Top TV shows and films on BBC iPlayer (3rd November 2015)
Ivan Radford | On 03, Nov 2015
Ian McKellen and Anthony Hopkins square off against each other for the first time on screen – a spectacle that some would charge through the nose to see, but is available to stream for free on BBC iPlayer this week. If that’s not good enough value, there are lots of other options, from original exclusives Fear Itself and Matt Berry’s comedy shorts to the understated class of Detectorists. Grab your streaming detectors, folks: there’s buried treasure here that’s worth unearthing.
We review the best TV shows and films currently available on BBC iPlayer:
Ian McKellen and Anthony Hopkins star in Ronald Harwood’s amusing play about devoted backstage hand Norman, who spends his days catering to the whims of “Sir”, the demanding head of a Shakespeare company – applying his make-up, laughing at his jokes, helping him to remember his lines. Their relationship is one of dependence, but neither would admit it, a sad state of affairs that echoes the tragedy of King Lear unfolding on stage. The chance to see Hopkins, long since retired from the boards, railing at an auditorium is one to treasure, but it’s the behind-the-scenes interactions that bring the house down. Director Richard Eyre, a master of both stage and screen, goes in close for shots of the duo’s frail faces and terse tongues, while the two towering stars underplay as much as possible to keep things convincing. As Sir becomes increasingly irrational and weary, we get to see the many sides of the seemingly harmless Norman; part Othello, part Iago, part Fool, part Lear, he’s the kind of character Shakespeare would’ve relished in unravelling.
Photo: BBC/Playground Entertainment/Joss Barratt
Available until: 30th November
The BBC’s new police drama is the latest in a long line-up of police dramas, each one hoping to stand out to audiences seeking their next usual suspect for a weeknight viewing. Cuffs has come up with a neat calling card: the whole thing is set in Brighton, a world away from your usual cop shows. Shots of the pier and the beach add a sense of colour and location to events – especially when contrasted with the grim activities going on there, from suicide to racist attack. Amid it all, rookie Jake (Jacob Ifan) is struggling to find his feet, not least because his dad is the police chief.
Ifan is likeable, if bland, as the stereotypical newcomer. He’s a perfect fit, though, for what initially feels like a bunch of all-too-familiar character types and tired story lines. Luckily, Ashley Walters is arresting as the veteran colleague tasked with showing Jake the gritty ropes, and Amanda Abbington adds shades of nuance to background bobby DS Jo Moffat. They do just enough to make this average boys-in-blue ensemble compelling – it’s telling that the most intriguing part of the show is one that doesn’t involve dialogue or heavy plotting, as we witness a quiet officer save the day, but refuse to make an effort to save his marriage, instead popping down to the local brothel. Detain this one for questioning and the show might yield some interesting answers.
Photo: BBC/Tiger Aspect
Available until: 26th November
“Nostalgia conventions ain’t what they used to be…”
Is there a more quietly hilarious show in recent years than Mackenzie Crook’s Detectorists? The BBC Four BAFTA-winning show, which follows two metal detectorists in Essex, hardly sounds like a riot, but it’s a gem worth digging up in a field of louder, less valuable series. Crook plays Andy, a member of the Danebury Metal Detecting Club and long-time friend to Lance (veritable national treasure Tony Jones). Together, they share a passion for something that seems outwardly dull – and that genuine sense of friendship is what makes their uneventful existence so enthralling. Should Lance try online dating? No, comes the response, he’s going through a period of voluntary chastity. Should the group try a naked calendar to boost their profile? The withering looks the suggestion from one member gets are alone enough to make you sigh and giggle at the same time. A brasher show would emphasise the failures for awkward, bleak laughs, but Detectorists is happy to accept its characters as they are: losers. As the season starts, we see them scanning the ground inches from a treasured find from centuries before. They stroll on by, none the wiser. We never see it again.
Photo: BBC/Channel X North/Treasure Trove/Lola Entertainment
Available until: 28th November
Class of ’92: Out of Their League
Buying players. Counting coins. Cleaning the toilet. It’s not easy running a fantasy football team. But if you find your weekly team selection stressful, try running a club for real: that’s what Class of ’92: Out of Their League conveys brilliantly, as we see Ryan Giggs, Paul Scholes, Nicky Butt and Gary and Phil Neville – the five Manchester lads who would endure as footballers and go on to win the Champions League, despite the sudden influx of big bucks behind-the-scenes transforming the sport in the 1990s – buy amateur team Salford City FC. It’s long way from Old Trafford, seven tiers down from the Premiere League, to be exact. And the real people they meet, on a few hundred quid a week, juggling day jobs on the side, are the stuff the beautiful game was named after.
