The best films and TV shows on BBC iPlayer (20th March 2016)
James R | On 20, Mar 2016
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.)
Catching up with a whole night of live TV fundraising on-demand is hardly a medal-winning opportunity, but BBC iPlayer has smartly isolated the stand-out sketches from the big night’s event and made them exclusively available to watch – and those are well worth it, not necessarily for David Walliams’ reprisal of outdated transvestite Emily Howard, but absolutely for an inspired Luther sketch, which sees Idris Elba joined by a host of celebrity impersonators for a rare glimpse inside his family life. You’ll laugh out loud, mate, yeah?
Photo: BBC/Sport Relief/Gary Moyes
Behind Closed Doors
This documentary following three stories of domestic abuse is respectfully handled, but that doesn’t diminish the shocking impact of the acts being examined. Narrated by Olivia Colman and combining first-hand testimonies with contributions from emergency services staff, this is horrifying, essential viewing.
Photo: BBC/True Vision Aire/Tom Read/Erica Gornall
Inside Obama’s White House
As the 2016 US election looms, this BBC series looks back at how Barack Obama tried to reshape America. The first episode, covering his initial 100 days, charts his failure to do so, from the closure of Guantanamo Bay to climate change. There are countless insights into the political minutiae that make running a country far from simple – neatly juxtaposed with the amount of times Obama used “hope” in his first speeches – which, in retrospect, highlights not just the idealistic optimism surrounding Obama’s election, but also the petty stubbornness of the Republicans blocking his every move. Hindsight promises the story will become more positive as his tenure in the White House continued, but no less fascinating. From access to unbiased commentary, this is exactly the kind of thing the BBC excels at.
Photo: BBC/The White House
Brendan O’Carroll: My Family at War
Away from Mrs. Brown’s Boys, Brendan O’Carroll proves an extremely likeable narrator for this account of the Irish Easting Rising in 1916, in which three of his uncles joined 1,600 Irish rebels taking over the centre of Dublin.
Photo: BBC/Joe Taylor
Photo: BBC / RVK Studios / Lilja Jonsdottir
Dunblane: Our Story
Today, 20 years ago, Thomas Hamilton walked into Dunblane Primary School, near Stirling, and killed 16 children and a teacher with four handguns. Rather than investigate what Hamilton’s motivations were, this show to mark the anniversary instead focuses on the families of the victims, who recount their memories of the day. The mundane, precise details are heartbreaking enough to hear, let alone the literal scars borne by some in the wake of the killing. But the interviews also capture a stirring dignity in the sense of communal support. That respectful tone makes this moving one-off programme as cathartic as it is hard to watch.
Photo: BBC / STV/ Andrew Murray
After a one-off drama a few years back, writer Robert Jones returns with a three-part series of stories, which unfold in an unusual string of straight-to-camera monologues. Everyone has one, from Leo, a suspect in the death of young man Rafe, Katrina, Rafe’s sister and Leo’s wife who is grieving for their daughter, to DS Evans, who is investigating Rafe’s murder, after his body is washed down a strong river. There’s some satisfaction to piecing together the big picture, although the parade of direct addresses frequently stray from unique and authentic into artificial territory.
Available until: 2nd April (Episode 1)
Photo: BBC / Colin Hutton
Stewart Lee’s Comedy Vehicle: Season 4
Stewart Lee returns for another series of smug tirades and educated, middle-class opinions, all designed to ruin stand-up comedy as we know it. For those who don’t like his intellectual concerns and patronising tone, he’s impossible to tolerate. For those who do, he makes it impossible to tolerate other comedians. That’s the brilliance of Stewart Lee’s stand-up: either way, everyone ends up miserable. This latest run delivers exactly what you’d expect from the comedian, with the first episode tackling the subject of wealth, Graham Norton and whether his own jokes count as entertainment or not.
