The best historical TV shows and movies to stream in 2021

Looking for a new historical TV show or film to watch? From The Crown to The Queen's Gambit, 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

Rege-Jean Page as Simon Basset and Phoebe Dynevor as Daphne Bridgerton

Looking for something to watch? Here are the best historical dramas, TV shows and films available to stream in the UK and US in 2021 – from binge-watchable period dramas to fascinating documentaries…

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*This page was last updated on 3 September 2021, all information correct at time of publication


Follow the links below to jump to the highlights in each section:

Best history movies/documentaries/series on Netflix

Best history movies/documentaries/series on Amazon Prime

Best history movies/documentaries/series on HBO

Best history movies/documentaries/series on Now TV

Other history streaming 


Best history shows and series to watch on Netflix

Bridgerton (series)

For anyone missing the annual opportunity to luxuriate in escapism by visiting Downton Abbey, Bridgerton may offer some consolation. Based on the romantic novels by Julia Quinn, it’s a lavish drama set in the upper echelons of London society during the Regency era. It’s a time when, for powerful families, making a good marriage is seen as essential, meaning that much rests on how well debutante Daphne Bridgerton (Phoebe Dynevor) conducts herself. Oh, and will she snag dashing Simon Basset, the Duke of Hastings (Regé-Jean Page)? Julie Andrews narrates the series in the guise of gossip sheet editor Lady Whistledown. It’s a measure of Bridgerton’s success that Netflix has commissioned three further seasons. Now streaming on Netflix

Barbarians (series)

The battle of the Teutoburg Forest of 9AD represented one of the Roman empire’s most humbling defeats. But what happened in the lead-up to a day when Germanic forces, led by Arminius, who had trained as a Roman soldier, ambushed and slaughtered three Roman legions and their auxiliaries? This German drama, which can be viewed with subtitles or dubbed into English, traces the story of how Germanic resistance to Rome coalesced. A series for fans of The Last Kingdom and Vikings in that, for all it’s frequently violent, Barbarians tells its story with energy and even a little wit. Now streaming on Netflix

The Queen’s Gambit (series)

Yes, the idea of a hit drama about a chess prodigy orphan with addiction issues does seem unlikely. However, it’s probably worth noting that not only is Queen’s Gambit based on a 1983 novel by Walter Tevis (The Hustler, The Color Of Money, The Man Who Fell To Earth) but this TV adaptation never outstays its welcome, telling its story over seven tightly scripted episodes. Anya Taylor-Joy stars as Beth Harmon, who first starts to pop pills as a child in the 1950s, a time when children in orphanages were routinely given tranquillisers, but who is determined to make the most of her talents. Streaming now on Netflix

The Liberator (series)

Filmed in Trioscope, a new technique that fuses live-action with animation, the visual style of Second World War drama The Liberator gives it a distinctive look and feel. But get beyond the (possibly off-putting) novelty of its visuals and this is a drama that’s well worth a look. At the centre of its story lies the real-life figure of infantry officer Felix ‘Shotgun’ Sparks (Bradley James). Rising to take charge of the 3rd Battalion, 157th Infantry Regiment, he was a man who fought in such famously brutal bloody encounters as the battle of Anzio and the battle of the Bulge. Streaming now on Netflix

Babylon Berlin (series)

With a budget of €40 million, which reportedly ballooned to €55 million 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. Now streaming on Netflix in the US

Kingdom (series)

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 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. Now streaming on Netflix 

Call the Midwife (series)

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. Now streaming on Netflix

The Last Kingdom (series) 

He’s lost his name and home, but the man who says he no longer sees himself Uhtred of Bebbanburg isn’t one to let this hold him back. Instead, as the action-drama based on Bernard Cornwell’s Saxon Stories novels returns for a fourth series, warrior Uhtred (Alexander Dreymon) is once again at the centre of the action as, in the wake of King Alfred’s death, Viking invaders once again threaten the kingdoms that will eventually make up England. Sieges and bloody battles ensue. Returning characters include Uhtred’s frenemy and sometime lover Brida (Emily Cox), holy man Beocca (Ian Hart) and Arthur’s daughter, Aethelflaed (Millie Brady). Now streaming on Netflix 

Hollywood (series)

Created by Ryan Murphy (GleePose), Hollywood looks back at Tinseltown’s golden age in the wake of the Second World War. Its focus is largely on those struggling to make it in an unforgiving town and there’s much here about just how far people will go to find success. In the case of Jack Castello (David Corenswet), for example, this means working as a male escort as he searches around for a break as an actor. A drama that mixes in real-life characters, and often shows them in a less than flattering light, but is perhaps in the end nevertheless too glossy for its own good. Now streaming on Netflix 

Mindhunter (series)

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. Now streaming on Netflix 

Outlander (series)

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 movementNow streaming on Netflix in the US

Patria (documentary)

The years between 1854 and 1867, argues Paco Ignacio Taibo II, are crucial to understanding contemporary Mexico. As the award-winning writer notes in a feature-length documentary, these were years when the “country rattled”. Events certainly proceeded at a breakneck pace as, following the exile of Antonio López de Santa Anna, who served as president a dozen times and previously dominated politics, the country entered an era of coups, counter-revolutions and foreign intervention. It’s a history with which many outside the country will be unfamiliar, and one told by Taibo with plenty of visits to historic sites, pace and no little wit. Streaming now on Netflix

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. Now streaming on Netflix

The People v OJ Simpson: American Crime Story (series)

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. Now streaming on Netflix

Poldark (series)

Set in 18th-century Cornwall, this BBC 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 HistoryExtra“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”. Now streaming on Netflix in the UK and Amazon Prime in the US

Ripper Street (series)

Ripper Street is one of those series that, after recurring problems with its financing, and being cancelled at different points by the BBC and Amazon, seemed to end with more of a whisper than a bang. Shame, because over five series and 37 episodes (2012–16), it was consistently excellent, a Gothic Victorian crime drama that on occasion sends proper shivers down the spine. Set in Whitechapel shortly after the last of the Jack the Ripper murders, the cast included Matthew Macfadyen as haunted copper Edmund Reid, Jerome Flynn as taciturn police enforcer Bennet Drake and MyAnna Buring as brothel madam ‘Long’ Susan Hart. Now streaming on Netflix in the US and Amazon Prime in the UK

Medici: The Magnificent (series) 

Time to go back again to 15th-century Italy as the Italian-British drama focusing on the Medici banking dynasty returns. The third and final series continues the story of Lorenzo the Magnificent (Daniel Sherman), de facto leader of the Republic of Florence at the height of the Renaissance, a man who was a patron to the likes of Botticelli and Michelangelo. Not that Lorenzo’s life is all messing around with an appreciation of paint and perspective. The new episodes find him dealing with the aftermath of the Pazzi conspiracy, aimed at displacing the Medici family, and setting out on a potentially perilous diplomatic mission. Now streaming on Netflix in the UK and US

The Crown (series)

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 Windsors over four series so far, providing an engrossing portrait of the Windsors and covering events including the Suez crisis, the Aberfan disaster, and the marriage of Prince Charles and Diana Spencer. The story follows the life of Queen Elizabeth II and her family over several decades, charting the personal and political challenges facing the Queens reign as well as the intricate family dramas going on behind the scenes. There have been cast changes along the as the royal family ages up. A must-watch for royal enthusiasts and those who enjoy British history. The fifth and final season of The Crown looks likely to transmit in 2022. Now streaming on Netflix in the US and UK

Now streaming on Netflix in the US and UK

Cursed (series)

Arthurian myth, it seems, is endlessly open to reinvention. This latest take on the genre stars Katherine Langford as Nimue, a young heroine with mysterious gifts whose life trajectory (mild spoiler alert) may have something to do with destiny and becoming the Lady of the Lake. Meantime, the series follows Nimue, in the company of a young mercenary called Arthur, on a quest to locate Merlin and deliver a sword. Co-created byFrank Miller (Sin City) and writer/producer Tom Wheeler (Puss In Boots), the 10-part series promises to explore themes such as religious terror and the destruction of the natural world. Streaming now on Netflix

Self-made (mini-series)

Inspired by the real story of Madam C J WalkerSelf 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. Now streaming on Netflix

When They See Us (series)

In April 1989, a white female jogger, later identified as Trisha Meili, was found in critical condition in Manhattan’s Central Park. She was so badly injured following her assault and rape that she remained in a coma for 12 days. Five young black defendants found themselves falsely accused of the crime and would each spend years in jail. A righteously angry, powerful drama that highlights the institutional racism that led to their convictions, and which also explores the difficulties of beginning anew. Streaming now on Netflix, along with Oprah Winfrey Presents: When They See Us Now, featuring an interview with the wrongly convicted men

The English Game (mini-series)

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. Now streaming on Netflix 

La Révolution (drama series)

The events surrounding the overthrow of the monarchy in France might seem quite dramatic enough not to need too much embellishment, but that’s to reckon without the needs of episodic television. The premise for this expensive-looking French Netflix series is that the future inventor of the guillotine – a device used in the execution of, among others, Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette – uncovers a disease that drives the aristocracy to murder common folk. It’s a daffy but potentially hugely entertaining basis for an alternate and horror-tinged take on late 18th-century history. Young actor Amir El Kacem leads the cast. Now streaming on Netflix 

Halston (Netflix drama series)

