The best TV shows and box sets on BBC iPlayer (17th January 2021)
Staff Reporter | On 17, Jan 2021
We review the best TV shows and films currently available on BBC iPlayer. (Click here to see our reviews of the best movies on BBC iPlayer.)
For BBC Three recommendations, click here.
Pick of the Week: Mark Kermode’s Secrets of Cinema: Season 1 to 3
Accessible, informative and entertaining, Mark Kermode’s fun, insightful series of film analysis is a resource to savour and share. That’s still the case with Season 3, which begins with the flappy-handed critic delving into the long tradition of comedy movies. Picking out trends and finding parallels in theme and structure, it’s a gorgeously assembled video essay, one that unearths such throughlines as rooting for the underdog as well as making fools of ourselves, all hinged upon an appreciation of Armando Iannucci’s delightful recent adaptation of David Copperfield. An insightful yet light-hearted watch. (Season 1 and 2 are available until March 2021.)
Pick of the week: RuPaul’s Drag Race UK
The UK’s own incarnation of RuPaul’s veritable TV phenomenon has lost none of its delightful, uplifting charm with its second season. The show once again sees the best of Britain’s drag scene competing to impress judges that, this season, include Elizabeth Hurley. While episodes drop weekly, there’s also the whole of Season 1 to enjoy too, with judges ranging from Andrew Garfield and Alan Carr to Graham Norton. Witty, fabulous, and very, very British. Read our full review.
Death in Paradise
Ralf Little once again steps into the lead shoes for the long-running BBC drama about a bumbling UK detective, and he’s a good fit for the surprisingly light crime series – a show that, in a modern age of grim true crime, relies not on gore to keep audiences interested but solid mystery plots and gorgeous seaside backdrops. What more could you want for escapist pandemic viewing?
Would I Lie to You?
Now in its 14th season, there’s no surprise in store for fans of Would I Lie to You?, a panel show that gets celebrity guests to tell lies and truths and get others to spot the difference. But a constant that also remains true is its consistently high laugh count, with host Rob Brydon and team captains Lee Mack and David Mitchell always entertaining to watch box with each other – a skirmish of quick-witted one-liners and sarcastic put-downs that they enjoy as much as we do. The chance to see Stephen Hendry enter the fray this season is the icing on the cake, but the core of the show has lost none of its appeal. If it isn’t broken, why change it?
David Bowie: The Last Five Years
This intimate portrait of David Bowie’s final years is a poignant glimpse of the man behind the legend.
Pick of the Week: A Perfect Planet
It wouldn’t be the BBC without David Attenborough, and this new series is as wonderful as you’d expect, capturing Attenborough’s respect and infectious awe for our planet – one where every element of the Earth seems to be perfect for human life, and all other life, to exist. Kicking off with volcanoes and the benefits they bring to the global ecosystem, this is a visually stunning reminder of why Earth needs to be looked after – and also will likely haunt your dreams with the introduction of the vampire finch.
Comedy Box Set: Staged Season 1 and 2
David Tennant and Michael Sheen are hilarious in BBC One’s knowing lockdown satire. Read our full review
Drama Box Set: Traces
Originally broadcast on Alibi, this gripping six-part thriller now arrives on BBC One, and immediately immerses us both into the world of forensic science and a young woman’s trauma following the mysterious death of her mum years ago. Given a fictitious murder, her task is to identify the victim and establish how they died, but the similarities to her mother’s case start to mount up, but the more the evidence reveals, the more everyone around her seems to be covering things up. With a strong cast led by Molly Windsor and Martin Compston and a small-scale focus that keeps the suspense up, this is well worth digging up.
Drama Box Set: The Serpent
Bangkok, 1975. Dutch diplomat Herman Knippenberg investigates the disappearance of a young couple who were last seen alive at the apartment of gem dealer Charles Sobhraj. What sounds like a gripping starting point for a serial killer thriller is in reality a slow-paced watch, as the eight-episode drama based on real events takes its time to unfold its chilling true story. But there’s style, colour and a superb cast underneath that glacial surface – Tahar Rahim as Charles and Jenna Coleman as his sidekick Marie-Andrée are excellent – and that’s reason enough to get hooked.
Doctor Who: Revolution of the Daleks
With the Doctor imprisoned halfway across the universe, how can Graham, Yaz and Ryan stop a deadly Dalek takeover of planet Earth? This New Year’s Day outing doesn’t always do the best by its iconic villains, as Chris Noth returns to play the Donald Trump-like tycoon using the Daleks’ shells to make security drones, but it excels at bringing back John Barrowman as Captain Jack Harkness, who immediately brings out new dynamics between the likeable core cast – and, with John Bishop lined up to become a new companion for Season 13, there are some surprisingly moving moments involving the Doctor’s fam as they take agency over their own futures.
Drama Box Set: Black Narcissus
This vibrant tale of desire and doubt is an atmospheric echo of Powell and Pressburger’s iconic adaptation of Rumer Godden’s 1939 novel. Read our full review
Comedy Box Set: The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air
“Now, this is a story all about how, my life got flipped turned upside down…” If you’re already reciting that out loud, then The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air needs no introduction. One of the best sitcoms of the 1990s, it featured rising star Will Smith, it was exec produced by Quincy Jones and taught everyone the correct way to dance to Tom Jones. Over 25 years later, and the show looks even better, a charming mix of 90s nostalgia, admiration for Will Smith’s on-fire charisma and surprise at just how many serious issues and emotional character moments the show managed to pack into its 148 episodes. Read our guide to the best episodes
BBC Two’s pandemic sitcom Pandemonium might sound like a terrible idea, but it doesn’t ask us to laugh at any of these things – it asks us to laugh at the tiny frustrations and absurdities that we all face day-to-day, almost regardless of the fact that a global pandemic is raging through our lives. Thanks to shrewdly observed and sharply delivered dialogue, it’s highly entertaining. Once this pandemic is over, it’s easy to imagine the Jessops being just as fun to watch in a fully-fledged sitcom, no matter what they’re going through.
Thrilling Box Set: Pretty Little Liars
If you’re a teen drama fan, this is your chance to catch up with one of the definitive modern high school mysteries. Based on the best-selling book series written by Sara Shepherd, it follows four friends whose darkest secrets come to light. All seven seasons are available now – with spin-off The Perfectionist also available in the UK for the first time.
Thrilling Box Set: Spiral: Season 1 to 4
With Season 4 now on BBC iPlayer, the rest of this superb French thriller has also returned to stream. Following Laure Berthaud and her team of detectives facing the brutal world of organised crime, the iconic Paris-set thriller – which began way back in 2005 – hasn’t lost its gripping edge, its nuanced portrayal of the nature of justice or the dark cycle of crime under the city’s busy surface.
Documentary Box Set: OJ: Made in America
This seven-hour epic documentary puts the history of OJ Simpson into profound, dizzying context.
Cinderella: A Comic Relief Pantomime for Christmas
If you’re suffering Zoom fatigue, then the idea of a lockdown production of Cinderella might sound like the worst concept ever. With a star-studded cast all gamely playing the panto roles, though, this is a rather enjoyable hour of silliness, with Anya Taylor-Joy playing Cinders, Guz Khan as Buttons, Helena Bonham Carter as Devilia, Tom Hollander as Baron Hardup and real-life sister and brother Daisy May and Charlie Cooper as the Evil Stepsisters. With no one rehearsing properly, the result is as messy as it is amiable, and while there’s a charity component at its heart that is both important commendable, the show is stolen by Olivia Colman as the Fairy Godmother/narrator, who forgets when she’s meant to be on screen and blusters her way through with candid aplomb. A royal national treasure, indeed.
Worzel Gummidge: Saucy Nancy
Shirley Henderson proves a natural fit into Mackenzie Crook’s update of Worzel Gummidge, bringing an irascible, sincere and cacklingly funny personality to the eponymous Saucy Nancy – a carved wooden figurehead who once adorned a ship and now sits still in a scrapyard. Needless to say, Susan and John come across her with Worzel, and seeing his determination to make his old friend see the sea again is as adorable as it is quaintly simple. Crook’s performance is, as ever, perfectly underplayed, and the effects work is nothing short of miraculous, capturing the childlike magic of the way a scarecrow and wooden carving can convincingly come to life. What a real treat for the family this is.