Photo: Rachel Joseph / BBC
Available until: 28th November
The Last Kingdom
This BBC historical epic will be compared by many to Game of Thrones, but its closest cousin is actually Vikings (released by Amazon Prime in the UK) – and that’s a compliment. Like Vikings, The Last Kingdom packs in a boat-load of violence, including one nasty sword-through-the-neck moment, but doesn’t skimp on the character stuff, following a smaller-scale story than HBO’s fantasy series, which gives it some emotional heft to make up for lack of sorcery and dragons.
The focus is on young Uhtred, who finds himself inheriting his father’s land and title amid the skirmish between the Danes and Saxons. That doesn’t sit too well with the others, so it’s probably for the best that he’s whisked away by the Vikings and raised as a prisoner-slash-step-son – not least because we get to spend time with Rutger Hauer as a blind poet called Ravn. Yes, really.
Hauer’s not the only impressive name to be found. Young Tom Taylor is excellent as the earnest tyke, with Alexander Dreymon convincingly carrying on his manly, determined streak as the grown-up boy, while Matthew Macfadyen steals the show with a brief, authoritative appearance. It all paves the way nicely for the arrival of Alfred the Great – and suggests that Bernard “Sharpe” Cornwell’s history of books becoming TV hits was no fluke.
Available until: 21st November (Episode 1)
Photo: BBC/Carnival Films/Kata Vermes
The Apprentice (Rap Up / Honest Subtitles)
Why do people watch The Apprentice? An hour every week with foul human beings all trying to impress each other – and, worst of all, Lord Alan Sugar? The irritating reality game show lost its initial hate-watch appeal years ago, as contestants seem to be more self-aware of the potential for small-screen celebrity than ever before. Even a trip to France for some frog-out-of-water negotiations (“After several hours, they’ve only got one cheese…”) doesn’t quite vary the formula enough. But BBC iPlayer’s exclusive content relating to the series helps make it seem fresh again. Honest Subtitles accompanying a highlights reel only spell out the things that are obvious and covered in the dialogue or narration, but Radio 1’s Matt Edmondson provides a fairly witty recap of each week’s events in rhyme form (“Rap Up”) – something that keeps you in the loop without having to spend time with these awkward, annoying people.
Available until: 20th November (Episode 3)
Kermode and Mayo’s Film Review: SPECTRE Special
We could listen to Mark Kermode and Simon Mayo witter entertainingly about movies at any time of the day – but now, hot on the heels (or at least cool on the calves) of their YouTube “Film Thing”, comes another chance to watch them in action. Freed from the 5 Live radio studio, where they live-stream each Friday show on the BBC website, they’ve taken over Empire Leicester Square to record a Bond special for BBC iPlayer. Sam Mendes and Daniel Craig both make lengthy appearances – even for a free streaming service, it’s good value for money – but it’s the silly fun of an IMAX cinema full of people saying “Hello” to Jason Isaacs, and the pleasure of seeing their Well Done U short film competition winner having their entry screened on the big screen, that raises this above your typical TV film programme. The doctors’ relationship is as endearingly tetchy as ever, although it’s softened by the addition of the fabulous Flora Shedden off GBBO, whose film-themed cake and sincere enthusiasm for the church of Wittertainment is the icing on the cake. More please.
Available until: 22nd November
Concerto – A Beethoven Journey (BBC4)
Is there a greater pianist working today than Leif Ove Andsnes? Certainly within the field of Beethoven, he’s an unrivalled talent, thanks to his decision in 2011 to go on a four-year tour playing only Ludwig van – specifically, his five piano concertos. This BBC Four programme films him throughout that tour, hopping between Beethoven biography and technical insights with a passion and personality that makes for engrossing viewing. It’s seeing Andsnes in action, though, that proves the most thrilling. Conducting the orchestra at the same time as playing the piano, his hand movements to guide the other instruments flow seamlessly into his pressing of the keys – a virtuosic demonstration of man connecting with music. Bravo.
Available until: 22nd November
Photo: BBC/Holger Talinski
How gay is Pakistan?
YouTuber Mawaan Rizwan is no stranger to being out and proud, but in Pakistan, the country of his birth, homosexuality is no laughing matter. This revealing documentary sees Rizwan travel to the fundamentalist society to see how gay the country really is. He presents his trip with humour that avoids a preachy, heavy-handed tone, but as he uncovers transgender women and underground sex dens, he laughs less and less – until a climactic conversation with an Imam who politely informs him that he has a sickness and that he can be cured. (“This hole made for the human body is for waste, not sex.”) Claiming to diagnose a heated liver from just feeling his pulse, the attitude of this figure of authority, and the inability of people to live openly within persecution, is eye-opening stuff – not just for us, but for Rizwan himself, whose journey of discovery makes for a moving and affecting POV.
