History TV and radio in the UK: what’s on our screens in December 2020?

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

The Name of the Rose. (Photo by BBC/Palomar/11 Marzo Film)

This week (27 November–3 December)

Britains Most Historic Towns

Channel 4

Saturday 28 November, 8.30pm

Alice Robert heads for Plymouth to explore England’s ‘Golden Age’, rooted in the city’s tradition of seamanship. Sir Francis Drake inevitably features, as does his second cousin, John Hawkins. Both, we are reminded, were slavers and pirates. Plus aerial archaeologist Ben Robinson uses drone footage to show why Plymouth was such an attractive base for English mariners.

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Small Axe: Red, White & Blue

BBC One

Sunday 29 November, 9pm 

John Boyega of Star Wars fame stars as Leroy Logan, who fought racism in the Metropolitan Police from within. The latest drama in Steve McQueen’s extraordinary anthology series is set during the 1980s, and follows Logan as, growing tired of solitary work as a forensic scientist, he revisits a childhood ambition to be a copper.

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Book of the Week: The Boundless Sea: A Human History of the Oceans

BBC Radio 4

Monday 30 November, 9.45am

Colin McFarlane reads from David Abulafia’s history of human movement across the world’s largest bodies of water. The first of five weekday episodes (8.45pm on Wednesday 2 December) focuses on the earliest seafaring society, the Polynesians of the Pacific. Subjects on other days include Chinese maritime exploration and slavery.

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Leonardo: The Works

Sky Arts

Monday 30 November, 7pm

In a two-part documentary, Phil Grabsky takes the time to get up close to every one of the genius polymath Leonardo da Vinci’s known artworks. The first film encompasses Leonardo’s training in Florence and his decision to head for Milan, where perhaps he saw better opportunities for advancement.

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The Long View

BBC Radio 4

Tuesday 1 December, 9am 

Jonathan Freedland looks ahead to Christmas 2021 and the prospect of a holiday season disrupted by Covid. What might we learn about what to expect by looking back at 1644, a year when the Puritans, fearful of bad behaviour and even damnation, imposed strict restrictions on festivities.

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The Dambusters: A Daring Plan

Channel 5

Tuesday 1 December, 9pm

Over three successive weeknights, Dan Snow looks back at 617 Squadron’s innovative and daring raid, beginning with the RAF’s preparations. The second episode, Race Against Time, charts how inventor Barnes Wallis realised his bouncing bomb would require a new aiming device. Attack! Attack! Attack! details the big day itself, when heavily laden Lancasters struggled to take off.

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The Worlds Biggest Murder Trial: Nuremberg

Channel 5

Tuesday 1 December, 10pm

Using contemporary footage and, to explain what we’re seeing, commentary from experts, this deceptively straightforward documentary tells the story of how the Allies brought senior Nazis such as Albert Speer and Hermann Goering to justice. It’s a study of how seemingly ordinary people can commit the most terrible acts, the banality of evil indeed.


Open Country

BBC Radio 4

Thursday 3 December, 3pm

Helen Mark heads for Redesdale in Northumberland. Here, she finds locals at work on a project to restore the local countryside and to celebrate a historically important landscape. Can research pinpoint the site of the battle of Otterburn, a showdown between the English and Scots that took place in 1388?

Find out more here


Pick of the week

New Elizabethans with Andrew Marr

BBC Two

Thursday 3 December, 9pm

Focusing on key figures from recent history, the journalist explores how Britain has changed since Elizabeth II ascended to the throne. In the first of three programmes, Marr considers how Britain has moved from being a hierarchical and class-obsessed society towards being more liberal and inclusive. His subjects include Jan Morris, Diana Dors and Roy Jenkins.

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Walking Scotlands Lost Railways

Channel 5

Friday 4 December, 9pm

Rob Ball follows the route of the Callander and Oban Railway, which was built between 1866 and 1880 as a way to link Scotland’s Lowlands with one of the country’s most important west coast ports. This involved building a 70-mile line through wild and thinly populated landscapes.

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Last week (20 November–26 November)

Surviving the Stone Age

Channel 4

Saturday 21 November, 6.45pm

The series recreating life in the prehistoric era concludes with the experts out hunting for dinner. Can they down a deer? Followed by Britains Most Historic Towns (7.45pm), in which Professor Alice Roberts heads for Portsmouth to explore the role of the Royal Navy in the establishment of the British Empire.

