Not so long ago, Netflix was the king of must-see documentaries – mostly about true crime, and nearly all from the other side of the pond. The ongoing appetite created for documentaries like Conversations With a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes and The Staircase sparked a trend that now goes far beyond Netflix, with all the major streamers, plus regular UK terrestrial channels, after a slice of the documentary action.
The good news is they’re not all about serial killers any more. The even better news is they’ve cottoned onto our wish to be entertained as well as educated, weaving clever storytelling narratives to tell a tale that will break boundaries, keep you invested, and often stay with you for a long time after the credits roll.
Let’s take a look at some of the most exciting British documentary series being released in 2023 and beyond, from the BBC, ITV, Channel 4, Netflix, Disney+ and more:
If These Walls Could Sing – Disney+
Paul McCartney’s daughter Mary directed this Disney documentary about the legendary Abbey Road Studios in London, capturing the experience of the many music stars who recorded there through archive footage and interviews with the likes of Elton John, Noel and Liam Gallagher, and of course her dad and his bandmate Ringo Starr. It also documents how Abbey Road was where film scores including the Star Wars score was born, and explores what’s behind the magic of the recording studio which still attracts thousands of tourists to its iconic zebra crossing.
Wagspiracy: Vardy V Rooney – BBC
It was one of the biggest viral moments of 2019: Colleen Rooney (wife of English footballer Wayne) revealed live on Twitter that she’d allegedly deduced that the person who had been secretly selling stories about her to the tabloids was her friend and fellow WAG: “It’s… Rebecca Vardy’s account”. These unforgettable words kickstarted a furious, very messy and very public legal battle – dubbed “Wagatha Christie” – which dominated the headlines as Vardy sued Rooney for libel, with a judge finally ruling in favour of Rooney in July 2022. Hot on the heels of a Channel 4 drama Vardy v Rooney: A Courtroom Drama (starring Good Omens’ Michael Sheen), BBC Three released this documentary, interviewing key people involved and going into all the gory details. It’s addictive, guilty-pleasure viewing.
The Shamima Begum Story – BBC
When Londoner Shamima Begum was 15, she ran away to Syria to join the terrorist group Islamic State, spending four years there before making headlines in 2019 when it was reported that she wanted to return to the UK. Her British citizenship was revoked, and she’s since become a highly controversial figure to many, as she continues to fight for the right to return home. This BBC Two documentary (originally a podcast) allows the 23-year-old to give her own account of what happened, and while it may not change whatever opinion you already have of the situation, it’s certainly a gripping and thought-provoking watch.
MH370: The Flight That Disappeared – Netflix
A controversial aviation disaster led to this similarly controversial Netflix documentary, directed by British filmmaker Louise Malkinson, detailing theories behind the Malaysian Airways flight which disappeared without a trace in 2014. While many of the potential outcomes posited in MH370: The Flight That Disappeared have been roundly criticised as outlandish and unscientific, it’s still interesting to see the account of how events unfolded, and harrowing to listen to first-hand accounts from some of the passengers’ family members.
George Michael: Outed – Channel 4
It’s easy to remember someone as famous as George Michael in an almost caricature-like way – his string of monumental hits both solo and with Wham, his headline-grabbing troubles with addiction which led to tabloid stories about him crashing his car into a Snappy Snaps – but this Channel 4 documentary gives a much rounder picture of the man behind the headlines. It’s a blunt reminder of how disgustingly gay men were treated by the press, and an altogether nicer reminder of the graceful way Michael responded to this treatment, as well as what an all-round decent human being he was.
A Very British Cult – BBC
“There’s such a strong stereotype – the only cults are in California where people wear orange robes. There is a cult in your neighbourhood.” This is one of the key lines in A Very British Cult, a BBC documentary which began as an eight-part podcast series by journalist Catrin Nye, but has been condensed to an hour-long feature on BBC Three. It explores the disturbing and shocking practices of life coaching company Lighthouse, investigating the clients who have had their lives taken over, abandoned their families, and even parted with their life savings. It ends with Nye confronting Lighthouse leader Paul S. Waugh, who remains adamant that no wrongdoing has taken place, but the testimony of Lighthouse clients and their families certainly tells a compelling story.
