunch of great films to boot, there’s bound to be something to help with the January blues.
What’s available to watch? We review the best TV shows and films currently available on BBC iPlayer. (Click here to skip to our review of the best movies on BBC iPlayer.)
David Bowie: Five Years
Following the sad news that David Bowie had passed away, BBC Two decided to re-screen this documentary on 11th January, portraying the career of the iconic pop legend. Inspiring, bold and chameleonic, Bowie’s contribution to music – and influence upon it – is timeless, but this 2013 film (originally broadcast after his surprise release of the album The Next Day) portrays it by focusing on five key years in his life. The interviews with collaborators are insightful, but the unseen archive footage is a treat, ranging from talk show appearances to him in The Elephant Man on Broadway. Can any programme do justice to all of David Bowie’s remarkable talent within 90 minutes? No, but this is as close as it gets.
Available until: 11th February
War and Peace
Andrew Davies begins the almost Herculean task of abridging Tolstoy’s literary classic into six hours of television with an impressively zippy first opening, which introduces us to 19th century Russia, as the country is drawn into war with France – and young idealist (and illegitimate son) Pierre Bezukhov finds himself the unexpected heir to his father’s wealth. Paul Dano is excellent as the hot-headed male, a nervy counterpart to the suave Prince Andrei, who wants to use the war to escape his wife. and a potential partner for the equally earnest Natasha Rostova (Lily James). But if the juggling of subplots works, something doesn’t ring true, as the English-speaking cast and period costumes feel more like Jane Austen than Russia.
Available until: 2nd February 2016 (Episode 1)
Photo: BBC/Mitch Jenkins
EastEnders: Back at Ours
EastEnders continues its iPlayer-exclusive take on the Gogglebox format with Danny Dyer and Kellie Bright watching back moments of their screen history on the soap opera on a sofa. The behind-the-scenes tidbits are interesting for loyal fans, while the observations and anecdotes of how the series has helped viewers consider issues such as homosexuality are sweet – but really, this is worth watching for the fascinating insight it provides into Danny Dyer’s perception of himself. Joking about people not wanting autographs and talking about how he’s forced his way into people’s living rooms and escaped the bargain bin DVD circuit, it’s impossible to tell how self-aware he is – but he certainly puts in an impressive performance in the clips we see. (They don’t show the bit where he talks to a goose.)
Available until: 31st January
Photo: EastEnders’ New Year’s Day episode (BBC/Jack Barnes)
Doctor Who: The Husbands of Christmas Song
“There’s no such thing as happy ever after. It’s just a lie we tell ourselves because the truth is so hard,” says The Doctor in the 2015 Christmas special. Peter Capaldi. Grumpy sentiment. So far, so par for the course for the 12th Doctor. But The Husbands of River Song emerges as a surprisingly warm antidote to a season that has been inconsistent in everything but its darkness – a bittersweet conclusion to a decisive chapter in Doctor Who’s canon. The chance to see Alex Kingston and Capaldi together is alone worth tuning in for. Read full review.
Available until: 25th January
Photo: Simon Ridgway
Sherlock Holmes: The Abominable Bride
Sherlock is back – but not as we know him. Yes, this Christmas special is the much-anticipated old-school outing, which rewinds the clock to 1895. Martin Freeman’s John Watson is now a veteran of the second Afghan war. Benedict Cumberbatch’s Holmes wears a top hat. Some things, though, never change. “Merry Christmas,” he abruptly wishes to Watson and his wife, then stops smiling. “Thank God that’s over.” Some may have a similar reaction this timey-wimey outing, which sees Steven Moffat retreat so far up his proverbial Mind Palace that any sense of real tension sadly dissipates. But even a flawed episode of Sherlock is still an entertaining one – and this teaser for Season 4 will certainly leave you wanting more. Read full review.
Available until: 31st January
And Then There Were None
Nothing says Christmas like a bit of murder – and nothing says murder on the telly like Agatha Christie. But this is 2015 and Christie’s heyday has long gone. Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple have been adapted to death, masterfully so. Now, we look to Scandinavia for our serial killers. Gone are the cosy country houses of old. In their place, snowy landscapes, bloody warehouses and woolly jumpers. Luckily, the BBC got the memo: this new take on And Then There None 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. Read full review.
