The Best Episodes of BBC Documentaries

Last Updated: Nov 9, 2018

Documentaries produced by or for the BBC.

Code-Breakers: Bletchley Park's Lost Heroes

#1 - Code-Breakers: Bletchley Park's Lost Heroes

Season 2011 - Episode 184

Documentary that reveals the secret story behind one of the greatest intellectual feats of World War II, a feat that gave birth to the digital age. In 1943, a 24-year-old maths student and a GPO engineer combined to hack into Hitler's personal super-code machine - not Enigma but an even tougher system, which he called his 'secrets writer'. Their break turned the Battle of Kursk, powered the D-day landings and orchestrated the end of the conflict in Europe. But it was also to be used during the Cold War - which meant both men's achievements were hushed up and never officially recognised

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Secrets of the Masons

#2 - Secrets of the Masons

Season 2018 - Episode 53

In Secrets of the Masons, cameras for the first time go behind the doors of the Grand Masonic Lodge of Scotland, in Edinburgh, the home of freemasonry, and lift the veil on the inner secrets of this normally closed world. With exclusive access to its 400-year-old archive, its members around the country and its grand master, who presides over 1,000 lodges and 100,000 Scottish Freemasons worldwide, we film at lodge meetings, the selection of new candidates and the installation of grand masters. This documentary explores the truth about an organisation characterised by many for funny handshakes and rolled trouser legs, and by others as a dangerous, secret society, "the hidden hand that has shaped Scotland". We discover famous Scots whose careers have been "helped" by being masons, including Robert Burns and leading light in the Scottish Enlightenment, James Watt. Deputy Scottish Grandmaster Ramsay McGee, ex assistant chief constable of Northern Constabulary, remembers when, in the 1970s, 50 per cent of the force under him were masons. But he defends the close links between freemasonry and the police - "I could argue all policemen should be masons, it would make them much better men!" In the bomb-proof safes below the grand lodge in Edinburgh's George Street, archivist Robert Cooper, in white gloves, finds the original minutes of the first lodge meeting in 1598. We trace how this organisation grew from stonemasons to freemasons, became enshrined in America, where 40 per cent of presidents have been masons, was banned by the Pope and Hitler, and "done in", in Robert Cooper's words, by Dan Brown. And we ask if its lasting legacy is less its influence and more its secrecy.

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The Incredible Story of Marie Antoinette's Watch

#3 - The Incredible Story of Marie Antoinette's Watch

Season 2016 - Episode 292

Nicholas Parsons, Just a Minute host, and stalwart of the entertainment world explores his life-long enthusiasm for clocks when he goes in search of the most valuable and famous watch in the world. The so called Marie Antoinette, once the target of one of the biggest museum heists in history, was the masterpiece made by 18th-century genius Nicholas Breguet, for that doomed queen. Tracing the enthralling story of Breguet's rise to fame, Parsons visits Paris and Versailles, and the vaults of today's multimillion-pound Breguet business. Exploring the innovative and dazzling work of the master watch maker, Parsons unravels the mystery behind the creation of his most precious and most brilliant work. Parsons heads to Irsael to discover how in the 1980s the world's most expensive watch was then stolen in a daring heist, and went missing for over 20 years. Revealing a little-known side of one of our favourite TV and radio hosts, the film offers a glimpse into Parsons's own private clock collection, whilst also telling an enthralling tale of scientific invention, doomed decadence and daring robbery.

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Attenborough at 90

#4 - Attenborough at 90

Season 2016 - Episode 128

In celebration of his ninetieth birthday, Sir David Attenborough shares extraordinary highlights of his life and career with broadcaster Kirsty Young, including the inspiring people he has met, the extraordinary journeys he has made and the remarkable animal encounters he has had across the globe. Joined by colleagues and friends, including Michael Palin and Chris Packham, Sir David shares some of the unforgettable moments from his unparalleled career, from capturing unique animal behaviour for the first time to the fast-paced advances in wildlife filming technology, as well as stories of the wonder and fragility of the natural world - stories that Sir David has spent his life exploring and championing.