Roy Halston Frowick (1932–90) was one of America’s most influential fashion designers, whose creations included the pillbox hat that Jacqueline Kennedy wore to her husband’s inauguration. Subsequently, Halston’s clothes, which typically mixed clean lines with luxurious fabrics, would do much to define the look of the 1970s and 1980s. In a biopic series executive produced by Ryan Murphy (Glee, Pose), Ewan McGregor stars as a man who was famous enough to be known only by his surname, yet who endured business setbacks and drugs issues prior to his death from an Aids-related illness. Now streaming on Netflix


Best history documentaries to watch on Netflix

Amend: The Fight For America (documentary series)

Ratified in 1868, the Fourteenth Amendment of the US Constitution granted citizenship to “all persons born or naturalized in the United States”. Three years after end of the Civil War, here was legal protection of the rights of emancipated slaves – and indeed all Americans. But even rights enshrined in law have to be fought for and protected. This six-part documentary, co-presented by Will Smith, explores how the ideals enshrined in the Fourteenth Amendment have influenced subsequent American history. Featuring readings from the Hollywood A-list likes of Mahershala Ali, Diane Lane and Samuel L Jackson. Now streaming on Netflix 

Age Of Samurai: Battle For Japan (drama-documentary series)

It’s said that, as a child, the 16th-century warlord Date Masamune plucked out his own smallpox-blinded eye. Whether this story is true or not, the fact that it’s passed down the years gives an idea of just how tough he must have been. It’s also said his ‘kabuto’ helmet helped inspire the costume  of Darth Vader in Star Wars. If that all sounds like catnip to a certain stripe of filmmaker, you’re not wrong, and this series puts Masamune and those he fought at the centre of events as it looks back to when competing clans struggled for control of feudal Japan. Now streaming on Netflix 

Pelé (documentary)

Ferenc Puskás, a man who scored 84 goals in 85 internationals for Hungary, once declared that his teammate at Real Madrid, Alfredo Di Stéfano, was the “greatest player in history”. However, there was a caveat. “I refuse to classify Pelé as a player,” said Puskás. “He was above that.” Such otherworldly talent enabled Pelé, who played Brazil at four World Cups and scored in the finals of 1958 and 1970, to become a major figure in his country’s turbulent 20th-century history. This documentary, featuring interviews with the great man himself, charts the years when Pelé became football’s first global superstar. Now streaming on Netflix 

Bobby Kennedy for President (documentary series)

On 6 June 1968, in Los Angeles where he was on the campaign trail to be the Democratic presidential candidate, Bobby Kennedy was targeted by a Palestinian gunman, Sirhan Sirhan, and murdered. Following soon after the April assassination of Martin Luther King Jr, it’s a tragedy that’s come to be seen as one of the days when the idealism of the 1960s also perished. This four-part documentary series traces Kenned’s trajectory through the decade, taking in his work on his brother’s campaigns, JFK’s death, Bobby’s championing of civil rights. It also looks at events in the aftermath of the killing. Now streaming on Netflix 

Challenger: The Final Flight (documentary series)

On 28 January 1986, the Space Shuttle Challenger exploded as the world looked on. The tragedy occurred just 73 seconds into its tenth mission. All seven crew members died. What went wrong and could the accident have been prevented? This four-part documentary series explores a story of an institutional failure to tackle a known technological problem. It’s a story given added poignancy by the presence onboard the spacecraft of Christa McAuliffe, a civilian schoolteacher chosen because NASA wanted to promote interest in its work amongst students. Engineers, officials and the crew’s family members are among those offering their perspective. Now streaming on Netflix 

I Am Not Your Negro (documentary)

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. Now streaming on Netflix in the US

Mercury 13 (documentary)

When Nasa launched its programme to select astronauts, it focused on recruiting military test pilots, in part because these men had already undergone rigorous testing and training. But what if Nasa’s intake had been different? This documentary offers a glimpse of what might have been as it traces the experiences of a baker’s dozen of female flyers. These were pilots who, in a privately funded initiative launched with the support of William Randolph Lovelace II, chairman of the Nasa Special Advisory Committee on Life Science, subjected themselves to the physical tests their male counterparts also undertook, only to find themselves denied the opportunity of further training. Now streaming on Netflix 

13th (documentary)

In 1865, the Thirteenth Amendment to the US Constitution abolished both slavery and involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for a crime. In other words, nobody could be forced to work except prisoners. It’s an idea taken up by director Ava DuVernay (Selma) in this documentary charting the history of what’s been dubbed ‘the US prison-industrial complex’, which has developed since the 1970s as the country’s prison population has increased (while at the same time as crime rates have declined). It all makes for a righteously angry piece of filmmaking as DuVernay also explores the history of post-American Civil War racist legislation from an economic perspective. Now streaming on Netflix 

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. Now streaming on Netflix 

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. Now streaming on Hoopla in the US

We interviewed Lynn Novick about the series for our podcast back in 2018. You can still listen here:

Fear City: New York vs The Mafia (documentary series)

In the 1970s and 1980s, New York wasn’t the largely gentrified city of today. This was a decade when the city, which suffered a fiscal crisis, was synonymous with violence. It was also a time when organised crime – and, in particular, five Italian-American Mafia families – exerted a destructive influence on day-to-day life. But the passing of the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) Act in 1970 had given the authorities new powers to bring down mobsters. As this new series explores, the authorities now had the power to target not just Mafia foot soldiers, but those who directed them. Now streaming on Netflix 

High On The Hog: How African-American Cuisine Transformed America (cooking series)
Yes, this is a cookery series, but it’s one that delves into the past as food writer Stephen Satterfield tells a story that takes in slavery, the American Civil War and Juneteenth, the holiday celebrating the emancipation of those who had previously been enslaved. The first of four documentaries, Our Roots, gives an idea of what to expect as Satterfield heads for bustling Dantokpa Market in Benin. Here, he meets Jessica B Harris, culinary historian author of the book on which the series is based, and the two investigate the deeper roots of African-American cuisine. Now streaming on Netflix

Roman Empire (Netflix docudrama series)

It certainly isn’t the most subtle evocation of the past, but Roman Empire doesn’t want for  spectacle and incident. Each of its three series focuses on a specific story from Roman times, beginning with Commodus: Reign of Blood (narrated by Sean Bean), the tale an emperor who outraged and disgusted his contemporaries by performing as a gladiator. Julius Caesar: Master of Rome tells of the general’s rise and eventual assassination at a time when the great and good competed violently for power; while The Mad Emperor charts the reign of Caligula, whose name has become associated with sadism, corruption and sexual perversity. Now streaming on Netflix

I Am Not Your Negro (documentary)

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. Now streaming on Netflix in the US


Best history movies to watch on Netflix

A Call To Spy (film)

Female agents with the Special Operations Executive (SOE) played a vital role in the Allied war effort during the Second World War. The women who served faced not just the risks inherent in going behind enemy lines, but had to contend with sexism from male colleagues along the way. Written by Sarah Megan Thomas and directed by Lydia Dean Pilcher, A Call To Spy, based on a true story, charts the experiences of some of those who served: Romanian-born “spymistress” Vera Atkins (Thomas); Virginia Hall (Stana Katic), an adventurous American who had a wooden leg; and Indian-Muslim pacifist Noor Inayat Khan (Radhika Apte). Streaming now on Netflix and available on Showtime in US

Dance Of The 41 (film)

It was a scandal that rocked Mexico. In November 1901, police conducted an illegal raid on a private home in Mexico City where a party was taking place. Of the gay men in attendance, half were in drag and all were from the higher echelons of society. Despite official efforts to hush up what had happened, the press were keenly interested, the first time the Mexican media had talked so openly about homosexuality. Alfonso Herrera stars as Ignacio de la Torre y Mier, the son-in-law of Mexico’s president, who in real life was rumoured to have been in attendance at the party. Now streaming on Netflix

News Of The World (film)

It’s five years after the end of the American Civil War and a former Confederate infantryman, Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd (Tom Hanks), makes his living as a storyteller, spreading news of the wider world out in frontier towns. But Kidd’s lonely life changes forever when he crosses paths with a 10-year-old, Johanna (Helena Zengel), who has spent years living with the Kiowa people. Co-written and directed by Paul Greengrass (United 93, Captain Phillips) from Paulette Jiles’ novel, a Western that blends elements of The Outlaw Josey Wales, True Grit and The Searchers to fine effect. Now streaming on Netflix in the UK

Gladiator (film)

Easy to forget now, but the sword-and-sandals epic was something of a joke movie genre when Ridley Scott set to work on Gladiator. The payoff for Scott’s faith in the project was the second-highest grossing film of 2000 (behind Mission: Impossible 2) and five Academy Awards, including Best Picture and, for Russell Crowe, Best Actor. If you’ve not seen it for a while, Gladiator is well worth revisiting, both because it evokes the world of the Romans so vividly via then groundbreaking CGI techniques, and because Crowe brings a mesmerising mix of anger and angst to Maximus Decimus Meridius, a warrior forced into slavery. Streaming now on Netflix in the UK

Downton Abbey (film)

The series may have come to an end, but Julian Fellowes’ hit drama returned last year in a big-movie iteration that’s now finding its way to Now TV in the UK for those who purchase a Sky Cinema Pass. The film is set in 1927 and centres on Buckingham Palace informing Robert and Cora Crawley, the Earl and Countess of Grantham (Hugh Bonneville and Elizabeth McGovern), that King George V and Queen Mary will be paying a visit. Cue mad preparations and a subplot involving Robert’s cousin, Maud (Imelda Staunton), one of Mary’s ladies in waiting, and an inheritance. A sequel seems a distinct possibility. Streaming via Netflix in UK

