History TV and radio: what’s on in January 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 Windermere Children. (Wall to Wall/ZDF - Photographer: Helen Sloan)

What’s on between 25–31 January?

Drama: Riot Girls: The Trial Of The Well Of Loneliness

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Radio 4

Saturday 25 January, 3pm

Published in 1928, Radclyffe Hall’s novel The Well Of Loneliness, now seen as a landmark in lesbian fiction, caused outrage and, as this drama recounts, led to an obscenity trial. Also in the Riots Girls strand, Drama: Dykes (successive afternoons from Monday 27 January, 2.15pm, Radio 4) follows three radical feminist friends from the 1970s to the present day.

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Digging Up Britain’s Past

Channel 5

Saturday 25 January, 7pm

Channel 5’s triple bill of Saturday night history programmes begins with a show looking at Britain’s industrial past. There’s more archaeology on Channel 4 as Bone Detectives: Britain’s Buried Secrets (8pm) finds Tori Herring and her team trying to make sense of a jumble of bones dating from the Anglo-Saxon era.

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Great American Railroad Journeys

BBC Two

Saturday 25 January, 8pm

Ever accumulating the iron road miles, Michael Portillo heads north clutching a copy of Appleton’s Guide Book To Alaska dating from 1899. In weekday shows from Monday 27 January (BBC Two, 6.30pm), he then heads east, first to Hong Kong, for Great Asian Railway Journeys.

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Archive On 4: The Science Of Evil

Radio 4

Saturday 25 January, 8pm

A number of radio documentaries this week commemorate the Holocaust. For The Science Of Evil, David Edmonds outlines how attempts to understand what happened led to the birth of social psychology. In The Remarkable Resistance Of Lilo (Radio 4, Sunday 26 January, 1.30pm) Fergal Keane tells the story of Elisabeth Charlotte Gloeden, who hid those facing persecution.

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Pick of the week

Keeler, Profumo, Ward And Me

BBC Two

Sunday 26 January, 10pm

Following the final episode of The Trial Of Christine Keeler (BBC One, 9pm), journalist Tom Mangold looks back on his own reporting of the scandal for the Express and at the time he spent with one of his key contacts, Stephen Ward. Along the way, Mangold reflects on whether he could have prevented Ward’s suicide.

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The Trial Of Christine Keeler. (Image byBBC/Ecosse Films/Ben Blackall)
The Trial Of Christine Keeler. (Image by BBC/Ecosse Films/Ben Blackall)

Lies My Teacher Told Me

Radio 4

Monday 27 January, 1.45pm

Over five weekday episodes, Priya Atwal explores issues surrounding school history books. In Lebanon, for example, teaching children about the past is a fraught business because of the country’s perennially unstable political situation, while in India the term “saffronisation” refers to the influence of Hindu nationalist narratives.

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The Windermere Children

BBC Two

Monday 27 January, 9pm

Marking Holocaust Memorial Day, here’s a drama about the child survivors who, at Calgarth Estate by Lake Windermere, received help to build new lives after being brought to the UK in August 1945. Starring Thomas Kretschmann as child psychologist Oscar Friedmann. Followed by the oral history documentary The Windermere Children: In Their Own Words (BBC Four, 10.30pm).

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Making History

Radio 4

Tuesday 28 January, 3.30pm

The Oscars season is upon us. A good excuse for Tom Holland and Iszi Lawrence to look at filmmakers who can help us understand the history of film. As Matthew Sweet reports, these include Derbyshire bookkeeper Vic Kinson, who created a card system that was a kind of precursor to the Internet Movie Database.

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Belsen: Our Story

BBC Two

Tuesday 28 January, 9pm

Almost 50,000 people died at Bergen-Belsen, most from callous neglect. This documentary features first-hand testimony as it recalls the horror. The words of survivors also feature in Auschwitz Untold: In Colour (Channel 4, Wednesday 29 January, 10.30pm, shown Sunday and Monday on More4), featuring colourised footage that somehow shrinks the distance back in time.

