Looking for something to watch? Here are the best historical dramas, TV shows and films available to streaming in the UK and US this month, from binge-watchable period dramas to fascinating documentaries.

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Best historical movies, dramas and documentaries on Netflix

African Queens: Cleopatra

Streaming in the UK and US | drama-documentary series

The second offering in Hollywood star Jada Pinkett Smith’s anthology drama-doc series focuses on Cleopatra, who ruled the Ptolemaic Kingdom from 51-30BC. It’s a portrait of a royal whose beauty, in this reading, has come to overshadow her intellect and daring. It’s also a series that was greeted by controversy in Egypt for casting a mixed-heritage actor, Adele James, in the lead role. Also available to stream via Netflix, African Queens: Njinga focuses on the extraordinary life of Princess Njinga (c1583–1663), who became leader of both Ndongo and Matamba, kingdoms located in modern-day Angola.

All Quiet On The Western Front

Streaming in the UK and US | feature-length drama

Based on German writer Erich Maria Remarque’s First World War novel, like the classic 1930 Oscar winner, here’s a visceral drama that takes viewers to the trenches of the Western Front. Directed by Edward Berger (Deutschland 83, Patrick Melrose), it follows young soldier Paul Bäumer (Felix Kammerer), who patriotically dreams of being a hero, but instead finds himself descending into a nightmare of filthy conditions, poor food and the ever-present threat of an early demise. A film of starkly beautiful imagery that has been announced as Germany’s submission for the Academy Award for Best International Feature Film.

All The Light We Cannot See

Streaming in the UK & US | drama series

Scripted by Steven Knight (Peaky Blinders) from Anthony Doerr’s Pulitzer-winning novel, this four-part mini-series follows the experiences of Marie-Laure LeBlanc (Aria Mia Loberti), a blind French girl living in occupied France through the Second World War. Early in the story, Marie-Laure flees Paris for Saint-Malo in Brittany, a journey undertaken in the company of her father, Daniel (Mark Ruffalo), and a legendary diamond, but it’s the way she is drawn to a kindred spirit, brilliant young German soldier Werner Pfennig (Louis Hofmann) that lies at the heart of the drama. Hugh Laurie plays Marie-Laure’s PTSD-afflicted great uncle, Etienne LeBlanc.

Bridgerton

Streaming in the UK and US | two seasons available

Worldwide, Bridgerton has found an audience of millions, far exceeding the numbers usually drawn to bonnets-and-breeches fiction. In part, that’s because its portrait of high society during the Regency era is unapologetically escapist – and frequently steamy. But the casting has been key to its success too, in that here is an alternate-history period drama that shows London as racially integrated. The second season focuses on the eldest Bridgerton, Anthony (Jonathan Bailey), who decides it’s time he married. Cue complications when Kate Sharma (Simone Ashley) tries to stop Anthony courting her sister, Edwina (Charithra Chandran).

Bridgerton: everything you need to know

Step into the ballrooms of Regency England, and catch up on the real history that underpins seasons 1 and 2 of Bridgerton, from the real royals to the palaces and promenades | Read more

Bridgerton. Simone Ashley as Kate Sharma, Jonathan Bailey as Anthony Bridgerton

The Crown

Streaming in the UK and US | four seasons available

No list of historical TV series on Netflix would be complete without a mention of The Crown. The sumptuous royal drama offers an engrossing portrait of the Windsors and covers events including the Suez crisis, the Aberfan disaster, and the marriage of Prince Charles and Diana Spencer. The story follows the life of Queen Elizabeth II and her family over several decades, charting the personal and political challenges facing the Queen’s reign as well as the intricate family dramas going on behind the scenes. The final episodes brought the story almost to the present day.

The Crown S4: Olivia Colman as Queen Elizabeth II. (Photo by Getty Images)
The Crown S4: Olivia Colman as Queen Elizabeth II. (Photo by Getty Images)

The Days

Streaming in the UK and US | drama series

Lasting for six minutes on 11 March 2011, the Tōhoku undersea megathrust earthquake triggered a tsunami. As waves that may have been as high as 14m battered the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, emergency diesel generators that were supposed to circulate coolant to the reactors failed. Meltdowns and hydrogen explosions followed. Similarly to the acclaimed HBO mini-series Chernobyl, The Days follows what happened over crucial hours and days when it seemed possible large parts of Japan would be rendered uninhabitable. A series that’s perhaps too melodramatic, but Koji Yakusho is excellent as harried plant manager Masao Yoshida.

The Last Kingdom: Seven Kings Must Die

Streaming in the UK and US | feature-length drama

When The Last Kingdom reached the end of its fifth and final series (all available to stream via Netflix), a few loose ends remained. This was in great part because several novels in Bernard Cornwell’s Saxon Stories sequence remained unadapted. No longer. Feature-length sequel Seven Kings Must Die returns us to a world where the idea of a united England is in the ether. Although Northumbria’s ruler Uhtred of Bebbanburg (Alexander Dreymon) has yet to pledge his lands to the throne, peace has broken out – at least until King Edward dies and England is once again thrown into turmoil.

The Last Kingdom: everything you need to know

Explore the real history that underpins the fictional adventures of Uhtred, son of Uhtred | Read more

Queen Charlotte: A Bridgerton Story

Streaming in the UK and US | drama series

How did the world of The Ton, the hyperreal, multiethnic Georgian England high society we see in the global hit Bridgerton, come into being? This prequel, from the acclaimed showrunner Shonda Rhomes, offers plenty of clues as it traces the story of the young Queen Charlotte (India Amarteifio) meeting King George III (Corey Mylchreest) in 1761. Suffice to say Charlotte isn’t too impressed with the idea of marrying George, but love blossoms. The series also follows events in 1817, where the death of Queen Charlotte’s only legitimate granddaughter, Princess Charlotte, in childbirth leads to a succession crisis.

Rustin

Streaming in the UK & US | feature-length drama

While he doesn’t have the instant name recognition of Martin Luther King Jr, Bayard Rustin was a key figure in the Civil Rights Movement. It was Rustin’s organisational genius that made the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom possible – no Rustin, no King declaring, “I have a dream!” on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. Director George C Wolfe’s biopic stars Colman Domingo in the title role. It explores the life of a man who was a tireless activist and, unusually in the context of his era, was a public figure despite being known to be gay.