Outlaw King (film)

In the constant battle to keep up with what everyone else is watching, it can be easy to overlook films and series that you missed when they were first released. Reason enough in itself to recommend Outlaw King. Directed by Scottish filmmaker David Mackenzie, it revisits the story of Robert The Bruce (1274–1329) – and attracted much comment back in 2018 for a full-frontal scene featuring its star, Chris Pine. Scenes recreating the battle of Loudoun Hill are spectacular, but there’s much else to admire here too, including a taut script and a strong performance from Florence Pugh as Bruce’s queen consort, Elizabeth de Burgh. Now streaming on Netflix 

The Wind Rises (animated film)

The inclusion of Japanese animation powerhouse Studio Ghibli’s back catalogue on Netflix reveals flight as a recurring theme, notably in the movies of co-founder Hayao Miyazaki. Nowhere is this more true than in Miyazaki’s biopic of Jiro Horikoshi (1903–82), chief designer at Mitsubishi as the company worked on creating the A6M Zero fighter, a fighter famed for its manoeuvrability. Miyazaki shows Horikoshi as a dreamer, a man who longs to be a pilot, but whose nearsightedness makes this impossible. Solace comes from his work creating flying machines, only for Horikoshi to look on in horror when his creations are employed in the Second World War. Now streaming on Netflix in the UK and available on HBO Max in the US

Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom (film)

Dubbed the “Mother of the Blues”, Gertrude ‘Ma’ Rainey, née Pridgett (1886–1939) was one of the first singers to lay down blues tracks in the recording studio. Based on August Wilson’s 1982 play, a heavily fictionalised account of the recording of one of Ma’s trademark songs, this feature-length Netflix drama, set in 1927, shows her as fiery and single-minded. Viola Davis stars as Ma, while the supporting casts includes Chadwick Boseman (Black Panther) in his final screen appearance as ambitious trumpet player Levee. A taut and claustrophobic piece with much to say about American social and cultural history. Now streaming on Netflix 

BlacKkKlansman (film)

Spike Lee’s 1970s-set drama, for which the director won an Oscar for his screenplay, tells a barely credible story without taking too many liberties with what actually happened. At its heart lies Ron Stallworth (John David Washington), who becomes the first black officer in the Colorado Springs Police Department. Using the phone to pose as white, he infiltrates a local division of the Ku Klux Klan, a ruse that involves recruiting a Jewish detective, Philip ‘Flip’ Zimmerman (a fictional character played by Adam Driver, nominated for an Oscar) to help him out. Now streaming on Netflix in the UK, and available on FX Now in US

Da 5 Bloods (film)

For many African-American veterans, the Vietnam War and its aftermath remain especially vivid. These are the former soldiers who returned from the front line with physical and psychological injuries, only to find they weren’t supported properly back in the US. The experiences of four such soldiers lie at the centre of Academy Award winner Spike Lee’s new drama, debuting on Netflix and which follows the four veterans – Paul (Delroy Lindo), Otis (Clarke Peters), Eddie (Norm Lewis) and Melvin (Isiah Whitlock, Jr) – as they return to Asia to search for the remains of their squad leader and, they fervently hope, to recover some buried treasure. Now streaming on Netflix 

The Irishman (film)

Considering its three-hour-plus running time, it may help to put aside a couple of evenings for Martin Scorsese’s innovative gangster epic, which utilises digital technology to de-age stars Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, and Joe Pesci. Based on I Heard You Paint Houses by Charles Brandt, it follows the life of Frank Sheeran (1920–2003), a corrupt union official with links to organised crime who, towards the end of his life, claimed to have murdered Teamster leader Jimmy Hoffa (1913–75) – a disputed claim, it’s worth noting. A self-referencing salute to Scorsese’s own cinematic past? Maybe, but a vital, compelling drama nonetheless. Now streaming on Netflix 

Mank (film)

Despite its central place in the history of Hollywood, Citizen Kane (1941) won just one Academy Award, awarded to the film’s director and star, Orson Welles, and Herman J Mankiewicz for the screenplay. Mankiewicz was unhappy at the way Welles took credit for work the writer thought was his and tension between the two men lies at the heart of biopic Mank. Directed by David Fincher of Fight Club fame from a script by his late father, Jack Fincher, this Netflix original stars Gary Oldman in the title role. A stellar supporting cast includes Tom Burke (lately seen as Cormoran Strike) as Welles. Now streaming on Netflix 

Sergio (Netflix original film)

Brazilian career diplomat Sérgio Vieira de Mello (1948-2003), styled in this drama as “the world’s Mister Fixit” and “the most powerful official in UN history”, was a man who spent much of his life trying to bring peace to war zones. He lost his life in Iraq when a suicide bomber driving a truck packed with explosives targeted the Canal Hotel in Baghdad. Director Greg Barker’s drama cuts between this atrocity and Vieira de Mello (Wagner Mouraof Narcosfame), caught between life and death, looking back on his own sometimes questionable choices. Netflix also has a documentary, Sergio (2009), profiling Vieira de Mello. Now streaming on Netflix 

The Trial of the Chicago 7 (film)

Culture wars are not new, as the story of the Chicago 7 demonstrates. The seven (originally eight, including Black Panther leader Bobby Seale) were countercultural figures tried for inciting to riot and conspiracy related to anti-Vietnam protests. Their trial, in part at the instigation of the defendants, who included Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin of Yippies fame, became a circus. Just how this happened is the subject of this legal drama written and directed by West Wing creator Aaron Sorkin. A fine ensemble cast includes Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, Sacha Baron Cohen, Michael Keaton, Eddie Redmayne and Mark Rylance. Now streaming on Netflix 


Best history TV shows and series to watch on Amazon Prime

The Underground Railroad (drama series)

Prior to filming this 10-part series, Oscar-winning writer and director Barry Jenkins (Moonlight) noted on more than one occasion that he wanted to make a drama dealing with slavery. But how to approach such a difficult subject? By adapting Colson Whitehead’s award-winning 2016 novel, which reimagines the underground railroad, the network of secret routes and safe houses used by slaves fleeing the American South, as a physical system of tracks. The fantastic element adds to the power of the piece, by making us look back with fresh eyes. Thuso Mbedu stars as Cora Randall, a young woman fleeing life on a plantation. Streaming now.

Outlander (series)

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 movementNow streaming on Amazon Prime in the UK

Mad Men (series)

For anyone who missed out on following Matthew Weiner’s story of Madison Avenue advertising executives when it was first broadcast between 2007 and 2015, it’s well worth the effort of catching up. Over seven seasons and 92 episodes, it follows a cast of characters you may not always much like, but who always demand your attention. Chief among these is Don Draper (Jon Hamm), a creative director with a shadowy past linked to his experiences in the Korean War. A drama that, by looking at the 1960s from the perspective of one industry, turns out to have much to say about America’s history in a tumultuous decade. Streaming now on AMC in US and Amazon Prime in UK

Leonardo (drama series)

It’s 1506 and Leonardo da Vinci is in trouble. Accused of poisoning Caterina de Cremona (Matilda De Angelis), his muse and confidant, the genius polymath has been arrested in Milan. His interrogator, Stefano Giraldi (Freddie Highmore) is far from convinced that Leonardo is guilty and decides to investigate further. The scene is set for an excellent eight-part drama that finds Leonardo looking back at key moments in his life and how these played into his art. Created by Frank Spotnitz (The Man In The High Castle) and Steve Thompson (Vienna Blood), and starring Aidan Turner of Poldark fame. A second series has been commissioned. Streaming now in the UK | Read more about the real history in Leonardo

Vikings (series)

In AD 793, northern raiders sacked the monastery at Lindisfarne, an event now taken to mark the beginning of the Viking Age. It’s also the starting point for this six-season drama that follows the exploits of Viking chieftain Ragnar Lothbrok and his crew, and in later seasons Ragnar’s descendants as well. Originally made for the History Channel, the show draws extensively on chronicles written later and also on contemporary historical sources, which isn’t in any way to suggest it’s somehow didactic. Rather, this is blood-and-thunder entertainment that’s not for the squeamish. Expect part two of season six to be broadcast later this year. Now streaming on Amazon Prime in the UK and Amazon Prime/Hulu/History in the US

The Americans (series)

Evoking the chill of the Cold War during the Reagan years, The Americans ran for six seasons from 2013–18. The title is, of course, ironic because Elizabeth (Keri Russell) and Philip Jennings (Matthew Rhys) are in reality Soviet spies so deeply embedded that few guess at their true identities – and those that do sometimes wind up dead. At the heart of the series lies the emotional cost of such duplicity within the Jennings’ marriage, often played out via the couple’s strained relationships with their children. A slow-burning and subtle series whose reputation, quite rightly, continues to grow. Perfect binge-viewing. Streaming now on Amazon Prime in the US

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

Poldark (series)

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”. Now streaming on Netflix in the UK and Amazon Prime in the US

Hunters (series)

It’s 1977 in New York City and, in a big-budget series inspired by the work of real-life Nazi hunters, it seems the USA has a problem with fascism. More specifically, in part thanks to the real-life Operation Paperclip, under which top German scientists were covertly brought to the USA at the end of the Second World War, Nazis have settled Stateside and are dreaming of a Fourth Reich. Cue clever young Jewish maths whiz Jonah Heidelbaum (Logan Lerman) finding his way to concentration camp survivor Meyer Offerman (Al Pacino), who it turns out is leading a decidedly motley band trying to track down war criminals. Now available on Amazon Prime in the UK and US

