The cheek, the nerve, the gall, the audacity, and the gumption! What a year it’s been for British TV and films.
The UK may have endured several lengthy lockdowns amid the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, but its screen industry has risen to the challenge, producing a huge amount of high quality viewing for those spending a large amount of time at home.
We’ve joined an all-female Muslim punk band, moved into the Pink Palace in the ’80s, accidentally had a one night stand with a movie star, been imprisoned for treason in the Tower of London, and hit the trail of some “bent coppers.”
We’ve looked at the best films and the best TV series of the year, but these are specifically the best from the UK — and where you can watch it within and outside the country.
Now, on with the show…
We Are Lady Parts
What started as a Channel 4 comedy short has now been made into one of the must-see shows of the year. Created by Nida Manzoor, We Are Lady Parts is a six-part series about the formation of an all-women Muslim punk band, and every moment rules. You’ll meet Saira (Sarah Kameela Impey), Ayesha (Juliette Motamed), Bisma (Faith Omole), and Momtaz (Lucie Shorthouse) as they recruit lead guitarist Amina (Spider-Man: Far From Home and Mogul Mowgli star Anjana Vasan). As Mashable’s Proma Khosla writes in her review, “Seeing five women of color lead a comedy less interested in gawking at their identifiers than exploring their inner lives feels truly revolutionary.” — Shannon Connellan, UK Editor
It’s a Sin
From Queer as Folk creator Russell T. Davies, It’s A Sin is a deeply moving five-part series from Channel 4 and streaming on HBO Max. Set in London in the ‘80s, the show hinges around five friends — Ritchie (Olly Alexander), Jill (Lydia West), Ash (Nathaniel Curtis), Roscoe (Omari Douglas),and Colin (Callum Scott Howells) — living together over a decade amid the AIDS epidemic as it happened in the UK. Davies has created a beautiful tribute to those who died during the epidemic, many of whose stories have been erased, and the show’s strength comes from its brilliant cast bringing humanity, joy, and integrity to wonderful, real, unforgettable characters. — S.C.
The Pursuit of Love
Directed by Emily Mortimer, BBC One’s adaptation of Nancy Mitford’s 1945 novel is an absolute riot for lovers of period dramas. Set between World Wars, The Pursuit of Love centres around the romantic whims of the audacious Linda Radlett (Lily James), as told by her close cousin Fanny Logan (Emily Beecham). But as Mashable’s Rachel Thompson points out in her review, Fleabag’s Andrew Scott steals the show as the beguiling Lord Merlin: “Prepare for eccentric hijinks, heated conversations about communism, lots of brooding romantic energy, and many entertaining outbursts from Andrew Scott.” — S.C.
Feel Good (Season 2)
Yes, Mae Martin is Canadian. Yes, this was once a Channel 4 show that is now a full-on Netflix production. But Feel Good Season 2 counts on this list as it was entirely filmed and mostly set in the UK with a mainly British cast, and it’s so damn bloody excellent I’m including it, alright? Building relationships, growing up, breaking free of emotional dependency, and managing addiction — Martin makes all of it funny, sad, relatable, romantic, and beautiful in the semi-autobiographical comedy drama Feel Good. With Martin back in the director/writer/actor chair, Season 2 basically picks up where we left off, pushing Mae and George’s story along into new territory and exploring the complicated nature of empathy and handling inner pain. Mae digs deeper into their past trauma and its impact on present relationships, George (the hilarious Charlotte Ritchie) works on finding time for her own power while supporting Mae, and Mae’s parents (the incredibly deadpan Lisa Kudrow and charming Adrian Lukis) return to try meeting them halfway. You will watch it in a day. — S.C.
