One of two niche streaming services* dedicated to serving UK content to global audiences, BritBox is celebrating its fifth anniversary this month. In honor of that milestone—and in frank recognition of the increased investment the joint BBC/ITV platform has put into developing solid original content since our last guide—Paste is presenting you, our readers, with this updated BritBox guide. Anglophiles, read on!
Comprising everything from the U.K.’s biggest contemporary hits to the most beloved classics from BBC and ITV eras past, the BritBox catalog is sure to have something to fit whatever mood you might be in. Got a hankering to watch an alien doctor travel through space and time? BritBox is the exclusive home of the first 26 series of classic Doctor Who. Curious to see how the British medical drama differs from Grey’s Anatomy? Holby City Hospital is ready for you to burst through its ward doors. Itching to dive into the classic misadventures of your friendly neighborhood vicar? Well, has BritBox got a truly—and I mean truly—incredible number of clergy-adjacent options for you to choose from.
Our top 10 recommended titles can be found below, but first, a quick primer:
What Makes It Unique: All-but-live streaming of daily BBC/ITV programming like Good Morning Britain, Coronation Street and Emmerdale, as well as topical weekly programming like Brexitcast, Gardener’s World and Mock the Week; the entirety of Classic Doctor Who and Midsomer Murders; exclusive access to other popular BBC/ITV programming, both new (Vera, Death in Paradise, RHS Chelsea Flower Show) and from the vaults (the Up series, Mr. Bean, The Sweeney)
What You’ll Find on This List: For the most part, BritBox divides its extensive catalog into categories defined either by recency—Now, Classics, Last Chance—or by genre—Drama, Mystery, British Home & Garden.
* Profiled in a separate column, Acorn TV aims to scratch the same anglophilic itch that BritBox does. But while the two services cater to similar audiences, the experiences (and catalogs) they provide are different enough that it isn’t really a question of which one is best. They are, like Hulu and Netflix, just… different. With its investment in not just original but also international content, Acorn TV is more reminiscent of Netflix. Meanwhile, with its network television roots and the fact that it posts new episodes of soaps, panel shows, and morning news programs within 24 hours of them airing in the U.K., BritBox much more closely resembles Hulu. Acorn TV gives its subscribers an eclectically global experience while BritBox has the edge in the “this is what to watch when you want to feel like you’re in Britain” department.
That out of the way, let’s get to the streaming goods:
Starring: Greg Davies and Zita Sattar, with guest spots from Helena Bonham Carter, David Mitchell, Stephanie Cole and more
Seasons available: 1 (new series)
We may love Greg Davies most around these parts for his iron rule as the Taskmaster on, well, Taskmaster, but late last year he pulled on his bright white noddy suit and stepped into the role of small town crime scene cleaner for, funnily enough, The Cleaner. In a premise pretty much tailor-made for pandemic-era production, The Cleaner opens each episode with Paul “Wicky” Wickstead rolling up to a crime scene after the police have left, lorry full of cleaning supplies at hand, only to be confounded in one way or another by someone else on the premises. In some cases, it’s the murderer. In others, it’s a neighbor. Sometimes, it’s initially unclear, which lets Davies take the episode to unexpected places. With this set-up, most episodes only need Davies and one other person for the story to work, which lets the show take full advantage of booking flash guests like Helena Bonham Carter and David Mitchell. But even with such a limited cast, the writing is solid enough that the texture and scope of Wicky’s world outside of work is bracingly clear.
Starring: Romola Garai, Michael Gambon, Jonny Lee Miller, Jodhi May, Robert Bathrust, Louise Dylan, Blake Ritson, Tasmin Greig
Seasons available: 1 (2009)
The 1995 Pride and Prejudice, which BritBox also carries (restored in 4K!), might be a bigger draw for some Austen diehards, but the Romola Garai-starring adaptation of Emma from 2009 is just as worth your time. Charming and tastefully lush, the miniseries has a wholly different vibe than either Emma’s flashier adaptations (Clueless and EMMA.), which makes it the perfect period piece to settle into when logging into BritBox for the first time.
Starring: John Cleese, Prunella Scales, Andrews Sachs, Connie Booth
Seasons available: 2
A cult comedy classic, Fawlty Towers is just one among many infamously beloved, infamously short-lived British comedies that you’ll find in the BritBox archives. In fact, as Paste’s own Garrett Martin points out in this list of the best two-season comedies in television history, the two-season trend may well have Fawlty Towers to thank:
John Cleese and Connie Booth’s classic might be the most perfect sitcom ever made, an impression helped by the fact that they only made 12 episodes. That’s barely half of a regular American season. Cleese’s portrayal of Basil Fawlty inspired countless sitcom buffoons to come, and the scripts were immaculately constructed comedic masterpieces. The pressure of maintaining that high level of quality ended the show after two seasons and twelve episodes, and numerous British comedians since have pointed to Fawlty Towers as proof that no comedy should run longer than two seasons.