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In Wordsworth’s Footsteps

Radio 4

Wednesday 29 January, 9am

Marking the 250th anniversary of the birth of William Wordsworth, Professor Jonathan Bate visits places important in the poet’s life. He begins in the Lake District, where he explores Wordsworth’s childhood and considers why Wordsworth blocked publication of his autobiographical epic, The Prelude. Featuring Simon Russell Beale as Wordsworth.

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What’s on between 18–24 January?

Digging Up Britain’s Past

Channel 5

Saturday 18 January, 7pm

Channel 5’s triple bill of history programming kicks off with the work of archaeologists exploring Auckland Castle in County Durham. Followed by Tony Robinson’s History Of Britain (8pm), which looks at the Georgian era, and a bridge-themed edition of How The Victorians Built Britain (9pm).

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Bone Detectives: Britain’s Buried Secrets

Channel 4

Saturday 18 January, 8pm

Beneath a high-end shopping arcade in the city centre of Leeds, archaeologists have discovered the remains of children and teenagers. Evolutionary biologist Tori Herridge and her team explore what these bones can tell us about the experiences of young people in the industrial revolution.

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Archive On 4: Call Jane At 643-3844

Radio 4

Saturday 18 January, 8pm

Between 1969 and 1973, when abortion was illegal in most US states, a group of women in Chicago organised an underground service known as Jane: The Abortion Counseling Service of Women’s Liberation. A one-off documentary presented by Laura Barton and produced by Eleanor McDowall looks back at these years via archive and new interviews.

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The Trial Of Christine Keeler

BBC One

Sunday 19 January, 9pm

The penultimate episode of the historical drama series finds Stephen Ward (James Norton) on trial at the Old Bailey and, naively, hoping his society acquaintances will come to his rescue. Plus will a lie told by Christine (Sophie Cookson) be laid bare?

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Great British Railway Journeys

BBC Two

Monday 20 January, 6.30pm

Michael Portillo explores the east of England. In the first weekday episode, his travels begin in Canterbury and considers the political message in a 1936 play inspired by the 12th-century murder of Archbishop Thomas a Becket. Plus a visit to Chartwell, Sir Winston Churchill’s country home.

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Orwell In Five Words

Radio 4

Monday 20 January, 9.45am

George Orwell died 70 years ago. Marking the anniversary in a new weekday series, Phil Tinline selects five words that resonate through Orwell’s work and considers how Orwell’s approach to these words may offer us clues about how to deal with current problems. First up, fascism, and how Orwell came to see democracy as a radical enemy of totalitarianism.

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Pick of the week

The Escape Artist

Radio 3

Monday 20 January, 10.45pm

Over 10 weekday episodes, Ross Sutherland traces the extraordinary life of Arthur Cravan. It’s the tale of an anarchic showman (and Oscar Wilde’s nephew) who would eventually disappear in the Gulf of Mexico, and whose influence can be seen in Dada, surrealism, situationism, punk and alternative comedy The first programme deals with Cravan’s “brazenly offensive poetry”.

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Making History

Radio 4

Tuesday 21 January, 3.30pm

It seems we may have been a little previous last week in flagging up Making History’s show on aviation, which actually broadcasts this week. Don’t forget there’s a huge archive of episodes, which can be accessed via the show’s website.

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The Last Of The Just: Finding Beauty In Barbarity

Radio 4

Thursday 23 January, 11.30am

First published 60 years ago in 1959, The Last Of The Just by André Schwarz-Bart was a magic realist’s take on Jewish history and an act of mourning for those who died in the Holocaust. Naomi Gryn looks back at the book with the help of Schwarz-Bart’s widow, novelist Simone, and his son, jazz saxophonist Jacques.