Harald Sigurdson fights barechested with a bearskin on his shoulders in Vikings Valhalla
Harald Sigurdsson fights as a beserker in Vikings Valhalla (Photo by Bernard Walsh/Netflix)

Vikings: Valhalla

Streaming in the UK and US | one season available

Set a century after the conclusion of Vikings, this similarly visceral swords-and-seafaring sequel Vikings: Valhalla follows a new collection of mariner-warrior Norsemen and Norsewomen. Chief among them is Leif Erikson (Sam Corlett), a figure from the Icelandic sagas reputed to have been the first European to set foot on continental North America, where he established a settlement, Vinland, hundreds of years before Christopher Columbus crossed the Atlantic. His headstrong sister, Freydís Eiríksdóttir (Frida Gustavsson), and an ambitious prince, Harald Sigurdsson (Leo Suter), also feature strongly. The series begins with tensions high in 11th-century England, a prelude to violence.


Best historical movies, dramas and documentaries on Prime Video

The Aeronauts

Streaming in the UK and US | feature-length drama

James Glaisher (Eddie Redmayne) has a big idea. He thinks it’s possible to predict the weather. To prove this, he needs to fly as high in the sky as possible. 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.

Air

Streaming in the UK and US | feature-length drama

Arriving in the wake of Apple's Tetris, here's another drama that mixes up cultural history with product development. Here, the focus is on the origin of Air Jordan basketball shoes, and how their launch transformed the fortunes of Nike. Directed by Ben Affleck, who also plays Nike CEO Phil Knight, the film outlines how marketing executive and talent scout Sonny Vaccaro (Matt Damon) became convinced that Michael Jordan (Damian Young), third pick at the 1984 NBA draft, was a generational talent. Acting on his hunch, Vaccaro persuaded Jordan – and his mother, Deloris (Viola Davis) – to sign a sponsorship deal.

Devotion

Streaming in the UK | feature-length drama

Jesse Brown was the first African-American pilot to complete the US Navy's basic flight training programme. He went on to serve with distinction in the Korean War (1950–53) and won the Distinguished Flying Cross. The frigate USS Jesse L. Brown was named in his honour. This biopic charts his career, the story of a man born in Mississippi and who encountered overt racism throughout his life. The central relationship here is between Brown (Jonathan Major, star of Lovecraft Country) and his wingman, Tom Hudner (Glen Powell of Top Gun: Maverick fame), and charts a deepening friendship.

The English

Streaming in the US | drama series

Forgive the hint of tautology, but a good Western serves as a reminder of why so many of us love a good Western, and Hugo Blick's The English is very, very good indeed. At its heart lies the relationship between an English noblewoman, Lady Cornelia Locke (Emily Blunt), and Pawnee scout Eli Whipp (Chaske Spencer). Locke has travelled to the USA in search of vengeance over the death of her son, while Whipp, in the wake of military service, wants to return to his homeland. The fates of both are linked, but only gradually do we learn how. Superb.

A League Of Their Own

Streaming in the UK and US | comedy-drama series

Released in 1992, Penny Marshall’s movie version of A League Of Their Own told a heavily fictionalised version of the real-life All-American Girls Professional Baseball League (AAGPBL), founded in 1943. In the years since, women’s sport has become far more widely covered in mainstream media, as has an interest in the history of women’s sport. This new take on women’s baseball promises to mix the humour and sheer joy of the original film with a greater appreciation that it wasn’t just women who made it to the AAGPBL who dreamt of playing professionally. Streaming from 12 August.

The Marvelous Mrs Maisel

Streaming in the UK and US | four seasons available

The ‘Mrs Maisel’ of the title here is a New York housewife who, via downtown Manhattan misadventures with alcohol and an encounter with Lenny Bruce (1925–66), finds she has a gift for comedy. Created by Amy Sherman-Palladino (Gilmore Girl), the Emmy-winning Mrs Maisel sometimes trades in fuzzy nostalgia, yet more often offers an acerbic take on the social mores of the US 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.

One Night in Miami

Streaming in the UK and US | feature-length drama

In February 1964, 7-1 underdog Cassius Clay (Eli Goree), soon to change his name to Muhammad Ali, defeated Sonny Liston to become world heavyweight champion. After the fight, he met with three friends: soul singer Sam Cooke (Leslie Odom Jr), Nation of Islam activist Malcolm X (Kingsley Ben-Adir) and American football star Jim Brown (Aldis Hodge). Directed by Regina King and scripted by Kemp Powers from his play, One Night imagines what might have transpired. Suffice to say the quartet spent more time musing on their lives and the fight for civil rights than partying. Illuminating and powerful.

Peterloo

Streaming in the UK and US | feature-length drama

On Monday 16 August 1819, a crowd of between 60,000 and 80,000 people gathered at St Peter’s Field in Manchester to demand electoral reform. The actions of the authorities would become infamous after cavalrymen charged the gathering, leaving 18 dead and hundreds injured. Director 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, notably from Rory Kinnear as radical orator Henry Hunt.

The Underground Railroad

Streaming in the UK and US | drama series

Prior to filming this series, Oscar-winning writer and director Barry Jenkins (Moonlight) noted more than once that he wanted to make a drama dealing with slavery. But how to approach such a difficult subject? By adapting Colson Whitehead’s 2016 novel, which reimagines the underground railroad, the network of secret routes and safe houses used by enslaved people fleeing the American South, as a physical system of tracks. The fantastic element adds to the power of the piece, by making us look back with fresh eyes. Starring Thuso Mbedu as Cora Randall, a young woman fleeing life on a plantation.

Alexander Ludwig as Bjorn Ironside, son Ragnar Lothbrok and king of Kattegat
Alexander Ludwig as Bjorn Ironside, son Ragnar Lothbrok and king of Kattegat (Photo courtesy of Amazon Prime Video)

Vikings

Streaming in the UK and US | six seasons available

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 chieftain Ragnar Lothbrok and his crew, and in later seasons Ragnar’s descendants. Originally made for the History Channel, the show draws extensively on chronicles written later and on contemporary historical sources, which isn’t to suggest it’s somehow didactic. Rather, this is blood-and-thunder entertainment that’s not for the squeamish. A sequel, Vikings: Valhalla, is now available to stream via Netflix.


Best historical movies, dramas and documentaries on BBC iPlayer

The Australian Wars

Streaming in the UK | documentary series

One of the myths of the colonisation of Australia is that Britons moved to an empty continent. In fact, at least 100,000 people, mostly indigenous Australians, died in the conflict-blighted decades that followed the landing of the First Fleet in 1788. It’s a history explored here over three episodes by filmmaker Rachel Perkins, who has both European and First Nations ancestry. The first episode charts events in New South Wales, when pressure on resources led to conflict. Subsequent episodes takes viewers to Tasmania and Queensland. A story of the seizing of land and guerrilla resistance emerges.

