The best historical TV shows and films to stream right now
The best historical TV shows and films to stream right now
Looking for a new historical TV show or film to watch? From The Crown to The Favourite, we've rounded up the best history content streaming on Netflix, Amazon Prime, Now TV, HBO and other on-demand services in the UK and US
Looking for something to watch this month? Here are the best historical dramas, TV shows and films available to stream in the UK and US in March 2020 – from binge-watchable period dramas to fascinating documentaries…
What’s on Netflix? (UK and US)
As a supernatural thriller based on a web-comic series – and with a plot based around the idea of a mysterious plague – you would hesitate to call The Kingdom a historical drama per se. Nevertheless, it’s fascinating for the way it explores Korea’s story in the late 16th century, when the Japanese invaded the peninsula. Expect gore, as its 18-certificate suggests. Season two debuts on 13 March. Streaming now
Apollo 11 (documentary)
Originally released in cinemas to mark the 50th anniversary of Neil Armstrong becoming the first human being to step out onto the surface of the Moon, director Todd Douglas Miller’s extraordinary documentary uses hi-res period footage and audio to tell the story of the Apollo 11 mission. Yes, you know what happens, but that doesn’t lessen the awe and wonder. More specifically, the pervading sense that all this happened a long time gives the footage a near-mythic quality. Did men and women really do this less than a quarter of a century after the end of the Second World War? Yes, they did. Streaming from Wednesday 4 March
Find out when to expect the latest historical releases, with Radio Times
No list of popular historical TV series on Netflix would be complete without a mention of its ever-popular show The Crown. The sumptuous royal drama has explored the intricacies of the British royal family over three series so far, providing an engrossing portrait of the mid-20th century monarchy and covering events including the Aberfan disaster and Prince Charles’ investiture as the Princes of Wales. The story follows the life of Queen Elizabeth II and her family over several decades, charting the personal and political challenges facing the Queen’s reign as well as the intricate family dramas going on behind the scenes. Watch out for the cast change between series two and three, as the royal family ‘ages up’. A must-watch for royal enthusiasts and those who enjoy British history. Streaming now
Downton Abbey creator Julian Fellowes has been busy of late. Not only is his ITV drama Belgravia arriving on our screens imminently, but there’s also this new six-part mini-series, which focuses on football – soccer if you must – in the 1870s. Class conflict is a recurring theme, with Edward Holcroft (Wolf Hall) playing Lord Kinnaird, who played in nine FA Cup finals between 1873 and 1883 with amateur sides Wanderers and Old Etonians. The new era of professional sport is embodied in the figure of Fergus Suter (Kevin Guthrie), a Glaswegian stonemason who wanted to be paid to play. Streaming from Friday 20 March
Five Came Back (documentary)
In the wake of the USA entering the Second World War, Hollywood swung into action to support the war effort. Leading directors John Ford, William Wyler, John Huston, Frank Capra and George Stevens enlisted in the armed forces to document the war, ultimately crafting documentaries that we should (probably) see as propaganda pieces. They are, however, brilliantly made pieces of film – as contemporary directors including Steven Spielberg (discussing Wyler) and Paul Greengrass (Ford) attest in this documentary exploring works including Ford’s The Battle Of Midway (1942). Meryl Streep narrates – and many of the original films featured in the series are also available to stream via Netflix. Streaming now
The Vietnam War (documentary series)
The historical documentaries of American director Ken Burns have won him an international reputation, but even by his own considerable standards, The Vietnam War stands out. Made with long-time collaborator Lynn Novick, it’s a 10-part series that takes us back in time to trace just how the US came to be involved in the country before taking viewers through the major campaigns and onwards to the ignominious American withdrawal from the country. Importantly, Vietnamese voices feature throughout and there’s a strong sense of the filmmakers going back over the historical record to grapple with what happened rather than accepting narratives imposed after the event. Streaming now
We interviewed Lynn Novick about the series for our podcast back in 2018. You can still listen here:
Inspired by the real story of Madam C J Walker, Self Made charts the life of the first ‘self made’ female millionaire in the US. It is a true rags-to-riches tale: Walker, born Sarah Breedlove, rose from poverty to create a vastly successful haircare business at a time when jobs for women (and specifically black women) were somewhat limited. As this series reveals, Walker wasn’t just an astute business woman, she was also a passionate activist and philanthropist – but faced a number of challenges on her way to the top. Streaming from Friday 20 March
Call the Midwife is one of the BBC’s flagship period dramas. Inspired by the memoirs of real-life midwife Jennifer Worth, the programme follows the lives of staff at an East London nursing convent during the late 1950s and early 1960s.