Outlander (series)

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 movementNow streaming on Amazon Prime in the UK and Netflix in the US | Read more about the real history in Outlander

The Man in the High Castle (series)

Based on a 1962 novel by science fiction writer Philip K Dick, this four-season drama imagines life in a USA that lost the Second World War to the Axis powers. On a continent divided between Germany and Japan, much is made of the gap in technology between the Greater Nazi Reich and, controlling territory on the west coast, the Empire of Japan. At the heart of a sometimes opaque series lie newsreels and home movies that seem to show history panning out differently. Rufus Sewell does much scene-stealing as John Smith, an American SS man at home in suburbia. Streaming now on Amazon Prime in the UK and US

The Marvelous Mrs Maisel (series)

The ‘Mrs Maisel’ of the title here is a New York housewife who, via downtown misadventures with alcohol and an encounter with Lenny Bruce (1925–66), finds she has a knack for comedy. Created by Amy Sherman-Palladino, who also unleashed Gilmore Girls on the world, the Emmy-winning Mrs Maisel sometimes trades in fuzzy nostalgia, yet more often offers an acerbic take on the social mores of the USA in the late 1950s and early 1960s. At times it could interrogate Maisel’s privilege more acutely, but it’s always funny and the main cast, notably Rachel Brosnahan as Miriam ‘Midge’ Maisel, is terrific. Now streaming on Amazon Prime in the UK and US

Small Axe (anthology series)

Too often the Black British experience is treated as a kind of parallel history. One of the many triumphs of director Steve McQueen’s mesmerising anthology series is to remind us how the stories of Black Britons are intrinsic to wider British history. The first film in the sequence, Mangrove, which details an infamous trial that followed police harassment of a restaurant used by activists, rightly attracted rave reviews. Elsewhere, there’s considerable star power on view, including John Boyega (Star Wars) taking the lead in Red, White And Blue as Leroy Logan, a copper who bravely fought institutional racism in the Met from within. Streaming now on Amazon Prime in the US

El Cid (series)

Forget Charlton Heston, this new Spanish take on Rodrigo ‘Ruy’ Díaz de Vivar, aka, El Cid, stars Jaime Lorente (Money Heist) as the Spanish national hero, a complex and even contradictory character. Over five episodes, it explores El Cid’s younger years when, according to an Amazon press release, “he becomes a faithful subject, knight and hero for the crown”. Set in the 11th century, it thus revisits an era when the Iberian Peninsula was home to Christians, Arabs and Jews. Expect a mix of court politics, battle scenes and romance. Also expect scale. This was a series that employed 11,000 extras. Streaming now on Amazon Prime

Death Comes to Pemberley (series)

A mash-up between Jane Austen and Agatha Christie may sound initially like an awful idea, but there’s much fun to be had from this adaptation of PD James’ sequel to Pride And Prejudice, first shown by the BBC back in 2013. Set six years after the marriage of Fitzwilliam Darcy (Matthew Rhys) and Miss Elizabeth Bennet (Anna Maxwell Martin), it follows what happens after George Wickham (Matthew Goode) is accused of murdering his friend, Captain Denny. Granted, Elisabeth’s brother-in-law isn’t the most admirable of men, but is he really capable of such a heinous crime? Streaming now via Amazon Prime in the UK and PBS Masterpiece in the US

Ripper Street (series)

Ripper Street is one of those series that, after recurring problems with its financing, and being cancelled at different points by the BBC and Amazon, seemed to end with more of a whisper than a bang. Shame, because over five series and 37 episodes (2012–16), it was consistently excellent, a Gothic Victorian crime drama that on occasion sends proper shivers down the spine. Set in Whitechapel shortly after the last of the Jack the Ripper murders, the cast included Matthew Macfadyen as haunted copper Edmund Reid, Jerome Flynn as taciturn police enforcer Bennet Drake and MyAnna Buring as brothel madam ‘Long’ Susan Hart. Now streaming on Amazon Prime in the UK 

Britannia (drama series)

The year is 43 AD and life for ordinary Britons is about to change thanks to the arrival of Roman invaders who, unlike the troops landed by Julius Caesar many decades previously, aren’t going to go home anytime soon. Jez Butterworth’s series, a mix of fantasy and historical drama, may be over the top, but it’s undeniably entertaining, at least so long as you enjoy a mix of Celtic-tinged mysticism, strong violence and switchback plotting. Amidst an ensemble cast, look out for David Morrissey as General Aulus Plautius, Kelly Reilly as Kerra and Mackenzie Crook as Veran. Streaming now via NOW TV in the UK, and Amazon Prime in the US.


Best history documentaries to watch on Amazon Prime

Berlin 1945 (documentary series)

What was it like to live in Berlin in the year when the Allies defeated Nazism? This German-made documentary series charts a momentous year in the city’s history, beginning in months when the regime’s propaganda held out a promise of victory in stark contrast to a day-to-day reality of bombing raids, blasted-out buildings and the endless task of burying corpses. The second documentary charts the battle for the city, which would see the Red Flag flying over the Reichstag and the suicide of Hitler; while the final documentary focuses on days when the fate of the city was determined at the Potsdam Conference. Streaming now on Amazon Prime in the US

The Witness (documentary)

On 13 March 1964, 28-year-old Kitty Genovese was murdered near the Queens apartment where she lived, stabbed and raped by Winston Moseley. The case became notorious in the USA after The New York Times claimed that 38 witnesses saw or heard the attack, yet did nothing to help. As this documentary narrated by Kitty’s brother, William Genovese, relates, the truth was rather different, a case of misreporting giving such a strong impression of big-city indifference that Genovese syndrome became a synonym for bystander apathy. Directed by James D Solomon, The Witness also explores the enduring effects of the crime on William. Now streaming on Amazon Prime in the UK

Robert Redford’s The West (documentary series)

For Now TV customers, there’s an extensive archive of Sky History Channel material to explore, including this acclaimed series from 2016 that counted, as the title strongly hints, Robert Redford among its producers. The eight-part series focuses on the Wild West in the years between 1865 and 1880, and features the gun-toting histories of such legendary figures as Jesse James, Billy the Kid, Crazy Horse, George Custer, Sitting Bull and Wyatt Earp. Expect a mix of docudrama footage and interviews, with those speaking ranging from historians to Hollywood actors that have played cowboys, including Kiefer Sutherland, Danny Glover and Mark Harmon. Now streaming on Amazon Prime


Best history movies to watch on Amazon Prime

Escape From Pretoria (film)

In 1979, a trio of anti-apartheid activists escaped prison in Pretoria. But how exactly did Tim Jenkin, Stephen Lee and Alex Moumbaris (renamed Leonard Fontaine here) get away? Adapted from a book by Jenkin, this Australian film takes us back to an era when South Africans could be incarcerated for distributing pro-ANC leaflets and when political prisoners received especially harsh treatment in jail. The trio’s ingenious bid for freedom involves making wooden keys and plays out as a thriller. Daniel Radcliffe leads the cast as Jenkin. Ian Hart plays Denis Goldberg, a long-imprisoned activist who helps his fellow prisoners. Streaming now, and available on Starz in the US

The Captain (film)

April 1945 and with Germany facing imminent defeat, deserter Willi Herold is on the run. Then Herold comes across a Luftwaffe captain’s uniform and not only passes himself off as an officer but, claiming to be on a secret mission from the Führer, organises the mass execution of fellow deserters held at a prison camp – all despite his deception not entirely falling anyone. Based on a true story, director Robert Schwentke’s stark black-and-white drama is a study of the evil that people can do when things are falling part and when a fear of authority holds sway. Max Hubacher plays sociopath Herold with chilling menace. Streaming now, and available on Showtime in the US

Peterloo (film)

On Monday 16 August 1819, a crowd of between 60,000 and 80,000 people gathered at St Peter’s Field in Manchesterto 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. Now streaming on Amazon Prime in the UK and US

We interviewed Mike Leigh about the film for our podcast back in 2019. You can still listen here:

One Night in Miami (film)

In February 1964, 7-1 underdog Cassius Clay (Eli Goree), soon to change his name to Muhammad Ali, defeated Sonny Liston to become world heavyweight champion. After the fight, he met up with three friends: soul singer Sam Cooke (Leslie Odom Jr), Nation of Islam leader Malcolm X (Kingsley Ben-Adir) and American football star Jim Brown (Aldis Hodge). Directed by Regina King and scripted by Kemp Powers from his own play, One Night imagines what might have transpired. Suffice to say the quartet spent more time musing on their lives and the fight for civil rights than partying. Illuminating and powerful. Now streaming on Amazon Prime in the UK and US

1917 (film)

Because of its sheer scale, Sam Mendes’ 1917 demanded to be seen on the big screen. Here was a First World War drama that showed us the shell-pocked landscapes of the Western Front in widescreen. And yet it works equally well on the small screen too, in part because of its race-against-time structure, which draws you in, and it because it tells a story so largely centred on just two men and one mission. Besides, wherever you see 1917, its combination of cinematography, script and central performances by young actors Dean-Charles Chapman and George MacKay is utterly extraordinary. Now streaming on Amazon Prime in the UK

The Lost City of Z (film)