Digging For Britain

Streaming in the UK | one season available

First aired in 2010, Digging For Britain rests on a straightforward premise, the idea that, for all the foul weather, mud and long hours involved, archaeology is inherently fascinating. It helps too of course that every year the series focuses in on those excavations that have radically changed our understanding of the past and/or made the most jaw-dropping discoveries – such as when, in the latest series, a dig in Carlisle, which stands at the western end of Hadrian’s Wall, reveals a Roman bathhouse nobody suspected was there. Presented by Professor Alice Roberts.

Disco: Soundtrack Of A Revolution

Streaming in the UK | documentary series

For all it conquered the mainstream, disco was deeply subversive. As this three-part documentary series recounts, it was after all music that emerged from New York’s underground club scene, its history bound up with the radicalism of the 1960s and, in particular, the struggle for gay rights. The second of the documentaries takes us into years when Saturday Night Fever (1977) and its soundtrack were international hits, while the final instalment charts the Disco Sucks backlash. As for the spirit of disco, it lives on, paid forward to the present via the emergence of house music in the 1980s.

Killing Sherlock: Lucy Worsley On The Case Of Conan Doyle

Streaming in the UK | documentary series

Most writers are delighted when their work achieves success, but Arthur Conan Doyle was at best ambivalent about his most famous character, Sherlock Holmes, and even tried to kill him off. As fan Lucy Worsley explores over three episodes, Conan Doyle longed for a literary respectability that detective fiction simply didn’t deliver. On the other hand, at least partly because of an insecure childhood blighted by his father’s mental illness, he liked money and the sense of security it brought. A series that traces how the biographies of Conan Doyle and Holmes intertwine.

Lucy Worsley Investigates

Streaming in the UK | documentary series

In which, as the title suggests, Lucy Worsley turns historical sleuth as she looks at some of the more brutal chapters in Britain’s past. The tone is set in the first of four episodes, which looks back at the witch-hunt mania that engulfed the country 400 years ago. Agnes Sampson, a healer and midwife, is a central figure here, not least because she was personally interrogated at Holyrood Castle by King James VI of Scotland. Other episodes deal with the Black Death, the disappearance of the Princes in the Tower and the illness of King George III.

Once Upon A Time In Northern Ireland

Streaming in the UK | documentary series

It’s 25 years since the Good Friday Agreement of 1998 all but ended the violence associated with the Troubles. As with the award-winning Once Upon a Time in Iraq, which was also made by director James Bluemel’s team, here’s a documentary series that looks back at recent history not from the perspective of the great and good, but from the viewpoint of ‘ordinary’ people living through extraordinary times. The first of five episodes begins in 1968, when injustices linked to sectarian divisions were causing huge strains in Northern Ireland. Bloody Sunday lay just four years ahead.

Cillian Murphy as Tommy Shelby in season six of 'Peaky Blinders'
Cillian Murphy as Tommy Shelby in season six of 'Peaky Blinders'. (Photo by BBC/Caryn Mandabach Productions)

Peaky Blinders

Streaming in the UK | six seasons available

An epic gangster drama set in 1920s Birmingham, Peaky Blinders started out as cult viewing, but became a worldwide hit. Inspired by stories of real-life Brummie mobsters, the series follows the rise of gangster boss Tommy Shelby (Cillian Murphy). The final season takes the Shelbys’ story into the years after 1929, and shows a world thrown into turmoil by the Great Depression. But that may not be quite the end: a big-screen movie is said to be in the works. The show offered the late Helen McCrory OBE, who played matriarch Aunt Polly, one of her defining roles.

Revenge: Our Dad The Nazi Killer

Streaming in the UK | feature-length documentary

Australian brothers Jack, Jon and Sam Green had happy childhoods. Nevertheless, there was a closed quality to their father, Boris, a Holocaust survivor and partisan fighter in Lithuania. Why? This documentary, first aired in the BBC’s Storyville strand, explores a possible reason that goes beyond the trauma of conflict or survivor’s guilt. Were Boris and his brother, Fima, involved in the extrajudicial killing of at least one suspected Nazi war criminal? It’s not a far-fetched idea. A deeply personal journey through family history that also charts a little-known “war after the war” in Australia.

Union With David Olusoga

Streaming in the UK | documentary series

We are living through an era when the future of the United Kingdom seems at best uncertain. But maybe this has long been the case. That’s certainly the impression you get watching David Olusoga’s latest series, which surveys a history of unions – and schisms – dating back to the early 17th century. He begins with James VI of Scotland and I of England, a monarch who wanted to forge the two nations into a single Protestant kingdom. As things turned out, Great Britain would not come into being until 1707, its creation linked to a disastrous colonial adventure in Panama.

World On Fire

Streaming in the UK and US | drama series

After the first series aired in 2019, writer Peter Bowker’s Second World War drama World On Fire, which tells the story of the conflict from multiple perspectives, looked set to return to our screens regularly. Then the Covid-19 pandemic hit and delayed filming of the second series, which is finally due to air this year. In the meantime, the first season is available to stream and begins in 1939, where Harry Chase (Jonah Hauer-King), an interpreter at the British Embassy in Warsaw, promises to help his lover, Kasia Tomaszeski (Zofia Wichłacz), flee from the Nazi invasion.


Best historical movies, dramas and documentaries on ITV, Channel 4, Channel 5, BritBox, UKTV Play

Archie

Streaming in the UK | drama series available via ITVX

Born in 1904 in Bristol, the son of Elsie and Elias, Archibald Leach grew up to be Cary Grant, the most urbane of leading man during Hollywood’s golden age. How did this transformation come about? It’s a story traced here in a four-part series starring Jason Isaacs in the lead role. Grant’s childhood emerges as pivotal to understanding the star. Growing up in miserable poverty, his escape to a better life began when, as a teenager, he auditioned for a music hall act, the Bob Pender Troupe, after being captivated by one of their performances, at the Bristol Hippodrome.

The Architecture the Railways Built

Streaming in the UK | documentary series, three seasons available via UKTV Play

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, when so many of Britain’s railways were built, 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, so many of which turn out to have fascinating stories associated with them.

Call the Midwife

Streaming in the UK | nine seasons available via BritBox (& other services)

From its launch in 2012, Call the Midwife has been one of the BBC’s flagship period dramas. Inspired by the memoirs of real-life midwife Jennifer Worth, the programme follows the lives of staff at an East London nursing convent during the late 1950s and, latterly, through the 1960s. Boasting a cast that includes Jenny Agutter, Helen George and Stephen McGann, the award-winning show has plenty of heartwarming moments as it shows how maternity care developed in the wake of the Second World War, but it also tackles gritty issues such as poverty, racism, domestic violence and abortion.

