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

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 Now TV and Amazon/HBO

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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 in the UK and US


The People v OJ Simpson: American Crime Story

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 in the UK and 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:


Perry Mason (drama 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, and HBO in the US


The Plot Against America (drama series)

Alternate histories dont come much spookier than Philip Roths 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, its 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, and HBO in the US.


Poldark

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


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 and Netflix in the US


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. Streaming via Now TV in the UK, and as The American West via AMC and Hulu in the US


Self-made (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 in the UK and US

Read our interview with Madam CJ Walker’s great-great-great granddaughter here


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 in the UK and US


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 Amazon Prime in the US


They Shall Not Grow Old (documentary)

How do you convey what it was like to fight in a conflict that ended a century ago? Peter Jackson’s solution in this extraordinary documentary from 2018, which draws heavily on the archives of Britain’s Imperial War Museum, is to colourise footage from the era. When combined with interviews with veterans, many made for a 1964 BBC documentary series entitled the Great War, this has an effect akin to travelling in a time machine. Rather than the First World War seeming a distant conflict fought by long-dead troops, there’s a terrible immediacy to what we see on the screen. Now streaming on HBO in the US

We interviewed Peter Jackson about the documentary for our podcast back in 2018. You can still listen here:


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 Netflix in the UK and US

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


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 US and Hulu 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


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

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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

Find our full guide to the best history TV and radio programmes airing in the UK each week here

We update this page regularly, so keep checking back for new recommendations of what to watch. Last updated 25 September 2020