Hosted by: Monty Don
Seasons available: 3 (2020, 2021, and the most recent trio of Winter Specials), with new episodes from the 2022 season dropping every Friday through this year’s growing season
One of the features that makes BritBox as a platform stand out is its dedication to next-day streaming of quintessential British series that air new episodes on both a daily and weekly basis. Daily secretions include news programs like Good Morning Britain and long-running soap operas like EastEnders and Emmerdale. Weekly options comprise of everything from topical panel shows like Mock the Week to more straightforward punditry like Question Time to, most delightfully, seasonable home and gardening programming like Springwatch, Escape to the Country, and Gardeners’ World.
This last one has been running since 1968 and has been gently hosted by master gardener Monty Don (and his dogs) more or less constantly since 2003. Gardner’s World runs every Friday through the growing season and features a comforting combination of real-time planting projects Don has taken on in his gigantic home garden, visits by co-hosts to interesting gardens around the UK, and real-time growing tips Don calls “Jobs to do this weekend” that close out each episode. Since the start of the pandemic, they’ve added in home videos of gardens from viewers not just around the UK, but around the world, a feature which thus far has never failed to make this critic (and newbie home gardener) tear up.
Starring: Amara Karan, Ciarán McMenamin, Kerri Quinn, Niall Wright
Seasons available: 1 (new series)
Despite being billed as an “uplifting original crime drama,” and opening with a cheerfully sweeping seaside credit sequence that would have been right at home in USA Network’s Blue Skies era, Hope Street is surprisingly tricky to make tonal sense of. Starring Amara Karan as DC Leila Hussain, a Nottingham detective seconded to a quiet seaside North Irish hamlet for mysterious reasons, and Ciarán McMenamin, Kerri Quinn and Niall Wright as said seaside hamlet’s Chief Inspector, Sergeant and PC, respectively, the series swings wildly, especially in early episodes, from Serious Crime Drama to “Gilmore Girls, but in Northern Ireland.” Ultimately it becomes clear that the stories it is more interested in telling are the quirky (and possibly romantic) interpersonal ones between the officers and the rest of the oddball local community, but it may take awhile for viewers more accustomed to darker psychological small town crime dramas like The Bay, The Victim and Shetland (all of which BtirBox also has) to stop expecting something truly terrible befalling Leila and her new Northern Irish friends.
That said, once you get on board with Hope Street’s actual vibe, you’ll be hooked. And given the massive cliffhanger the recently wrapped first season ended on, if it doesn’t get renewed, I’m going to riot.
Starring: Chris O’Dowd, David Rawle, Deirdre O’Kane, Peter McDonald, Ian O’Reilly, Johnny Vegas
Seasons available: 3 (2012-2015)
One of the most charming comedies to come out of the UK in the last decade, Chris O’Dowd’s Moone Boy isn’t exclusively available to American audiences on BritBox—you can also find it on Hulu here—but it is nevertheless one of the series that should be among every comedy lover’s top priorities when making your BritBox watchlist. Starring David Rawle as Martin Moone, a slightly fictionalized version of Dowd’s tween self in 1980s rural Northern Ireland, and Dowd himself as Sean Murphy, Martin’s inexplicably old and be-whiskered imaginary friend, Moone Boy is achingly earnest and just so, so funny. The comedic gold isn’t hoarded by Rawle and O’Dowd either! Between Martin’s over-it teenage sisters, his weirdo parents, and his equally imaginative best friend, Padraic (Ian O’Reilly), whose own imaginary friend, Crunchie Haystacks (Johnny Vegas), gives Sean Murphy at least one other person to talk to, the three-season series is absolutely bursting with jokes. A genuine gift of a sitcom; watch it now.
Starring: Roger Allam, Keala Settle, Nancy Carroll, Patricia Hodge, Kirsty Bushell
Seasons available: 1 (new series)
One of BritBox’s newest Originals, Murder in Provence is another crime drama that’s tonally hard to pin down. Based on the Verlaque & Bonnet novels by M.L. Longworth, series is set in Aix-en-Provence and stars Roger Allam as Investigating Judge Antoine Verlaque and Nancy Carroll as his romantic (and sometimes professional) psychologist partner Marine Bonnet, and takes as its subject a criminal investigative system that will be completely foreign to both British and American audiences, alike. Aside from the novelty of who’s doing the investigating in Murder in Provence, the format itself isn’t what makes this title’s tone hard to pin down. The 90-minute procedural set-up will be comfortingly familiar to anyone who’s watched even a handful of episodes of Columbo or Murder, She Wrote, though the BritBox series is much more leisurely and chatty than either of those two American series. What’s confounding is the fact that, despite being played by an entirely British ensemble cast, whose dialogue is peppered with recognizably British slang and turns of phrase, the characters themselves are all meant to be read as French. It’s incredibly distracting! And at the same time, fascinating. Basically, once you’re in, it’s hard to stop watching. So, you know, take this recommendation however you want.