Dunkirk: Mission Impossible

Streaming in the UK | documentary series available via My5

The evacuation of Allied troops from Dunkirk in France in 1940 is sometimes portrayed as victory snatched from the jaws of defeat. In truth, for all that more than 335,000 men escaped capture by the Nazis, this was a disaster. Over three episodes, former marine JJ Chalmers looks back at what happened, beginning by following in the footsteps of British troops being driven towards the sea The second episode focuses on the Royal Norfolk Regiment, whose men held the line to cover the retreat. The final instalment looks at how the battle to keep the Nazis out of Dunkirk ended.

The King Of Warsaw

Streaming in the UK | drama series, available via All4

Based on a novel by Polish-Silesian writer Szczepan Twardoch, The King of Warsaw is set in Poland’s capital in 1937. It’s a time of huge tension as different political factions struggle for power during the Second Polish Republic era, which lasted from 1918 until 1939, when the country was invaded by both the Nazis and the Soviets. It’s also a time of opportunities for those with ambition, men such as boxer Jakub Szapiro, who dreams of being more than just an enforcer for gang leader Buddy Kaplica. A series that intertwines real and fictional characters.

Sanditon

Streaming in the UK | drama, three seasons available via ITVX

Based on an unfinished manuscript by Jane Austen, Sanditon was created by Andrew Davies, whose adaptation of Pride And Prejudice famously gave the world Colin Firth as Darcy in a wet shirt. A televisual sure bet, then. In truth, this was a drama that took a while to find an audience and was cancelled at one point by ITV. Happily, with the support of Masterpiece (PBS), the show returned, and its three series offer a vivid and witty portrait of life in a Regency-era seaside resort undergoing huge changes. Rose Williams leads the cast as Charlotte Heywood.

A Spy Among Friends

Streaming in the UK via ITVX | drama series available via ITVX

The story of the Cambridge spy ring continues to fascinate us. And no wonder, it’s a tale that involves idealism, subterfuge and betrayal, all played out in the highest echelons of British society. This latest take on British agents behaving badly stars Guy Pearce and Damian Lewis as, respectively, Kim Philby, a man who ultimately defected to the USSR at the height of the Cold War, and fellow spook Nicholas Elliott. Based on the book of the same name by Ben Macintyre, it focuses in on the idea that Philby’s betrayal of Elliott, a lifelong friend, was especially cruel.

Stephen Fry: Willem & Frieda – Defying Nazis

Streaming in the UK | documentary, available via Channel 4

Perhaps those society treats with suspicion have all the more reason to resist oppression. Certainly, that’s one lesson you could take from the interlinked stories of Willem Arondéus and Frieda Belinfante. Both were gay, both were artists (Arondéus a painter, Belinfante a musician) and both were in Amsterdam when it was occupied by the Nazis. In a superb documentary directed by John Hay, Stephen Fry tells the story of the duo’s heroic work with the Dutch resistance, when they forged identity passes and planned an audacious bombing, an attack where they were concerned that no-one should perish.

The Vikings

Streaming in the UK | documentary series, available via My5

In 1015, the Danish prince, Cnut, led a Viking fleet in an invasion of England. His bloody campaigns culminated with Cnut winning the English throne, and he would reign from 1016–35. This series traces what happened, with the first of three episodes finding Dr Xand van Tulleken undergoing Viking-style military training. The second episode charts the brutal Viking progress through England, success that forced English nobles and royals into new alliances as they sought to resist the invaders. The final episode details Cnut’s triumph over Edmund Ironside. Co-presented by archaeologist Raksha Dave.

The Winter King

Streaming in the UK | drama series available via ITVX

Based on The Warlord Chronicles trilogy by Bernard Cornwell of The Last Kingdom fame, The Winter King takes us back to fifth-century Britain. The Romans have left and these really are the darkest of times. Hope emerges in the form of Arthur Pendragon (Iain De Caestecker), the illegitimate son of King Uther (Eddie Marsan). The series begins with Arthur being sent into exile. Can he reclaim his position with the help of Merlin (Nathaniel Martello-White)? A drama that balances Arthurian mysticism with a visceral sense of people fighting just to survive from day to day.


Best historical movies, dramas and documentaries on Lionsgate+ / Starz

Alicia von Rittberg as Princess Elizabeth in Becoming Elizabeth
Alicia von Rittberg as Princess Elizabeth in Becoming Elizabeth (Photo courtesy of Starz)

Becoming Elizabeth

Streaming in the UK and US via Starz | drama series

In 1558, following the death of her half-sister, Mary I, Elizabeth Tudor ascended to the English throne. ‘Good Queen Bess’ would rule for more than four decades. But as this series created by playwright Anya Reiss reminds us by focusing on the young Elizabeth, things might have been very different. A teenager and third in succession when Henry VIII died, it’s remarkable she survived the era’s poisonous court politics, let alone become such a powerful figure. A drama that explores how people use sex to wield power. Starring Alicia von Rittberg as Elizabeth and Romola Garai as Mary.

Dangerous Liaisons

Streaming in the UK and US | one season available

Set aside all thoughts of director Stephen Frears’ garlanded 1988 film version, this take on events in late 18th-century France has rather less lofty ambitions. Very loosely based on the epistolatory novel of the same name by Pierre Choderlos de Laclos (1741–1803), it stars Nicholas Denton as Pascal Valmont and Alice Englert as Camille. Later, both will be better known under ennobled monikers, but for now we’re in origin story territory as we learn how each came to be, well, a horrible person. A drama that’s hard to take too seriously but entertaining nonetheless.

The Great

Streaming in the UK and US | three seasons available

There’s not a great deal of emphasis placed on historical accuracy in The Great. Instead, to quote the opening credits of the second series, it tells an almost entirely untrue story of 18th-century Russia. Then again, historical accuracy is hardly the point. Created by Tony McNamara, co-writer of the Oscar-winning The Favourite, this is a royal romp that has huge fun as it traces the ascent to power of Catherine the Great – portrayed by Elle Fanning as mischievous and progressive – at the expense of her husband, the monstrous Peter III (Nicholas Hoult).

The Serpent Queen

Streaming in the UK and US | drama series

Samantha Morton stars as Catherine de’ Medici (1519–89), a daughter of the banking dynasty that came to prominence in the Republic of Florence in the 15th century. Similarly to The Great and Dickinson, it shows its protagonist, someone who has down the years often been vilified, as single-minded, blunt and far more able than so many of the dreary men who surround her. The plot centres on de’ Medici’s life at the French court, which began when she was married to the future Henry II and which saw her exert a huge influence in her adopted country.

The White Queen

Streaming in the UK and US via Starz | drama series

Based on novelist Philippa Gregory’s Cousin’s War trilogy, The White Queen tells the interweaving stories of three women who, often working behind the scenes, wielded power and influence during the War of the Roses. The drama begins in 1464, where widowed Elizabeth Woodville (Rebecca Ferguson) no longer has access to the wealth of her Lancastrian husband. An appeal to the new Yorkist king, Edward IV (Max Irons), will change her life forever. Also starring Amanda Hale as Lady Margaret Beaufort, mother of Henry Tudor, and Faye Marsay as Lady Anne Neville, queen consort to Richard III.