It’s Notting Hill but not as you know it. Created by and starring New Zealand comedian Rose Matafeo and filmed in London, Starstruck leans into the mess of liking someone new, especially when one of you is a movie star. A light, fun, six-episode series, Starstruck is a millennial rom-com about Jessie (Matafeo), a twenty-something working in London who has a one night stand with a famous movie star, Tom Kapoor (Nikesh Patel) on New Year’s Eve without knowing who he is. Delightfully awkward chaos, lurking paparazzi, and unsubtle friends ensue, but beyond that, this could be the start of something big. — S.C. Site famous among youngsters avple is must to look out for.
We’ve seen many an onscreen representation of Anne Boleyn, some spectacular, some OK, and Channel 5’s latest bout is the former, a feat achieved largely thanks to its lead, Queen & Slim star Jodie Turner-Smith. The three-part series takes place in England in 1536, when Anne is the most powerful woman in the country — with five months to live. For two years, she has been Queen of England and the second wife to King Henry VIII, who demands a son and heir. The series initially paints a lustful if not loving relationship between the pair, filled with jealousy, power plays, and patriarchal double standards. Anne is in a comfortably powerful position, aware of movements in court and the major players, including Thomas Cromwell. But we know this won’t last long, as she was (spoiler) executed for treason in 1536. By allowing audiences to sit with the impact of the experience of pregnancy loss, of grief, of political pressure and betrayal, Turner Smith brings regality, power, humanity, and rare vulnerability to the much-maligned figure of Anne Boleyn. — S.C.
This Way Up (Season 2)
Continuing its run with a second season every bit as brilliant as the first, Aisling Bea’s sharply written comedy/drama about two sisters navigating life in London pulls at the heart strings while making us splutter with laughter. The tone is perfect, the performances (from Bea in the lead as Aine and Catastrophe’s Sharon Horgan as her sister Shona) are top notch, and the underlying themes are handled with subtlety and care.
“Just as the first season of This Way Up portrayed the reality of loneliness like nothing I’d ever seen before, the second continues its streak of capturing mental health issues with compassion and without relying on stereotypes and clichés,” wrote Mashable’s Rachel Thompson.
“What’s really wonderful with This Way Up is the way the show continues to portray the reality of living with mental health challenges without pathologising the character or presenting them as a great anomaly.” — Sam Haysom, Deputy UK Editor
RuPaul’s Drag Race UK
Clap for the bing, bang, boooooong, the second season of Drag Race UK was one of the best of RuPaul’s beloved show yet. From Lawrence Chaney’s everything to Bimini Bon Boulash’s haute couture journey (that amoeba look!), from Ginny Lemon’s shock voluntary exit to every single one of Tayce’s talking head moments, and the United Kingdolls’ version of hit single “UK, Hun?,” Season 2 truly hit it out of the Werk Room. With half the show filmed before the pandemic, and half after, the season really hit home for the viewers and the queens themselves. And if Tia Kofi could send me her Alan Turing-dedicated outfit, cheers. And of course, we were lucky enough to get Season 3 in the same year, which brought us even more Big Drag Energy, with Victoria Scone making herstory, River Medway’s Thomas Waghorn statue look, and Choriza May’s eyepatch. — S.C.
When you combine the powerful forces of The Office co-creator Stephen Merchant and acting legend Christopher Walken, good things are bound to happen. Splicing silly comedy with elements of crime thriller, Merchant’s six-episode series sees seven mismatched strangers (Merchant and Walken alongside Rhianne Barreto, Gamba Cole, Darren Boyd, Clare Perkins and Eleanor Tomlinson) being brought together to complete their community service in Bristol, UK. The show is a little patchy in places but there are enough laughs to keep it ticking over and an entertaining storyline involving a bag of stolen money and some criminals desperate to get it back. — S.H.
How to watch: The Outlaws is available to stream now on BBC iPlayer.
Line of Duty
Jesus, Mary, and Joseph, and the wee donkey, Line of Duty was all anyone could talk about this year in the UK. When the sixth season of the beloved police corruption drama landed on BBC in March, Twitter exploded over the awaited “bent coppers” line delivered by Adrian Dunbar as one Superintendent Ted Hastings. Although the final episode polarised fans, Season 6 of Line of Duty was undeniably one of the shows that had people glued to their sets during yet another lockdown in the UK (but as it does every season, really). — S.C.