Boasting a cast that includes Jessica Raine and Stephen McGann, the award-winning show paints a realistic picture of maternity care during Britain’s postwar baby boom, while also tackling gritty issues such as poverty, racism, domestic violence and abortion.
The first seven series of Call the Midwife are available to watch on Netflix now, along with the 2016 Christmas special.
Peaky Blinders (series)
The epic BBC gangster series set in 1920s Birmingham. Inspired by the real-life Peaky Blinders – a criminal urban youth gang that operated in the city in the late 19th-century – 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.
The first four series are available to watch on Netflix now.
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. Also available is the second instalment of American Crime Story, The Assassination of Gianni Versace.
A dark historical crime series directed in part by David Fincher, this Netflix original is a tense 10-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.
The full two series of Mindhunter are available on Netflix now.
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”.
The first three series are available to watch now on Netflix.
Eleanor Tomlinson and Aidan Turner as Demelza and Ross Poldark. (Photo by Mammoth Screen/BBC)
What’s on Amazon Prime? (UK and US)
The Beatles: Eight Days A Week – The Touring Years (documentary)
In 1966, The Beatles quit touring. The Fab Four, the cheeky lads from Liverpool who had conquered the world, ceased to be – and been replaced by serious musicians who preferred recording at Abbey Road to life on the road. Yet the quartet’s itinerant years between 1962 and 1966 are important to understanding the band, and Ron Howard’s acclaimed documentary from 2016 tells a cultural history story of huge significance as we see The Beatles on the hoof redefining what it meant to be a pop star. Plus, for all the screaming, the music’s pretty good. Streaming now – UK only
On Monday 16 August 1819, a crowd of between 60,000 and 80,000 people gathered at St Peter’s Field in Manchester to demand electoral reform and the extension of the franchise. The actions of the authorities would become infamous after cavalrymen charged the gathering, leaving 18 dead and hundreds injured. Mike Leigh’s drama, released in cinemas to coincide with the 200th anniversary of an event dubbed the Peterloo Massacre, conveys a righteous anger as it explores what happened that day. Throughout, there’s a sense of the epic that seems wholly appropriate and there are fine performances from the likes of Rory Kinnear, who plays radical orator Henry Hunt. Streaming now – UK and US
We interviewed Mike Leigh about the film for our podcast back in 2019. You can still listen here:
Want to know even more about the real events from history that inspired the drama? Read more from the experts at our curated page on Vikings
The Aeronauts (film)
James Glaisher (Eddie Redmayne) has a big idea. He thinks it’s possible to predict the weather. To help prove this, he needs to get as high up in the sky as possible in a balloon. Enter pilot Amelia (Felicity Jones), a fictionalised composite of women balloonists. Based on Falling Upwards: How We Took To The Air (2013) by academic and biographer Richard Homes, Tom Harper’s fine drama charts an ascent in 1862, when Glaisher (and, in reality, balloonist Henry Tracey Coxwell) climbed to at least 29,000ft and perhaps as high as 37,000ft, the kinds of altitudes at which today’s jet liners fly. Streaming now – US only
Based on the novels of Diana Gabaldon and developed for television by Ronald D Moore (Battlestar Galactica), Outlander is both historical drama and time-travel fantasy romance. At its centre lies Claire Randall (Caitriona Balfe), a former Second World War nurse who finds herself transported from 1946 to the Scotland of 1743, where she meets a handsome Highland warrior, Jamie Fraser (Sam Heughan) and finds herself caught up in the Jacobite risings. The BBC’s Poldark, a series that perhaps takes a less fantastical approach to the actual history, is an apposite comparison; they are both perfect for escapist binge-viewing. Season five recently launched via Amazon Prime, taking the Fraser to the backcountry of the Carolinas, where they become caught up in the Regulator movement. Streaming now – UK only
The Fraser family find themselves caught up in the Regulator movement in series five of ‘Outlander’. (Image by Starz)
Horrible Histories: The Movie – Rotten Romans (film)
In a movie spin-off from the successful books and CBBC series, we’re transported back to Roman times. More specifically, the film takes place circa AD 54, a year when Boudicca was stirring up unrest in England against Roman rule. This is bad news for scrawny Roman centurion, Atti (Sebastian Croft), who’s not really cut out for the military life. The gags – and the gross-out facts – come less thick and fast than in the small-screen version, but this is still huge fun. A starry cast includes Kim Cattrall and, a neat gag, Derek Jacobi reprising one of his most famous roles, as Claudius. Streaming now – UK only
