The best historical TV shows and films to stream right now

Looking for a new historical TV show or film to watch? From The Crown to The 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

The British poster for 'Mary, Queen of Scots' (2018). Margot Robbie as Queen Elizabeth I and Saoirse Ronan as Mary Stuart. (© Focus Features / courtesy Everett Collection)

Looking for something to watch? Here are the best historical dramas, TV shows and films available to stream in the UK and US in 2020 – from binge-watchable period dramas to fascinating documentaries…

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*This page was last updated on 18 December 2020


Our top TV and film streaming picks right now

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. Streaming now 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. Streaming from Christmas Day 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. Streaming now 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


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 from Friday 18 December on Amazon Prime


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


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 Christmas Day on Amazon Prime 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 and Amazon Prime in the US 


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 HBO in the US


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 HBO in the US


Black Patriots: Heroes Of The Revolution (documentary)

History books, says writer and NBA legend Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, miss crucial stories of the American Revolutionary War. By this, he means stories of African-Americans who fought to found a new nation. Take Peter Salem (1750–1816) who enlisted in the patriot militia in 1775 after being freed. Salem would go on to serve at the battle of Bunker Hill, where he was credited with mortally wounding a British Marine major, John Pitcairn. The documentary also looks at the lives of stevedore Crispus Attucks, poet Phillis Wheatley and double agent James Armistead Lafayette, who spied on Benedict Arnold. Streaming now on History Vault in the US


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 and Hulu in the US


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


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


A-Z of other historical films/series/documentaries streaming right now

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. Streaming now on Netflix 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. Streaming from Friday 16 October via Amazon Prime in the UK


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 (UK only)


50 Years Legal (documentary)

In 1967, the Sexual Offences Act partially decriminalised homosexuality. How did this affect the lives of people in LGBTQ community both at the time and in the years that followed? Directed and written by Simon Napier-Bell, the music business impresario who managed The Yardbirds, T Rex and George Michael, this documentary was made to coincide with the 50th anniversary of what’s come to be seen as landmark legislation. The cast of commentators draws heavily on Napier-Bell’s contacts book to feature famous faces from the entertainment field, including Ian McKellen, Elton John, Matt Lucas, Derek Jacobi and Simon Callow.  Now streaming on Now TV (UK only)


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 in the UK and 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 HBO in the USA


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 via UKTV Play 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. Now streaming on Hulu in the US

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Babylon Berlin (series)

With a budget of €40 million, which reportedly ballooned to €55m with reshoots, Babylon Berlin is said to be the most expensive TV series ever made in Germany. If that’s true, the money certainly wasn’t wasted because it’s an extraordinary drama that vividly brings to life the nervy, paranoid interwar world of the Weimar Republic era. Strong performances abound, especially from Volker Bruch as Inspector Gereon Rath, copper and First World War combat veteran who struggles with PTSD. As for the plotting, it’s knotty – do pay close attention. Two seasons are currently available to stream and season three is set to debut on Sky Atlantic in April. Now streaming on Now TV in the UK and Netflix in the US

Read on for more TV and film recommendations…