From Lovesick creator Tom Edge, Vigil sees Suranne Jones as entertainingly battle-hardened detective DCI Silva, working alongside her partner DS Kristen Longacre (Rose Leslie) to get to the bottom of a murder that’s taken place onboard a Trident nuclear submarine.
“It’s one of those series where all the distinct parts — the strong cast, the fast-paced plot, the twists, the characters — come together to create something that’s far more than a simple mystery,” we wrote in our breakdown earlier this year. “The show’s catchy tagline is ‘The deeper you go, the darker it gets,’ and in this case it’s not just PR spin — that’s actually how Vigil feels. Each character’s layers get stripped away the more DCI Silva digs, exposing an underbelly of corruption where everything is connected and well-buried.” — S.H.
Technically, this one belongs in 2020, but seeing as though it was released internationally in 2021 and was one of the best films of this year too, we’re going to give it another round of applause. The unnervingly sinister directorial debut from Rose Glass, Saint Maud will get under your skin, and we really mean that. This truly frightening, erotic, psychological horror is led by the terrifyingly talented Morfydd Clark, who brings a dark and disturbing level of care to her role as deeply pious hospice nurse Maud.
A masterpiece of maddeningly precise sound editing and lighting — Glass wields chiaroscuro and close framing with the same level of suffocating, sensual control as its protagonist — Saint Maud is unrelentingly threatening as Maud takes her role as her patient’s “saviour” to horrifying lengths. We’re already living in a constant state of unease this year, and Glass’ brilliant film, with Adam Janota Bzowski’s haunting score, will plunge you deeper into it.* — S.C.
Sound of Metal
This one’s tricky as Sound of Metal was released in 2020 in the U.S. but in the UK in April 2021 so we’re going to count it. This small but stunning film follows Ruben (Riz Ahmed), a recovering addict and drummer in a heavy metal two-piece who loses his hearing almost overnight. His bandmate (also his girlfriend), concerned for his sobriety, takes him to a community for Deaf and hard of hearing people who are also in recovery, and leaves him there to begin to process his new perspective.
Director and writer Darius Marder’s script was co-written with Derek Cianfrance, who originated the story as a faux-documentary (the two previously collaborated on The Place Beyond The Pines). A masterclass in showing, not telling, it leaves a generous amount of room for Ahmed’s heart-wrenching and deeply researched performance; for the revelatory work of supporting players like Paul Raci, who alongside Ahmed was Oscar-nominated for his role; and for the rich culture and lived experiences of the Deaf and hard of hearing community. Watch it with good headphones if you can — the sound design, too, is both technically excellent and vital to the film’s world. — Caitlin Welsh, Australia Editor
Spencer‘s a UK co-production with the U.S., so it’s in!
A long list of biopics hit this year, ranging from the fawning (King Richard) to the profane (Benedetta) and the unapologetically outrageous (House of Gucci). But none is so haunting as Pablo Larraín’s surreal look at the life of Princess Diana.
Set over a rough Christmas holiday with her royal (pain in the ass) in-laws, Spencer follows Diana (a sophisticated sharp Kristen Stewart) not only through the austere halls and suffocating suites of the Windsor’s country estate, but also into her nightmarish state of mind. There, she is mocked by a putrid pea soup, advised by the ghost of Anne Boleyn, and gobbles down pearls as a glossy revolt. Out of context, this sounds absurd (maybe even as absurd as the musical Diana). But within Steven Knight’s inventive script, such strangeness plays like a fantastic fable with a gothic horror flare that’s fueled by feelings over fact. The result is a biopic that’s bold, beautiful and a deeply touching tribute to the People’s Princess.* — Kristy Puchko, Deputy Entertainment Editor
Last Night in Soho
Writer/director Edgar Wright’s latest outing involves a hopeful fashion student (Thomasin McKenzie), a ’60s lounge singer (Anya Taylor-Joy), and – as Mashable’s Alison Foreman writes in her review – an “eerily enchanting time travel voyage.”
