14 of the best historical TV shows on Netflix

What are the best historical television series to watch on Netflix right now? We round up the most popular period dramas and documentaries – from the BAFTA award-winning Peaky Blinders to secrets of Great British castles…

Alias Grace. (Photo by Jan Thijs/Netflix)

(All programmes are available to Netflix users in the UK at the time of publication, August 2018)

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1

Victoria

The period drama following the early life of Queen Victoria – from a teenager sleeping in the same bedroom as her mother, to her ascension to the throne at the age of 18 – Victoria has been a huge hit in both Britain and the US.

The ITV drama stars Jenna Coleman as the young Victoria who, upon the death of her uncle King William IV, is thrust into the limelight as she inherits the throne and becomes queen of England. Facing opposition because of her gender, age and lack of political experience, the new queen calls on the expertise of Prime Minister Lord Melbourne (played by Rufus Sewell). The series also explores the hurdles faced by Victoria in the early days of her relationship with her future husband, Prince Albert (played by Tom Hughes).

The show’s writer, Daisy Goodwin, drew heavily on Queen Victoria’s own diaries when crafting the series and assures viewers that “wherever possible, the drama is inspired by real events”.

Series one (of two) is available to watch on Netflix now.

Jenna Coleman becomes a mother in series two of 'Victoria', written by Daisy Goodwin. (© Mammoth Screen for ITV)
Jenna Coleman becomes a mother in series two of ‘Victoria’, written by Daisy Goodwin. (© Mammoth Screen for ITV)

2

Peaky Blinders

The epic BBC gangster series set in 1920s Birmingham scooped Best Drama at this year’s BAFTA Television Awards. Inspired by the real-life Peaky Blinders – a criminal urban youth gang that operated in the city in the late 19thcentury – the series follows the rise of gangster boss Tommy Shelby (played by Cillian Murphy). The show’s star-studded cast also includes Tom Hardy (as Alfie Solomons) and Helen McCrory OBE, who plays the matriarch of the Peaky Blinders, Aunt Polly.

We went behind the scenes with the show’s creator, Steven Knight, who told us how his own family stories helped to inspire Peaky Blinders.

The first three series (of four) are available to watch on Netflix now.

Peaky Blinders. (Photo by BBC/Caryn Mandabach Productions Ltd/Tiger Aspect/Robert Viglasky)
Peaky Blinders. (Photo by BBC/Caryn Mandabach Productions Ltd/Tiger Aspect/Robert Viglasky)

3

Blackadder

The pseudohistorical British sitcom Blackadder is often celebrated as one of the best TV shows of all time. Visiting the 15th, 16th and 18th centuries before heading to the First World War trenches in Blackadder Goes Forth (1989), the show follows the disastrous exploits of Edmund Blackadder (played by Rowan Atkinson) and his dim sidekick, Baldrick (Tony Robinson).

A row erupted in 2014 when the then-education secretary Michael Gove accused Blackadder of peddling “myths” about the First World War. Historians and schoolteachers alike were quick to react to the comments– some echoed Gove’s concerns and described a “Blackadder effect” upon history teaching; while others defended the popular sitcom, arguing that it “engages with the experiences of war, and with its myths, in ways which move an audience”.

The first two series of Blackadder, plus Black Adder’s A Christmas Carol, are available to watch on Netflix.


4

Auschwitz: The Nazis and the Final Solution

Marking the 60th anniversary of Auschwitz’s liberation, this acclaimed 2005 BBC documentary told the story of events at the concentration camp through a series of interviews with former inmates and guards. Featuring dramatic re-enactments, the six-part series explains how Auschwitz, which was originally a Prisoner of War camp for Soviet soldiers, was transformed by SS Commander Rudolf Hoess into an extermination camp.

The documentary includes an interview with former Nazi SS guard Oskar Groening, the so-called “book-keeper of Auschwitz”, who in 2015 was convicted of being an accessory to the murder of 300,000 Jews at the camp and sentenced to four years’ imprisonment. Groening, who was among the last former Nazis to face trial for their roles in the Second World War, died in hospital earlier this year aged 96, without having served his sentence.

Auschwitz: The Nazis and the Final Solution is available to watch on Netflix now.


5

Secrets of Great British Castles

Historian Dan Jones explores the turbulent history behind Britain’s most famous castles – from the kings of Scotland who played a real-life Game of Thrones at Edinburgh Castle in 1440, to the Pendle Witches tried at Lancaster in 1612.

Recounting tales from 1,000 years of British history, Secrets of Great British Castles walks the corridors of fortresses in Warwick, York, Lancaster and Dover, plus the Tower of London.

Series one and two are available to watch now on Netflix.


6

The People v OJ Simpson: American Crime Story

The 1995 trial of sportsman OJ Simpson, who was accused of murdering his ex-wife, Nicole Brown Simpson, and her friend Ron Goldman, became a media sensation and was followed by millions around the world. This Emmy award-winning 10-part drama recounts how the investigation unfolded – from Simpson’s arrest to his ultimate acquittal.

Starring John Travolta as Simpson’s defence attorney, Robert Shapiro, and David Schwimmer as OJ’s most loyal friend Robert Kardashian, the series was met with near-universal praise and was considered to be one of the best dramas of 2016.


