Fly on the wall? Pah! The wall is all the way over there! These days, viewers want to be flies buzzing right around the noses of the people making the headlines, close enough to tell what they had for breakfast. And thanks to true story TV dramas, they can.
It’s been a long time since ropey Lifetime Movies were as good as it got for true story TV. In recent years, British production companies have stepped up in a big way to serve a growing appetite for fact-based drama, but all too often the real-life TV dramas of today focus on haunting tales of history’s most gruesome murders. If you’re sick of serial killers, there are plenty of non-murder true stories to enjoy in drama form, from very public scandals to ordinary people doing extraordinary things, to the kinds of tragedies it’s important that we never forget.
From the devastating to the heartwarming, here’s our choice of the best:
Where to watch: ITVX (UK), Acorn (US)
The 1989 Hillsborough disaster, in which 97 Liverpool FC fans lost their lives in a fatal human crush at the Hillsborough Stadium in Sheffield, is a tragedy known throughout the world, with consequences still felt to this day. Anne is the heartbreaking story of Anne Williams, a mum of three who lost her 15-year-old son Kevin at Hillsborough, and spent the rest of her life campaigning bravely for justice for the victims. Maxine Peake (Silk) plays Williams with an intensity it’s hard to look away from and brings her grief to life, alongside devastating performances from Stephen Walters (Shetland) as Anne’s husband Steve, Rob Jarvis (Hustle) as Hillsborough campaigner John Glover, and Bobby Schofield (SAS: Rogue Heroes) as Kevin’s brother Michael.
A Very British Scandal
Where to watch: BBC iPlayer (UK), Amazon Prime Video (US)
Forgery, theft, violence, drug use, adultery, bribery… the high-profile 1963 legal case between Margaret and Ian Campbell (the Duke and Duchess of Argyll, no less) was not your average divorce. Unsurprisingly, it gripped the tabloids at the time, but screenwriter Sarah Phelps portrays it in a decidedly more nuanced fashion in this three-part BBC drama, with superlative performances from Claire Foy (The Crown) and Paul Bettany (WandaVision) in the lead roles of the Duchess and Duke. Yes, it’s sexy and sordid, but it’s also a searing exploration of how women were publicly reviled and shamed for doing things men got away with pretty much unscathed.
A Very English Scandal
Where to watch: BBC iPlayer (UK), Amazon Prime Video (US)
Before A Very British Scandal came A Very English Scandal, in which Hugh Grant starred as Jeremy Thorpe, an MP and leader of the Liberal Party who became embroiled in a sex scandal in the late 1970s which ended his career. This three-part Russell T Davies production for the BBC had an exceptional cast: Ben Whishaw starred as Thorpe’s lover Norman Scott, with Alex Jennings (The Crown) and Jason Watkins (Count Magnus) as his fellow Liberal Party MPs, plus Eve Myles (Torchwood), Patricia Hodge (Miranda), Adrian Scarborough (Gavin & Stacey) and many more familiar faces. It’s explosive, gripping, infuriating and rightly scooped a barrelful of awards.
Where to watch: Channel 4 (UK only)
Five years after the devastating Grenfell Tower fire which killed 72 people, and with the families of the victims seeming no closer to justice, Channel 4 aired Grenfell, a filmed performance of the not-for-profit play Grenfell: Value Engineering at London’s Tabernacle Theatre. The play is a dramatisation of verbatim excerpts from the ongoing Grenfell Tower enquiry, with key roles played by Ron Cook (Doctor Who), Thomas Wheatley (Death at a Funeral) and Daniel Betts (Gentleman Jack). Over two episodes, despite the play’s engrossing format, it’s a tough watch, with harrowing witness testimonies and rage-inducing buck-passing leaving you feeling just as angry about this tragedy as in 2017.
Where to watch: ITVX (UK only)
Nolly is Russell T Davies’ colourful, riotous and ultimately poignant love letter to Noele Gordon, a long-running star of the former British soap Crossroads whose life – as Davies makes abundantly clear – is well worth remembering. At face value, Nolly is about the time Gordon was shockingly and unceremoniously sacked from Crossroads, but the briefest of scratches to the surface reveals that it’s about far more: an unsung feminist hero, a true showbiz trailblazer, and the media’s tendency to discard ‘women of a certain age’. Helena Bonham Carter is divine as Nolly, but the entire cast is gold, from Mark Gatiss as her best friend Larry Grayson to Con O’Neill (Our Flag Means Death) as her stony-faced Crossroads producer Jack, and The Morning Show’s Augustus Prew’s scene-stealing performance as Nolly’s co-star Tony Adams. Glorious.
