BBC iPlayer box sets: what's on?
From Phoebe Waller-Bridge's anxious masterpiece Fleabag to the classic time-travelling thrills of Doctor Who, here are the best iPlayer box sets to watch and download right now
Think 24, but British: a counter-terrorism thriller with cheaper cameras, set among the cracked pavements of London. The first series of Spooks was made almost 20 years ago, and subsequent shows have improved immensely on the genre, but the influence on current, undercover gems such as Bodyguard, Line of Duty and Cobra is obvious.
Despite the melodramatic direction, pantomime villains, and lamentably ‘cool’ editing techniques, David Wolstencraft’s MI5 drama is enticing as much as intelligent: covering international politics, domestic abuse, post-9/11 anxieties, and far-right terrorism. And that’s just the first three episodes.
The first series stars Keeley Hawes, Matthew MacFadyen, David Oyewolo and a pre-House Hugh Laurie.
Euan Franklin, TV Editor and Cinema Writer
The six episodes making up season two of Fleabag took the world by storm last year. Phoebe Waller-Bridge, creator and star of the show, never claimed to speak to everyone’s experience – but her funny, brutal, tender, heartbreaking show about one self-destructive woman, who really just wants to be loved, is as illuminating as it is deeply affecting.
To better understand human relations or to just catch up with the hype, there’s nothing better to discover or revisit right now. And once you've done that – why not read our exceedingly positive reviews of season two, the greatest season of TV to hit our screens for years and years?
Ella Kemp, Cinema EditorRead more ...
Psychopaths don’t come more compelling than Villanelle (Jodie Comer). Her cat-and-mouse obsession with detective Eve Polanski (Sandra Oh) makes for stylish, thrilling viewing in Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s Killing Eve.
The psychologically charged story takes you around the world, following Villanelle’s nonchalant violence and fickle fancies. The drama is high stakes, the characters are all a little quirky and the clothes are to die for.
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There’s no way for privileged white people to fully understand the issues and prejudices facing people of colour, but YA author Malorie Blackman made a gallant attempt in her Noughts and Crosses book series.
In this simmering, powerful alt-history adaptation from the BBC, white citizens (‘noughts’) are subordinate to a black ruling class (‘crosses’). More than merely showing the impact of societal racism, this series shows how absurdly sickening it is.
At the centre of this story is the Cross Sephy (Masali Baduza) and the nought Callum (Jack Rowan), who engage in a love affair – forbidden by their segregated society.
Sibling writer-actors Daisy May and Charlie Cooper worked as cleaners before embarking on their hit iPlayer comedy This Country. A mockumentary set in a working-class community in the Cotswolds, the series gathered an overwhelming demand with 52 million requests on iPlayer – on a par with Fleabag. If you haven’t seen it yet, now’s the time to see what all the funny fuss is about.
And yes, it is hilarious. The mockumentary format is over-used in comedy TV nowadays, especially in America, but the Coopers return it to the basic and mundane of everyday life. The mostly bored central characters Kerry (Daisy May) and Kurtan (Charlie) navigate their empty, bizarre neighbourhood – with many of the community members played by non-professionals.
Home, friendship, proximity and distance are at the heart of beloved BBC comedy Gavin & Stacey, where an Essex lad falls for a Welsh girl. Sure, you’ll be rooting for the young lovers, but it’s really all about sidekick Smithy (James Corden), best mate Nessa (Ruth Jones) and all the little oddities that make the towns of Barry and Billericay feel like home.
You may have already watched Gav (Matt Horne) and Stace (Joanna Page) fall in love, but re-bingeing it now will remind you to cherish those around you and stay connected to those who can't be there.
Lawyer-dramas are all the rage, but what about lawyer-comedies? Created by Kieron Quirke and Alex McBride, Defending the Guilty follows a group of newbie pupil barristers entering the dispiriting world inside a courthouse.
Giri/Haji’s Will Sharpe plays Will, an up-and-coming pupil whose general air of optimism clashes with the misanthropy of his mentor (played by Katherine Parkinson). This is a simple, bingeable courtroom comedy about the lawyers stuck with defending hopeless criminal cases.
Before Veep, there was The Thick of It. And before Peter Capaldi was Doctor Who, he was the sweary spin-doctor Malcolm Tucker. Armando Iannucci’s bleakly hilarious series captures the madness inside Westminster, prior to the present world’s demise.
Tucker shouts the Department of Social Affairs and Citizenship (DoSAC) into shape, exploding in fits of well-sworn fury as everything goes wrong at once. Given the sumptuous amount of graphic verbal abuse, this is definitely not one for the kids.
There's always a call for movies and TV shows to be more inclusive, to represent the marginalised. Delightfully, most of these groups can be found in Pose, a dance-infused drama about the underground ballroom scene in 80s New York.
These performers mostly consisted of black, Latino and LGBT people, and Pose boasts the largest trans cast in scripted TV history. Loosely based on the documentary Paris is Burning, writer Ryan Murphy (Prom, Feud: Bette and Joan, Glee) examines a glittery haven for the rejected.
Television is stuffed with whodunnits but Back to Life, written by and starring Daisy Haggard, is a different kind of investigation. The comedy-drama searches for what was done rather than who did it.
