The best TV shows on BBC iPlayer (8th December 2019)
Ivan Radford | On 08, Dec 2019Reading time: 40 mins
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, click here.
Pick of the Week: Elizabeth Is Missing
Glenda Jackson is heartbreakingly brilliant as Maud, an 80-year-old who is living with dementia. When her best friend Elizabeth fails to turn up for a shopping trip, she’s convinced something terrible has happened. And so she turns detective to try and solve the mystery. It’s a quest that brings out her loyal and stubborn streak, qualities that Jackson balances with a growing sense of doubt and a constant fear of forgetting something important. As well as adding an urgency to her hunt, as she tries to hold on to each sticky-note clue, it drives an underlying poignant melancholy that erupts in bursts of terror and shock – a scene where she’s locked into her own home is terrifyingly tragic, and that heart-wrenching impact stays with you long after the end credits roll and the solution to Elizabeth’s disappearance emerges.
Available from 10.30pm on Sunday 8th December
Pick of the Week: The Baby Has Landed
From One Born Every Minute to Motherland, the perils and challenges of parenthood have increasingly been laid bare by modern TV, and The Baby Has Landed is a movingly honest addition to that frank canon. The four-part series jumps between multiple couples preparing for new babies, and the extraordinary access the show has provides an intimate insight into the impact the arrivals have upon their lives. From Mo, who didn’t expect to be present when he and Syler had their first child, to Nigel, who wasn’t prepared to have five kids with Helen, the focus is very much on the surprise and the shock of it all – balanced out by the frustration of Hermisha and Shabazz waiting for their third child, while looking after their exciteable first two. Throughout, there’s an unflinching, unhindered approach to the portrait of couples trying to navigate the nervous, scary early days of parenthood, which may not go into full-on graphic detail, but doesn’t shy away from the tensions and disagreements that naturally erupt in even the most stable relationship.
Pick of the Week: His Dark Materials
This impressively faithful adaptation of Philip Pullman’s books is a grand but grounded epic. Read our review
Vic & Bob’s Big Night Out
Vic Reeves and Bob Mortimer are back and they’re as wonderfully, ridiculously silly as ever, as Big Night Out continues its unlikely renaissance in 2019. One joke treating Steve Avery as a pop culture reference feels misjudged, but that misstep is more than made up for by the plethora of amusement on offer elsewhere, from bell ringing and a song about Plymouth to a hysterical Most Haunted spoof involving a spooky hotel and a potato. More please.
Family recommendation: Seven Worlds, One Planet
Millions of years ago incredible forces ripped apart the Earth’s crust creating seven continents. BBC One’s latest nature series profiles them in jaw-dropping detail, as Sir David Attenborough explores how each distinct environment has shaped the animal life there – from he baking plains of Africa to life at the extremes in Asia. Nowhere is more extreme, though, than the Antarctica, which is where Episode 1 begins, as we witness Weddell seals keeping their breathing holes open by using their teeth to grind away the ice. That universal drive to survive ties together each chapter, but particularly moving is the drive to keep one’s loved ones alive too, particularly when we watch an initially ambivalent albatross eventually recognise its offspring – a sequence that’s guaranteed to tug at your heart strings.
Elton John Uncensored
If you enjoyed Rocketman, you may be torn between whether to watch this interview with Reginald Dwight. After all, it’ll surely cover all the ground you now know. But Elton is a wonderfully frank interviewee, gamely talking about anything that comes up. Graham Norton is asking the questions and while he’s far from Michael Parkinson, he gives Elton enough space to keep talking at his own pace, covering everything from his appearance and ageing to his childhood and a farewell letter he wrote to cocaine. Most moving of all, though, is how he admits that the thing he’s most excited about at the tail-end of his career isn’t a new musical or the idea of a residency in London or Paris, but simply spending time with husband David Furnish and their kids.
Seamus Heaney and the Music of What Happens
Seamus Heaney is one of the greats, so what a pleasure it is to get a documentary that acknowledges just that – and not just in an hour but in a feature-length film that covers everything you could think of. So gorgeously detailed is its chronicle of the man’s youth and life that it also works as a historical document in its own right, with what is essentially an in-depth guide to the Troubles.
Reggie in China
Reggie Yates is one of the best rising stars of the modern TV world, having carved out a real niche for his earnest, engaging documentaries on BBC Three. It’s a pleasure, then, to see him on BBC Two presenting a three-part documentary on China – a topic that many presenters might well baulk at. He takes the history and culture of the country in his stride, and, while exploring Shenzhen, visibly enjoys the latest technological developments in the city, from translating earpieces to advanced headphones. So relaxed and accessibly informative is he that you’d gladly go on holiday with him to anywhere.