Available until: 2nd April (Episode 1)
Photo: BBC / Colin Hutton
The Night Manager
John le Carré hasn’t been adapted for TV in over 20 years. The Night Manager, the BBC’s new series, is more than worth the wait. The thriller stars Tom Hiddleston in the titular role, as he finds himself approached by the mistress of a dangerous man with evidence of an arms deal. Hugh Laurie as one part of the conspiracy being uncovered is deliciously menacing – and supported with aplomb by a nasty Tom Hollander – but it’s the backdrop that gives the tale its simmering tension: the story unfolds against the fall of Mubarak, with the munitions package crossing Jonathan Pine’s path boasting the potential to wipe the uprising off the face of the planet. By day, Russell Tovey and Olivia Colman add to the intrigue. By night, the streets are filled with bangs and cheers. Throughout, Hiddleston remains impeccable and composed.
Photo: BBC/The Ink Factory/Mitch Jenkins
Available until: 22nd March
This three-part comic thriller gets off to a blisteringly sinister start, as we see a group of friends go on a deer-hunting weekend in the Scottish Highlands – only for them to be bumped off one by one. Secrets coming to the surface and class tensions bubbling over may not sound all that original, but it’s shot with real class by Jim Field Smith and written by Episodes’ Jim Field Smith and The Hour’s George Kay. The cast relish every word, with cruel jibes dished out by everyone from Tim Key and Stephen Campbell Moore to Pilou Asbaek and Reece Shearsmith.
Available until: 27th March
Photo: BBC/Des Willie/Hal Shinnie/Matt Burlem
The Prosecutors: Real Crime and Punishment
A documentary about the Crown Prosecution Service may not be the top of your to-watch list, but that’s precisely why BBC Four’s new series is one to check out: it provides a rare insight into an element of UK society that is rarely considered and often overlooked. Episode 1 sees the prosecutors deciding how to charge a driver after a child is killed in a collision – a case that demonstrates both the importance of their work, the difficulty in determining justice and the human cost that accidents such as this can have.
Available until: 24th March
Photo: BBC / Gold Star Productions / Sara Hardy
BBC Three’s first online drama follows Ivy Moxam, a young girl who escapes from the cellar where she has been held captive for the last 13 years. Marnie Dickens’ gripping script expertly weaves together the police hunt for the kidnapper with the family fallout following Ivy’s unexpected return home, while star Jodie Comer is captivating to watch, full of wide-eyed terror one minute and calculating silence the next.
Available until: July 2016
Photo: BBC / Todd Anthony
Photo: BBC/Red Productions/Ben Blackall
The People vs OJ Simpson
It’s all too easy to dub something as the next Making a Murderer, but this classy US drama retelling the story of OJ Simpson’s trial might genuinely be it. What possible new angle could this programme have on one of the most high-profile murder cases in history? Firstly, Cuba Gooding Jr., who acts the heck out his lead role, erupting with panic and shock as the charges are brought again him. Is it guilt? Is it sadness? Is it anger? He’s fascinatingly hard to read, but also genuinely emotional – and it’s that ability to make you engage with such a familiar historical case that marks out The People vs OJ Simpson as a success. Cuba’s joined by an equally fantastic cast, from an unrecognisable John Travolta as defence attorney Robert Shapiro, an understated David Schwimmer as defence attorney Robert Kardashian and Sarah Paulson as determined prosecutor Marcia Clark. Shot with style and paced with flair, this is trashy, yet, but all the more gripping because of it.
Available until: 23rd March (Episode 2)
Photo: BBC / Fox
If you’re already looking forward to the return of Robot Wars, CBBC’s Airmageddon – which sees kids battle drones against each other – is something to investigate. The tasks themselves are laughably bad, even when they finally introduce lasers at the climax, but there’s a trashy fun to the whole affair, not least because the presenters seem barely able to keep a straight face while hosting. As a commentator desperately tries to be Jonathan Pearce – and inevitably fails – the result isn’t exactly good (you could find more thrills bashing two toasters together in your back garden), but it certainly makes you appreciate Robot Wars even more.