Where to watch: ITVX (UK), Hoopla (US)
It’s hard to believe that Chester Zoo – today one of the UK’s largest and most successful zoos – was founded way back in the 1930s by just one, determined family fighting against the odds, but this incredible true story is told in Our Zoo. Lee Ingleby (Crossfire) stars as George Mottershead, a man suffering from PTSD after World War One. Mottershead begins his family’s crazy enterprise by rescuing some tropical animals that were about to be euthanized at his local dockyard. He then moves his family to a run-down manor house on the outskirts of Chester in northern England, where they begin the difficult and often controversial process of acquiring more animals while converting the house into a zoo, up against fierce opposition from the locals. Liz White (Life on Mars) also stars as George’s wife Lizzie, Anne Reid (The Sixth Commandment) as his mother Lucy, and Honor Kneafsey (A Christmas Prince) puts in a particularly adorable performance as his daughter June in this compelling and heartwarming six-part drama.
Where to watch: ITVX and BritBox (UK), AMC+ (US)
As well as telling the pleasingly batshit story of how Major Charles Ingram (played with hapless charm by Succession’s Matthew Macfadyen) pulled off the feat of allegedly cheating his way to £1 million in TV quiz Who Wants To Be a Millionaire back in 2001, Quiz also features a mind-bogglingly good performance by Michael Sheen (Good Omens). Sheen’s transformation into quiz host Chris Tarrant is so convincingly uncanny it’s almost scary. Sian Clifford (Fleabag) also stars as Charles’ wife Diana Ingram, who is portrayed as very much the brains of the operation in this three-part series, which charts their fascinating plot to win a place in the quiz show’s hot seat, their infamous use of coughing to feed Charles the correct answers, and the subsequent fallout and high-profile trial. Utterly captivating and thoroughly entertaining.
SAS Rogue Heroes
Where to watch: BBC iPlayer (UK), Fubo (US)
Packed with wartime action, daring undercover military operations and oodles of bravado, SAS: Rogue Heroes tells the true story of how a group of ragtag soldiers formed the Special Air Service in the middle of World War Two, helping to turn Britain’s struggling war effort around in the process. The impressive cast includes Connor Swindells (Sex Education) as SAS founder David Stirling, Jack O’Connell (Skins) as controversial figure Paddy Mayne and Dominic West (The Pursuit of Love) as eccentric Brigadier Dudley Clarke, among many others, with Peaky Blinders creator Steven Knight stuffing the script with nail-biting action and a fair bit of artistic licence. A second series is in the works.
Sitting in Limbo
Where to watch: BBC iPlayer (UK only)
While this one-off feature-length BBC drama will likely leave you breathless with fury, it tells an important story that epitomises the Windrush Scandal in the 2010s, in which several hundred British citizens were wrongly detained and threatened with deportation, and at least 83 were wrongfully deported to Caribbean countries. Sitting in Limbo was written by novelist Stephen S Thompson about the experience of his half-brother Anthony Bryan (beautifully played by Patrick Robinson, The Last Kingdom), a happy, hard-working family man whose life was ripped apart when the Home Office mistakenly classified him as an illegal immigrant. We see his situation rapidly deteriorate from infuriatingly inefficient bureaucracy to the harrowing experience of being torn from his family and imprisoned in a detention centre, and while his treatment is almost unbelievably cruel, it’s sadly all too real. The series deservedly won a Bafta when it was released in 2020.
Where to watch: ITVX (UK), BritBox (UK and US)
One of the most upbeat true-crime dramas in recent years, Stonehouse is the surprisingly hilarious, quirky and hard-to-believe true story of how disgraced MP John Stonehouse faked his own death in 1974. Matthew Macfadyen (Quiz, see above) is outstanding in the lead role, bringing the bumbling Stonehouse to life in a vibrant, highly comedic and ultimately very lovable way, and his on-screen and off-screen wife Keeley Hawes (Crossfire) is a campy, furious, kick-arse delight. While it was criticised as unrealistic by Stonehouse’s daughter, Stonehouse simply doesn’t take itself too seriously, although Macfadyen and Hawes’ performances do at times deliver some unexpected gut punches of pathos.
The Gallows Pole
Where to watch: BBC iPlayer (UK only)
Who knew the biggest fraud in British history took place way back in the 18th century? A whole lot more of us do now thanks to The Gallows Pole, Shane Meadows’ three-part BBC drama based on the novel of the same name by Benjamin Myers. It tells the story of the Cragg Vale Coiners in Yorkshire, a gang of coin counterfeiters headed by David Hartley (played by This Is England’s Michael Socha), whose ingenious enterprise outwitted the Bank of England itself. It’s an incredibly high stakes fraud, with the death penalty likely if they’re caught, and we see they’ll go to any length to protect themselves. This fascinating story is bolstered further by great performances from reliable names like Sophie McShera (Downton Abbey) and Ralph Ineson (The Office).
Where to watch: BBC iPlayer (UK only)
The infamous Brink’s-Mat heist in 1983 saw a criminal gang pull off one of the world’s largest robberies – stealing £26 million of gold bullion – but, as the tagline to The Gold makes clear, “stealing it was just the start.” This six-part series begins with the headline-grabbing robbery at a warehouse near Heathrow Airport, but then follows the gang as it fights to evade capture by melting down the gold, and all the while a police investigation headed by DCI Boyce (Hugh Bonneville, Downton Abbey) is hot on their tails. The Gold is a brilliantly thrilling game of cat-and-mouse and a pleasingly slick production, with an excellent cast also including Dominic Cooper (Preacher), Peter Davison (Doctor Who) and The Last Kingdom’s Stefanie Martini.
