TV worth watching from across the pond (and beyond)
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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 01/04/2020 (1092 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
We know, you have big plans for your period of self-isolation. You’re going to learn to crochet, speak Spanish and bake sourdough bread — if you have time between all your living-room workouts and family board games.
But if you find time to squeeze in a couple of hours on the couch, it’s worth noting that two streaming services with a British focus, Acorn and BritBox, are offering free trials of their services (30 days and seven days, respectively).
It’s not as if time is of the essence right now, but you might not want to get caught up in 20 seasons’ worth of Midsomer Murders or waste hours on Murdoch Mysteries, which is widely available elsewhere. And you will want to take advantage of the Brits’ enviable trend of not letting shows outstay their welcome, often running two or three seasons that are just six episodes long.
Here are some suggestions to make the most of your free subscriptions.
Enjoy 30 days free; after that, subscriptions are $7.49/month or $74.99/ year; the channel is available as an add-on option in Amazon Prime.
If you like twisty mysteries: Blood
The Acorn original series Blood — a second six-episode season was just released — stars Adrian Dunbar as a small-town Irish doctor whose daughter suspects him of murdering his wife. However, she’s not exactly a reliable witness, having a troubled past and a bit of a drinking problem.
Dunbar, so good as “the gaffer” Supt. Ted Hasting in Line of Duty (also available on Acorn), has the kind of rumpled handsomeness and warm Irish brogue that suit him well to these “did-he-or-didn’t-he” roles, where you’re never quite sure if he’s baffled or wily. The first season unfolds slowly but with enough intrigue to keep viewers engaged.
If you enjoy Shakespeare and satire: Slings & Arrows
Widely regarded as one of the best Canadian TV shows ever produced, Slings & Arrows follows the outrageously funny fortunes of the New Burbage Theatre Festival (a thinly veiled Stratford).
Created by Kids in the Hall’s Mark McKinney (who stars as bean-counter Richard Smith-Jones), and Bob Martin and Susan Coyne, who also star, it’s a veritable who’s who of the country’s best actors of stage and screen, including an impossibly handsome Paul Gross and his real-life wife, Winnipeg-born Martha Burns. Each of the three six-episode seasons focuses on a different Shakespeare production, and presents a scathing but affectionate behind-the-curtain look at a world fuelled by hubris, ego and alcohol.
It’s also a bonus to see baby-faced Canadian actors Rachel McAdams (The Notebook) and Luke Kirby (The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel) early in their careers.
If you enjoy Murdoch Mysteries: Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries
Set in Melbourne, Australia, in the 1920s, this charming series (three seasons and a new movie, Miss Fisher and the Crypt of Tears) stars Essie Davis (The Babadook) as Phryne Fisher, a very modern “lady detective” who solves crimes with the reluctant help of Det.-Insp. Jack Robinson (Hugh Page).
It’s a case-of-the-week affair with overarching story elements, so it’s a good option if you’re trying not to binge. It can be a bit hokey, but it’s good for all ages (though the staunchly single, childless Phryne has a host of lovers and can be very saucy). The period elements are beautifully rendered. And the hats! My god, the hats!
If you liked Out of Africa: Flame Trees of Thika
The 1981 ITV adaptation of Flame Trees of Thika aired on PBS’s Masterpiece Theatre for North American audiences. Based on the memoir by Elsbeth Huxley, it stars Hayley Mills, David Robb and Holly Aird as an English family who travel to British East Africa (now Kenya) in 1912 to start a coffee plantation.
The colonial attitudes on display haven’t aged well, but the miniseries (seven 50-minute episodes) is full of adventure — imagine being a kid set free to roam a landscape full of hyenas, elephants and leopards, to have your own little horse — romance and fascinating detail about plantation life at the turn of the 20th century.
Filmed on location in Kenya, it’s also quite stunning, even though it’s presented in a 4:3 ratio and hasn’t been cleaned up digitally (full disclosure: my uncle Ian Wilson was the director of photography for this series; he was nominated for a BAFTA for his cinematography).