Photo: BBC / DHX Media
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
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
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: July 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
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
Steve Coogan and Judi Dench make a charming odd couple in Stephen Frears’ drama about an old lady teaming up with a jaded journalist to find out what happened to her son, after being separated from him when younger by a Catholic home.
Available until: 26th March
Who ever thought the 90s would be something to be nostalgic about? If you’re not looking wistfully back at the decade, though, Matt Whitecross’ film will soon have you gazing at the past. Following the Stone Roses, a band once tipped for insanely great things after their first album (before diving off a cliff with their second), Spike Island – a film about their legendary show of the same name – fell under the radar upon its UK cinema release, but deserves to have its moment in the spotlight.
Available until: 27th March
Leave to Remain
Anything with Toby Jones in is always worth watching – something that this 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.
Bolshoi Babylon (Storyville)
BBC Four’s Storyville strand delivers yet another quality documentary with this abridged version of Nick Read and Mark Franchetti’s exploration of Russia’s Bolshoi ballet, which captures the aftermath of a severe attack on its Creative Director, Sergei Filin, who had acid thrown in his face. Who carried out the attack? Why? And how will the company recover from the incident and continue its internationally revered art?
What’s impressive is that the directors have such wide-ranging access to everyone involved, despite the tumultuous times surrounding them. The result isn’t just an honest take on what it’s like to run a ballet company, but a candid glimpse of a nation during a time of unrest.
Himmler: The Decent One
How does a boy grow up to become the architect of “The Final Solution”? Vanessa Lapa’s documentary follows the rise of Heinrich Himmler in the early 1900s all the way up to his powerful post.
“Horrible night. Cramps. Stomach pain. I was moody and depressed,” the young Heinrich writes in his diary. The extracts are read aloud by actors with a suitably solemn tone, revealing how resentment towards the Jews seems to bubble up naturally. It’s unsettling to hear his anti-semitic comments, which apply to everything from plumbing to prisoners, in letters to his wife, Margarete, not to mention his insistence that their children be told exactly what is going on in the war. Even worse, though, is the way he signs off with the pet name “Heini”. Flashes of humour and everyday human concerns all add up to a chilling examination of the banality of evil.
Before Welcome to the Punch’s barnstorming action made low-budget London look like a Hollywood blockbuster, British director Eran Creevy marked himself out as one to watch with this tiny gem. The equally brilliant Riz Ahmed and Daniel Mays play two old friends who reunite one day. As grown-up Chris follows his former mate on his drug-dealing rounds, things take a turn for the worse – and prove that action veteran Creevy can deliver even bigger blows through character alone.
This animated adaptation of Roald Dahl’s book, about a young orphan girl who meets a giant who creates dreams, is simply charming.
In the House
Germain (Fabrice Luchini), a failed writer turned high school Literature teacher, is depressed at the complete lack of talent in his new class. But when shy student Claude (Ernst Umhauer) hands in a riveting story about his attempts to spy on the so-called perfect family of one of his classmates, Germain becomes intrigued – and what starts as an attempt to nurture Claude’s talent takes on a much more sinister turn, as the line between fact and fiction becomes increasingly blurred. Brilliantly acted and skilfully shot, this story about storytelling is witty and creepy in equal measure.
The Red Shoes
Powell and Pressburger’s classic 1948 film follows a young ballerina who finds herself torn between two men – a struggling composer and an autocratic impresario. From Black Swan to Martin Scorsese, its influence can be seen dancing throughout cinema history.
Aidan Gillen and Eva Birthistle are excellent in this Hammer horror about a grieving couple who take part in a ritual to bring their dead nine-year-old daughter back to life.
Baz Luhrmann’s satire about a young ballroom sensation in Australia’s dance scene is charming enough to sweep anyone off their feet.