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 their digital shelves, you’d never guess it was so young.
Comprising everything from the U.K.’s biggest contemporary hits to the most beloved classics from BBC/ITV eras past, the BritBox catalogue is sure to have something to fit whatever mood you might be in. Got a hankering to watch an alien doctor travel through space and time? BritBox is the exclusive home of 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 $5.99/month (or $59.99 per 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.
Cost: $6.99 per month (or $69.99 per year), with a 7-day introductory free trial period. (And yes, gift subscriptions are available.)
Available on: Roku, Apple TV 4th Gen, Samsung, and all iOS and Android devices, AirPlay, Chromecast, as well as online at britbox.com, and on Amazon Channels for Prime members, and via Apple TV (on supported devices).
What Makes It Unique: All-but-live streaming of daily BBC/ITV programming like Good Morning Britain, Coronation Street and Emmerdale, as well as topical weekly programming like Brexitcast, Gardener’s World and Mock the Week; the entirety of Classic Doctor Who and Midsomer Murders; exclusive access to other popular BBC/ITV programming, both new (Vera, Death in Paradise, RHS Chelsea Flower Show) and from the vaults (the Up series, Mr. Bean, The Sweeney)
What You’ll Find on This List: For the most part, BritBox divides its extensive catalogue into categories defined either by recency—Now, Classics, Last Chance—or by genre—Drama, Mystery, British Home & Garden. We took a few jaunts beyond these borders when organizing our own list, but for the most part, the categories below follow BritBox’s lead.
That out of the way, let’s get to the streaming goods. Jolly watching!
For those who count themselves among the merry masses who celebrate Christmas, who could say no to a holiday special? Whether your tastes are for mystery or comedy, for scripted dramas or for home and hearth documentaries, BritBox has the festive season covered. The Queen’s Christmas Message? Got it. Corrie at Christmas 60th-anniversary special? Got it. All the panel shows, decked out in their holiday best? Got it. And for all you sitcom fans out there, not only is the original run of Gavin & Stacey finally making its way to the streamer on Christmas Day, but along with it will premiere the brand new Gavin & Stacey Christmas special, which drops in on Gavin, Stacey and all their friends and family ten years after fans last saw them.
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 keep soapy mainstays like Emmerdale and EastEnders on Tumblr’s annual Best of Live TV end-of-year round-ups, this might be the channel you want to tune into to give them a way to stream it in the highest definition possible. Otherwise, look to it for the newest seasons of panel shows like Would I Lie to You? and QI, or for home, garden and travel documentaries like Gardener’s World and Springwatch.
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 or 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 one can find, of all people, breakout CAoS co-star Chance Perdomo). Any of the series listed above are worth checking out, but Our Girl, a military drama about female army medics in Africa, is particularly well-suited to American audiences excited for female-forward stories wrapped up in a familiar military procedural format.
After “Now,” “Classics” is BritBox’s bread and butter. (Scone and clotted cream?) Name a cult favorite British series you’ve ever heard of, 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 this channel, all 26 seasons of the original run of Doctor Who are also available on BritBox exclusively, so if sci-fi completionism is your bag, this corner of the streamer is exactly where you should be.
Our quiet weekends this winter are all set to be backgrounded by All Aboard!’s tranquil train journeys and soothing sleigh rides, but those sprawling travel projects represent only a sliver of the unscripted British content available on BritBox. Into food? Mary Berry and Nigella Lawson are both on hand to satisfy your cravings. Gardening? Springwatch, Winterwatch, Country Files and Gardener’s World are all wrapped up and ready to go. Politics, culture, history, antiques—no matter your real-world interest, it’s represented here.
No matter what your taste in small screen procedurals is, from A(gatha Christie) 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 the 1991-2006 series, Prime Suspect. We’re partial to sharp, crime-solving ladies here at Paste, so we’re obviously most excited about having access to Vera, The Bletchley Circle: San Francisco and the fully remastered Miss Marple (1984-1992), but even that barely scratches the BritBox mystery surface.
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 more fun than you could possibly imagine it being. 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 transwoman that is just so lovely and sweet. Want a less sci-fi cult classic? Try The Thick of It, or Keeping Up Appearances, or Are You Being Served? Want a different kind of period comedy? Try Blandings or Mapp & Lucia. Truly, you have your pick of gems here.
BritBox’s slate of labeled Original Series is small and tricky to pin down—only a few of the original series that debuted by the end of 2019 had made it to the official Britbox Originals landing page by time of publication—but with The Bletchley Circle’s stylish San Francisco spin-off period mystery leading a pack that also includes gritty contemporary detective dramas like Dark Heart, The Victim and The Bay as well as comedies like the platform-hopping Mum, 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 we’ll be recommending first to all our anglophile friends looking for new shows to take on, but all of these BritBox originals hint at great streaming exclusives still to come.
Unless one listens to much Wait, Wait… Don’t Tell Me on your local NPR station, the panel show, as a comedic format, won’t be very familiar to American audiences. Don’t worry, though—BritBox has a whole heap of the BBC’s best panel shows ready and waiting to get you quickly up to speed. 8 Out of 10 Cats Does Countdown (hosted by Jimmy Carr) and Would I Lie to You? (hosted by Rob Brydon) are fairly well known (and beloved) quantities here in the states, but really, there’s something to recommend them all—namely, if nothing else, Great British Bake-Off’s Sue Perkins as a regular guest across the board. If you’re going to watch just one, though, 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). Star Wars Season Pro-tip: The L series’ holiday episode, “No L,” features Carrie Fisher—Leia, herself—among the panelists.
One could argue that more British television series are period pieces than aren’t, but BritBox has enough titles that we wanted to make sure their wealth of options didn’t get lost in all the other period-spiced categories above. The three we 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; Upstairs/Downstairs is a cult comedy favorite—but they are all equally propulsive. You won’t be disappointed with any of them. Editor’s note: Merlin is no longer available on BritBox. To catch up on that series, turn to Netflix.
This final category, which we invented just for this list, includes (unbelievably) even more clergy-starring titles than the three Best Bets listed. Religion-adjacent comedy and drama is a British THING, apparently (it’ll only take you a few tries to find an episode of QI that features a Church of England clergyman on that week’s panel of comedians), so if that kind of set-up 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 Coleman as she charmed her way through the awards season circuit for her ultimately Oscar-winning performance in The Favourite, or are fallin gin love with her now as she takes up the crown on, well, The Crown, the entirety of Rev, co-starring Coleman as the sharply funny wife of Tom Hollander’s inner city vicar, will be just the trick.
Alexis Gunderson is a TV critic and audiobibliophile. She can be found @AlexisKG.
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