As a concept it’s a winner – a huge library of the very best British programming past and present, all in one place, including hundreds of shows you won’t find anywhere else.
Where else can you dip into vintage Attenboroughs along with soap episodes from the 60s, classic crime dramas and comedies such as Broadchurch and Spitting Image?
But BritBox is up against some serious muscle in the subscription streaming service market, and in this issue we’re exploring whether it can hold its own against the likes of Netflix, Amazon Prime, Apple TV+ and Now.
Christopher Stevens, Mail TV critic, reviews the best from British streaming service BritBox, asking can it ever match its rivals for choice and value. Pictured: Joanna Vanderham who will co-star in upcoming BritBox original drama Crime
A collaboration between the BBC and ITV but with shows from Channels 4 and 5 too, BritBox is doing what Netflix set out to do years ago, but with a totally British back catalogue offering countless programmes from the vaults.
It was launched across the pond in 2017 as a one-stop shop where Americans could access the best of British.
They lapped it up (subscribers there are now nearing two million) and this success led to a UK launch in 2019. Word spread quickly as a nation brought up on top-quality programming discovered they could access everything from Doctor Whos going back 60 years to Brideshead Revisited and Boys From The Blackstuff.
It could be argued that Netflix and Amazon saw their fortunes soar when they started producing their own original shows, and now BritBox is doing the same with the release of its first original drama and documentary series – stylish revenge thriller The Beast Must Die and Secrets Of The Krays, a brilliant three-parter about the notorious gangsters – with many more in the pipeline.
So can BritBox ever match its rivals for choice and value? Today we’re looking at some of the jewels in its crown, so you can decide for yourself…
CORSETS, CLASS… AND A DASH OF GLAMOUR
If you’re craving the surreal, the golden era of The Avengers is available – not the bloated comic-book Americana with Iron Man, the Hulk and their friends, but the ultra-English spy adventures of Steed and Emma Peel. Patrick Macnee is the urbane John Steed, who wears a bowler hat but whose brolly conceals a sword.
Despite his impeccable suits, the series is comprehensively stolen by Diana Rigg as Mrs Peel – high-kicking, karate-chopping, wise-cracking, she goes racing after the villains in her open-top Lotus before Steed has even cranked the motor of his vintage Bentley.
Christopher says if he had one series he could watch endlessly on a desert island it would be The Avengers, the ultra-English spy adventures of John Steed and Emma Peel (played by Diana Rigg and Patrick Macnee, pictured together)
If I had one series I could watch endlessly on a desert island it would be The Avengers.
And for a more transatlantic version in the same style, there’s Roger Moore and Tony Curtis in The Persuaders! They’re a mismatched crime-fighting duo, Lord Brett Sinclair and oil millionaire Danny Wilde.
Very British class divisions are the theme of Upstairs Downstairs, about the Edwardian toffs and servants in a house in London’s Belgravia. It became the quintessential period drama, with Gordon Jackson as the stiff-backed butler whose employers are not always deserving of his dogged loyalty.
Head of the household is the Conservative MP Richard Bellamy (David Langton) and his wife Lady Marjorie (Rachel Gurney). The family’s flighty daughter Elizabeth (Nicola Pagett) married a sexually repressed gay man. The sense of scandal that gripped Britain in 1972 when he handed her over to a friend so she could conceive a child cannot be exaggerated.
The class system got another hefty boot in Boys From The Blackstuff, five linked plays with a cast including Bernard Hill as labourer Yosser Hughes – a man begging for work, whose ‘Gissa job’ mantra became a national catchphrase during the early 80s recession. Alan Bleasdale’s scripts are both heart-wrenching and bitterly funny.
BRACE YOURSELVES FOR A NEW CRIME WAVE
As well as classic crime series such as Happy Valley, Broadchurch and Agatha Christie’s Poirot and Miss Marple, BritBox has a number of original dramas in the pipeline.
In Marlow, The Crown’s Claire Foy plays Evie Wyatt, a woman whose family has lived on the Thames Estuary for centuries with a history steeped in smuggling and crime.
The Wyatts have been locked in an age-old feud with the Marlows, but Evie left the area when her father died in a fire 15 years earlier. Now she’s back, wanting answers… and vengeance.
Another upcoming BritBox drama is Marlow, starring The Crown’s Claire Foy (pictured) who plays Evie Wyatt, a woman whose family has lived on the Thames Estuary for centuries
The series is by BAFTA-winning screenwriter Tony Grisoni and Deep State writer Simon Maxwell. ‘I’m delighted to be a part of this,’ says Claire. ‘Tony and Simon’s scripts are so evocative of place and redolent with atmosphere.’