Available until: 26th January (Episode 1)
Marley wasn’t dead to begin with. Not yet, anyway. That’s because this isn’t A Christmas Carol: it’s Dickensian, the new series from Tony Jordan. It’s only fitting that the EastEnders veteran should cram as many of the author’s characters as possible into one big serial. There’s an undeniable pleasure in seeing Dickens’ well-known faces from the page collide on screen. Within minutes, we’ve met Fagin (Anton Lesser) and Scrooge (Ned Dennehy), not to mention a young Miss Havisham (Tuppence Middleton) and Little Nell. The main villain, though, is Marley – and Peter Firth gobbles up every second of screen-time he gets like the whole set is made of ham. Demanding money be collected from Little Nell’s family, even as she lays there dying, it’s no surprise that he winds up dead by the end of the first episode, a cliffhanger befitting of Dickens. It’s the perfect excuse for Bleak House’s Inspector Bucket (Stephen Rea) to stroll the streets between each novel and interrogate Charles’ creations. Rea is excellent, easily shouldering the responsibility of holding the thing together. Even if it only ends up as a game of Spot the Novel, what larks could be had here, Pip. What larks. Read full review.
Available until: 26th January (Episodes 1 and 2)
Matt Berry Does…
Matt Berry proves once again that almost anything he says is funny, mostly because of the way he says it. After several excellent comedy shorts for BBC iPlayer, the IT Crowd and Garth Marenghi star now has his own series of six iPlayer short films titled “Matt Berry Does…”. Father’s Day and Summer Holidays are the kind of arbitrary topics that get the absurdist treatment from him and Bob Mortimer – there’s something undeniably hilarious about Matt Berry’s voice playing on top of screaming fish – while Matt Berry Does… Ghosts, is another testament to how effective Berry’s silliness is when distilled down to one brief, concentrated dose. Especially if you like learning about ghosts called Kenneth. The final in the series is now available, Matt Berry Does… New Year.
Available until: June 2016
Photo: BBC iPlayer
Charlie Brooker’s 2015 Wipe
“You could be minding your own business in the middle of an everyday mass shooting and suddenly realise you’re in a terror attack.” The acerbic comedian is on fine form here, poring over 2015’s news headlines like acid seeping through a rice cracker. From politics to viral adverts, Brooker skewers it all with bitter hilarity – and a whole lot of pig jokes. It’s his contributors, though, who elevate this to something inspired, as Barry Shitpeas and Philomena Cunk tackle issues such as feminism and terrorism. So funny it’s depressing and so depressing there’s no choice but to laugh, UK TV is crying out for something of this calibre on a regular basis. Cunk, meanwhile, should have her own show.
Available until: 29th January
“I’m with the police.” “Which police?” “The police.” And just like that, Luther is back, with Idris Elba on blistering form. Since we last saw him – ditching his detective’s coat into the Thames to be with Alice (Ruth Wilson) – he’s been getting away from the grimy police work in a cottage on a cliff. “Close to the edge,” say his colleagues, when they inevitable come knocking. “Closer and closer every day,” he quips.
That on-the-nose dialogue could become cheesy and laughable in another cop show’s hands, but not Luther’s. Elba’s glowering performance pushes past the verge of parody into the heights of myth. Even his stubble is the stuff of legend. As soon as he switches his Jumper of Stereotype for his Coat of Badass, Loofah in on a determined mission to do one thing: solve a crime, and punch, assault or threaten as many people as possible to do it.
That bluntness seeps throughout the show’s style, so even the gory details become deliberately harsh. “What did he do with the heart?” “He ate it,” comes the reply. With a psycho running around East London and Alice apparently dead, there’s a thrill to this curt, concise story-telling, which is even restricting its narrative to two episodes to avoid any unnecessary fluff. Because let’s face it: if there were any, Loofah would just punch it in the face anyway. Gripping stuff.
If Little Britain could be accused of childish humour, it’s only right that David Walliams should find a natural home in the world of kids’ entertainment – and this latest BBC adaptation of his best-selling books is testament to how likeable his family tales (this one involves the invention of a new toilet roll) are.
Available until: 31st January
Great Barrier Reef with David Attenborough
The only three words more exciting than “Great Barrier Reef”? “With David Attenborough”. The national treasure dives beneath the waves for yet another dazzling nature series.
Available until: 29th January (Episode 1)
Star Wars at the BBC
For those who can’t get enough Star Wars, this exclusive iPlayer documentary sees Peter Serafinowicz (the voice of Darth Maul, don’t forget) dig into the BBC archives to find the biggest Star Wars actors and characters from the Seventies appearing on shows such as Pebble Mill and Ask Aspel. Because who needs interviews with the actors now when you can watch Mark Hamill and Carrie Fisher on Blue Peter in 1980?
The Secret of Star Wars
For those who prefer their build-up to The Force Awakens to be more promotional than nostalgic, Radio 1 DJ Dev looks into “the secret” of Star Wars’ success over the decades, chatting to cast and crew from the new film. Jokes about him playing with a lightsaber make things feel less generic, but the highlight is John Boyega explaining why The Force Awakens continues the Star Wars’ formula for magic: “It’s the ultimate battle between good and evil. And it’s got a guy from Peckham in it.”
