The BEST Episodes of BBC Documentaries
Every episode ever - ranked by fan votes!
Last Updated: Aug 10, 2019
Documentaries produced by or for the BBC.
#1 - 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
#2 - Fish! A Japanese Obsession
Season 2009 - Episode 3
Charles Rangeley Wilson, author, journalist and BBC 2's Accidental Angler, travels to Japan to explore the Japanese people's passionate relationship to fish.
#3 - 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.
#4 - 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.
#5 - Vienna: City of Dreams
Season 2007 - Episode 31
Joseph Koerner explores the art, architecture and music of fin de siecle Vienna. Using one of Vienna's most famous sons, Sigmund Freud, as a key, Koerner attempts to unlock Vienna's psyche for clues as to why this unlikely city gave birth to modernism. Home to Klimt, Schoenberg and Hitler, he portrays an artistic and intellectual melting pot; a place where many of the great dreams, and nightmares, of the modern era were first imagined.
#6 - Bashing Booze Birds
Season 2007 - Episode 43
Nicky Taylor hits the drinking circuits of Britain to investigate what's going on with women on their nights out, asking how big is the problem, is the binge drinking to blame and what the link is between alcohol and aggression.
#7 - Darwin's Struggle: The Evolution of the Origin of Species
Season 2009 - Episode 74
Documentary telling the little-known story of how Darwin came to write his great masterpiece, On the Origin of Species, a book which explains the wonderful variety of the natural world as emerging out of death and the struggle of life. In the twenty years he took to develop a brilliant idea into a revolutionary book, Darwin went through a personal struggle every bit as turbulent as that of the natural world he observed. Fortunately, he left us an extraordinary record of his brilliant insights, observations of nature, and touching expressions of love and affection for those around him. He also wrote frank accounts of family tragedies, physical illnesses and moments of self-doubt, as he laboured towards publication of the book that would change the way we see the world. The story is told with the benefit of Darwin's secret notes and correspondence, enhanced by natural history filming, powerful imagery from the time and contributions from leading contemporary biographers and scientists.
#8 - Stephen Fry: 50 Not Out
Season 2007 - Episode 46
Documentary to celebrate the great man's 50th birthday, with interviews from colleagues such as Emma Thompson and Richard Curtis.
#9 - The Man Who Recorded America: Jac Holzman's Elektra Records
Season 2010 - Episode 94
In the 1960s, a small indie label would conquer American music. With artists like the Doors, Love, Tim Buckley, the Incredible String Band and the Stooges, Elektra Records was consistently on the cutting edge, having built its name initially with folk revival artists like Judy Collins and Tom Paxton, signed out of Greenwich Village. Elektra was run by suave visionary Jac Holzman and this is his story. Featuring contributions from Jackson Browne, Iggy Pop, Judy Collins and choice BBC archive.
#10 - The Joy of Stats
Season 2010 - Episode 105
Documentary which takes viewers on a rollercoaster ride through the wonderful world of statistics to explore the remarkable power thay have to change our understanding of the world, presented by superstar boffin Professor Hans Rosling, whose eye-opening, mind-expanding and funny online lectures have made him an international internet legend. Rosling is a man who revels in the glorious nerdiness of statistics, and here he entertainingly explores their history, how they work mathematically and how they can be used in today's computer age to see the world as it really is, not just as we imagine it to be. Rosling's lectures use huge quantities of public data to reveal the story of the world's past, present and future development. Now he tells the story of the world in 200 countries over 200 years using 120,000 numbers - in just four minutes. The film also explores cutting-edge examples of statistics in action today. In San Francisco, a new app mashes up police department data with the city's street map to show what crime is being reported street by street, house by house, in near real-time. Every citizen can use it and the hidden patterns of their city are starkly revealed. Meanwhile, at Google HQ the machine translation project tries to translate between 57 languages, using lots of statistics and no linguists. Despite its light and witty touch, the film nonetheless has a serious message - without statistics we are cast adrift on an ocean of confusion, but armed with stats we can take control of our lives, hold our rulers to account and see the world as it really is. What's more, Hans concludes, we can now collect and analyse such huge quantities of data and at such speeds that scientific method itself seems to be changing.
