The best historical TV shows and films to stream right now
The best historical TV shows and films to stream right now
Looking for a new historical TV show or film to watch? From The Crown to The Favourite, we've rounded up the best history content streaming on Netflix, Amazon Prime, Now TV, HBO and other on-demand services in the UK and US
Looking for something to watch? 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…
*This page was last updated on 9 July 2020
Our top TV and film streaming picks this month
Read more about 15 highlights not to be missed in July, or scroll down for our A-Z list of more than 60 historical dramas and documentaries available to stream right now…
Cursed (drama 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 byFrankMiller (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 from Friday 17 July on Netflix
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. Streaming from Wednesday 22 July on Netflix
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. Screening from Friday 24 July 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. Streaming now on Netflix
The Accountant of Auschwitz (documentary)
As memories of the Second World War faded, few SS men ever spoke about the atrocities to which they were linked. Oskar Gröning (1921–2018) was an exception. In 2005, an interview with Gröning was featured in Laurence Rees’s BBC series Auschwitz: The Nazis And ‘The Final Solution’. Motivated, he said, by Holocaust denial, a guard who stripped inmates of their possessions (hence “accountant”) yet was not directly involved in killing, spoke about what he had witnessed. This documentary charts how he was subsequently charged with having been an accessory to murder and explores the ethical issues around bringing cases against those in advanced old age. Streaming now.
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+
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 Friday 10 July on Apple TV+
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 now via Amazon Prime in the UK and Cinemax in the US. Streaming now on Amazon Prime in the UK
Death Comes to Pemberley (drama 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.
The Man in the High Castle (drama 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
The Plot Against America (drama 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 from Tuesday 14 July via NOW TV in the UK, and HBO in the US.
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.
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.
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 via BBC iPlayer in the UK.
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.
HistoryExtra’s TV writer Jonathan Wright recommends…
It is a strange time for the Covid-affected film industry, in that many movies scheduled for summer release are instead finding their way to television. Happily for Apple subscribers, this means Tom Hanks’ latest film, the Second World War naval drama Greyhound, is making its bow on the service.
Elsewhere, I’m a sucker for historical fantasy series, so I’ll certainly be checking out Cursed, a new take on Arthurian legend from Netflix. I’m also looking forward to seeing Hamilton again, having thoroughly enjoyed the show in London.
Finally, I intend to lose myself further in alternate history. I’ve recently been catching up with The Man In The High Castle, Amazon’s knotty and hugely entertaining drama based on the Philip K Dick novel, which imagines the eastern USA as part of a Greater Nazi Reich. How will the potentially rather more highbrow The Plot Against America, based on Philip Roth’s alternate history that has the US turning towards fascism, compare?
A-Z of other historical films/series/documentaries streaming right now
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
1944: The Final Defence (film)
The story of Finland through the Second World War was that of a small country struggling to survive. In 1939, the Soviet Union invaded. Later, Finnish and German troops fought alongside each other as Hitler struck at Russia. Then, towards the end of the war, Finland joined the Allied cause. But in June 1944, as this drama recounts, Finland, with German assistance, was again fighting a defensive war against Russia. This Finnish war film focuses on the largest battle ever fought on Nordic soil, Tali-Ihantala. It shows the nation’s young troops as exhausted yet stoic as they once again face life under fire. Streaming 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
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 Netflix in the UK and Hulu in the US
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