7

Horrible Histories

Based on the bestselling children’s books by Terry Deary, the BBC’s historical sketch-comedy show Horrible Histories pokes fun at everything from the ‘Terrible Tudors’ to the ‘Vile Victorians’. Describing itself as“history with the nasty bits left in”, the show satirises history’s grizzliest moments – from William the Conqueror’s funeral, at which his stomach exploded, to the Incans who washed their hair using human urine.

You can watch five hilarious series of Horrible Histories on Netflix now.


8

Poldark

Set in 18th-century Cornwall, this adaptation of Winston Graham’s novels follows the trials and tribulations of a young Ross Poldark. Upon returning from the American War of Independence, Poldark is devastated to learn that his father is dead; his sweetheart is engaged to his cousin and his copper and tin mine is failing.

The hugely popular BBC One drama starring Aidan Turner (as Poldark) and Eleanor Tomlinson (as Demelza) draws inspiration from Winston Graham’s 12 novels, which were written between 1945 and 2002. The show’s historical adviser Hannah Greig told History Extra“Although Poldark’s characters are fictional, Winston Graham drew inspiration for his stories from wide-ranging historical research and these new characters capture yet more facets of everyday 18th-century life and the place of ordinary people whose experiences might otherwise be lost to history”.

Poldark is set to return for a fourth series later this year. The first two series are available to watch now on Netflix.

Demelza and Ross Poldark. (Photo by Mammoth Screen/BBC)
Demelza and Ross Poldark. (Photo by Mammoth Screen/BBC)

9

World War II in Colour

Rare and unseen black-and-white archive footage of the Second World War is brought to life in colour in this13-part documentary series.

Narrated by actor Robert Powell, the 2009 documentary uses computer-enhanced imagery to examine the most significant and dramatic turning points of the conflict – including Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor; the cracking of the German Enigma codes; D-Day; and the deployment of the atomic bomb. The series aimed to add a new dimension to our understanding of the Second World War.


10

The Crown

We would be remiss not to include in this list the wildly popular Netflix Original series The Crown, which follows the young Queen Elizabeth II from the 1940s through to modern times.

Rumoured to cost a whopping $130 million to produce – making it the most expensive television show ever– the first two series of The Crown star Claire Foy as Queen Elizabeth and Matt Smith as Prince Philip. Set across 10 lavish episodes, the first series spans from Elizabeth’s marriage to Philip Mountbatten in 1947 to the final days of Winston Churchill’s premiership, and also explores Princess Margaret’s heart-breaking, doomed relationship with divorcee Peter Townsend.

Series two, meanwhile, explores the difficulties in the royal marriage and tackles the controversial suggestion that Prince Philip was unfaithful.

Both series are available to watch now on Netflix. The third series, which will see Olivia Colman and Tobias Menzies take over as the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh, is expected to air in 2019.

The Crown. (Photo by Robert Viglasky / Netflix)
The Crown. (Photo by Robert Viglasky / Netflix)

11

The Last Kingdom

Set in England in the late 9thcentury, The Last Kingdom follows Uhtred, a Saxon man who was orphaned as a child and raised by the Danish warlord who defeated his father, as he seeks to avenge the murder of his family and reclaim his ancestral homeland of Bebbanburg.

An adaptation of author Bernard Cornwell’s continuing Saxon Stories novel series, the BBC Two drama sees Uhtred (played by Alexander Dreymon) grow up to become the leading warrior of Wessex (the lone Anglo-Saxon kingdom standing up against the invading Viking settlers, commanded by King Alfred the Great).

It was recently announced that the third series of The Last Kingdom will air globally on Netflix later this year. Series one and two are available to watch now.


12

Alias Grace

With an astonishing 99 per cent rating on critic website Rotten Tomatoes, this adaptation of the award-winning novel by Margaret Atwood is not to be missed.

Set in 19th-century Canada, it tells the story of a young, impoverished domestic servant and Irish immigrant named Grace Marks, who is convicted of the murders of her employer, Thomas Kinnear, and his housekeeper Nancy Montgomery. But was Grace Marks guilty?

Inspired by a real Canadian murder case, the series has been hailed as “scarier than The Handmaid’s Tale” and “an astonishing feat of translation to the screen”.


13

The Story of Diana

There has been no shortage of Princess Diana documentaries in the years since her death in 1997, but most have drawn (at best) mixed reviews from critics. We were surprised, then, to discover that The Story of Diana – a 2017 documentary marking the 20th anniversary of her death – had achieved a credible 80 per cent rating on Rotten Tomatoes.

Featuring in-depth conversations with Diana’s brother, Charles Spencer, plus others who knew her well, the documentary explores Diana’s childhood; her family life; and her struggle with bulimia, an eating and mental health disorder.

Netflix viewers can also watch the more controversial Diana: In Her Own Words, a 2017 Channel 4 documentary that featured recordings the princess made with her voice coach in which she speaks candidly about her troubled marriage and her public life. The documentary drew both praise and criticism, with some accusing it of being “manipulative” and “sensationalist”.


14

Mindhunter

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.

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