Mortimer and Whitehouse: Gone Christmas Fishing
Gone Christmas Fishing follows Bob Mortimer as he returns to his childhood roots in Middlesbrough to fish and reminisce with his dear friend and angling mentor Paul Whitehouse. Because – and we mean this – there’s nothing that quite gets you in the Christmas spirit like two old friends reconnecting.
The Goes Wrong Show: The Nativity
The Goes Wrong team have found themselves a natural fit for the small screen, with their BBC One series taking us through different genres and expectations. It was inevitable, then, that they should turn their attention to the Christmas Nativity – and it’s equally inevitable that the result is highly amusing, thanks to a throw-everything-at-the-wall energy and an endless stream of nicely executed slapstick chaos.
Upstart Crow: Lockdown Christmas 1603
Ben Elton’s Shakespeare sitcom smartly scales down for this intimate and intense half-hour, which becomes a two-hander between the show’s strongest players: David Mitchell’s Bard and Gemma Whelan’s forward-thinking Kate. They find themselves locked down during a plague, which is a thinly veiled excuse for Elton to rant about the current state of coronavirused England, from masks to tiered systems (“North” and “South”), but there’s still plenty of witty nods to Shakespeare’s most recognisable dialogue to keep things amiably wordy.
Don’t miss: Motherland
BBC Two’s acerbic depiction of modern motherhood gets a typically sharp – yet oddly sweet – half-hour instalment for Christmas. It sees Amanda host her own exclusive festive bash, which Meg gets an invite to – and, desperate to get out of the house, Julia immediately decides to crash. She’s joined, of course, by Kevin and Liz, and the result is as chaotic and awkward as you’d expect, nailing the strains of domestic duties during the holidays but also the strangely addictive appeal of Minecraft.
Tom Davis’ hilarious and heartwarming sitcom about a working-class builder’s family dials up the sentiment and the silliness for its Christmas special, which sees Gary vow to save Christmas after the residents of Butterchurch Crescent find they’re struggling to make ends meet. From the pressures of keeping up appearances to finding the balance between helping others for them and helping others for yourself, it’s a shrewdly written and laugh-out-loud 30 minutes.
Don’t miss: Being Bridget Jones
Marking 25 years since the creation of the Bridget Jones character for a column in The Independent, author Helen Fielding opens up her personal archive for the very first time to tell the story of how Bridget Jones’s Diary came to be. With input by everyone from Hugh Grant to Cherie Blair, it’s a wonderfully insightful – and enjoyably affectionate celebration of a groundbreaking and influential modern classic.
Don’t miss: The Night Manager
The Night Manager was written by John le Carré in 1993. Not that you could tell from the BBC’s sumptuous, gripping adaptation: the 23-year-old tale feels like it was written yesterday. The basic set-up is the same: former soldier Jonathan Pine (Tom Hiddleston), now the night manager of a hotel, is recruited by an intelligence officer to bring down a big arms dealer, Richard Onslow Roper (Hugh Laurie). He has a girlfriend, Jed (Elizabeth Debicki), a loyal number two, Major “Corky” Corkoran (Tom Hollander), and a whole lot of digits in his bank account. So far, so standard. Tom Hiddleston, with his sleek suits and slick hair, even looks like he could be the new 007. But The Night Manager takes the usual spy formula and turns it into something much more.
Catch up with: The Vicar of Dibley in Lockdown
What a joy it is to have Dawn French’s “buxom vicarette” back on our screens. Even in 10-minute chunks, she’s a delightfully comforting presence, catching us up on the Dibley village gossip through the now-time-honoured format of an online video message. Sprinkling reassuring words of kindness in between subtle but sharply observed gags, it’s a bite-sized reminder of just why The Vicar of Dibley was a heavenly bit of TV in the first place. More please.
Drama box set: Small Axe
Steve McQueen’s remarkable anthology tells stories of people within London’s West Indian community, and how they shaped their own lives in the face of society’s racial bias. it begins with Mangrove, telling the story for the first time on mainstream TV of a group of Black activists who, 50 years ago, took to the street to protest against police harassment in Notting Hill. The result is a taut yet free-wheeling, important yet understated celebration of a community building – and defending – a home in a city that’s growing and changing, of voices being heard rather than silently despairing or being dismissed.
Thrilling box set: His Dark Materials
This impressively faithful adaptation of Philip Pullman’s books is a grand but grounded epic, with Season 2 proving bigger, bolder and darker than the first. Read our review
Drama Box Set: Dickensian
Tony Jordan’s mash-up of Charles Dickens characters into his own playful drama offers period larks and literary references aplenty.
Barack Obama Talks to David Olusoga
In a UK exclusive, Barack Obama encounters historian David Olusoga to discuss his long-awaited memoir A Promised Land, and how he may have cast a spotlight on the racial fault lines in America. The result is, as you’d expect, thoughtful and insightful, but also a stirring reminder of how calm, smart and statesmanlike a national political leader can sound.
Gripping Box Set: Industry
Lena Dunham directs the opening episode of this series about a group of graduates trying to find their way at a top London financial institution. They all aim to make their mark on the world by proving their worth and becoming permanent hires at the bank, which leads to agonising over the font size in a key meeting document, hazy, chaotic nights out to relieve pressure and boldly speaking one’s mind at dinner to pitch an idea. The result isn’t telling us anything new, but it’s well acted, slickly paced and gripping to watch.
This superb series of fictional monologues, based on factual research, shines a spotlight on the voices of disabled people who are so often overlooked by society. From an actor hoping to audition for parts that aren’t stereotypes to a woman trying to catch a benefits cheat in the act, these are amusing, thought-provoking and just 15 minutes each.
Saving Britain’s Pubs
Tom Kerridge presents this deceptively thoughtful and insightful docuseries that charts the challenges facing the humble British pub in the modern day. From the difficult facing one in driving up local custom to the costs plaguing another that has to pay its dues to the brewery chain that owns it, there’s no end to the obstacles pubs need to overcome to make ends meet – and that’s before the coronavirus pandemic came along. As well as an eye-opening account of the realities of running a boozer, it’s also a thoughtful tribute to the crucial role many pubs play in communities across the country.
MasterChef: The Professionals
You might well shrug off Masterchef: The Professionals, but BBC Two’s spin-off, which sees pro chefs trying to impress a panel of judges, is a genuine treat, thanks to a tasty combination of sharp voiceover, Gregg Wallace’s presenting, overly dramatic music, hammy judge reactions and – best of all – the surprising tendency for dishes to go horribly wrong. With actual stakes and reputations on the line, this is MasterChef’s best incarnation and a welcome brief distraction from day-to-day reality.
Gripping Box Set: Guilt
Mark Bonnar is on a role. From Catastrophe and Summer of Rockets to Defending the Guilty, Humans and Line of Duty, the actor is everywhere you look, and about time too – his ability to blend comic timing, desperation and pent-up anger is perfectly matched to the tale of Max, who, along with his brother Jake (Jamie Sives) accidentally run over an old man – while stoned and uninsured. And so they try to cover it up – but, of course, things don’t go to plan. Jamie Sives is an ideal foil to Max’s annoyed, guilt-stricken older sibling, with a clumsiness and cluelessness that’s delivered with a deadpan face – even as he winds up getting a little too friendly with the deceased’s family. Darkly funny and grippingly paced, this four-parter promises to be a jet black treat.
Comedy Box Set: Blackadder: Season 1 to 4
Put aside the uneven first season and Ben Elton and Richard Curtis’ historical sitcom is one of the funniest British TV shows ever made, with Rowan Atkinson on never-better form.
The Trump Show
If you were ever in doubt about the catastrophes going on behind the scenes in the current US administration, this eye-opening documentary takes us behind the scenes of the White House in the first 18 months of Trump’s presidency, as a reality TV star took control of the country and run it like an immature businessman determined to appear successful at all costs. What’s impressive here is the access and willingness of contributors to speak out about such events as the first delivery of “alternative facts” to the press regarding the crowd size attending Trump’s inauguration. With interviews from Sean Spicer and Steve Bannon among others, it’s hard not to take seriously their accounts of the most incredulous presidency in history.