The British explorer Percy Fawcett was convinced there was an ancient lost city, which he dubbed ‘Z’, to be found in the jungles of Brazil. In 1925, Fawcett set off on what would be his final foray into the Amazon basin. He never returned from an expedition during which his own son, Jack, also went missing. On the film’s cinema release in 2016, there were complaints that, in real life, Fawcett was at best an incompetent. Leaving that criticism aside, director James Gray’s take on the story makes for a fine adventure tale that draws strong performances from Charlie Hunnam and Tom Holland as father-and-son Fawcetts. Now streaming on Amazon Prime in the US

True History Of The Kelly Gang (film)

The Australian outlaw Ned Kelly (1854–80) has often been portrayed as a romantic figure. Not in this searing drama from director Justin Kurzel. Taking its cues from its fictionalised source material, the Booker-winning novel by Peter Carey, it instead focuses on how Kelly came to be an outlaw. This is frequently a brutal film, but also one blessed with terrific performances. George MacKay (1917) stars as Kelly, a violent yet curiously vulnerable young man in thrall to the mother, Ellen (Essie Davis), who ‘sold’ him as a child to real-life brigand Harry Power (Russell Crowe, in a scene-stealing extended cameo). Streaming now on Amazon Prime in the UK, and available on Fubo in the US

Sylvie’s Love (film)

As an exercise in creating atmosphere, writer/director Eugene Ashe’s drama is a terrific piece of film-making. It’s the summer of 1957, Harlem, and Sylvie (Tessa Thompson) helps out at the family record store as she waits for her fiancé to return from serving with the military. Enter saxophone player Robert (Nnamdi Asomugha), who needs a day job to help make ends meet. The attraction is immediate and we follow the duo down the years. A study of how two people can experience adversity that self-consciously nods towards the melodramas of Hollywood’s golden age without ever seeming too knowing. Streaming now on Amazon Prime in the UK

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. Now streaming on Amazon Prime in the UK and US


Best history TV shows and series to watch on Now TV

Chernobyl (series)

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. Now streaming on Now TV in the UK

Listen to our podcast exploring the real history behind the events of 1986:

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.  Now streaming on Now TV in the UK

Britannia (series)

The year is 43 AD and life for ordinary Britons is about to change thanks to the arrival of Roman invaders who, unlike the troops landed by Julius Caesar many decades previously, aren’t going to go home anytime soon. Jez Butterworth’s series, a mix of fantasy and historical drama, may be over the top, but it’s undeniably entertaining, at least so long as you enjoy a mix of Celtic-tinged mysticism, strong violence and switchback plotting. Amidst an ensemble cast, look out for David Morrissey as General Aulus Plautius, Kelly Reilly as Kerra and Mackenzie Crook as Veran. Streaming now via NOW TV in the UK

Robert Redford’s The West (documentary series)

For Now TV customers, there’s an extensive archive of Sky History Channel material to explore, including this acclaimed series from 2016 that counted, as the title strongly hints, Robert Redford among its producers. The eight-part series focuses on the Wild West in the years between 1865 and 1880, and features the gun-toting histories of such legendary figures as Jesse James, Billy the Kid, Crazy Horse, George Custer, Sitting Bull and Wyatt Earp. Expect a mix of docudrama footage and interviews, with those speaking ranging from historians to Hollywood actors that have played cowboys, including Kiefer Sutherland, Danny Glover and Mark Harmon. Now streaming on Now TV in the UK

Domina (drama series)

Livia Drusilla (Kasia Smutniak) was one of the most powerful women in Rome, both wife and advisor to the emperor Augustus Caesar. But as this new series fictionalising her early life makes clear, she first had to survive through years when the men around her ruthlessly competed for power. It helps, it seems, that Livia was single minded and ambitious. We meet the young Livia in the wake of the assassination of Julius Caesar when, despite still being a teenager, she is married to boorish Tiberius Claudius Nero. A strong cast includes Liam Cunningham, Isabella Rossellini and Matthew McNulty. Streaming now.

The Good Lord Bird (series)

Ethan Hawke is on fine form as real-life abolitionist John Brown in a raucous adaptation of James McBride’s 2013 novel. The plot here has strong fictional elements, not least because we see events through the eyes of Henry ‘Little Onion’ Shackleford (Joshua Caleb Johnson), a teenage slave Brown frees and then informally adopts. Bowen mistakenly thinks Henry is a girl, Henrietta, and survivor Henry isn’t about to tell the truth if it keeps him out of trouble. It was Brown, remember, who led the Harpers Ferry raid in October 1859, an attempt to initiate a slave revolt in the South. Streaming via Now TV in UK and Showtime in US

Perry Mason (series)

The character of Perry Mason has long been associated with Raymond Burr, who played the character on television from 1957 until his death, from kidney cancer, in 1993. This longevity perhaps explains why it’s taken so long for crime novelist Erle Stanley Gardner’s upstanding defence attorney to return to our screens. The spin in this big-budget HBO series is that we meet Mason (Matthew Rhys) in 1932 Los Angeles, where he’s working as a gumshoe detective. Haunted by his experiences in the First World War, this is Mason down on his luck, when along comes a kidnapping case that holds out the opportunity for redemption. Now streaming on Now TV in the UK

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. Now streaming on Now TV in the UK

The Good Lord Bird (series)

Ethan Hawke is on fine form as real-life abolitionist John Brown in a raucous adaptation of James McBride’s 2013 novel. The plot here has strong fictional elements, not least because we see events through the eyes of Henry ‘Little Onion’ Shackleford (Joshua Caleb Johnson), a teenage slave Brown frees and then informally adopts. Bowen mistakenly thinks Henry is a girl, Henrietta, and survivor Henry isn’t about to tell the truth if it keeps him out of trouble. It was Brown, remember, who led the Harpers Ferry raid in October 1859, an attempt to initiate a slave revolt in the South. Streaming now on Now TV in the UK

The Plot Against America (series)

Alternate histories don’t come much spookier than Philip Roth’s 2004 novel, The Plot Against America, which imagines a xenophobic Charles Lindbergh using his fame as an aviator to run for president and then to turn the country towards fascism. In this six-part mini-series from writers David Simon and Ed Burns of The Wire fame, it’s a rise to power we see primarily through the eyes of a working-class Jewish family from Newark, New Jersey. A strong cast includes Winona Ryder as independently minded Evelyn Finkel and John Turturro as charismatic Rabbi Lionel Bengelsdorf, who supports Lindbergh despite the disquiet this causes many in his community. Streaming via NOW TV in the UK

Das Boot (series)

Like the 1981 movie, the television version of submarine drama Das Boot probably isn’t for those who suffer from claustrophobia. Nevertheless, the series widens out the story considerably. In season one, set in 1942, we see events on U-boat 612 as a secret mission starts to go badly wrong. Back on land, watch as the French Resistance seeks to disrupt the Nazi war effort in La Rochelle, home to the Germans’ submarine base. Season two takes the show further from Lothar-Günther Buchheim’s 1973 novel and its sequel, Die Festung (1995), but without losing any of the essence of the books. Streaming now on Now TV in the UK

The Pacific (series) 

Once again numbering Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks as executive producers, the follow-up to Band of Brothers focuses on the experiences of three real-life members of the US 1st Marine Division, Robert Leckie, Eugene Sledge and John Basilone. Based on such first-hand memoirs as Leckie’s Helmet For My Pillow, it’s a series notable for offering, as its predecessor did, an unflinching portrait of men at war. Over 10 episodes, it also portrays many of the key engagements in the Pacific theatre during the Second World War, including the Guadalcanal campaign, the battle of Iwo Jima and the notoriously bloody US landing at Okinawa. Now streaming on Now TV in the UK

Boardwalk Empire (series)

Playing out over five series that originally aired between 2010 and 2014, Boardwalk Empire set out to tell an epic story of Atlantic City gangsters in the prohibition era. And it largely succeeded, although it’s arguable the earlier episodes are stronger, notably a pilot directed by Martin Scorsese that cost $18m. Back before the long-form television revolution meant it was routine to see film stars on TV, its cast was notably starry, including Steve Buscemias Enoch ‘Nucky’ Thompson, corrupt city treasurer; Michael Shannon as Nelson Van Alden, a puritanical government agent whose life spirals out of control; and Kelly Macdonald as troubled widow Margaret Thompson. Now streaming on Now TV in the UK


Best history documentaries to watch on Now TV

1968: A Year of War, Turmoil and Beyond (documentary)

As the title here series suggests, 1968 was a momentous year in US history. This was the year of the Tet offensive, a coordinated series of attacks by the Viet Cong that played a key role in weakening support for the Vietnam War in the USA. It was also the year that Lyndon B Johnson announced he wouldn’t be standing for re-election as president, a decision that threw open the race to be Democratic candidate. Both Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr were assassinated. Above the Earth, the crew of Apollo 8 circled the Moon and Bill Anders captured his famous Earthrise image. Now streaming on Now TV in the UK

River Hunters (documentary series)

Exploring Britain’s rivers can reveal hitherto unfound archaeological evidence. That’s broadly the premise of this entertaining series, which sees wild swimmer Rick Edwards, underwater archaeologist Gary Bankheadand American river detectorist Beau Ouimette diving into the past. Series two, which recently aired on Sky History, begins by looking back at the battle of Killiecrankie, fought during the Jacobite rising of 1689, an engagement notable for featuring one of the earliest uses of grenades. Other shows in the series take a look back at the Viking era in York and find the researchers hunting for relics left by 12th-century pilgrims in Canterbury. Streaming now.