Archive On 4: All Things Must Pass: 50 years On

BBC Radio 4

Saturday 21 November, 8pm

To judge by the fact his first solo release, All Things Must Pass (1970), was a triple LP, George Harrison was liberated by the breakup of The Beatles. Five decades on, British-Indian composer Nitin Sawhney looks back at the album’s creation and its significance in bringing Indian culture to the west.

Fela Kuti: Father of Afrobeat 

BBC Two

Saturday 21 November, 9.30pm

Held in Lagos, the 1997 funeral of Fela Kuti attracted more than a million mourners. This astonishing outpouring of public grief was testament not just to his influence as a pioneering musician, but to Feel Kuti’s status as a countercultural leader who often challenged Nigeria’s military regimes. This Arena doc examines Fela’s life and times.

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Drama: Electric Decade: The Good Soldier

BBC Radio 4

Sunday 22 November, 3pm

Continuing its ongoing season of dramas based on works that influenced the Jazz Age, here’s a new adaptation of Ford Madox Ford’s 1915 novel. Yes, its creation does predate the 1920s, but it’s been chosen as a classic of modernism – and a disquieting tale involving sex, money and murder.

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Small Axe: Lovers Rock

BBC One

Sunday 22 November, 9pm

The second film in Steve McQueen’s anthology series marks a change in pace from the politically charged Mangrove. It’s 1980 and, at a blues party in Ladbroke Grove, the sensual soundtrack is provided by lovers rock, represented by songs such as Janet Kay’s Silly Game.

Then Hijacker Who Vanished: The Mystery of DB Cooper – Storyville

BBC Four

Monday 23 November, 9pm

In 1971, on a flight from Portland to Seattle, a man called ‘DB Cooper’ passed a note to an air steward. He demanded a $200,000 ransom or otherwise he would detonate a briefcase bomb. Having picked up the cash in Seattle, he parachuted from the plane as it flew on. A fascinating documentary looking back at an unresolved crime.

The Long View

BBC Radio 4

Tuesday 24 November, 9am

Hunting for parallels with delays in the legal system caused by Covid-19, Jonathan Freedland looks to 1666, a year when Londoners faced a similar problem thanks to a combination of plague and the Great Fire. Also today, in the final episode of The Invention Of Scandinavia (Radio 4, 11am), Misha Glenny focuses on the history of Norway.

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 The Fall of Anne Boleyn: Arrest

Channel 5

Tuesday 24 November, 9pm

Over three successive weeknights, Tracy Borman looks at three fateful days in the cruelly curtailed life of Henry VII’s second wife. The series begins with the story of her arrest, which came as a complete shock to the queen, and goes on to look at her trial and her execution.

Pick of the week

Africa United in Manchester

BBC Radio 4

Friday 27 November, 11am

In October 1945, the fifth Pan-African Congress met in Chorlton-Upon-Medlock Town Hall, Manchester. It was, as Rosemary Laryea charts in a one-off documentary, “a galvanising event” in post-war history that numbered three men who led their respective countries to independence amongst its delegates: Kwame Nkrumah (Ghana), Jomo Kenyatta (Kenya) and Hastings Banda (Malawi).

Walking Britains Lost Railways

Channel 5

Friday 27 November, 9pm

Rob Bell takes another series of hikes along abandoned railway lines. For the first of four new episodes, he heads for the north coast of Devon, and a line that once linked the market town Barnstaple with the coastal resort of Ilfracombe.  Along the way, he learns how US troops trained for D-Day on Braunton’s burrows.

Previous week

The Crown

Netflix

Streaming from Sunday 15 November

Writer Peter Morgan’s saga of the Windsors reaches the late 1970s, a time when the question of Prince Charles (Josh OConnor) finding a life companion was looming large. Enter a young aristocrat, Diana Spencer (Emma Corrin). The series covers the years of the Thatcher government and Gillian Anderson joins the cast as the Iron Lady.


Pick of the week

Small Axe: Mangrove

BBC One

Sunday 15 November, 9pm

From director Steve McQueen, Small Axe is an anthology series that explores the experience of London’s Caribbean community between the late 1960s and the mid-1980s. The first feature-length offering focuses on the Mangrove restaurant in Notting Hill, a business that was subjected to repeated police raids. Shaun Parkes stars as Mangrove owner Frank Crichlow. Essential viewing.


