Scrolling BritBox: The Best of the BBC/ITV Streaming Service, from Classic Doctor Who to Olivia Colman

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Scrolling BritBox: The Best of the BBC/ITV Streaming Service, from Classic <i>Doctor Who</i> to Olivia Colman

BritBox, the joint BBC/ITV subscription streaming service available to Anglophiles in both the U.S. and Canada, only launched in 2017, but from the wealth of iconic British content available on its digital shelves, you’d never guess it was so young.

Comprising everything from the U.K.’s biggest contemporary hits to the most beloved series from BBC/ITV eras past, the BritBox catalogue is sure to have something to fit whatever mood you’re in. Got a hankering to watch an alien doctor travel through space and time? BritBox is the exclusive home to the first 26 series of 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!

There is more excellent content on BritBox than any one person could get to in a lifetime (with more being added every day), but before we get to the guide we’ve curated to get you started, we need to address the doubledecker elephant in the room: Acorn TV.

Profiled previously in a separate “Scrolling” column, Acorn TV promises to scratch the same Anglophilic itch that BritBox does. While the two services cater to similar audiences, though, their experiences (and catalogues) are so different that it isn’t really a question of which one is best. They are, like Hulu and Netflix, just… different. With its investment in both original and international content, Acorn TV is more reminiscent of Netflix; 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; BritBox has the edge in the “this is what to watch when you want to feel like you’re in Britain” department. The most substantive difference comes in the two services’ pricing schemes—Acorn TV, if not available free through your library, costs $4.99/month (or $49.99/year), while BritBox comes in at $6.99/month (or $69.99/year)—but if the extensive catalogue of classic series and access to as-good-as-live additions of things like Emmerdale and Coronation Street are what you’re after, a couple dollars difference is negligible.

That out of the way, let’s get to the BritBox goods. Jolly watching!

[Editor’s note: BritBox’s catalogue is divided into five “Categories” (Premieres, Now, Classics, Just In, and Last Chance—generally episodes of daily soap operas set to expire within seven days) and four “Genres” (Drama, Mystery, Comedy, and Doc & Lifestyle), but we only focus on some of those in the list below. Instead, with all the period pieces, panel shows, and church-adjacent comedies/dramas/detective series available on the service, and the number of BritBox Original Series starting to ramp up, it seemed only right to single each of these out as subcategories.]

Start With: Emmerdale, Coronation Street, Gardeners’ World, EastEnders

Arguably BritBox’s signature feature, “Now” makes episodes of some of Britain’s serial juggernauts (soaps, morning shows, weekly comedy panels) available as soon as 24 hours after they air in the U.K. If any of the teens in your life are among the many who bumped the decades-old soap opera Emmerdale up to 17th place on Tumblr’s Best of Live TV 2018 round-up, this might be the channel you want to tune into to give them a way to stream it in the highest definition possible.

Start With: The City & The City, The Doctor Blake Mysteries, Hold the Sunset (featuring John Cleese!), Our Girl

A real grab-bag of a category, “Premieres” includes everything from exclusive streaming premieres of slick new series like the trippy detective drama The City & The City and the BAFTA-award winning comedy Mum to a whole bundle of Lifetime-esque true crime movies whose titles are all some variation on Murdered by My Father (among which Chilling Adventures of Sabrina standout Chance Perdomo, of all people, can be found). Any of the series listed above is worth checking out, but Our Girl, a military drama about female army medics in Africa and one of the most recently updated “Premieres” titles, is particularly well-suited to American audiences excited for female-forward stories, but looking to have them wrapped up in a familiar military procedural format.

Start With: Classic Doctor Who (Doctors 1-7), A Bit of Fry and Laurie, Fawlty Towers, Upstairs, Downstairs

After “Now,” “Classics” is BritBox’s bread and butter (scone and clotted cream?). Name any cult-favorite British series you’ve ever heard of, and it’s likely to be available here—and not one of them needs us to sing its praises. Fawlty Towers? Obvious! Fry and Laurie? No brainer! Still, it’s worth noting that, in addition to every other iconic series included on the platform, all 26 seasons of the original run of Doctor Who are also available exclusively on BritBox, so if sci-fi completionism is your bag, this corner of the streamer is exactly where you should be.