Out of Her Mind
Sara Pascoe goes into full-on meta mode with her postmodern sitcom about Sara Pascoe trying to make it through life, resenting her sister for getting engaged and her friend for getting pregnant. All of this is intercut by Sara Pascoe commenting on Sara Pascoe, while rollerskating around a warehouse with footage of herself playing in the background, dispatching lectures about the science behind the illusion of romance and the way that expectations of and pressures placed upon women in modern society shape perceptions, ambitions and self-worth. It’s not new or cutting-edge, but it’s delivered with a sparky energy that’s nonetheless entertaining.
Gripping Box Set: Collateral
Carey Mulligan is quietly brilliant in David Hare’s complex, compellingly dark portrait of modern Britain.
Comedy Box Set: The Vicar of Dibley
Dawn French is on hugely charming form in Richard Curtis’ classic comedy about a forward-thinking female vicar assigned to a backwards Oxfordshire village.
Young, Black & British: Hear Us
“No one is born racist.” CBBC’s Newsround confirms itself as one of the best news organisations around with this fantastic series about young Black and British kids across the country, who share their experiences of growing up in a society where racial prejudice sadly still exists. But while the confirmation that they’ve already had to face racial abuse in their young lives is heartbreaking, their resilience and determination to be themselves and rise above it is inspiring.
Hugh Laurie makes a welcome return to our screens in this brilliantly dark and grim political drama. He plays Peter Laurence, a self-made politician who is charismatic and enjoys being the controversial figure on the edge of Whitehall, juggling a radio phone-in show with the media attention that comes with a trial. But threats of skeletons being dragged out of his cupboard are on the rise, thanks to dogged journalist Charmian (Sarah Greene) and an unexpected figure from his past. With David Hare pulling the plot threads together, the result is a rivetingly plausible thriller, one that pits personal ambition against the political system, with Brexit on the horizon, Boris Johnson-like questions about family and legacy and everyone’s professional stakes at the highest possible level. The cast are superb, from Helen McCrory as a ruthless PM to Sidse Babett Knudsen, and simply seeing them all lock horns is reason enough to tune in. Expect the conspiracies to thicken quickly – and with all four episodes released at once following the broadcast of the first episode, expect to get through them all even quicker.
Enslaved With Samuel L Jackson
Samual L Jackson presents this excellent, thoughful series which tracks the journeys of the trafficked men and women from Africa to Brazil, the US and more. Also diving into the ocean to explore the sunken ships that took the lives of many, the result is an eye-opening and powerful documentary, one that traces Jackson’s own family tree while tracing the footsteps of people trafficked into slavery years ago with heart-rending detail and stomach-churning evidence of the horrific trade.
Who Do You Think You Are?
Jodie Whittaker’s enthusiasm and grounded positivity have made her an instantly iconic Doctor, and those same qualities are still evident in abundance when she’s not in a TARDIS – a fact that makes her a perfect opening subject for the return of the BBC’s family tree series. Finding out how her great-great-grandfather climbed from working a mine to being a mine owner, her passion for learning – both about her family and in general – is charmingly infectious.
Strictly Come Dancing 2020
What with everything going on in the world, it’s not easy to keep dancing, so it’s to the Beeb’s credit that it’s brought back Strictly Come Dancing for a welcome dose of glittery escapism. The opening episode doesn’t offer a huge amount in the way of dancing, but it does make it clear how careful the programme-makers have been to make sure everyone involved is as safe as possible – and gives a tantalising glimpse of the chemistry between the amusingly game Bill Bailey and the effortlessly effervescent Oti Mabuse, not to mention the joy of seeing boxer Nicola Adams and dancer Katya James meeting each other at the Royal Albert Hall.. Expect some socially distanced, carefully bubbled but also impossibly sequinned fun over the coming weeks.
In the annals of TV shows crying out for a spin-off, Doctor Foster isn’t exactly top of the list, but Mike Bartlett’s new BBC One drama proves to be much more than just a follow-up to his heated medical melodrama. Following Belle (Victoria Hamilton), who is starting her life over having changed her name from Anna, it zooms out from that to turn her into one of several characters who lives are at similar turning points. If Doctor Foster was decidedly middle-class and needed a prescription of subtlety, Life is just what was ordered, with everything decidedly understated and engrossingly nuanced. Belle is trying to deal with looking after her niece (Erin Kellyman), after her sister has gone into hospital. Hannah (Melissa Johns) is navigating a pregnancy with her partner (Joshua James) and the fringe presence of Andy (a wonderfully sweet Calvin Demba), the one-night-stand who’s the dad. Also living in the same block is David (the fantastic Adrian Lester) whose seemingly happy marriage is sadder than it appears – either helped (or not) by the charismatic presence of Saira (Saira Choudhry). And, in between it all, Alison Steadman steals the show as Gail, who runs into an old friend (literally) and begins to see her marriage to Henry (a brilliantly loathsome Peter Davison) in a new light. The cast are all superb, and their individual stories neatly capture the messiness of life with wit, humour and (most of all) heart.
Michael Palin: Travels of a Lifetime
One of the legacies of the coronavirus pandemic is a slew of retrospective TV shows in which people in the safety of their own home look back at clips of themselves from years ago. But Michael Palin is as good a tour guide as anyone’s memories could wish for, and he does a wonderful job of bringing fresh insight and humour to his travelogues that were groundbreaking at the time, thanks to the refusal to turn off the cameras and practically accompany him everywhere he went. Palin proved an unexpectedly perfect fit for that approach, and his candid yet genial charm is still evident as he recalls how he accepted the offer to retread Phileas Fogg’s literary journey around the world in 80 days without really realising what he was getting himself into. The result is a nice way to sate your wanderlust, while also feeling like you’ve just caught up with your friendly estranged uncle.
Charming Box Set: Love Life
If it’s messiness you want, look no further than Love Life, HBO Max’s wonderfully observed romantic comedy, which takes the form of an anthology – each season follows a new protagonist’s romantic entanglements, while each episode introduces another flame that is either kindled or expunged. In this first season, it’s Anna Kendrick’s Darby, who is trying to make her way through life in New York. Along the way, there are some wonderful guest stars, including Scoot McNairy as her mature, divorced boss, with his own emotional baggage, Jin Ha as college fling Augie, who has an insufferable partner who wants to take him away on a road trip, and Gus Halper as “Danny Two-Phones”. whose perspective on relationships is even more naive than Darby’s. The result shuffles along at a pace driven by character and circumstance, with Sam Boyd’s dialogue nailing the awkward conversations, even more awkward unsaid feelings and the thrilling moments of connection that shape bonds between people. Most of all, it’s a joy to see Anna Kendrick get the kind of leading role that gives her a chance to explore her range and versatility. If things risk falling into lightweight or cliched territory, Kendrick’s charming performance is more than enough to keep you emotionally invested.
Gripping Box Set: A Very English Scandal
Hugh Grant and Ben Whishaw are a delight in this deliciously entertaining, deceptively topical and deeply moving drama. Read our full review
Comedy Box Set: Ghosts: Season 2
BBC One’s loveably silly house-share sitcom remains as inventive and laugh-out-loud funny as ever.
Drama Box Set: Us
Anything starring Tom Hollander is always worth a watch and BBC One’s Us is no exception. It follows Douglas (Hollander) and Connie (Saskia Reeves), two parents who go on a tour of Europe before their son (Tom Taylor) leaves for university. But marital discord soon surfaces and Douglas ends up using the trip to try and win his wife back – a set-up that David Nicholls’ script (based on his own book) mines for maximum awkwardness and humour, nailed with precision by the top-notch cast. Not one for honeymoon viewing.
Extinction: The Facts
David Attenborough has made it his mission of late not only to showcase the natural wonders of our world but to educate everyone on their responsibility to look after it. Here, he graduates from stark words of warning at the end of a series to a one-off documentary that’s wall-to-wall warnings, delivered with a heartbreaking urgency. A million species are currently at risk of extinction, he explains, a crisis that has knock-on effects for food and water security, not to mention pollination, plant growth and more – all of which carries grave consequences for food chains and life cycles that underpin our basic existence. With scientists cautioning that our behaviour and treatment of the planet are driving the emergence of diseases, the very question of environmental awareness and safeguarding takes on an even more terrifying importance.