Photo: BBC/Madeeha Syed
Nicola Walker goes head-to-head with Nicola Walker in this month’s TV ratings, as the star of ITV crime drama Unforgotten also bags a leading role in BBC’s River. But there’s a twist here that makes River far from your typical cop show. Stellan Skarsgard is on stellar form as the troubled detective, who is haunted by murder victims and failures – something that doesn’t get any easier when he finds himself under scrutiny and calls for his resignation. Obsessively tracking a suspect across London, a mother also piles on the pressure for him to find her daughter, but it’s the relationship between Stellan’s veteran and Nicola’s upbeat sidekick that brings both complexity and comedy to proceedings. Their exchanges give Skarsgard real dramatic meat to sink his teeth into. The scenes of them performing karaoke and ordering banana milkshakes at a drive-thru are a bonus.
Available until: 12th November
Photo: BBC/Kudos/Nick Briggs
Katherine Parkinson continues her quest to take over our TV screens in this new BBC sitcom – and thank goodness she is. Bringing an expert sense of comic timing, with just the right shade of domestic ennui, she elevates what could be a hackneyed, dull sitcom about a family in the 1970s into a pleasantly jolly 30 minutes. Jokes mostly involve her moustached husband not knowing what lasagne is, but the cast go at it with charming energy, with Lucy Hutchison as the daughter making for a likeable narrator.
Available until: 11th November (Episode 1)
Photo: BBC/Gary Moyes
Romesh Ranganathan is the latest to tackle the now-prolific genre of Comedian Travels Abroad. But the usual fish-out-of-water schtick is given a personal touch by the fact that he’s heading to his parents’ homeland of Sri Lanka – because his mum tells him to – to meet his Uncle Thiru and learn about his heritage. Ranganathan hasn’t always been involved in the best projects, but he’s a naturally funny guy, something that the format allows to come through without beating you over the head with it.
Available until: 4th November (Episode 1)
Photo: BBC/Rumpus Media/Benjamin Green
The Face of Britain by Simon Schama
Simon Schama teams up with the National Portrait Gallery for this new series examining the paintings on display. Covering areas such as “Love” and Power”, the historian brings his signature presenting style to the subject, walking through the gallery halls like he’s just been invited round there for dinner and has come prepared with a smattering of anecdotes. With talk of how we attach ourselves to faces as a key part of human evolution and the use of portraits to reinforce or undermine authority, it’s hard not to imagine inviting him back for another course.
Photo: BBC/Oxford Film and TV
The John Peel Lecture 2015 with Brian Eno
Listening to Brian Eno talk for an hour may not sound like riveting television, but the selection of the music guru to deliver this year’s John Peel Lecture turns out to be an inspired decision. The pop star waxes lyrical, stepping aside any potential self-aggrandisement that accompanies these events to deliver some insightful – nay, inspirational – comments on the nature of culture, on playing and learning, before arriving at surely one of the best definitions of art to be recorded no camera: “Art is what we don’t have to do,” he suggests. That alone is worth tuning in for. You know, not that you have to.
Available until: 1st November
Photo: BBC/Kieron Mcarron
The BBC once again proves a safe pair of hands for rebooting your childhood favourites, as the all-new Danger Mouse introduces cutting edge tech (goodbye, eye patch; hello, iPatch) but sticks to an old-school formula of silly voices, non-stop puns and an extremely villainous toad. The opening double-bill proves narrative isn’t the show’s strong point, but the promise of more chaos squeezed into 11-minute chunks of zany Bond parodies is enough to raise anyone’s eyebrows as high as Penfold’s.
Photo: BBC / FremantleMedia Limited
The Naked Choir
Between Glee and Pitch Perfect, a cappella has been having something of a moment in recent years. If the glossy production values have turned you off, though, Gareth Malone’s return with The Naked Choir is for you. Picking a selection of local groups to train up, the realistic obstacles facing our singers – drowning out the soloist, not counting rhythm – are a welcome change to Hollywood fiction, while the sincere sense of teamwork (one Stratford group allows anyone to join, resulting in a pleasingly diverse bunch) makes the belting arrangements even sweeter on the ears. Forget The X Factor: this is real singing entertainment, right down to its distinctly non-prime time presenter.