Waco Untold: The British Stories – ITV
Shortly after Netflix released its documentary Waco: American Apocalypse – marking the 30-year anniversary of 51-day siege and deadly gunfight at the Branch Davidian cult compound in Waco, Texas – ITV released a two-part documentary focussing on the British citizens who were involved. It tells the story well, and gives an insightful look at how this American tragedy had far-reaching effects over this side of the pond.
Lewis Capaldi: How I’m Feeling Now – Netflix
Scottish singer Lewis Capaldi is best-known for his soulful voice and his wicked sense of humour, so it was a huge shock to learn that behind the scenes he was battling severe mental health problems, to the point that he had developed Tourette’s syndrome. This documentary explores these mental struggles in a typically candid, witty style while exploring the making of his second album, Broken by Desire to Be Heavenly Sent, but also leaves us heartbroken, concerned and hopeful that he will come through the other side without losing his wry spirit.
Murder in Paradise – BBC
As unsolved murders go, this one is particularly tragic: in 2011, 27-year-old teacher Michaela McAreavey – daughter of Gaelic football manager Mickey Harte – was on her honeymoon in Mauritius, but her husband discovered her strangled in the bath of their hotel room. In this three-part documentary for BBC NI, journalists Darragh MacIntyre and Allison Morris explore what happened and visit Mauritius to search for fresh insight into Michaela’s murder, revealing the police failings which mean her killer has still not been found.
Andrew: The Problem Prince – Channel 4
Just as the nation was hanging out the bunting ready for the King’s coronation, Channel 4 released an altogether less celebratory documentary into King Charles’ younger brother, Prince Andrew, detailing his fall from grace from a heartthrob veteran to his friendship with sex-trafficker Jeffrey Epstein and allegations of sexual abuse. It also tells the inside story of the prince’s disastrous BBC Newsnight interview with Emily Maitlis in 2019, where he famously claimed he could not sweat, said he had never met his alleged victim, and provided an alibi involving a trip to Pizza Express in Woking. It’s a gripping car crash of a watch.
Once Upon A Time in Northern Ireland – BBC
25 years since the Good Friday Agreement, the BBC produced this exceptional documentary series about The Troubles, featuring insightful, intimate and sometimes brutally, heartbreakingly honest interviews with people on all sides of the conflict. This, coupled with an incredible selection of footage from the sixties through to the present day, give us one of the most comprehensive accounts of this tragic period in Northern Ireland’s history.
Rolf Harris: Hiding in Plain Sight – ITV
The week after disgraced TV presenter Rolf Harris died, ITV released its long-awaited two-part documentary on ITVX, detailing his rise to fame and subsequent fall from grace when he was convicted of twelve counts of indecent assault. We hear from some of his victims, several of whom came forward during the Operation Yewtree investigation into historic sex abuse claims against Jimmy Savile, and the documentary includes chilling footage of Harris and Savile together interacting with children on Jim’ll Fix It. The documentary is a difficult but important watch, once more prompting viewers to question how abusers in the media went unchallenged for so many years.
The Man Who Played With Fire – Sky
This absorbing and dark four-part documentary series explores the 1986 assassination of Swedish Prime Minister Olof Palme, and how the late crime writer Stieg Larsson – who wrote the bestselling Millennium trilogy novels starting with The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo – had spent a decade investigating Palme’s murder before his sudden death in 2004. It’s a twisty, shocking watch that investigates whether Larsson held the key to uncovering the truth behind this high-profile assassination, and will keep you guessing right until the end.
Wayne Couzens: Killer in Plain Sight – Channel 5
Although there’s understandably been a lot of media coverage of the high-profile and tragic murder of Sarah Everard by Met Police officer Wayne Couzens in 2021, this documentary is slightly different: it’s been made by an all-female production team, including director Alana McVerry. Not only do the filmmakers investigate how Couzens was enabled to commit such a crime – especially given his violent past – they cast their net wider, examining the subsequent breakdown of trust between women and the police, giving a voice to victims of police abuse, and exploring the systemic change needed to eradicate this toxic culture.