Recommended Box Set: The War of the Worlds
BBC One’s lavish new adaptation of HG Wells’ novel returns us to the Edwardian England of the original story, and that decision brings with it all the pathos and hubris of the British Empire – a force that had spent years colonising other countries in a manner not dissimilar to the Martians that form the major threat in this seminal sci-fi. George (Rafe Spall), a journalist and the brother of proud government official Frederick (Rupert Graves), acknowledges the uncomfortable parallels briefly during the extra-terrestrial siege, to the bewilderment of his sibling. That’s the most explicit nod to Wells’ initial text, but what’s striking about the Beeb’s new take on the tale is how unfamiliar much of it feels: the series pushes its dramatic licence as far as it can. That becomes clear from the off, as Wells’ iconic opening narration is voiced not by George or an unnamed male narrator, but by Amy (Eleanor Tomlinson). George’s partner, an outcast for reasons that gradually become clear (and are drawn from Wells’ own life), effectively becomes the main hero of the piece. The result is a thrilling, unsettling ride, which finds a fresh new fear in the familiar – the odds on managing that? Well, they could have been a million to one. Read our full review
Available on BBC iPlayer from 9pm
Literary corners have long been full of people debating who counts as the first proper fictional detective. In Vienna Blood, BBC Two’s plush new Austrian drama, there’s a claim for possibly the world’s first forensic psychologist. That would be Max Liebermann (Matthew Beard), young detective, fan of Freud and the son of someone important, who is assigned to shadow Inspector Oskar Rheinhardt (Juergen Maurer), gruff veteran, old-school cynic and reluctant teacher. To say that the resulting odd couple dynamic more than resembles Sherlock doesn’t take much elementary deduction, and the initial feel is very much a Holmes wannabe – it doesn’t help that its writer Steve Thompson, has worked on the Beeb’s recent take on Conan Doyle’s crime-solver. The plot, which revolves around a murdered woman (that frustrating tradition again), is hardly the stuff of classic literature, but there’s some panache to the thriller once it hits its stride, not least in a rooftop chase and a confrontation aboard the iconic Vienna ferris wheel. And Beard and Juergen Maurer are a pleasure to watch together, not least because of Beard’s earnest push to move on treatment of mental health from the days of electroshock therapy.
Your latest enjoyably trashy box set has arrived. For those counting down the days until You Season 2, BBC One’s new romantic thriller will fill the gap nicely. The series follows 60-year old Julia, who crossed paths with Benjamin, a man more than 20 years her junior. But Benjamin, as suspected by her family, might be attracted more to her money than Julia herself – is he a gold digger or not? The setup is familiar, but there’s a crucial difference that gives Gold Digger a refreshing edge: Julia’s the older one in this relationship, reversing the kind of age gap that too often plagues our screen. With that switch in focus comes a welcome exploration not only of second chances and family tensions but the romantic lives of and drives of older women, who are so often shut out of intimate topics and bedroom dramas. Julia Ormond is reliably brilliant as the swooning sexagenarian, while Ben Barnes is well cast as her entertainingly enigmatic suitor – a man who slickly avoids answering questions and remains clinically ambiguous at all times. Watching the duo interact is worth watching for alone, although with Marnie “Thirteen” Dickens penning the series, there’s more than a chance of some compelling twists yet to come – the series certainly passes the end-credits-cliffhanger test.
Arena: A British Guide to the End of the World
It says a lot that even in these times of global uncertainty, the words “nuclear bomb” are tossed around with a casual, lightweight tone. This excellent documentary should put pay to that, taking us through the history of Britain and nuclear warfare, from the very first bomb tests to preparations ahead of a possible Cold War attack. There’s an eerie, dated quality to so much of the footage that could almost make it seem like a spoof or satire – think Look Around You – but this is an utterly chilling watch, with one description of a nuclear explosion and its effect on the human body hauntingly detailed.
Prince Andrew & the Epstein Scandal
In a Newsnight special, Emily Maitlis interviews the Duke of York as he speaks for the first time about his relationship with convicted paedophile Jeffrey Epstein. The result is a huge gamble from Prince Andrew as he tries to address the scandal, and it would be hard to say that it paid off. Instead, the hour-long conversation raises more questions than it answers, from his defence of staying at Epstein’s home because he was “too honourable” to his alibi for where he was on certain dates including the fact that he was at a Pizza Express in Woking. And that’s before you get to the mention of his condition that meant until recently he was unable to sweat. Professing no memory of events, and even laughing uncomfortably at times, it’s a car crash interview that’s painfully riveting to witness, as the prince tries to remain polite – he calls Epstein’s conduct as “unbecoming” – and justify his behaviour. The plan was presumably to end discussion of the matter, but you suspect that it will only fan the flames further.