BritBox is only offering a week’s worth of free viewing (it’s $8.99/month or $89.99 for a yearly subscription), so short, limited run or non-serialized is the key here.
If you have a green thumb: Gardeners’ World
Gardeners’ World is a balm for these trying times, even if you don’t know a rose from a rhododendron. The popular British series — which has been on the air since 1968 — delivers a comforting dose of verdant lawns and loamy soil, with lots of shots of bees in blooms, and chats with adorable folks who just love potted plants. Host Monty Don is a soothing presence, mucking about in his giant Wellington boots, accompanied by his placid golden retrievers, Nigel and Nellie.
The most recent episode is also a refreshing dose of spring; you can practically smell the flowers. It’s the next best thing to getting outside yourself — and with this kind of gentle reality TV, you can dip in and out without needing to be a completist.
If you enjoy crime series: The Victim
In four one-hour episodes, this Scottish series paints a complicated picture of revenge and the justice system, with Kelly Macdonald (No Country for Old Men) starring as a grieving mother on trial for possibly inciting a stranger to assault the man she suspects of being her son’s murderer. It’s a keep-you-guessing affair with perhaps too many red herrings, but Macdonald is superlative as a woman whose life has been consumed by rage, and James Harkness (The English Game) is heartbreaking as Craig Myers, the husband and father whose life is ruined by her accusations.
If you enjoy Veep: The Thick of It
Missing Julia Louis-Dreyfus’s President Selena Meyer and her toxic band of misfit advisers? Dive into the precursor to Armando Iannucci’s viciously barbed HBO political satire, The Thick of It, a look at the behind-the-scenes machinations in a British government minister’s office.
Iannucci describes the show (four short seasons) as “Yes Minister meets Larry Sanders,” and it’s full of incompetent middlemen, striving politicos, and most importantly, Peter Capaldi (Doctor Who), as the seething Malcolm Tucker, the prime minister’s director of communications. The term “language warning” does not sufficiently capture the tapestry of profanity he weaves (though Iannucci may have upped the ante with Peter MacNicol and Dan Bakkedahl’s characters on Veep).
If you like literary adaptations: Brideshead Revisited
The 1981 BBC series of Evelyn Waugh’s novel Brideshead Revisited has been called the best-ever television adaptation of a book. Spanning the 1920s to the 1940s, it comprises 11 episodes (of varying lengths) and stars Jeremy Irons as Charles Ryder, a young man who befriends the debaucherous Sebastian Flyte (Anthony Andrews) and becomes entangled with the affairs of his Roman-Catholic family, who live in a mansion called Brideshead Castle.
It won the Golden Globe for Best Miniseries, and Andrews won Best Actor; Laurence Olivier took home a supporting-actor Emmy for his role as Lord Marchmain.
If you like Jane Austen, and Colin Firth in a wet shirt: Pride and Prejudice
It is a truth universally acknowledged that the 1995 BBC miniseries Pride and Prejudice is the best adaptation of any Jane Austen work… and that is saying something.
With six hour-long episodes devoted to Austen’s beloved 1813 novel, almost no subplot goes unexplored in this funny, pert, achingly romantic, happiest-of-endings series starring Jennifer Ehle as Miss Elizabeth Bennet, the second-oldest of five sisters whose marriage prospects as women of little social standing or wealth seem dim… until the wealthy, charming Mr. Bingley (Crispin Bonham-Carter) comes to settle in the county, along with his surly, prideful, even-wealthier friend Mr. Darcy.
That scene, in which Firth, as Mr. Darcy, emerges, dripping, from a pond at Pemberley, is justifiably renowned, but Firth’s wordless way with a smouldering look can’t be overlooked either.
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Senior copy editor
Jill Wilson writes about culture and the culinary arts for the Arts & Life section.
Updated on Wednesday, April 1, 2020 7:53 AM CDT: Corrects actor's name