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Curating The Future

Radio 4

Friday 24 January, 11am

Continuing his series on the role of museums, Tristram Hunt explores the proposition that such institutions “are not neutral”. It’s a programme that takes in the debate on cultural appropriation and the question of whether ‘lived experience’ can be as valuable as curatorial expertise.

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What’s on between 11–17 January?

Digging Up Britain’s Past

Channel 5

Saturday 11 January, 7pm

This week’s Saturday night triple bill of history shows on Channel 5 begins with a report on the excavation of the wreck of HMS Invincible, which sank in 1758. Followed by Tony Robinson’s History Of Britain (8pm), about the Victorian era, and How The Victorians Built Britain (9pm), which focuses on maritime history.

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Bone Detectives: Britain’s Biggest Secrets

Channel 4

Saturday 11 January, 8pm

More TV archaeology as evolutionary biologist Tori Herridge, archaeologist Raksha Dave and mortuary technician Carla Valentine try to discover the stories behind bones discovered during excavations. First up, five skeletons dating from the Bronze Age and found on the Isle of Thanet in Kent.

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Archive On 4: Questioning The Political interview

Radio 4

Saturday 11 January, 8pm

How has the political interview developed down the years? Have broadcasters changed their approach to become more combative? Andrew Marr looks back at the history of the political interview and, with the help of a panel of guests, considers the challenges it faces in the era of social media.

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The Trial Of Christine Keeler

BBC One

Sunday 12 January, 9pm

Episode four of the historical drama and, despite Christine Keeler (Sophie Cookson) being constantly in the headlines, John Profumo (Ben Miles) tries to move on. Meantime, society osteopath Stephen Ward (James Norton), a man sorely in need of friends even as he’s abandoned, finds his life under merciless scrutiny.

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The Trial of Christine Keeler. (Image by Ecosse Films/ Ben Blackall)
The Trial of Christine Keeler. (Image by Ecosse Films/ Ben Blackall)

Great British Railway Journeys

BBC Two

Monday 13 January, 6.30pm

Another week of journeys into the past begins in the resort of St Ives, as Michael Portillo explores the world of the West Country between the wars. Subsequent episodes find the former politician travelling through Devon and Somerset, and highlights include a visit to the Bath home of a refugee emperor.

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Making History

Radio 4

Tuesday 14 January, 3.30pm

Tom Holland and Iszi Lawrence consider the history of aviation, with items including the story of Valentina Tereshkova, the first woman in space. Listen out too for Great Lives (4pm), in which comedian Josie Long speaks up for Slaughterhouse-Five writer Kurt Vonnegut – who appears as his own expert, despite having died in 2007.

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In Our Time

Radio 4

Thursday 16 January

Melvyn Bragg and learned guests look back at the Franco-Prussian War and, more specifically, the siege of Paris (September 1870–January 1871). This was a key event in the establishment both of the German Empire (1871–1918) and of the Paris Commune.

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Pick of the week

Curating The Future

Radio 4

Friday 17 January, 11am

Why do we so enjoy visiting buildings packed with artefacts from the past? How should institutions react to concerns over items acquired during the colonial era? What kinds of companies should be allowed to sponsor exhibitions? Tristram Hunt, director of the V&A, presents a three-part series looking at the role of museums in the 21st century.

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Monty Don’s America Gardens

BBC Two

Friday 17 January, 8.30pm

Ever adept at mixing horticulture and history, Monty Don continues his travels in the USA. Here he sees the plot where founding father Thomas Jefferson hunted out seeds and plants for his vegetable garden. Plus a visit to a Renaissance-style garden in Miami.

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Monty Don’s America Gardens
Monty Don’s America Gardens. (Image by BBC / Alexandra Henderson)

Thieves Of The Wood

Netflix

Streaming now

If this gritty drama is to be believed, it was muddy and misty in 18th-century Flanders. Nevertheless, it’s an area to which a charismatic highwayman, Jan de Lichte, chooses to return. Here, he clashes with a corrupt elite and, quick as you can say stand and deliver, he’s leading a revolt.