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 on Now TV in the UK

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 on Now TV in the UK

Hillary (documentary series)

If journalism is the “first rough draft of history”, the analysis piece that runs a little after the newsmen have gone home might be said to be its second draft. Television has developed its own variation on this latter idea with series that offer testimony from those who were there during major events yet have had time to reflect, an approach much used by the BBC. Hillary, one of the highlights of the recent Sky Documentaries launch, takes a similar approach. Nanette Burstein’s four-part series draws on campaign footage from the 2016 presidential election, and features Hillary Clinton reflecting on what’s been, by any standards, an eventful life. Streaming via Now TV in the UK

Battle of Britain 80: Allies at War (documentary)

The summer of 1940 was a time when the fate of Great Britain hung in the balance. The retreat from Dunkirk may have been a small miracle of improvisation but it also represented a demoralising defeat. And yet somehow the Royal Air Force, its Spitfires and Hurricanes flown by those Churchill dubbed “the few”, summoned up the fighting strength and will to repel the Luftwaffe, which was seeking to establish control of the skies over the country prior to invasion. This one-off documentary celebrates the role of those Polish and Czech pilots who escaped Nazi-occupied Europe to fight alongside their British compatriots. Streaming now on Now TV (in the UK)


Best history movies to watch on Now TV

Catherine the Great (series)

Far more imperious than most royals, Helen Mirren deservedly won a Golden Globe for her turn here as the empress who ruled Russia from 1762 until 1796, and who revitalised the country after organising a coup d’état against her own husband, Peter III. The four-part series, where you can see the budget in every frame, focuses on Catherine’s years in power, and shows her as both ruthless and enlightened, interested in the latest thinking across Europe. It also makes much of the relationship between the empress and her lover, military commander Grigory Potemkin (Jason Clarke), which is central to the series. Streaming on Now TV in the UK

Midway (film)

How do you convey the story of the battle of Midway, a turning point in the Pacific conflict that in 1942 resulted in a previously ascendent Japan losing four fleet carriers? The solution director Roland Emmerich and scriptwriter Wes Tooke, hit upon for this drama, one of the expensive independently produced movies of all time with its budget of $100m, was to focus in on the bravery of those who fought, especially the airmen. It doesn’t always work, and reviews for the film were at best mixed, but the battle sequences are often spectacular. British actor Ed Skrein plays showoff pilot Lieutenant Dick Best. Streaming now on Now TV in the UK

Six Minutes To Midnight (film)

In a drama loosely inspired by a strange-but-true story, co-scriptwriter Eddie Izzard, in what he recently dubbed “boy mode”, stars as Thomas Miller, who in the summer of 1939 takes a job at Augusta Victoria College in Bexhill-on-Sea. It’s a place where, despite tensions between Britain and Germany, the pupils are the daughters of high-ranking Nazi officials. (In real life, the school badge featured both a union jack and a swastika.) The school is also, it transpires, at the centre of a Nazi intelligence plot. Dame Judi Dench stars as Miss Rocholl, the school’s head teacher. Streaming now on Now TV in the UK.

Emma (film)

Rather lost on its cinema release in early 2020 because of the coronavirus pandemic, this version of Jane Austen’s acerbic Regency romcom is a delight. Scripted by novelist Eleanor Catton, it stars Anya Taylor-Joy, whose Emma Woodhouse is cool and detached even by the standards of a character Austen hardly portrayed as warm. It’s probably just as well that longtime acquaintance George Knightley (Johnny Flynn) won’t take any nonsense. Directed by Autumn de Wilde, famed for her photography and music videos, this Emma looks fantastic, and a sterling supporting cast includes Miranda Hart, Bill Nighy and Rupert Graves. Streaming on Now TV in the UK

JoJo Rabbit (film)

Scrawny Johannes ‘Jojo’ Betzler (Roman Griffin Davis) finds life confusing. As well he might considering he’s a Hitler Youth member living through the latter days of the Second World War in Germany, a country facing imminent defeat. Compounding his confusion, JoJo’s mother (Scarlett Johansson) is hiding a Jewish girl (Thomasin McKenzie) and his best friend is an imaginary Adolf Hitler (the film’s writer/director Taika Waititi). A political satire that’s laced with tragedy and is certainly never tasteful, yet artfully explores the nature of how each of us comes to form a worldview. The likes of Sam Rockwell and Stephen Merchant contribute comic turns. Streaming on Now TV in the UK and Cinemax in the US

Mary Queen of Scots (film)

While it was criticised on its cinema release over inventing a face-to-face meeting between Mary Stuart and her cousin, Queen Elizabeth of England, there’s much to admire about director Josie Rourke’s study of 16th-century power politics. In particular, Saoirse Ronan is excellent as Mary, albeit that Margot Robbie as Elizabeth doesn’t get quite so many good lines. The overall trajectory of the drama is to see the relationship between the two as fiercely competitive, yet also as a kind of love story between two people with much in common for all their differences. A strong supporting cast includes Guy Pearce and David Tennant. Streaming on Now TV in the UK

Little Women (film)

The sisters are most definitely doing it for themselves in writer-director Greta Gerwigs multiple Oscar-nominated take on Louisa May Alcotts classic novel set in the aftermath of the American Civil War. Saoirse Ronan leads the cast as Josephine Jo’ March, a fiercely opinionated aspiring writer and one of four sisters raised in genteel poverty. In the supporting cast, the likes of Emma Watson, Florence Pugh and, as wealthy and wilfully difficult Aunt March, Meryl Streep all make the most of their screen time. A generous and big-hearted drama that explores themes of sibling rivalry, grief and the need for independence. Streaming on Now TV in the UK


Best history TV shows and series to watch on HBO

The Pacific (series) 

Once again numbering Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks as executive producers, the follow-up to Band of Brothersfocuses on the experiences of three real-life members of the US 1st Marine Division, Robert Leckie, Eugene Sledge and John Basilone. Based on such first-hand memoirs as Leckie’s Helmet For My Pillow, it’s a series notable for offering, as its predecessor did, an unflinching portrait of men at war. Over 10 episodes, it also portrays many of the key engagements in the Pacific theatre during the Second World War, including the Guadalcanal campaign, the battle of Iwo Jima and the notoriously bloody US landing at Okinawa. Now streaming on HBO in the US

The Plot Against America (series)

Alternate histories don’t come much spookier than Philip Roth’s 2004 novel, The Plot Against America, which imagines a xenophobic Charles Lindbergh using his fame as an aviator to run for president and then to turn the country towards fascism. In this six-part mini-series from writers David Simon and Ed Burns of The Wire fame, it’s a rise to power we see primarily through the eyes of a working-class Jewish family from Newark, New Jersey. A strong cast includes Winona Ryder as independently minded Evelyn Finkel and John Turturro as charismatic Rabbi Lionel Bengelsdorf, who supports Lindbergh despite the disquiet this causes many in his community. Streaming via HBO in the US.

Perry Mason (series)

The character of Perry Mason has long been associated with Raymond Burr, who played the character on television from 1957 until his death, from kidney cancer, in 1993. This longevity perhaps explains why it’s taken so long for crime novelist Erle Stanley Gardner’s upstanding defence attorney to return to our screens. The spin in this big-budget HBO series is that we meet Mason (Matthew Rhys) in 1932 Los Angeles, where he’s working as a gumshoe detective. Haunted by his experiences in the First World War, this is Mason down on his luck, when along comes a kidnapping case that holds out the opportunity for redemption. Now streaming on HBO in the US

Chernobyl (series)

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. Now streaming on Now TV in the UK and HBO in the US


Listen to our podcast exploring the real history behind the events of 1986:


Boardwalk Empire (series)

Playing out over five series that originally aired between 2010 and 2014, Boardwalk Empire set out to tell an epic story of Atlantic City gangsters in the prohibition era. And it largely succeeded, although it’s arguable the earlier episodes are stronger, notably a pilot directed by Martin Scorsese that cost $18m. Back before the long-form television revolution meant it was routine to see film stars on TV, its cast was notably starry, including Steve Buscemias Enoch ‘Nucky’ Thompson, corrupt city treasurer; Michael Shannon as Nelson Van Alden, a puritanical government agent whose life spirals out of control; and Kelly Macdonald as troubled widow Margaret Thompson. Now streaming on HBO in the US

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. Now streaming on HBO in the US

It’s A Sin (series)

It’s 1981, and Ritchie, Roscoe and Colin begin new lives in London. Each, in their way, is searching for freedom in the capital at a time when, as gay men, they face overt prejudice But a mysterious new illness is causing unexplained deaths. The Aids epidemic has begun. Following the interweaving stories of the boys and their friends over the next decade, Russell T Davies’ acclaimed drama It’s A Sin, which landed during lockdown to become All4’s most binged show ever, is funny and touching without ever trivialising the tragedy we see inexorably unfolding. Olly Alexander leads a superb ensemble cast. Now streaming on HBO in the US

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.  Now streaming on HBO in the US

Best history documentaries to watch on HBO

Best history movies to watch on HBO

Midway (film)

How do you convey the story of the battle of Midway, a turning point in the Pacific conflict that in 1942 resulted in a previously ascendent Japan losing four fleet carriers? The solution director Roland Emmerich and scriptwriter Wes Tooke, hit upon for this drama, one of the expensive independently produced movies of all time with its budget of $100m, was to focus in on the bravery of those who fought, especially the airmen. It doesn’t always work, and reviews for the film were at best mixed, but the battle sequences are often spectacular. British actor Ed Skrein plays showoff pilot Lieutenant Dick Best. Streaming now on HBO in the USA

