History TV and radio in the UK: what’s on our screens in January 2021?

Can't decide which shows to watch or listen to this month? Here are the latest history radio and TV programmes airing in the UK that you won't want to miss

David Bowie, 1987

Wallis Simpson: Femme Fatale

Channel 5

Saturday 16 January, 9.30pm 

The title here is slightly misleading because this is a documentary that largely looks for the good in Wallis Simpson, a woman often demonised for her part in the abdication of Edward VIII. Expect plenty of archive, learned comment and insights into Simpson’s character based on her own letters.

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The Great

Channel 4

Sunday 17 January, 9pm

Hugely entertaining, this week’s instalment of The Great finds Peter (Nicholas Hoult) at work on a speech he’s nervous about delivering. Meantime, Catherine (Elle Fanning) has plans to modernise Russia. Also tonight, The Serpent (BBC One, Sunday 17 January, 9pm) finds Charles in Nepal.

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Bodies

Radio 4

Monday 18 January, 1.45pm

How has our knowledge of human anatomy changed down the years? It’s a question explored by Alice Roberts over 10 weekday episodes, beginning with a consideration of how people see their bodies. There’s an omnibus edition of this week’s shows on Friday 22 January (9pm).

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Dante 2021

Radio 4

Monday 18 January, 4pm

Professor Matthew Treherne from the Centre for Dante Studies at the University of Leeds acts as Katya Adler’s guide to Purgatory. Among the topics they discuss are how we can find the roots of the 2008 financial crisis in Dante’s Florence, and lessons we might learn to help deal with an era of Covid-19 and political polarisation.

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How The Irish Shaped Britain

Radio 4

Monday 18 January, 8pm

Fergal Keane continues his examination of the influence the Irish have had in Britain. He begins with outward migration in the wake of the Great Famine, and also looks at terrorist attacks and how Irish writers brought “the English language back to the English”.

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The Architecture the Railways Built

Yesterday

Tuesday 19 January, 8pm

Railway enthusiast Tim Dunn returns to front a second series of a show that became a word-of-mouth hit during the first lockdown. First up, Dunn’s destinations include the station at Wemyss Bay, located west of Glasgow, and a masterpiece of Edwardian-era glass and steel.

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Pick of the week

Silenced: The Hidden Story of Disabled Britain 

BBC Two

Tuesday 19 January, 9pm

Cerrie Burnell, who was born without the lower part of her right arm and whose time on CBeebies was initially marked by some parents worrying she was “scaring children”, charts how disabled people have had to fight back after being shut out of British society. It’s a story that takes Burnell back to attitudes forged in the workhouse system.

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Free Thinking: Harlots and 18th-Century Working Women

Radio 3

Tuesday 19 January, 10pm

Harlots co-creator Moira Buffini and historian Hallie Rubenhold, on whose work the series was based, join Shahidha Bari to talk about creating historical dramas. In a conversation organised in partnership with the Royal Society of Literature, they also discuss the lives of sex workers in the 18th century.

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President Biden: The Inauguration

BBC One & ITV

Wednesday 20th January, 4pm

In a ceremony that’s rich with historical resonances, news cameras look on as Joe Biden is sworn in as the 46th President of the United States, while Kamala Harris becomes the nation’s first female vice-president. Also today, President Biden (PBS America, 8.30pm) profiles the man tasked with succeeding Donald Trump.

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Inside Culture with Mary Beard

BBC Two

Thursday 21 January, 7pm

The topical arts series returns and Mary Beard’s theme this week is political successions. She’s joined by Armando Iannucci, who talks about how comedians and satirists adjust to a change at the top, and David Olusoga, who recently interviewed Barack Obama, and explores succession through the ages.

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Last week

Bowie: Dancing Out In Space

Radio 4 & 6Music

Sunday 10 January, 8pm

It’s five years since David Bowie died, on 10 January 2016. Marking the anniversary, Stuart Maconie hears from leading figures as they discuss the enduring influence of the Thin White Duke and muse on how Bowie, a key figure in any history of 20th-century British culture, stayed ahead of the curve for so long.

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The Serpent

BBC One

Sunday 10 January, 9pm

The eerie true crime drama, which centres on the 1970s crimes of Charles Sobhraj, continues as it follows the desperate efforts of a young Frenchman, Dominique Renelleau, to escape the serial killer’s lair. Plus Dutch diplomat Herman begins to understand the sheer scale of Sobhraj’s crimes. 

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The Great

Channel 4

Sunday 10 January, 9pm

Episode two of the satirical romp finds Catherine (Ella Fanning) already determined to overthrow her husband, Peter III of Russia (Nicholas Hoult). For his part, the spoilt and capricious emperor considers killing his wife because she’s not fitting in at court.

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Book Of The Week: If Then – How One Data Company Invented The Future

BBC Radio 4

Monday 11 January, 9.45am 

Founded in 1959, the Simulmatics Corporation early on understood the potential of data science. Over five weekday episodes, Laurel Lefkow reads from American historian Jill Lepore’s account of a company that, as far back as the 1960s, mined information, manipulated consumers and destabilised politics.

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Dante 2021

Radio 4

Monday 11 January, 4pm

The BBC’s Europe editor, Katya Adler, is a huge fan of the poet Dante Alighieri and her enthusiasm shines through a three-part series that looks at what lessons the Divine Comedy has for the 21st century. With Michael Sheen as Dante.

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Pick of the week 

How The Irish Shaped Britain

BBC Radio 4

Monday 11 January, 8pm 

Over three episodes, Fergal Keane considers how the Irish have shaped life in Britain down the centuries. It’s a story often told in terms of colonialism, but Keane instead emphasises a collision of identities, and the ways in which Irish migrants and their descendants have shaped the UKs literature and arts.

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Mark Kermodes Secrets Of Cinema

BBC Four

Monday 11 January, 9pm

The film critic returns with a third series of the show where he focuses on different movie genres and how they work. Kermode’s first subject is the British comedy, and movies under consideration range from Ealing comedy classics to Chris Morris’s fierce and satirical Four Lions.

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Londons Greatest Bridges With Rob Bell

Channel 5

Wednesday 13 January, 8pm

The historian explores the story of perhaps London’s most famous bridge, the Victorian-era Tower Bridge. Followed by The Thames: Britains Great River With Tony Robinson (9pm), which finds the presenter exploring the container port at London Gateway and then heading for Whitstable.

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Walking Hadrian’s Wall With Robson Green

Channel 5

Thursday 14 January, 8pm

While he’s not convinced Hadrians Wall was anything other than an emperor’s “vanity vehicle”, actor Robson Green nonetheless sets out to walk its length. Trudging from east to west, Tyneside to Cumbria, he meets fellow hikers and, on hand to explain aspects of the Roman world, experts along the way.


Olympic Pride, American Prejudice

PBS America

Friday 15 January, 8.05pm

While the exploits of Jesse Owens at the 1936 Berlin Olympics have long been celebrated, he was by no means the only African-American who competed at the games. A documentary celebrating competitors whose very presence defied both Nazi ideology and the Jim Crow system.

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