Thrilling Box Set: The Bridge
One of the best Scandinavian crime dramas ever made, this superb, slick, noir sees the Danish and Swedish police forces join together, as Saga from Malmo CID and Martin from Copenhagen PD are both assigned to solve the murder of a woman in the middle of Oresund Bridge, exactly on the border between the two countries. The first two seasons are now available to binge – don’t miss your chance to relive them.
Nadiya Hussain is always a delight to watch in the kitchen, and here, she’s even more in her element as she goes back to the thing that made her a household name: baking. Her unique combination of flavours, practicality and enthusiastic indulgence is as infectiously enjoyable as ever, which leaves you brimming with inspiration to make at lest one of the recipes on show – whether that’s a blueberry scone pizza, a strawberry cupcake or a spicy Asian take on the traditional toad-in-the-hole. It’s all presented with a refreshing lack of pretence and a candid excitement – right down to a cameraperson dropping their slice on the floor by mistake.
Thrilling Box Set: Battlestar Galactica
If you’re still to find who’s a Cylon and who isn’t, this reboot of the classic series is one of the best pieces of sci-fi to be brought to the screen in recent memory, tackling politics, social tensions and humanity’s drive to survive, all wrapped up in a polished, gripping mystery.
Thrilling Box Set: Strike: Lethal White
Strike’s gripping, complex and character-filled fourth outing is the detective’s best yet. Read our full review. (The Cuckoo’s Calling, The Silkworm and Career of Evil are all back on BBC iPlayer. Read our reviews)
Drama Box Set: Picnic at Hanging Rock (2018)
Natalie Dormer is excellent in this bold, stylish remake fashions its own identity apart from the book and film, while being entirely respectful to both. Read our full review.
Catch up with: Mortimer and Whitehouse: Gone Fishing: Season 3
The Trip, but with fishing instead of food. That’s the premise behind this charmingly low-key chat between Paul Whitehouse and Bob Mortimer, who go fishing for little reason other than catch some tench or salmon and shoot the breeze about health, childhood and bad Robert De Niro impressions. It’s not shockingly revelatory or a gripping gossip fest – and that’s exactly the point. Now three seasons in, and that pointless drifting has become even more endearing, as the pair’s intimate bickering, quick-witted bantering and completely honest observations remain as frank and unguarded as ever. If The Trip is a show in which personas are knowingly deconstructed, Mortimer and Whitehouse: Gone Fishing doesn’t even bother constructing its stars’ personas in the first place.
African Renaissance: When Art Meets Power
BBC Four strikes TV gold once more with this new documentary series, which explores the proud heritages that stretch back thousands of years in Ethiopia, Senegal and Kenya. The programme crams in a lot of information in each dense but accessible hour, from emperor Haile Selassie to poet Leopold Senghor. The result is a thrilling portrait of contemporary culture, which responds to history as much as it drives these nations into the future.
Harry Hill’s World of TV
Harry Hill’s new series takes aim at different TV genres and pick out cliches and recurring patterns from each. From music and dialogue to episode titles, his dissection of medical dramas alone – including Dr Finlay’s Casebook as well as Casualty – is worth tuning in for alone. Unabashedly silly, enjoyably broad and sharply observed, Harry’s back at his best.
The Unbelievable Story of Carl Beech
If you’ve never heard of Carl Beech, prepare to be stunned. A former nurse from Gloucester who claimed he had been sexually abused by a group of prominent men in the 1970s and 80s, his 2014 allegations were pounced upon by the media, but only led to him being sentenced for perverting the course of justice and his own abuse offences. It’s a jaw-dropping reminder of the importance of facts and evidence – but also a shocking story of someone who jeopardised the justice system for every genuine victim brave enough to go public with their own stories.
Drama Box Set: Good Trouble
The Fosters was a long-running drama, unfolding over five seasons, which detailed the lives of a large and diverse foster family. When it was cancelled in 2018, this spin-off series sprung from the ashes, following two of the adopted Foster-Adams daughters as they head to LA to find their fortune. But fear not if you’ve heard of neither programme – Good Trouble has the legs not only to stand on its own, but to sprint light years ahead.
It is inhabited by a cast of characters that, if listed, would sound like the writers are checking off one diversity box after another, but who are ultimately so rounded that they fully come to life. Returning characters from The Fosters dip in and out but the sharpness of the writing fills in any gaps with wit and economy.
Fans may have to wait some time for the third season, as filming was postponed due to the coronavirus pandemic, but these 31 episodes should keep viewers going for a while. Be warned: Good Trouble can only be described as ‘moreish’ and, once started, the urge to gorge is strong. Read our full review
Comedy Box Set: Mandy
Diane Morgan joins Phoebe Waller-Bridge, Daisy May Cooper, Sharon Horgan and Michaela Coel as one of the most exciting comedy talents around today, and after a welcome solo outing for her character Philomena Cunk and a scene-stealing turn in Motherland, she gets a deserving chance to create her own comedy series. The result is Mandy, a series about a chain-smoking underdog who dreams of nothing greater than raising some Doberman Pinschers. We join her as she tries to get a job – notably at a banana factory where a sequence involving a hammer is laugh-out-loud funny. Things get dafter from there with the introduction of Maxine Peake as an old school rival, setting the tone (and the high bar) for a series that, thanks to its 15-minute episodes flies by without ever letting things flag. Throughout Morgan’s delivery is impeccable, serving up every absurd line and aside with a carefree matter-of-factness and a permanent frown. The inclusion of a voodoo subplot is questionable on first viewing, but Morgan’s character work in crafting a follow-up to Philomena Cunk is undoubtedly something to treasure.
Surviving the Virus: My Brother & Me
A documentary exposing the personal toll that the coronavirus pandemic has had upon the UK’s population is hardly a new promise on our screens these days, but this heartfelt and powerful documentary from the BBC is a reminder of just that – the personal costs at the heart of this crisis that can be so easily forgotten in the whirlwind of trying to get back to normal or go back to work or decipher the statistics recounted and remeasured every few weeks. The film follows Dr Chris and Dr Xand van Tulleken, one a virologist returning to the front line to serve in NHS hospitals, the other a public health doctor working in care homes. Dr Xand has contracted the virus and recovered, so he understands the consequences of the harmful infection – most specifically, the long-term consequences that aren’t just limited to a few weeks, but can continue to linger for months, causing strokes or heart arrhythmia. And yet, for all their expertise and humane interviews with medical experts and patients, what really strikes you is not just their competence and knowledge, but how little they say we still know about this virus – a chilling thought, indeed.
Cuba: Castro vs the World
Cuba has one of the most interesting histories of any nation, and one of the most complex, taking us from the Cuban Missile Crisis to the fall of the Berlin Wall and the Soviet Union, which cut short the Communist funding of Fidel Castro’s regime. This two-hour documentary walks us through all of these, starting with the overthrow of dictator Batista and the start of a revolution that would ambitiously challenge the whole world. Post-Cold War, we see how the island continued to shift still, finding new paths to international diplomacy. If you underwhelmed by Netflix’s Wasp Network recently, this two-hour deluge of accessible, informative filmmaking is a riveting watch.
How do you communicate afresh the anguish, pain and impact of a life lost? BBC One’s Anthony comes up with a poetic, poignant and powerful answer: by showing the life that never came to be. Written by Jimmy McGovern at the request of Gee Walker, Anthony Walker’s mother, this 90-minute drama takes as its starting point the unprovoked racial killing of the young law student – and then flashes forward to tell the story of what might have happened if he were alive. Toheeb Jimoh is fantastic as the kind, smart boy, and it’s a joy to see him take his compassion into his adult life: he gets married to the woman he met while helping a young football player he was coaching; he has a daughter; he saved an old friend from homelessness. Jimoh’s portrayal of Anthony, like everything else in the show, is done with the intimate cooperation of Gee, and this snapshot of a man taken too soon rings with an authenticity that’s utterly heartbreaking. Counting back to the tragic night in 2005 when he died at 18, Anthony emerges a tale of hope and potential, of love and promise – a promise that inspired a foundation in Anthony’s name to promote racial harmony. This profound, generous drama is a hugely moving step towards living up to it.