The Thief, His Wife and The Canoe
Where to watch: ITVX (UK), BritBox (US)
It’s often hard to believe you’re watching a true story during The Thief, His Wife and The Canoe, in which hapless businessman John Darwin fakes his own death by pretending to be lost at sea in a kayak, before sneaking back to live in the house next door from his wife while she cashed in his life insurance. In fact, the whole story – including John turning up at a police station with “amnesia” five years later, much to the “elation” of his wife, before a photo of them house-hunting in Panama a year earlier blows their cover and causes national outrage – is utterly bonkers. Written by Chris Lang, creator of hit ITV crime drama Unforgotten, it stars Eddie Marsan (The Pact) and Monica Dolan (The Change), who do a masterful job of playing up to the absurdity in the lead roles of John and Anne Darwin. The entirety of this four-part ITV drama is an infuriating farce, with Happy Valley’s Mark Stanley also doing a great job of showing the emotional cost of the fraud in his role of the Darwin’s son Mark, and watching this unbelievable story play out is a reminder that true crime really is the drama gift that keeps on giving.
This is Going To Hurt
Where to watch: BBC iPlayer (UK), Amazon Prime Video and AMC+ (US)
The glorious comedy and fury of Adam Kay’s bestselling memoir about his time as a junior doctor in the NHS was brought to life in this BBC drama series of the same name, starring Ben Whishaw (The Hour) as Kay, and depicting the serious challenges he faced while working on a busy obstetrics and gynaecology ward. We follow Kay as he comes up against his unscrupulous boss Nigel Lockhart (Alex Jennings, The Crown), his officious head midwife Tracy (Michele Austin, The Bill), a series of often infuriating patients and a messy homelife. While Whishaw undoubtedly shines in the lead role, it’s his co-star Ambika Mod (I Hate Suzie Too) whose performance as trainee doctor Shruti will stay with you long after you’ve finished watching.
Where to watch: BBC iPlayer (UK), AMC+ (US)
This powerful two-part BBC drama depicts the real-life stories behind the controversial campaign which finally lifted Northern Ireland’s restrictive abortion law in 2019. It was written by Gwyneth Hughes (Vanity Fair, Tom Jones) who worked closely with the families involved, but changed all their names in the drama to protect their identities. Sinead Kiernan stars as Theresa, who faces prison for trying to help her teenage daughter Orla (Lola Petticrew, Bloodlands) seek an abortion, while other stories include women who discover their unborn children have extreme life-limiting conditions but don’t have any say in whether they continue their pregnancy. Three Families is an eye-opening look into an aspect of Northern Irish law that many weren’t even aware of, and how these brave women fought to change that.
Vardy v Rooney: A Courtroom Drama
Where to watch: Channel 4 (UK), BritBox (US)
Unless you’ve been hiding in a bin for several years, you’ll already know most of the details of the infamously dubbed “Wagatha Christie” trial, in which footballer’s wives Rebecca Vardy and Colleen Rooney went head to head in court over a libel dispute around a viral social media post in which Rooney publicly and scandalously accused Vardy of selling stories about her to the press. Channel 4 was impressively quick to assemble this low-rent but highly entertaining drama a mere five months after the verdict was announced, with Natalia Tena (Harry Potter) and Chanel Cresswell (This Is England) in the lead roles of Vardy and Rooney respectively, and Good Omens’ Michael Sheen classing it up a bit as barrister David Sherborne. It’s not the most highbrow true crime drama you’ll watch, but it might be the most fun.
Best of The Rest
Honourable mentions also have to go:
- Oppenheimer: the 1980 BBC series about the theoretical physicist of the same name (played by Grace & Frankie’s Sam Waterston) who helped to develop the atomic bomb, which has recently been made available on BBC iPlayer.
- Shackleton: Sir Kenneth Branagh plays the legendary British explorer Sir Ernest Shackleton in this Channel 4 drama about his 1914 expedition to the South Pole.
- The Moorside: This two-part BBC drama is based on the 2008 disappearance of nine-year-old Shannon Matthews, whose abduction was planned by her family to raise money from publicity. Gemma Whelan (Upstart Crow) is almost unrecognisable as Shannon’s mother Karen.
- Help: While not technically based on a particular true story, this Channel 4 drama starring Stephen Graham (The Walk-In) and Jodie Comer (Killing Eve) depicts the desperate situations faced by care homes at the start of the Covid-19 pandemic.
- The Salisbury Poisonings: This three-part BBC series about the 2018 Novichok poisonings and subsequent decontamination emergency in Salisbury was created by Blue Lights writers Declan Lawn and Adam Patterson, and is a gripping but measured look at the extraordinary efforts taken to protect the public in the wake of the attack.