Book of the Week: Black Spartacus – The Epic Life of Toussaint Louverture

BBC Radio 4

Monday 16 November, 9.45am

Over five weekday episodes, Adrian Lester reads from Sudhir Hazareesingh’s biography of Toussaint Louverture. Born on a plantation, Louverture was a hero of the Haitian revolution (1791–1804), when self-liberated slaves fought French colonial rule and ultimately achieved independence.


The Raising of Coventry

BBC Radio 4

Monday 16 November, 8pm

It’s 80 years since, on 14 November 1940, a massive Nazi raid razed the city of Coventry to the ground. This one-off programme goes back in time to consider what it would have been like to live through a night when bombs rained down. Plus what are we to make of Coventry’s post-war history?


My Family, the Holocaust and me with Robert Rinder

BBC One

Monday 16 November, 9pm

The barrister and broadcaster again considers the impact of the Holocaust on those who lost relatives. There’s personal sadness for Rinder here too, as he and his mother, Angela Cohen, travel to Poland to recite the Jewish prayer of remembrance, the Kaddish, in honour of family members murdered at Treblinka death camp.


The Night Notre-Dame Burned: Storyville

BBC Four

Monday 16 November, 9pm

On 15 April 2019, fire broke out in the roof space at Notre-Dame. In the hours that followed, it was feared the cathedral might be lost forever. This feature-length documentary follows the work of the firefighters who were charged with saving the building.


The Long View

BBC Radio 4

Tuesday 17 November, 9am

Looking for parallels with today’s anti-vaccination movement, Jonathan Freedland looks at opposition to smallpox vaccines in the 19th century. Also today, The Invention of Scandinavia (Radio 4, 11am) continues, with Misha Glenny exploring the history of Sweden, a militaristic power in the 16th and 17th centuries.

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My Albion

BBC Radio 4

Tuesday 17 November, 11.30am 

As a teenager, Zakia Sewell became fascinated with English folk music, drawn in by Pentangle’s reading of traditional song The Cuckoo. As someone of Caribbean and British descent, the song brought tension. Could this music really belong to her? Over four episodes, Sewell explores the idea of Albion and grapples with some of the complexities of British identity.

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The Great Plague: Outbreak

Channel 5

Tuesday 17 November, 9pm

In 1665, the bubonic plague raged through London. Thousands died, so many that corpses had to be buried in vast pits. Over three weeknight episodes, Dr Xand van Tulleken, Raksha Dave and John Sergeant tell a story of death and suffering where the parallels with our current situation are inescapable.

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Royal Historys Biggest Fibs With Lucy Worsley

BBC Two

Friday 20 November, 9pm

The latest Biggest Fibs series concludes with Lucy Worsley looking back at the Russian Revolution. It’s a question that questions the Bolshevik narrative of what occurred, with Worsley instead preferring to highlight February 1917 protests by women textile workers in St Petersburg.


Last week

Archive On 4: Our Sacred Story

BBC Radio 4

Saturday 7 November, 8pm

Does Britain have a modern-day sacred narrative? Yes, argues Alec Ryrie, Professor of the History of Christianity at Durham University, with the help of the archives. For Ryrie, it’s a story with its roots in the Second World War, a conflict that also underpins our collective ideas about good and evil.

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Britains Most Historic Towns

Channel 4

Saturday 7 November, 8.10pm

Alice Roberts once again sets off on around the country to look at wider history through the prism of Britain’s towns and cities. First up, she’s in Lincoln, where she searches for traces of the city’s medieval past. A crossbow, period costume and the plague all feature.

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Royal British Legion Festival of Remembrance

BBC One

Saturday 7 November, 9.10pm

As ever, the BBC offers coverage of Remembrance Day commemorations, beginning with a socially distanced event marking 75 years since the end of the Second World War (also on Radio 2, 8.00pm). On Sunday 8th November, the focus switches to the annual ceremony at the Cenotaph. Coverage begins on BBC One at 10.15am and on Radio 4 at 10.30am.

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An Unknown Warrior

BBC Radio 4

Monday 9 November, 9.45am

How, in 1920, did a single fallen soldier come to be entombed at Westminster Abbey? It was, as writer/producer Caroline Raphael’s weekday series charts, the idea of a padre and Western Front veteran. In the Unknown Warrior (BBC One, Wednesday 11 November, 10.30am & BBC Two, 7pm), there’s coverage of a service marking the centenary of the soldier’s burial.