The White Princess

Streaming in the UK and US via Starz | drama series

Following on from The White Queen, The White Princess begins with the marriage of Lancastrian chancer Henry Tudor (Jacob Collins-Levy) and Elizabeth of York, aka Lizzie (Jodie Comer of Killing Eve fame), the daughter of Edward IV. The two, it’s safe to say, don’t much like each other initially. Once again based on the writings of Philippa Gregory, this eight-episode series traces events between 1485 and 1496, years in which the queen’s paternal aunt, Margaret of Burgundy (Joanne Whalley), is among those trying to undermine a regime that was vulnerable to challenge.


Best historical movies, dramas and documentaries on Now

Al Murray: Why Does Everyone Hate the British Empire?

Streaming in the UK | documentary series

At its height, the British Empire covered close to a quarter of the Earth’s total land area. What should we make of the colonial era? It’s a question comedian Al Murray tackles here over four episodes that see him travel to India, Jamaica, South Africa and Australia. In each country, Murray teams up with a local comedian to explore the history of British colonial rule and its legacy. Elsewhere, Murray’s alter-ego, The Pub Landlord, also offers ‘insights’. Murray’s Why Does Everyone Hate the English? (2018) and Why Do the British Win Every War? (2020) are also available to stream.

Apollo 11

Streaming in the UK | feature-length documentary

Originally released in cinemas to mark the 50th anniversary of Neil Armstrong becoming the first human being to step out onto the Moon’s surface, 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. More specifically, the pervading sense that all this happened long ago 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.

Britain’s Greatest Obsessions

Streaming in the UK | documentary series

Britons may disagree about subjects as diverse as politics, football and whether the jam should go above or below the cream on scones, but we nevertheless have shared national obsessions to bind us together: the weather, pubs and the nuances of social class. These are among the subjects explored in a celebrity-fronted series that begins with comedian Harry Hill investigating the roots of our conviction that we have the world’s greatest sense of humour, or at the very least one that’s far superior to the Germans. Other famous names appearing include Reginald D Hunter, Suggs and Chris Packham.

Zoe Wanamaker as Queen Antedia in Britannia
Zoe Wanamaker as Queen Antedia in Britannia (Photo courtesy of Sky UK Ltd)

Britannia

Streaming in the UK | three seasons available

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 Britannia, 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.

Clash Of Ancient Warriors

Streaming in the UK | documentary series

Thanks to advances in research, technology and archaeological techniques, researchers are better able than ever to work out what happened at key battles – even those that took place in the distant past. Accordingly, this series looking at the ancient past may offer more revelations than you might initially expect as it explores such encounters as the battle of Thermopylae (480 BCE), in which a vastly outnumbered Spartan force held off Persian invaders, and the battle of Cannae (216 BCE), where Hannibal humbled the Roman republic.

Das Boot

Streaming in the UK | four seasons available

Like the 1981 movie, the television version of submarine drama Das Boot probably isn’t for those who suffer from claustrophobia. Nevertheless, the series widens out the story considerably. In season one, set in 1942, we see events on U-boat 612 as a secret mission starts to go badly wrong. Back on land, we watch as the French Resistance seeks to disrupt the Nazi war effort in La Rochelle, home to the Germans’ submarine base. Further seasons take the show further from Lothar-Günther Buchheim’s 1973 novel and its sequel, Die Festung (1995), but without losing the books’ essence.

Domina

Streaming in the UK | drama series

Livia Drusilla (Kasia Smutniak) was one of the most powerful women in Rome, both wife and advisor to the emperor Augustus Caesar. But as this new series fictionalising her early life makes clear, she first had to survive through years when the men around her ruthlessly competed for power. It helps, it seems, that Livia was single minded and ambitious. We meet the young Livia in the wake of the assassination of Julius Caesar when, despite still being a teenager, she is married to boorish Tiberius Claudius Nero. A strong cast includes Liam Cunningham, Isabella Rossellini and Matthew McNulty.

Intrusion: Stasi FC

Streaming in the UK | documentary

Whether senior members of the Stasi were ever really football fans is open to debate, but East Germany’s secret policemen certainly saw the merit in having a team that was dominant. So it was that the Stasi’s preferred team, BFC Dynamo, won 10 successive East German league championships between 1979 and 1988, as well as twice making the last eight of the European Cup. Ugly intentions underpinned the Stasi’s fascination with the beautiful game in that, in East Germany, your choice of team was a political act, while stadiums were places where people sometimes expressed opposition to the status quo.

River Hunters

Streaming in the UK | three seasons available

Exploring Britain’s rivers can reveal hitherto unfound archaeological evidence. That’s broadly the premise of this entertaining series, which sees wild swimmer Rick Edwards, underwater archaeologist Gary Bankhead and American river detectorist Beau Ouimette diving into the past. To give a flavour of what to expect, season two looked back the battle of Killiecrankie, fought during the Jacobite rising of 1689, an engagement that was notable for featuring one of the earliest uses of grenades. Other shows focused on the Viking era in York and a hunt for relics left by 12th-century pilgrims in Canterbury.

White House Plumbers

Streaming in the UK | drama mini-series

E Howard Hunt and G Gordon Liddy were both part of a covert White House Special Investigations Unit tasked with stopping damaging leaks – hence, plumbers – of classified information during the presidency of Richard Nixon. It’s therefore hugely ironic that their activities, in particular their involvement in the scandal surrounding the Watergate break-in, ultimately did so much to ensure Nixon was forced to resign rather than see out his second term. Directed by David Mandel (Veep), a sharply scripted and satirical mini-series that essentially treats Hunt (Woody Harrelson) and Liddy (Justin Theroux) as not-so-lovable bumblers.


Best historical movies, dramas and documentaries on Disney+

The 1619 Project

Streaming in the UK | documentary series

In August 2019, the New York Times set out to reframe US history by treating the arrival of the first slave ship, in 1619, as the starting point to look at events that have often been celebrated rather than critiqued. As you might expect, this approach was at times controversial, notably over the way it linked the American Revolutionary War to the way vested interests wanted to maintain slavery. This six-part series, which draws on essays in a recent book, The 1619 Project: A New Origin Story, explores how the legacy of slavery shapes contemporary American life.