“Escapism in its truest form.”
Thrilling Box Set: Heroes
All four seasons of the NBC drama have landed on BBC iPlayer. While the multi-arc episodic drama lost its powers the more it went on, there’s still much worth checking out in Tim Kring’s ambitious series, which juggles a range of abilities (time travel, seeing the future, healing quickly) with an equal array of personal dilemmas. Its best seasons are anchored by Zachary Quinto enjoying playing the villain as the nasty murderer Sylar, while the strong cast and apocalyptic scale make for often gripping TV – at least, at first.
The Rise of the Murdoch Dynasty
Rupert Murdoch has been one of the most influential figures in the world over the years, thanks to the reach of his media empire and his business clout. Like watching an evil Forrest Gump, this three-part documentary tells the story of the media mogul, from his own family tensions to his interactions with key politicians in recent decades. That includes his decision to support Tony Blair in becoming Prime Minister in 1995 – we see Blair flying out to Murdoch’s private island in the summer for a summit – and the scrutiny facing his newspapers’ use of police bribes. From Blair and Murdoch’s close ties, particularly in the run-up to the Iraq war, to Murdoch’s apparent demands for the Conservative Party to change its policy, it’s an eye-opening, gripping watch – and, although it includes Nigel Farage among its talking heads, it also boasts Alistair Campbell and Hugh Grant. The running theme becomes not only Murdoch’s habit of being in the right place to influence the right people in his own interests, but also the Murdoch empire’s consistent ability to avoid being held to account for its practices.
A Suitable Boy
Vikram Seth’s acclaimed novel about life in post-partition India is one that has been long overdue on our screens, and the BBC certainly sets out to do it justice, with no white actors or characters and an all-Asian cast, and the wonderful Mira Nair at the helm. Andrew Davies penning the script, then, is perhaps a bit of a step backwards, as he stays closely to the traditional TV drama playbook in balancing the personal and the political, the period and the contemporary. Davies’ skill is as evident as ever, as he introduces us to Lata (Tanya Maniktala) in north India, who is being pushed into a marriage by her mother, and then Maan (Ishaan Khatter), a wayward youth who is an embarrassment to his politician father. The result, though, with its mostly English-language dialogue, perhaps isn’t as modern or strikingly different as you’d expect. Then again, giving this Indian period drama the gloss and production value of The Crown is still a step forward for Sunday night TV. Here’s hoping its opulent style and good intentions carry it to something sincere over its six, condensed episodes.
Comedy Box Set: The Young Offenders: Season 3
“Try not to do anything illegal for the next 24 hours.” “How are we supposed to know what’s illegal?” That’s the sound of BBC Three’s The Young Offenders back for a third outing, and it’s as hysterical and heartfelt as ever. Read our full review
Miriam Margolyes: Almost Australian
If Miriam Margolyes wasn’t a national treasure already, she’s cemented herself as one in recent months, thanks to her frank, no-nonsense observations. She’s the perfect choice, then, to continue the time-honoured genre of celebrity travelogue, as she embarks on a 10,000-kilometre journey across Australia to work out what it means to be “Australian” today. The country’s history and identity have always been a thorny and fascinating subject that the nation and its citizens have grappled with, and Margolyes doesn’t hold back as she looks at everything from the housing market to the “Australian Dream”, from drought to migration. It’s an eye-opening and thoughtful study of a national identity, plus a fun excuse to watch Miriam in action.
Jonathan Glazer is one of the most interesting filmmakers around, and he reminds us of that with his unique new short film. Inspired by an involuntary pandemic that broke out in Strasbourg more than 500 years ago – a mania that prompted uncontrollable dancing – it’s a montage of physical movements that increases in pace and intensity as we jump from living room to living room. Each subject is isolated and cut off, but simultaneously connected through their shared burst of action, a routine of handwashing, shrugging off, sighing and slapping that leaves them banging against the wall to get outside. With a rhythmic Mica Levi score that becomes more and more prominent, the result is at once disturbing, unsettling, mesmerising and baffling, and unlike anything else you’ll see this year. Haunting, beautiful, strangely timeless and yet unavoidably connected to the lockdown life in our current state, it’s a bold, unsettling piece of art.
Frankie Boyle Live: Excited for You to See and Hate This
The title alone singles out Frankie Boyle’s new stand-up comedy special as one to watch, and he’s on typically frank form in his dissection of controversial comedy. He’s always been fond of exploring where the line is that makes a joke one step too far, to mixed effect, but it’s his commentary on politics and ageing that make his acerbic comedy worth watching.
The Misadventures of Romesh Ranganathan: From My Sofa
How do you turn a travel series into something you can film in lockdown? Hire Romesh Ranganathan, a comedian who has already proven he can adapt to streaming from his home without losing any of his sarcastic charm. His follow-up to his “misadventures” in unlikely tourist hotspots involves him catching up with friends and travel guides that he met in previous episodes, revisiting highlights from both of their perspectives and unveiling some previously unseen moments. There’s a behind-the-scenes intrigue to the format, which gives you a glimpse of the difficulties in filming certain sequences – including one amusingly failed gag recreating Lawrence of Arabia that was understandably cut from the programme. But the real gems is Romesh’s interest in the culture, politics and social tensions of the places he’s visited, and his catch-up with his host from Zimbabwe once again turns into a sensitive and eye-opening insight into what’s happening in the country right now, pandemic or no pandemic.
Rise of the Nazis
Playing out like a political thriller more than a documentary, this BBC Two documentary charts the rise of the Nazi party to power. With narration from Kate Fleetwood and a sinister soundtrack from Tom Hodge, director Julian Jones paces things perfectly, as we see Hitler plot to move from the fringes of Germany’s political scene to the heart of government. What follows is a plan to mark Nazis a seemingly legitimate party, teaming up with a disapproving president and a manipulative mastermind to get his way, while ensuring neither of their own schemes come to fruition. A riveting watch that’s extremely, worryingly timely – and not because of the recent government decision to make masks mandatory in shops.
Art of Persia
Art is a vital part of human existence, reflecting back our selves, our values, our culture and our history to us. This eye-opening, visually stunning three-part documentary, then, is more than just a snapshot of Persian art: it’s the whole story of Iran’s history and language, including its golden age of poetry that emerged after the threat of Genghis Khan. Presented with passion, knowledge and engaging insight by Samira Ahmed, this is a gorgeous box set that’s entertaining and informative in equal measure.
Drama Box Set: Mrs America
Cate Blanchett is brilliant in this playful, provocative, stylish and highly entertaining drama about the battle for women’s rights in the 1970s. Read our full review
Drama Box Set: The Secrets She Keeps
“The value of a secret depends upon whom you’re trying to keep it from,” says someone partway through The Secrets That She Keeps, a show that’s bursting at the seams with secrets – although it doesn’t always do a very good at keeping them. The Australian thriller, adapted from Michael Rowbotham‘s novel, is inspired by a real life hospital incident from the 1990s. Over the years, it’s been embellished and transformed into something far more audacious and implausible, but – it goes without saying – something more entertaining too. An entertaining page-turner that doesn’t outstay its welcome. Read our full review
The Kemps: All True
If you were one of the many who enjoyed Bros: After the Screaming Stops, a laugh-out-loud funny documentary about the sibling musicians, you’ll know that part of the entertainment lay in the fact that the film was sincere and warm-hearted, even as you wondered whether the brothers were aware that some moments were unintentionally hilarious. Enter the Kemp brothers, Gary and Martin, who team up with Rhys Thomas for a mockumentary about Spandau Ballet, playfully titled “All True”. Gary and Martin are wonderfully game when it comes to sending themselves up, with Martin playing himself as an arrogant, selfish egoist versus his more generously minded brother. Both of them, though, share a desperation to be popular and famous, especially when their money is lost in a failed cryptocurrency. The jokes aren’t as funny when you know they’re staged, but there’s just enough that cuts close to the bone that their versions of themselves are plausible, and a stunt to try and get a new album heard is genuinely amusing. It’s not all gold, but they know how much is true enough to make this a fun watch.