Scandalous: Phone Hacking on Trial – BBC
This shocking BBC documentary not only interviews the people on both sides of the recent phone hacking trials – including victims like Hugh Grant, Heather Mills and Sienna Miller as well as newspaper employees – it also hears directly from some of the phone hackers themselves confessing to the crimes they committed. It blows the scandal wide open, and also delves behind the curtain of celebrity to examine the very real, sometimes tragic effects these offences had on people’s lives.
A Trio of Windrush Documentaries for the 75th Anniversary – BBC, Sky, ITV
In 1948 HMP Empire Windrush arrived at Tilbury Docks and delivered 500 Caribbean citizens – many of whom served in the Second World War – who were encouraged to migrate to Britain to help to rebuild its postwar economy. Thus began the Windrush Generation, and 75 years later, several documentaries are celebrating the impact this generation has had on the UK.
In Sky’s Windrush and Us: The Descendants of The Generation Who Changed Britain, Trevor Phillips (himself a child of Windrush parents) explores how Britain and the Windrush Generation influenced and changed each other.
The BBC’s Windrush: Portraits of a Generation documents a project of King Charles, who commissioned leading artists to create portraits of ten pioneering Windrush figures.
And later this year ITV will air a documentary made with Pride of Britain, in which public figures including Prince William will interview members of the Windrush Generation about their stories.
Princess Anne: The Plot to Kidnap a Royal – Channel 4
Surprisingly, The Crown missed out one of the most shocking pieces of royal history: the attempted kidnap of Princess Anne in 1974. As this Channel 4 documentary shows, the princess and her new husband Captain Mark Phillips were on the way home from a charity event when Ian Ball blocked their car, pulled out a handgun and started shooting, injuring her driver, security guard and a passerby. Ball planned on abducting the princess and demanding a £2 million ransom, but in typical Princess Anne fashion she was having none of it, and bravely resisted until another passerby saved the day. This is a thrilling reminder of an extraordinary moment in history that could have turned out very differently.
That Peter Crouch Film – Amazon Prime Video
“What would you be if you weren’t a footballer?” Jack Whitehall asks Peter Crouch in the trailer above, to which he replies: “A virgin”. That goofy, self-deprecating sense of humour pretty much sums up what has made England footballer Peter Crouch such a beloved star – veering into the “national treasure” zone – and this new documentary examines his meteoric yet unlikely rise to fame. Though – as That Peter Crouch Film shows – he was initially written off as a gangly, awkward six-foot-seven teenage football hopeful, shunted from club to club, he went on to have a highly successful football career, award-winning podcast and idyllic family life with supermodel wife Abbey Clancy. This documentary celebrates his achievements while also examining how he got there, and is full of his trademark wit.
Rose Ayling-Ellis: Signs For Change – BBC
Not content with becoming the first deaf actress on Eastenders, and the first deaf contestant (and indeed winner!) on Strictly, Rose Ayling-Ellis has campaigned tirelessly to raise awareness for the deaf community. Signs for Change is her first documentary, exploring what life is like for deaf people and their families in Britain, and asking whether attitudes are finally changing to become more inclusive. She also uses the documentary to campaign for BSL (British Sign Language) to be free for to learn, especially for families with deaf children.
The Trouble with KanYe – BBC
Award-winning journalist Mobee Azhar has already delivered some seriously good documentaries on the BBC, including Hometown: A Killing, where he investigated the police shooting of Yassar Yaqub in his hometown of Huddersfield. The Trouble with KanYe examines musician Kanye West’s descent into far-right conspiracies and anti-semitism, worries for his mental health, and questions surrounding where this trajectory could lead. With new allegations and shocking testimony from interviewees, it’s a difficult but important watch.
Evacuation – Channel 4
The 2021 evacuation efforts in Afghanistan after the Taliban took control of Kabul was our biggest airlift since World War Two, but it was far from our finest hour. This three-part documentary features searingly honest interviews with serving members of the Armed Forces and the people they were trying to evacuate, pulling no punches as it details the terror, the sheer chaos, and the many, many dark moments. You won’t forget watching this in a hurry.