Recommended Box Set: The Young Offenders: Season 2
This sublime second season is expertly performed, smartly written and very, very funny. Read our full review
Pick of the Week: RuPaul’s Drag Race UK
RuPaul’s veritable phenomenon gets its first UK incarnation with BBC Three’s delightful, uplifting contest, which sees the best of Britain’s drag scene competing to impress judges that include Andrew Garfield, Alan Carr and Graham Norton. Witty, fabulous, and very, very British. Read our full review
The Fear of God: 25 Years of The Exorcist
Mark Kermode’s engaging, insightful documentary about The Exorcist manages to be more than just a making-of.
Recommended Box Set: Giri/Haji
In a London apartment, a man lies dead with a sword in his back. In Tokyo, a man sits at a table in a diner, looking at a photo of the crime scene. The two seem like their worlds couldn’t be farther apart. The fact that Giri/Haji, BBC Two’s jaw-dropping thriller, manages to connect the two at all is impressive. The way it does it, though, elevates it from a gripping drama to a truly remarkable piece of television. Tokyo detective Kenzo Mori is sent to London to find the brother he thought was dead, now reappeared and wanted for a vicious killing that threatens to tear both cities apart. One of the year’s most original and unique series, blending animation, cinematic flashbacks and neon visuals, this globe-trotting thriller is a remarkable piece of TV. Read our full review
Who Are You Calling Fat?
“Nine people who live with obesity, or who choose to call themselves fat” move in together to explore what it means to be larger bodied in Britain today. The result is a compelling, uplifting watch, as the documentary delves into the nuances of language, questions of projection, prejudice and media representation – “Health is a social construct,” says one – and ultimately brings together each person for a thoughtful debate without exploitation. There’s no prescriptive view on what’s right or wrong here, no judgement on dieting or eating what you want, just a reminder that genetic predisposition is a factor in body size and, most of all, that respectful conversation is always a healthy thing.
You’ve got to hand it to Sarah Phelps. The BBC’s chief adaptor of Agatha Christie, she’s one of the best TV writers around today, able to weave social tensions and character introspection with moody storytelling, compelling pacing and, of course, intriguing plots. Her adaptation of Tana French’s bestselling novels is as dark and absorbing as you’d expect, as she drops us into the aftermath of a young girl’s murder, involving a strange stone altar, and another body that inevitably appears. The family screaming as they learn of their loss is an unsettling and affecting portrait of raw grief, but there’s also time to really fall in with our lead duo: Cassie (Sarah Greene) and Rob (Killian Scott), two police detectives who are not only good at their jobs, but also get on very well. That kind of supportive, genuine bond, which made ITV’s Unforgotten and BBC One’s Strike adaptations so entertaining, holds this stylish, gloomy, gripping and gruesome crime drama in very good stead.
Motherland: Season 2
This frank, funny sitcom about parenting is flawlessly written and performed, with Anna Maxwell Martin and Diane Morgan on hilarious form, and the whole box set thankfully available all at once yet again. Read our full review
World on Fire
Peter Bowker pens this epic new BBC drama, which retells the war through an everyday lens. The focus here is on the ordinary people left behind by the troops and the consequences the international conflict has for them – it’s a tableau of human drama, punctuated by cinematic action, and the effect feels more immediate and moving than any school history lesson.
The Name of the Rose
John Turturro is on charismatic form in this glossy remake of the 1986 film. It follows a Franciscan friar, William, who, in the early 1300s, is tasked with investigating the unfortunate death of a monk who has fallen or been pushed from the Abbey’s parapet. The opening episode is impressive enough, with a convincing cast, compelling pace and atmospheric visuals featuring wonderful landscapes.
The Cameron Years
If the idea of reading David Cameron’s memoirs fills you with nausea, this documentary is an excellent condensing of the main highlights into a couple of hours. Over the two episodes, it breaks down comprehensively how the Conservative broke down comprehensively, as a result of the pro and anti-Europe tensions that were given oxygen by Cameron’s decision to hold a referendum. The former PM justifying himself and asking for sympathy may not carry much weight with viewers, but watch out for former Lib Dem leader and Deputy PM Nick Clegg spelling out how their brief coalition worked – and how he, like George Osborne, advised Cameron not to go down the referendum route. And, for good measure, there’s the irony of remembering the Tory’s 2015 election campaign threatening “chaos with Ed Miliband”. Who knew it was possible to feel nostalgic for such heady days?