Hosted by: Sandi Toskvig (Series N-S) and Stephen Fry (Series J-M)
Seasons available: 10 (J-S)
Unless one listens to much Wait, Wait… Don’t Tell Me, it’s like that the panel show, as a comedic format, won’t be very familiar. Don’t worry, though, BritBox has a whole heap of the BBC’s best panel shows ready and waiting to get you quickly up to speed. 8 Out of 10 Cats Does Countdown (hosted by Jimmy Carr) and Would I Lie to You? (hosted by Rob Brydon) are fairly well known quantities here in the states, but if you’re going to watch just one, make it QI.
An oddball combination trivia/quiz show that’s been on the air since 2003, QI (which stands for “Quite Interesting”) takes the alphabet as a loose organizing principle, theming the fact-packed episodes of each new season according to the next letter down the line (in early 2022, we’re up to “S”). Originally presented by Stephen Fry (Series A-M), the program handed hosting duties off to Sandi Toksvig in 2016. Featuring comedian Alan Davies as the series’ anchor competitor slash co-presenter and a rotating trio of most British comedians, actors and noteworthy names, the “competition” aspect of QI is more a race to the bottom than anything else, as most competitors—including the winners—end up in negative points. It’s a weird little show, with a funny retro vibe, and I want everyone to love it as much as I do.
Star Wars fan Pro-tip: The L series’ holiday episode, “No L,” features Carrie Fisher herself among the panelists.
Starring: Brenda Blethyn, Kenny Doughty, Paul Ritter, Cush Jumbo, Riley Jones, Jon Morrison, David Leon, Kingsley Ben-Adir, Ibinabo Jack
Seasons available: 1-6; 8-11
Based on the Ann Cleeves novels of the same name, Vera (which Cleeves also writes for) has been a British crime drama mainstay since 2011. Now on its eleventh season, the series stars Brenda Blethyn as the titular detective, Vera Stanhope, a “brilliant but irascible detective obsessed with work and driven by her own demons.” Set in Northumberland, one of the signature elements of the series—aside from how capable and no-nonsense Vera herself is—are all the beautiful landscapes found in that part of the country. I mean, it’s no Autumnwatch, but if you like a little murder with your scenery, maybe this is the show for you.
(To read an interview Brenda Blethyn did with Paste in 2017 in the lead-up to the seventh season of Vera, go here.)
Starring: Will Poulter, Lucy Boynton, Jonathan Jules, Conleth Hill, Daniel Ings, Maeve Dermody, Hugh Laurie, Miles Jupp, Amy Nuttall and Alistair Petrie
Seasons available: 1 (premiered April 13)
The latest Agatha Christie adaptation to hit the small screens—and BritBox’s biggest commission to date—Why Didn’t They Ask Evans? is a classic British mystery lover’s dream. Starring Will Poulter as the earnestly charming village vicar’s son Bobby Jones and Lucy Boynton as the firecracker Frankie (Lady Francis) Derwent, the series comes to the streamer from director and executive producer Hugh Laurie (who also co-stars as Dr. James Nicholson). Based on a standalone Christie novel of the same name, the three-part limited series, which is set after the First World War, features impeccable production design, gorgeous costuming, and very clever dialogue. Moreover, it is just jam-packed with immediately iconic performances, all of which are led capably by the push-pull of Poulter’s easy-going loyalty and Boynton’s tightly coiled, wise-cracking independence. Honestly, while I understand that Why Didn’t They Ask Evans? is a standalone novel, the chemistry between Poulter and Boynton is so winning that I wouldn’t say a thing if BritBox (along with Laurie) decided to adapt other lesser-known Christie novels to give them even more runway to work with.
What Makes it Unique: A geographically curated collection that will help demystify some of the regional nuances that might otherwise be hard to parse for audiences not based in the UK.
Best Bets: Prime Suspect (London), The Office (The South), All Creatures Great and Small (Yorkshire and the Humber)
What Makes it Unique: Does what it says on the tin! If you’ve ever spent a Sunday evening cozied up to PBS for Masterpiece Mystery, this is the channel for you.
Best Bets: Father Brown (and its currently airing follow-up, The Sister Boniface Mysteries), Agatha Christie’s Marple
Classic Doctor Who
What Makes it Unique: Your exclusive home for all things classically Whovian, helpfully organized by Doctor, with a smattering of can’t-find-them-elsewhere specials.
Best Bets: Doctor Who (all 26 original seasons!)
A BritBox subscription costs $6.99 per month (with a 7-day introductory free trial period) and can be used across up to 5 devices. Gift subscriptions are available, and credentialed educators can get a 30% Teacher’s Discount.
Alexis Gunderson is a TV critic and audiobibliophile. She can be found @AlexisKG.
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