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Attenborough And The Giant Dinosaur

#5 - Attenborough And The Giant Dinosaur

Season 2016 - Episode 12

David Attenborough tells the story of the discovery and reconstruction in Argentina of the world's largest-known dinosaur, a brand new species of titanosaur. Measuring 37m long - close to four London buses put end to end - and weighing 70 metric tons, it now holds the record as the biggest animal ever to walk the Earth. In 2014, a shepherd spotted the tip of a gigantic fossil bone sticking out of a rock in La Flecha Farm in the Chubut Province in the Argentinian desert. Palaeontologists soon uncovered a massive 2.4m long (femur) thigh bone, the largest ever found. By the end of the dig they had uncovered more than 220 bones. As the programme reveals, these all belong to a new species of the giant plant-eating titanosaur. Filmed over the next two years, the documentary follows the twists and turns of this forensic investigation. Attenborough witnesses the uncovering and examination of these stupendous fossils and the dramatic construction of the complete skeleton. And using state-of-the-art graphics, the film also reveals the internal secrets of this dinosaur and what it means to be a giant.

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Great Natural Wonders of the World

#6 - Great Natural Wonders of the World

Season 2002 - Episode 1

Great Natural Wonders of the World focuses on natural landscapes rather than wildlife. This show spends an hour highlighting some of the greatest visions of the world ever seen. It is arranged by continent and specifically covers the following: * North America - Deserts, canyonlands, Death Valley, Yellowstone, Yosemite, Mesas, the Grand Canyon and Limestone Caves * South America - Amazon River, Angel Falls, the Andes and glaciers * Pacific Ocean - Hawaiian volcanos & Coral Atolls * Asia - Mt Fuji, Guilin & the Himalayas * Europe - Alps, Rivers, Ice Caves, the Northern Lights * Africa - Kilimanjaro, Serengeti, Ngorogoro, Rift Valley & the Negev Desert * Australasia - Olgas, Uluru, Deserts, 12 Apostles (before one fell over recently), Kimberleys, Great Barrier Reef, New Zealand's mountains and fjords * Antarctica

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Directors: Peter Crawford
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Haslar – Secrets of a War Hospital

#7 - Haslar – Secrets of a War Hospital

Season 2015 - Episode 147

Rob Bell marks the anniversary of the Battle of Waterloo by exploring the brutal world of battlefield medicine.

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Churchill: When Britain Said No

#8 - Churchill: When Britain Said No

Season 2015 - Episode 125

A look at Winston Churchill’s battle to be elected Prime Minister just weeks after VE Day. The war leader was confident of victory, but ended up being humiliated at the polls with the Conservative party almost annihilated. Surprising revelations from first-hand witnesses, including Sir Max Hastings, Juliet Gardiner, Anthony Beevor and Dave Douglas, help to uncover whether Churchill’s rejection was a mark of ingratitude, or the most mature decision ever made by a democracy.

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The Birth of Israel

#9 - The Birth of Israel

Season 2008 - Episode 9

Documentary examining the the events leading up to the Israeli war of Independence in 1949, its continuing impact on Arab/Israeli relations and the implications for the Middle East peace process.

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Monteverdi in Mantua - the Genius of the Vespers

#10 - Monteverdi in Mantua - the Genius of the Vespers

Season 2015 - Episode 89

Simon Russell Beale travels to Italy to explore the story of the notorious Duke of Mantua and his long-suffering court composer Claudio Monteverdi during the turbulent times of the late Italian Renaissance. Out of the volatile relationship between the duke and the composer came Monteverdi's Vespers of 1610, a major turning point in western music. The Sixteen, led by Harry Christophers, explore some of the radical and beautiful choral music in this dramatic composition.

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Bitter Lake

#11 - Bitter Lake

Season 2015 - Episode 28

Politicians used to have the confidence to tell us stories that made sense of the chaos of world events. But now there are no big stories and politicians react randomly to every new crisis - leaving us bewildered and disorientated. Bitter Lake is a new, adventurous and epic film by Adam Curtis that explains why the big stories that politicians tell us have become so simplified that we can’t really see the world any longer. The narrative goes all over the world, America, Britain, Russia and Saudi Arabia - but the country at the heart of it is Afghanistan. Because Afghanistan is the place that has confronted our politicians with the terrible truth - that they cannot understand what is going on any longer. The film reveals the forces that over the past thirty years rose up and undermined the confidence of politics to understand the world. And it shows the strange, dark role that Saudi Arabia has played in this. But Bitter Lake is also experimental. Curtis has taken the unedited rushes of everything that the BBC has ever shot in Afghanistan - and used them in new and radical ways. He has tried to build a different and more emotional way of depicting what really happened in Afghanistan. A counterpoint to the thin, narrow and increasingly destructive stories told by those in power today.