Recommended Box Set: State of the Union
“It sounds like you’re trying. I am. Well, don’t.” Brexit gets a brief mention but it’s another union breaking apart in this delightfully funny, wonderfully heartfelt comedy, which sees one couple’s marriage crumbling – while they attempt to rebuild it at the same time. The premise is inspired, as we drop in on them every week for 10 minutes before their go their marital therapist – a brief chat in the pub that, it soon becomes obvious, covers far more ground than they do in their actual session. Nick Hornby pens the 10-minute bursts with the kind of honesty and wit you’d expect, with each episode delivering a revelation or step forward in their relationship – while also pushing them several feet back. Stephen Frears, meanwhile, brings an agility and brevity to the helm that captures endless telling details in the shortest of time-frames. Chris O’Dowd and Rosamund Pike sink their teeth into the bite-sized morsels with relish, O’Dowd full of immaturity and tragedy, Pike conveying unhappiness and frustration, both of them balancing their regrets, secrets, resentments and fears with a razor-sharp comic timing and – this is the kicker – a huge dose of feeling that ensures we’re always rooting for the happiest outcome, whatever that may be.
BBC One’s new surveillance thriller will be compared by many to Bodyguard, but the drama is closer to a companion piece to Channel 4’s equally gripping Chimerica. Where that drama delved into questions of photos, image editing and what can be trusted in this world of modern technology, The Capture raises equally troubling issues around deep fake – the manipulation of videos to make it appear as if someone said or did something they didn’t. Strike’s always charismatic Holliday Grainger is excellent as the person trying to tease apart the gap between real and not, and Callum Turner brings just right level of ambiguity to Shaun, a soldier who claims CCTV footage of him abducting a woman isn’t true. If the pacing stays as sharp as the first episode, you can expect a six-episode ride that’s as unsettling as it is compelling.
BBC One goes all Phoenix Nights – or Car Share – with this new coastal comedy, which drops us beside the seaside for some mild giggles. The laughs aren’t uproarious, but the charm of this unassuming offering from Benidorm’s Derren Litten is that it’s more serial drama than sitcom, and the characters are drawn with a suitable realism. Jason Manford is the closest to broad comedy as arcade manager Mike, who has been caught in an embrace with the local man-eater (Claire Sweeney), but he gets chance to play low-key drama (as well as some surprisingly pleasant karaoke) as we see him attempt to patch things up with hairdresser Karen (Catherine Tyldesley). These decidedly messy, frayed thirtysomethings all descend upon the stereotypical local pub, but there are little gems of observations and laughs buried under the familiar surface, not least in the form of Stephanie Cole’s amusingly sharp-tongued Marion, Catherine’s blunt mother.
Peaky Blinders: Season 5
Cillian Murphy is impeccable as he once again reprises his role as Tommy Shelby, self-made Birmingham gangster and head of the Shelby clan. Now thrust into a new, legitimate light, Season 5 promises fresh threats galore, as the world of politics turns out to be as cutthroat as the criminal world he’s supposedly left behind. All four previous seasons are available as a box set on BBC iPlayer.
How to Break Into the Elite
This extremely timely and worthwhile documentary makes it clear that the maxim of it’s who you know that matters, as Amol Rajan, who became the youngest editor of a UK broadsheet at age 29, investigates the level of privilege required to make it in the UK’s elite professions. Can bright working-class youngsters make it? The answer is yes, but far from the extent it should be, with university degrees not guaranteeing anyone an easy way up a ladder that’s more competitive than ever.
This gorgeously shot and earnestly presented documentary series taps into the profound truth that all around the world, great work and effort has been made by distinctly different people to create buildings to bring people closer to God. From Djenne’s Great Mosque to Japan’s Nachi waterfalls in Japan, not to mention the Cathedral of St John the Divine in New York, the result is a portrait not only of edifices but of humans engaging in sacred rituals and practices. Inspiring viewing for those who are so inclined.
The Misadventures of Romesh Ranganathan: Season 2
Romesh Ranganathan continues his quest to take over every programme on the BBC with the return of his unlikely travel series. Season 2 kicks off in typically unexpected style with a journey to Zimbabwe, where he gets caught in biblical lightning storms, re-enacts the film Titanic on a Lake Kariba houseboat and tries the home-brewed beer he made in a bathtub in Bulawayo. Along the way, he comes face to face with a cheetah, but also finds time to learn about the impact Mugabe had upon the country and its perception in the eyes of other countries. The result is a deceptively insightful snapshot of a population struggling through turmoil and economic crisis, woven in between stunning waterfalls and gorgeous landscapes, not to mention his signature frank brand of sarcasm. One season down and this remains a likeable showcase for a naturally charming TV presenter, but grows better with every episode as factual filmmaking increasingly equals the travel diary entries.