Catherine the Great (series)

Far more imperious than most royals, Helen Mirren deservedly won a Golden Globe for her turn here as the empress who ruled Russia from 1762 until 1796, and who revitalised the country after organising a coup d’état against her own husband, Peter III. The four-part series, where you can see the budget in every frame, focuses on Catherine’s years in power, and shows her as both ruthless and enlightened, interested in the latest thinking across Europe. It also makes much of the relationship between the empress and her lover, military commander Grigory Potemkin (Jason Clarke), which is central to the series. Now streaming on HBO in the US

Edgar (film)

Leonardo DiCaprio stars as J Edgar Hoover, the chief of the FBI between 1935 and 1972, in a biopic directed by Clint Eastwood. It’s a movie told in flashback as Hoover dictates his life story to a succession of junior agents. Throughout, DiCaprio gives a nuanced performance that makes much of Hoover’s interest in library systems and collating information, and explores the ambiguities of his sexuality. As to whether the film, which received mixed reviews on its cinema release in 2011, ever quite comes to any firm opinions about its subject, that’s a different matter. Judi Dench plays Hoover’s mother, a domineering figure. Streaming via HBO in the US


Best history TV/documentaries/movies streaming on British TV services (BBC iPlayer/All 4)

Call the Midwife (series)

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. Now streaming on BBC iPlayer

Small Axe (anthology series)

Too often the Black British experience is treated as a kind of parallel history. One of the many triumphs of director Steve McQueen’s mesmerising anthology series is to remind us how the stories of Black Britons are intrinsic to wider British history. The first film in the sequence, Mangrove, which details an infamous trial that followed police harassment of a restaurant used by activists, rightly attracted rave reviews. Elsewhere, there’s considerable star power on view, including John Boyega (Star Wars) taking the lead in Red, White And Blue as Leroy Logan, a copper who bravely fought institutional racism in the Met from within. Now streaming on BBC iPlayer

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. Now streaming on BBC iPlayer

Deutschland 89 (series)

The German-American Cold War spy drama reaches its third and final series, set in the year the Berlin Wall fell. Not every East German, we’re reminded, welcomed this momentous moment. For many of those working for the Stasi, there was a sudden imperative to cover their tracks and even hide horrors. Jonas Nay heads the cast as Martin Rauch, an ex-intelligence officer who is forced to return to his former employment as a double agent. Expect an atmospheric evocation of the past. Newbies may be better off working their way through Deutschland 83 and Deutschland 86 first. Now streaming on All 4, and available on Hulu in the US

Jungle Mystery: Lost Kingdoms Of The Amazon (series)

For many years, received wisdom, at least outside South America, suggested the Amazon rainforest had long been, in human terms, sparsely inhabited. This was despite an account by the Spanish Dominican missionary Gaspar de Carvajal (c1500–1584), who travelled the Amazon and wrote of seeing large cities and other evidence of an advanced civilisation on the great river’s banks. Sadly, as palaeoarchaeologist and explorer Ella Al-Shamahi explores in this excellent series, diseases imported from Europe decimated the local population. Over three episodes, cameras follow Al-Shamahi as she travels in South America in search of evidence to tell us how these forgotten peoples lived. Now streaming on All 4

It’s A Sin (series)

It’s 1981, and Ritchie, Roscoe and Colin begin new lives in London. Each, in their way, is searching for freedom in the capital at a time when, as gay men, they face overt prejudice But a mysterious new illness is causing unexplained deaths. The Aids epidemic has begun. Following the interweaving stories of the boys and their friends over the next decade, Russell T Davies’ acclaimed drama It’s A Sin, which landed during lockdown to become All4’s most binged show ever, is funny and touching without ever trivialising the tragedy we see inexorably unfolding. Olly Alexander leads a superb ensemble cast. Now streaming on All 4

Mrs. America (series)

Author and activist Phyllis Schlafly (1924–2016) was a conservative who doggedly fought the ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment to the US Constitution in the 1970s, legislation that would have offered women protection from discrimination. The contradictions of such an intelligent, formidable and self-starting campaigner, a woman who herself often had to battle sexism, pitting herself against the leading lights of American feminism are explored in a series that stars Cate Blanchett as Schlafly. Those on the other side of the argument include writer and feminist leader Gloria Steinem, played with a waspish intensity by Rose Byrne. Streaming now on BBC iPlayer

Black Power: A British Story Of Resistance (documentary)

A companion piece to the dramas in Steve McQueen’s Small Axe season, and in particular Mangrove, this documentary tells the story of Britain’s Black Power movement in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Its leaders included the likes of writer Darcus Howe, scientist Altheia Jones-LeCointe and the activist Olive Morris, figures who emerge vividly from the past. Directed by George Amponsah, this is a documentary rich in archive material that deserves to be more widely seen and which has much to say not just about how we got to now, but about how racism endures in contemporary Britain. Streaming now.

The Architecture the Railways Built (documentary series)

Tim Dunn likes railways a lot, an enthusiasm he conveys so vividly that in itself it greatly explains why this series has become cult viewing. More seriously, Dunn, who is especially good on the Victorian era, is adept at explaining how the railways have transformed our lives down the years. It’s a subject he approaches through the buildings associated with trains – not just stations but viaducts, signal boxes, tunnels, pedestrian walkways, workshops and railway hotels. There are 10 episodes to stream on the UKTV site, but do be quick because the shows are scheduled to leave the service at the end of July. Streaming now via UKTV Play 

Black and British: A Forgotten History (documentary series)

First shown in 2016, David Olusoga’s series charts the relationship between Britain and those whose origins lie in Africa. This is a story that goes back further in time than many may imagine. African-Roman legionaries, we learn in the first of four episodes, once guarded Hadrian’s Wall. In other episodes, Olusoga tells the stories of some of the black sailors who fought at Trafalgar, explores Victorian attitudes towards slavery and, closer to our own time, charts the experiences of those who arrived as part of the Windrush generation. Olusoga’s Britain’s Forgotten Slave Owners is also available to stream via iPlayer. Streaming now via BBC iPlayer  and via BritBox in the US

Britain’s Most Historic Towns (documentary series)

In a series based on an elegantly simple idea, Alice Roberts explores Britain’s history by focusing on a town or city that encapsulates a particular era. When it comes to Roman times, for example, she heads for Chester while York is her destination when Roberts wants to tell the story of Viking Britain. There’s a certain amount of dressing up and larking around involved, but the series is nonetheless revealing as, for example, she explores how Oxford lay at the heart of a battle for control of England played out between an autocratic monarch and parliament during the Civil War. Streaming via All4 in the UK and via Pluto in the US

Guy Martin’s D-Day Landing (documentary)

Even when he’s telling us he’s having fun, Guy Martin often looks vaguely worried. As well he might considering his documentaries inevitably involve an element of personal risk. This documentary, made to mark the 75th anniversary of D-Day, is a case in point. It follows the mechanic as he helps to restore a Dakota transport plane, an aircraft once used to ferry paratroopers into Normandy, soldiers who landed at night ahead of the seaborne invasion. Martin also meets some of those who did this and trains with the Red Devils as he himself prepares to leap from the sky into France. Streaming now via All4 in the UK

The Six Wives Of Henry VIII (documentary series)

Divorced, beheaded, died, divorced, beheaded, survived. The story of Henry VIII’s multiple marriages is, at least in outline, familiar to many of us. Yet how much do we really know about, for example, the Tudor monarch’s reasons for selecting those he wed? In a series first broadcast back in 2001, David Starkey, then a comparative newcomer to television, explores Henry’s reign through the prism of these marriages. In the process, he offers a rich and detailed portrait of life in Henry’s court and, in showing events from the women’s perspectives, brings Catherine of Aragon, Anne Boleyn and those who followed them vividly to life. Streaming via All4 in the UK, and BritBox in the US

Time Team (documentary series)

There are shows that it’s easy to take for granted, especially when they play out over multiple seasons. Time Team is a case in point, an archaeology series that first transmitted back in 1994 and eventually ran for 20 years. Some 96 of these episodes are currently available to stream for free via the All4 website in the UK, in addition to various specials. Once you’ve got over the shock of how young Tony Robinson looks, the programme has dated well, principally because it’s fascinating to see professional bonediggers at work. It’s also instructive to see how the field of archaeology has developed through these years. Streaming via All4 in the UK and Acorn in the US

Downfall (film)

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. Now streaming on Hoopla in the US


Best history series/documentaries/movies streaming on Hulu

Mrs. America (series)

Author and activist Phyllis Schlafly (1924–2016) was a conservative who doggedly fought the ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment to the US Constitution in the 1970s, legislation that would have offered women protection from discrimination. The contradictions of such an intelligent, formidable and self-starting campaigner, a woman who herself often had to battle sexism, pitting herself against the leading lights of American feminism are explored in a series that stars Cate Blanchett as Schlafly. Those on the other side of the argument include writer and feminist leader Gloria Steinem, played with a waspish intensity by Rose Byrne. Streaming now on Hulu in the US

The Thin Red Line (film)

Launched in late February 2021, Disney’s Star Channel gather together much of the studio’s grown-up content, including plenty of films and series that are well worth revisiting. These include Terrence Malick’s Second World War drama, which follows GIs at the battle of Mount Austen, part of the Guadalcanal campaign. For all the gunfire that punctuates the film, this is a drama that’s as much as anything about the ominous silence of conflict, the awful moments when troops are waiting for something to happen. Reflecting Malick’s near-legendary status, the film attracted an A-list ensemble cast, including Sean Penn, Adrien Brody and Jim Caviezel. Streaming now on Hulu in the US