Start With: Bancroft, Maigret, Prime Suspect, Vera

I had been hearing Vera raved about from all corners for months before I realized that the series’ newest seasons are available on BritBox exclusively, so obviously that is the first mysterious place I landed when I started my Scrolling survey. But from A to V(era), BritBox has more than enough cozy mysteries, dark detective dramas, and gritty British thrillers to keep you satisfied. (Including, if you’re feeling the need to be both fancy and hipster, seven seasons of Dame Helen Mirren playing detective in Prime Suspect.)

Start With: Boy Meets Girl, Red Dwarf, Upstart Crow

If I told you that for three seasons, Peep Show’s David Mitchell starred in a multicam full-costume sitcom about—and written in a wildly near approximation of the vernacular from—William Shakespeare’s day-to-day life, you might think I was going to really obvious extremes to have you on. But if you get a BritBox subscription, you will see that I am not, at all, and that Upstart Crow is, in its full execution, even better than you could possibly imagine. That said, if period multicams in Shakespearean English don’t quite do it for you, there’s always the cult classic Red Dwarf, and the more recent rom-com charmer, Boy Meets Girl, about a cross-generational romance between a Millennial man and a Gen-X trans woman that is so lovely and sweet. Truly, you have your pick of gems here.

BritBox Original Series
Start With: The Bletchley Circle: San Francisco, Dark Heart

BritBox’s slate of labeled Original Series is small—small enough, at this point, that they don’t even warrant a standalone category page—but with gritty contemporary detective drama Dark Heart and The Bletchley Circle’s stylish San Francisco spin-off period mystery leading the pack, you’ll understand that it’s the quality that matters, not the quantity. As a huge fan of the lady-codebreaker fierceness of the original Bletchley Circle, that’s the series I will be recommending first to all my Anglophile friends looking for new shows to take on, but really, you can’t go wrong either way here.

Panel Channel
Start With: Insert Name Here, Mock the Week, QI (series K-P)

Unless you listen to Wait, Wait… Don’t Tell Me on your local NPR station, the panel show, as a comedic format, isn’t be something very familiar to American audiences. Don’t worry, though—BritBox has a spate of the BBC’s best, curated under “Comedy,” to get you quickly up to speed. There’s something to recommend them all (namely, Great British Bake-Off’s Sue Perkins as a regular guest across the board), but if you are going to watch just one, make it QI (“Quite Interesting”) an oddball trivia/jokes/show-and-tell/educational mashup that takes the alphabet as a loose organizing principle and which recently handed hosting duties over from Stephen Fry (series A-M) to Sandi Toksvig (series N and on). Despite all the other hours of content I needed to get through to finish this very list, every time a new episode of QI queued behind the one I had turned on “just to warm up,” I happily let it autoplay. It’s a joy, and I’m so glad to have so many series of it at my fingertips. (Pro-tip: The L series’ holiday episode, “No L,” features Carrie Fisher—Leia, herself—among the panelists.)

Period Pieces
Start With: Merlin, Tutankhamun, WPC 56

One could argue that more British television series are period pieces than aren’t, but BritBox has enough titles that I wanted to make sure didn’t get lost in all the other period-heavy categories that I just need you to play along. The three I pulled out for this blurb span genres—WPC 56 is a classic “fierce lady surviving in a man’s world” police procedural; Tutankhamun, co-starring Max Irons and Sam O’Neill, is a sweeping WWII-era Indiana Jones-style drama; and Merlin is an Arthurian era cult fantasy favorite—but they are all equally propulsive. You won’t be disappointed with any of them.

Holy Rollers
Start With: Father Brown, Broken, Rev, The Vicar of Dibley

The final of the categories I invented just for this list—and my personal favorite—“Holy Rollers” includes (unbelievably) way more series than the three listed above. Religion-adjacent comedy and drama is a British THING, apparently (it only took a few tries to find an episode of QI that featured a Church of England clergyman on that week’s panel of comedians), so if that kind of comedy is your scene, BritBox is the service for you. As for where to start? Well, if you, like most people, fell in love with Olivia Colman as she charmed her way through the awards season circuit for her Oscar-winning performance in The Favourite, the entirety of Rev, starring Colman as the sharply funny wife of Tom Hollander’s inner city vicar, is just the place.

Alexis Gunderson is a TV critic and audiobibliophile. She can be found @AlexisKG.

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