When he died, James Baldwin (1924–87) left behind the unfinished manuscript and notes for Remember This House. This was his personal memoir of Malcolm X, Martin Luther King Jr and the less-celebrated Medgar Evers, who was gunned down by a segregationist in Jackson, Mississippi in 1963. Raoul Peck’s Academy Award-nominated documentary (2016) uses Baldwin’s words, narrated by Samuel L Jackson, to take us back to some of the most vivid and dangerous years of the civil rights struggle. The documentary also serves another important function, to remind us that Baldwin was a figure whose meditations on racism and American history still carry huge weight today. Streaming now – US only
It’s easy to forget how shocking the very idea of this drama based on Hitler’s final days seemed back in 2004. This was the first German screen portrayal of the Führer for 50 years. That it’s come to be seen as a hugely important drama is in great part down to the late Bruno Ganz, who plays Hitler as a man sick with Parkinson’s disease, raging at what’s happening and yet utterly unable to take responsibility for what’s become of his country. Directed by Oliver Hirschbiegel, the film is also horribly claustrophobic as we follow events playing out in a Berlin soon to fall to the Red Army. Streaming now – US only
What’s on Now TV? (UK only)
The Favourite (film)
Rabbits, bingeing, tantrums. It’s probably best not to view this depiction of Queen Anne as a spoilt and ridiculous creature as especially historically accurate, but The Favourite (2018) is a fine film for all that. Starring an Oscar-winning Olivia Colman as Anne, it depicts two women – Lady Sarah Churchill (Rachel Weisz) and her impoverished cousin, Abigail Hill (Emma Stone) – competing for Anne’s favour and sharing her bed. Director Yorgos Lanthimos revels in a tragicomic script by Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara that makes merry the idea of what it would have been like to be a courtier in the early 18th century. Read more about the real history behind the film here. Streaming now – UK only
Listen to our podcast exploring the real history behind the film here:
Band Of Brothers (series)
First shown in 2001, the 10-part Band Of Brothers has dated well. In great part, that’s down to the elegant simplicity of the central idea: to follow Easy Company, part of the 101st Airborne Division, from jump training through parachute landings in Normandy and onwards to the end of conflict. Based on historian Stephen E Ambrose’s 1992 book, which gathered together interviews with veterans, it conveys a gritty authenticity, although the filmmakers did take some historical liberties for dramatic reasons. Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks bag credits as executive producers, further proof if any were needed that Band Of Brothers was a big-money, high-profile project. Streaming now – UK only
Babylon Berlin (series)
With a budget of €40m, which reportedly ballooned to €55m with reshoots, Babylon Berlin is said to be the most expensive TV series ever made in Germany. If that’s true, the money certainly wasn’t wasted because it’s an extraordinary drama that vividly brings to life the nervy, paranoid interwar world of the Weimar Republic era. Strong performances abound, especially from Volker Bruch as Inspector Gereon Rath, copper and First World War combat veteran who struggles with PTSD. As for the plotting, it’s knotty – do pay close attention. Two seasons are currently available to stream and season three is set to debut on Sky Atlantic in April. Streaming now – UK only
On 26 April 1986, a safety test at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant in Ukraine went catastrophically wrong. The plant’s No4 reactor exploded, an accident that spewed nuclear contamination across Europe. What would it have been like to be on the ground, living through these events as they happened? The multiple award-winning drama Chernobyl, based in part on Svetlana Alexievich’s book Voices From Chernobyl, imagines just that. Those who lives we glimpse include firefighters who were first responders and miners who had to dig beneath the facility. A strong ensemble cast includes Jared Harris, Stellan Skarsgård, Paul Ritter, Jessie Buckley and Emily Watson. Streaming now – UK only
Listen to our podcast exploring the real history behind the events of 1986 here:
50 Years Legal (documentary)
In 1967, the Sexual Offences Act partially decriminalised homosexuality. How did this affect the lives of people in LGBTQ community both at the time and in the years that followed? Directed and written by Simon Napier-Bell, the music business impresario who managed The Yardbirds, T Rex and George Michael, this documentary was made to coincide with the 50th anniversary of what’s come to be seen as landmark legislation. The cast of commentators draws heavily on Napier-Bell’s contacts book to feature famous faces from the entertainment field, including Ian McKellen, Elton John, Matt Lucas, Derek Jacobi and Simon Callow. Streaming now – UK only
What’s on HBO? (US only)