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. Now streaming on Hulu in the 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. Now streaming on Hulu in the US

Hillary (documentary series)

If journalism is the “first rough draft of history”, the analysis piece that runs a little after the newsmen have gone home might be said to be its second draft. Television has developed its own variation on this latter idea with series that offer testimony from those who were there during major events yet have had time to reflect, an approach much used by the BBC. Hillary, one of the highlights of the recent Sky Documentaries launch, takes a similar approach. Nanette Burstein’s four-part series draws on campaign footage from the 2016 presidential election, and features Hillary Clinton reflecting on what’s been, by any standards, an eventful life. Streaming via Hulu in the US

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. Now streaming on Hoopla in the US

We interviewed Lynn Novick about the series for our podcast back in 2018. You can still listen here:


Best history films streaming on Apple TV

Greyhound (film)

Ever adept at playing everyman figures placed in danger, Tom Hanks stars as a US Navy commander, Ernest Krause, given command of a destroyer, USS Keeling. Krause is tasked with defending a merchant ship convoy from u-boat attack during the Battle of the Atlantic in 1942, but also has to battle his own demons. Based on CS Forester’s novel The Good Shepherd and scripted by Hanks himself, the film was initially going to be released in cinemas in June, until the pandemic made this impossible and Apple stepped in. Also starring Stephen Graham, Rob Morgan and Elisabeth Shue. Streaming from now on Apple TV+

The Banker (film)

Pulled from release in December 2019 following allegations of sexual abuse were levelled at one of its producers (the son of one of the lead characters, whose name was removed from the film’s credits), The Banker arrived with baggage. It is a drama that tells an important story, of how real-life African-American entrepreneurs – Bernard Garrett (Anthony Mackie) and Joe Morris (Samuel L Jackson) – employed a white frontman, Matt Steiner (Nicolas Hoult), and beat a racist system to make a fortune in Los Angeles real estate in the 1950s. But success eventually brings the unwanted attention of the authorities. Now streaming on Apple TV+ in the UK

Emma (film)

Rather lost on its cinema release in early 2020 because of the coronavirus pandemic, this version of Jane Austen’s acerbic Regency romcom is a delight. Scripted by novelist Eleanor Catton, it stars Anya Taylor-Joy, whose Emma Woodhouse is cool and detached even by the standards of a character Austen hardly portrayed as warm. It’s probably just as well that longtime acquaintance George Knightley (Johnny Flynn) won’t take any nonsense. Directed by Autumn de Wilde, famed for her photography and music videos, this Emma looks fantastic, and a sterling supporting cast includes Miranda Hart, Bill Nighy and Rupert Graves. Streaming on Cinemax in the US


Best history films and series streaming on Disney+

The Help (film)

Based on Kathryn Stockett’s 2009 novel, The Help begins with an aspiring journalist, Eugenia Skeeter Phelan (Emma Stone), deciding to interview African-American maids working for white families in Jackson, Mississippi. However, the heart of an drama lies in Skeeter’s relationship with Aibileen Clark (Viola Davis) and Minny Jackson (Octavia Spencer). While Hollywood’s take on the story (2001) lacks many of the nuances of the book and was criticised for putting a white character at the centre of the story, the film stands up as a fine ensemble piece, reflected by Davis, Spencer and their co-star Jessica Chastain all receiving Academy Award nominations. Now streaming via Disney+ in the UK and Hoopla in the US

The Thin Red Line (film)

Launched in late February 2021, Disney’s Star Channel gather together much of the studio’s grown-up content, including plenty of films and series that are well worth revisiting. These include Terrence Malick’s Second World War drama, which follows GIs at the battle of Mount Austen, part of the Guadalcanal campaign. For all the gunfire that punctuates the film, this is a drama that’s as much as anything about the ominous silence of conflict, the awful moments when troops are waiting for something to happen. Reflecting Malick’s near-legendary status, the film attracted an A-list ensemble cast, including Sean Penn, Adrien Brody and Jim Caviezel. Streaming now on Star via Disney+ in the UK

Hamilton (film)

Was there ever a more unlikely Broadway hit? Inspired by Ron Chernow’s biography, Lin-Manuel Miranda’s hip-hop musical traces the eventful life and times of founding father Alexander Hamilton, lawyer, soldier, statesman and  banker, a man who rose to prominence despite the stigma of being born out of wedlock in the British Leeward Islandds. It’s an exhilarating show that received rave reviews and, at least before Covid-19 intervened, could be seen in London as well as New York. This film dates from the show’s first Broadway run and features Miranda himself in the title role. Streaming now on Disney+

Mulan (film)

Controversy has swirled around Disney’s live-action remake of its 1998 animation. These arrived both over star Liu Yifei’s support for Hong Kong’s police in their crackdown against pro-democracy campaigners, and because the movie was filmed in Xinjiang, associated with allegations of human rights abuses against Uighurs. Despite these news stories, it seems Disney’s decision to stream the movie has paid off commercially. Reports suggest it’s been a hit despite Disney+ subscribers needing to pay a premium to access a spectacular account of a female fighter who passes herself off as a man when China’s emperor issues a call to arms. Streaming now on Disney+

The Personal History of David Copperfield (film)

If you associate Charles Dickens adaptations with gloomy evocations of the Victorian era, here’s an antidote. Working from a script co-written with Simon Blackwell, director Armando Iannucci, his gift for comedy tinged with melancholy to the fore, reminds us that Dickens was a man who wanted to reach the widest-possible audience, and accordingly packed his books full of plot, incident and memorable characters. Dev Patel stars as Copperfield, an open-hearted optimist moving through different levels of society and through whose eyes we see the world of the 19th century. A strong supporting cast includes Peter Capaldi, Hugh Laurie and Tilda Swinton. Streaming on Disney+ now in the UK, and available on HBO in the US

Buried Secrets Of WWII (documentary series)

The latest 3D scanning techniques are revealing hitherto hidden information about the battlefields of the Second World War. Step forward Pete Kelsey, an expert in this technology, who here teams up with military historian Martin KA Morgan to look anew at the past. The six-part series takes in the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, the Nazi V-bomb programme, the relentless German Siege of Malta in 1940, the Allied advance on Rome, the 1944 battle of Hürtgen Forest on the Belgian-German border, and Allied attempts to dismantle the Japanese war machine during the long-running New Guinea campaign. Streaming now on National Geographic via Disney+ and on Fubo in the US

Notre Dame: Race Against the Inferno (documentary)

On 15 April 2019, at around 6.20pm, a fire broke out beneath the roof at Notre-Dame de Paris. What followed was a catastrophe, as the cathedral’s spire and much of its roof were destroyed. Yet it could have been much worse. In part because of the bravery of the city’s firefighters, who fought for seven hours and more to bring the blaze fully under control, restoration has already begun at a building that’s a marvel of the French Gothic style. Drawing on exclusive footage and interviews with those who were there, this National Geographic documentary focuses on efforts to contain the blaze. Streaming now on Disney+

Europe From Above (documentary series)

The format here is straightforward. Deploying cameras in the sky and ‘hyperlapse’ effects, Europe From Above travels to six countries, and looks down on both natural wonders and manmade marvels. The results of this filming are frequently mesmerising as we’re offered, for example, a bird’s eye view of star-shaped  Fort Bourtange in the Netherlands, originally constructed in the 16th century to control the only road between Germany and the city of Groningen. Subsequent episodes are devoted to Italy, Germany, the United Kingdom, Spain and Poland, home to the world’s largest castle, which sprawls over more than 50 acres. Streaming now on Disney+

The Americans (series)

Evoking the chill of the Cold War during the Reagan years, The Americans ran for six seasons from 2013–18. The title is, of course, ironic because Elizabeth (Keri Russell) and Philip Jennings (Matthew Rhys) are in reality Soviet spies so deeply embedded that few guess at their true identities – and those that do sometimes wind up dead. At the heart of the series lies the emotional cost of such duplicity within the Jennings’ marriage, often played out via the couple’s strained relationships with their children. A slow-burning and subtle series whose reputation, quite rightly, continues to grow. Perfect binge-viewing. Streaming now on Disney+ in the UK

The Lost City Of Machu Picchu (documentary)

It’s not compulsory to access only Marvel, Star Wars and Pixar product via Disney+. There’s also a terrific range of National Geographic documentaries, including this documentary focusing on the Inca citadel of Machu Picchu, the existence of which was revealed to the wider world by American archaeologist Hiram Bingham (1875–1956) in 1911, after he had been guided to the site with the help of local farmers. The selling point here is that the documentary will go below the citadel where “mummy kings wait to share their stories”. In truth, the chance just to see the site in detail makes this worth watching. Streaming now.

The Right Stuff (series)

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Published in 1979, Tom Wolfe’s account of test pilots and Project Mercury astronauts was as meticulously researched as it was vivid, an attempt to understand why people would choose to put themselves in such danger. Although it has previously been filmed – a 1983 movie that was critically lauded but a box-office flop – it’s easy to see why National Geographic has chosen to commission a drama of the book. Even leaving aside the opportunities for spectacular footage of planes and rockets, episodic television should provide ample time to explore the backstories of such figures as Alan Shepard (Jake McDorman), the first American to reach space. Streaming on Disney+