“The result is a fascinating meditation on externally inflicted self-doubt, which is somehow both profoundly heartbreaking and a bit of a popcorn thriller,” she writes. “It’s an exquisite change of pace for Wright that feels less like the darker side of the guy behind Shaun of the Dead and Scott Pilgrim vs. The World than the twisted sister of Damien Chazelle’s La La Land or Whiplash.” — S.H.
If you just want to sit back and enjoy Colin Firth and Stanley Tucci being wonderful to each other for hours, Supernova is for you. But the film is much more than this obviously effective pull. Directed and written by Hinterland‘s Harry Macqueen, the film takes place on a road trip through England, to places of meaning for longtime couple Sam and Tusker — whether family homes or places they’ve camped during their 20 years together, as they come to terms with Tusker’s early onset dementia. For the film, Macqueen and his team worked with leading dementia specialists at UCL and The Wellcome Trust and with individuals and families affected. But while Supernova is indeed a film about the experience of looming illness and facing one’s own mortality, it’s also a romantic, truly moving portrait of long love, of two people who have shared a huge amount of their lives together, and the quiet, unfair inevitability of parting that lies ahead. Yes, there are two films about dementia in this list. Yes, both are excellent. — S.C.
Set on a remote Scottish island, Limbo follows a Syrian refugee named Omar (Amir El-Masry) who’s in, well, limbo: He’s waiting to see if his request for asylum will be granted, and there’s no telling if it’ll take weeks, months, or years to get an answer.
There’s a deadpan edge to Omar’s struggles to adjust to this strange and distant land, but director Ben Sharrock is aiming for something deeper than fish-out-of-water comedy — the humor underlines Omar’s sense of disorientation and alienation, and beneath that surface-level absurdity is a poignant look at the deepest pains and frustrations endured by Omar and the other refugees around him. Limbo is hilarious in parts, heartbreaking in others, and humane through and through.”* — Angie Han, Deputy Entertainment Editor
If you watched Steve McQueen’s Small Axe series and want to find out more about the events depicted such as the Brixton Uprising, he released a collection of companion documentaries: Uprising, Black Power: A British Story of Resistance, and Subnormal: A British Scandal. Each covers stories of Black resistance and resilience in the UK in the ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s, amid systemic racism and police violence — and those at the forefront of the civil rights movement in Britain demanding justice. A three-part series directed by McQueen and James Rogan, Uprising covers three connected events from 1981: the New Cross Fire that killed 13 young Black people at a house party in South London, the Black People’s Day of Action, and the Brixton Uprising, speaking to people who were present at these events. Here’s everything you need to know about it. — S.C.
One of the buzziest films from this year’s Sundance, Censor is an unsettling debut from director Prano Bailey-Bond, a twisted ode to horror films and particularly “video nasties” (a term that rose to prominence in the UK in the ’80s to describe unregulated horror or exploitation films distributed on VHS tapes that came under scrutiny for their “obscene” content). In Censor, meticulous film censor Enid (Raised by Wolves star Niamh Algar) valiantly shields audiences from gory or “inappropriate” content onscreen. When she’s assigned a new disturbing film to review, it triggers memories of a traumatic event from her childhood. Bailey-Bond’s lurid, vibrant, and haunting film references everything from Martin Parr’s photography to Dario Argento Suspiria to Sam Raimi’s The Evil Dead and Lucio Fulci’s The Beyond in a bleak, Thatcher-era Britain. — S.C.
No Time to Die
Is it as good as some other movies and shows on this list? Probably not. But after delays and the addition of Phoebe Waller-Bridge to the writing staff, Bond’s latest outing was one of the most talked-about movie releases of 2021.