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What’s on between 4–10 January?

Digging Up Britain’s Past

Channel 5

Saturday 4 January, 7.05pm

The returning archaeology series, presented by Raksha Dave and Alex Langlands, kicks off a triple bill of new history series for Saturday night on Channel 5. In Tony Robinson’s History Of Britain (8pm), Robinson looks back on the Tudor era. How The Victorians Built Britain (9pm) finds Michael Buerk exploring how railways transformed the country.

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Pick of the week

Gentileschi’s Revenge

Radio 3

Sunday 5 January, 6.45pm

Ahead of a major exhibition this year at the National Gallery, Caroline Walker explores the life of the artist Artemisia Gentileschi (1593–c1656). Gentileschi was raped when she was a teenager. The crime and a subsequent trial rather overshadowed her work for many years, but she is now regarded as one of the finest painters of her era.

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Call The Midwife

BBC One

Sunday 5 January, 8pm

The baby wranglers of Nonnatus House are back for a new eight-part series. This time around, it’s January 1965 and the slums of the East End are being cleared. But, as Doctor Turner and Nurse Crane deal with an outbreak of diphtheria, it seems some problems endure.

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Call the Midwife
Call the Midwife. (Image by Neal Street Productions/ Des Willie)

The Trial Of Christine Keeler

BBC One

Sunday 5 January, 9pm

Episode three of the excellent historical drama. For John Profumo, things are starting to unravel as he continues to deny he had an affair with Christine Keeler and he turns to Stephen Ward for help. Meantime, Keeler heads to Spain to escape the pressure of her situation.

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Exile

Radio 4

Monday 6 January, 10.45am & 7.45pm

Marking the 400th anniversary of the Mayflower’s voyage to America, writer Adrian Bean’s 10-part weekday drama charts one Puritan family’s journey to the New World. Unlike her husband Matthew Hargreaves (Trystan Gravellet), it’s not a journey Sarah Hargreaves (Louise Brealey) wants to take, but then the couple’s son is arrested on a trumped-up charge.

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Green Originals

Radio 4

Monday 6 January, 1.45pm

With green issues heading up the political agenda, this 15-part weekday series devoted to profiles of scientists, campaigners and communicators who have influenced thinking about the environment looks timely. First up, nature writer Conor Jameson reflects on Rachel Spring (1907–64), whose Silent Spring warned of the dangers of pesticides.

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Great British Railway Journeys

BBC Two

Monday 6 January, 6.30pm

Michael Portillo rides the rails again as, armed with an interwar Bradshaw’s guide, he explores the world of the 1930s. In the first of this week’s episodes, he travels from Newcastle to County Durham and looks at the history of the Jarrow march.

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Making History

Radio 4

Tuesday 7 January, 3.30pm

There’s a culinary theme to the latest episode of Making History as it features items on the Elizabethans and their love of pineapples plus, in a segment presented by Dominic Sandbrook, the history of fast food in the UK. Also today, in Great Lives (Radio 4, 4.30pm), Ken Clarke speaks up for bebop pioneer Charlie Parker.

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Plane Resurrection

PBS America

Monday 6 January, 8.35pm

Restoring classic military aircraft requires patience, determination and technical savvy. Happily then, all of these attributes are on display in a new weeknight series that follows enthusiasts as they work to bring planes back to life. First up, a Douglas A-1 Skyraider is made ready to take to the skies.

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(Image by PBS
Plane Resurrection. (PBS)

Jonestown: Terror In The Jungle – Storyville

BBC Four

Tuesday 7 January, 9.00pm

How, in 1978, did cult leader Jim Jones persuade more than 900 of his followers, residents of a settlement in northern Guyana, to commit “revolutionary suicide”? Concluding on Wednesday, this two-part documentary looks back at what happened with the help of official records plus new testimony from survivors and relatives of Jones.

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