On 26 April 1986, a safety test at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant in Ukraine went catastrophically wrong. The plant’s No4 reactor exploded, an accident that spewed nuclear contamination across Europe. What would it have been like to be on the ground, living through these events as they happened? The multiple award-winning drama Chernobyl, based in part on Svetlana Alexievich’s book Voices From Chernobyl, imagines just that. Those who lives we glimpse include firefighters who were first responders and miners who had to dig beneath the facility. A strong ensemble cast includes Jared Harris, Stellan Skarsgård, Paul Ritter, Jessie Buckley and Emily Watson. Streaming now – US only
Band Of Brothers (series)
The 10-part Band Of Brothers has dated well. In great part, that’s down to the elegant simplicity of the central idea: to follow Easy Company, part of the 101st Airborne Division, from jump training through parachute landings in Normandy and onwards to the end of conflict. Based on historian Stephen E Ambrose’s 1992 book, which gathered together interviews with veterans, it conveys a gritty authenticity, although the filmmakers did take some historical liberties for dramatic reasons. Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks bag credits as executive producers, further proof if any were needed that Band Of Brothers was a big-money, high-profile project. Streaming now (also available via Amazon Prime) – US only
Rabbits, bingeing, tantrums. It’s probably best not to view this depiction of Queen Anne as a spoilt and ridiculous creature as especially historically accurate, but The Favourite (2018) is a fine film for all that. Starring an Oscar-winning Olivia Colman as Anne, it depicts two women – Lady Sarah Churchill (Rachel Weisz) and her impoverished cousin, Abigail Hill (Emma Stone) – competing for Anne’s favour and sharing her bed. Director Yorgos Lanthimos revels in a tragicomic script by Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara that makes merry the idea of what it would have been like to be a courtier in the early 18th century. Read more about the real history behind the film here. Streaming now– US only
They Shall Not Grow Old (documentary)
How do you convey what it was like to fight in a conflict that ended a century ago? Peter Jackson’s solution in this extraordinary documentary from 2018, which draws heavily on the archives of Britain’s Imperial War Museum, is to colourise footage from the era. When combined with interviews with veterans, many made for a 1964 BBC documentary series entitled the Great War, this has an effect akin to travelling in a time machine. Rather than the First World War seeming a distant conflict fought by long-dead troops, there’s a terrible immediacy to what we see on the screen. Streaming now – US only
We interviewed Peter Jackson about the documentary for our podcast back in 2018. You can still listen here:
John Adams (series)
Adapted from historian David McCullough’s Pulitzer Prize-winning biography, John Adams chronicles the political life of the founding father and second president of the US. The life of Adams (1735–1826) was eventful, yet by telling its story over seven episodes, there’s plenty of time for the series (from 2008) to explore the deeper currents of his life. Paul Giamatti stars as Adams, Laura Linney as his wife, Abigail. There are some inaccuracies, yet John Adams never takes too many liberties with the historical record and its sheer quality was reflected in a haul of 13 Emmy Awards. Streaming now (also available via Amazon Prime) – US only
Highlights from BBC iPlayer and other catch-up services… (UK only)
Royal Doctors: Treating the Monarchy (Sky)
Kate Williams considers how royals down the years have kept themselves – or not kept themselves – trim and fit. Alongside interviews with Princess Diana’s acupuncturist and hints on how to avoid over-indulging at banquets, expect more serious history such as, for example, the story of Elizabeth II’s ‘hidden’ uncle. Streaming now – UK only
Hilary Mantel: Return to Wolf Hall (BBC iPlayer)
Filmed during the six months leading up to the publication ofThe Mirror & The Light, novelist Hilary Mantel discusses her trilogy charting the career and eventual downfall of Thomas Cromwell. The documentary also offers a glimpse into Mantel’s own life, including the experience of growing up under the shadow of a dark family secret. Streaming now – UK only
Lost Lives (BBC iPlayer)
Inspired by the 1999 book of the same name, this moving documentary chronicles every life taken during the Troubles in Northern Ireland. Over a backdrop of contemporary and archive footage, those giving readings include Kenneth Branagh, Michelle Fairley and Adrian Dunbar. Streaming now – UK only
Warbird Workshop (UKTV Play)
This new series looks at the work of those who restore vintage military aircraft and, despite the planes’ venerable ages, keep them in the air. The subject of the first show in the series is a Spitfire that, following a crash landing, has seen far better days. Streaming now – UK only
Find our full guide to the best history TV and radio programmes airing in the UK each week here
We update this page regularly, so keep checking back for new recommendations of what to watch. Last updated 31 March