The Artful Dodger

Streaming in the UK | drama series

To a penal colony in Australia in the 1850s, where Jack Dawkins (Thomas Brodie-Sangster) is building a reputation as speedy surgeon you can trust if, say, you have to endure an amputation. While he has to make ends meet by playing cards, a man formerly known as The Artful Dodger may just be on his way to respectability. Until, that is, the combination of a gambling debt and the appearance of an old acquaintance, Norbert Fagin (David Thewlis), lead Dawkins off the straight and narrow. A romp of a sequel to Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist.

Buried Secrets Of WWII

Streaming in the UK and US | documentary series

The latest 3D scanning techniques are revealing hitherto hidden information about the battlefields of the Second World War. Step forward Pete Kelsey, an expert in this technology, who here teams up with military historian Martin KA Morgan to look anew at the past. The six-part series takes in the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, the Nazi V-bomb programme, the relentless German Siege of Malta in 1940, the Allied advance on Rome, the 1944 battle of Hürtgen Forest on the Belgian-German border, and Allied attempts to dismantle the Japanese war machine during the long-running New Guinea campaign.

Cristóbal Balenciaga

Streaming in the UK | drama series

Dubbed “The Master” and “The King of Fashion”, Spanish designer Cristóbal Balenciaga (1895–1972), whose work was elegant and sculptural, redefined haute couture. But not without some challenges along the way, as this lavish and beautifully framed Spanish bio-drama recounts. The series is especially strong in its evocation of the world of Parisian high fashion in the 1930s, which initially proves resistant to Balenciaga’s ideas. As Balenciaga (Alberto San Juan) recounts his experiences to a journalist, Prudence Glynn (Gemma Whelan), we also discover how, as a closeted gay man, he survived the Nazi occupation of France.

Flooded Tombs Of The Nile

Streaming in the UK | documentary

As anyone who has watched an Indiana Jones movie can testify, it’s dangerous exploring ancient sites. Doubly so when the site in question is a pyramid awash with rising groundwaters. This one-off documentary shows the risks very clearly as it follows efforts to explore a site associated with Nastasen, the Nubian king of Kush, a kingdom that was centred on the Nile valley in northern Sudan and southern Egypt. The work of Pearce Paul Creasman, an archaeologist whose expertise encompasses ancient Egypt and Nubia, maritime archaeology and the study of the ancient environment, is central to the documentary.

Lin-Manuel Miranda and Phillipa Soo as Alexander and Eliza Hamilton
Lin-Manuel Miranda and Phillipa Soo as Alexander and Eliza Hamilton. "She was very loving and forgiving," says Chernow. (Image: Disney+)

Hamilton

Streaming in the UK and US | feature-length musical

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 Alexander Hamilton, lawyer, soldier, statesman and banker, a Founding Father who rose to prominence despite the stigma of being born out of wedlock in the British Leeward Islands. It’s an exhilarating show that received rave reviews and has been a hit in London as well as New York. This film captures the excitement of the show’s first Broadway run and features Miranda himself in the title role.

Jodie Comer plays Marguerite de Carrouges in the upcoming film 'The Last Duel',
Jodie Comer plays Marguerite de Carrouges in the upcoming film 'The Last Duel', which tells the story of how a rape allegation in 14th-century France culminated in trial by combat. (Image by Alamy)

The Last Duel

Streaming in the UK | feature-length drama

Rooted in Germanic law, a judicial duel involved two parties fighting in single combat to settle a dispute. Such duels were fought in Europe through the Middle Ages, with the last such encounter in France taking place in 1386, a real-life face-off that underpins this historical epic directed by Ridley Scott. The Last Duel plays out over three distinct chapters, each essentially offering a different character’s perspective, and relates what happens after Marguerite de Carrouges (Jodie Corner), the wife of knight Jean (Matt Damon), accuses his one-time friend, squire Jacques Le Gris (Adam Driver), of raping her.

The Lost City Of Machu Picchu

Streaming in the UK | documentary

The Disney+ site features a terrific range of National Geographic documentaries, including this documentary focusing on the Inca citadel of Machu Picchu, the existence of which was revealed to the wider world by American archaeologist Hiram Bingham (1875–1956) in 1911, after he had been guided to the site with the help of local farmers. The selling point here is that the documentary will go below the citadel where “mummy kings wait to share their stories”. In truth, the chance just to see the site in such glorious detail makes this well worth watching.

Notre-Dame: Race Against the Inferno

Streaming in the UK and US | 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. The city’s firefighters fought for seven hours and more to bring the blaze fully under control and restoration is now in progress 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.

Sam: A Saxon

Streaming in the UK and US | drama series

The son of a Cameroonian father and a German mother, Samuel Meffire was the first Afro-German police officer to serve in East Germany. What motivated a man who, thanks to an advertising campaign, literally became a poster boy for anti-racism around the time Germany was reunified? And how, disenchanted with what he saw around him, did Meffire come to serve time for armed robbery? This mini-series, starring Malick Bauer, dramatises a life that has more than enough outlandish incidents to keep the story moving along and also has much to say about racism in contemporary Germany.

A Small Light

Streaming in the UK and US | drama series

Thanks to Anne Frank’s diary, the story of how she and her family hid from the Nazis in a secret Amsterdam annex has become woven into our wider culture. Yet we would not be able to read of these experiences were it not for Miep Gies (1909–2010), former PA to Anne’s father, Otto. Not only did she save the diary for posterity, but it was Miep (Bel Powley) and her husband, Dutch Resistance member Jan (Joe Cole), who watched over the Franks and brought them food. This powerful drama tells the story from the perspective of Miep.


Best historical movies, dramas and documentaries on Apple TV+

The Banker

Streaming in the UK and US | feature-length drama

Pulled from release in December 2019 following allegations of sexual abuse were levelled at one of its producers (the son of one of the lead characters, whose name was removed from the film’s credits), The Banker arrived with baggage. Nevertheless, it tells an important story, of how real-life African-American entrepreneurs – Bernard Garrett (Anthony Mackie) and Joe Morris (Samuel L Jackson) – employed a white frontman, Matt Steiner (Nicolas Hoult), and beat a racist system to make a fortune in Los Angeles real estate in the 1950s. But success eventually brings the unwanted attention of the authorities.

The Buccaneers

Streaming in the UK & US | drama series

In the wake of Bridgerton and The Great, the idea of costume dramas with a distinctly 21st-century sensibility is, of course, no longer novel. Nevertheless, British writer Katherine Jakeways’ The Buccaneers is a welcome addition to the canon. Based on an unfinished story by Edith Wharton, it follows the fortunes of a group of exuberant young American women who launch themselves into London society in the 1870s. Naturally, cultural collisions and misunderstandings occur. Enormous fun, with more than enough wit and grit to give the series heft. Amidst an ensemble cast, Fenella Woolgar excels as the formidable Lady Brightlingsea.