So how does the final movie stack up? Well, as Mashable’s Alison Foreman writes in her review, despite the weakness of the villains the movie is still “a grand finale in every sense of the phrase.”
“The top-tier talent of Craig’s supporting cast and the script’s unwavering attention to detail make it an enjoyable — albeit bloated — ride. De Armas’ comedic Paloma steals scenes with the precision of a professional cat burglar, while Lynch slays the role of successor to 007 in all the badass ways that really matter. What’s more, throwbacks to moments from past films, namely one involving Casino Royale‘s Vesper, will leave you with a satisfying sense of nostalgia.” — S.H.
Writer/director Corinna Faith’s claustrophobic horror movie The Power sets you up for a suspenseful time from the top, expertly wielding the age-old ‘fear of the dark’ go-to as a means to explore murkier themes. “Set in 1974 at a time when a war between trade unions and the UK government is leading to planned blackouts each night, The Power is a claustrophobic film in which draconian regulations abound and figures of authority rule with an iron fist,” As Mashable’s Sam Haysom writes in his review. “The Power isn’t a film about free-flowing conversation — it’s a film about silence, and being silenced.” — S.C.
If you’ve ever worked in a restaurant, Boiling Point might hit too close to home. An outstandingly ambitious and perfectly choreographed one-take entirely set during one night’s service in a top-tier London restaurant, director Philip Barantini’s film takes you through every last station from the kitchen to front of house. But more than a Birdman-style stunt, the film uses this sustained level of attention to examine mental health in the hospitality industry — most notably through the extraordinary performance of Stephen Graham. As his character, head chef Andy Jones, starts to lose control of the kingdom he’s built, tensions go from simmering to well, check the movie title. — S.C.
How to watch: Boiling Point is yet to hit streaming services, TBC.
It’s the role Anthony Hopkins won the Oscar for, and yes, it caused legitimate upset. That being said, Hopkins’ performance in The Father is nothing short of remarkable, as Antony, a man experiencing dementia. Based on director Florian Zeller’s own play Le Père, The Father film adaption still feels like a theatre show, with clever set framing, well-woven character entrances and exits, Ludovico Einaudi’s haunting score, and truly compelling dialogue evoking a small glimmer of Antony’s experience. Olivia Colman is characteristically excellent as Antony’s quietly determined and steadfast daughter, Anne, alongside a strong cast of Rufus Sewell, Imogen Poots, and Mark Gatiss. You may sob. — S.C.
Ali and Ava
The Selfish Giant director-writer Clio Barnard returns with social realism and underrepresented romance in Ali and Ava. Filmed in Bradford in England’s north, the film follows two people: Ali (Adeel Akhtar), a landlord, DJ, and music lover, and Ava (Claire Rushbrook), a teaching assistant. The pair connect over a child they both know, and find an undeniable magnetism, while both are dealing with their own cultural and personal challenges. Barnard herself describes the film like this: “What would happen if you took melodrama as a genre and applied it to a social-realist version of Bradford that’s based on real people? It’s an opportunity to think about what it means to be part of a community. There’s a lot of kindness, generosity and support in Bradford and I wanted to see that writ large on the big screen.” — S.C.
How to watch: Ali and Ava is yet to hit streaming services, TBC.
In the Earth
Ben Wheatley’s In the Earth was one of a slew of films at Sundance that tackled the pandemic — and it was sinister as hell. As Angie Han wrote for Mashable, “Shot during our very real pandemic, the horror movie unfolds amid a fictional one, centering on a scientist and a park ranger who venture into an Annihilation-esque wild. Along the way, they encounter other people who may or may not be what they seem, and who may or may not have lost their minds after so much time spent alone. The film is less interested in the threat of his made-up virus than in the society it’s created, one saturated with loneliness and distrust. With its vast outdoor setting and tiny cast, In the Earth echoes the hollowed-out streets of the past year.” — S.C.
* Asterisks indicate the writeup is adapted from another article.