The Mind of Herbert Clunkerdunk
Returning after its short pilot for four brief episodes of 11 minutes each, Spencer Jones is on dazzlingly silly form in this madcap comedy about Herbert Clunkerdunk, a man who struggles to get through day to day life – not least because of the interruptions of his overactive imagination. Everything from impromptu music videos and talking household objects interfere with his daily routine, not to mention Dom Coleman (Upstart Crow), as his irrepressible, unpredictable neighbour, Jonny Wallop – and all the while, Lucy Pearman (Mister Winner) keeps things grounded and sane as Bobby Kindle, Herbert’s wife, who supports him with patience and tolerance.
Keeping Faith: Season 2
“Just keep going.” Those are the words of Faith Howells (Eve Myles) to herself as she returns for a second round of Keeping Faith. Myles is as brilliant as ever the grippingly complex second season, which picks up the pieces from Season 1 and tries to put them back together, finding more time for every character along the way.
Louis Theroux: Surviving America’s Most Hated Family
Louis Theroux once again ventures into the breach with another visit to America’s Westboro Baptist Church, where the Kansas Christian group have made a name for their picketing of funerals and protests with homophobic, unpleasant placards. In 2014, founder Fred Phelps passed away, and Theroux returns to see if that has changed the group, especially with the winds of Trump’s America blowing in similarly outrageous directions. While it’s hard to decide whether there has been a softening of their stance, or whether that’s Theroux reaching to prove his own theory, the documentary is worth watching just for the chance to listen to Phelps’ granddaughter, Megan, who has defected to become Westboro’s most prominent critic – a reminder that there is still hope even among divisions of hate.
Chasing the Moon
This ambitious Apollo 11 documentary by PBS puts humankind’s epic achievement into breathtaking context, from the social dynamics of the USA in the 1960s to the global political conflict playing out in the background, as well as the scientific breakthroughs and losses that paved the way for Neil Armstrong’s iconic steps on the moon. The result is a multi-episode history lesson that starts long before the moon landing and continues to look past it to how it has inspired generations since – if you’re going to watch one six-hour documentary about Apollo 11, make it this one.
8 Days: To the Moon and Back
TV has gone moon landing crazy in the last week, and with good reason, but one of the gems of the small-screen anniversary celebration is undoubtedly this BBC Two documentary. The feature-length film is built on newly declassified cockpit audio recorded by the astronauts themselves. That’s enough to give us a fresh, immediate perspective on Apollo 11’s astonishing voyage, but director Anthony Philipson goes one step further by seamlessly stitching together archive footage and reconstructions with CG effects to build not just a feast for the ears but an immersive, full-sensory experience that’s as breathtaking as it is gripping.
TV loves a drama about a timely subject, so it was only a matter of time until someone wrote something about abuse within the entertainment industry. That someone has turned out to be Levi David Addai, who penned BBC One’s excellent Damilola, Our Loved Boy. If you’re going to pick someone to pick apart a difficult topic with nuance and human heart, it’s hard to think of someone better. Dark Money tells the fictional story of The Mensahs, an ordinary working-class family from North London. Their youngest son, Isaac (Max Fincham), is a fledgling Hollywood star who’s just landed a major blockbuster role. But when he returns home after filming, he’s quiet, reserved and eventually reveals that he’s been abused by the movie’s producer. What follows is a heart-breaking look at how families can pull together – and fracture apart – under immense trauma and pressure, as well as a thoughtful consideration of how the media industry works and enables such horrible behaviour. Max Fincham is superb as Isaac, supported by the brilliant Babou Ceesay as his tormented father.
Recommended Box Set: Killing Eve: Season 2
Professor Brian Cox has a mellifluous voice that prompts a Pavlovian response in any listener that hears it: to open their ears and turn on their brain, even as they slip into a warm, relaxed state. It’s only fitting, then, that his physics-defying larynx should be put to use by the BBC in picking up the very fabric and history of our universe. After exploring those wonders in gorgeous detail, The Planets sees him take on the rocky orbs that float through out solar system, each born at the same time but radically different, as they shifted from Earth-like conditions to become scorched by the son or drift out into the cold. Breathtaking CGI illustrates the journey of each mass, with real grandeur and spectacle, while Cox muses on the way Mars had its precious water taken from it, and how Saturn’s moon, Titan, may one day get its own moment in the Sun. It’s enough to make you appreciate the miraculous odds of life on Earth actually being possible. Dazzling, essential viewing.
Ambulance: Season 5
Hot on the heels of Season 4 comes another bout of the BBC’s heart-stopping, hugely compelling documentary, putting us on the ground with the staff of the North West Ambulance Service in Greater Manchester. From 999 phone calls that may already be too late to rescuing someone from underneath a tram, the non-stop array of accidents and incidents is overwhelming – and not just for us, as the paramedics find themselves only able to get to some people hours after their call, due to a lack of resources. You wouldn’t know it from seeing the staff in action, though, as they comfort and calm, diagnose and treat, and – most important of all – listen and understand to everyone from a collapsing male to a drunken dancer with a warmth and, where appropriate, humour. Christopher Eccleston, as ever, is on hand to narrate events with a frank, heartfelt gravity.