Timothy Spall stars in Magpie Murders, adapted from the novel by Anthony Horowitz, the man behind Foyle’s War and Midsomer Murders.
In this typically clever Horowitz concept, Spall plays a detective who doesn’t actually exist, except on the page. His name is Atticus Pund and he’s the eccentric private eye in a series of 1950s-set crime novels by author Alan Conway.
When Conway’s editor, played by Lesley Manville, discovers an unfinished manuscript, Atticus comes to life in unexpected ways. ‘I was overjoyed when I heard Timothy Spall had accepted the part of Atticus Pund,’ says Horowitz. ‘I’m a lifelong fan and there isn’t another actor in the world I’d have chosen for this pivotal role.’
Damian Lewis is set to star in A Spy Among Friends, adapted from Ben Macintyre’s book, which explores the true story of Kim Philby’s defection to the Soviet Union
Then there’s A Spy Among Friends, adapted from Ben Macintyre’s book and starring British titans Dominic West and Damian Lewis, which explores the true story of Kim Philby’s defection to the Soviet Union.
Filming has already begun on Irvine Welsh’s gritty 2008 novel Crime. Unlike most of the other shows here, which are expected in 2022, this one could air as soon as this autumn. It stars Dougray Scott as DI Ray Lennox, a detective scarred by drink and drug addiction, who has to clean himself up to investigate the disappearance of a schoolgirl. Joanna Vanderham, Angela Griffin and Ken Stott co-star.
‘Lennox is a compelling character for me,’ says Trainspotting creator Welsh. ‘He’s not so much a cop as a broken avenging angel. So don’t expect a run-of-the-mill cop show.’
BritBox at a glance: The streaming service dedicated to the best of British programming from dramas and documentaries to comedies, soaps and films
WHAT IS IT? BritBox is a subscription streaming service dedicated to the best of British programming past and present. It has a vast selection of archive shows from dramas and documentaries to comedies, soaps and films, and is now producing its own original programmes.
HOW CAN YOU WATCH IT? You can watch BritBox using smart TVs, Apple and Android devices, Amazon Fire TV and Chromecast and via Amazon Prime Video channels. The regular price is £5.99 a month or £59.99 a year after a seven-day free trial. Visit britbox.co.uk for details.
20 TERRIFIC SHOWS ON BRITBOX
Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (All seven parts) Alec Guinness stars in John le Carré’s brilliant Cold War tale, first shown in 1979.
River (All six parts) Stellan Skarsgard plays a haunted detective in this clever drama.
Last Tango In Halifax (All five series) Sally Wainwright’s love-in-later-life drama, with Derek Jacobi and Anne Reid (above).
Wolf Hall (All six parts) Mark Rylance is brilliant as Cromwell in the Hilary Mantel adaptation.
Our Friends In The North (All nine parts) Daniel Craig and Mark Strong star in this rarely repeated, career-making drama.
At Home With The Braithwaites (All four series) A lottery win changes a family in ITV’s addictive drama, with Amanda Redman and Peter Davison.
House Of Cards (All four parts) In this 1990 original, Ian Richardson sparkles as a devilish politician.
This Life (Both series and the special) The lawyering and life drama is a 1990s time capsule, and launched plenty of careers.
The Shadow Line (All eight parts) Missing Line Of Duty? Try this gripping 2011 police corruption drama starring Chiwetel Ejiofor.
Cranford (All five parts) Costume drama at its finest, created by Call The Midwife’s Heidi Thomas.
The Forsyte Saga (All ten parts) Not the 1967 BBC original, but ITV’s enjoyably soapy 2002 series with Damian Lewis.
Clocking Off (All four series) This superb factory drama switches perspective each episode.
Dad’s Army (74 episodes plus four Christmas specials) Captain Mainwaring is one of British sitcom’s greatest characters.
The Good Life (All four series) Felicity Kendal and Richard Briers are self-sufficient, and hilarious, in 1970s suburbia.
The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy (All six episodes) Douglas Adams’ sci-fi novel comes to hilariously eccentric life in this 1981 BBC adaptation.
Big Train (Both series) Absurdist sketch comedy at its best, with an up-and-coming Simon Pegg.
Victoria Wood – As Seen On TV (Both series) The show that gave us gems such as Acorn Antiques.
Michael Palin In North Korea (Both parts) The former Python’s bold venture for Channel 5 was a hit.
The Up Collection (All nine films) Michael Apted’s series watched 14 children grow up from 1964, visiting them every seven years.
Hollywood Bulldogs – BritBox’s own feature about maverick British stuntmen in Hollywood.