Documentaries are a special art form. They offer unique insights into subjects that we think we know better than anyone, only to constantly surprise us with new facts and figures. The best ones stick with us forever and we thought we’d look at some of the best examples of the genre to ever make it onto our TV screens.
15. Galápagos: The Islands That Changed The World
Narrated by Tilda Swinton, this 2006 documentary takes a look at the Galapagos Islands, a group of isles that led Charles Darwin to conceive his Theory of Evolution. Over the course of three episodes, the show explores both the landscape and the wildlife that exists in the Galápagos Islands, explaining just how such a small landmass can bare such a diverse and broad range of evolution.
14. David Bowie: Five Years
A look at five of the most spectacular years in the life of one of music’s greatest innovators. Featuring contributions from Bowie’s collaborators including Brian Eno and Nile Rodgers, as well as journalists and music historians, the show delves into Bowie’s time as Ziggy Stardust, The Thin White Duke, his rebirth of Major Tom on Ashes To Ashes and his EMI years in the early 80s. A documentary to rival the iconic Cracked Actor of 1975, Five Years is a must see for any true music fan.
13. Koko: The Gorilla That Talks To People
The BBC’s follow-up to the 1978 film that followed Penny Patterson and her unusual bond with Koko, an extraordinarily gifted gorilla sees how the pair is living nearly 40 years later. Koko, who has welcomed celebrity visitors like Robin Williams, was the subject of Penny’s PhD that looked into interspecies communication. The film shows all the troubles and tribulations the pair have faced in their 40 years together and asks who we can learn more about from this remarkable friendship, the animals around us or our species itself?
12. Making A Murderer
Netflix’s groundbreaking documentary series follows the story of Steven Avery, a man wrongly convicted of the sexual assault of a woman over 20 years ago who was eventually acquitted, but now faces criminal charges once more. The show explores the failures that led to his initial prosecution as well as the reasons behind the Avery family’s isolation from the rest of the community of Manitowoc county.
11. Frozen Planet
Another Attenborough landmark, Frozen Planet explores the harshest and most desolate areas of our planet, the polar regions, and how animals have adapted to survive in such an environment. Winning four Primetime Emmys, the series is one of Attenborough’s most enduring, thanks to the now iconic images of polar bears and polar foxes in particular.
10. The Blue Planet
David Attenborough’s 2001 series was hailed as “the first ever comprehensive series on the natural history of the world’s oceans” and saw eight episodes that explored a different aspect of marine life. Throughout the series, creatures and activities that had never been filmed or photographed before were discovered and the show earned multiple awards on both sides of the Atlantic as a result.
9. Wonders Of The Solar System
Professor Brian Cox has made a lot of important and impressive documentary series, exploring his passion for all things science and in particular, the Solar System. His 2010 series Wonders of the Solar System is his most impressive to date. Each of its five episodes focus on a different aspect of space, uncovering and dissecting a “wonder” in each of them. The series won the prestigious George Foster Peabody Award in 2011 for excellence in documentary making.
8. The Nazis: A Warning From History
This 1997 documentary series profiles the rise to power of Adolf Hitler and the Nazis in Germany throughout the 1930s as well as detailing the lessons we, as a society, should look to learn from the ascension of the Third Reich. Samuel West narrates over the series which was ranked 93rd in a list of Britain’s 100 Greatest TV Shows, comprised by the BFI in 2000.
7. Louis Theroux's Weird Weekends
Quirky and awkward, Louis Theroux has amassed a cult following over the years and his “Weird Weekend” series is the most famous of his productions so far. Covering everything from wrestling to black nationalism and the porn industry, Louis travels across America to meet the weird and wonderful people who live the stories that he is telling.
6. Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey
The follow up to the classic 1980s American series Cosmos: A Personal Voyage, iconic astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson takes us through the staggering world of the Cosmos. Over the course of its 13 episodes, Tyson takes on everything from the smallest molecules to the entire Milky Way in a series that won several awards, including the Peabody Best Educational Content award. The show originally aired on Fox in the United States but can be viewed in the UK on streaming service Netflix.
5. Human Planet
The John Hurt-narrated series explores humans as a species. The eight-part series looks at how adaptations have allowed humans to exist in every environment on the planet, from the harshest of winters in the polar regions to the dustiest and hottest of deserts. Nominated for seven BAFTAs, it won two for its editing and cinematography and is the most exhaustive look yet at the human species across the globe.
Kenneth Clark’s 1969 series explored almost all of civilisation up to that point. From the collapse of the Roman Empire right up to the 20th Century, the series told the story of Western civilisation through the Dark Ages, The Enlightenment, The Renaissance, The Reformation and many others. It was announced in 2014 that the BBC were looking to remake the series. At this point, nothing solid has been announced and the plans have come in for criticism from historian David Starkey, amongst others.
3. Walking With Dinosaurs
Tim Haines’ exceptional look into pre-historic life is seventeen years old at this point but still looks more realistic than any other dinosaur programme in television history. Taking us from the late Triassic period (220 million years ago) when the dinosaurs were first evolving, through the Jurassic period (150 million years ago) that saw the world’s largest ever land animals evolve to the Cretaceous period (80 million years ago) when Tyrannosaurus roamed the Earth and the meteor which eventually brought about their demise landed. Narrated by Sir Kenneth Branagh, the series is a landmark for nature and historic documentaries, spawning three spin-off series (Walking With Beasts, Walking With Cavemen and Walking With Monsters) and winning two BAFTAs and three Primetime Emmy Awards in the process.
2. Planet Earth
Planet Earth is a groundbreaking BBC documentary and was the most expensive documentary series ever brought to air. It was also the first BBC nature series to be filmed in high definition. Over the course of its eleven episodes, Attenborough covers every corner, every landscape, every terrain and every continent on the planet.
1. Life Series
This isn’t one documentary series granted but David Attenborough’s career-spanning “Life” series that spanned from 1979’s Life On Earth to 2005’s Life In The Undergrowth. A comprehensive look at almost every aspect of the natural world, it has spawned some of the greatest ever Attenborough moments including the infamous Gorilla encounter. The series also features 2002’s Life Of Mammals which saw the appearance of a Blue Whale, one of the rarest and most treasured sites in nature.