Body on the Beach: What Happened to Annie? – BBC
Swedish national Annie Börjesson was 30 years old when her body was discovered on a beach in Scotland back in 2005, and within hours her family was told it was suicide. But as this new four-part documentary series shows, when Börjesson’s body was returned to Sweden, the undertaker discovered it was covered in bruises and other unexplained injuries, and her family began to search for the truth about her death. This series explores theories around what may have happened, delving into evidence found in the years since her death, to the extent that the production company has even written to the Scottish Fatalities Investigation Unit asking for the case to be reopened.
WHAM! – Netflix
Netflix’s hotly anticipated documentary charts the rise of eighties pop sensation Wham! – aka duo Andrew Ridgeley and the much-missed George Michael – including never-before-seen footage and extensive interviews with Ridgeley himself. For fans, it’s a trip down memory lane celebrating four years of epic hits like Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go, Careless Whisper and Last Christmas, and for the uninitiated it’s an important and unmissable piece of pop music history.
Rosie Jones: Am I A R*tard? – Channel 4
Before even airing, this documentary has already dominated the headlines, as people debate whether using an ableist slur in its title is justified or not, and it’s been reported that some contributors pulled out of the production in part because they objected to the film’s title. The documentary’s subject – comedian Rosie Jones, who has cerebral palsy – says she wants the film (and its controversial title) to start a conversation about how damaging the casual use of ableist language is, and take back control after a lifetime of abuse. We’ll see the full extent of the relentless trolls who plague Jones’ social media with hateful messages and death threats, and explore the everyday ableism that is still rife in our society.
Mark Cavendish: Never Enough – Netflix
In the year he retires from professional racing, British cyclist Mark Cavendish is becoming the subject of Netflix’s latest sports documentary, charting his tumultuous attempts to break the record for most stage wins at the Tour de France in the last years of his career. After several setbacks, including illness, injury and more, he managed to equal Eddy Mercx’s record of 34-stage wins in 2021, but this year is his final chance to claim the record. The documentary is set to be released on Netflix just over a week after the 2023 Tour de France ends (and Cavendish’s fate is ultimately decided) on 2nd August.
The Cancer Vaccine – National Geographic
Uğur Şahin and Özlem Türeci are the husband-and-wife team behind BioNTech, the German biotechnology company who created the Pfizer Covid vaccine, but this documentary shows their sights are now firmly set on curing cancer. Produced by Oxford Films, the documentary will chronicle the couple’s creation of the Pfizer vaccine using mRNA technology, and how their Phase 1 trial of a vaccine to treat pancreatic cancer is so far having very promising results. While of course nothing definitive has yet been proven, this will be an exciting look at a medical development with the potential to change history, giving us a chance to imagine a world where cancer is no longer so deadly. The documentary is currently in production and will air on National Geographic later this year.
The Miners Strike – BBC
It feels fitting that in a year dominated by a string of workforce strikes, the BBC is going to revisit the year-long miners’ strike of 1984, telling the story of the workers who took action against pit closures in a nationwide effort that tore several British communities apart. The documentary will hear from the ordinary men and women caught up in the dispute whose lives were changed forever, losing their livelihoods and becoming victims of police brutality. Four decades on, these stories seem just as relevant. The 90-minute documentary is currently in production and will air on BBC Two later this year.
Anna Richardson: The Slimming Jab – Channel 4
While these days she’s probably most famous for fronting the controversial Channel 4 dating show Naked Attraction, presenter Anna Richardson initially worked on a string of dieting and weight-loss themed programmes, so she’s well qualified to explore the latest pound-shedding craze: the slimming jab. The injections have recently gone viral on social media, and now they’ve been approved by the NHS they’ll soon be available to buy in chemists, so Richardson will explore what has caused their popularity, what it’s like to use them, and whether the risks are being properly communicated. The documentary will air soon on Channel 4.
Atomic People – BBC
It’s been 80 years since the USA dropped the first and last atomic bombs used in an act of war, destroying the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945, and killing over 200,000 of its residents by the end of that year. This 90-minute film for the BBC will immortalise the testimony of the last remaining survivors – “ Hibakushas” – who were mostly children when the bombs were dropped. At a time when the threat of nuclear war is once more in the headlines, this landmark film is more important than ever, and will air on BBC Two later this year.