BBC/Twenty Twenty Brighton/Mark Johnson
To say the BBC has delivered another stunning wildlife series might seem obvious, but Patagonia is exactly that. Soaring over the landscape before zooming in on tiny roads and hectic hummingbirds, Tuppence Stone’s camerawork takes your breath away. The programme’s secret weapon, though, is narrator Santiago Cabrera, whose correct pronunciation and soft tones could make a probiotic yoghurt sound attractive.
Available until: 5th November (Episode 2)
Photo: BBC NHU/Anthony Pyper
“You look haggard.” “Thanks.” That’s Martin Beck, your new favourite Scandinavian detective. A haggard Scandinavian detective? It’s par for the course for Nordic noir, but so is high quality – and this series of standalone dramas, based on the Swedish books, confidently exceeds an already high standard. Peter Haber, who was memorably creepy in the original The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo film, plays the gruff cop, who is first faced with a person being buried alive – the kind of horrific crime that doesn’t need subtitles to be effective. Mikael Persbrandt as his unapologetically confrontational colleague, Gunvald Larsson, is the icing on the kladdkaka.
Photo: BBC/Nordisk Film Production AB & Filmlance International AB/Bengt Wanselius
“Nobody messes with the McCrane family,” warns cockney crime boss Harry McCrane to his newly assembled henchmen. A hand goes up. “Yes, Sandra?” He’s just taken over an ice cream factory. The problem? They were already making a lot of money with the ice cream. Drugs, on the other hand, are a lot of hassle.
It’s exactly the kind of villain you can expect to encounter Top Coppers, BBC Three’s new comedy series. Created by Andy Kinnear and Cein McGillicuddy (also on directing duties), the show spoofs 1970s cop thrillers like it’s going out of fashion.
In many ways, of course, it is: comedies these days don’t do slapstick and silliness in the quite the same way. But the cast are more than up for it; Steen Raskopoulous is hilariously gormless as star cop John Mahogany and John Kearns is even more so as his sidekick, Mitch Rust. Both are dim, good at deadpan delivery and even more ginger than their names suggest. Their policing of Justice City, led by an amusingly over-the-top chief – the lover of another brother’s mother – recalls Police Squad! with its rapid-fire punchlines and constant undermining of every plot point. It’s not on a par with Frank Drebin, but three decades on, this wears the comparison on its sleeve with impressive attitude.
Available until: 4th November (Episode 1)
Photo: BBC PICTURES/Rough Cut
Music Box with Guy Garvey
The Elbow’s likeable frontman throws the curtains wide on a new music series exclusive to iPlayer, which sees Garvey share and discuss artists that he is most excited about. The series will run every other week for six episodes, with the first living up to its promise of introducing audiences to new music through its focus on Here We Go Magic. The exclusive premiere of the video for Falling – from their new album Be Small – is an apt coup, with Garvey providing the kind of amusing and insightful commentary that listeners to his Radio 6 Music show will be familiar with. Space for archive music from Radiohead brings diversity to the line-up, while the sub-30-minute runtime makes this an easy fit into your commute. Most impressive, though, is the BBC’s Playlister, which enables you to add tracks to a music playlist – a feature that, while not always relevant to the Beeb’s catch-up TV content, really comes into its own. Much like YouTube’s links to purchase audio from its videos, it’s the kind of innovative touch the BBC is good at – and could signal a strong future for IPlayer in the music VOD world. One day like this a fortnight will see us right.
Available until: June 2016
Photo: BBC / Dean Chalkley
Matt Berry Does…
Matt Berry proves once again that almost anything he says is funny, mostly because of the way he says it. After several excellent comedy shorts for BBC iPlayer, the IT Crowd and Garth Marenghi star now has his own series of six iPlayer short films titled “Matt Berry Does…”. Father’s Day and Summer Holidays are the kind of arbitrary topics that get the absurdist treatment from him and Bob Mortimer – there’s something undeniably hilarious about Matt Berry’s voice playing on top of screaming fish – while the latest, Matt Berry Does… Ghosts, is another testament to how effective Berry’s silliness is when distilled down to one brief, concentrated dose. Especially if you like learning about ghosts called Kenneth.
Available until: June 2016
Photo: BBC iPlayer
The BBC’s latest season of comedy pilots has arrived and it’s a consistently hilarious batch. Highlights include warped game show spoof Funz and Gamez, complete with depressed host and a production team that breaks into their contestants’ homes to steal prizes, and sketch show People Like Us, which just might be the best ensemble sketch programme since Big Train. Elsewhere, the return of a wayward daughter from university to her rural home is a delightfully original piece of comedy in an age where many sitcoms have become bland and familiar. These feeds should come with a warning – because they’ll leave you hungry for more. (Read our full review.)
