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The 10 best factual TV dramas

Benjie Goodhart / 05 July 2022

We look at some of the best examples of classic TV dramas based on real world events, biographies and historical records.

A retro TV in shadow

A good TV drama is a wonderful thing – but a good, historical, fact-based drama is a thing of rare beauty. To construct a proper narrative, and to keep viewers entertained, while having to remain within the bounds of historical accuracy, and to keep audiences interested when they more than likely already know the outcome of the story, is a miraculous achievement. And there is no feeling like watching a TV drama and knowing that the extraordinary events unfolding on screen in front of you actually happened.

Even better, this is TV you actually learn from. My own experience of fact-based TV dramas is that they inevitably send me down a number of fascinating Google rabbit holes as I find myself drawn to learn more about the events and characters depicted. If history A level had involved actors flouncing about in frock coats shooting at one another or indulging in passionate affairs and delivering witty bon mots, I might have enjoyed it all the more.

Right, enough waffle, let’s get on with it – here are the top ten historical TV dramas ever committed to celluloid. Or, at least, my top ten. All complaints and alternative suggestions will, as ever, be completely ignored.

A Very English Scandal

BBC One’s 2018 three-part account of the scandal that engulfed Liberal Party leader Jeremy Thorpe in the 1970s featured an outstanding central turn by a never-better Hugh Grant as Thorpe, with Ben Whishaw luminous in the role of Norman Josiffe, the troubled young man with whom Thorpe had an affair.

When the story takes turns that begin to seem implausible, the viewer has to pinch themselves to realise that it all actually happened – the ultimate example of truth being stranger than fiction. With Russell T Davies writing, and Stephen Frears directing, this was astonishing, absorbing viewing.

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When They See Us

The case of the Central Park Five became a cause celebre in America, but is less well-known in this country, making Ava DuVernay’s coruscating five-part Netflix drama all the more gripping for viewers unfamiliar with this horrendous injustice.

In 1989, a woman out jogging in Central Park was brutally attacked and assaulted by a gang of youths. Five black and Latino teens, aged between 14 and 16, were wrongly convicted of the attack, thanks to a mixture of racial profiling and outright discrimination. A superb ensemble cast brings the tale to heart-breaking life, and it’s impossible to watch the unfolding story without feeling a profound anger at the suffering of those involved.

Narcos

Another Netflix drama, this time focussing on the extraordinary life of Pablo Escobar, who rose from nothing to build a drugs empire that bought Colombia to its knees. Wagner Moura is electrifying as Escobar, charismatic, intelligent and utterly ruthless.

The story, set from the early 1970s to 1992, follows his rise to prominence, and the efforts of two Drug Enforcement Agents from the US who are posted to Colombia to bring him down. This is a portrait of power, greed and violence, and of a country that essentially ceased to operate as a functioning nation in the face of unfathomable brutality and corruption, and descended into a state of chaos.

Roots

Alex Haley’s 1976 novel was based on meticulous research into his own family background, and told the story of his forebears and their lives as slaves in the 18th and 19th centuries. Starting with the capture of a teenage Kunta Kinte (LeVar Burton) in The Gambia, and his transport to America where he is sold into slavery, the action takes place over several generations, each one a victim of servitude and brutal mistreatment.

The eight-part series was shown on consecutive nights in America, as ordered by network managers who were worried the show would be a failure and wanted to get it out of the way as fast as possible. How wrong they were – the final episode drew 100 million viewers, making it, at the time, the most-watched TV event in American history.

Call the Midwife

Based on the memoirs of Jennifer Worth, who worked as a midwife in London’s East End in the 1950s and 60s, on the surface, Call the Midwife is a cosy, gently whimsical period drama about kind people doing valuable work. But the show is never afraid to tackle serious issues, from poverty and inequality to still-birth, incest, religion, homosexuality, and female genital mutilation.