#11 - Gods and Monsters: Homer's Odyssey
Season 2010 - Episode 103
Virginia Woolf said Homer's epic poem the Odyssey was 'alive to every tremor and gleam of existence'. Following the magical and strange adventures of warrior king Odysseus, inventor of the idea of the Trojan Horse, the poem can claim to be the greatest story ever told. Now British poet Simon Armitage goes on his own Greek adventure, following in the footsteps of one of his own personal heroes. Yet Simon ponders the question of whether he even likes the guy.
#12 - Decade of Discovery
Season 2010 - Episode 118
A rare pygmy sloth that looks like a teddy bear and can swim, an insect as long as your arm and a fish from the deep with a face like a headlight. Just some of the extraordinary and weird new species chosen by presenter Chris Packham as his top ten discoveries of the last decade from around the world. Also chosen are a giant orchid worth thousands, a walking shark and a small mammal related to an elephant with a nose to match, and two geckos which are evolving before our eyes. Equally extraordinary are the personal stories of how the new species were found, as told by the 21st century scientists and explorers who discovered them - the Indiana Joneses of the natural world. All these species are new to us and new to science, and proof that the Earth can still surprise us.
#13 - Polar Bear: Spy on the Ice
Season 2010 - Episode 125
Shot mainly using spy cameras, this film gets closer than ever before to the world's greatest land predator. Icebergcam, Blizzardcam and Snowballcam are a new generation of covert devices on a mission to explore the Arctic islands of Svalbard in Norway. Backed up by Snowcam and Driftcam, these state-of-the-art camouflaged cameras reveal the extraordinary curiosity and intelligence of the polar bear. The cameras are just a breath away when two sets of cubs emerge from winter maternity dens. They also capture the moment when the sea-ice breaks away from the island in the Spring. As one set of mother and cubs journey across the drifting ice in search of seals, the other is marooned on the island with very little food. How they cope with their different fates is captured in revelatory close-up detail. The cameras also follow the bears as they hunt seals, raid bird colonies, dive for kelp and indulge in entertaining courtship rituals. Icebergcam even discovers their little-known social nature as seven bears share a washed-up whale carcass. Often just a paw's swipe from the play-fighting and squabbling bears, the spy cameras face their most challenging subject yet. When their curious subjects discover the cameras, they are subjected to some comical-but-destructive encounters. As the film captures its intimate portrait of polar bears' lives, it reveals how their intelligence and curiosity help them cope in a world of shrinking ice.
#14 - A Very English Genius: How Michael Ventris Cracked Linear B
Season 2006 - Episode 9
On 1 July 1952, a 30-year-old architect called Michael Ventris made a BBC radio broadcast which was to secure his place in archaeological and history books forever. He announced that he'd deciphered Linear B, Europe's earliest known, and previously incomprehensible, writing system. His discovery was to revolutionise our understanding of Western civilisation. It was made all the more remarkable by the fact that Ventris was no more than an amateur enthusiast, a man passionately and often tortuously determined to crack the linguistic code which had puzzled experts, archaeologists and academics for three decades.
#15 - Reggae Britannia
Season 2011 - Episode 45
The acclaimed BBC4 Britannia series moves into the world of British reggae. Showing how it came from Jamaica in the 1960s to influence, over the next twenty years, both British music and society, the programme includes major artists and performances from that era, including Big Youth, Max Romeo, Linton Kwesi Johnson, Jerry Dammers and the Specials, the Police, UB40, Dennis Bovell, lovers rock performers Carroll Thompson and Janet Kay, bands like Aswad and Steel Pulse and reggae admirers such as Boy George and Paul Weller. The programme celebrates the impact of reggae, the changes it brought about and its lasting musical legacy.
#16 - The World's Worst Place to Be Gay?