Drama Box Set: Alan Bennett’s Talking Heads
Alan Bennett’s Talking Heads remain masterful pieces of writing several decades after they first premiered and this new series that remakes a bunch of them is a ringing testament to their staying power. Two of the anthology are new offerings, although they don’t veer into topical subjects such as Brexit or even the coronavirus pandemic. That’s a shame, as it takes us away from state-of-the-nation commentary, but it only reinforces the playwright’s timeless insight into human nature. Each one-act play follows a similar pattern, as monologues from people typically in their middle-age drift into ennui, bitterness and sadness, an escalating confession that moves through gradual, subtle twists and implied revelations. The cast, which includes the imperious Lesley Manville, the gently sinister Imelda Staunton, the withdrawn Martin Freeman, the vulnerable Sarah Lancashire and the stiff-upper-lipped Tamsin Greig, are all impeccable, and the camerawork and staging finds wonderful variety and expression that easily overcomes any lockdown restrictions.
The Choir: Singing for Britain
Gareth Malone is often described as “the nation’s favourite choirmaster”, which can sound rather twee, but this new series reminds us that he really is very good at what he does – not least because he treats music sincerely and earnestly. Here, he’s reaching out via video calls to key workers on the front line across the UK, helping them to express their stories and experiences. Episode 1 includes a nurse and a care home worker, who express their feelings of loyalty, solidarity and compassion in two numbers that genuinely match their voices and personalities. Watching Gareth and his collaborators tinker with tunes and lyrics is the most rewarding part of the programme, but the emotional pay-off of them performing their finished songs – with Gareth watching from a well-placed smartphone nearby – never fails to hit the right note. Moving, cathartic viewing – and a reminder of the power of music to bring people together.
Drama Box Set: I May Destroy You
Michaela Coel’s frank exploration of consent is remarkable, personal and uncompromising TV. Read our full review
Sitting in Limbo
Patrick Robinson delivers a heart-wrenching performance in this powerful drama inspired by the shocking Windrush scandal, which sees Anthony Bryan wrongfully detained by the Home Office and threatened with deportation after 50 years of living in the UK. Quietly indignant and sensitively told, it’s a scathing reminder of the human costs of a government’s callous disregard for people perceived as being not from the UK, and a hostile immigration policy that is horribly inhuman.
Tutankhamun in Colour
The very notion of closing down BBC Four as a linear channel is proven every week to be a folly. This week’s demonstration of the channel’s unique value comes in the form of a stunning documentary that takes us back a century to experience the discovery of Tutankhamun’s tomb exactly as it happened. Egyptologist Elizabeth Frood is an informed, enthusiastic guide, but the star of the show is the colourisation of the original photos and film, which, like They Shall Not Grow Old, adds fresh impact to the golden extravagance of centuries past.
Comedy Box Set: What We Do in the Shadows Season 2
The vampire sitcom’s second season balances horror myths and human tedium to witty, silly effect. Read our full review
Drama Box Set: Doctor Foster
A superb performance by Suranne Jones makes this story of marital betrayal and revenge a compelling watch.
A House Through Time
David Olusoga is as engaging as ever in this likeable history programme, which takes its cue from the house featured each episode. David takes us through the past of the property, from the time it was built until now, telling the story of people who have lived there, from piracy and abandoned babies to an asylum. A neat idea, well executed.
Drama Box Set: Unprecedented
Hot on the heels of ITV’s Isolation Stories come a collection of monologues filmed in lockdown that capture the impact of the coronavirus pandemic upon everyday lives. Viral, from Quiz writer James Graham, is a wonderful snapshot of youth in lockdown, while Lennie James is as powerful as ever as a man experiencing homelessness trying to connect with a loved one in a short by Charlene James.
Ella Fitzgerald: Just One of Those Things
Tracing the story of Ella Fitzgerald’s life, this excellent documentary explores how her music became a soundtrack for a tumultuous century.
Drama Box Set: McMafia
“I’m a banker, not a gangster.” That’s Alex Godman (James Norton) in McMafia, BBC One’s slick financial-crime drama. It tells of the descent of Alex from one role into another, as the lines between business and breaking the law become blurred in today’s shady, wealth-driven world. Based on Misha Glenny’s non-fiction book from 2008, the fictional show does an impressive job of conveying factual observations with crystal clarity, communicating ideas, insights and complex information without descending into exposition dumps or dictionary definitions. The result is compelling, convincing and cool – sometimes, a little too cool.
David Stratton’s Stories of Australian Cinema
Cinema plays a vital role in how a nation presents and perceives itself. In the case of Australia, with its own unique history, that role is more important than ever – and so, as Australian films and TV increasingly find audiences overseas, and as Australian actors and directors continue to be major forces in Hollywood, this informative tour back through the country’s filmmaking past is a welcome eye-opener.
If you thought Free Solo was impressive, wait until you see this jaw-dropping documentary about Jesse Dufton and his attempt to take on the challenge of becoming the first blind person to lead a climb of the Old Man of Hoy, in Orkney, Scotland. Trusting his hands more than his eyes, he’s a remarkable athlete who inspires with his ambition and ability – and warms your heart with his partnership with his sight guide and fiancee, Molly.
Comedy Box Set: This Country: Season 1 to 3
DAisy May and Charlie Cooper are gently side-splitting in this low-key mockumentary, which explores the lives of young people in modern rural Britain
Comedy Box Set: Dave
A neurotic mid-20s suburbanite is convinced he is destined to be one of the greatest rap stars ever in Dave Burd’s new comedy, which stars Dave Burd as, well, Dave Burd. His rapper name? Lil Dicky. And that gives you a clue what to expect from this FX sitcom, which is built on the viral success Dave had with a rap song several years ago. In the show, that song is about Dave’s genitalia, and what follows is a string of jokes about “Lil Dicky” in all senses of the word. See past that easy gag, though, and this sitcom is a wonderfully observed portrait of middle-class, white privilege, male ego (Taylor Misiak’s patient girlfriend, Ally, is far more rounded than more other shows would make her) and – just maybe – some actual rapping talent. You suspect that it might be more interesting to have the show told from the perspective of Ally or one of the rappers he tries to ingratiate himself with. Don’t expect that to stop you cringe-chuckling, though.
Killing Eve: Season 3
The enjoyably twisted thriller finds a renewed sense of focus in a fun start to its third season. Episodes arrive weekly on Monday mornings, and are repeated on Sunday nights on BBC One. Read our full review
Drama Box Set: Normal People
BBC Three and Hulu’s 12-part adaptation of Sally Rooney’s hit novel is a moving, nuanced and beautiful drama that’s at once smart and sensual. Read our full review here.
Two Minute Masterpiece
You could be forgiven for missing these when they dropped last month, tucked away as they are in the nether regions of BBC Two on BBC iPlayer, but the fourth series of shorts produced and directed by emerging filmmakers in Northern Ireland are worth a few minutes of your time.
The opening film, The Presence of Absence, is an artsy, black-and-white job, which sees a young girl wandering around a forest, occasionally glimpsing an older woman and another mysterious figure. In From His Perspective, a young trans man faces opposition to his transition from his family. Please Introduce Yourself is about the difficulties of communication, as a deaf woman goes to a job interview. The next two films examine different dynamics of father/son relationships – in Cycle, the father of a young child worries that he’s inherited his own father’s violent temper as he sees history repeating itself, while Son focuses on an interview of an older man, who reflects on the loss of his dad when he was a boy. But the final short of the series, Ode, is pure bliss. It films young dancers done up in their glittery costumes and make-up, performing their routines on a housing estate to the soundtrack of Arthur O’Shaughnessy’s poem Ode. As a testament to the power and strength of young women, it’s a moving and uplifting end to an interesting little series. Words: Helen Archer
Panorama: On the NHS Frontline
In case there’s any doubt of the severity of the national situation, or the pressures the heroes of our NHS workers are under, this Panorama documentary lays them to rest, taking us to the front line at a Coventry hospital four weeks into the lockdown. Grim, important viewing.