Recommended Box Set: What We Do in the Shadows
This wonderfully silly, superbly written comedy transforms vampire horror into flatshare sitcom. (Read our full review)
Recommend Box Set: Summer of Rockets
Toby Stephens is one of the UK’s most underrated actors, something that Summer of Rockets seems almost tailor-made to correct. Written and directed by Stephen Poliakoff, the period drama introduces us to Britain in 1958, a year when the hydrogen bomb tests were in the air and the Cold War loomed over the nation. The political tensions are balanced with wonderfully personal details, as we follow Samuel Petrukhin (Stephens), a Jewish inventor born in Russia who has migrated to the UK and found success in manufacturing hearing aids. Going on to effectively invent the pager, his technological wizardry attracts interest from darker forces than the wealthy clients he typically caters for, and the drama deftly finds its way through a maze of social, national and familial concerns. There’s as much suspense in seeing his daughter, Hannah (Lily Sacofsky), deal with a broken show on the way to Buckingham Palace, as there is in waiting for his beeping invention to prove itself during a hospital demonstration. Woven into it all is the growing attraction between Samuel and one Kathleen Shaw (the always excellent Keeley Hawes), wife to an important Tory MP, and the couple play the layers of class conflict with carefully observed nuance. All of it is held together by Stephens’ superbly subtle performance, which blends accents together in an attempt to integrate himself with a country that, deep down, doesn’t trust him. The result is brimming with intrigue and filmed with period panache. With the whole box set released on BBC iPlayer, you’ll be hard pressed not to dive into it immediately.
Thatcher: A Very British Revolution
As the UK’s second female Prime Minister prepares to move out of 10 Downing Street, there’s never been a better time for a look back at the first. This BBC documentary doesn’t miss a beat, taking us all the way through Margaret Thatcher’s career in impressive detail, from her choice of clothes and coaching to change her vocal cadences to even the surprise of Ken Clarke at the notion of a woman being elected leader of the party before it happened. There’s real insight here, both into the way the Conservative Party works and the way that Thatcher navigated her path through the least progressive of the UK’s political groups. There are no cries here to identify with her on a human level, or sympathise with how tough her work was, just lots and lots of facts stuffed into a compelling told hour.
“We could always try… haunting?” That’s the sound of BBC One’s comedy, Ghosts, bringing a new perspective to, well, ghosts. Pitched somewhere between The Others and What We Do in the Shadows, it’s a hysterical, witty, irresistibly silly piece of television that gets a laugh out of the darkest of material. (Read our full review
Recommended Box Set: Bodies
Not for the faint-hearted, Jed Mercurio’s medical drama is a gripping now as it was when it first aired. (Read our full review)
Earth from Space
The dulcet tones of Chiwetel Ejiofor are enough to make for relaxing TV viewing on their own, but here, they’re accompanied by equally daydreamy images of our planet from above, from elephants in Kenya to kung fu students in China. Humanity may be contributing to the damage done to our planet, but there’s beauty even in our ever-increasing sprawl across its surface. Watch this as a calming chaser to Climate Change: The Facts, or as a prelude to the more zoomed-in statistics.
Recommended Box Set: Pose
Ryan Murphy is one of the best things about modern TV. If you’ve ever doubted that, just look at his latest creation, which is vibrant, gripping, emotional and sassy all at the same time. What makes Murphy’s work often so compelling is the way he so deliberately shines his spotlight not on himself but on other people, from Feud’s plumbing of the depths of the sexist engine powering Hollywood to America Crime Story’s hugely detailed character-driven portraits of real life. Groundbreaking in its largely transgender cast, Pose is bursting at the seams with lives and stories just waiting to be told, diving into the underground world of 1980s ball culture, where all those unwelcome in mainstream society, all those who can’t convert the American Dream into an American Reality, find acceptance, respect, support and one heck of a good night, as they strut their fashion sense and realness for everyone else to appreciate. Black transgender woman Blanca Rodriguez (Mj Rodriguez) works at a nail salon by day and serves as a member of the House of Abundance by night, and she’s our window into this world, as she takes in Damon (Ryan Jamaal Swain), a young dancer, and pushes him to audition for the local school. The resulting scene is just one in an endless pile of standout moments, as Swain veritably explodes off the screen with passion, conviction and physical agility. Its a breathtaking climax to a dizzying first episode – and sends you pirouetting into the box set released all-at-once on BBC iPlayer. Strike a pose, then get ready to hold it for eight hours.