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Directors: Adam Curtis
Writers: Adam Curtis
Art of Cornwall

#12 - Art of Cornwall

Season 2010 - Episode 219

The art colony of St Ives in Cornwall became as important as Paris or London in the history of modernism during a golden creative period between the 1920s and 1960s. The dramatic lives and works of eight artists who most made this miracle possible, from Kit Wood and Alfred Wallis to Barbara Hepworth and Ben Nicholson, are featured in a documentary which offers an alternative history of the 20th century avant-garde as well as a vivid portrayal of the history and landscapes of Cornwall itself

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Genghis Khan

#13 - Genghis Khan

Season 2014 - Episode 98

He was a man who combined the savagery of a real-life Conan the Barbarian with the sheer tactical genius of Napoleon, a man from the outermost reaches of Asia whose armies ultimately stood poised to conquer Europe. His name was Genghis Khan. Today the name of Genghis Khan is synonymous with dark evil yet in his lifetime he was a heroic figure, a supreme strategist capable of eliciting total devotion from his warriors. He grew up in poverty on the harsh unforgiving steppe of Mongolia. From the murder of his father, the kidnap of his wife and the execution of his closest friend, he learned the lessons of life the hard way. So how did this outcast come to conquer an empire larger than the Roman Empire? And was Genghis Khan the brutal monster who ruthlessly slaughtered millions in his quest for power, or was he a brilliant visionary who transformed a rabble of warring tribes into a nation capable of world domination? Filmed entirely on location in Mongolia, the film tells the truth behind the legend that is Genghis Khan.

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Pompeii: The Last Day

#14 - Pompeii: The Last Day

Season 2003 - Episode 2

Step back in time and visit the "vanished city" on its last day, as the mighty volcano Vesuvius explodes in a 24-hour reign of terror. On August 24th, AD79, Pompeii's citizens witness day turning into night as 4 billion tons of pumice, rock, and ash burst forth from Vesuvius. Pompeii: The Last Day uses archaeological evidence, including the writings of one survivor, to unravel the mystery of those final hours. Lavish special effects reconstruct each stage of Vesuvius's cataclysmic eruption and its impact on soldiers, slaves, families, and lovers as they struggle with the unfolding tragedy. One of the greatest natural disasters - and most fateful days - comes to vivid life in this critically acclaimed dramatization.

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Writers: Edward Canfor-Dumas
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Jumbo: The Plane that Changed the World

#15 - Jumbo: The Plane that Changed the World

Season 2014 - Episode 35

Documentary about the development of the Boeing 747 jumbo jet. The 747 was a game changer; the airliner that revolutionised mass, cheap air travel. But the first, wide-bodied plane was (originally) intended as a stopgap to Boeing's now-abandoned supersonic jet. This is the remarkable, untold story of the jumbo, a billion-dollar gamble that pushed 1960s technology to the limits to create the world's most recognisable plane.

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Between Two Rivers

#16 - Between Two Rivers

Season 1960 - Episode 1

After a brief tutelage with innovative BBC documentary producer Denis Mitchell, Dennis Potter teamed with producer Anthony de Lotbiniere to film a documentary (later described by David Niven as "absolutely wonderful"). Returning to the Berry Hill roots of his childhood, Potter used interviews with locals (including his parents) to show changes in the working-class traditions of the Forest of Dean, where "the green forest has a deep black heart beneath its sudden hills, pushing up slag heaps and grey little villages clustering around the coal."

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Directors: Dennis Potter
Writers: Dennis Potter
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God's Composer

#17 - God's Composer

Season 2011 - Episode 278

Simon Russell Beale continues his Sacred Music journey in this special celebration marking the 400th anniversary of the death of the great Spanish Renaissance composer Tomas Luis de Victoria. In exploring the extraordinary world of this intensely spiritual man - musician, priest and mystic - Simon's travels take him to some of Spain's most stunning locations, from the ancient fortified city of Avila, with its medieval walls and glorious cathedral, to the magnificent El Escorial palace, where Philip II would listen to Victoria's music though a small door leading off his bedroom directly to the high altar of the Basilica. In Madrid, Simon explores the dramatic religious paintings of Victoria's contemporary El Greco in the Prado Museum and visits the convent of Las Descalzas Reales, named after the barefoot nuns who worshipped there and where Victoria spent the final three decades of his life as choirmaster and organist. The music is specially performed by Harry Christophers and The Sixteen in the church of San Antonio de los Alemanes, a hidden baroque jewel built in Victoria's lifetime in the heart of Madrid.