Emancipation

Streaming in the UK & US | feature-length drama

A still and steely presence in a film that’s often brutal and even harrowing, Will Smith stars as a slave labourer, Peter, on the run from a Confederate Army work camp. If dealing with alligators, leeches and snakes in the swamps of Louisiana weren’t bad enough, Peter finds himself pursued by a relentless manhunter, Fassel (Ben Foster). A film that only becomes more powerful when you learn it was inspired by the true story of “Whipped Peter”, an escaped slave who became an abolitionist icon after images of his back, a lattice of keloid scars, were published in 1863.

The Essex Serpent

Streaming in the UK & US | drama series

Based on Sarah Perry’s bestselling novel, The Essex Serpent takes us back to the late 19th century, where a young widow, Cora Seaborne (Claire Danes) finds new freedom after the death of her abusive husband. Leaving London for life in the country, she resolves to pursue her interest in palaeontology. At which point sightings of a legendary monster, dubbed by locals “The Blackwater Beast”, begin. Could this be, Seaborne theorises, a living fossil that has made its home out in the marshes? A subtle and sometimes eerie drama that also features, as the Rev Will Ransome, Tom Hiddleston.

Tom Hanks in 'Greyhound' (2020)
Tom Hanks in a scene from the © Sony Pictures new movie 'Greyhound' (2020). The film is set in 1942 at the height of the Battle of the Atlantic and was inspired by C S Forester’s 1955 novel 'The Good Shepherd'. (Photo by LANDMARK MEDIA/Alamy Stock Photo)

Greyhound

Streaming in the UK and US | feature-length drama

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 submarine 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, Greyhound was initially going to be released in cinemas, until the pandemic made this impossible and Apple stepped in. Also starring Stephen Graham, Rob Morgan and Elisabeth Shue.

John Lennon: Murder Without A Trial

Streaming in the UK & US | documentary series

It says much about the continuing cultural significance of The Beatles that, more than 40 years after his killing, Apple TV+ deem events surrounding John Lennon’s death worthy of a three-part series. The first episode takes us back to 8 December 1980 when, outside New York’s Dakota Building, Mark Chapman gunned down Lennon. The second episode details the investigation into what happened and attempts to understand Chapman’s motivation. The final show deals with the legal process and how Chapman changed his plea to guilty at the last moment. A series that mixes archive footage with the testimony of witnesses.

Killers Of The Flower Moon

Streaming in the UK and US | feature-length drama

Set in 1920s Oklahoma, Martin Scorsese’s cinematic epic Killers of the Flower Moon focuses on a series of murders linked to the discovery of oil beneath land belonging to the Osage Nation. Based on journalist David Grann’s book, it brings to life a turbulent time when White Americans greedily eyed this new-found wealth. Robert De Niro gives a chilling turn as local boss William King Hale (1874–1962), who orders contract killings in order to benefit from ‘headrights’ that entitle Osage people to a share of a mineral wealth fund. The cast also includes Leonardo DiCaprio and Lily Gladstone.

Lincoln’s Dilemma

Streaming in the UK | documentary series

The thoughts of Abraham Lincoln on slavery evolved through his life. At one point, for example, he was a supporter of ‘colonization’, the idea that African-Americans might be funded to leave the United States. Ultimately, after issuing the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, he abandoned this position. The subject of how his standpoint on this crucial issue changed over the years, and why, is at the centre of Lincoln’s Dilemma. Much is made of the way abolitionist and social reformer Frederick Douglass may have pushed the 16th president into changing his stance. Narrated by Jeffrey Wright.

Louis Armstrong’s Black And Blues

Streaming in the UK and US | feature-length documentary

In so many respects, the public image of Louis Armstrong (1901–71) has come to be defined by his later career, when he was a mainstream star and sometimes attracted criticism for not talking more about the struggle for civil rights. Yet as Sacha Jenkins’ excellent documentary reminds us, this is at best a partial picture of a complex man. In particular, the film reveals Satchmo as one of jazz’s foundational figures – a trumpet virtuoso, a consummate band leader and, gravelly voice to the fore, a man able to make even the most unlikely song choices his own.

Masters Of The Air

Streaming in the UK and US | drama series

With a budget reported to be in the region of $250m, Second World War drama Masters Of The Air is premium television in production cost terms. Happily, the money shows, notably in scenes that offer spectacle while also evoking the claustrophobia of airborne combat. Based on Donald L Miller’s acclaimed book, the series follows the fortunes of the US 100th Bomb Group, nicknamed the Bloody Hundredth because of the scale of its losses. Austin Butler leads the cast as Major Gale ‘Buck’ Cleven. Gary Goetzman, Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg (Band Of Brothers, The Pacific) serve as executive producers.


Best historical movies, dramas and documentaries on HBO

Band of Brothers

Streaming in the US | drama series

First shown in 2001, Band Of Brothers has dated well. In great part, that’s down to the elegant simplicity of the central idea: to follow Easy Company, part of the 101st Airborne Division, from jump training through parachute landings in Normandy and onwards to the end of conflict. Based on historian Stephen E Ambrose’s 1992 book, which gathered together interviews with veterans, it conveys a gritty authenticity, although the filmmakers did take some historical liberties for dramatic reasons. Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks bagged credits as executive producers, further proof that here was a big-money, high-profile project.

Boardwalk Empire

Streaming in the US | five seasons available

Originally aired between 2010 and 2014, Boardwalk Empire set out to tell an epic story of Atlantic City gangsters in the prohibition era. And it largely succeeded, although it’s arguable the earlier episodes are stronger, notably a pilot directed by Martin Scorsese. Back before the long-form television revolution meant it was routine to see film stars on TV, its cast was notably starry, including Steve Buscemi as Enoch ‘Nucky’ Thompson, corrupt city treasurer; Michael Shannon as Nelson Van Alden, a puritanical government agent whose life spirals out of control; and Kelly Macdonald as troubled widow Margaret Thompson.

Catherine the Great

Streaming in the US | drama series

Far more imperious than most royals, Helen Mirren deservedly won a Golden Globe for her turn here as the empress who ruled Russia from 1762 until 1796, and who revitalised the country after organising a coup d’état against her own husband, Peter III. The four-part series, where you can see the budget in every frame, focuses on Catherine the Great’s years in power, and shows her as ruthless and yet enlightened, interested in the latest thinking across Europe. The relationship between the empress and her lover, military commander Grigory Potemkin (Jason Clarke), is central to the series.

