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 2018)
Drama, 5 seasons (2013-2017), available on Amazon Prime
Now on its fifth 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, or listen to our podcast interview with Hirst here.
More like this: The Last Kingdom(seasons 1–3, Netflix), Digging for Britain (season 7, BBC iPlayer)
A Very English Scandal
Drama, 3 episodes (2018), BBC iPlayer
Russell T Davies’s adaptation of John Preston’s book A Very English Scandal: Sex, Lies and a Murder Plot at the Heart of the Establishment stars Hugh Grant as Jeremy Thorpe and Ben Whishaw as Norman Scott, in this dramatic retelling of the trial that changed politics forever.
It’s the true story of the first British politician to stand trial for conspiracy to murder. In the late 1960s, homosexuality has only just been decriminalized, and Jeremy Thorpe, the leader of the Liberal party and the youngest leader of any British political party in a hundred years, is desperate to hide any trace of Norman Scott, his ex-lover.
More like this: Small Island (2009, BBC iPlayer), Mrs Wilson (2018, BBC iPlayer)
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) Outlander (4 seasons, Amazon Prime)
Drama, 4 seasons (2013-2017), Netflix (seasons 1–4)
The epic gangster drama set in the lawless streets of 1920s Birmingham is now available on Netflix in full.
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.
“One of the stories that really made me want to write Peaky Blinders,” says Knight, “is one my dad told me: he said that when he was eight or nine his dad gave him a message on a piece of paper and said “go and deliver this to your uncles”. His uncles were the Sheldons, who eventually became the Shelbys. Even though the history books say the peaky blinders were only around until the 1890s, they weren’t – people in Small Heath knew these people as peaky blinders.”
Peaky Blinders. (Photo by BBC/Caryn Mandabach Productions Ltd/Tiger Aspect/Robert Viglasky)
The Long Song
Drama, 3 episodes (2018), BBC iPlayer
A three-part drama based on Andrea Levy’s novel of Jamaica in the 1830s, The Long Song is a tale of privilege, slavery and rebellion. Tamara Lawrance stars as July, born in a field at a sugar plantation and whose life encompasses momentous events. The cast also includes Hayley Atwell, Jack Lowden and Lenny Henry.
The Long Song. (Photo by Heyday Television/Carlos Rodriguez)
July is born to field slave Kitty at the Amity sugar cane plantation, but the estate’s mistress Caroline, a capricious woman, decides she wants to train July as her personal maid. Set amid the final days of slavery, and following the Christmas riots and the abolition of slavery, everything July has ever known is thrown into turmoil.
More like this: Alias Grace(1 season, Netflix), Death and Nightingales(2018, BBC iPlayer), Roots(2017, BBC iPlayer)
Drama, 2 seasons (2015–), available on Netflix
One of the hit period dramas of recent years, the BBC’s Poldarkstarring 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: Versailles (season 1–2, drama, Amazon Video), North and South (Netflix), Sense and Sensibility (drama, 2008, BBC iPlayer)
Comedy, 1–3 season (2015–), available on BBC iPlayer
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, explained to the Radio Timeswhy 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.”
More like this: Plebs (3 seasons, Netflix), Blackadder (2 seasons, Netflix, plus Blackadder: A Christmas Carol)
Documentary, 9 episodes 2018, available on BBC iPlayer
Half a century on from Kenneth Clark’s landmark art history series Civilisation, the BBC has reimagined the concept for a modern global audience. While original series focussed on the influence of Western art, the new version included civilisations from Asia to the Americas, Africa as well as Europe.
We spoke to presenters Simon Schama, Mary Beard and David Olusoga about the making of Civilisations here, or you can listen to Mary Beard on the History Extra podcast here, or Simon Schama here.
More like this: A History of Christianity (2018, BBC iPlayer), Easter Island: Mysteries of a Lost World (2018, BBC iPlayer)
Secrets of Great British Castles
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: Shewolves with Helen Castor (documentary, Neflix), Outlaw King (film, Netflix)
Drama, BBC iPlayer, available until early January
When Roots was first screened in 1977, it made history with more than 100 million people watching the final episode. Based on Alex Haley’s 1976 book of the same name, the series has been recently remade, airing on the BBC in early 2017 and available on BBC iPlayer this December.
The plot centres on African-born Kunta Kinte and his family’s trans-generational struggle to survive the system of slavery. Last year, historian Katie Donington reviewed few key moments from the series and considered how each version of the Roots story has prompted necessary conversations about a subject that has often been overlooked.
More like this: The Long Song (2018, BBC iPlayer)
Malachi Kirby as Kunta Kinte, who is a central figure in Alex Haley’s book ‘Roots: The Saga of an American Family’. (BBC/A+E)
5 seasons (2012–), Netflix
If you’re after some family-friendly history over Christmas, look no further than the Horrible Histories series. Proving that some of the most memorable moments in history are also the least pleasant, Horrible Histories is a feast of gore, grossness and all-round historical fun, mixed with a plethora of meaty facts that beg to be repeated. Just perhaps not over Christmas dinner.
More like this: Charles Dickens and the invention of Christmas(2007, BBC iPlayer)
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 1–2, drama, Netflix), Madmen (seasons 1-7, drama, Netflix)
Read more about the best historical TV programmes on Netflix here.