The Yorkshire Ripper Files: A Very British Crime Story
This impeccably put together documentary series is a remarkably detailed retread of one of Britain’s longest ever manhunts, for the serial killer Peter Sutfcliffe, who murderer 13 women brutally and horrifically. A Very British Crime Story takes us back to the 1970s, embedding us in the investigation, but, crucially, doing so with hindsight: this becomes a look not of how Sutcliffe was caught, but how he wasn’t caught for years, because a misogynistic attitude pervasive in the police at the time meant that the questions, answers and conclusions being reached repeatedly looked in the wrong direction. Eyewitnesses were ignored, because they didn’t fit the profile of being a sex worker, while a hoax tape that matched all those presumptions distracted detectives for far too long. An eye-opening and disturbing expose of how justice can be undermined by social bias and attitudes, this is important, chilling viewing, grippingly told.
Last year, Britain’s own Jesse Armstrong headed to America to craft HBO’s Succession, a blistering, funny dissection of a dysfunctional family in charge of a media empire. Now, Hollywood’s own Richard Gere has arrived on the BBC to explore similar territory in MotherFatherSon, a drama about a newspaper tycoon and an heir that makes Succession’s clan look positively healthy. Gere shines as media tycoon Max, outdone only by Helen McCrory as his ex-wife, Kathryn, who between them navigate politics, power and corruption – and their poisonous, toxic son, played by Billy Howle with a seething cruelty.
Fleabag: Season 2
The return of Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s comedy is as brilliant, candid, rude and funny as you’d expect. Read our review here.
Africa with Ade Adepitan
Not another TV travel show, you might think, as Africa with Ade Adepitan arrives on BBC Two. But, while Michael Palin is genial enough to remain a trusted guide through overseas lands, Ade Adepitan marks a blast of fresh air in a genre that has become swamped by British comedians playing the fish-out-of-water role. Like Romesh Ranganathan and Nadiya Hussain, Adepitan brings a needed, important dose of diversity to the lens through which British TV views other cultures – and, crucially, a highly entertaining one to boot. Heading from Cape Verde to Senegal and the Ivory Coast, we see solar power taking one small community far ahead of the Western world, a fishing village where all the fish are being taken by companies far off-shore, some astonishing footballers being taken advantage of by agents, and Nigeria’s answer to Silicon Valley. It’s a wide-reaching journey, and one that marks a homecoming for Ade, as he heads to Nigeria, the country of his birth, and his passion, knowledge, and understanding, of the lives he encounters – plus his ability to charm seemingly any person he crosses paths with – makes for a hugely winning piece of TV that’s by turns eye-opening, informative and funny. There’s serious food for thought in there, too, as we visit a former staging post in the transatlantic slave trade. The result is a travel show that’s
a delight to watch. Our presenter tells us that Africa is the most exciting continent on the planet. After only one episode, you’re inclined to believe him.
Testosterone and gasoline fuel this biker drama, spun off from Sons of Anarchy. And, once again, we’re immersed in the group politics, personal conflicts and violent retributions that bubble under the surface of a petrolhead gang – this time, a Latino gang in Santo Padre, on the US/Mexico border. Created by Kurt Sutter and Elgin James, the series picks up four years after Sons, as young Ezekiel (J.D. Pardo) finds himself drawn into the world of the Mayans Motorcyle Club, driven by the need for revenge against the Galindo cartel. Flashbacks introduce us to his childhood sweetheart, Emily (Sarah Bolger), who is now married to the son of the cartel’s boss. That’s more than enough to hook in fans, even without the presence of Ron Perlman and other stalwarts from the original show – although there are some crossover cameos to watch out for. Throw in a compelling veteran turn from Edward James Olmos as Ezekiel’s father, Felipe, and you’ve got all the promising mechanical components for another muscular drama waiting to be revved up.
Recommended Box Set: Les Miserables
BBC One’s handsome adaptation of Victor Hugo’s novel finds fresh details and renewed grit in its moving depiction of inequality and unrest. Read our full review
Pamela Adlon’s comedy about a single mother has taken its time to arrive on our screens, and has had a tumultuous time of it even before then – it was initially co-written by Louis C.K., who was rightly and promptly booted from the series (along with his production company) when accusations of sexual misconduct surfaced against him. Its belated premiere on UK TV, courtesy of the Beeb’s deal with FX, nonetheless deserves praise for Adlon’s central performance as Sam, a mother of three who is trying to balance her flailing acting career with raising three daughters. Adlon co-created the programme and sets the tone from the off, with a performance that’s honest in its semi-autobiographical approach and unapologetically prickly – we first meet her in a shop, where she’s ignoring her crying child, who’s in tears because she wants to buy some earrings she doesn’t need. Later, she argues with her eldest in a car. “Hide things from me please!” she cries, as her child tries to solicit her to buy weed. With Adlon working on a third season, both directing and reprising her lead role (and with four new writers on board), this opening run (available as a box set on BBC iPlayer) promises a candid, fresh take on motherhood that’s worth checking out.