Season 2011 - Episode 46
Scott Mills travels to Uganda where the death penalty could soon be introduced for being gay. The gay Radio 1 DJ finds out what it's like to live in a society which persecutes people like him and meets those who are leading the hate campaign.
#17 - Jackie Stewart: The Flying Scot
Season 2009 - Episode 92
Sir Jackie Stewart is one of Britain's all time great sporting personalities - winner of three Formula 1 world championships and 27 grand prix, and ranked as one of the ten greatest racing drivers of all time. With his black cap and sideburns, he became an unmistakable icon in the glorious era of style, glamour and speed of the 1960s and 70s. Venturing beyond the world of motor sport, this documentary is an insight into the triumphs and tragedies of Stewart's eventful life, and includes contributions from friends and colleagues such as Niki Lauda, Emerson Fittipaldi, Sean Connery, Murray Walker and Edsel Ford, as well as the last ever interview with the late Ken Tyrrell, without whom Stewart's career might have taken a very different turn. Produced by Stewart's youngest son Mark, the film is enriched with family photographs, home movies and scrapbooks kept by Lady Helen Stewart that document her husband's career.
#18 - Why Beauty Matters
Season 2009 - Episode 107
Philosopher Roger Scruton presents a provocative essay on the importance of beauty in the arts and in our lives.
#19 - The Twins of the Twin Towers
Season 2011 - Episode 155
To commemorate the 10th anniversary of 9/11, The Twins of the Twin Towers tells the previously untold story of the twins who lost their 'other half' on the day of the terrorist attacks. It features the accounts of some of the 46 twins including Zachary Fletcher, a New York City Fire Fighter who lost his fellow fire fighter and twin brother, Andre in the south tower; Gregory Hoffman, who was on the phone to his twin, Stephen, as the second plane hit and former NYPD undercover cop, Lisa DeRienzo who lost her brother, Michael. As a broker, Michael believed he was the one with the safe job. These and other compelling testimonies make for a profound and powerful tale, which strikes at the heart of what it is to be, not only a twin, but also a human being and reminds us why, as the tenth anniversary approaches, the world can never forget the events of September 11 2001.
#20 - How to Build a Dinosaur
Season 2011 - Episode 163
Dinosaurs died out 65 million years ago and we have hardly ever found a complete skeleton. So how do we turn a pile of broken bones into a dinosaur exhibit? Dr Alice Roberts finds out how the experts put skeletons back together, with muscles, accurate postures, and even - in some cases - the correct skin colour.
#21 - The Secret Life of Ice
Season 2011 - Episode 185
Ice is one of the strangest, most beguiling and mesmerising substances in the world. Full of contradictions, it is transparent yet it can glow with colour, it is powerful enough to shatter rock but it can melt in the blink of an eye. It takes many shapes, from the fleeting beauty of a snowflake to the multi-million tonne vastness of a glacier and the eeriness of the ice fountains of far-flung moons. Science writer Dr Gabrielle Walker has been obsessed with ice ever since she first set foot on Arctic sea ice. In this programme she searches out some of the secrets hidden deep within the ice crystal to try to discover how something so ephemeral has the power to sculpt landscapes, to preserve our past and inform our future
#22 - Armando's Tale of Charles Dickens
Season 2012 - Episode 1
Armando Iannucci presents a personal argument in praise of the genius of Charles Dickens. Through the prism of the author's most autobiographical novel, David Copperfield, Armando looks beyond Dickens - the national institution - and instead explores the qualities of Dickens's work which still make him one of the best British writers. While Dickens is often celebrated for his powerful depictions of Victorian England and his role as a social reformer, this programme foregrounds the elements of his writing which make him worth reading, as much for what he tells us about ourselves in the twenty-first century as our ancestors in the nineteenth. Armando argues that Dickens's remarkable use of language and his extraordinary gift for creating characters make him a startlingly experimental and psychologically penetrating writer who demands not just to be adapted for television but to be read and read again.
#23 - 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.
#24 - 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
#25 - 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.