The days between Christmas and New Year are the perfect time to hunker down with leftover turkey and chocolate and lose yourself in a programme about the past. Whether you’re a lover of escapist period drama or a stickler for historical fact, we’ve rounded up some suggestions* for historical viewing this winter.
(*All programmes are available on the channels in the UK at the time of publication, December 2017)
Drama, 6 seasons (2013-2017), available on Amazon Prime
Now on its sixth season, this popular (and gory) epic series from the History channel traces the story of legendary Norse warrior Ragnar Lothbrok. With a gripping mix of brutal battles, religious conflict and compelling characters, the historical show attracts millions of viewers worldwide.
Back in 2016, we spoke to the show’s writer and creator Michael Hirst about the challenges of adapting historical material for the screen and why the world has been gripped by ‘Viking fever’. Read more here.
More like this: The Last Kingdom (season 1, Netflix), Digging for Britain (season 6, BBC iPlayer)
Drama, 6 episodes (2015), BBC iPlayer
A six-part adaptation of Hilary Mantel’s two bestselling novels, Wolf Hall and Bringing Up the Bodies, the BBC’s drama is set in the period between 1500 and 1535 and traces the rapid rise to power of Thomas Cromwell in the court of Henry VIII. The whole series is available to watch on iPlayer over Christmas, so expect intrigue, reckless desire and cold machinations from familiar Tudors, all portrayed by a stellar cast which includes Mark Rylance, Damian Lewis and Claire Foy.
Meanwhile, you can read our interview with Hilary Mantel, who spoke to BBC History Magazine editor Rob Attar about the process of writing historical fiction, here.
More like this: Outlander (3 seasons, Amazon Prime), Armada: 12 Days to Save England (3 episodes, BBC iPlayer)
Claire Foy and Damian Lewis as Anne Boleyn and Henry VIII in the BBC’s BAFTA-winning adaptation Wolf Hall. (BBC/Company Productions Ltd)
Drama, 2 seasons (2016-2017), Netflix
Expect two seasons of sumptuously presented royal drama, tracing the lives of the British royal family from Queen Elizabeth’s engagement to Prince Philip, through the premierships of Winston Churchill, Anthony Eden and Harold Macmillan. Key plot lines include Princess Margaret’s divisive relationship with divorcee Group Captain Peter Townsend in the first season, and the Suez crisis in the second. You can read our interview with Robert Lacey, royal historian and historical consultant to the show, here.
More like this: The Royal House of Windsor (season 1, documentary, Netflix), Victoria (season 1, drama, Netflix)
Drama, 4 seasons (2013-2017), BBC iPlayer (seasons 1, 2, 4), Netflix (seasons 1, 2, 3)
The epic gangster drama set in the lawless streets of 1920s Birmingham returned to BBC Two in November 2017 and still has viewers addicted to Tommy Shelby (Cillian Murphy) and his allies and enemies. Season 4 concluded on 20 December, with episodes available on BBC iPlayer for 28 days after broadcast.
Back in 2016, the show’s creator, Steven Knight, talked to us about the real-life inspiration for the series and the historical research that underpins the drama. Read more here.
Drama, 2 episodes (2017), BBC iPlayer, from Boxing Day
Based on the 2014 bestseller by Jessie Burton, The Miniaturist is a period thriller set in 17th-century Amsterdam. This haunting adaptation follows the story of a young woman called Nella Oortman, who arrives in the city after her marriage is arranged to a wealthy merchant trader Johannes. Installed in his home and given the wedding gift of a magnificent dolls’ house, Nella notices odd things beginning to happen to the figures inside.
The Boxing Day period drama is preceded by another new offering from the BBC, a three-part adaptation of Louisa May Alcott’s 1868-9 novel Little Women, set in New England during the American Civil War.
More like this: Alias Grace (1 season, Netflix)
The Miniaturist. (Image Credit: The Forge/BBC/ Laurence Cendrowicz)
Drama, 1 season (2015), available on Netflix
One of the hit period dramas of recent years, the BBC’s Poldark starring Aidan Turner and Eleanor Tomlinson had audiences falling in love (again) with Winston Graham’s 18th-century Cornish hero. Though season three recently aired on the BBC, you can catch up from the beginning with season 1, available on Netflix this Christmas.
Meanwhile, don’t miss historian Hannah Greig’s article which explores how themes in the Poldark novels and BBC TV series reflect key concerns of the Georgian era. Also, if you watched season 3 and want to know more, Hannah wrote a weekly blog about the history which can be found here.
More like this: The Duchess (film, Netflix), Sense and Sensibility (film, Netflix), Versailles (season 1, drama, Amazon Video)
Comedy, 1 season (2015), available on Netflix
If you like your history with a hefty serving of irreverent comedy, this series might be for you. David Mitchell stars as ‘upstart’ writer William Shakespeare. Ben Elton, the writer behind the series, recently explained to the Radio Times why the playwright’s work is ripe for sitcom: “He was the ultimate man of the theatre and used every trick available: “asides”, internal monologues, declamatory rants, costume gags, cross dressing and oafish clowning.”
Don’t miss the BBC’s Christmas special Upstart Crow: A Christmas Crow on Christmas Day (8.25pm, BBC Two).
More like this: Plebs (3 seasons, Netflix), Blackadder (2 seasons, Netflix)
Documentary, 2 seasons (2015-2016), available on Netflix
Historian Dan Jones travels the British Isles, investigating the rich histories of fortresses and castles which fill the landscape. Stops include Arundel, Dover, Leeds and Caernarfon. Want a teaser? Jones explored the turbulent history behind six of Britain’s most famous fortresses for History Extra, here.
More like this: The Fairytale Castles of King Ludwig II with Dan Cruickshank (documentary, BBC iPlayer until mid-January), Shewolves with Helen Castor (documentary, Neflix)
Documentary, BBC iPlayer, available until early January
This one-off documentary makes for emotive viewing, as Sir David Attenborough visits the Victorian era to chart the tragic life of Jumbo – the elephant said to have inspired Dumbo. Queen Victoria was said to be a fan of the ‘circus star’ which had arrived in London in 1865. In this programme, Attenborough explores key questions around the animal’s life, including his formidable size – it was claimed that Jumbo was the largest elephant ever to have lived – and his sad death.
Tom Hardy as anti-hero James Delaney in Taboo. (Photo by Scott Free Prods/Robert Viglasky)
Drama, 8 episodes (2017), BBC iPlayer until late January
All eight episodes of the BBC’s 2017 drama Taboo (written by Stephen Knight) are currently available on iPlayer over the Christmas period. The series sees James Delaney take on the might of the East India Company in early 19th-century London. Expect murder, betrayal and a brooding Tom Hardy in this gritty Regency-set drama.
You can read more about the East India Company’s path to imperial power in a feature by Dr Andrea Major here.
More like this: Frontier (2 seasons, Netflix)
Mindhunter. (Image credit: Patrick Harbron/Netflix)
Drama, 1 season (2017), Netflix
A dark historical crime series directed in part by David Fincher, this Netflix original is a tense ten-episode dramatisation of the FBI’s forays into criminal profiling in the late 1970s. Much of the show is based on a true crime book by John E Douglas who, during the 1970s and 80s, gained a reputation as a serial killer ‘whisperer’. A former hostage negotiator, Douglas worked with notorious criminals including Charles Manson, Ted Bundy and Edmund Kemper, and the slow-burning show explores how steps were first taken to interview perpetrators of hideous crimes in order to gain knowledge about criminal psychology.
More like this: Aquarius (season 1, drama, Netflix), Madmen (seasons 1-7, drama, Netflix)