Billy Connolly: Made in Scotland
Comedians going back to their home towns for a TV documentary are the familiar younger cousin to that stalwart genre of the comedian travelogue. But Billy Connolly is no ordinary comedian, and the Big Yin’s biography makes that clear from the off. Despite his louder-than-life persona, there’s no trumpeting self-celebration here, just a grounded shaggy dog tale of his childhood stomping ground, as he fondly recalls the down-to-earth, inherently funny nature of Glasgow. The chance to relive clips and see other comics explain just how significant Connolly’s career was in the wider industry is a treat, but it’s the charming sight of seeing the locals react to bumping into Billy in the Glaswegian streets that make this such an endearing watch.
Recommended Box Set: Doctor Who: Season 11
As grounded as its opening episode’s title (The Woman Who Fell to Earth) suggests, Chris Chibnall and Jodie Whittaker arrive in the TARDIS with a winning departure from formula. Read our full reviews of each episode here.
Recommended Box Set: Inside No. 9 (Incl. Live: Dead Line)
“Are me and Steve Pemberton on BBC two now?” Inside No. 9 serves up its most post-modern, formally audacious episode yet with this special Halloween event. Reece and Steve appear as themselves at one point during the 30 minutes as part of some pre-recorded footage, in which they admit on The One Show they don’t believe in ghosts. This episode’s risky, bold and surprising gambit, rather, is to play on the biggest fear all performers have: a live broadcast going wrong. And so we’re put immediately on edge, dreading the worst, as we see Steve play a man arriving home, after discovering a phone in a graveyard, and Reese pop round as the local parish priest – only for gremlins to briefly mess things up. Ghosts in the machines? Reese bravely laughs off any technophobia – “You’re thinking of Black Mirror. This is Inside No. 9, more dark jokes and twists.” – but that’s all we need for the nightmare to threaten to come true, and what ensues is a brilliantly nerve-racking ordeal as we witness the cast and crew try to minimise any mistakes, which leaves us unsure what’s intentional, what’s accidental and what might (were one superstitious) be fate doing its best to ruin everything. The editing is remarkable, and the use of archive video to stitch any gaps together is inspired, resulting in a brave piece of TV that has you peeking through your fingers, before staring, in one masterful scene, at a cycle of screens within screens stretching into infinity, creating a broadcasting abyss – a timeless limbo in the middle of an old studio, where memories of all those past productions gone wrong are exorcised by the thrill of modern imagination. The rest of Inside No. 9 is also available as a box set.
Recommended Box Set: Luther
“I’m with the police.” “Which police?” “The police.” That’s the sound of Idris Elba remaining as tough, gruff and willing to rough people up as ever over four seasons of Luther. The BBC drama, which co-stars Ruth Wilson and a fantastic coat, dives into grimy police work with a glowering swagger that only adds to the hard-hitting appeal of the concise storytelling, curt dialogue and did we mention Idris Elba? Before Luther returns for Season 5, don’t miss the chance to catch up with show’s gripping back catalogue.
Recommended Box Set: Blue Planet II
David Attenborough once again narrates this majestic, majestically filmed nature documentary, which dives beneath the waves to reveal not only the life beneath, but the way in which that life is being transformed by our existence up above. From the Earth’s frozen poles to coral reefs, it’s an eye-opening, informative and infinitely accessible programme that is almost too much to take in one sitting. Plus who doesn’t like the excuse to drop the word “phytoplankton” into everyday conversation?
Recommended Box Set: Pride and Prejudice
Oh, Mr. Darcy! Any chance to rewatch the BBC’s definitive take on Jane Austen’s novel, starring Colin Firth as you know who, is never to be missed.
Our Girl: Nigeria Tour
Michelle Keegan is back as Georgie, everyone’s favourite plucky army medic who throws herself into her work training Nigerian forces, only to find herself pitched headlong into danger. Fighting against Boko Haram is the new element of tension in her latest tour, but it’s the focus on grief and trauma that marks this new season out, as the BBC military drama doesn’t shy away from exploring the emotional conflict that faces troops away from the frontline. With its soldier banter and occasionally broad characterisations, it would be easy to turn one’s nose up at Our Girl, but with Love Island on our screens, the reminder that women can have professions that have historically been associated with men is something worth celebrating, not least because of Keegan’s superbly charismatic central performance.
This charming collection of comedy shorts balance sharp observations and witty writing with infectious imagination. Read our full review
“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 2020
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 2020