Available until: 10th January 2016
The Mighty Boosh: Season 1
“Come with us now on a journey through time and space…” It’s been over 10 years since The Mighty Boosh first arrived on BBC Three in the middle of the night. Now, the misadventures of zookeepers Howard Moon and Vince Noir are available to watch whenever you like for free.
Noel Fielding and Julian Barratt’s series is full of ingenuity and wit, both visual and verbal. While later seasons saw the show lose its charm, with dubious humour and poor taste, Season 1 stuck closely to the programme’s radio roots, relying on the chemistry between Fielding and Barratt to generate the giggles. From musical excursions into hell to a journey into the icy Tundra, the creatures and characters on display are as surreal as they are silly. One highlight is Howard’s adventuring hero, Dixon Bainbridge, with a moustache as big as his ego. “I dream of being Howard Moon, colon, explorer,” sighs Barratt. “Howard Moon colon explorer?” comes the reply.
Available until: 18th January 2016
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: 22nd January
Photo: BBC/Tiger Aspect/Ollie Upton
“Nobody messes with the McCrane family,” warns cockney crime boss Harry McCrane to his newly assembled henchmen. A hand goes up. “Yes, Sandra?” He’s just taken over an ice cream factory. The problem? They were already making a lot of money with the ice cream. Drugs, on the other hand, are a lot of hassle.
It’s exactly the kind of villain you can expect to encounter Top Coppers, BBC Three’s new comedy series. Created by Andy Kinnear and Cein McGillicuddy (also on directing duties), the show spoofs 1970s cop thrillers like it’s going out of fashion.
In many ways, of course, it is: comedies these days don’t do slapstick and silliness in the quite the same way. But the cast are more than up for it; Steen Raskopoulous is hilariously gormless as star cop John Mahogany and John Kearns is even more so as his sidekick, Mitch Rust. Both are dim, good at deadpan delivery and even more ginger than their names suggest. Their policing of Justice City, led by an amusingly over-the-top chief – the lover of another brother’s mother – recalls Police Squad! with its rapid-fire punchlines and constant undermining of every plot point. It’s not quite on a par with Frank Drebin, but three decades on, this wears the comparison on its sleeve with impressive attitude.
Available until: 28th January
Photo: BBC PICTURES/Rough Cut
With The Boy in the Dress already available, another of David Walliams’ feel-good family comedies has arrived on BBC iPlayer. First broadcast on New Year’s Day last year, it follows Ben, who discovers something surprising about his granny…
Available until: 20th January 2016
The Incredible Adventures of Professor Branestawm
Before the sequel, Professor Branestawm Returns, airs on BBC One this Christmas Eve, catch up with his first hour-long adventure, based on Norman Hunter’s novels. Armed with inventions and eccentric friends, the eccentric inventor (played by Harry Hill) tries to stop a businessman and local councillor from bulldozing his workshop.
Available until: 20th January 2016
Photo: BBC Pictures / Adam Lawrence
Blood and Gold: The Making of Spain
It’s a universal fact that any programme hosted by someone with the name Simon Sebag Montefiore is bound to be brilliant. And sure enough, this documentary series gets off to a cracking start with a look at the Cordoba Caliphate and the early years of Spain’s history. It’s the kind of battleground where people were beheaded, burned and then stabbed for good measure and, between his hat and his penchant for grand statements in dramatic poses, our presenter fits right in with the legends. Que bueno.
Available until: 12th January 2016
Photo: BBC/Craig Hastings
The Boy in the Dress
Dennis is an ordinary boy but he feels different. He creates a whole new persona and puts it to the ultimate test – can a boy wear a dress? David Walliams’ family comedy was first broadcast at Christmas last year and here’s a welcome chance to revisit it over the holidays. Genuinely charming.
Available until: 13th January 2016
Horizon Tim Peake Special: How to Be an Astronaut
“It’s not very easy to become an astronaut,” quips Tim Peake two-thirds of the way through this Horizon special – and the hour-long video diary of his preparation to become Britain’s first astronaut on board the ISS proves it.
Why is he flying up there? Because the station is a vital part of humankind’s exploration of space: it’s a stepping stone to the stars, but also a place for experiments (“I don’t have to understand the science, just know how to do them”) to be carried out. Zero gravity, meanwhile, takes its physical toll on humans, so people can’t stay up there forever.