Miri (Haggard) is released from jail after 18 years, entering an unrecognisable world. She’s welcomed home by her parents, and the mother hides the knives. Miri tries to find a job, but nobody will take her in because of what she did. But what did she do? Everyone seems to know except for us. It’s eventually revealed in full, and by the end Miri makes a devastating realisation.
With pitch-black comedy, engrossing performances and stunning cinematography by a Kentish seaside, Back to Life is an iPlayer treasure not to miss.
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Line of Duty is like a crime drama squared, turning the hunt inwards to show the police policing the police. The hunt for ‘bent coppers’ leads to master criminals and deep-rooted corruption, but the salacious discoveries are rooted in the brilliant banality and banter of daily life in the police force.
Adrian Dunbar is pure steely strength as the gaffer in charge, while Martin Compston and Vicky McClure make the perfect double act as detectives with the unpopular job of accusing their fellow officers of foul play. Best of all, this is a crime show on an epic scale with six series to sink your teeth into.
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The drama that turned a deerstalker-clad Benedict Cumberbatch into a national obsession has plenty of cryptic cases and caustic wit to grip. Plus there’s Martin Freeman as everyone’s favourite everyman Dr Watson, and Andrew Scott as the irresistible villain Moriarty.
Steven Moffat’s sparky script updates the Sherlock mysteries to modern London, putting a fantastical gloss over the city. Each episode has a self-contained case to solve, but the human drama develops through the series, making this the perfect Sunday-night viewing.
On the face of it, a TV series that squashes together a detective drama and a time-travel mystery sounds like desperate pulpy nonsense. But it's so much more, and became one of the highlights of actor John Simm's career.
Sam Tyler (Simm) is a detective in 2006, who’s put into a coma after a fatal car crash and wakes up in 1973. Now, he’s working under the ruthless and very un-PC detective Gene Hunt (Philip Glenister), solving crimes with the thrills and glamour of the 70s.
Life on Mars revelled in the mystery of Sam Tyler’s coma-induced, 70s hinterland; Ashes to Ashes was intent on trying to solve it. But don’t think this takes away from the surreal magic that writer/creators Matthew Graham and Ashley Pharoah crafted. If anything, this spin-off sequel engenders even more emotional, psychological and philosophical layers to an already-perfect series.
This time, it’s Alex Drake (vividly and memorably played by Keeley Hawes) who’s in a deep, time-bending sleep – getting shot in 2008 and waking up in 1981. Like Sam, she’s bound with DCI Gene Hunt as well as Ray Carling and Chris Skelton, solving crimes and figuring out why she’s there. Oh, and the heart-wrenching, mind-boggling series finale is one of the best in British TV.
There are times when TV thrillers look like they’re all blending into each other: laying down predictable plots, monotonous visuals and characters as thinly drawn as if on tissue paper.
The trans-continental noir series Giri/Haji offers a refreshing divergence from the usual, formulaic offering. It’s stylish, it’s over the top, and it’s artistic – using black-and-white, stretched aspect ratios, animated sequences, and poignant dance numbers to deliver an outstanding criminal thriller set in both London and Tokyo.
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Many series have tried to emulate Luther’s bleak and gritty excellence, but none have superseded the terrifying tales of DCI John Luther.
Bleeding together gruesome horror with detective drama, writer Neill Cross raises the stakes with sadistic psychopaths and complicated murders. Some episodes, especially in series 3, should not be watched after dark.
All five series are on iPlayer, reaching all the way back to the very first encounter between Luther (Idris Elba) and Alice (Ruth Wilson) in the pilot episode.
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Harry and Jack Williams’ TV writing catalogue isn’t flawless, but it’s still filled with many seductive and exciting crime-drama gems (ITV’s Liar being a popular example). The Missing is one of their crowning achievements, capturing the trauma and devastation of losing a child and stopping at nothing to find them again.
The first series, starring James Nesbitt, is the superior of the two – showing the eight-year search for a five-year-old boy, whom the father lost in France. It’s an immersive, unforgettable experience.
Sticking with Harry and Jack Williams, their latest project The Tourist kicks off 2022 in the Australian outback. Jamie Dornan stars as The Man. He's a strapping British guy, whose memory dissolves after being intentionally knocked off the road by a truck. He wakes up in hospital with no idea why someone would want to kill him; he doesn’t even remember his own name. The Man has to discover who he is before his killers can catch up to him.
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Perhaps the BBC’s greatest export, Doctor Who grips audiences around the world, especially after its regeneration in 2005 by Russell T Davies. Making David Tennant, Matt Smith and now Jodie Whittaker into massive names, all 12 series are now available to delve into on iPlayer.
Some of the early episodes look dated now, made before the series budget exploded, but they’re still fantastically entertaining: spanning a whole universe of emotions.
Presented (of course) by the inimitable Sir David Attenborough and boasting a booming score by Hans Zimmer, Blue Planet II is one of the most theatrical and world-changing nature documentaries ever made.
With one episode changing public perception about plastic forever, this is more than a picturesque description of deep sea life. It's an ecological warning, one that may save our planet.
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For many, Weird Weekends was the definitive introduction to the lauded Louis Theroux. And what a first impression he made.
In each episode, Theroux plunges into surreal arenas around the world. From meeting evangelical Christians in Texas to visiting a marriage centre in Thailand, he leaves no strange stone unturned.
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