Abused: Richard Spencer – Channel 5
A rare insight into the realities of male victims of domestic violence, this documentary will feature powerful testimony from Richard Spencer, whose wife Sheree was sentenced to four years in prison earlier this year after putting him through 20 years of harrowing abuse. His interviews will be supplemented by video, audio and written evidence which shed light on what it was like to live under relentless gaslighting, coercive control and physical abuse, and examine the after-effects of his ordeal as he seeks justice and comes to terms with being a survivor. It will air on Channel 5 later this year.
Hell Jumper – BBC
A truly one-of-a-kind documentary, Hell Jumper will tell the story of Chris Parry – a British man who decided to travel to Ukraine at the start of the war, spending months helping civilians evacuate to safety in increasingly perilous situations before being shot dead – through his own eyes, using material he filmed himself and posted to social media. The 90-minute documentary will also feature interviews with his friends and fellow evacuators, exploring the ongoing dangers, and celebrating his remarkable legacy. Hell Jumper will air on BBC Two later this year.
Confessions of a Cam Girl – Channel 4
When Netflix aired Moneyshot earlier this year, one of the most powerful takeaways was the way platforms like Pornhub and Onlyfans gave sex workers much greater agency over their profession, allowing them to create, market and sell pornographic content in better conditions, on their terms and with much fairer compensation. Confessions of a Cam Girl is a two-part series that will feature five women who have made a success of this ever-more competitive career choice in different ways – from stay-at-home mums to social media stars – and examines what it takes to be a success in today’s porn industry.
Instascam: Give Me Back My Face – BBC
This BBC Three commission will explore a very 21st-century problem – one that is estimated to have cost victims £100 million in the UK alone last year – the Instascam. It delves into the phenomenon via 29-year-old James’ story, a self-made digital marketing entrepreneur whose idyllic, luxury-filled social media persona was then stolen and replicated by a criminal gang, before being used to con innocent victims looking for love out of their life savings. We’ll see James trying desperately to reclaim his online identity, discovering as he does so just how sophisticated and widespread instascamming has now become. The one-hour documentary will air on BBC Three later this year.
Bait – BBC
In 2018, Belfast police uncovered a shocking string of crimes – reaching as far as New Zealand – that led to a university student in Northern Ireland becoming the UK’s most prolific predatory ‘catfish’. Their story is told in Bait, a three-part documentary series for BBC Three, which uses multiple perspectives to explore the police investigation into the crimes and the catastrophic impact on the catfisher’s victims and their families. The series will air later this year.
The Price of Truth – Channel 4
Double BAFTA-winning director Patrick Forbes (The Force) will create this new feature-length documentary, telling the extraordinary story of Dmitry Muratov, who has risked everything – including his life – to preserve freedom of speech in Russia, earning the Nobel Peace Prize in 2021. As the documentary will illustrate, Muratov edits Russia’s only independent newspaper, and since the war in Ukraine began he’s been fighting to keep his journalists safe in Moscow, enduring violent attacks, and auctioning his Nobel medal for a record $103 million so he could donate the proceeds to refugee charities. The Price of Truth comes to Channel 4 later this year.
My Big Gay Wedding – BBC
2023 marks 10 years since same-sex marriage was legalised in the UK, so the BBC is marking it with a documentary fronted by comedian Tom Allen, who will document the LGBT community’s momentous fight for equal marriage, reflect on his own experience of growing up gay, and also arrange a dream wedding for one lucky gay couple. The one-hour special will air on BBC One later in 2023.
HMP – Channel 4
This innovative four-part documentary series will see six celebrities – including EastEnders’ Sid Owen, Gogglebox star Marcus Luther and singer HRVY – spend eight days in prison to investigate the reality of life behind bars. They’ll be sharing their cells with real ex-criminals, asking them about their experiences, and examining how effective the current prison system is at rehabilitating offenders in the hope that the series will kickstart a national conversation about our current justice system.
We’ll keep this list updated as the year goes on – keep checking back for new British documentary recommendations.