Find out more here


Pick of the week

My Family, The Holocaust and Me with Robert Rinder

BBC One

Monday 9 November, 9pm

Over two episodes, the barrister and broadcaster considers how the Holocaust affected, and still affects, so many British Jewish families. This involves Rinder tracing the often harrowing stories of his own relatives,  including those murdered and buried in a mass grave in Belarus. We also follow other descendants of survivors as they explore the past.

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Berlin 1945

BBC Four

Monday 9 November, 10pm

Shown over three successive evenings, this evocative documentary series conjures up a picture of day-to-day life as it played out in Germany’s capital through 1945. First up, while the Nazi regime is about to fall, its propagandists are still selling the promise of ultimate victory.

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The Long View

BBC Radio 4

Tuesday 10 November, 9am

The excellent series where Jonathan Freedland looks at the present through the prism of history returns. In an episode that, you would guess, was being made right up to the wire, Freedland’s subject is the US presidential election. What can previous votes tell us?

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The Invention of Scandinavia

BBC Radio 4

Tuesday 10 November, 11am

In September, for the ninth series of the Invention strand, McMafia author Misha Glenny, along with producer Miles Warde, headed north. In part, their aim was to find why Denmark, Sweden and Norway responded to the pandemic in such different ways. Can history help explain?

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Britain in Ten Operas

BBC Radio 4

Wednesday 11 November, 9am

In a new three-part series, baritone Roderick Williams picks his highlights from 350 years of opera in Britain. In what’s more than a list show, the aim is to discover what this might tell us about British identity. First up, the nation struggles to get to grips with a flamboyant new form of musical theatre.

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Royal Historys Biggest Fibs with Lucy Worsley

BBC Two

Friday 13 November, 9pm

Continuing her revolution-themed series, Lucy Worsley turns her attention to the Regency era. It’s a story of rebellion averted, as Worsley considers how the authorities claimed the international victory at Waterloo for Britain, how Peterloo was airbrushed from history, and how tartan was employed to support the Union.

Find out more here


Last week

A Short History of Vampires

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BBC Radio 4 Extra

Friday 30 October, 6pm

Natalie Haynes concludes a four-part series of dark stories, as she examines why the vampire – an iconic figure in horror-fiction – continues to exert such a powerful hold on our imaginations…

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Brave New World

Sky One

Friday 30 October, 9pm

Based on Aldous Huxley’s groundbreaking 1932 novel, Brave New World imagines a utopian society that has achieved peace and stability through the prohibition of monogamy, privacy, money, family, and history itself. Episode 5.

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A Big History of America

Channel 5

Saturday 31 October, 9pm

From Viking visitors and the Pilgrim Fathers to the gold rush, a new series exploring the history of America.

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Who Do You Think You Are?

BBC Two

Sunday 1 November, 5pm

Actor Ruth Jones – Nessa from Gavin and Stacey – uncovers her grandfather’s role in the Medical Aid Societies of south Wales, which provided a model for the NHS. Followed by Silent Witness actor Liz Carr on BBC One on Monday 2 November at 9pm.

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Comme Je Suis: Sketches of Juliette Greco

BBC Radio 4

Tuesday 3 November, 11.30am

The singer Juliette Greco emerged in post-war Parisian society as an embodiment of the bohemian ideas and ideals that gripped the Left Bank. Laura Barton has always been drawn to what Greco represents – that voice, her black-clad kohl-eyed image – and presents a sequence of sketches, impressions, portraits of the octogenarian singer.

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Aung San Suu Kyi: The Fall of an Icon

BBC Two

Tuesday 3 November, 9pm

In this film, those who know Aung reveal how key events have shaped her reputation in the last ten years, from her decision to become a politician in the military-created parliament to her struggle to bring democratic reform and her recent appearance at the International Court of Justice to face allegations of genocides against the Rohingya Muslims.

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Blood of the Clans

BBC Four

Tuesday 3 November, 9pm

Neil Oliver presents a drama-documentary series telling the tales of Scotland’s most epic and bloody conflicts and the characters who made their mark in this memorable era of the country’s history. The final episode looks at the  1745 rebellion, when Bonnie Prince Charlie arrives in Scotland to regain the crown of his ancestors

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The Disordered Eye

BBC Four

Wednesday 4 November, 9pm

Disabled artist and film-maker Richard Butchins questions if good vision equals great art. Contains some strong language.

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Harlots

BBC Two

Wednesday 4 November, 9pm

Series 3 of Harlots – which portrays the lives of women in grimy, decadent Georgian London – continues. In episode four, the shock of the previous night’s events reverberates around London. Rumours abound as suspicion spreads through Soho.

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