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

Olivia Colman as Queen Anne in 'The Favourite'. (Photo by Twentieth Century Fox/Entertainment Pictures)

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 25 September 2020


Our top TV and film streaming picks right now

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+, free to subscribers from December


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+


The Right Stuff (series)

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+ from 9 October


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+ from 16 October in the UK only


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


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


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 Fubo in the USA and Netflix in the UK


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. Streaming from October (TBC) 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. Streaming from 16 October on Netflix following a limited cinema release


La Révolution (film)

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. Streaming from 16 October 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


Patria (series)

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


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. Streaming now on Netflix


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 (not in the USA) 


Boswell & Johnsons Scottish Road Trip with Frank Skinner & Denise Mina (series)

In 1773, the writer Samuel Johnson headed for the Hebrides, a trip that formed the basis for his book A Journey To The Western Islands Of Scotland (1775). His companion on the journey was the man who would eventually become his biographer, James Boswell, who kept a diary that in 1785 was published as The Journal Of A Tour To The Hebrides. While the famously expansive Johnson looked out at the world, Boswell’s focus was often on Johnson himself. Comparing these texts as they go, Johnson fan Frank Skinner and Scottish novelist Denise Mina retrace the duo’s travels. Streaming from October on Now TV (not in the USA)


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


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


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 Netflix in the UK and 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…