Drama Box Set: Taboo
It is 1814 and James Delaney reappears in London, a changed and haunted man, presumed dead in Africa many years before. His return finds his father, Horace Delaney, dead and a country at war with France and the United States. Set to inherit what is left of his father’s shipping empire, James’s arrival not only threatens to disrupt the plans of his half-sister Zilpha and her husband Thorne, but also the ambitions of the mighty East India Company. Tom Hardy swaggers through the web of politics and family tensions with an intensity that makes this atmospheric period drama a riveting, absorbing watch.
A Midsummer Night’s Dream (2016)
When is Shakespeare at his best? When faithfully recited in period costume? Or when transformed into something almost unrecognisably new? If you believe the latter, you’ll be delighted by Russsell T Davies’ enchantingly fresh take on A Midsummer Night’s Dream, which emerges as a celebration of life and imagination.
Drama Box Set: Devs
The future is fixed. Everything is determined. Or is it? Those are the kind of questions that Alex “Ex Machina” Garland asks in his latest project, following the dizzyingly ambitious Annihilation. His brilliantly ambiguous tech drama pieces together an existential conundrum from shards of philosophy, conspiracy and espionage thrills, as we follow young Sergei, a programmer who is recruited by the mysterious digital firm Amya. Led by Nick Offerman, who plays its CEO with lots of hair and even more mystery and tragedy, it’s a shady organisation that’s hard at work in its revolutionary examination of free will. But when Sergei disappears, his girlfriend, Lily (the excellent Sonoya Mizuno), begins to look into what exactly he was doing. The result is a wonderfully intriguing thriller with a convincingly chilling cast (including the always-great Alison Pill) and a sinister, eerie vibe that only tightens its claustrophobic grip. All eight episodes are now on BBC iPlayer. Boot up and prepare not to log off for the best part of your weekend.
Dolly Parton: 50 Years at the Opry
Dolly Parton and star guests, including Lady Antebellum and Hank Williams Jr, celebrate her 50 years as the queen of country music – because not only is she clearly country royalty, but a bit of Dolly is also exactly what the world needs right now.
The Mash Report
In contrast to HIGNIFY, The Mash Report has always excelled at rolling with the absurdity of modern existence, and its first remote-hosted episode is a surprisingly slick affair. That’s partly thanks to a pre-filmed segment on Facebook radicalising everyone’s mothers, and partly thanks to the news correspondents’ ability to deliver increasingly daft headlines with a smile – including one brilliant segment involving a monkey. Add in the usual witty back-and-forth between Rachel Parris and Nish Kumar – and the right-wing comedian Geoff Norcott who completes a running joke about Rishi Sunak with aplomb. Kumar’s signature frankness, whether talking about his tiny flat or the fact that these are genuinely scary times, has never been a more welcome presence on our screens.
Limmy’s Homemade Show
Our TV screens are full of a growing number of shows, presenters and formats hurriedly being rewritten and re-conceived for life under coronavirus lockdown. Not so, Limmy, who follows up his pilot for a homemade show with a full season of bizarre comedy that unfolds almost entirely in his flat. Not because of budget or health reasons, but because that’s just the kind of strange man Limmy is. The Scottish comic is as enjoyably surreal as ever, as he gambles the future on whether he can throw a teabag in a mug from across the kitchen and finds intriguing messages on the pavement outside his flat. Some will be puzzled or bored by the weirdness, but for creativity, edgy innovation and sheer, brassy unique identity, it’s a model that other lockdown broadcasts could learn a thing or two from.
Alma’s Not Normal
Sophie Willan stars and writes this pilot for a series about Alma, who tries to get her life back on track after a break-up – but, despite her protestations at the job centre, doesn’t really have the qualifications to get off to the start she wants. Throw in a recovering addict mum and a dab of arson and you’ve got an unusually dark comedy that balances class, mental health and substance abuse with a sharply observed script and some genuine performances from not only Willan but also an unrecognisable Siobhan Finneran. Expect a full series commission in the near future – and expect to look forward to it.
Comedy Box Set: Mister Winner
Spencer Jones is a master at making you laugh out loud through facial expressions and silly noises alone. His new sitcom, then, gets off to a perfect start with a half-hour skit that’s simply and elegantly tailored to his strengths. His loser, Leslie, finds an electronic self-playing piano, and proceeds to trick a restaurant owner into hiring him as a pianist, leading to 30 minutes of increasingly desperate attempts at miming unconvincingly. The funniest thing on TV involving a piano since Black Books. The good news? The whole box set is available right now to cheer up those long self-isolating nights.
Our Girl: Season 4
Michelle Keegan is back again for another tour as Georgie Lane, the determined, smart and tough army medic. The start of Season 4 showcases her calm skills in the face of emergency, but this time in the refreshingly domestic context of a nightclub brawl – and her decision to then move back from normality to Afghanistan means the return to active service has the same impact it had three seasons ago. This time, it brings with it difficult memories of loss, and Keegan sells the emotional toll with a convincing, heartfelt performance that continues to grip.
Miss World 1970: Beauty Queens and Bedlam
It’s not often that people describe a Miss World pageant as important, but the 1970 contest was genuinely a cultural milestone, as feminist activists descended upon the Royal Albert Hall to protest in front of an audience of millions. Flour bombs and water pistols were out in force, and they helped to hammer home the message of not treating women as objects – a message that, despite the UK media headlines at the time, helped turn the tide for society. Contributions from co-host Michael Aspel, whose dated views speak for themselves, and a host of contestants who were there at the time bring the vivid occasion to life.
Thrilling Box Set: Spooks: Season 1 to 10
M:I-5. Not 9 to 5. Even the slogan for the BBC espionage series feels quaintly dated, but for all its love of numerical keypad phones and laptops as cutting-edge gizmos, this spy thriller is still grippingly modern, as it never relied on technology to make its programme relevant: the series’ real secret weapon was its focus on character, which was driven by increasingly far-fetched plots. With a cast including David Oyelowo, Richard Armitage, Matthew Macfadyen and Nicola Walker, that means you have a show that’s as hugely entertaining as ever.
Miles Davis: Birth of the Cool
Featuring never-before-seen archival footage, studio outtakes and rare photos, this film tells the story of a horn player, bandleader and innovator who defined not only the genre of jazz but the very adjective from his own album that gives this documentary a title. A must-watch for musicophiles.
Thrilling box set: Life on Mars
John Simm is great in the role of Sam Tyler, a detective who finds himself transported to the 1970s. Philip Glenister is even better as Gene Hunt, a Manchester police detective who lives up to every stereotype of the period. And then some.
The tile might not be the subtlest in the world, but this BBC documentary series is an entertaining watch thanks to its combination of brassy visual style and solid procedural work. The series follows three murder investigations from their initial arrests to their eventual convictions, giving us a grounded look at the time and legwork it takes for a police case to be closed. Episode 1 charts the crucial first two days of a murder in Southend-on-Sea, while later, we witness the investigation into a double stabbing in Colchester. The emphasis is firmly on the effort involved and the methodical processes followed, which makes for insightful viewing, but it’s the surprisingly bold use of split-screen to capture the evidence board and other parts of the case that gives things a welcome polish.
Thrilling box set: Years and Years
Russell T. Davies’ gripping portrait of a family fighting through a changing society is a hauntingly plausible state-of-the-nation thriller.
Drama box set: The Split: Season 2
The Defoe sisters, Hannah (Nicola Walker), Nina (Annabel Scholey) and Rose (Fiona Button) – and their formidable mother Ruth (Deborah Findlay) – are back for another round of legal dramatics on London’s divorce circuit. Hannah and her sisters make for engrossing, compellingly human television. With so much seething distrust, jealousy and resentment simmering under the surface, the fun lies in seeing each relative use their clients as ammunition to snipe at the others, while watching Hannah try to navigate the tensions between her unhappy marriage to Nathan (an excellent Stephen Mangan) and her desire to be with former flame Christie (Barry Atsma), who works with her. Throw in the always-excellent Chukwudi Iwuji as Alex, her boss, and you have a show that’s as gripping as ever. Not caught up with The Split? Don’t miss the chance to catch up with Season 1, also available as a box set.
