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

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 on Now TV in the UK from 26 June and available via HBO in the US.

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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 Amazon Prime in the UK


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 in the UK and US


The Favourite (film)

Rabbits, bingeing, tantrums. It’s probably best not to view this depiction of Queen Anne as a spoilt and ridiculous creature as especially historically accurate, but The Favourite (2018) is a fine film for all that. Starring an Oscar-winning Olivia Colman as Anne, it depicts two women – Lady Sarah Churchill (Rachel Weisz) and her impoverished cousin, Abigail Hill (Emma Stone) – competing for Anne’s favour and sharing her bed. Director Yorgos Lanthimosrevels in a tragicomic script by Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara that makes merry the idea of what it would have been like to be a courtier in the early 18th century. Read more about the real history behind the film hereNow streaming on Now TV in the UK and Cinemax in the US


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 now 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 in the UK and US


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 Friday 10 July on Apple TV+


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 via All4 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+ 


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, and available via Hulu in the US


Hollywood (drama)

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. Streaming now on Netflix in the UK and US


Horrible Histories: The Movie – Rotten Romans (film)

In a movie spin-off from the successful books and CBBC series, we’re transported back to Roman times. More specifically, the film takes place circa AD 54, a year when Boudicca was stirring up unrest in England against Roman rule. This is bad news for scrawny Roman centurion, Atti (Sebastian Croft), who’s not really cut out for the military life. The gags – and the gross-out facts – come less thick and fast than in the small-screen version, but this is still huge fun. A starry cast includes Kim Cattrall and, a neat gag, Derek Jacobi reprising one of his most famous roles, as Claudius. Now available on Amazon Prime in the UK

The 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


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 Amazon in the US


The Irishman (Netflix original 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 in the UK and 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 Amazon Prime/HBO 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 in the UK and US

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 in the UK and US

Read the real history behind The Last Kingdom, plus a recap of what happened in seasons 1–3, here.


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


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


Mad Men (drama)

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 Netflix 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

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 now via Amazon Prime in the UK and Cinemax in the US. Streaming now on 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

On the HistoryExtra podcast: Mary Hollingsworth reflects on the powerful dynasty who dominated the Italian Renaissance:


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. Streaming now on Netflix in the UK and US


Mindhunter

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 in the UK and US

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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 on for more TV and film recommendations…