Tim’s launch will be broadcast live on the BBC with a Stargazing special on Tuesday morning at 10.30am and there is a constant sense of excitement underpinning Tim’s training. As he puts it, he didn’t even realise Britons could be astronauts. The sight of him fulfilling that dream (not to mention globe-trotting to various facilities, as countries such as Russia and America work together for something bigger than world politics) is quietly inspiring. The result is an uplifting, as well as informative, watch, even as the trials become particularly tough. Relocating his family to Houston is one challenge, but learning how to fly back to the station from open space is another: glimpses of Gravity and how things can wrong linger in the corner of your mind. Even if you miss the live launch, catching up with this on BBC iPlayer will leave your spirits blasting off.
Available until: 14th January 2016
Photo: BBC/Max Alexander – UKSA
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
The BBC once again proves a safe pair of hands for rebooting your childhood favourites, as the all-new Danger Mouse introduces cutting edge tech (goodbye, eye patch; hello, iPatch) but sticks to an old-school formula of silly voices, non-stop puns and an extremely villainous toad. The opening double-bill proves narrative isn’t the show’s strong point, but the promise of more chaos squeezed into 11-minute chunks of zany Bond parodies is enough to raise anyone’s eyebrows as high as Penfold’s.
Available until: 18th January (Episode 1)
Photo: BBC / FremantleMedia Limited
Music Box with Guy Garvey
The Elbow’s likeable frontman throws the curtains wide on a new music series exclusive to iPlayer, which sees Garvey share and discuss artists that he is most excited about. The series will run every other week for six episodes, with the first living up to its promise of introducing audiences to new music through its focus on Here We Go Magic. The exclusive premiere of the video for Falling – from their new album Be Small – is an apt coup, with Garvey providing the kind of amusing and insightful commentary that listeners to his Radio 6 Music show will be familiar with. Space for archive music from Radiohead brings diversity to the line-up, while the sub-30-minute runtime makes this an easy fit into your commute. Most impressive, though, is the BBC’s Playlister, which enables you to add tracks to a music playlist – a feature that, while not always relevant to the Beeb’s catch-up TV content, really comes into its own. Much like YouTube’s links to purchase audio from its videos, it’s the kind of innovative touch the BBC is good at – and could signal a strong future for IPlayer in the music VOD world. One day like this a fortnight will see us right.
Available until: June 2016
Photo: BBC / Dean Chalkley
The BBC’s latest season of comedy pilots has arrived and it’s a consistently hilarious batch. Highlights include warped game show spoof Funz and Gamez, complete with depressed host and a production team that breaks into their contestants’ homes to steal prizes, and sketch show People Like Us, which just might be the best ensemble sketch programme since Big Train. Elsewhere, the return of a wayward daughter from university to her rural home is a delightfully original piece of comedy in an age where many sitcoms have become bland and familiar. These feeds should come with a warning – because they’ll leave you hungry for more. (Read our full review.)
Available until: June 2016.
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: 2016
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 2016
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: May 2016
Photo: BBC/Thomas Caron Delion
Orson Welles’ masterpiece looks back at the life of newspaper magnate Charles Foster – a time-jumping narrative that’s not only a landmark in cinema history, but also one of the best films ever made.
Available until: 10th January (11pm)
This biopic of poet Allen Ginsberg is less conventional drama and more animated recital, but the vivid visuals and James Franco’s performance (and narration) make for an oddly compelling watch.
Available until: 10th January (1.40am)
This post-apocalyptic drama about a boy and a father fighting to survive boasts one heck of a performance from Viggo Mortensen – and a powerful foreboding atmosphere.
Available: 10th January (2.10am)
This Isle of Man comedy drama, about a writer who runs a B&B, only to get the hots for his daughter’s visiting friend, borders on cliched, but provides a welcome leading turn for the excellent Felicity Jones – and an even better showcase for the scene-stealing Jessica Brown-Findlay.
Available until: 16th January
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: 21st January
Martin Freeman stars in Debbie Isitt’s charming comedy about a grumpy teacher put in charge of his primary school’s nativity. The improvised hijinks from the young performers prompted the director to return for multiple sequels, but the real sparkle and shine is in this cute original.
Available until: 21st January
Wallace and Gromit
Aardman’s animated duo are back in full force on BBC iPlayer, with the original three stop-motion shorts available, providing everything from cheese and cute robots and criminal penguins to mechanical dogs. A Grand Day Out is available until 24th January, A Matter of Loaf and Death until 27th, and The Wrong Trousers until 29th January.
Available until: 24th January
Made in Dagenham
Gemma Arterton and Sally Hawkins are superb in this winning tale of female factory workers fighting for equal pay. Given a 15 certificate because of its swearing, this is still worth considering as an option for younger teens, thanks to its uplifting true tale and inspiring example.
Available until: 30th January