Chernobyl

Streaming in the US | drama series

On 26 April 1986, a safety test at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant in Ukraine went catastrophically wrong. The plant’s No4 reactor exploded, an accident that spewed nuclear contamination across Europe. What would it have been like to be on the ground, seeing these events as they happened? The multiple award-winning Chernobyl, based in part on Svetlana Alexievich’s book Voices From Chernobyl, imagines just that. Those who lives we glimpse include first-responder firefighters and miners who had to dig beneath the facility. A strong ensemble cast includes Jared Harris, Stellan Skarsgård, Paul Ritter, Jessie Buckley and Emily Watson.

John Adams

Streaming in the US | drama 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.

Our Flag Means Death

Streaming in the US | comedy series

The story of Stede Bonnet (1688–1718) is genuinely fascinating. Why did a man who was a moderately well-to-do member of the landed gentry in Barbados decide to become a self-styled gentleman pirate? It’s this question that underpins showrunner David Jenkins’ pirate comedy, which portrays Bonnet (Rhys Darby) as a man bored by life – and heroically ill-equipped to lead the dysfunctional crew of his ship, Revenge, in a life of crime. A strong cast features Ewen Bremner as Nathaniel Buttons, Bonnet’s grizzled first mate, and Taika Waititi as Edward ‘Blackbeard’ Teach.

The Pacific

Streaming in the US | drama series

Once again numbering Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks as executive producers, the follow-up to Band of Brothers focuses 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 offering an unflinching portrait of men at war. 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.

Perry Mason

Streaming in the US | drama series

Perry Mason has long been associated with Raymond Burr, who played the character on television from 1957 until his death 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 offering the opportunity for redemption.

The Plot Against America

Streaming in the US | drama series

Alternate histories don’t come spookier than Philip Roth’s 2004 novel, The Plot Against America, which imagines a xenophobic Charles Lindbergh using his aviation fame to run for president and to turn the country towards fascism. In this 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. The 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 in his community.

White House Plumbers

Streaming in the US | drama mini-series

E Howard Hunt and G Gordon Liddy were both part of a covert White House Special Investigations Unit tasked with stopping damaging leaks – hence, plumbers – of classified information during the presidency of Richard Nixon. It’s therefore hugely ironic that their activities, in particular their involvement in the scandal surrounding the Watergate break-in, ultimately did so much to ensure Nixon was forced to resign rather than see out his second term. Directed by David Mandel (Veep), a sharply scripted and satirical mini-series that essentially treats Hunt (Woody Harrelson) and Liddy (Justin Theroux) as not-so-lovable bumblers.


Best historical movies, dramas and documentaries on Hulu

The Beatles: Eight Days A Week – The Touring Years

Streaming in the US | feature-length documentary

In 1966, The Beatles quit touring. The Fab Four, the cheeky lads from Liverpool who had conquered the world, ceased to be – to be replaced by serious musicians who preferred recording at Abbey Road to life on the road. Yet the quartet’s itinerant years between 1962 and 1966 are important to understanding the band, and Ron Howard’s acclaimed documentary from 2016 tells a cultural history story of huge significance as we see The Beatles on the hoof redefining what it meant to be a pop star. Plus, for all the screaming, the music is pretty good.

Escape From Pretoria

Streaming in the US | feature-length drama

In 1979, a trio of anti-apartheid activists escaped prison in Pretoria. But how exactly did Tim Jenkin, Stephen Lee and Alex Moumbaris (renamed Leonard Fontaine here) get away? Adapted from a book by Jenkin, this Australian film takes us back to an era when South Africans could be incarcerated for distributing pro-ANC leaflets and when political prisoners received especially harsh treatment. The trio’s ingenious bid for freedom involves making wooden keys and plays out as a thriller. Daniel Radcliffe leads the cast as Jenkin. Ian Hart plays Denis Goldberg, a long-imprisoned activist who helps his fellow prisoners.

Great Expectations

Streaming in the US | drama series

It’s safe to say Steven Knight’s take on Charles Dickens’ much-loved novel has divided opinion. Why? Because of the way the Peaky Blinders creator has embellished the source material in this latest of many screen adaptations of the story of Pip, Estella and, in this version, an opium-smoking Miss Havisham. For Knight’s part, he says that his additions are all rooted in a close reading of Dickens – including, it seems, a naked Mr Pumblechook (Matt Berry) being spanked. But whatever your thoughts on the script, it draws out some terrific performances, especially Olivia Colman’s eerie turn as Havisham.

Hillary

Streaming in the US | 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 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.

Mrs. America

Streaming in the US | drama 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.

Sam: A Saxon

Streaming in the US | drama series

The son of a Cameroonian father and a German mother, Samuel Meffire was the first Afro-German police officer to serve in East Germany. What motivated a man who, thanks to an advertising campaign, literally became a poster boy for anti-racism around the time Germany was reunified? And how, disenchanted with what he saw around him, did Meffire come to serve time for armed robbery? This mini-series, starring Malick Bauer, dramatises a life that has more than enough outlandish incidents to keep the story moving along and also has much to say about racism in contemporary Germany.


Best historical movies, dramas and documentaries on Paramount+

Devotion

Streaming in the US | feature-length drama

Jesse Brown was the first African-American pilot to complete the US Navy’s basic flight training programme. He went on to serve with distinction in the Korean War (1950–53) and won the Distinguished Flying Cross. The frigate USS Jesse L. Brown was named in his honour. This biopic charts his career, the story of a man born in Mississippi and who encountered overt racism throughout his life. The central relationship here is between Brown (Jonathan Major, star of Lovecraft Country) and his wingman, Tom Hudner (Glen Powell of Top Gun: Maverick fame), and charts a deepening friendship.

Lawmen: Bass Reeves

Streaming in the UK & US | drama series

The story of Bass Reeves (1838–1910) is remarkable. Born into slavery in Arkansas, he became a Deputy US Marshal – and reputedly the first Black deputy to serve west of the Mississippi. British actor David Oyelowo plays Reeves as a taciturn man who, in classic Western style, has to deal with the contradictions and moral dilemmas that come with living in violent times. Among the familiar faces in them supporting cast, Donald Sutherland plays Isaac Parker, known as the ‘Hanging Judge’ for self-explanatory reasons, and Dennis Quaid as Deputy US Marshal Sherrill Lynn.

1923

Streaming in the UK and US | drama series

The neo-Western Yellowstone, a knotty tale of Montana ranchers starring Kevin Costner, has been one of the biggest hits on US television in recent years. So much so that it has spawned two sequels going back in time to explore the story of the Dutton family, the clan that lies at the centre of the drama. First there was 1883, which starred Sam Elliott, and now there is 1923, which takes the family saga through Prohibition, years of drought and the Great Depression. Helen Mirren, playing family matriarch Cara, and Harrison Ford as her husband, Jacob, lead the cast.

Looking for something else to watch? Explore the new history TV and radio airing in the UK this month and the real history behind your favourite films and dramas.
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*All information correct at time of publication

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