The show’s genius lies in its ability to face these unpalatable truths while never losing its lightness of touch. The ever-changing cast may come and go, but what remains is the drama’s warmth and heart, and its determination to shine a light on the difficulties that life can throw at us all.

This Is Going to Hurt

More baby-based drama! Based on Adam Kay’s hilarious and shattering diaries that he wrote when working as a junior doctor on a labour ward, the seven-part comedy drama has already proved to be one of the TV hits of 2022. Ben Whishaw is, as always, brilliant, making Kay an intriguing mixture of stressed-out curmudgeon and deeply committed, compassionate doctor. Ambika Mod, as trainee doctor Shruti, is mesmerising.

Viewers will come away with a sincere appreciation of a doctor’s lot, and a burning rage at the underfunding of the NHS. And nobody, but nobody, who is eight months pregnant should even think about watching…

I, Claudius

Still heralded as one of the all-time great historical dramas 45 years after its release, the BBC’s adaptation of Robert Graves’ two novels about the early Roman Empire is a benchmark in televisual excellence.

Derek Jacobi stars as Claudius, an educated, gentle and compassionate man surrounded by violence and intrigue as people vie for the top job in the Republic. His wife, Livia, is played with scheming relish by Sian Phillips – and both won BAFTAs for their mesmerising performances. A stellar cast includes a star turn by John Hurt as the utterly mad and debauched Caligula, and Christopher Biggins as the equally nutty Nero. Whatever you think of our politicians in this day and age, they’re a god deal better than most of this bunch of psychotic cut-throats!

Chernobyl

This meticulous and forensically detailed account of the 1986 nuclear disaster at the Soviet power plant is as tense and atmospheric a drama as you are ever likely to see. Praised for its attention to detail, the script covers how and why the disaster happened, and the efforts to clean it up – and keep it quiet. Writer Craig Mazin learned how the nuclear reactor worked, and spoke to countless workers, residents, and clean-up operatives before producing the definitive dramatic account of this terrifying event.

A cast boasting the likes of Jared Harris, Stellan Skarsgard, Emily Watson and the late and much-lamented Paul Ritter is superb, but the real star of the show is the sense of creeping, pervasive dread that seems to leak out of the screen in every shot of this magnificent five-part series.

The Crown

Writer and series creator Peter Morgan has made a career out of turning real-life events into superb dramas (Frost/Nixon, The Queen, The Deal) but this is without a doubt his magnum opus. Encompassing the whole reign of Queen Elizabeth II (the last two series are still to come) this is a riveting look at what (purportedly) went on behind the scenes in the most pivotal moments facing the monarchy over the last 70 years.

The Queen has been played, at different ages, by Claire Foy, Olivia Colman and (though we’ve yet to see her) Imelda Staunton, and the supporting cast has been uniformly outstanding. Particular credit goes to Josh O’Connor, as Prince Charles, Gillian Anderson as Margaret Thatcher, and John Lithgow as Winston Churchill. The show also features some astonishing sets and lavish costumes, and is among the most expensive dramas ever made. And worth every penny.

Band of Brothers

Following the success of the film Saving Private Ryan, there were high hopes when Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks announced a new TV project, following a company of US soldiers through the Second World War. Those high hopes were met, and then exceeded, by this simply magnificent ten-part series.

Based on the book by historian Stephen E Ambrose, the action follows the soldiers of ‘Easy’ Company, the 2nd Battalion of the 506th Parachute Infantry regiment, from basic training, through the Normandy Landings, until the end of the war. Historical authenticity was assured thanks to the presence of many of Easy Company’s surviving veterans on the production team.

The show made a star of Damian Lewis, the British actor who played Major Richard Winters. It also made a huge global audience appreciate, once again, the heroism and sacrifice of a generation of men in the name of freedom.

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The opinions expressed are those of the author and are not held by Saga unless specifically stated. The material is for general information only and does not constitute investment, tax, legal, medical or other form of advice. You should not rely on this information to make (or refrain from making) any decisions. Always obtain independent, professional advice for your own particular situation.

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