Inside No. 9: Season 5
Reece Shearsmith and Steve Pemberton’s impeccable anthology of wonderfully twisted tales is back for a fifth run and it’s as hilariously warped and deliciously dark as ever. It kicks off with a football-themed tale that unfolds in the claustrophobic dressing room of a crucial match, as United and Rovers clash to determine who will get promoted or relegated. Off-pitch tensions are just the top of the iceberg, as retiring referee Martin (a brilliantly passionated David Morrissey) tries to keep linesmen Brendan (Reece Shearsmith) and Oggy (Steve Pemberton) in order. Before long, other questions start to surface. Is match-fixing at play? What is going on between No 9 striker Calvin (Dipo Ola) and the ref? And which animal is that team mascot meant to be anyway? The result isn’t going to win points on sporting accuracy, but the suspense ratchets up flawlessly, with each new twist thrown in from unexpected sidelines at pitch-perfect pace.
Universal Credit: Inside the Welfare State: Season 1
Universal credit is preparing to be rolled out across the country, as the government looks to rework the national benefits system into one single payment. But the new credit has proven a nightmare for anyone needed to use it, forcing people to wait for five weeks until they can receive their first payment, thereby pushing them into poverty – or further into poverty – and causing hardship for those already vulnerable. This three-part series highlights just how damaging the system is, charting the on-the-ground pressures not only on claimants trying to survive but also the staff in Jobcentres and those having to make the technology behind the infrastructure change work. The first episode introduces us to people in Peckham affected by universal credit, as we see former NHS worker Rachel quit to become a carer for her ill parents, only to find a lack of financial support, and Declan, a 46-year-old man who has been made homeless and sleeps in the park. Heartbreaking, urgent viewing.
Drama box set: The Victim
Kelly Macdonald and John Hannah are on superb form in this four-parter, which delves into the complex legal case that surrounds the attack against a man, Eddie J. Turner (James Harkness), who was convicted of murdering a young boy 15 years earlier. Given a new name (“Craig”) and a new life, that identity is exposed, and the boy’s mother, Anna (Macdonald) is accused of doing the leaking and inciting the killing. Investigating is John Hannah’s DI Grover, who picks apart the ensuing thorny questions with a suitably grave gravitas. Created by Rob Williams, the drama doesn’t shy away from delving into its complex material right from the opening episode, and the result is a nuanced, yet twisting, exploration of grief, the right for rehabilitation and the line between justice and revenge. Set aside four hours and prepare for your sympathies to be torn.
Thriling box set: Line of Duty: Season 1 to 5
Before Jed Mercurio’s ridiculously tense cop thriller returns for a sixth season, don’t miss your chance to binge through the first five.
Louis Theroux: Selling Sex
The exchange of sex for money is legal in Britain, so long as it doesn’t involve coercion, exploitation, or any kind of public nuisance. Now, in an age of social media and digital connections, the notion of transactional sex is suddenly in front of people who might never have previously considered it. Enter Louis Theroux to untangle the complicated presumptions, expectations and challenges surrounding what is now an industry. He meets 30-something Victoria, a mother who fits in multiple bookings each day between school runs, Caroline, a former dental nurse who is turned onto the work by a friend and Ashleigh, a student with Asperger’s who is using transactional sex to pay for art school. Theroux may not be making headlines with this film, but he’s at his absolute best, teasing out details from his subjects through probing but sensitive questions, from how one of their past relationships has framed their valuing of sex and themselves to his own reticence to make judgements or assumptions and his attempts to stop any thoughts of paternal concern. The result is a thoughtful consideration of an unseen but prevalent economy, and a provocative examination of moral, ethical and financial issues.
Comedy Box Set: King Gary: Season 1
After a hilarious pilot last year, BBC One’s King Gary returns for a full season, and the sitcom still has laughs and warmth in abundance. Tom Davis gets a deserved chance to take the lead as Gary King, a builder with aspirations to achieve social acceptance and moderate material success in competitive suburbia. He’s joined by his childhood sweetheart Terri, played with impeccable cluelessness by Laura Checkley (The Detectorists). But while the larger-than-life characters are amusingly inept at trying to climb the social ladder, King Gary succeeds because it has such affection for its man-and-wife double-act, ensuring we never chuckle at their expense. Gary, in particular, is a wonderfully observed and realised character, a balance of desperation and dated values; he’s perpetually trying to impress his dinosaur of a dad (Simon Day) and prove himself the man of the town, even though he’s visibly pained by trying to do so. Masculinity, marital loyalty and modern social pressures all elbow each other throughout every 30-minute episode (written by Davis and directed by James De Frond), erupting into brilliant set pieces such as one awkward confrontation over a football team Gary coaches – bringing him into conflict with Romesh Rangathan’s sarcastic, woke neighbour – and a very relatable struggle to establish order and respect on the family building site. With Neil Maskell providing generous support as Gary’s friend, Winkle, the result is a beautifully simple yet deceptively complex comedy that gets every detail just right, even down to Gary’s absurdly over-rehearsed walk.
Drama Box Set: The Trial of Christine Keeler
The Trial Of Christine Keeler takes a fresh look at one of the most infamous British stories of the 20th century: the chain of events in the 1960s that came to be known as the Profumo Affair. This stylish, gripping drama finds the female voice at the heart of it: 19 year-old Christine Keeler, a young woman whom the powerful, male-dominated establishment sought to silence and exploit, but who refused to play by their rules. (Read our full review)
Family box set: Worzel Gummidge
Is there anything Mackenzie Crook can’t do? One suspects not, based on Worzel Gummidge, his new two-part adaptation of Barbara Euphan Todd’s children’s books. Stepping into the straw shoes of Jon Pertwee, who was the definitive Worzel for a generation of kids, he’s instantly iconic here with his own take on the scarecrow of Ten Acre Field. (Read our full review)
Don’t miss: A Christmas Carol
Charles Dickens’ festive classic gets a bold reinvention with this dark adaptation that sees a chillingly arrogant Guy Pearce play Ebenezer Scrooge, who is haunted by three spirits in the course of one night – including Andy Serkis as the Ghost of Christmas Past. With Stephen Graham also bringing new life to Scrooge’s former partner, Marley, from beyond the grave, and with Nick “The Awakening” Murphy directing from a script by Steven “Peaky Blinders” Knight, this grippingly bleak three-parter is a wintry bedtime story for adults only. (Read our full review)
Comedy Box Set: The Goes Wrong Show
The team behind The Play That Goes Wrong return once more to BBC One, but this time for a full series, beginning with a Christmas special. The Mischief Theatre troupe have made a real name for themselves with their many Noises Off!-style productions, and this new series sees the Cornley Drama Society continue to (attempt to) stage ambitious shows. Distilling the concept down into 30-minute bursts is an inspired move, giving the group a chance to dial up the chaos and silliness without the novelty wearing off or the joke wearing thin. It helps that the writers and actors are so in sync: written by and starring the original founding Mischief Theatre members, Henry Lewis, Jonathan Sayer, and Henry Shields – alongside Nancy Zamit, Charlie Russell, Bryony Corrigan, Greg Tannahill, Dave Hearn and Chris Leask – there’s a nice sense of continuity in reuniting with perennial over-actor Robert Grove, the screen-hogging Sandra Wilkinson and the artistically mistrusted Dennis Tyde. Grove, in particular, is hilarious in the opening Christmas special, which sees him play Santa, who visits a young girl to restore her Christmas cheer – helped by clumsy elves, a disturbing snowman and a lethal toy machine. The jokes fly thick and fast, with the deadpan delivery of every slapstick, failed musical number and behind-the-scenes aside dispatched with pin-point precision. With the rest of the show set to cover a range of genres – from WWII dramas to courtroom thrillers – this laugh-out-loud pandemonium is a show that could run and run.
Comedy Box Set: The Young Offenders: Season 2
This sublime second season is expertly performed, smartly written and very, very funny. 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.
Comedy 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.
Comedy Box Set: 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.
Thrilling 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.
Funny Box Set: What We Do in the Shadows
This wonderfully silly, superbly written comedy transforms vampire horror into flatshare sitcom. (Read our full review)
Chilling 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)
Drama 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.
Comedy Box Set: 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.
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.
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.
Chilling 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.
Drama 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.
Family 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?
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.