Available until: June 2016.
As BBC iPlayer’s Original Drama Shorts return for another season, one of 2014’s best, My Jihad, returns as a miniseries of three 15-minute films. The first introduced us to Fahmida (Anjli Mohindra) and Nazir (Hamza Jeetooa), two single Muslims who crossed paths at an unsuccessful speed-dating night. Picking up events one month later, this is a universal exploration of love in modern Britain that packs in twice as much warmth and wit as most 30-minute shows do in a whole season. (Read our full review.)
Available until: 2016
Original Drama Shorts
BBC iPlayer continues to prove a platform for new talent with its latest bunch of shorts. From a moving demonstration of isolation and connection in an online age to a darkly funny – and unpredictable – story of female love and family loyalty, this is an impressively versatile collection of stories that are more than worth spending time with. (Read our full review.)
Available until: June 2016
“This is the Earth, our home…” begins Michael Palin at the start of each episode of The Clangers. “A tiny, wet planet, lost and alone. Lost in the vast silence of space…”
It’s not the introduction that older viewers will be used to, but it’s immediately clear that the Beeb’s updated version of Oliver Postgate’s classic has no intention of rebooting the show for modern audiences. In a year where Gerry Anderson’s equally loved series was given a CGI makeover, new characters and a different back-story, The Clangers feels like the antithesis to ITV’s Thunderbirds.
Palin’s avuncular tones are the perfect fit for The Clanger’s reassuring voice-over, which rejoices in the small details of our creatures’ lives. The result is something that feels as timeless as ever, because it doesn’t alter what made The Clangers special in the first place: its ability to present imagination as the most natural thing in the universe. (Read our full review.)
Photo: BBC/Coolabi, Smallfilms and Peter Firmin
Women Who Spit
“Your shabby, slipped-stitch mistakes make you miraculous,” spits Vanessa Kisuule in a short poem urging women to stop shrinking back and to take up space. It’s one of countless brilliant lines you’ll hear during this series of short films, which see female poets tackle topics facing young people today.
Cecilia Knapp’s explanation of why she writes is inspiring, Deanna Rodger’s look at those forced off the street is provocative, while Jemima Foxtrot’s double-performed examination of confidence and doubt is an entertaining and powerful reminder of the importance of self over surface. Each are excellent performers, leaving your tongue tripping back over syllables to savour their taste, but keep Megan Beech’s passionate cry for more women on our TV screens until last: after the previous four fantastic compositions, you’ll be hard pushed not to agree.
Important and urgent, this collection shows just how valuable BBC iPlayer can be as a platform to voices that should be heard more often.
Available until: May 2016
Photo: BBC/Thomas Caron Delion
Classic Ealing comedy about the mayhem that ensues when a Scotch-laden ship runs aground off the coast of the Outer Hebrides.
Available until: 7th November
The Abominable Snowman
Screened on BBC Two just in time for Halloween, this classic Hammer horror stars Peter Cushing and follows a US adventurer and a British scientist lead an expedition in search of the titular yeti…
Available until: 9th November
Monsters vs Aliens
This animated adventure about a team of “monsters” recruited from around the world to save the planet from attacking aliens is a delightful combination of bright visuals, silly jokes and clear love for the creature features it so wittily references. Entertainment for kids and grown-ups alike.
Available until: 7th November
The Witchfinder General
Michael Reeves’ cult horror stars the inimitable Vincent Price as Matthew Hopkins, a man hired during the English Civil War to extract confessions from witches – something he’s paid for by the admission. Controversially violent – and unapologetically so.
Available until: 7th November
BBC iPlayer’s second original feature is the follow-up to teen documentary Beyond Clueless. Young director Charlie Lyne and the Beeb’s streaming platform prove a scarily perfect match, the lack of constraints giving him the chance to fully embrace the experimental nature of his film essay. The documentary stitches together clips from existing horror movies to explore how and why they scare us, but instead of an explanatory voice-over critiquing and giving context, we’re given a whispered narration from an anonymous woman who is working through her own fears. Contrasting cuts and eerie echoes arise during the hypnotic 80-minute montage, quietly raising questions while offering a fresh insight into films that have, in some cases, become all too familiar. As interesting as it is creepy. (Read our full review.)
Available until: October 2016
Adam Curtis’ bizarre, surreal, brilliant provocative documentary deconstructs the media’s presentation of politics and history with a dizzying complexity and a dark sense of humour. At over two hours, it’s a daunting watch, but an important one – not least because it showcases the potential for BBC iPlayer as a platform for bold, experimental work. (Read our full review.)
Available until: 2016