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James Ravilious: A World in Photographs

#18 - James Ravilious: A World in Photographs

Season 2007 - Episode 82

Alan Bennett narrates a documentary about James Ravilious, one of the great unknowns of British photography. Son of the renowned water-colourist and engraver Eric Ravilious, he dedicated his art to a small area of north Devon, where over a period of two decades he took more than 80,000 photographs. This collection has become one of the most comprehensive and poignant archives in the country, documenting an English world and way of life most people had thought long gone.

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The Secret Life of Rockpools

#19 - The Secret Life of Rockpools

Season 2013 - Episode 74

Paleontologist Professor Richard Fortey embarks on a quest to discover the extraordinary lives of rock pool creatures. To help explore this unusual environment he is joined by some of the UK's leading marine biologists in a dedicated laboratory at the National Marine Aquarium in Plymouth. Here and on the beach in various locations around the UK, startling behaviour is revealed and new insights are given into how these animals cope with intertidal life. Many popular rock pool species have survived hundreds of millions of years of Earth's history, but humans may be their biggest challenge yet.

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Directors: Simon Williams
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Russell Brand: From Addiction to Recovery

#20 - Russell Brand: From Addiction to Recovery

Season 2012 - Episode 161

The story of how Russell Brand battled to stay clean of drugs is at the heart of this honest, personal film in which he challenges how our society deals with addicts and addiction.

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Gorillas Revisited with David Attenborough

#21 - Gorillas Revisited with David Attenborough

Season 2006 - Episode 27

David Attenborough recounts his very personal experiences with the mountain gorillas of Rwanda. Ever since they were discovered over a century ago, these remarkable creatures have been threatened by loss of habitat, poaching, disease and political instability. But despite all odds their numbers have increased. David tells the extraordinary tale of how conservationists like Dian Fossey have battled to save the mountain gorilla from the brink of extinction.

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Hitler's Children

#22 - Hitler's Children

Season 2012 - Episode 101

Their family name alone evokes horror: Himmler, Frank, Goering, Hoess. This film looks at the descendants of the most powerful figures in the Nazi regime: men and women who were left a legacy that indelibly associates them with one of the greatest abominations in history. What is it like to have grown up with a name that immediately raises images of genocide? How do they live with the weight of their ancestors' crimes? Is it possible to move on from the crimes of their ancestors?

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After Life: Rot Box Detectives

#23 - After Life: Rot Box Detectives

Season 2012 - Episode 4

A special spin off programme of the BBC Four programme After Life for learners aged 7 - 11 years. A team of young science detectives investigate rot and decay through a series of experiments and activities, assisted by Dr George McGavin. The team find out not just about the bacteria all around us, but the bacteria on our skin, in our mouths and in our stomachs. They look at the life cycle of flies and how they play an important part in the natural process of recycling and composting. They even make their very own rot boxes which they fill with food and leave for six weeks.

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King George and Queen Mary: The Royals Who Rescued the Monarchy - Episode 1

#24 - King George and Queen Mary: The Royals Who Rescued the Monarchy - Episode 1

Season 2012 - Episode 2

A two-part portrait of Elizabeth II's grandparents, King George V and Queen Mary, which examines the lasting legacy of the couple who rescued the monarchy from potential disaster, and whose influence persists to this day. Episode one focuses on King George V. George could not have been a more unlikely moderniser. Born and brought up in the Victorian age he was conservative to his fingertips. Yet in the face of unstoppable social change after the First World War he turned out to be a remarkable innovator, creating the House of Windsor, embracing democratic reform, and reinventing many of the royal traditions that we know today. When he celebrated his silver jubilee in 1935 the monarchy was more popular than ever. But as a parent King George V was far less successful - he bullied his children and alienated his eldest son and heir, Prince Edward. As one courtier remarked at the time, 'the royal family are like ducks, they sit on their children'. By contrast, King George had a loving relationship with his granddaughter, and much of Queen Elizabeth's style and commitment to duty can be traced back to this early influence.

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Requiem for Detroit

#25 - Requiem for Detroit

Season 2010 - Episode 37

A documentary about the decay and industrial collapse of America's fourth largest city.

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Directors: Julien Temple
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